Full-Bodied Muppets, sometimes known as full-costume Muppets, are large scale characters who combine elements of puppetry and costumery. According to Christopher Finch, "These figures are a kind of hybrid, not so much true puppets as costumes to which a puppet head has been attached. The eyes, if necessary, can be operated by remote control. These creatures are sometimes half again as tall as the puppeteer inside."
Early Full-Bodied Muppets
Splurge from Hey Cinderella! and Delbert the La Choy Dragon were amongst the earliest full-bodied characters. The La Choy Dragon would alternate between a large-scale Live-hand Muppet for special effects shots or scenes with other puppets and a full-bodied character (performed by Frank Oz who hated performing full-body suits) for scenes that involved terrorizing supermarket patrons or knocking over cans.
A variant of this type were characters such as the farmers in The Muppet Musicians of Bremen (Caleb Siles, Mean Floyd, and Lardpork). This trio was not fully costumed but had special puppet heads worn by live actors.
Famous Full-Bodied Muppets
Some of the most familiar and popular Muppets are full-bodied characters. Big Bird is the best known example, though his Sesame Street cohorts include Snuffy and his family, Bruno the Trashman, Sam the Robot and Barkley. The Muppet Show played host to Sweetums, Thog, Timmy Monster, The Mutations, Doglion, Behemoth, Fletcher Bird, and Sopwith the Camel. The Gorgs loomed large on Fraggle Rock, while Bear and his friend Ursa star in Bear in the Big Blue House. Later examples include Mopatop on Mopatop's Shop.
Feature films brought a new raft of full-bodied characters, including Miss Finch, Mommy Dodo, Daddy Dodo, Marie Dodo and Donnie Dodo from Follow That Bird, and The Ghost of Christmas Present and The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come from The Muppet Christmas Carol.
Usefulness and Scale
Full-bodied Muppets are often used as ogres or other types of monsters (as with Sweetums or Doglion), because they can tower over puppets and human performers alike. Big Bird's height is generally given as 8'2", while Bear is seven feet tall and Thog's height was generally estimated as at least 9½ feet. Their size allows for more complex facial mechanisms as well as almost completely free movement.
Full-bodied characters have the additional advantage of being able to share the stage with regular human performers or celebrity guest stars on a more equable basis, or indeed to loom over or manhandle them. While Grover or Kermit the Frog can only interact with live actors by careful placement via concealing walls, platforms, or other tricks, full-bodied characters can fully interact with human actors. For this reason, nearly every international version of Sesame Street has at least one full-bodied character, that country's own "Big Bird." Indeed, many of these types have been birds, such as Abelardo or Pino, while others such as Samson are completely different animals, but ones normally existing in large scale. Moshe, on the other hand, is 10 times the size of a normal meerkat. These characters can dance, rollerskate, embrace a human co-star, or hug or even lift up a child. Bear's size, on the other hand, allows him to take a more fully paternal role towards the smaller, more child-like characters on Bear in the Big Blue House or the real-life children on Breakfast with Bear.
Not all full-bodied characters are larger than life, however. Characters such as Hoggle or the Dodos from Follow That Bird are smaller, for contrast with larger puppets or human performers. Still other times, full-bodied versions of characters who are otherwise hand puppets are constructed, at a scale comparable to their puppets and inhabited by little people performers, for use in dance or stunt scenes. Miss Piggy existed in this form for both The Great Muppet Caper and The Muppets Take Manhattan, while various Skeksis from The Dark Crystal and goblins from Labyrinth were also performed this way.
The fact that a full-bodied character is completely inhabited by the performer allows for greater freedom of movement, but also brings its own problems, most notably visibility. Whereas hand puppet performers can simply look beyond the puppet or see through a camera monitor positioned in front of the set, other techniques have had to be developed for the full-bodied creations. The early characters like the La Choy Dragon were performed virtually blind. For later characters, according to Finch, "The puppeteer sees out through a carefully concealed scrim and works the mouth with any of various hand and rod devices." Advancements in small-scale monitors and other technical devices greatly improved the situation. For Bear, Big Bird, and Ludo, amongst others, their respective performers have a monitor strapped to their chests or stomachs, allowing them to see their performance just as the audience will see it. (A wireless microphone attached to a headband transmits the puppeteer's voice.) Later, special cameras within the head were developed, beginning with Fraggle Rock, for characters operated by more than one puppeteer.
