Sunday, October 11, 2009...10:29 am

10 best short puppet animations

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As I noted in an earlier post, when I was at the London International Animation Festival recently, I talked to organiser Nag Vladermersky about why there were so few puppet animations, and why their quality was a bit, well, ropey.

I suspect it’s because relatively few animation students follow the puppet path – and if they do they don’t have time to master all the things that are involved in making a really nice piece. Such as puppet making, prop making, lighting and other camera skills that aren’t even really relevant to a Flash-based animation, or even traditional 2D drawn work.

It’s time consuming and expensive to do. It’s even more time-consuming and expensive to do well.

Anyway, in passing, Nag asked me to name some of what I considered to be really good short puppet films. Of course, my mind went blank: all I could think of was the obvious recent candidate – Madame Tutli-Putli.

So I thought I’d make up the difference here and name my top 10 best short (under 30-minute) puppet animations. Nominations from readers are welcome in the comments. If I get enough I’ll run a second chart of submitted entries. (YouTube has disabled embedding for the Aardman animations, so you’ll have to click through to see the clips…)

So – in no actual order, here are my entirely subjective suggestions:

1) Madame Tutli-Putli

Of course. It’s a fantastic piece of work: from the production design to the characterisation, even the haunting score. In action terms, too, the sense of being on a moving train is incredibly well done.

Having said that, I’m a bit less awestruck now than when I first saw this at the London Film Festival in 2008. I’ve realised that the animators very cleverly minimised their animation workload (which was still immense for just two people) by not moving the puppets around too much for most of the film, and by not doing lip-synch. And while the characterisation was exquisite, it was achieved by superimposing real actors’ eyes on the puppets in post production.

Don’t get me wrong – the effect was stunning and the idea was ingenious. But it wasn’t animation per se. So although I’m naming Madam Tutli-Putli first, I wouldn’t necessarily put it at the top of the pile.

2) A Close Shave

By far the best of the Wallace and Gromit shorts, in my opinion. I know a lot of people rank The Wrong Trousers as number one, but the Terminator-style dog robot, sub-Battle of Britain aeronautics and formation sheep do it for me. As for: “They’ll hunt you down like, well, a dog” – Sheer genius. Oh, and the animation’s not bad either.

3) Premier Voyage

Really nice French short by Gregoire Sivan about a father taking his baby daughter on a train trip without her mother for the first time. Chaos ensues. Also a nice mix of puppets and a sort of cartoon 2D cutout background – not unlike the old BBC Paddington Bear animations of the 1970s. This is the only extract I can find. I’d love to get this on DVD – but as far as I can tell, it’s not available.

4) Next

I was lucky enough to meet and chat with Barry Purves last summer in Bristol at an event celebrating the life and work of the late lamented Oliver Postgate. Of his shorts, Next is my favourite – probably because I did an English degree, so I have fun trying to figure out which of Shakespeare’s plays is actually being shown during the film. I love its intricacy and the beautiful choreography. I was also impressed by how fast it was animated – something ridiculous like 10 or 12 seconds a day, if I recall correctly. (You can buy a really well put-together DVD of Barry’s work from Amazon in France. Not in the UK though, which is a scandal.)

5) The Saint Inspector

A peculiar outing from the bolexbrothers studio directed by Mike Booth. It’s not as well known as perhaps bolexbrothers’ most high-profile short – Dave Borthwick’s The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb – but I like it better. The Saint Inspector character has something of the quirkiness of a Cracking Contraption, and the weirdness is tempered with humour. I really like the production design – and anyone who can successfully coordinate the animation of all those limbs has my vote.

6) Hilary

“Once upon a time there was a fairy princess and she was called Hilary. She worked in an office with a rubber plant and a man whose name she’d forgotten…”

So begins this obscure puppet film from 1994, a student piece from the Royal College of Art by Anthony Hodgson. The only clip available is this few seconds from an advert (though it is available on the Best of British Animation Awards DVD 2006, along with loads of other excellent shorts. Order yours today).

Strange, surreal and a tiny bit clunky, it’s stayed with me ever since I first saw it, though I don’t really know why. It’s a bit shaky and the animation isn’t as slick as you’ll find from studio work. But I like the stick on eyes and mouths, and I think it’s important to have something up here that has student production values. And the voice is by John Woodvine, which is classy.

