Intronauts: A Journey That Gets Under The Skin…

Resident theatre company Green Ginger, known for their inspired mix of art and lunacy, are in the midst of another artistic adventure with the UK tour of their brand new show, ‘Intronauts’. We caught up with Green Ginger’s Artistic Director, performer and designer, Chris Pirie, and the show’s Director, Emma Williams, to find out more about the creation of this fabulous futurist puppetry performance.

Adam Fuller & Chris Pirie with puppet
Photo credit: Emma Windsor

‘Intronauts’ propels audiences into a madcap, microscopic journey through the human body.  Where did the original idea come from and how did the story evolve through the theatre making process?  

CP: Three strands: submarines, nano-surgery and hazardous waste, converged during the early part of the creation process of Intronauts. Ever since Green Ginger made Rust in 2005, an obsession with submarines has never really been shaken off. These are, essentially,- extraordinary craft travelling in extraordinary places and provide perfect contexts for the company’s approach to fantastical story-telling. Another kernel of inspiration goes back even further, to a childhood comic strip called The Numskulls, featuring tiny white-coated technicians inside the head of a man, and each in control of his sensory functions.

Emma Keaveney-Roys. Photo credit: M Dawson

Thirdly, a fascination with hazardous waste and its production, management and disposal informed the initial research and development week. A team of eight, comprising performers, writers, composers and designers met to throw ideas around, create new provocations and improvise material suggested by the theme. A loose narrative structure was then taken up to Norway by a small team of four, who spent a week working with our co-production dramaturg to develop it into a story that would inform the design and fabrication team. Some key decisions were made at that time; to restrict it to tell the tale of two central characters and to work with Hologauze, an innovative gauze material developed in Bristol that we would project animated sequences onto.

Once the design team had fabricated skeletal scenic structures and prototype puppetry solutions, the whole lot was shipped out to Norway where the full production team – performers, director, lighting designer, composer, VFX animator, makers and producer – spent seven weeks in a devising rehearsal process to finish the show. The story continued to develop throughout and even now as we tour, we are able to tweak things in relation to audience feedback.

Video production: White Rabbit Animation. Music: Simon Preston.

The show uses performance, puppetry and projected animations to create it’s visual universe.  What were the challenges and rewards of bringing these mediums together on stage?  

EW: When we started working on this project our biggest question was: how? How is this going to actually work? How are these very different ways of communicating going to fit together? They not only say different things to an audience, they are made in different ways. Live performance is very fluid, you can shift and change elements right up to the last minute.  Filmmaking is completely different and once its finished it is fixed.

 We also didn’t know what the world would look and feel like when we placed a screen with animated projections between the audience and the live action.   Would this affect the puppetry language we normally use and Green Ginger’s distinctive story-telling style?

Adam Fuller. Photo credit: Paul Blakemore

We spent a long time trying things out in the space, discovering a rhythm, a tone and a visual aesthetic where we hoped these mediums worked together.  It was a painstakingly slow process with lots of experimenting and collaborating. Discovering the solutions was incredible rewarding.  We were trying something new, something none of us had ever made before, and that is a fantastic way to create theatre, even if it is exhausting at times.  

The show is highly cinematic.  How did you work with composer Simon Preston to reflect this cinematic vision in the soundscape of the performance?

EW:  Initially we had meetings with Simon to discuss the concepts of the show.  We talked about the two central characters, their personalities, internal struggles and the musical themes that might exist in the very different worlds they inhabit.

We talked about the technology we were using and the cinematic effect this would have on the show.  We discussed the great sci-fi films of the 70’s as well as Fantastic Voyage and Inner Space. Two films that had thematic similarities to the show and distinct and bold soundscapes. Finally, we discussed the sound world of the body and what this might be.  

Emma Keaveney-Roys. Photo credit: Emma Windsor

 Simon then created a library of extraordinary sounds and musical compositions.  At first these were just short thumbnails, 15 second examples which we discussed and catalogued.  Then a number of tracks were selected and developed into longer, more complex compositions.  Finally, Simon came out to Norway while we devised and rehearsed the show. He would come in and out of the room trying out musical scores and sounds he had been experimenting with.  He had to deal with some odd requests, for example what’s the sound of a hiccup heard inside the body? Or, if you went into someone’s brain, what would you hear?

 Simon played a crucial role in the overall creation of the show and the complexity and richness of the sound design is the result of his skill and craft and hard work. 

Emma Keaveney-Roys and Adam Fuller with puppet
Photo credit: Paul Blakemore

Intronauts is co-produced with Nordland Visual Theatre and has played to audiences in both Norway and the UK.  Is the show received differently by audiences in other countries or are its themes fairly universal? 

CP: While Intronauts – alongside other Green Ginger shows – embrace quite universal themes, audiences can differ greatly from country to country and that’s partly what makes international touring so fascinating. We have performed for many years in Scandinavian countries and are quite used to very quiet auditoriums during shows; in itself unnerving as it feels like we may have ‘lost’ the audience, but they are simply concentrating, listening and thinking; by the end they will break out into loud applause that invariably merges into a sustained collective rhythm. It’s disconcerting to experience for the first time, but we’ve become accustomed to it over the years.

