Keynote Speaker: Philip Millar

Lady Liberty in CTC workshop-1

CTC’s Lady Liberty for the Rockette’s Spring Spectacular. Photograph by Jenny O’Keeffe

Philip Millar headshot

Philip Millar

Associate Creative Director at Creature Technology Company

Let Me Punch Your Robot 

(or, How I learned to stop worrying and love the puppet)

‘Let Me Punch Your Robot’ is a call to embrace the basics of puppetry when designing any animated object which must perform for an audience – whether you choose to call it puppet or robot – and to discover the energy, expressiveness and power that even the simplest puppet (such as Mr. Punch) can provide.

Creature Technology Company (CTC) was formed to create full size animatronic dinosaurs for Walking With Dinosaurs -The Live Experience. The show has subsequently played around the world to audiences of several million people, and produced puppets for many other live productions (How To Train Your Dragon – the Arena Spectacular, King Kong, enormous puppets for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Sochi Winter Olympics, and most recently, the Rockettes’s Spring Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall in NYC). The success of these creatures—which are essentially very large puppets with animatronic and robotic DNA— stems from a design approach which utilizes techniques derived from film special effects combined with traditional live puppeteering skills. CTC’s approach is a collection of diverse, hybrid solutions. We have found that versatile methods drawn from a range of disciplines, enables better problem-solving for designing expressive characters.

CTC draws on elements from industrial robotics, high-end control system programming, custom puppet controllers and a broad range of soft fabrication techniques. CTC’s goal is to create naturalistic puppet creatures which defy and transcend conventional narrow expectations for puppetry. Many of the components, control systems and animation approaches we utilize are identical to those incorporated into robots interacting with humans…but in our performance context, our creations are invariably referred to as puppets.

The puppet is a performance tool, whether it is a simple sock puppet or a complex multi-axis hydraulically driven radio controlled monster, and so the traditional principles underscoring good puppet theatre remain the same. Successful puppetry relies on an almost symbiotic relationship between puppeteer and audience. The audience provides energy, breath and support for a puppeteer’s live animation of their puppet. A puppet can only do so much…it is up to the audiences’ imagination to fill in the gaps and support the illusion of life on stage. The puppet must be able to capture and hold the audiences’ attention and communicate the emotional or physical range demanded of it by the show. The design, construction and manipulation of the puppet must all support the performance goals. Fundamentally, the design specification is the performance. This presentation describes the design and construction processes CTC pursues to create large scale, naturalistic animatronic puppets and examine whether the distinction between robot and puppet is merely a matter of context.

Bio: Philip Millar has supervised the creative design and animation of numerous large-scale animatronic puppets used in live stage productions, museums and theme parks, including the stage production of Global Creatures’ King Kong which featured a six meter tall animatronic puppet. Millar will discuss specific approaches to design and animation in a keynote talk titled  and focus on the relationship between puppetry manipulation and robot animation. CTC’s approach to robot design represents a collection of hybrid solutions that draw from traditional puppetry and custom engineering and software tools to support live, pre-recorded, and parametric animation.