The Mill at Calder’s End: An Interview with Kevin McTurk

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Kevin McTurk is a creature effects artist, puppet designer, puppeteer and filmmaker.  He has worked on blockbusting Hollywood movies such as ‘Hell Boy’, ‘Jurassic Park’ and ‘King Kong’ with organisations including Weta Workshop, Jim Henson Creature Workshop and Stan Winston Studios.  However, it is his own puppetry film shorts that give the greatest insight into the artist.

The Mill At Calder’s End’ is his second Victorian ghost story puppet film, a highly atmospheric production that features bunraku-style rod puppets, shadow puppetry and traditional in-camera effects to bring its eerie tale to life on screen.  We spoke with Kevin about his film work, his passion for puppetry and what’s next in his Gothic puppet anthology.


You have a long professional career in the film special effects industry. What is the appeal of traditional puppetry for you? How did you get involved in this art form and why did you choose puppetry as a medium for storytelling, as opposed contemporary technology such as CG?

As with probably many of your readers, I was first introduced to puppetry through with the works of Jim Henson, particularly ‘The Dark Crystal’ and his brilliant series ‘The Storyteller’. I was also greatly influenced by the creature effects films ‘An American Werewolf in London’ and ‘The Thing ‘(1982) which both combined animatronic puppetry with makeup effects to achieve ultra-realistic terrifying results. In film school, I incorporated a wide variety of effects into my thesis film, including optical printing, miniatures, and, of course, special make-up effects. I was always fascinated by the tactile and textural quality of in-camera effects and I think this is what drew me to both practical effects and puppetry.

After graduating in 1992, I drove from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles and was hired at Stan Winston Studio the week I arrived. At Stan Winston Studios, I worked as mold maker, fabricator and puppeteer on many films, including ‘Batman Returns’, ‘Interview with a Vampire’, and the first three Jurassic Park films. I worked for many effects companies over the years, including the Jim Henson Creature Shop, Amalgamated Dynamics, and Spectral Motion. I also worked at New Deal Studios, where I was involved on the miniature effects shots for the Martin Scorcese films ‘The Aviator’, ‘Shutter Island’, and ‘Hugo’.

In 2004, I was contacted by Weta Workshop in New Zealand and moved to Wellington to work on the films ‘King Kong’, ‘The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe’, and the gory comedy ‘Black Sheep’ (in which I also played the Weresheep creature).  In 2011, I received a Project Grant from The Jim Henson Foundation and a Filmmaker’s Grant from the Handmade Puppet Dreams (a short film series curated by Heather Henson, Jim Henson’s youngest daughter) to make my first puppet short film ‘The Narrative of Victor Karloch’. Following the completion of this film, I began work on my next Victorian ghost story puppet film ‘The Mill at Calder’s End.’

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What is the specific appeal of puppetry on film? What does film lend that live puppetry performance on stage does not? Did you ever consider stage performance as a format to reach audiences or was film always your preference?

For me, puppetry, both on stage and in film, provides access to the world of the unconscious. Through movement and gesture, puppets can evoke deep emotion, pathos and fear. As a viewer, we no longer see them as inanimate objects, but as living, breathing beings exploring these often dangerous, fantastical worlds.

I originally designed my first film ‘The Narrative of Victor Karloch’ to be a live stage performance with a combination of shadow puppetry, table top bunraku puppetry, and giant puppets before I decided to make the short film. I decided to concentrate on the short film version because of my background in film production and the complexity of the puppets themselves. We recently performed a hybrid film/live performance of ‘Victor Karloch’ at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater here in Los Angeles by having the film black out at the midpoint of the story. During this blackout, there was a live cello performance by the Durga Chamber and a shadow puppet performance of a giant squid attack and an undersea walk of the deep sea diver bunraku puppet. The film then resumed to its dramatic conclusion.

There is some debate currently regarding the ‘legitimacy’ of live puppetry as an animation form. Some practitioners feel that live puppetry films should not be screened alongside stop-motion puppetry films at festivals. Others believe, however, that showcasing work from these closely related art forms in the same programme can only serve to enhance what is understood as marionette animation.  What are your thoughts?

This has been a very interesting debate and I would like to quote my great friend and lead puppeteer on ‘The Mill at Calder’s End’, Eli Presser, who recently described this issue perfectly:

Puppetry may well be a live form but its style of narrative through movement and a simplified character aesthetic has far more in common with animation than with typical live-action film. I was proud to have a presence in film festivals. It made me feel as if our work was being treated as an art form with inherent value. I wish puppetry was viewed through a similar lens as music, painting, or film. It is not, and so we must reach for closely related forms and likeminded artists. We are outsiders in need of quarter and support from our fellow artists. [Through these festivals], we reach out to those who would have us, different though we might be.

 

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‘The Mill at Calder’s End’ has been enjoying huge success at film festivals around the world.  Congratulations!  What’s next? Are you considering more live puppetry film shorts? Or even a feature length film?

Thanks so much Emma, and thank you for the interview!  Yes, there is a new epic project in development that will either be a series of connected shorts or a complete feature. It will again be a period piece that will delve into the supernatural world and will be pushing the boundaries of puppetry! Watch for updates on my facebook page or at our website:  www.TheSpiritCabinet.com

Interview by Emma Windsor


‘The Mill At Calder’s End’ is currently available to watch on Vimeo On Demand.  Watch a trailer for the film here.  Further information about the director and his work can be seen at: www.TheSpiritCabinet.com

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