Further south, cultural festivals in Mediterranean countries have a tendency towards performances starting later in the evenings and that (particularly when combined with light alcoholic lubrication) can make for some feisty audiences! Green Ginger has been creating internationally-focused productions for four decades and will continue to make work that transcends borders and speaks to different cultures without translation or modification.

Interview with Emma Windsor

Intronauts is currently touring the UK until the end of March 2019. For information on tour dates and venues, visit Green Ginger’s website. For all the latest news from the company, check out Green Ginger on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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Interview with the ‘Banksy of Puppetry’, Laura Bacon

1344607Laura Bacon is a puppeteer/performer based in London, who was thrown into the spotlight following her appearance on the hit TV show, ‘Britain’s Got Talent’.  Josh Elwell caught up with her to find out how her sudden stardom affected her career and to find out what she’s been up to since. 

 


Laura you achieved great success and charmed audiences on Britain’s Got Talent in 2014 and managed to get through to the semi final. Most people who take part in that competition are seen as themselves. What was it like as an (at that time) anonymous puppeteer to be taking part in such a high profile television show?

BGT was great fun. I was always very nervous about appearing as myself. I think I would feel very awkward talking as me, and it wouldn’t be terribly interesting! When we discussed the possibility of having Patsy May BE the contestant entirely, it just clicked for me. THAT was my act, being the character. So all the VTs I felt were my performance as well. It can be quite difficult to explain to people that I puppeteer for TV – I’m not a ventriloquist. We are always hidden and completely become the character. A lot of the crew were new to it, and didn’t realise the complexity involved with something that looks so seemingly simple. For example, the my positions and the importance of having a monitor! Seeing a monitor is essential for TV puppeteering. It would be like performing a play on a stage wearing a blind fold, or being a camera man without opening your eyes.

I really enjoyed being anonymous. Because heaven forbid, if I had been an utter fail, no one would’ve known! And I wouldn’t be recognised. One of the tabloids labelled me ‘the Banksy of the puppet world’, which I rather liked. I sometimes wonder if I should have revealed myself at the end, but I like to keep Patsy as a real person. My only little regret was that production pretty much took over all my ideas for the semi-final and made her into a Miss Piggy-like diva. That wasn’t really my idea. I wanted her to be more of a wannabe, struggling artist. Like the epitome of an average contestant. It made no sense to me to film her at lavish locations, leading a celeb lifestyle as she hadn’t ‘made it’ yet.

I requested that there was to be a joke at the end of VT where Patsy assumes all the luxuries are being paid for by ITV, then upon realising they aren’t, she scarpers with a screech of car tyres. This was filmed, but when they screened it live, I realised they hadn’t bothered including it.

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As well as being a puppeteer you clearly have a real sense of comedy and a wonderful singing voice. How did you acquire your skills and talents? What was it that brought about the fusion of all of these things in Patsy May and why puppetry?

I’m not sure how I acquired it! Watching Sesame Street as a kid is one of my first television memories and I absolutely loved it. I’ve always seen everything from a comedic point of view and I find it quite hard to take anything seriously. I don’t really do written jokes and punchlines though, I guess my stuff is more observational with improvised reactions. I’ve never really thought of myself as a singer, more as a puppeteer who can sing! I used to be involved in AmDram years ago and was in a few musicals. But even then I was mostly cast as the comic relief character.

I started making puppets when I was in school. Then for four summers working at a US summer camp in upstate New York. When I actually performed them in shows, I had way more fun being hidden and bringing a character creation to life, than being myself.

I actually always wanted to be an animator or puppeteer. Both are quite similar, in the sense you are creating characters, moving for them, and deciding how they emote and behave. A lot of puppeteers start off as animators or have a big interest in animation. I still illustrate as well as puppeteer.

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Since BGT you’ve been working on various other interesting projects. How has it been working on those after the glamour of a live Saturday Night show? 

I had just been in a small North London production of Avenue Q right before BGT, so that was super fun. I’ve done various jobs since the show, including panto, live cabaret acts, jobs for companies including ITV, Lucasfilm, Henson and even some in the Netherlands and Germany. I also got to train at Sesame Workshop in New York and learn alongside veteran puppeteers, giving me the opportunity to really hone in and develop my puppeteering skills further.

It’s great to work with other established puppeteers on some incredible projects, but I think I prefer to develop my own material.

What particularly impressed me was that you recently staged your own 90-minute live theatre show called ‘An Evening with Patsy May’. How did it differ from other things that you have done? What did you discover by putting the show together? Who are your main sources of inspiration both as a puppeteer and as a comedian?

Yes, it was quite liberating to do exactly what I wanted with Patsy for that show, without rules or censors. She works best with adult comedy and it felt just right. It was quite a challenge from the very beginning, because the main issue is how to cope with holding your arm up for over an hour. Most TV and film puppeteers can manage around 5-10 minutes at a time. Again, it’s worth stressing that this is very different to ventriloquism, as your whole arm is raised above your head.

I had the idea of dividing the show up with short little 1-2 minutes videos of Patsy so that it would introduce the next scene smoothly and allow me to have a quick arm break. It also let me show how I enjoy making films with her on locations around the world. I had to recruit some other cast members because Patsy works so much better when reacting with another person. I had a couple of singers (some via a ‘Skype’ video link) a magician, a pianist and a special celebrity guest to interview. I tried to make each skit as varied as possible, so the audience wouldn’t get bored. It was quite a new challenge arranging everything myself, including editing all the videos and ‘Skype’ calls, creating the poster, marketing and advertising the show, sorting the tech cues, finding the right music, and writing the content. Most of the dialogue was improvised as I find it easier to keep it natural.

