The Stuff That ‘Handmade Puppet Dreams’ Are Made Of: Interview with Heather Henson & Sam Koji Hale

Heather Henson’s (daughter of Jim Henson) extraordinary puppet TV series ‘Handmade Puppet Dreams’, featuring different directors, has recently been released on Amazon Prime. There are 16 short films within the series which feature the work of puppetry artists around the country, showcasing the various forms of puppetry and storytelling styles of top-notch storytellers active in puppetry today. We caught up with Heather and Producer/Director Sam Koji Hale to find out more about this eclectic puppetry short film collection.

Handmade Puppet Dreams is a long established series of puppetry short films that was collected in editions and is now available to watch on Amazon Prime. How does it feel to see so many puppetry films released to such a wide reaching audience in one hit?

Heather Beth Henson (HMPD Executive Producer): Launching on Amazon Prime is very exciting! We’ve been screening these films at various festivals to get them out there, but it’s been a challenge. Now, anyone who has Amazon Prime can just click on the film and watch it right there in the comfort of their homes! We’ve been making these films for years – for the love of it – but now the Internet has gotten to the point where all this streaming is available for content, and we can put it on Amazon Prime and reach a number of countries we couldn’t before. We have access to communities that we never thought were possible, who we hope will watch these films. We want everyone to see this cool art form – it’s so unique. It’s not like anything you’ve seen before. It’s like animation, BUT it’s not! It’s puppetry – with puppeteers moving things in real time and making worlds and characters. Each artist has made their unique world, brought life to it and put it on film. And now you’re just a click away from watching these films – to see these artists and their artistry. It’s very exciting – I’m proud that we are able to do this.

MELVIN THE BIRDER – Directed by Spencer Lott.

Sam Koji Hale (HMPD Producer/Director): It’s great to land at Amazon Prime and present our short films there! Short films are a great format for modern viewers, who have just little snippets of time between their busy life schedules. You can watch a short bit, go do something, then sit down later and watch another short. It’s a place to discover a wonderful variety of stories in small doses! So we’re very happy to be in one place that many people can find these puppet films.

What makes the short film format particularly appropriate for Handmade Puppet Dreams? What does it offer that maybe feature-length production does not?

HBH: Handmade Puppet Dreams is a collection of films where independent artists make unique, compact pieces of visual artistry. We call it “Handmade Puppet Dreams” because the idea is to allow artists to let their “dreams” come to fruition in short puppet film pieces. It’s already pretty rare to be a puppeteer and most puppetry is in theater, so I wanted to make sure there was a place for puppeteers making films, an umbrella for independent people making their puppet craft or artistry in the recorded medium and sharing with a community. That’s what we’ve helped to create and nurture with the shorts.

SKH: Doing shorts is a way to showcase existing and emerging puppetry artists. They have a year to make something 6-10+ minutes on a fixed budget. It’s a challenge both creatively and logistically. We want to help give filmmakers who work with puppets a chance to express their idea and show their talent without the deep, time and budget-intensive investment of a feature film. What we do is provide a place to gather puppet storytellers and showcase their talent in a small package.

LESSONS LEARNED – Directed by Toby Froud.

Handmade Puppet Dreams is highly eclectic, featuring work that audiences will no doubt already feel familiar with from popular culture (notably ‘Lessons Learned’ directed by Toby Froud) through to works from emerging or unknown artists. What does this offer audiences? And who will this appeal to?

HBH: Each of these puppet films is a unique gem, as different as the people that are making them. Some are marionettes, some are tabletop puppets, some are puppets you didn’t even know existed until you saw the artist using it in this way. It’s a collection of a variety of different artistic techniques and styles, all in this world of live performed objects. Toby Froud (“Lessons Learned”) is an amazing artist! He’s got these great genetics – the son of Brian and Wendy Froud (“Dark Crystal”/“Labyrinth”) – and Toby’s a spectacular puppet builder, sculptor, craftsman. He has this great vision and did a lot of work on it with a huge crew. We’re very proud to have it in this collection. It’s gorgeous with amazing characters like the Spider Woman!

Other familiar touchstones include “Harker” out of Orlando, Florida done in the style of “Nosferatu” – black and white German Expressionist films; the classic tale of “Ichabod” with puppeteer Hobey Ford’s amazing mechanisms and puppets; and an adult retelling of the Russian mystic “Rasputin” with Jamie Shannon’s unique and funny puppets. We want everyone to see this cool art form.

YAMASONG – Directed by Sam Koji Hale.

SKH: Our audience is as eclectic as our filmmakers’ backgrounds. Kevin McTurk (“Narrative of Victor Karloch”) taps in to the Hollywood creature/horror film world of which he’s a part. John Kennedy (“The Sure Sheep”) reflects the sweetness of Sesame Street, which is his background. Pam Severns (“Bunny Love”) takes a popular live comedy she tours and brings that unusual love story to grown-up puppet lovers as a short. Our films are a place to find variety, discover new artists to follow, and show the breadth and depth of puppetry out there today. We hope it’ll be a place for people to discover the unexpected!

THE NARRATIVE OF VICTOR KARLOCH – Directed by Kevin McTurk.

In our modern age of high-tech computer generated imagery, what is it about puppetry that endures? What do you love most about this art form?

HBH: Thanks to availability of technology, there are more puppet films being made now, since cameras and the Internet are more accessible and people are becoming masters in their own unique places. Technology – high-end technology in people’s hands allows people to do things like green screen and rod removal – the kind of things that used to be available only at the high end companies. Now they are in individuals’ hands – it’s extraordinary! But I really do like that many of our films are made simply, so someone watching can say “I can do that!” and be inspired to make their own film. To show that puppetry is very accessible. A lot of our films are accessible and I hope they will inspire people to make things and puppeteer them in front of the camera and tell stories this way. I hope people are inspired by this series – to make their own film.

BUNNY LOVE – Directed by Pam Severns.

SKH: I think with puppetry there’s a kind of tug-of-war conversation happening. There’s a part of the community that rejects technology for what puppets represent – the real world, practical, tangible storytelling forms. And there’s a space in the community, where I’m operating, trying to figure out the balance between technology and old forms. My work, for example, centres around the puppet, but also looks for a way to enhance their world that is a mix of real and digital. I think what we all love is the physicality of the object, the things that we can sense have real mass, intent through performance, life through art. What takes a team of computer artists to imbue a believable “reality” can be achieved be a really well-built puppet in a skilled one or two puppeteers’ hands.

I think this art form endures because there will always be someone out there that takes an object and then follows that urge to give it life. To make the inanimate suddenly alive! Puppetry is a vessel for our liquid imaginations. That’s what I love about the art form, and the ability to be chameleons – to become whatever you imagine.

That’s powerful alchemy!

Interview with Emma Windsor


Handmade Puppet Dreams is available to watch on Amazon Prime now.  To find out more about the series and IBEX Puppetry, visit the website: www.ibexpuppetry.com  

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