Peter Clarke Is a Robo-Puppet Wizard

How a Rice fine arts degree led to an unexpected career in TV and film.

Photo by Liz Bretz
Photo by Liz Bretz

For the past 15 years, Peter Clarke ’00 has created practical special effects — animatronic puppets in particular — for film, TV and commercial productions, including key characters in “The Mandalorian,” “Pacific Rim,” “Runaways” and “Finch.”

During his time studying painting and sculpture at Rice, Clarke studied abroad in Florence, Italy, where he started making wearable artwork that viewers could interact with physically. While earning his master’s degree at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), he continued to develop the interactive aspects of his sculpture with the added focus of mechanical functionality. “I was basically making machines that also had a performance art component to them,” Clarke said.

He moved to Los Angeles in 2004 and found his first job on Craigslist with a special effects company that made high-end props for the Halloween industry. There, Clarke made connections that opened the door to opportunities at larger companies. He was eventually hired by Legacy Effects, where he has been working for nearly 10 years as a mechanical designer.

Special effects is an evolving industry, but the animatronics that Clarke and his colleagues work on are still rooted in the fundamentals — with some technological advances, of course. “Baby Yoda has an animatronic face and head, but its body and arms are still just a rod puppet controlled manually by guys in green suits with long metal poles, which is the same technology that’s been around forever,” Clarke explained. “The difference is that his head is entirely 3D-printed, designed on 3D CAD [computer-aided design] software and uses some construction techniques that weren’t even invented five years ago.”

Special effects is an evolving industry, but the animatronics that Clarke and his colleagues work on are still rooted in the fundamentals.

Compared to the original Yoda from “Star Wars” that was largely constructed by hand, 3D printing allows Clarke to make animatronic components much faster and smaller without sacrificing performance and character, which also helps him keep up with fast-paced production schedules. “I can make something in a couple of weeks that used to take months to make,” he said.

Despite the advances in computer-generated (CG) special effects, animatronic puppets still play an important role in the industry. “One of the classic things they say about acting is that ‘acting is reacting,’” Clarke said. “Having an animatronic puppet on set gives an actor something to interact with. If it’s a CG character, sometimes they’ll be interacting with a green ball or something that doesn’t give them feedback or anything to work up against.”

Ultimately, what starts out as a puppet can transform into a beloved character that people develop strong emotional connections toward. “Even though I have somewhat of a traditional sculpture background, the animatronics aspect is always much more interesting to me than the art side of special effects where they’re sculpting characters or painting them,” Clarke said. “Making them move and trying to give them life — or the illusion of life — is what really interests me.” — Kyndall Krist