Tell us a little about yourself and your experience.
My name is Russell Nauman and I have been working professionally as an actor and puppeteer since 2009. I got my start in Orlando before moving out to Los Angeles in 2011. I’ve been lucky enough to work on some really cool projects over the years. Some of my music projects include videos for Panic! at the Disco and TimeFlies among others.
What drove you to choose your career path?
I had never considered a career as a puppeteer. I was working in repertory theatre and the opportunity came around to puppeteer Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors and then Princeton in Avenue Q. I thought it would be a great way to learn a new skill, so I gave it a shot. I was surprised how much fun it was. After those productions were under my belt, I was confident enough to pitch myself as a puppeteer for other productions.
In 2010, I was recruited to work on something for the Orlando Puppet Festival. Jane Henson, who helped create the Muppets, was producing her legacy show called The Nativity Story. Once I was in rehearsals for it, the puppetry bug bit me. It helped meeting other puppeteers passionately working in the profession. To hear their stories really motivated me to take it seriously as a career.
How did you go about getting your job? What kind of education and experience did you need?
Initially I was self-taught. Most people get into puppetry without having formal training. After moving to Los Angeles, I wanted to learn how to puppeteer in front of the camera. Michael Earl, known for his role as Mr. Snuffleupagus on Sesame Street, mentored me for two years in Muppet-style television puppetry. He taught me to be extremely precise and consistent in my work. As you can imagine, film isn’t as forgiving as the stage.
Most jobs I’ve received as a puppeteer came about from people I've met on other projects. Identifying myself as a puppeteer is something that sticks out in people’s minds. When a film or music video comes along involving puppetry, I’m usually one of the first people they ask. There’s a word-of-mouth element to the profession that’s pretty significant. With the Panic! at the Disco video Don’t Threaten Me With A Good Time, I had a good relationship with the director Tim Hendrix beforehand. When he got the opportunity to direct their music video, I was able to join him and help Tim realize his vision of a tentacle monster come to life.
What do you actually spend the majority of your time doing?
Outside of actually doing the work, I keep a lookout for casting notices and submit myself to projects as they come along. Most of my time is spent keeping my skills fresh. With music videos there isn’t time for rehearsals. You have to be ready to go when you get to set. When I worked on the TimeFlies video Crazy, I came in on the second or third day of filming. I had to just jump in and go with the flow.
What misconceptions do people often have about your job?
It's funny, I don’t think a lot of people think of it as an actual job! There’s a lot of work that goes into puppetry. It's more than just playtime. We have to be skilled multitaskers. With a puppet, we are trying to walk through frame, lip-sync to vocal tracks, maintain eye contact, remember to breathe and react, keep our bodies out of frame, all while watching a monitor and working backwards. Depending on how we need to fit on screen, there are times we have to be ambidextrous and switch hands. Occasionally there’s a heavy puppet we need to hold up for extended periods. Sometimes it takes 2 or 3 puppeteers to operate one puppet, and sometimes we have to operate two puppets at once.
What are your average work hours?
That’s hard to answer. I don’t have “office hours” like other professions. On an average day I just carry ideas around with me. I’ll be sitting in the car listening to the radio and the mood will strike me to lip sync to a Miley Cyrus song (with my non-driving hand, of course).
What personal tips and shortcuts have made your job easier?
I think flexibility is fundamental. I never go into a job with limitations or expectations on what can and can’t be done. If a producer wants a flying dragon to talk to an actor on screen, it’s my job as a puppeteer to figure out how to make that happen.
Keeping an open mind and asking for help makes the work a lot easier. You’re never on an island by yourself. Everyone is invested in the success of the project and are usually eager to lend a (literal) hand.
What do you do differently from your coworkers or peers in the same profession?
I love what I do and make sure to have a lot of fun. If you're having fun, it shows in the performance. I’ve also tried to be as versatile as possible by learning different types of puppetry. Understanding character work and movement made it easier to jump from one style to another. Outside of puppetry I work as an actor, so I approach puppetry roles with the same amount of forethought I’d give to any other acting job.
Do you have any advice for people who need to enlist your services?
It's worth the investment to hire someone who has a background in puppetry. If you are looking for someone to operate a pivotal character in your story with reckless abandon, you can hire anyone with a hand. (Which sometimes happens) But making the decision to bring in a puppeteer will not only enhance the quality of your product, it also won’t cause additional problems for you when you’re editing.
What's the worst part of the job and how do you deal with it?
As silly as it sounds, the worst part of being a puppeteer is the stress put on your body. I’m constantly having to hold excess weight and/or squeeze into tight spaces. Shoulders and knees are the first to go. There have been times when I could barely lift my arm the day after a performance. I learned my lesson from that, so now I make sure to stretch beforehand. I also bring pillows, blankets, knee pads and other accommodations to set with me so I’m ready for the day.
What's the most enjoyable part of the job?
The most enjoyable part of my job is seeing how people react to the work. It’s always amazing to see someone emotionally respond to a performance. They understand that the character isn’t real, but for a moment they forget and become engaged with what’s happening on screen.
After working on a film called Puppet Theory, I was finally able to see the direct impact of my performance in real-time. One day there was a little girl visiting set and she was captivated by my puppet. I was able to take the time to connect with her one on one.
What kind of money can one expect to make at your job?
It can vary greatly. Puppeteers usually get paid a daily rate. However, it depends on a lot of factors like the puppeteers union status, size of the role, etc. If the project is a long one, then a rate could be negotiated for that. A lot of people I know are driven by their passion, not by the hope of retiring at 30 years old.
How do you move up in your field?
There’s not really a ladder to climb. If you’re working as a puppeteer, then you’ve already made it. The more you work at it, the bigger and better the projects will become.
What advice would you give to those aspiring to join your profession?
If you think you’re interested in becoming a puppeteer, watch movies, find performances and artists that inspire you. Notice what they’re doing and try to copy it. You don’t need a puppet to get started - just use your hand and try to follow along to songs you like. With almost any career, practice makes perfect. Once you meet other puppeteers, they’ll be happy to offer advice and draw you into their projects. The puppetry community is such a supportive and collaborative place. I think anyone who is willing to give it a shot will be glad they did.