I think every puppeteer is inspired by Jim Henson. There was a lovely tribute to him at the end of the show. For me in particular, Frank Oz is probably my favourite puppeteer. I love the way he can portray emotion with such small movements, but also be brilliantly funny without trying too hard. Sometimes when people try too hard with comedy it feels very forced, and it loses its charm. But comedy wise I am also hugely influenced by classic episodes of The Simpsons. In fact, Patsy’s true character is close to Krusty the Clown – demanding, cynical, living to excess and slightly rough around the edges. But with the addition of having female allure and charm. Though most people tend to assume she’s a Miss Piggy-like diva, which often frustrates me!

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The character of Patsy May is a real wannabe star and prima donna who clearly loves the celebrity world. As we all know this world can be fickle and cut throat. You yourself experienced the darker side of the business when a German TV show ripped of your act word for word and then invited you onto the show for further humiliation. Tell us a little bit about that experience and how it left you feeling as a performer.

Hahaaa yes, Germany.. Now ‘Die Puppenstars’ was a BGT style show where puppeteers from around the world were invited to showcase their work and subsequently judged. I was alerted in early 2016 about a German TV show that had completely ripped off my entire act from BGT. A blue girl puppet, (similar to Patsy) singing ‘All That Jazz’ with dancers, steps that swivelled, a costume change, and even spoke the exact same ad libs that I had said live on the night. Obviously I was confused and upset. It turns out that apparently, within the German TV laws, it was legal to copy, and it would have cost me thousands to even attempt to sue so I decided to contact the TV company myself. They were apologetic, offered me a small pay off and invited me to be on the show. I agreed. I had great fun filming Patsy in Berlin for the show VTs and I had to learn quite a bit of German for some lines. They wanted me to do the same thing that I did on my first BGT audition with Ant and Dec but with the guys on their panel. I was reluctant to do the same thing but they changed the song and I eventually agreed. They also insisted on me pre-recording the song, which I don’t really like doing. After Berlin I went back a month later to the studio in Cologne.

I met the ‘fake’ Patsy who was very nice to me (she was just doing her job, being cast as this character) and we filmed a few backstage things. When it came to performing my actual act, after the song, the judges told me that they did not like my act and buzzed me out of the show, because they believed I had copied THEM and their ‘Miss Izzy’ character! Keeping in character (though rather enraged) I swiftly made an exit. After all I had been through, from discovering them copying me in the first place, back and forth with lawyers and producers, I felt humiliated and deflated. The crew and everyone I worked with were lovely, and up until the last moment I had enjoyed it, but the show in general seemed quite badly produced. When I saw the final footage, it was weird to see that they had dubbed over Patsy’s English speaking segments with a gruff, German man’s voice. It was weird, but an experience and bit of a learning curve!

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As well as the star struck side of Patsy, she is also feisty and intelligent with a longing for love. As actors, performers or even puppeteers we often draw on our own personal experience. How much of Patsy is you? Are you from upstate New York with British roots and longing for love?

Well, I’m not from upstate New York, but I made the first Patsy puppet in Long Lake NY, so that was a little tribute to her origin. I only claimed that she was born in the UK so people wouldn’t assume I was American and demand that the contestants can only be British. But then it turned out that, despite being interviewed in person, The Daily Mail did an article featuring Patsy as a ‘foreign’ contestant who shouldn’t be allowed to partake in the show! I’m 100% British but I have friends and family in the US and Canada. Sometimes I say that Patsy is me after a few beers – she can get away with saying a lot more than I can though! I also have a character called Mavis Mayes, who is an elderly lady fox puppet with a strong Suffolk accent. I have used her for a few online videos and features occasionally on BBC Radio Suffolk. A complete opposite character to Patsy, she is based on many people from around my hometown, including my late grandmother. So she is definitely a part of me somehow.

Can you see yourself getting into more live talent TV show scrapes? Has Patsy been burnt by the darker side of celebrity or does she still have a desire for fame and fortune? What lies ahead for both you as a puppeteer and for Patsy May? 

Maybe! It depends on what kind of context. But iI think I would want full control of what I want to do. I need to always go with my gut instinct nowadays! Not sure about Patsy, you’d have to do a separate interview for her! But she’s definitely got what it takes now to feature in an adult comedy show on TV. I don’t think that five years ago I was confident enough and I remember being a little thrown when I appeared on ‘This Morning’ as it was all new to me, but now after all the work and live comedy I have done, I’d be so ready for it! I’d definitely like to do some more live shows, and I’m tempted to take it to the US. I’ve recently tried to join Spotlight for more potential work. But they currently won’t accept people who are primarily puppeteers, despite puppetry being listed as a skill that any actor can put down. Which is very frustrating but that’s a whoooole other kettle of fish!

Interview with Josh Elwell

Making Monsters & More! Interview with Jake Linzey, Leviathan Workshop

Based in the Midlands, Leviathan Workshop are a company of exceptional prop makers and puppet specialists who have worked on commissions for television, live events and theatre. We chatted with Managing Director, Jake Linzey, to find out how the company got started and some of the fabulous fabrication they’ve produced.

