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We Lived It: Playing the Real-life Stand-ins for Clifford the Big Red Dog

The main character in the newly released ‘Clifford the Big Red Dog’ doesn’t actually exist. To bring the dog to life, production turned to two puppeteers and put them in a massive 75-pound canine exoskeleton.

Getty Images/Paramount Pictures/Ringer illustration

When the first trailer for Clifford the Big Red Dog was released last November, the internet did a double take. Not ready to see a photorealistic depiction of their favorite crimson canine, fans of Norman Bridwell’s beloved children’s books levied all kinds of hot takes about how he looked in the upcoming live-action adaptation. Mostly, they couldn’t comprehend the more naturalistic, muddy shade of red that director Walt Becker had chosen for his big pup’s fur, an aesthetic misstep that called to mind the original—and frighteningly human—design of 2020’s Sonic the Hedgehog.

But as paparazzi photos of the movie’s set emerged online around the same time, the discourse quickly pivoted to Clifford’s physical iteration: a 10-foot perforated puppet. Shocking, hilarious, and terrifying upon first glance, the bulky, red exoskeleton functioned as a practical contraption for shooting, a useful eyeline for the movie’s young cast members, and a material placeholder for the visual effects team. The absurd image became an object of Twitter fascination and prompted curiosity about the disguised pair of color-coordinated puppeteers who were trudging around New York City with this red apparatus on their shoulders.

Celebrity Sightings in New York City - July 2, 2019 Photo by James Devaney/GC Images

Rowan Magee and Jon Riddleberger started acting in college, but pivoted to puppetry after graduating. Leaning on their theatrical backgrounds, they began participating in stage productions, learned a variety of new skills (in Riddleberger’s case, engineering an equestrian on War Horse), and immersed themselves in a community that would eventually prepare them for unique cinematic endeavors—such as, of course, being the real-life stand-ins for Clifford the Big Red Dog. Two years after their viral online moment, they still feel pride about how the behind-the-scenes photos exposed their unheralded craft to the world—the light it shed on what it was like to navigate New York streets under literal pressure and turn a motionless puppet into a huge, slobbery dog. “It was fun having the images out there,” Riddleberger says. “It was fun to be like, ‘This is how this is being made.’”

How did you find out about Clifford the Big Red Dog? Is there an audition process for a role like this?

Rowan Magee: The short answer is you’re in the right place at the right time. They put an ad out for puppeteers, but the people who were interviewing us were not the people in charge of finding talent. They were the visual effects supervisor and the second assistant director. It was maybe the most important interview I’d ever been on. It wasn’t an audition, I didn’t even touch a puppet at all. They just explained what it would be like. It sounded physically demanding—a 75-pound backpack and eight to 14-hour days living out of the back of a box truck.

Jon Riddleberger: … on the streets of New York City in the summer.

Magee: Basically I was like, “I think I can do that.” I was a nanny before this, I understood working around kids, and I knew how to stay out of the way of people whose job is to be actors and personalities. I was like a big family dog that was willing to go along on this weird trip. They gave me a call later that was like, “You’re the right height, that’s the major factor. Who’s like you and has that height?”

Riddleberger: Puppetry is a fringey art form. Rowan essentially handed me the job.

How much time does it take to prepare for something like this?

Riddleberger: It’s an interesting thing because the puppet was built in L.A. by Creature Effects, got shipped to New York, and then handed to us. Christine Papalexis and Jim Huertas were the builders of the puppet and were in New York with us to orient and help us learn about it. We spent half a week in the offices that the production had taken over on Fifth Avenue walking around the office as Clifford. There were two parts to it—a back part and a front part—so we would switch back and forth between those.

Yeah, I was curious how you decided who would be in the front and who would take the back.

Riddleberger: We would switch. The front was heavy, it was about 75 pounds, so it was important for both of us to be able to do it and switch out in case someone got tired. 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.

Because the VFX people ultimately have to use what you give them, right?

Riddleberger: Yeah, if they dont use what we’ve done, then it’s more work for them to delete us. They can cover us with animation, but it’s less work in post-production. So what we do ultimately informs what they’re going to animate.

What was your first impression of seeing the puppet in the New York office?

Riddleberger: Well, interestingly, the puppet had ears, it had a tail, it had some other elements that could be added to make it a little more friendly-looking. But they ultimately decided not to use that stuff because it just added mass that the VFX people would have to delete. The fluffy ears just weren’t relevant to what we needed.

So you at least had a chance to test the parameters of the puppet?

Magee: We walked around the office for a day. The people in the Paramount offices were kind of shocked to see us.

Darby Camp, who plays Emily Elizabeth in the movie, has mentioned in interviews that you guys got really good at mimicking dog movements. Did you watch and observe dog behavior to get a better sense of how to move the puppet?

Magee: You’ve got to figure out what the puppet is capable of, and then you lean toward that as a vocabulary. We did a little research. Luckily, we live in a world where we’re getting sent cat and dog videos constantly, whether we want them or not. Every time we saw a dog on the street, we were like, “Oh, yeah, OK.”

Riddleberger: When Clifford first gets big, it’s a pretty complex scene in the apartment of him knocking stuff over. So they wanted us to look at reunion videos, when dogs are excited to see the owner they haven’t seen in a while.

