taking one frame at a time since 1999

In recent years we've been seeing a lot of puppets with translucent skin - silicone mostly, and now the RP human faces in Paranorman (apparently made largely from superglue?). 

I have somewhat mixed feelings on the subject. First, I totally understand the wow factor - as soon as silicone became a viable material for making puppet skin it became possible to make it look translucent, which we often hear is more realistic and actually mimics the way human skin reacts to light. I understand a rush to really make the puppets look spectacularly different when this first became possible. But it's not new anymore - i'ts lost the novelty now, and I find I often dislike the look of it - not across the board, but I just think the translucency is overdone to create an unusual look - a look that was obviously impossible in pre-silicone days.

Human skin can be somewhat translucent. Usually only in newborn babies (not even the majority of them really - they have to audition a lot of babies to find the right ones for those skin cream commercials). The vast majority of people have pretty opaque skin. In fact (just discovered this from the Making of ParaNorman book) it's even standard operating precedure in live action movies to sometimes put tape behind an actor's ears in strongly backlit shots because the light glowing redly through the ears can be very distracting and make people laugh when they're not supposed to. 

When the translucency is overdone it makes me think of weird alien creatures - 

I used to sculpt with the original pink supersculpey a lot, and then I learned that pro sculptors hate it because it's translucent (to try to make it look more like "human" skin apparently!) and as a result you can't see the imperfections on the surface - nor can you see the textures and details you're trying to sculpt. These don't show up until you either paint the sculpt or make a casting of it - by which point it's too late to fix anything! As soon as I got a pasta machine and started kneading opaque polymers into the pink SS I immediately saw the difference, and it was like night and day! Suddenly there was a surface! I hadn't realized until that moment that the super sculpey had this weird no-skin type of effect, and as soon as I did realize it I never went back. Personally I like texture, and since people all seem to have texture to their skin (though we try to minimize it to make women look prettier - if it wasn't there we wouldn't need to do that, would we?). 

And I'm not saying I don't like silicone for puppet skins - not at all! I'm just saying I'd like to see the puppet departments put a little more pigment into the skin, unless they're making some kind of weird creature that spent its life in an underwater cave or maybe a newborn baby or an Irish woman with an amazingly fragile complexion.

In the words of Jeff Goldblum "You were so busy figuring out how to do it you never stopped to ask if you should!"

So what do ye all think? Yay or nay to extreme translucency? And why? 

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Back on topic. I thought this looked pretty cool/realistic…

McTodd's comments about scale do make a lot of sense though.

McTodd - excellent point! I hadn't thought of it that way. Depth of translucency. It makes sense. 

Beyond Craft - exactly! I'm the same way. I judge puppets on an individual basis. I don't hate silicone puppets - in fact this thread isn't about silicone, but about translucent pupet skin. You say you judge puppets on what they do, not on how they look. But isn't how they look an integral part of what they do? A puppet's look needs to match its personality - for instance if you;'d swap the Norman puppet with the football player guy, they would no longer fit their roles in the film. I think the same applies if you have a puppet that looks alienish because it has skin that belongs more properly on a blind albino cave toad (I'm exaggerating to make my point more clear). 

Can you name some puppets that you like and some that you dislike? 

Roger - fair point. I guess there really are people with complexions like that. Really though, Norman's skin isn't the worst I've seen. I don't remember the names of the films now, but I recall seeing silicone puppets in years past that looked bleached white and reminded me of drowning victims or something - which is obviously more extreme than what they did with Norman. He does have some color to him, and it fluctuates from place to place in his skin, which looks pretty good. One thing I really can't stand is when you can see the wires inside, like in fingers. But obviously, if the translucency goes that far that's a case of really overdoing it. 