Leviathan Workshop produces puppets and props for a range of organisations worldwide. How did you get started? What sparked your personal interest in fabrication?

Puppets have always been an obsession of mine and my parents still have a photo of me taped to the fridge (aged 7 or 8) with a puppet I’d proudly made from newspaper. As a teenager, I always preferred to be in theatre rather than in class, and so I trained as a dancer before progressing to technical theatre as a part of Oxford Youth Theatre at Pegasus Theatre.

I always preferred “learning by doing” rather than academic study, and my days working as a circus performer taught me invaluable skills like load calculation and applied physics. At that age, I always thought I wanted to work in the film industry, but soon came to learn that I far preferred the immediacy of live events and touring shows.

I studied Theatre Design and Production at Trinity College Carmarthen, where I now return as a guest lecturer to teach the fundamentals of puppetry and puppeteering. Whilst a student there, my passion for puppets really came to life and I knew this was what I wanted to do for a living. After three years of studying, I was very ready to get into the “real world” and began working for Blunderbus Theatre Company (sadly now closed). This was fantastic for my professional development, as the environment encouraged creative thought and no idea or suggestion was ever wrong. I could experiment (occasionally making the odd mistake) to find new solutions to problems and work autonomously in a place always filled with laughter, despite the usual long industry hours and creative challenges. Bill Davies made it a place that was a joy to work, and I stayed with them until I was in charge of puppet mechanics and scenic construction.

After that, I settled in London doing some fantastic projects as a freelancer, working on events and shows like X-Factor, and alongside I ran a small puppet and theatre company. Life had its ups and downs but the list of clients I was working for grew and I was often subcontracted to do large puppet builds. After a few years, I took a full-time job at an opera company but after a few months I realised I was psychologically becoming ready to be my own boss full-time. With my severance pay, I brought a load more tools and set up Leviathan Workshop in a single garage. That was back in October 2013. My dream for the company was always to focus on creating high-end, bespoke, large-scale props and puppets as we do now, although for the first few years we also built scenery and sets to help expand our client list and establish our professional identity.

After a year or so of trading, I moved the company to Tamworth for a much larger workshop. Here, I met my business partner Carrie- Anne Badhams, who after working with us for a year became a director of the company in May 2016. She brought with her a wealth of sales and management knowledge and, despite not being originally from this industry, is a very talented scenic painter. Our differing backgrounds and working styles are a real strength and ​we work exceptionally well together. We have a balanced, creative, realistic outlook of our work and the future of the company. In the last few years we’ve gone from strength to strength, developing a fantastic team and amazing clients, and our journey is proof that if you’re willing to work incredibly hard for your passion, you can achieve anything.

You often produce large scale puppets for stage and other events. What has been the most memorable puppet build so far?

The one that always stands out for me is the Brit Awards in 2017, it created a fantastic working relationship with one of the worlds biggest pop stars. I was away from the workshop late one Sunday afternoon at my parent’s house in Oxford. Carrie-Anne was in the office when a peer from Brilliant Stages called out of the blue. They had a huge problem with two large puppets and we were asked if we could help to fix the puppets, which of course, we were more than happy to do. The problem was that we only had a little over twelve hours to make it happen, the puppets were in London, and we had no idea what technical issues we were up against. It was one of those “drop everything” moments.

After a swift phone conversation between myself and Carrie-Anne (our conversational shorthand is beyond efficient), we kicked into action. I packed up my tools and set off to 3 Mills Studio in London to pay a diagnostic visit to the puppets. Meanwhile, Carrie-Anne began organising an emergency overnight crew. An enormous volume of people were contacted; our regular staff, people they recommended, new applicants to work for us, anyone who might have the technical skills to help. At this point, we still had no idea what we were up against, so it really was a case of “all hands on deck”. People came from as close as Birmingham to as far away as Cardiff – all with backgrounds in puppetry but with hugely varied skill sets. I arrived at the studio and assessed the puppets. They were over four metres tall, designed to be worn on the back of the puppeteers, and they weighed probably close to 100kg each. Problem identified. Whilst chatting with the Production Manager, Jay Schmidt, I casually enquired who the music artist was. Jay looked at me like I was bonkers and replied “Katy Perry”, to which I rather stupidly responded “Oh! I know who she is!”… as though that was some unexpected feat.

Whilst me and the huge skeleton puppets were on our way from London to Tamworth, our crew were travelling to the workshop, and Carrie-Anne was frantically clearing enough room for us to work (we had another job ongoing) and ensuring we’re fully stocked with caffeine, sugary drinks and snacks for the night ahead. Within a few minutes of one another, everyone and the puppets arrived, and we worked out the “plan of attack”. ​Our goal was to strip as much weight as physically possible from the puppets and completely rebuild them in less than twelve hours. And less than twelve hours later, the workshop was strewn with removed aluminium, polystyrene and PU coating…and we’d done it! The puppets now weighed less than 30kg, and were comfortable to wear and moved beautifully. There was certainly a case of the giggles as they were loaded back into the van, and very much a sense of “did that just really happen?”

