With registration about to close and the Bristol 48 hour Puppet Film Challenge weekend fast approaching (27-29th August, 2021), we caught up with three of this year’s Judges to get their thoughts and advice on puppetry, fabricating, and film making.
What are you looking for in a Puppet film? What is it that excites you about puppetry in film?
Colleen Smith (CS): I prefer performance over fancy puppetry. I mean, I’m always impressed by beautiful puppet work. But it needs great acting to back it up. I love puppets over special effects. I like how you can forget it’s a puppet and think that it’s a living breathing creature. But I also get excited when people embrace the fact that you have a doll on the end of your arm that you make talk with your hand. I guess, I mean, I like it when people don’t take it too seriously and have fun.
Dik Downey (DD): Personally, I’ll be excited to see anything where they’ve made an effort. Obviously weird, dark worlds are something I’m drawn to, but I wouldn’t rule out the opposite either. Passion and attention to detail are things that will stand out for me.
Olivia Racionzer (OR): The most exciting thing for me is creating a world for your Puppets to live in, using everyday materials in the process. Puppets are non-prescriptive and can be whatever you want, the world comes with them and is an exciting part of it for me. Filming gives you the chance to curate what the audience will see. Every shot is a thought out frame, which means you can really focus on the parts of the puppet that will be seen, for example a single moving tentacle rather than a full body with ten moving tentacles.
What are the key differences and challenges in doing Puppetry for film compared with live performances, such as theatre?
CS: It’s the same for any kind of performance. In film you can build elaborate sets, travel all over the place, and do smaller more nuanced work. As well as insanely complicated work. Especially with greenscreen. Stage has the benefit of the energy from the audience and the excitement that comes from not getting multiple takes. I’ve seen an audience gasp when they saw Big Bird walk out on stage. To see a giant puppet like that in person is incredible. But then again Kermit and the rest of the muppets riding bikes in The Great Muppet Caper is incredible too.
For those new to puppetry, taking up this challenge for the first time, what would be your advice on fabricating and puppeteering?
OR: Playing and having fun is the key to it all. Puppetry gives you the opportunity to create life from any object. If the making scares you, just start simple and add onto existing objects, for example a potato masher, a teapot, or a pillow. Once you’ve discovered the character you can develop it from there and see whether you want to translate it into a full puppet build or whether the found object does the job.
Puppeteering was, and is, the hardest part for me. What made it less daunting was the idea that I don’t need to use my voice to communicate a story. The aesthetic and movement of a Puppet can be extremely effective and finding that out has relieved the pressure for me. I usually start by recreating specific gestures and movements, then put the characters personality into them.
Any additional advice or tips for the folk taking on the Bristol 48 hour Puppet Film Challenge?
CS: Make something you love. And make it for you. That way whatever happens at the end of this you have something you like and you can take with you. Have a point of view. It doesn’t have to be revolutionary, but show us how you see the world. Even serious stuff should have humour in it. Life does. Keep your head out of the shot and watch your eye focus!
OR: I would say don’t get caught up with complicated storylines, start with a simple idea and develop it from there. Play with light, levels, rhythm, and sound. Most importantly have fun, improvise and accept that things might change once you start filming.
DD: Don’t stress and document the process as you go along, as this may inform other work you do if you continue working with puppets… and try to enjoy yourselves!
There’s still time to register for the Bristol 48 hour Puppet Film Challenge, which is taking place on the 27-29th August, and is being run by Puppet Place in association with the House of Funny Noises.
An international challenge to make a short puppet film, the event is free to enter, but donations are warmly welcomed, and it is open to all-ages and levels of ability – first-timers and professionals – in puppetry, fabricating, and filmmaking.
The Bristol 48 hour Puppet Film Challenge will run this August bank holiday weekend, 27th – 29th, and is open to people of all ages and backgrounds, from absolute beginners to seasoned professionals. You must register in advance to join in with the fun and registration closes at 12:00pm (BST) on Friday 27th August. The Challenge is free to enter, but donations are warmly welcomed.
Kay Yasugi, of Digital Seagull and Pupperoos, is a Sydney based creative, puppeteer, storyteller, and teacher, and the general secretary of the puppetry organisation UNIMA Australia. We caught up with them about their work in puppetry, including the recent ABC iView campaign, as well as the challenges that the Australian puppetry community has faced in 2020 and how they have come together in the face of that.
