What can we learn about anomaly from the strangeness of a puppet, a lifeless object, that can both bleed and die? How does the filming process of a puppet’s death engage across media and produce a new media genre that is not easily classified within traditional conventions? Why do these fighting and bleeding puppets’ scenes consistently attract audiences? This study examines how Pili puppetry (1984-present), a popular TV series depicting martial arts-based narratives and fight sequences, interacts with digital technologies and constructs a new media genre. The transmedia constitution of a virtual world not only challenges the stereotype of puppetry’s target audience but also expands the audience’s bodily imagination and desires through the visual component of death scenes. Hence, the show does not merely represent or signify an anomaly, but even creates anomalous desires and imaginary bodies.
Cultural commodification and advancing technologies have motivated the convergence and displacement of traditional boundaries, genres, and media, changing the very fabric of textuality itself. By exploring how new media affect the audience’s visual reception of fighting and death, this article sheds light on understanding the metamorphoses of Taiwanese puppetry and articulates a theoretical argument regarding the show’s artistic practice to explain how its form transverses traditional boundaries. This critical exploration focusses on how the form represents bleeding puppets, and in doing so, explicates the politics of transmedia performing and viewing. Pili is an example of an anomalous media form that proliferates anomalous media viewing experiences and desires in turn.
Beyond a Media Genre: Taiwanese Pili Puppetry
Converging the craft technique of puppeteering and digital technology of filmmaking and animation, Pili puppetry creates a new media genre that exceeds any conventional idea of a puppet show or digital puppet, as it is something in-between. Glove puppetry is a popular traditional theatre in Taiwan, often known as “theatre in the palm” because a traditional puppet was roughly the same size as an adult’s palm. The size enabled the puppeteer to easily manipulate a puppet in one hand and be close to the audience. Traditionally, puppet shows occurred to celebrate the local deities’ birthday. Despite its popularity, the form was limited by available technology. For instance, although stories with vigorous battles were particularly popular, bleeding scenes in such an auspicious occasion were inappropriate and rare. As a live theatrical event featuring immediate interaction between the performer and the spectator, realistic bleeding scenes were rare because it is hard to immediately clean the stage during the performance.
Distinct from the traditional puppet show, digital puppetry features semi-animated puppets in a virtual world. Digital puppetry is not a new concept by any means in the Western film industry. Animating a 3D puppet is closely associated with motion capture technologies and animation that are manipulated in a digitalised virtual setting (Ferguson). Commonly, the target audience of the Western digital puppetry is children, so educators sometimes use digital puppetry as a pedagogical tool (Potter; Wohlwend). With these young target audience in mind, the producers often avoid violent and bleeding scenes.
Pili puppetry differs from digital puppetry in several ways. For instance, instead of targeting a young audience, Pili puppetry consistently extends the traditional martial-arts performance to include bloody fight sequences that enrich the expressiveness of traditional puppetry as a performing art. Moreover, Pili puppetry does not apply the motion capture technologies to manipulate the puppet’s movement, thus retaining the puppeteers’ puppeteering craft (clips of Pili puppetry can be seen on Pili’s official YouTube page). Hence, Pili is a unique hybrid form, creating its own anomalous space in puppetry.
Among over a thousand characters across the series, the realistic “human-like” puppet is one of Pili’s most popular selling points. The new media considerably intervene in the puppet design, as close-up shots and high-resolution images can accurately project details of a puppet’s face and body movements on the screen. Consequently, Pili’s puppet modelling becomes increasingly intricate and attractive and arguably makes its virtual figures more epic yet also more “human” (Chen).
Figure 1: Su Huan-Jen in the TV series Pili Killing Blade (1993). His facial expressions were relatively flat and rigid then. Reproduced with permission of Pili International Multimedia Company.
Figure 2: Su Huan-Jen in the TV series Pili Nine Thrones (2003). The puppet’s facial design and costume became more delicate and complex. Reproduced with permission of Pili International Multimedia Company.