Large-scale puppets used in Katy Perry’s performance at the Brit Awards

But, it didn’t end there. I went to the O2 to help with rehearsals as a puppetry consultant, grabbing a couple of hours sleep on the way. After sending the overnight crew home, Carrie-Anne and a fresh member of staff tackled the ongoing job in the workshop which had a deadline of the very next day. Supervising the rehearsals, working with the puppeteers, and the performance at the O2 went smoothly, and it was great to work with such an incredible team. The performance was four minutes long, and I knew the workshop team would be glued to the screen at home, cheering it on. It was a massive team effort, and a testimony of what can be achieved if you have the knowledge, technical ability, and an infallible work ethic.

To this day we still have a fantastic relationship with Katy Perry’s entire production team and have worked with them on several more projects. I couldn’t be prouder of the work we did as a team that night. And what happened to the puppets? They live on and have been touring around the world on Katy Perry’s The Witness tour.


Large-scale puppets used in Katy Perry’s performance at the Brit Awards

What’s next for Leviathan Workshop?

Whilst I can’t talk about specifics, there are a lot of things on the in the pipeline. What I can tell you, at the time of writing, is that we are currently in communications about this year’s Brit Awards, work on cruise ships, holiday parks, shopping centres, large-scale live events, and exhibitions. Some of those will happen, some of them won’t, but it’s always nice to be asked to the party. In terms of going forward as a company we are always looking for ways to create better puppets that perform better and can be operated better.


Elephant built for P&O’s ‘Mr Tinkerton’s Clockwork Circus’

We don’t believe in doing things the same way every time, as we strive for constant improvement with everything we do. Last year projects included a full-size elephant for P&O, giants, animatronic cow costumes, Cadbury commercials, and “dead” bodies for The Lieutenant of Inishmore West End show. I love how varied our work is. We’ve just completed work for Butlins which spanned multiple and varied items: everything from Punch and Judy puppets to 4-metre-long dragon puppets. The dragons are a real source of pride for me and the team. They’re based on a bespoke puppet rig we have been improving and perfecting for a few years. The boom system is great and allows incredibly dynamic and responsive puppetry. Since we knew we had weight ​limits and didn’t want to lose any detail in the sculpture of the dragon heads, we created our own method of crafting them from carbon fibre. The heads are unbelievably light, being 9ft front to back and only weighing 5kg – I can lift the skin with one arm!


The Jersey Girls, Comedy Street Cows, Daisy and Buttercup. 

I feel incredibly lucky to do what I do, I have a fantastic business partner who keeps impressing me, and a team who really love what we do, be it sculpting, or foam fabrication, or mechanics. Every job comes with new, unique challenges and opportunities to redefine how puppets are created and operated the world over. We’ll keep investing our time in new techniques and materials, so who knows how big the puppets will get or where they’ll be seen! There are always exciting things on the horizon and its great to get to share our love of puppetry with you and your readers.

Bring on the next adventure!

Interview with Emma Windsor

To find out more about Leviathan Workshop, visit their website: www.leviathanworkshop.com and stay up to date with all the latest news on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

A Passion for Puppetry: Interview with Alba E Garcia-Rivas

Alba E Garcia-Rivas is a film director from Puerto Rico with a passion for puppetry in all forms. We caught up with her to find out where her fascination with puppet animation started and how her love for Puerto Rico has influenced her work.

You are an animation director, animator and artist who works primarily in stop motion. How did you get started and what appeals to you about stop motion animation?  Is it popular in Puerto Rico?

It all started in my childhood, when my father worked in a TV station and he taught me his love for film. I got to learn with him the tricks of the trade so to speak. For example: green screen, camera angles, special effects. I started as an oil painter at age 8, then did exhibitions and sold my artwork pieces at age 16. This got me into college and I studied Fine Arts, including acting. When I was at the University of Puerto Rico, I saw that computer animation was the thing to study, and the university didn’t have any computer courses at the time, so off I went to New York and graduated with a second Fine Arts Degree in Film, Video, and Animation. Here I won the Outstanding Dusty Film Festival Award at School of Visual Arts, NY. And no, stop-motion is not popular in Puerto Rico. I  learned about it when I went to SVA, NY.

Your latest stop motion film in production is ‘Dangerously Ever After’.  Can you tell us about the film?

As I was completing work on my short stop-motion film, Time Space Reflections, my 7-year-old daughter showed me a copy of a book she loved so much, she’d memorised it word for word. As a girl who loves science, magic, and danger, she found a kindred spirit in Princess Amanita. “Mommy, can you animate this book?” she asked.  

The book spoke to me as well. The beautiful botanical illustrations, the wild costumes, the danger and whimsy and, most of all, the message of acceptance, openness and joy. Princess Amanita looked like one of my own creations. I knew we had to make this movie — to inspire girls like my daughter to be the stars of their own dangerous and beautiful adventures.

Not all princesses are made of sugar and spice–some are made of funnier, fiercer stuff.

Princess Amanita laughs in the face of danger. Brakeless bicycles, pet scorpions, spiky plants–that’s her thing. So when quiet Prince Florian gives her roses, Amanita is unimpressed . . . until she sees their glorious thorns! Now she must have rose seeds of her own. But when huge, honking noses grow instead, what is a princess with a taste for danger to do? Well, she goes on a QUEST! This is an award winning picture book and the author Dashka Slater and I partnered to make it happen.

