Behind the scenes with Ogg and Blender

Last summer, my youngest and I created our own muppet character as a pandemic project. Ogg is a muppet-style caveman character, complete with muppety torso, head, arms and hands. He has arm rods too (although I’m not a good enough puppeteer to use them yet) but he has no legs or feet. For as long as we were just playing with him in the living room, these limitations were not a problem, but for a few months now, I’ve been using Ogg as the frontman for a series of ultrashort (and hopefully funny) YouTube videos. And for producing those, there are about five different ways that Blender has been indispensable.


Ogg (behind the scenes)

Ogg and Jefferson in their bare-bones studio setup.

The basic premise of the series is that Ogg is an intelligent caveman who has recently been thawed from the ice and now walks the streets of our world, trying to make sense of the wonders he encounters. That premise requires him to be seen in lots of different settings – places where he will find confusing things to wonder about. For most videos, I accomplish this by shooting the puppetry in front of a green screen and then dropping him over an appropriate background photo, but you might be surprised how often I have trouble finding an image that works for the scene I’ve shot.

Example Blender backgrounds

Does anybody recognize the inspiration for that lab?

When that happens (about 15 of the 75 videos posted to date) I turn to Blender, creating a custom 3D set that I can render out using Cycles. So far, Blender has contributed a laboratory (video), a museum (video), an art gallery (video), and a poetry/reading stage (video).

The backdrops produced are not particularly detailed or realistic, but they don’t have to be. In fact, they shouldn’t be. Ogg’s channel feels more like a video cartoon strip than cinéma vérité, so the backgrounds actually work better if they feel like they live on the rim of the uncanny valley. Somewhere between realism and cartoonism. And the best part of this solution is that if I ever need a similar backdrop again, I can whip up the next one in no time.

In fact, my most frequent trick so far has been to put Ogg in an art gallery, standing in front of some painting or sculpture that might conceivably have launched him onto his rant of the day. And each time I do this, I create a new painting in the gallery model, adding it beside the previous one. Over several months of doing this, that model has grown into a sort of museum gallery of its own. Maybe some day, I’ll have him stroll through this set and make some kind of pithy comment about the state of virtual art. :-)

Museum of caveman trigger art

The Museum of Caveman Trigger Art

Leg fakery

I mentioned above that Ogg only exists from the waist up, so when I wrote a script that required him to sit in a chair reading a book, I had to stifle my inner panic. How was I going to show that? Fortunately, writer-Jeff didn’t have to worry about it. That was a problem for director-Jeff to deal with later. So I wrote it up the way it needed to be and threw the script onto the pile. When future me picked it up on shoot day, I found myself with two problems: Where was I going to get legs? And how was I going to have Ogg hold a book?

Ogg reads a bookI could have secured a physical book to his tummy and pinned his hands to the edges, but I’m a complete noob when it comes to puppeteering and did not like my chances of pulling that off cleanly in camera. Nor did I want to build fleece legs for a single 10 second shot. So I was momentarily stumped on both counts.

But then I realized that I could shoot the whole scene in Blender – stage, backdrop, chair, book, hands and legs – and then just sandwich the green-screened puppetry footage in between the foreground hand/book elements and the background stage/chair elements. And to my utter surprise, it worked (video).

It isn’t Hollywood caliber, but I’m delighted by the results. The cartooniness of those skinny, hairy legs seems a perfect match for the rest of Ogg’s look, and is something I doubt I could have achieved with real fleece and foam anyway.

And as an unexpected bonus, I’ve already re-used this “chair on a stage” set several times.

Hand replacement

Meat hand rendered vs wireframeWhen I first started making these videos, I actually constructed a pair of Muppet gloves, thinking that I’d be able to shoot footage of my own hands in the gloves (in front of a green screen) and layer that footage over the puppet performance to give the impression that Ogg was holding or manipulating things with his hands. But I’ve never actually used them. The five times I’ve needed to show Ogg’s hands so far, it ended up being easier to knock together a quick animation in Blender instead. My virtual Ogg-hands have served as digital stand-ins to hold: a club (video), a haunch of meat (video), and several photographs and paintings (video).

Ogg holding picture of whiny kidFor episode #29, about whiny kids (video), I needed Ogg to interact with an example of a poorly behaved child. But to keep production of these videos simple, Ogg rarely interacts with other characters or even moving backgrounds, so I needed a different way to include my poster child character. Naturally, the solution was to make them a literal poster child. This foul-tempered brat appears on a board that Ogg can gesture with as needed. But as I’ve already said, my puppeteering skills are already strained to their limit by making his mouth move in time with my own, while also operating the camera and the script, so using some kind of rod-based poster stick puppet would likely have driven me into an overload coma. So instead, I made a simple model of Ogg’s virtual hands holding the poster and animated that to rise and fall when he needed to add emphasis. Then I added a small noise animation to the position so that the hands and poster appeared to jiggle a bit as Ogg speaks and moves around on screen. The result (video) may not win any Oscars for animation, but it makes the necessary point in a suitably cartoonish way, and that’s all I needed.

One day I may find a situation that requires hand movements that are beyond my ability to animate, and on that day, I’ll finally break out the puppet gloves, but until then, Ogg will continue performing with his arms at his sides, and I’ll just add the hands later.


I keep finding new ways to add Blender to my workflow. Most recently, I needed Ogg to visualize a hunting sequence from his caveman days, but the image had to be cartoony enough that it would read as an imagination figment, rather than something taking place in his surroundings with him.

Ogg with flying cavemanFor this, I built a quick little 2D cardboard caveman in Blender and set a few keyframes to achieve the simple motions I needed. And by supering that animation over a blank stone wall in the final composition, I was able to impart a sort of “cave painting” style to the sequence that reinforced the notion of it coming from Ogg’s imagination (video).

(In hindsight, I probably could have played around with Freestyle rendering to create thick, primitive outlines around the character, and then maybe applied some kind of chalk or charcoal texture to those images to create a more convincing “cave painting” effect, but that didn’t occur to me until I’d already posted the video. If I get a chance to do another one, I’ll give that a try and post a follow-up note about how it turned out.)


The one thing I haven’t tried yet is producing a full-body animation of Ogg doing something completely in CG. I hope I never have to, because I’m not sure I can pull it off. Even if it’s “just a puppet,” believable animation is hard! So for now at least, I’m happy with this hybrid technique of using live puppets for the talking head part, and filling in around the edges with Blender.

Some directors like to say, “Let’s fix it in post,” but more and more, I find myself saying, “Let’s fix it in Blender.”

Kicking Immersion Up To Eleven

About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is underqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.