7) Street of Crocodiles

Mostly I find the Brothers Quay nigh on unwatchable, unfortunately. Their visuals are striking, but they shun sequential narrative to the point that it’s often only possible to watch a Quay short with the directors’ commentary playing to give it some sense of structure and direction.

The exception is Street of Crocodiles which, while it shuns conventional storytelling, has a narrative drive and something that resembles characterisation. But mostly this is about the dark, surreal vision of the Quays – sets lovingly created from found objects, puppets made from cannibalised children’s dolls, and that raw bleeding meat that pops up in the haberdashery from hell.

8) Peter and the Wolf

Suzie Templeton‘s widely praised modern take on the Prokofiev suite is a well-deserved Oscar winner. Anyone who’s seen the “making of” documentaries on the DVD can’t help but be impressed by the scale and quality of the sets, and the whole thing captures the seedy, deprived and violent reality of Russia after the Soviet Union. The animation’s excellent too. Having said that, it’s not a film I return to much as it is a tiny bit depressing. A classic though.

9) The Wrong Trousers

Everyone’s other favourite, The Wrong Trousers has to be in the top 10 for the fantastic train chase (brilliant pacing and characterisation combined) and the beautiful heist sequence. The difference in sophistication between this and A Grand Day Out is striking. But then that’s what you get for switching from a back room at film school to a professional studio I guess. And working with Steve Box.

10) The Lucky Dip

A strange little film that is equally sinister and charming. It’s set on a seaside pier, which is enough to put it in my list frankly, as I loved the pier when I was a child on seaside holidays (mind you, Selsey Bill was nothing like this). Director Emily Skinner does a terrific job of conveying English seaside weather, which is no mean feat. Just look at all those pennant flags, flapping deckchairs and wind-blown umbrellas. I also like the way that the most grotesque character isn’t the creepiest in the end.

You mean I didn’t mention these?!?!

Yes, there are some glaring omissions from my highly subjective list. Here are some of them, and why they didn’t make the cut.

A Matter of Loaf and Death

Well, obviously. But actually I’m not so keen on this outing for the world’s favourite claymation characters. Mainly it’s a script thing – I think too much is going on and it’s become somehow a bit contrived. Also, while the animation is technically excellent, I think it lacks the charm of the earlier films. It’s all action and not enough nuance for my taste. (Even the train chase in The Wrong Trousersseems to be more about character than movement somehow. Go on, disagree with me.)

The Hand

Jiri Trnka might be considered a master of puppet animation, and The Hand might be seen as one of his masterworks, but I just don’t get on with that style of Eastern European didactic symbolism. Or symbolic didacticism. Whatever. Suffice to say that, although I appreciate what’s going on in The Hand, I wouldn’t race to buy the DVD.

House of Flame

Elegant, stylised and very, very Japanese, Kihachiro Kawamoto’s House of Flame should really be in my top ten, but somehow isn’t. The best thing for me about it is the beautifully animated horse that appears at about the five-minute mark (my goodness, horses are tough to do, believe me). But I found the fable itself less than engaging.


Another symbolic classic, Balance won an Oscar in 1989 for brothers Wolfgang and Christoph Lauenstein. It’s the story of five individuals on a floating platform whose equilibrium is disturbed by the arrival of a mysterious box. Eventually, their avarice and inability to cooperate lead to their downfall. Which is about as symbolic as Trnka, though more entertaining. Still – it’s not in the top 10.

Fierce, though courteous, debate on the merits or otherwise of the list is most welcome…


  • When I started to read your article I missed a few films and I’m glad I found them at the end. Balance is like Madame Tutli-Putli one of my all time favourites.

    It’s great you mentioned Trnka and Kawamoto. I just saw <House of Flames the other week and added it to my internal top ten list.

    I think you missed Jan Švankmajer, a Czech surrealist artist born in 1934 who did some great animation with pottery clay. He employed sculptures which he treated like puppets… Well, it’s not exactly puppet animation, but very very close to it.

    Oh, and another one is missing here: remember Tim Burton’s Vincent? This is a great one about a little boy who wants to be Vincent Price. It’s different to the features Burton made but it’s much closer to his faible for poetry as he wrote in The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy.

    I’m sure I forgot something else…

  • Not only should Vincent be included in the top ten, it should be in the top three. Technically perfect, great mood and lighting, fantastic narration, perfect timing from a cinematic standpoint, all around riot.

    Thanks for the list, it’s a good one.

  • An excellent suggestion – I’d completely overlooked Vincent, which is a great little macabre film.