Stop-motion has a unique energy. It’s warmer and more intimate than computer-generated animation, imbued with the magic of solid, three-dimensional objects and the mystery of a doll’s house. Stop-motion allows artists to create miniature worlds and bring them to life with the freshness and playfulness of children but the artistry and technical wizardry of adults.  It takes up to two days to make 24 seconds of animation. But the result is like no other form of animation. 


You have also recently directed a live action puppetry film ‘Dak’toká Taíno’ (‘I am Taíno’).  Can you tell us about that?

I was animating my fourth film when Heather Henson (Jim Henson’s daughter and founder of Ibex Puppetry) asked me if I would be interested in making a short puppet film about my Taíno culture.  Soon after that conversation, on September 17th 2017, Hurricane María hit Puerto Rico and her winds were between category 4 and 5, which is extremely dangerous. It was  a shock to us all. Hurricane María destroyed homes, plantations and it is estimated that 4,645 people died. I was devastated for my Puerto Rico, the land were I grew up,  and the land I love.  We saw how the Trump administration abandoned  their own American, Puerto Rican citizens. During the making of the film I reconnected with my Taíno heritage, as my grandmothers were Taíno. Now, I have a daughter and I have a responsibility to teach her my culture, our ancestral Taino language and our traditions.

Stop motion takes years in the making, while in less than 9 months we finished the I am Taíno live puppetry film with 4 days of shooting. The live puppetry was shot at the Carriage house, Jim Henson’s house; it was such an honour to be there and feel the creative energy of the space.


What’s next? 

I am Taíno, Dak’toká Taíno was so successful that it won 3 awards and now we are trying to qualify for the Oscars 2020. I just partnered again with Heather Henson to do a new film! This one is a dark fantasy about the detention camps in Texas. We are using silicon monster animatronic design and a mix between puppets and actors.  Can’t talk that much about it but it is definitely an activism piece. I guess I found my voice by telling meaningful stories and helping mankind. 

Interview with Emma Windsor

To find out more about Alba’s work, visit the Fantasiation website: www.fantasiation.com and find out all the latest news on Twitter and YouTube.

The Time Machine: Temporal Shifts with Mumblecrust Theatre

Mumblecrust Theatre create smart, innovative theatre for families and young people, and recently delighted audiences with their award-winning show ‘The Tale of the Cockatrice’. We sat down with Artistic Co-Director Katie Underhay to find out more about their brand new show in development, The Time Machine.

Mumblecrust Theatre enjoyed well-deserved success with your last performance, ‘The Tale of the Cockatrice’.  Your next show, currently in development, is a re-imagining of the HG Wells classic, ‘The Time Machine’.  What interested you about this story?

We really wanted to try something different with this new show. We loved using the old legend of the cockatrice last time, and thought we’d try adapting a piece of English literature this time around. We discussed a lot of different books and something about The Time Machine intrigued me, even though I hadn’t read it yet! Anthony, the other half of Mumblecrust, knew the story from the old 1960s movie, so we both read it and thought it would be fantastic on stage! I love the fact that HG Wells wrote a sci-fi novel in the 1890s that still isn’t outdated, even to this day. The time traveller leaps 800,000 years into the future, a time still as distant then as now! Likewise, Marty McFly in Back to the Future travels forward to the year 2015, which dates the film more than than Wells’ book. 

Katie Underhay and Artistic Co-Director
Anthony Burbridge in ‘The Tale of the Cockatrice’
Photo: Kirsten McTernan

How do you plan to use puppetry in the performance?

The Time Machine has two fantastic species of evolved humans, the Eloi and the Morlocks. Using puppetry for these is the perfect way to show the difference between them and human beings. The Eloi are cute little pygmy creatures that we hope the audience will fall in love with, whilst the Morlocks are creepy, subterranean creatures, lurking in the darkness. 

Puppetry is an ideal way to portray fantastic, non-human characters on stage, as effective today as it ever was. Even with the advent of modern effects, movies increasingly seem to fall back on puppetry. Puppets are real, textured and present in a way that few other mediums are.

Anthony and Katie in an
R&D session for The Time Machine

The Time Machine is supported via the ‘Shoplifting’ initiative, which is a collaborative scheme set up by Theatre Orchard and Living Spit intended to bolster regional theatre.  Can you tell us more about that and the benefits it will bring?

Being chosen for ‘Shoplifting’ has been amazing for the show and Mumblecrust! We had a great meeting with Living Spit a few weeks ago and it really helped us with the start of the process. We also have their support with marketing, organising an R&D workshop with local kids, and we’ll be rehearsing at Theatre Shop before our ‘Shoplifting’ Premiere.

They were also able to provide some match funding for our Arts Council Grant application, along with Take Art’s BARN initiative, which really helped! It feels great to have the support of Theatre Orchard and Living Spit to create this show.  We were pretty much on our own when we made our first show, The Tale of the Cockatrice, so this is far less lonely – haha!

When will audiences be able to see The Time Machine?

Our ‘Shoplifting’ premiere will be at Theatre Shop, Clevedon, on Friday 19th & Saturday 20th April at 2pm and 5pm (Good Friday and Easter Saturday). It’s so nice to be able to perform on my home turf and to support the local theatre scene. We’re having audience Q&As after each show, taking on board feedback to hone this production ready for our tour, starting in the Autumn. 