I think we're wallowing in subjectiveness. For me, a role reversal would be quite entertaining, albeit mostly unrealistic. But this is film, and more appropriately, a stop-motion puppet film; anything can happen. Though, I think 'normal' people would prefer the roles as they are. I'm not wholly normal. And proud 

Roger, apologies if my previous comment seemed in direct contradiction to yours. It wasn't. I was merely trying to contribute to the thread in general. That definition of 'The uncanny valley' is exactly what I love. I want to live amongst androids and replicants (if only for the cool factor, ignoring practical adversities) - being a big fan of PK Dick and William Gibson et al. The 'not-quite-real' aspect is the best part. For me, it should be labelled 'The uncanny mountain'!

Back to Strider - I don't think I dislike any puppet. I like anything puppety, cos they all do cool things (cop-out). Do Punch and Judy count? I don't like them.

I very much like the above photo of Norman, however, I think his eyes are too cartoony. Get some Madmae Tutli Putli eyes in there. OH yeah! 

One of the things that makes that Norman puppet so neat for me (emphasis on me, agreeing with Beyond Craft's point about subjectivity) is the hair...or rather the solid mass of puppetyness standing in for hair. If the artists who designed Norman had replaced his solid hair with real hair, I think he would be well into ye vale of uncanny. As he is, his "hair" just reinforces the cool - and yes, cartooney - look of the whole film.

My gut reaction to any question like this is -- like a number of you have been getting at -- any technique has its place.  For example, I actually liked the uncanny valley effect of CG Jeff Bridges in the recent Tron simply because that artificial eeriness fit the character.  In most circumstances the uncanny valley is something to be avoided, but if the effect it produces is one that supports the story being told I'm all for it.

Another way one might look at the question -- rather than simply "should puppet skin be translucent" --might be "when should puppet skin be translucent".  Still subjective, certainly, but it might lead to some interesting creative discoveries.  Who knows.  

Personally, I liked Norman's translucent ears -- it subtly made him feel more vulnerable, and accentuated his awkwardness (I had monkey ears like that when I was his age, drawing attention to them whenever he was back-lit clicked with me).

I agree that the uncanny valley effect was fine for a character like CLU, who was supposed to exist only in the computer world, but the younger version of Jeff Bridges was supposed to be real and didn't quite look right.

Thomas Nicol said:

For example, I actually liked the uncanny valley effect of CG Jeff Bridges in the recent Tron simply because that artificial eeriness fit the character.  In most circumstances the uncanny valley is something to be avoided, but if the effect it produces is one that supports the story being told I'm all for it.

Beyond Craft (or BC, if I can call you that) - ok, I see where you're coming from. 

Danny boy (again - IICCYT)- did you know they used bundles of goat hair for Norman? So in a sense it is real - just not human hair. And going back to the idea of scale, goat hair is probably a good deal thicker than human hair, so that does take away from any inherent 'realism' (which, as you said, helps distance him from the vertiginous edge of that fabled valley). 

Thomas - well put!! My response is very similar, but I'd phrase it "how transparent should each puppet's skin be?" - ok, it's only a slight difference from what you said. I do like Norm's ears, but the skin of his face kinda freaks me out - but then I guess it wouldn't make much sense to have translucent ears but an opaque face, would it?  

I do like that each puppet in ParaNorman seems to have it's own design charactristics, including translucency. That's very much like how people are in real life. 

And BC, to get back to the point you made about subjectivity and people 'fitting' their roles - I almost mentioned in my previous post that in real life people often don't look right for their personalities. It's what's meant by "truth is stranger than fiction" - in real life totally bizarre things can happen and we just say "well, that's life for ya!" - but in a fictional story if weird things like that happen people won't accept it, instead they'll just groan and walk away because it's too 'unbelieveable'. In real life for instance, sometimes sensitive tender-hearted people look like football players (just look at Jiri Trnka!), but unless a movie or story makes a big point out of it and takes a long time to set something like that up, you can't get away with it - it's a lot easier and more acceptable in fiction to make characters look like what they're supposed to be like. 

For what it's worth, I have no problems with the ParaNorman puppets, in fact I love the look. And Norm's translucent ears suit him, Thomas Nichol's point about it accentuating his childlike vulnerability is spot on. In general, I think silicone rubber is an excellent material, but that like any material it depends on how it's used. I've seen pictures of some silicone puppets that could have looked better not so much due to their translucency, but because there was very little variation to the colouring of the face, something the ParaNorman puppets certainly do not suffer from.