Figure 3: Su Huan-Jen in the TV series Pili Fantasy: War of Dragons (2019). His facial lines softened due to more precise design technologies. The new lightweight chiffon yarn costumes made him look more elegant. The multiple-layer costumes also created more space for puppeteers to hide behind the puppet and enact more complicated manipulations. Reproduced with permission of Pili International Multimedia Company.
The design of the most well-known Pili swordsman, Su Huan-Jen, demonstrates how the Pili puppet modelling became more refined and intricate in the past 20 years. In 1993, the standard design was a TV puppet with the size and body proportion slightly enlarged from the traditional puppet. Su Huan-Jen’s costumes were made from heavy fabrics, and his facial expressions were relatively flat and rigid (fig. 1). Pili produced its first puppetry film Legend of the Sacred Stone in 2000; considering the visual quality of a big screen, Pili refined the puppet design including replacing wooden eyeballs and plastic hair with real hair and glass eyeballs (Chen). The filmmaking experience inspired Pili to dramatically improve the facial design for all puppets. In 2003, Su’s modelling in Pili Nine Thrones (TV series) became noticeably much more delicate. The puppet’s size was considerably enlarged by almost three times, so a puppeteer had to use two hands to manipulate a puppet. The complex costumes and props made more space for puppeteers to hide behind the puppet and enrich the performance of the fighting movements (fig. 2). In 2019, Su’s new modelling further included new layers of lightweight fabrics, and his makeup and props became more delicate and complex (fig. 3). Such a refined aesthetic design also lends to Pili’s novelty among puppetry performances.
Through the transformation of Pili in the context of puppetry history, we see how the handicraft-like puppet itself gradually commercialised into an artistic object that the audience would yearn to collect and project their bodily imagination. Anthropologist Teri Silvio notices that, for some fans, Pili puppets are similar to worship icons through which they project their affection and imaginary identity (Silvio, “Pop Culture Icons”). Intermediating with the new media, the change in the refined puppet design also comes from the audience’s expectations. Pili’s senior puppet designer Fan Shih-Ching mentioned that Pili fans are very involved, so their preferences affect the design of puppets. The complexity, particularly the layer of costumes, most clearly differentiates the aesthetics of traditional and Pili puppets. Due to the “idolisation” of some famous Pili characters, Shih-Ching has had to design more and more gaudy costumes. Each resurgence of a well-known Pili swordsman, such as Su Huan-Jen, Yi Ye Shu, and Ye Hsiao-Chai, means he has to remodel the puppet.
Pili fans represent their infatuation for puppet characters through cosplay (literally “costume play”), which is when fans dress up and pretend to be a Pili character. Their cosplay, in particular, reflects the bodily practice of imaginary identity. Silvio observes that most cosplayers choose to dress as characters that are the most visually appealing rather than characters that best suit their body type. They even avoid moving too “naturally” and mainly move from pose-to-pose, similar to the frame-to-frame techne of animation. Thus, we can understand this “cosplay more as reanimating the character using the body as a kind of puppet rather than as an embodied performance of some aspect of self-identity” (Silvio 2019, 167). Hence, Pili fans’ cosplay is indicative of an anomalous desire to become the puppet-like human, which helps them transcend their social roles in their everyday life. It turns out that not only fans’ preference drives the (re)modelling of puppets but also fans attempt to model themselves in the image of their beloved puppets. The reversible dialectic between fan-star and flesh-object further provokes an “anomaly” in terms of the relationship between the viewers and the puppets. Precisely because fans have such an intimate relationship with Pili, it is important to consider how the series’ content and form configure fans’ viewing experience.
Filming Bleeding Puppets
Despite its intricate aesthetics, Pili is still a series with frequent fighting-to-the-death scenes, which creates, and is the result of, extraordinary transmedia production and viewing experiences. Due to the market demand of producing episodes around 500 minutes long every month, Pili constantly creates new characters to maintain the audience’s attention and retain its novelty. So far, Pili has released thousands of characters. To ensure that new characters supersede the old ones, numerous old characters have to die within the plot.
