Sam Holland works as Head of department and is a highly experienced puppet and model maker for film, television and exhibitions. He is currently ‘Head of Puppets’ for the forthcoming feature length stop motion film, “Chuck Steel: Night of the Trampires” – the latest installment from director Mike Mort. We spoke to him about his involvement in the project, how the puppets were made and the challenges and rewards of running a film studio facility for stop motion puppet production.
You have an interesting job title ‘Head of Puppets’. How did you become involved in the project and what does this role entail?
I worked with the line producer Ben Halliwell on ‘Frankenweenie’ and I worked with Mike Mort twenty years ago on lots of commercials. I had a company called ‘The Puppet Factory’, so I was employed to make puppets by him through ‘Passion Pictures’. He called me up about this project and invited me to discuss an idea he had about a feature film. So I went over and met Mike and Ben, laughed my head off at the ideas and cried at how much work that would have to be done (laughs). It was so immense, fun and technically interesting. I was gagging to be on board.
Unfortunately I had to wait two months to find out. It was a happy day when the guys said ‘yes’ I’d got the job. So now I’m ‘Head of Puppets’, which involves working very closely with production and the director. Basically, I’m in charge of making Mike’s ideas come into fruition – the character design and construction methods. I run a team of twenty-five when we build and then scale down to about ten for the maintenance. I have lots of procedures running through my head continuously with seventy-five processes to make a puppet and four hundred odd puppets to build. It’s been fun. Not for the faint hearted!
The ‘Chuck Steel’ films are a pastiche of 80’s action movies. Why choose puppet stop motion to tell these stories?
Well, Mike has been thinking of Chuck for years and he’s one of these directors who is so knowledgeable about 80’s cop hero movies and action/horror movies. He has an amazing memory of all of these off-beat B movies and I don’t know why he doesn’t just make an actual live-action movie! Maybe he will someday but for the moment, Chuck has always been stop motion in his head. You can do so much with the medium. You can have fun with it and do some great effects with it as well. It’s a great medium to work in and Mike’s been a successful contributor to the medium for the last twenty years, so why not carry on.
What informed the character designs and why the choice of materials for puppet fabrication?
I was bought into this production with a set budget and team number, which isn’t the way that I normally work. I had to work out a technical way of building these puppets within those constraints, so it’s very modular. How can I work through a system of making hands correct, every single time, for example? So everything is about the success rate. How do I get a pair of hands, a body or a paint job out with the highest success? I worked with the team and in ZBrush to get our generic body shapes made so our armatures would fit in a modular fashion. In this way, we knew that our success rate would be good as everything would fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. That’s how we were able to turn out thirty odd puppets per week with only a crew of twenty or so. When we were running we were running! It was exciting!! It was very much like a chef’s pass at times. A lot of adrenaline going on for everybody, we were just flying. A lot of clever thinking to make it work, but we enjoyed it.
Mike loves the work of special effects guys of the 80s era, like Rob Bottin and Rick Baker. So instead of trying to be too clever with our finishes, by using silicones and materials like that, we ‘dumbed down’ the finish a bit, so we were using latexes and foams to give a slightly dated look. It was homage to our great American buddies in special effects really.
‘Night of the Trampires’ follows ‘Raging Balls of Steel Justice’. Have there been any significant developments to the puppets over these productions?
Mike had ideas about how he wanted us to work on this film, but we couldn’t do that as that was a very small team of people working very hard but with only twelve or so puppets. So I had to persuade him to do it another way. I wanted to work with ZBrush for years and this was the perfect job for it, so we put it to him and he said ‘OK, let’s go for it.’ So we used technologies in the right areas but we still do traditional methods of construction. It’s a balance.
It’s very difficult sometimes for a director to visualise without something tactile in front of him, which he can see. On computers, as much as you can rotate an object, for some reason it doesn’t always click. So that was probably the biggest change; the use of technologies and materials that would assist us and allow us to spend more time on the pretty stuff, like all the effects and finishes. Our production systems allowed us to make puppets at high speed. We knew we had to hit certain standards for Mike to be happy. As everybody is good at their work and everybody is striving to finish a great puppet, we were able to move quickly. Finished, signed-off, next one.
And lastly, do you have a favourite puppet?
I would have to say Chuck, for without him I wouldn’t have been able to make the other 399 puppets.
Interview by Emma Windsor
‘Chuck Steel: Night of the Trampires’ is currently in production at Animortal Studio in Wales and is due for release in 2017. For more information on the production as it unfolds, visit the studio blog: http://nightofthetrampires.com/blog/, join the Facebook page or follow the team on YouTube, Vimeo or Twitter.