Bird of Light by Pupperoos / Kay Yasugi
Can you please tell us a bit about yourself, and how you came to puppetry?
I have been a puppeteer and puppet maker for 18 years, with a background in teaching and illustration.
My journey into puppetry began soon after I finished high school. I helped to run a children’s summer camp with other Christian volunteers in regional New South Wales, Australia. The following year they asked me to make a mascot for them so I went to my local library to get a book on doll making – but they only had puppet books. I picked up “The Usborne Book of Puppets” by Ken Haines and made a monkey puppet (based on Ken’s pattern for a Scottish clown).
Soon after that I attended a conference where I met Australian television puppeteer Mal Heap. Mal played one of my favourite puppet characters growing up – a cat called Modigliana from the Aussie nineties show ‘The Ferals’ – and he became my first mentor.
I continued doing puppetry while studying Primary Education at the University of Sydney, and found out about the London School of Puppetry (LSP) during that time. We actually had an assignment where we had to analyse a curriculum, and I chose to write about LSP’s Diploma of Professional Puppetry. I ended up doing that very course after finishing my teaching degree, thanks to a grant from my university and the puppetry organisation UNIMA Australia (of which I am now General Secretary). I learned so much from LSP’s Director of Studies Caroline Astell-Burt, who continues to be a great mentor. I’m also happy to say that one of the tutors for LSP is none other than Ken Haines, and I was delighted to meet him a few years ago and thank him for writing his book!
Now, I run workshops and perform shows with Pupperoos, focusing on education and children’s projects. I also do puppet commissions for film, television, and theatre through Digital Seagull.
I work in a variety of styles of puppetry including shadow theatre, rod puppetry, hand/glove puppets and marionettes (string puppets).
What have been the highlights for you so far creatively? And how does your own experience and background inform the work you do?
Some creative highlights include performing in ‘The 13-Storey Treehouse’ at Sydney Opera House, based on the book by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton, and appearing on the ABC television program Play School (‘Through the Window’ segments) for their puppetry episodes.
Kay Yasugi and Dr Emma Fisher-Owen
In 2018, I received funding from the Seaborn, Broughton, and Walford Foundation for a research and training project at the University of Washington, Bothell (USA) to explore virtual technology and its application to shadow puppetry, as part of a global puppetry project with artists and researchers from the USA and Ireland – Dr Emma Fisher-Owen (Beyond the Bark Puppet and Installation Theatre), Ivan Fisher-Owen, and Rafael Silva. This was followed by an Artist in Residency with the shadow theatre company Manual Cinema in Chicago (USA) to work on their new show Frankenstein while also learning their shadow puppetry techniques.
I also received funding to research traditional Haenyeo women divers in Jeju Island, South Korea. In 2019, I created the show ‘Haenyeo: Women of the Sea’ which premiered at Figura Offida Festival, an international puppetry street theatre festival in Offida, Italy. Performing the show with my mother Youngkyu Kwon was a real highlight. It is about women, passing down traditions, and sharing our cultural heritage. Being half Korean and half Japanese, and moving to Australia when I was 3 years old, I think it’s really important to have diverse stories and cultures represented in mainstream theatre.
Haenyeo Diver puppet by Kay Yasugi in Jeju Island Korea 2019
You’ve recently been working with ABC on a campaign for their iView platform; can you please tell us a little more about the project, and how you came to be involved?
The ABC iView campaign was released in May 2021 to promote their free video-on-demand (VOD) service, with new personalised features that make it easier to enjoy outstanding programmes from the nation’s biggest collection of Australian content.
With so many other streaming services out there, puppets were a way to make the campaign stand out with something eye-popping, fun, and memorable.
With the assistance of Katherine Hannaford, I created two puppets that could change into four different characters – all designed in-house by ABC Made. They had dropping jaws, removable wigs/noses/eyes and could even play ping pong! Operating the puppets was a unique challenge, as I had to do stills, GIFS, and film in a studio and on location (crouching behind milk crates in an alley; and lying under a park bench dressed in a fluro green screen suit!).
Filming GIFs with Arj puppet – Kay Yasugi and puppetry assistant Eleanor Roberts
How did you come up with the personalities and designs behind the four puppets, Arj, Linh, Gloria and Vinnie, for the campaign?
