December 8, 2023

Barnaby Dixon’s incredible two-piece creations redefine the concept of hand puppets by moving and reacting in very subtle and realistic ways.

The little finger and index finger of one hand slide into the creature’s arms, leaving the thumb free to operate tiny controls that tilt the head and mouth movements.

The little finger and index finger of one hand slip into the creature’s legs, an attribute few puppets can claim.

A strip magnet connects the upper half of the puppet to its lower part.

Its aim is for viewers to “forget about the mechanisms and forget about the process that went into making it so they can just enjoy the movements”.

Each figure has a unique set of movements and a custom-designed plastic, silicone and metal build informed by many hours of anatomical observation and study. Their structures speak to Dixon’s early years as a stop-motion animator, as do his production methods.

His frustration with the glacial pace of achieving the final product in this realm prompted him to experiment with puppets that could be filmed in real-time motion.

His first puppet, Dab Chick, below, has a special place in his heart and is also one of his skinniest.

Dab Chick’s tiny head clips onto the hinges of the glasses and a hand-wound silicone-encased spring. The mechanism that opens and closes its beak is a miniature spinner of bicycle hand brakes.

While many of Dixon’s recent puppets thrive in a Day-Glo, synth-laden environment, Dab Chick is a crowd-pleasing jerk, spouting opinions and repartees. He even plays drunk… a difficult task for any artist, but Dixon can’t pull it off.

The Phil fish is controlled by two rods. He’s at his best in water, reasonably enough, highlighting his talent for blowing bubbles, as well as Dixon’s knack for using physics to his advantage.

Many puppeteers match their breathing to that of their puppet in an attempt to get in the zone. Dixon takes it to the next level by streaming real-time video of his mouth to a small screen embedded under the nose of the puppet he operates.

In addition to creating and directing the original work, he was involved in puppetry True History of Thra, The Dark Crystal: Age of ResistanceA play within a play and designed origami-inspired animal-shaped demon puppets for the Bridge Theater production The Book of Dust – La Belle Sauvage.

Guardian they praised the latter as “gorgeous”, “a wonder (that) feels more like Jungian projections than airy, fantastic creatures”.

Check out more Barnaby Dixon puppet videos here.

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Hiroshige, Master of Japanese Woodblock Prints, Creates a Guide to Making Shadow Puppets for Children (1842)

Ayun Halliday is the chief primatologist East Village Incas zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and A creative, not famous, activity book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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