We’re only charging £5 a ticket because we want as much feedback as we can get. We’re really looking forward to performing at Theatre Shop again, it’s a lovely venue, really supportive and a great atmosphere!

Interview with Emma Windsor

Book tickets for the premiere of The Time Machine at Theatre Shop Clevedon on the Theatre Orchard website here. To find out more about The Time Machine, the creative team and other work by Mumblecrust Theatre visit their website. Find out all the latest news on Facebook and Twitter, and show your support on Patreon.com

Explosive Puppetry! Inside the new Gerry Anderson’s ‘Firestorm’

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An interview by puppeteer Josh Elwell with Puppet Coordinator, Andrew James Spooner, looking inside the new Gerry Anderson’s ‘Firestorm‘.


 

Andy, you are the Puppet Coordinator on the new production of ‘Gerry Anderson’s Firestorm’, an amazing new pilot minisode has just been released and it has got fans fizzing with anticipation! This short film has all the style and action of one of Gerry’s original shows like Thunderbirds, Stingray or Space 1999, but with a modern twist. Please start by telling us how you approached the puppetry differently in Firestorm and how it compares to Gerry’s previous shows.

Well, when it came to our approach, as you know as a puppeteer yourself, the puppets dictate a lot. You have all kinds of ideas in your head, and then you pick up one of the puppets for the first time and you think “ah, it’s going to be like that is it!” They were beautifully built by Mackinnon & Saunders, but were very heavy.  We also had some issues with the rigging.  So ultimately, much of what we were doing on the pilot was on-the-spot problem solving.  Luckily, the team I had around me were excellent, and once we were up and running things went relatively smoothly.  These new puppets are very removed from the classic Thunderbirds puppets. 

The most obvious change is that they aren’t marionettes.  They are essentially hi tech bunraku puppets with an animatronic element.  The bodies (arms, legs, torso, head) are all operated via rods, with various access points depending on what’s needed.  The face, however, is operated via an RC unit using cutting edge animatronics.  It’s the best possible mixture of old and new techniques.  The faces are capable of an impressive range of emotions.  There are a couple of shots in the minisode that really show this off I think.  I really wanted the puppets to feel REAL.  Now, this doesn’t always mean trying to ape realistic movements. It means that they feel real in the context of this clearly defined universe they inhabit. One of the things I learned from the pilot is that I think we can push the characters a little more, make the movements bigger, the expressions a little larger. When you do this the performances really pop. We were trying to play things small and realistic. We can dare to be bigger.

 

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From a puppeteers perspective what are the particular challenges that you are faced with on this project and what makes it unlike other shows you have worked on? 

The time! We had very little time to rehearse. Literally a day or two. This was simply because I was brought into the process so late.  Admittedly, the situation was very different on Firestorm, so the whole timeline was very compressed. Once I was brought on board, I frantically made a lot of phone calls and got my team together. I then went to the set and met Jamie for the first time face-to-face.

Then a few days later we were shooting! It was an abject lesson on thinking on your feet. In that kind of situation, I firmly believe that the best thing to do is just get on with it. Get into the set and work things out.  Sometimes that can be more effective than being in a rehearsal space for days in a little bubble.  I’m sure you’ve worked on things where you have the rehearsal period, and then you go to shoot it and discover that you can’t do what you rehearsed because of the layout of the set.  Square one! In the case of Firestorm we just had to leap into it and make it work. I wish that the TV and film industry would factor in more time, ANY time, for rehearsal. But It’s getting less and less. 

 

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Key to all Gerry Anderson’s shows are the models and the in-camera special effects. In the minisode there are some hair-raising moments and terrifying explosions! How was it working as a puppeteer amongst this aspect of the production?

Well, all the pyrotechnics (for the minisode) were shot separately, and then composited into the shots later. The shots where puppets were present anyway. But they were all real elements, real explosions! It’s obviously huge fun being around that kind of stuff. When I was a kid, because of watching shows like Stingray and Thunderbirds, and movies like Star Wars and Battle Beyond The Stars, I was all about the models. I wanted to be a model maker initially. I would spend excessive amounts of time building spaceships out of leftovers from Airfix kits. It’s called “Kit Bashing”, the process of building a new model out of old kits. So being around this stuff now is making my inner 12 year old very happy. We all love a good explosion right! We (all the puppeteers) were in our green room when we heard that they were going to blow up the island. Cue a massive stampede to get down to the set and grab a plum position to see it go up!

 

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You have also been working with a highly skilled team of builders,  special effects folk, voice artists and puppeteers. Tell us a bit about the team you are working with. What is unique about the way these guys work?

We all have our areas of expertise. What was great about this team is that there was no ego. None. It was one of the most relaxed and happy sets I have ever worked on. We were all there because of our love of the project, and our love of Gerry Anderson shows. We all got on with our jobs to the best of our ability. When I came on board, there were others who had been working on the project for a long time.  Some for weeks, some for years. But they were all welcoming and supportive. A real privilege to work with.  I didn’t meet any of the voice actors until the launch at MCM Comicon in London, but it was fantastic to see their reaction to what we had done. And to introduce them to their puppet alter egos!

 

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You have been working closely with Gerry’s son Jamie who has been working tirelessly to keep his father’s legacy going. How does Jamie’s vision match or differ from his father’s, and what was it like working with Jamie taking this new exciting step?