The puppets were designed by ABC Made and the process for devising the characters was wonderfully collaborative. I worked with Creative Director Diana Costantini, Executive Producer Tasha Mahalm, Director Tim Brown, Senior Design Creatives Francesca Snow and Clare D’Arcy, Production Co-ordinator Agnieszka Switala and Production Manager Mark Risso-Gill. I really enjoyed bouncing around ideas and imagining the different characters and their quirks – Arj the hipster barista, Linh the college student, Gloria the boss lady, and Vinnie the ping pong player.
Certain aspects of their designs were determined by very practical limitations. I happened to only have 2 colours of nylon fleece available and with such a quick turnaround there was no time to purchase more from the USA (particularly with longer shipping times due to Covid). So the puppets were going to be blue and purple from the start, which thankfully suited the colour scheme of the campaign! We also used Project Puppet (USA) patterns as a foundation for the build, which really saved on time. Building the puppets in March also had one key advantage – it was right before Easter! I was able to purchase a bunch of hollow plastic Easter eggs to use for puppet eyes, as well as styrofoam eggs that I used to sculpt various puppet features and use as a base for Arj’s tall hairdo.
What led to the decision behind them being silent protagonists? How did that affect your approach to the campaign and the puppetry?
This campaign is for television, digital media, outdoor advertising (such as buses, bus stops, billboards, and train stations) and ABC radio, so it was important that the sound would translate across visual and audio mediums. ABC Made chose Aussie comedian Sam Simmons to be the narrator, and I think his distinctive and energetic voice matches very well with the quirky visual comedy of the puppets.
As a performer I often do the voices for my puppets, but the challenge of this campaign was to convey a puppet’s personality through visuals alone. We wanted to do things that only puppets could do – have their jaw drop, eyes ‘pop’, mind blown (with a confetti cannon) and play puppet ping pong. We made them in such a short period of time and I’m very proud of the end result.
Kay Yasugi with Linh and her mindblowing confetti canon!
You’re based in Sydney; how have the arts and creative industries, especially puppetry, been affected by the pandemic?
2020 was a very challenging year for Australians– with bushfires in January, floods in February and a global pandemic which is still ongoing. Most puppeteers lost gigs and other work, and the recovery has been varied depending on location and Covid numbers.
Theatres around the country are thankfully reopening (with limited capacity), though for artists who work in those industries it’s been particularly tough. The Australian government rolled out a support scheme called ‘JobKeeper’ and ‘JobSeeker’ which has helped eligible puppeteers to stay financially afloat for a time (the scheme ended in March 2021). Some have sought employment in other industries (e.g. teaching, personal training, running online workshops) and others are taking a break and using this time to create new work, develop scripts, and research. Some who have shifted to online puppet shows are even getting bookings from clients overseas, and there are some who are using social media like TikTok, Facebook, and Cameo to gain new audiences and get work.
With the onset of travel bans and social distancing restrictions affecting how we tour, perform, gather and connect, our whole industry has changed. Although many physical doors are closed at the moment, there has been an influx of virtual doors opening, allowing us to connect with artists all around the world.
How is the Australian puppetry community starting to find its feet again in the wake of it?
I have been quite involved with the puppetry organisation UNIMA Australia in our efforts to offer additional support to artists. When the pandemic hit we did more frequent mailouts, including information on helping artists who have lost work due to Covid-19, as well as links to online shows and other resources.
We have organised Zoom meetings with UNIMA members, with ‘think tanks’ (discussing how to create work online), relaxed maker sessions, ‘Puppet Doctor’ seminars (inviting expert puppet makers to give advice on puppet ‘ailments’), ‘Puppetry Nailed It’ competitions (fun and frenzied maker sessions), and special celebrations for World Puppetry Day and our 50th Anniversary. We also put together the Silver Linings Online Puppet Film Festival and invited people to participate from around the world. This year we launched a special 50th Anniversary UNIMA Oz magazine (Volume 1) – a project that was done completely online.
We have found ways to be resilient and adapt to ever changing restrictions. I’ve seen a trend for more outdoor spectacles and installations (rather than traditional theatre indoors), as well as live performances which are also streamed online. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra put on ‘Peter and the Wolf’ with puppets made by Annie Forbes and Tim Denton (AboutFace Productions) – the production was digitally streamed and later (once restrictions had eased) performed to live audiences.
