On Screen And Stage: An Interview with Josh Elwell

In the second in our two-part series on the artists involved in Puppet Place’s press team, we meet puppeteer and performer, Josh Elwell. Josh has worked in TV, film and theatre and has been involved in some prominent projects, including brand new ‘The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance’ that will premiere on Netflix at the end of this month. We caught up with him to find out more about his background, his craft and some of the extraordinary situations he has worked in..!

How did you get involved in puppetry?

Puppetry was just part of my childhood. My dad made me a puppet theatre when I was about 5 and I put on shows to friends, family and anyone who was kind enough to watch. With an actress mum and a painter dad, their combined influences left me no doubt that dolly waggling was in my genes! We even had a family show that we performed at various events. My professional career started as an actor by going LAMDA, one of the UK’s best drama schools. This gave me an amazing foundation in the craft of performance. Spending 3 years studying amazing things from movement to clowning, from voice to animal behaviour. These skills and techniques have served me well over my nearly 30 year career.

My first professional job out of college was as a puppeteer and I just seem to naturally follow this crazy impulse. I guess I have always loved the selflessness of puppetry. I always feel that actors take themselves too seriously. As a puppeteer, it is by taking the attention away from myself that I feel truly free to playfully inhabit the character. I love the fact that all those techniques I learned at drama school can be applied to my hands.

You’ve varied professional experience in theatre and also film & TV.  What differences are there between puppeteering for stage and for screen?

I am very lucky to have worked with some amazing theatre companies including The National Theatre of Scotland, Norwich Puppet Theatre and Little Angel. Over the last 10 years I have been working more on screen with companies like The Jim Henson Company and Children’s BBC. It is amazing how different the two worlds are. In theatre we tend to have more time to develop ideas and try out creative solutions to see how best to serve a story. In TV & film there is usually much more of a time pressure and we have to find quick solutions to achieving the best possible shots. There are also very different skills involved in creating a performance that either works well for a live audience or that looks good on camera. Working with a monitor, for example, is a particular skill that enables the puppeteer to work within the frame. 

I really enjoy the process of working on film as you are required to find a performance really quickly. I love finding quick solutions to making it look like a puppet is carrying a ladder, blowing bubbles, climbing a tree or (in the case of my most recent job) pissing against a wall! I really enjoy the more condensed repetitive process of problem solving, rehearsing and shooting. You achieve the right shot and performance, it is done and you can move on to something new.

What has been the most challenging and/or fun project that you’ve worked on?

Each new job has its own unique challenges. I have just been puppeteering a dolphin in a swimming pool for an advert..! We were in the water quite some time. It was cold and I couldn’t see anything. I loved working with the team that make ‘Don’t Hug me I’m Scared’. The challenge there was to make the extraordinary puppets, props and sets that we needed at the same time as we were shooting. This was a very creative and collaborative process. I have also had to puppeteer a mile underground in a mine shaft, up a tree on a rainy day and even amongst a swarm of bees!

Last year I got to work as an additional puppeteer on ‘The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance’ which is out on Netflix this summer. This was a challenging experience due to the huge scale of the production and the sheer number of people involved. It was amazing to get the chance to work on so many different elements of the production alongside some of the best puppeteers, designers and builders in the world – check it out on the 30 August.
Working as a puppeteer is full of endless challenges. This is the thing I most enjoy about it. Finding clever and sometimes magical solutions is both the joy and skill of being a puppeteer. 

What’s next?

I have become clear lately that I most enjoy working with a team of people to make something amazing that exists separately from everyone who is part of it. This has meant that I have started to become intrigued with the whole process of film making. I am particularly interested in mixing different screen mediums like animation, live action puppetry and actors. Similar to some of the work of Michel Gondry – ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’, ‘Science of Sleep’, ‘Be Kind Rewind’.

Being fairly new to Bristol I am very interested in collaborating with anyone here who would like to use/develop/explore the use of live action puppetry within their film making. Over the next few years I would like to find some new people to collaborate with and get back to creating some of my own work.

Give me a call! 

To find out more about Josh’s work and watch his showreel, visit his website: http://joshelwell.co.uk or connect with him on LinkedIn.

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