When the trailer for the live-action “Clifford the Big Red Dog” was released last November, internet fans were surprised by what they saw: A photorealistic version of their favorite red canine.
The movie is based on Norman Bridwell’s popular children’s books. When director Walt Becker chose a naturalistic, muddy shade of red, it created a visually distinct character that played into peoples’ sense of nostalgia, according to Becker’s interview with CinemaBlend.
Some fans thought it was too realistic. Others thought the movie’s Clifford fit the bill for a big red dog.
But when paparazzi photos from the movie’s shooting emerged online, fans quickly focused their attention on what the 10-foot dog actually looked like on set. Since dogs Clifford’s size don’t exist, the production team used a bulky, red exoskeleton controlled by two puppeteers. (The dog is too big for just one.)
The puppeteers, Rowan Magee and Jon Riddleberger, wore matching red shoes and knee-length shorts to camouflage as they carried the dog’s body around New York City.
Magee and Riddleberger started acting in college but later pivoted to puppetry after graduating, according to their interview from The Ringer. Using their theatre background to their advantage, they were able to participate in stage productions.
Even though the viral photos revealed the secret behind Clifford, the world finally knew about their masterful craft.
“It was fun having the images out there,” says Riddleberger to The Ringer. “It was fun to be like, ‘This is how this is being made.’”
When asked how they got the job, they said they were in the right place at the right time, only reverting to an ad out for puppeteers. “It wasn’t an audition, I didn’t even touch a puppet at all. They just explained what it would be like,” said Magee. “It sounded physically demanding — a 75-pound backpack and eight to 14-hour days living out of the back of a box truck.”
“... on the streets of New York City in the summer,” added Riddleberger.
The backpack in question was built in L.A. by Creature Effects’ Christine Papalexis and Jim Huertas, and later shipped to New York. The puppet initially had ears and a tail to make it more friendly-looking, but those features were taken out to reduce postproduction editing.
Both puppeteers took turns carrying the front because it weighed about 75 pounds. “It was important for both of us to be able to do it and switch out in case someone got tired,” said Riddleberger.
“The thing that I’ve learned doing puppetry in TV and film is that a big part of the job is just having your tool-set ready. In the script it just says, ‘Clifford does something funny,’ so you have to be ready to figure that out,” he adds.
Magee and Riddleberger leaned into moving like a dog, all the while holding the heavy frame over their heads hours at a time, according to The Ringer.
Since the movie is about a big puppy, a sequel could mean an even bigger dog. This doesn’t face the Clifford stand-ins. “Five puppeteers! I’ll do lots of pushups!” said Magee.
The movie was released in cinemas and on Paramount+ on Nov. 10.