Masters of manipulation

Last month, Wellcome Collection hosted two parts of a series of events called Moving Things. Talks and performances related to movement, puppetry, animation and the brain. Robert Bidder was there to witness the magic of motion.

In the first event, Master of Manipulation, puppeteer Stephen Mottram and Paul Downing, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, joined us to discuss the principles and relative neural processes that mean we can empathise with puppets or attribute human characteristics to them.

Stephen Mottram talked candidly and eloquently on how, as a puppeteer, he had to closely observe the nuances of various human and animal movements. He talked a lot about ‘weight’ and having to simulate the shifting of weight and gravity within the body of a marionette character, which holds no real weight of its own. He referred to different movements as ‘data’ or ‘codes’ that were decoded in the brain of the viewer. He proposed that these codes were the product of an evolutionary function through which we differentiate a creature’s function in relation to ourselves. The movements of a chicken, for example, may be decoded as ‘food’; the movements of a tiger may be decoded as ‘danger’; and the many intricacies in the movements of human beings can communicate everything from a potential mate to a potential fight.

Mottram then gave some practical demonstrations both with marionettes and with some evocative ping pong balls. These ping pong balls were lit with small lights to demonstrate the ‘point of light’ principle. The idea is that we don’t need to see a physical human body to recognise movement but just a hint of where the extremities are. In Mottram’s demonstration he reminded us that “all you are seeing is a reference to weight” as the ping pong balls became a small man running, jumping and swinging from a branch. The disclaimer didn’t stop the crowd from being enchanted and their hushed silence gave way to occasional giggles. There was no question that the experience was amusing, magical even, but there was a part of me that felt frustrated (though at the root of it relieved) that it was hard to separate the rational, physical reality from the innate human tendency to be charmed. Perhaps the amusing nature comes from just that tension between what we know to be a dead object, behaving as if it is living. If funniness is related to surprise, then at some level our brains must still be navigating this conundrum, even if we can “see the strings”.

Paul Downing talked about the influence of mirror neurons in the brain and how they may play a large part in our ability to empathise with puppets. He explained that these mysterious cells fire when we perform an action but also when we observe another person performing the same action. So when we see a person dancing, our mirror neurons fire to give us a sense of how it feels to the dancer. In this way we can experience things vicariously through mere observation. This can even work with actions that we haven’t necessarily performed ourselves. When Stephen Mottram makes one of his puppets ‘fly’ – flapping its arms and kicking its feet – we instantly get an inkling of how that action may feel.

These themes came up again in the second event, Stop Motion, with animator Barry Purves and neuroscientist James Kilner. Whereas with puppets, Mottram liked his figures to be as blank as possible to enhance dramatic effect, animation has a different scale, especially with regard to how close we get to see the character. Barry Purves spoke of the importance of facial expression in his puppets, especially the eyes. His characters “lead with the eyes” and he emphasised the gaze as an important social cue. The habit of blinking was referred to as punctuation in a conversation, as an unconscious sign to show that we are listening or that we have finished our point.

James Kilner asked why inanimate objects hold a power over us; after all, it’s not like we have evolved a brain to watch animations, but rather they are a pleasurable by-product of that evolution. He says that if an object moves without being moved by a visible “something” (a hand, for example) then the brain assumes the object is moving of its own volition. Of course, we know about the process of animation, which causes an interesting tension between the rational and intuitive mind.

The intriguing area of the so-called Uncanny Valley was also discussed. This refers to when a humanised object stops being appealing and becomes “too human”, unsettling us. Kilner mentions that some modern CG animations are thought to have bombed at the box office because of this phenomenon. Purves added that “art works, when we are aware of the artifice”, that the suspension of disbelief and to be credible rather than ‘realistic’ is key.

The third event in the series, Unexpected Objects, centered on ephemeral animation, a term used to describe the movement of objects controlled not by human beings but by the elements. The most famous example of this is most certainly the bag dancing in the wind scene in the film American Beauty. Nenagh Watson, puppeteer and AHRC-funded Creative Research Fellow, and Frank E Pollick, Professor of Psychology at the University of Glasgow, filled us in on this enigmatic subject. Nenagh Watson began by showing us films she had taken of various chance encounters with different objects. We saw a balloon scooting about madly on the surface of a canal, a plastic bag moving slowly, sorrowfully, submerged in water, two gloves swinging from a line seeming to struggle to touch each other, and the sparks from a fire dancing joyfully upward. There was no doubt that these moments were inherently beautiful and some of the audience were visibly moved, laughing at points. But what we were seeing was really just a thing being itself. Unlike in traditional puppetry or animation, where one may argue that the objects are intentionally manipulated to make us feel certain things, the emotions we feel through ephemeral animation are completely our own doing. Perhaps this adds to the potency of it.

Watson talked of the value for a puppeteer of stepping back and not interfering with the object, just observing it. Once she becomes obsolete, it allows for an absence of ego, absence of desire and an erosion of the self. She added that the fragility of these transient moments cannot be commodified, giving them an extra purity of form – it’s free for everyone to enjoy; all they have to do is notice. Despite these weighty concepts, Watson had generous amounts of humility and self-deprecating humour so no-one felt alienated. Her ideas appealed strongly to my sensibilities, and gave the discussion an almost mystical feel of quiet reverie that was very easy to get swept up in. It seemed very relevant that the Taoist principle of wu wei was mentioned several times. Thinking about puppetry in terms of Zen or Taoism was something I had never considered before.

Frank E Pollock countered this nicely with a more scientific, study-based approach. He showed us films of triangles and circles ‘interacting’, which the viewer tends to create a human narrative for, even gendering the different shapes.  He also pushed the importance of speed of movement in recognising emotion. Showing us some point-of-light animations of a ‘man’ knocking on a door, he revealed that in his tests the subject didn’t even need to see the human shaped out in dots. When the dots were put in other positions, becoming an abstract image with the dots moving at the same speed and distance, the test subjects were still able to discern whether sadness or anger was being portrayed.

This fascinating series will culminate in Objects of Emotion – a full day of performances, discussion and networking that focuses on the worlds of theatre, museums and neuroscience to try and unravel why our brain empathises with puppets. Find out more and book tickets on the Wellcome Collection website.

Robert Bidder is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

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