^ lol! Made me chuckle there at the end. (of Bianca's post - McTodd, yours wasn't there when I started typing!)

But again, this thread isn't meant to be just about silicone. And I didn't intend for people to fall into diametrically opposed For/Against camps and start fighting lol! 

I just thought we might be able to get some good discussion going about a subject that's sort of new, and that I haven't seen much discussion of anywhere - ok, I don't think I've seen ANY discussion about it really! 

When I first saw Bernardo's comment about the Uncanny Valley I sort of brushed it off because normally that term refers to faces and bodies that are so close to the proportioning and anatomical structures of what they're based on (people) that we get a repusion effect (for most people). But then suddenly I wondered - can it also apply to a material that closely imitates the translucency of human flesh? 

And then I went beyond that thought too - let's forget the uncanny valley, this might not fall exactly into that paradigm. But maybe there is something that grosses some people out about translucent silicone when its used for puppet skin? 

I know it's frequently used in horror movies (full scale) to make grotesque monsters and rotting corpses and strange horrifying alien creatures. Sometimes the artists will go so far as to layer in veins underneath. That can definitely gross me out! Not so uch because it's realistic - because it's unrealistic. Yes, you can see veins through pale human skin and flesh, but in a different way. The silicone can become much more translucent than skin. 

But maybe it's not even necessarily about how realistic it can be - but just some factor of the material itself - the weird squishiness/stretchiness coupled with what can in some cases be extreme or grotesque translucency. Maybe artists need to take care not to invoke these undesirable aspects wen using some of the modern materials, in a way that didn't really apply when using foam latex? 

Maybe it's weird seeing such a strange and alien-seeming material used on something that we know isn't alive (a puppet). Foam latex of course has its own idiosyncrasies - it tends to wrinke and bunch up in some alarming ways. When that happens it no longer resembles the flesh of a living thing, it becomes obvious that you're looking at a rubber puppet. Seamlines also have this same effect. 

I'm just trying to dig beneath the surface here - to get a serious conversation going, even down to an overthinking/philosophical level. Hey, if we don't do it, then who will? 

And I'm not really all that creeped out by these things - partly I'm exaggerating that in order to get the convo rolling. I am a little creeped out by it in some cases - but now I'm not sure exactly why - is it for the same reasons that I'm a little creeped out by young children with clammy skin who seem a little too tender and vulnerable? Or is it that the material itself is somehow weird and alienish in a way that really doesn't imitate human flesh? 


"That puppet has translucent skin...! Kill it with fire!!" 

Are we in 'uncanny valley' territory when a puppet acts like a real person i.e. good animation...? (Should this side-topic have its own thread, or is it related enough?). Because with good animation/story/acting, you can often forget (consciously or not) you're watching a puppet - anyone with me on that? So, with this being the case, you can also forget these puppets have translucent skin, or their hair is too elevated, or any other aesthetic irregularity. Kinda like when you're talking to a less-than-attractive lady, and she's actually so awesome, you 'forget' you previously imagined her the offspring of Schwarzeneggar and Mr Ed. Personality trumps looks, kids 

I've been trying to imagine a silicone-cast, realistic human face, brought to life via stop-motion. I think that would come close to creeping me out. More so than a CG face would. But I'd still like it - it wouldn't repulse me. If anyone has a link to any videos like this, I'd love to see them.

And, Strider - Beyond Craft, BC, Dean, whichever fatigues you the least 

Beyond Craft said:

I've been trying to imagine a silicone-cast, realistic human face, brought to life via stop-motion. I think that would come close to creeping me out. More so than a CG face would. But I'd still like it - it wouldn't repulse me. If anyone has a link to any videos like this, I'd love to see them.

That would be an interesting thing to see. I went looking online for something like that but didn't find anything. I did find this though…

Stop-motion Bill Cosby riding ostrich puppet from Leonard: Part VI

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