Jamie is (and he’ll hate me for saying this!) simply wonderful to work with.  He’s got a very clear idea of where Firestorm sits in the legacy of his father’s work.  He wants it to have, at its core, all the elements we loved in those classic shows. High concept science fiction adventure plots, combined with thrilling action sequences and a dose of humour. But most importantly, he wants the characters to shine through. You can have all the “Whizz Bang!” you want – if you don’t care for the characters, it won’t work. However, he also wants Firestorm to be striking out into new territory. It’s time to show the world what these kinds of puppets can do now that we have the support of computer technology. It’s the first step in a new era of Anderson shows.

The production was started by Jamie Anderson with a Kickstarter campaign. How successful was the campaign? How far did it get the production and what are the next steps?

The Kickstarter campaign was mainly used to fund the research and development of the puppets. They were, hands down, the element that needed to work 100%.  The rest of the production was a massive act of pulling in favours.  Once we shot the live action for the minisode, it took more than 2 years to get the rest of the post production completed.  But now it’s out there! As for the next steps? Well, pre-production has started on a full series! This is thrilling news, we all worked so hard to make this happen – and nobody worked harder than Jamie.

We plan to start shooting in Spring of 2019.

 

 


 

Find out more about the Firestorm at the website here: www.firestormhq.com and keep up with the latest news on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.  Read more about Andrew James Spooner and see his portfolio of work on his website www.andrewjamesspooner.com and Twitter.

Bone Mother: An Interview with Dale Hayward & Sylvie Trouvé

“A vain and arrogant youth dares to enter Baba Yaga’s living house of bones…”
Bone Mother is the latest stop motion animated film from See Creature Animation, produced by the National Film Board of Canada.  We chatted with the film’s directors, Sylvie Trouvé and Dale Hayward, about the story and production process.

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‘Bone Mother’ is based on the Russian folk tale of Baba Yaga.  What drew you to this subject? And why did you choose stop-motion as the medium to create it’s imagery?

There are so many stories of Baba Yaga, but Dale first heard Maura McHugh’s story on the horror podcast Pseudopod. We’ve always liked anti-heroes and Baba is usually portrayed as a dark character, or even an evil witch, but she’s definitely not your typical witch. Baba is the original Witch in folklore and it’s western tales that have changed her into a cliché (ie. the mortar and pestle is now a broomstick). So we wanted to bring her from the stereotype and back to the archetype. There are lessons to be learned from characters like this. She’s like that old grandma who terrifies you, but who you totally respect at the same time. And then there’s Vlad, who has the audacity to just walk up to her Bone house and make demands. So, It was fun to have a story with two villains, it gave us lots to play with.

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Stop-motion is our preferred style of animation, it’s incredibly tangible. There are natural textures inherent to the materials that can really help with the atmosphere we’re trying to create. Plus, Maura’s story was so textural that stop-motion felt like a natural fit.

 

The film has a rich and distinctive aesthetic.  Did you draw influence from other sources?

The film’s aesthetic evolved quite a bit during the pre-production. It first started out much flatter, similar to Bas-relief, like a moving illustration, so influences were artists like Ivan Bilibin, Mike Mignola and Klimt. But it quickly became either too limiting or over complicated to do what we wanted, so we went to a more traditional puppet and set feel. During this pre-production stage, we did some extensive R&D on the 3D printing. It was all very new to all of us, so it was jumping into a new sandbox. One of the great aspects of 3D printing is the printers themselves are not that expensive, but the quality can be limiting, so we let that limitation become intention. Once we saw that by printing baba’s face lying down, the printer would “naturally” create wrinkles for us. For Vlad we stood him straight up, so his layers were tighter together, creating a smoother skin. So what is usually something that other productions spend a lot of time trying to hide or remove, we embraced and it became a cornerstone to the film’s aesthetic.

 

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Where did your interest and passion for animation, in particular stop-motion, begin?

Sylvie has a degree in photography and Dale studied traditional hand-drawn animation, but we both got our start in the industry doing stop-motion at a studio in Toronto called Cuppa Coffee, working on TV series and commercials for a number of years. We both had no experience with stop-motion before this and it’s interesting to note that no one really goes to school for stop-motion, they all have skills outside of animation that somehow are very useful in stop-motion and they kinda fall into the industry. It’s one of the main aspects we love about the community is that everyone has very different skill sets and it shows through their work.

 

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Your production company, ‘See Creature’ produces a range of works from commercials to independent film.  Do you have plans to produce any other works with a dark theme? (The company name does seem mysterious and magical!)

He-he, yeah, we like the play on words, it’s a name that evokes a lot of imagery. We’ve never been a studio to lock into a defined style or aesthetic, although stop-motion is our preference, we have worked in 2D, After Effects and 3D. We feel the need to be adaptable to current shifts in the industry and in our interests as we get older and our household expands. Our focus is leaning more and more towards creator driven works these days that range from dark tales like Bone Mother but could also lead to adult comedy and live action sci-fi as well.

We’re very excited for the future.

 

Interview by Emma Windsor

 


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Co-directed by Dale Hayward and Sylvie Trouvé, Bone Mother was produced by Jelena Popović and executive produced by Michael Fukushima for the NFB Animation Studio.

To find out more about the film, visit the website, Facebook and Instagram.  Find out more about See Creatures on their website.