The adoption of new media allows the fighting scenes in Pili to render as more delicate, rather than consisting of loud, intense action movements. Instead, the leading swordsmen’s death inevitably takes place in a pathetic and romantic setting and consummates with a bloody sacrifice. Fighting scenes in early Pili puppetry created in the late 1980s were still based on puppets’ body movements, as the knowledge and technology of animation were still nascent and underdeveloped. At that time, the prestigious swordsman mainly relied on the fast speed of brandishing his sword. Since the early 1990s, as animation technology matured, it has become very common to see Pili use CGI animation to create a damaging sword beam for puppets to kill target enemies far away. The sword beam can fly much faster than the puppets can move, so almost every fighting scene employs CGI to visualise both sword beams and flame. The change in fighting manners provokes different representations of the bleeding and death scenes. Open wounds replace puncture wounds caused by a traditional weapon; bleeding scenes become typical, and a special feature in Pili’s transmedia puppetry.
In addition to CGI animation, the use of fake blood in the Pili studio makes the performance even more realistic. Pili puppet master Ting Chen-Ching recalled that exploded puppets in traditional puppetry were commonly made by styrofoam blocks. The white styrofoam chips that sprayed everywhere after the explosion inevitably made the performance seem less realistic. By contrast, in the Pili studio, the scene of a puppet spurting blood after the explosion usually applies the technology of editing several shots. The typical procedure would be a short take that captures a puppet being injured. In its injury location, puppeteers sprinkle red confetti to represent scattered blood clots in the following shot. Sometimes the fake blood was splashed with the red confetti to make it further three-dimensional (Ting).
Bloody scenes can also be filmed through multiple layers of arranged performance conducted at the same time by a group of puppeteers. Ting describes the practice of filming a bleeding puppet. Usually, some puppeteers sprinkle fake blood in front of the camera, while other puppeteers blasted the puppets toward various directions behind the blood to make the visual effects match. If the puppeteers need to show how a puppet becomes injured and vomits blood during the fight, they can install tiny pipes in the puppet in advance. During the filming, the puppeteer slowly squeezes the pipe to make the fake blood flow out from the puppet’s mouth. Such a bloody scene sometimes accompanies tears dropping from the puppet’s eyes. In some cases, the puppeteer drops the blood on the puppet’s mouth prior to the filming and then uses a powerful electric fan to blow the blood drops (Ting). Such techniques direct the blood to flow laterally against the wind, which makes the puppet’s death more aesthetically tragic. Because it is not a live performance, the puppeteer can try repeatedly until the camera captures the most ideal blood drop pattern and bleeding speed.
Puppeteers have to adjust the camera distance for different bleeding scenes, which creates new modes of viewing, sensing, and representing virtual life and death. One of the most representative examples of Pili’s bleeding scenes is when Su’s best friend, Ching Yang-Zi, fights with alien devils in Legend of the Sacred Stone. (The clip of how Ching Yang-Zi fights and bleeds to death can be seen on YouTube.) Ting described how Pili prepared three different puppets of Ching for the non-fighting, fighting, and bleeding scenes (Ting). The main fighting scene starts from a low-angle medium shot that shows how Ching Yang-Zi got injured and began bleeding from the corner of his mouth. Then, a sharp weapon flies across the screen; the following close-up shows that the weapon hits Ching and he begins bleeding immediately. The successive shots move back and forth between his face and the wound in medium shot and close-up. Next, a close-up shows him stepping back with blood dripping on the ground. He then pushes the weapon out of his body to defend enemies; a final close-up follows a medium take and a long take shows the massive hemorrhage. The eruption of fluid plasma creates a natural effect that is difficult to achieve, even with 3D animation. Beyond this impressive technicality, the exceptional production and design emphasise how Pili fully embraces the ethos of transmedia: to play with multiple media forms and thereby create a new form. In the case of Pili, its form is interactive, transcending the boundaries of what we might consider the “living” and the “dead”.
