Cave Artists Better Than Da Vinci? Puppeteers Better Than Most Modern Artists


Home / Cave Artists Better Than Da Vinci? Puppeteers Better Than Most Modern Artists

Lascaux cave prehistoric bull drawing schematised for biomechanical study. Image: PLoS ONE

The depiction of animals dates back to the prehistoric era, when people used cave paintings and carvings to illustrate the animals they hunted. Since the observation of animals was not merely a pastime, but a matter of survival, we can suppose that compared to artists of latter eras, when people were not as directly connected to nature, the creators of such cave paintings and carvings observed their subjects better and thus they depicted the walk of the animals in a more life-like manner.”

Biomechanics in Movie Special Effects and Animation

An earlier phase of this research focused on erroneous quadruped walking depictions in natural history contexts.

Depictors of animal locomotion in areas of visual culture, such as taxidermists in natural history museums, animal anatomists and designers of animal toy models were found to be equally unlikely to understand quadruped biomechanics, offering less than 50% accuracy.

The one area where modern artists do accurately depict quadruped walking is in film. Horváth and his colleagues suggested that this was due to the employment of biomechanics in the design of models and animal animation. Puppeteers, animatronics engineers, and imagineers are increasingly involved in designing moving creatures in movies such as Jurassic Park and the Lord of The Rings trilogy, rendering acceptably realistic results.  Recently Steven Spielberg brought in animatronics experts to create lifelike replicas of the real horses starring in his movie adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel War Horse, rather than risk stress or injury, especially during dangerous battlefield scenes.

Bringing Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse to Life

Spielberg’s decision to make the movie was influenced by his experience of seeing the musical stage production of War Horse, made in association with the Handspring Puppet Company. This has become a worldwide success, with productions currently or soon to be running in London, New York, Berlin, Toronto and Melbourne, as well as touring companies in UK and US.

The challenge the South African Handspring Puppet Company faced in designing and building the gigantic horse puppets was largely one of biomechanical engineering. Rae Smith, production designer on the smash hit National Theatre production, foregrounded the Muybridgean approach to portraying horse locomotion in her preliminary sketches for the show. An animated Muybridgean sequence of leg attitudes of moving horses is used on the show’s website, and a linear representation of it is posted around rehearsal spaces across the world as more puppeteers train  for performance.

How Horses Walk: Realism is Difficult

Realistic representation of horses’ gait has been challenging artists down through the centuries. Cavemen got it right, and the current generation of puppeteers is working emulate that success. Bringing gigantic horse puppets to life on stage every night is a very complex process, as this video illustrates, and walking rather than galloping remains difficult to depict accurately.


Horvath G, Farkas E, Boncz I, Blaho M, Kriska G. Cavemen Were Better at Depicting Quadruped Walking than Modern Artists: Erroneous Walking Illustrations in the Fine Arts from Prehistory to Today. (2012). PLoS ONE. Accessed December 9, 2012.

Olivia Solon. Inside the animatronic ‘War Horse’ used in grisly trench scenes. (2012) Wired. Accessed December 9, 2012.

American Humane Film TV. On the Set of War Horse. (2012). Accessed December 9, 2012.

Gábor Horváth, Adelinda Csapó, Annamária Nyeste, Balázs Gerics, Gábor Csorba and György Kriska. Erroneous quadruped walking depictions in natural history museums. (2009). Current Biology. Accessed December 9, 2012.

London’s National Theatre with the Handspring Puppet Company. Adaptation of War Horse. Accessed December 9, 2012.

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