Marionettes, Music & Magic: Aardman’s Winning Combination for Coldplay

Aardman’s music video for Coldplay’s title track ‘Daddy’ on their forthcoming album is a poignant tale of a little girl searching for her father that uses puppetry and animation to create its beautiful, dreamlike imagery. We caught up with the Director Åsa Lucander and puppeteer Katie Williams to find out more about the production.

Åsa, it is clear that a handmade aesthetic was important for the production but why traditional puppetry? What did traditional live-action puppetry bring to the production over stop motion puppetry, for example?

[AL] Quite often a decision to create a certain style for a project is something that develops for a variety of different reasons. When you are working on music videos, what you have acting against you is time and budget, even for big bands like Coldplay. I would have loved to build a real physical set for the whole film, but that would have taken months, which we didn’t have. However when you have restrictions you come up with creative ways to execute your vision, and I’m so happy with the outcome for this film. It gave me an opportunity to include different media and they all supported the sense of surrealness and magic that I was after for the film.

I was also fascinated with the artistry of puppeteering. Every performance of a theatre play is slightly different, and the same goes for live action puppetry on screen. There’s something fascinating about that notion; scary but fascinating. Scary, because in order for a take to be successful the whole shot needs to be perfect, you can’t edit a take much in post. All the poses, positions, movements, emotions and timings need to work. Every take is unique and it makes improvisation a much bigger part of the process, whereas in stop motion everything is much more planned, calculated and precise. It took me a while to get used to this, but once you do, you embrace it. It’s a very collaborative and wonderful process and medium to work with.

In puppetry, the question of whether to reveal the mechanics of puppetry (the puppeteers, strings, rods, etc.) is a hot topic! Interestingly, in ‘Daddy’ you mix this up, green screening the puppeteers, yet revealing the strings for other puppets. What was the thinking behind this?

[AL] I think there is something magical and obviously theatrical about the way puppets move. There is a restriction to what you can do with the puppets, yet they have a way of moving that is unique and raw, yet has a sensibility that you wouldn’t be able to achieve in the same way through stop motion. The whole film is about the girl’s fragmented memories about her father and I wanted this to be reflected in the style as well. One line in the song goes, “Daddy won’t you come and play” and I hung on to the notion of perhaps the girl had memories of playing with a puppet theatre with her dad. With that in mind, I left in the strings for there to be a nod to puppet theatre and I had the houses hanging down on strings, almost like a set from a theatre play. Most importantly I didn’t want there to be too many rules about what I could and could not do. Like in dreams and memories, dreams are fragmented, memories only partially clear, a surrealness exists that is only in our minds.

Katie, You worked as a puppet maker and puppeteer on the production. How did you get involved? And what did you work on?

[KW] I was part of the puppetry team led by Brunskill & Grimes. We created the puppets and then puppeteered them for the shoot. I have been working with Brunskill & Grimes on and off for a few years, so when they were asked to work on the project I jumped at the chance to join the team.

The puppet making was very much a team effort. I was working alongside Jimmy Grimes, Jo Lakin and Hugh Purves, and I mostly worked on the little girl puppet. This character was created in two different scales; a large version (roughly 40cm) and a small version (roughly 15cm). I was responsible for sculpting her hands, moulding and casting her hands/head, making aspects of her costume and styling her hair.

During the shoot, I was one of three puppeteers on set. I puppeteered the little girl’s feet, hands and even her hair for some of the underwater shots. I also puppeteered one half of the whale, the rowboat and the kite. When I wasn’t on set, I was busy preparing the puppets for their next shot, which included general maintenance as well as changing the positions of rods or sometimes switching the rods out completely in place of strings.

It looks like there’s quite a range of methods used in the puppet fabrication. Did the team make these fabrication decisions based purely on the required movement or were there other factors to consider?