Magee: There’s a scene when Clifford has become unshackled and is excited to see [Emily], and they’re like, “Now, go do your research, go through those videos.” Dogs will do this thing where they lean on you to let you know they love you. So we had to do this choreography around those videos—you go to her, spin around, you want to see where she’s going—and we would just pattern through the reunion dog choreography until we got something. That was quite a day.

I remember when the first behind-the-scenes paparazzi photos of you inside the Clifford puppet popped up on the internet. There was this mixture of shock, laughter, even horror. Do you remember that day?

Riddleberger: We had been walking around New York in this puppet, with people calling out to us on the streets yelling, “Is that Clifford?!” We’ve all signed NDAs, so we’re like “... Maybe. … We don’t want to tell you. But it’s big, it’s red, and it’s a dog.” Pictures are not the ideal way to see that process because it’s an unfinished dog puppet.

Magee: We couldn’t release any pictures of what this crazy puppet looked like, so when it leaked we were like, “Oh, now I can show people!” There’s a hilarious TikTok of a guy making fun of it, and he’s talking about how horrifying it looks. For a second, I was like, “Maybe this will be the only time that people will ever see what that looks like.” This parody almost feels like positive attention—by making fun of it, now people can appreciate and see the distance it’s gone.

Celebrity Sightings in New York City - July 2, 2019 Photo by James Devaney/GC Images

I appreciate the fact that you both wore red shoes and shorts. Was that a stylistic character gimmick or was that required for CGI purposes?

Riddleberger: When they started, we had red bodysuits. They tried that and then were like, “It’s not necessary,” so I think we landed on the shorts and shirt. I liked it because it was a uniform. It made me feel like I was at a job. Also, it would get very sweaty. It was heavy and sweaty work, so I’d rather sweat through that costume and change into my normal clothes at the end of the day.

You were talking about holding up 75 pounds’ worth of puppet. How long would you have to operate it at a given time?

Magee: We set a timer for about 70 minutes.

Riddleberger: If you sat on a stool, it made it easier. Every shot is slightly different, so we were always kind of navigating our own endurance. We started to understand what it looked like when you wanted to push through, and maybe one of us on the tail end should get water or should communicate with their walkie-talkie, because the person on the head needed to be focused.

How well could you see through the puppet?

Magee: It’s like a Swiss cheese effect. After you’ve been in there, not even a day, your eyes adjust like a video game and you’re like, “Oh, I think I know where everything is.”

But being Clifford required you to run together, I’d imagine. Was learning to step in sync part of your pre-production process?

Riddleberger: We did some of that. The main puppet had the head, body, back end. But we could also just use the head. So there were plenty of days where one of us would take the head and just run as fast as we could through a crowd or through a field. That was more practical because we could go faster. Also, it was less tiring.

Magee: We had to run with a special style if we were going to have the whole thing on. We had these stanchions that are a little bit bungee, so we ended up having to do something that looked very choreographed. It’s not exactly what a dog looks like. We couldn’t really gallop.

Is there a moment during filming when you started wondering how this would turn out? I’d imagine it’s hard to envision the final CGI product on set when an actor is petting the air around you.

Riddleberger: When you’re creating a film when your lead title character is not there, the puppet becomes a central point that everyone can check in with. It’s a team effort to get us there. Everyone is working on a magic trick—from the actors in the scene with us pretending to pet a dog, to our visual effects team, to the animators later. It’s a collaborative thing between departments. So in some ways, it’s weird. “How is this actually going to work? What’s this actually going to look like?” But the most fun days for me were the days when I felt like we got to really follow our acting instincts.

There’s an emotional scene where Darby is letting Clifford leave for his own safety, and it was a pleasure to operate, to be there with Darby and be responding to her as her loyal dog who knows she’s sad but doesnt know what’s going on. Those moments are really beautiful, and you know some other talented people are going to do a lot of work to finish the picture.

Where does a project like this rank for you? Does it give you some clout within the puppeteering community?

Magee: I guess it’s clout in the same way that people don’t get puppetry. We’re credited as “Clifford stand-ins,” but I don’t think there’s a pivot where people are like, “You guys are the best at that thing.” It feels like a private accomplishment. I got to post about it on social media, and it gave me a cushion to live on during the pandemic, which I couldn’t foresee. In the puppet industry, your experiences and connections are your big payoff. Out of this, I got to know Jon.

And you definitely got to know the back of Jon’s head.

Riddleberger: Yes. [Laughs.]

I hope, as a puppeteer, we’re in a bit of a transition for film. CGI and visual effects have reached an amazing point where, instead of just a tennis ball on a stand, you can have a full Clifford acting with actors. That’s always going to be better than lifeless representation.

Before I let you go, I have to ask: Since Clifford is an overgrown puppy in this movie, if there’s a sequel, he will presumably continue to grow even bigger. Does that mean you’ll break out stilts?

Magee: [Laughs.] I think it will be a more complex thing than stilts.

Riddleberger: Five puppeteers! I’ll do lots of pushups.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jake Kring-Schreifels is a sports and entertainment writer based in New York. His work has also appeared in Esquire.com, GQ.com, and The New York Times.