Epilogue: Viewing Bleeding Puppets on the Screen
The simulated, high-quality, realistic-looking puppet designs accompanying the Pili’s featured bloody fighting sequence draw another question: What is the effect of watching human-like puppets die? What does this do to viewer-fans? Violence is prevalent throughout the historical record of human behaviour, especially in art and entertainment because these serve as outlets to fulfill a basic human need to indulge in “taboo fantasies” and escape into “realms of forbidden experience” (Schechter). When discussing the visual representations of violence and the spectacle of the sufferings of others, Susan Sontag notes, “if we consider what emotions would be desirable” (102), viewing the pain of others may not simply evoke sympathy. She argues that “[no] moral charge attaches to the representation of these cruelties. Just the provocation: can you look at this? There is the satisfaction of being able to look at the image without flinching. There is the pleasure of flinching” (41). For viewers, the boldness of watching the bloody scenes can be very inviting. Watching human-like puppets die in the action scenes similarly validates the viewer’s need for pleasure and entertainment. Although different from a human body, the puppets still bears the materiality of being-object. Therefore, watching the puppets bleeding and die as distinctly “human-like’ puppets further prevent viewers’ from feeling guilty or morally involved. The conceptual distance of being aware of the puppet’s materiality acts as a moral buffer; audiences are intimately involved through the particular aesthetic arrangement, yet morally detached.
The transmedia filming of puppetry adds another layer of mediation over the human-like “living” puppets that allows such a particular experience. Sontag notices that the media generates an inevitable distance between object and subject, between witness and victim. For Sontag, although images constitute “the imaginary proximity” because it makes the “faraway sufferers” be “seen close-up on the television screen”, it is a mystification to assume that images serve as a direct link between sufferers and viewers. Rather, Sontag insists: the distance makes the viewers feel “we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence” (102). Echoing Sontag’s argument, Jeffrey Goldstein points out that “distancing” oneself from the mayhem represented in media makes it tolerable. Media creates an “almost real” visuality of violence, so the audience feels relatively safe in their surroundings when exposed to threatening images. Thus, “violent imagery must carry cues to its unreality or it loses appeal” (280). Pili puppets that are human-like, thus not human, more easily enable the audience to seek sensational excitement through viewing puppets’ bloody violence and eventual death on the screen and still feel emotionally secure. Due to the distance granted by the medium, viewers gain a sense of power by excitedly viewing the violence with an accompanying sense of moral exemption. Thus, viewers can easily excuse the limits of their personal responsibility while still being captivated by Pili’s boundary-transgressing aesthetic.
The anomalous power of Pili fans’ cosplay differentiates the viewing experience of puppets’ deaths from that of other violent entertainment productions. Cosplayers physically bridge viewing/acting and life/death by dressing up as the puppet characters, bringing them to life, as flesh. Cosplay allows fans to compensate for the helplessness they experience when watching the puppets’ deaths on the screen. They can both “enjoy” the innocent pleasure of watching bleeding puppets and bring their adored dead idols “back to life” through cosplay. The onscreen violence and death thus provide an additional layer of pleasure for such cosplayers. They not only take pleasure in watching the puppets—which are an idealized version of their bodily imagination—die, but also feel empowered to revitalise their loved idols. Therefore, Pili cosplayers’ desires incite a cycle of life, pleasure, and death, in which the company responds to their consumers’ demands in kind. The intertwining of social, economic, and political factors thus collectively thrives upon media violence as entertainment.
Pili creates the potential for new cross-media genre configurations that transcend the traditional/digital puppetry binary. On the one hand, the design of swordsman puppets become a simulation of a “living object” responding to the camera distance. On the other hand, the fighting and death scenes heavily rely on the puppeteers’ cooperation with animation and editing. Therefore, Pili puppetry enriches existing discourse on both puppetry and animation as life-giving processes. What is animated by Pili puppetry is not simply the swordsmen characters themselves, but new potentials for media genres and violent entertainment.
My hearty gratitude to Amy Gaeta for sharing her insights with me on the early stage of this study.
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