Operation and Movement
For Big Bird, Bear, Sweetums, and others, a single performer plays the character, providing both voice and movements, and that performer is almost always consistent. The performer uses their dominant (usually right) hand to operate the mouth, eyes, and other facial mechanisms, pushing the hand into the head area, while the puppeteer's other arm (usually left) inhabits the character's other arm. The right arm for such characters, though very occasionally allowed to hang free, is generally controlled by a special monofilament which causes it to move in opposition to the left arm. Other times, as with the hand puppets, special camera techniques and computer tricks are used to allow an assistant to operate the other limbs. Someone such as Mr. Snuffleupagus is operated by two performers, in the manner of a masquerade or circus horse, one operating the front end and face, and the other the back legs and tail. With the exceptions of recasts or occasional substitutions, full-bodied puppeteers are usually consistently cast as their character, and indeed sometimes come to specialize in this variety of puppetry, as exemplified by Caroll Spinney (Big Bird), Noel MacNeal (Bear), or Richard Hunt (Sweetums), allowing for the development of a consistent, familiar, and complex personality. Others, like Doglion or Timmy Monster, have often been handed over to whoever was available and could fit in the suit, and thus have remained basically background characters as opposed to stars. The operation of a full-bodied character is more purely physical and hazardous in many ways, as the weight of the suit itself has to be taken into consideration (many full-bodied Muppets weigh in excess of forty to sixty pounds). The oppressive heat is also an occupational hazard, mediated in some cases by periodically cooling the performer with an air hose inserted into an opening in the character suit, thus allowing the puppeteer to continue performing without either getting in and out or collapsing from exhaustion and overheating. The occasional inconvenience of full-bodied puppeteering was openly parodied in Puppetman, as performer Gary doesn't have time to undo the harnesses of Clyde, a 9 foot tall dragon character, and must rush to the hospital still in costume.
Beginning with the Gorgs in Fraggle Rock, advances in technology allowed for a different way to operate full-bodied characters. One performer, usually trained in pantomime or physical action, would wear the suit and perform all of the physical movements, with monitors embedded and raised within the heavily wired head allowing the performer to see out and also have their line of vision be identical with that of the character, a method Jim Henson dubbed "Gorg Vision." A second performer, standing nearby, provides the voice and operates the radio-controlled facial features (eyes, mouth, brows, etc.) via a waldo, at the same time as the suit puppeteer is performing. This technique was used extensively in Labyrinth, with additional performers assisting with the radio controls for even more complex movements, and for Ghost of Christmas Present in Muppet Christmas Carol. For Dinosaurs and other Creature Shop productions, a third performer was usually involved, a voice actor, whose dialogue would generally be recorded over the original scratch track by the facial puppeteer.
Dance and Pantomime Characters
At times, the voice and face are minimal factors at best. Characters such as Betsy Bird, Fletcher Bird, The Mutations, or Ballerina Pig were created specifically for dance sequences. Though the designs of the characters are as detailed and expressive as any other Muppet, the mouths, while often open, are seldom moved, allowing the dancer to focus on fully operating the character and moving all four limbs at the same time. Performers such as Graham Fletcher, with backgrounds in dance and ballet rather than puppetry, were frequently cast in these roles. Indeed, rather than creating a character and then finding a performer, the characters, notably Betsy and Fletcher, were often conceived and tailored to fit the actor, to best express their movements and style (an approach which was not always fully successful). In some ways, this was also the forerunner of the full-bodied characters used in Sesame Street Live and ice show productions, detailed but designed for body movement rather than expressive facial operations.
Four Legged Characters and Multi-Character Operations
With the exception of the two person Snuffy, the previously discussed characters are all upright and their movements are essentially exaggerations or caricatures of human motion, while incorporating certain aspects of the animal or creature they represent. Other characters are more fully animal, performed by a single puppeteer who must crouch or otherwise operate the character in an even more difficult manner than the upright performers. Barkley walks on all fours, and essentially moves in much the way that a lumbering Saint Bernard would. Alice Snuffleupagus is likewise on all fours, yet her movements are not that of an animal as much as they are of a toddler, tumbling and rolling about. The Giant Spider from episode 311 of The Muppet Show was intended to mimic the crawling actions of a real spider, and was performed by Graham Fletcher by crab-walking on his back. The Landstriders from The Dark Crystal are four-legged creatures, performed by puppeteers wearing stilt extensions in the legs of the costume.
Other times, a puppeteer can actually perform both a full-bodied character and another puppet at the same time. Bruno the Trashman was conceived in this manner, with arms permanently clasped around the trashcan, allowing Spinney to move around and still operate Oscar. The riding goblins in Labyrinth are variations on this, with the performer donning the riding beast and operating the steed's face and mouth, while a goblin's torso is draped over them, and flexible legs, recoiling in joint-like movements as the performer walks, appended to the puppeteer's own torso, creating a complex movement dynamic.
- Finch, Christopher. Of Muppets and Men