[KW] There were a range of different methods used to operate each of the puppets. This was explored most thoroughly with the large-scale little girl puppet. This puppet is in essence a table-top puppet operated with rods by three puppeteers. We used this basic principle in lots of variations. Each of the rods could be removed and repositioned in various different locations. For example, the rod in her head could be positioned to come straight out of the back of her head or from either side of her head. The same puppet could also be manipulated with strings. For the underwater and falling shots the movement quality needed to be smooth and fluid. Operating this puppet with strings aided in achieving this slow, subtle movement.

When making these decisions the movement quality was always of paramount importance. However, we also needed to consider the practical aspects. The two key practicalities to consider when puppeteering were shadows and rods/strings. If a puppeteer was casting a shadow across the shot we would need to adjust the performance to avoid this. This could be as simple as moving the rod in the back of the puppet’s head from one side to the other. Or that only two puppeteers would operate the puppet and we would temporarily glue the feet down.

Did you have a favourite puppet?

[KW] My favourite puppet is definitely the large-scale little girl – but I might be a little biased! I also fell in love with the ocean. This was designed and created by our very talented Set Designer Helen Javes. It was essentially layers of large plastic sheet laid over a frame. Each individual wave was painted and scrunched to perfection. This was puppeteered by Jimmy Grimes from underneath the frame. A subtle sweeping movement would create crashing waves.

Jimmy Grimes puppeteering the ocean.

As the production uses 2D animation and composite to create it’s imagery, what was it like to puppeteer to those objects that weren’t there? What was it like wearing those green suits?

[KW] Both the fish and raven are 2D characters that were added in post-production. During the shoot we needed to imagine these characters were there, so just like an actor you have to draw on your own imagination to bring these moments to life. The quality and mood of our performance was definitely enhanced by Asa’s decision to play the track throughout the shoot. Certain beats in the music became key moments of performance. There were also certain technical aspects like eye line that were aided by a simple location marker on the puppeteer’s monitor – a little dot on the screen that represented where the fish or raven would be.

Haha! I secretly quite like the green suits. I did get some strange looks when I wore it into the workshop as I ran in to quickly tweak a puppet.

Behind-The-Scenes video from Aardman

What are the key differences between puppeteering for stage and puppeteering for screen?

[KW] Although the skills of a puppeteer are transferable between screen and stage there are a number of differences and subsequent challenges when working in these two mediums. Focus is a key difference. When puppeteering for stage, the puppeteer looks directly at the puppet and in doing so draws the audiences’ focus away from themselves and onto the puppet. In screen performance, the puppeteer looks directly at a monitor so they can observe their performance first hand and make adjustments to their framing and eye line. The biggest challenge of always looking at a monitor is being aware of your surroundings, including the other puppeteers. What you see on the screen is often a completely different perspective. On screen it might look like the puppet is perfectly positioned to sit down when in reality it is about to fall flat on its face!

Another key difference is the scale of the puppeteer’s performance. Puppetry for stage can (and often needs to be) larger in scale. The puppeteer needs to be able to convey their puppet’s message all the way to the back of the theatre. As a result, puppets for stage are often made at a larger-than-life scale to aid in this communication. Comparatively, screen puppetry is subtle and specific. When puppeteering in this medium every tiny movement of the puppet is picked up by the camera and in turn magnified.

I love both stage and screen puppetry for different reasons but if I had to choose it would have to be screen puppetry. I love the challenge of trying to hit your mark whilst still delivering an authentic performance. And of course the added pressure of trying to nail it in just a few takes!

Aardman’s music video for Coldplay

Interview with Emma Windsor

To find out more about the making of ‘Daddy’, read Åsa Lucander’s article ‘Behind The Craft’ on Aardman’s blog, which details the full creative process, use of 2D animation and crew credits. Watch the official music video ‘Daddy’ on YouTube here.

Keep up-to-date with all the latest news from Aardman:

Twitter: @aardman
Instagram: @aardmananimations
#Aardman #Coldplay #EverdayLife

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