The Engineering Behind the Muppets

Kermit the Frog said that “with good friends, you can never lose,” but without good engineering, you certainly can. While we might like to think that the muppets are magical felt characters with their own personalities and muscles, most of them have a hand in their butt. And if there isn’t hand where the sun don’t shine, then there’s a man working the muppet from the inside out.

While puppeteering some of the most famous characters in the world may not sound too difficult, there’s actually an impressive amount of creative engineering and ingenious skill behind bringing them to life.

There are essentially three kinds of muppets, there are rod puppets, controlled by rods, there are live hand puppets, which have actual actor’s hands for their own hands, and there are costume puppets.

Image Source: Concerning Reality

Let’s Start with Elmo

Take Elmo, perhaps one of the most famous muppets of all time. Elmo is your traditional hand and rod puppet. The puppeteer’s hand reaches through Elmo and controls his mouth movements and also supports his figure. The puppeteer’s other hand holds a rod to move one or sometimes two of Elmo’s hands essentially bringing him to life. As far as puppets go, Elmo is one of the simplest. Other than talking and moving one hand at a time, the only other control the puppeteer has is a small wooden nub that can slightly move his eyes.

Image Source: Concerning Reality

You might be wondering though, how do muppets pick up things when their hands are just controlled by sticks? For this, the propmasters have to get a little more creative. Usually, they will use small strong magnets under the fur of the puppet to attach an object or small strips of velcro. All of this combined turns a rather simple muppet like Elmo into a character full of expression.

Kermit the Frog works almost identically to Elmo in both form and function, being a rod and hand puppet as well. Close to rod and hand puppets are just hand puppets. These are puppets like cookie monster and they usually take two people getting really close together to work. One actor has his hands in what are essentially gloves to control the hands and the other controls the mouth and face like most other muppets. Muppets get much more complex from here.

What about Big Bird?

Big bird is a different breed of Muppet. He’s large, he blinks, he turns his head and moves his arm. At 8.1 feet tall, he’s one of the tallest Muppets ever and how he’s controlled is drastically different from the likes of Elmo. Matt Vogel, the voice actor who plays Big Bird puts on pants that look like Big Bird’s legs and then the massive head and body of Big Bird is lifted over him and strapped into his supportive harness.

His right hand then reaches into Big Bird’s head and controls his mouth like you would any puppet. A small trigger is also connected to his pinky finger on his right hand to control Big Bird’s eyelids. That takes care of his facial movements, but his arms take another set of mechanisms. Big Bird’s left arm is essentially just a large glove controlled by Matt’s left arm. Since Matt’s right arm is already controlling Big Bird’s head, to move the right arm, there is a small monofilament wire that runs through and across Big Bird’s body attached to the other arm. Monofilament is essentially fishing line and its operation, in this case, is similar to how most bicycle brake lines work. With this attachment, whenever Big Bird’s left arm is up, the right arm is down, and when the left arm goes down, the right arm shoots back up. This ingenious mechanism makes Big Bird seem unquestionably real.

Image Source: Concerning Reality

It may sound like an arduous task to control Big Bird, but he isn’t anywhere close to the most highly engineered and difficult to control puppet, that award goes to Snuffleupagus. 

Snuffleupagus

Snuffleupagus is as close to a full body costume as a puppet gets. There’s a large zipper in his midsection where two people climb inside, one for the front and one for the rear. Martin Robinson is the voice actor and the man up front – and he has his hands full trying to bring Snuffleupagus to life. He places his feet in the front feet and leans slightly forward while the man in back leans slightly backward. This helps keep tension on the mid-section of the puppet making it look more real.

Walking becomes a perfectly choreographed dance between both actors inside – all the while, both have to keep tension on the body while the frontman has to do just a few more things.

Image Source: Concerning Reality

Martin works Snuffleupagus’s mouth with his left hand all the while voicing him with his own mouth. His right hand works the eyes. A small mechanism allows him to move the eyes left and right together while a small trigger attached to his pinky, similar to Big Bird’s, allows him to work Snuffleupagus’s eyelids.

But how does he work his snuffle? For those of you that aren’t muppet fanboys, that’s his trunk. The snuffle is made from a long section of curved PVC with a bike handle on the inside end. There’s then a structural pivot point in the center allowing Martin to take his left hand and move the snuffle up and down. Doing all this takes a lot of work, and even though Snuffleupagus is quite awkward and heavy, Martin says he’s never had back problems from the job.

Muppets aren’t just lovable felt friends, their often complex works of artistically styled engineering that bring life to the otherwise inanimate. So, the next time you’re watching Sesame Street with your kids or maybe going to see a new Muppet Movie, take some time to consider just how much work and technical skill went into bringing fabric to life.

Sources: How Stuff Works, Wired, Mental Floss

Trevor is a civil engineer (B.S.) by trade and an accomplished writer with a passion for inspiring everyone with new and exciting technologies. He is also a published children’s book author and the producer for the YouTube channel Concerning Reality.


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