Puppet Mayhem – Fly by Niow
A highlight of this year was Puppet Mayhem in Melbourne, Victoria. It was A Blanck Canvas’ first major event to celebrate the launch of their new rehearsal and performance space – The Playground, located at Seaworks Maritime Precinct in Williamstown.
Following Melbourne’s long lasting lockdown, where we saw the arts and events industry come to a halt, over 850 people excitedly came out to experience a variety of puppet shows, multiple roving performances, mesmerising aerial works, workshops, live bands & DJ sets, and much more. It was a huge success, and both the audience and performers had an absolute ball.
We are looking forward to the Melbourne Festival of Puppetry (6-11 July 2021), which we really hope will go ahead in the midst of current restrictions.
I think that finding our feet requires us to reach out our hands in support of one another. We are a diverse, resilient, and adaptable community.
And what are your own plans for the future, can we look forward to any new puppetry projects from you in 2021 or 2022?
I am currently working as an EAL/D (English as an Additional Language/Dialect) teacher at a primary school, and am thankful to be able to use puppetry for language learning. I will keep teaching while also performing shows, running workshops, and seeking out interesting collaborative projects with others.
I am continuing my role as General Secretary of UNIMA Australia along with our new President Philip Millar (Puppetvision, Melbourne, Victoria). We are keen to make connections with puppeteers around Australia and overseas. For anyone interested in Australian puppetry, I recommend joining UNIMA Australia.
You’ve recently been working with the Royal Academy of Engineering and the University of Bath to develop an interactive STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths) piece for Key Stage 2 pupils in the South West, can you please tell us a little more about the project, and how you came to be involved?
This really exciting project came about some months before the pandemic, and Green Ginger was really fortunate to have funded activity as the theatres started to close. We were first contacted by academics from University of Bath’s (UoB) Dept of Bio-Mechanical Engineering, who sought a partnership to create a classroom intervention targeting primary school children. The project was conceived to challenge any fixed, negative perceptions of STEM, particularly Engineering, and then reframe these subjects as exciting, creative, and relevant.
In 2015, the Royal Academy of Engineering published a major report into the low numbers entering into engineering careers at post-grad level, and since then has been investing in public engagement initiatives to address the problem. The report identified a tendency among Key Stage 2 pupils (7-11 yrs) to form notions that STEM subjects were somehow incompatible with any interest in arts or sports they had. The UoB proposal was a perfect fit; as a theatre company specialising in puppetry effects for stage and screen, bio-mechanical engineering sits at the heart of our work, and we were delighted to also forge a new working relationship with an academic partner.
How are you using theatre and puppetry to talk about STEM in new and engaging ways?
The original intervention for RATLab had relatively simple ambitions; Green Ginger would go into classrooms with teams of graduate engineers and academics from UoB, and employ puppetry and automata to demonstrate some of the fundamental concepts of bio-engineering. However, once the effects of the pandemic kicked in and schools stopped being able to invite external guests, a major rethink was needed.
We arrived at a Covid-safe version of our activity – a series of interconnecting inflatable domes that could be sited within school grounds, yet remain independent from their buildings. Our UoB project partners went back to the Royal Academy who liked our reworked proposal and promptly doubled the budget. This enabled us to purchase the domes, think more theatrically than in the original iteration, and invest in the necessary resources to make the most of the opportunity.
Currently, our design and fabrication team – led by the amazing Nick Willsher (www.niklaas.co.uk) – has been literally assembling the cast; these are life-sized or over-sized rats, pigs, and dogs. We decided early on in the process to anthropomorphise all our characters, in order to represent diverse team of workers who populated the RATLab. It has been important to emphasise the role of teamwork in engineering; very little is done in the industry that isn’t marked by close collaboration between numerous, distinct areas of skill and expertise.
What has been the biggest challenge in disrupting the traditionally perceived STEM narratives, reframing them, and making them more inclusive and accessible?
Green Ginger – known for its absurd, irreverence and highly visual productions – has needed to ensure that its fresh narratives are grounded in science! Thankfully we have partnered with an amazing team of educators to guide our thinking. The whole project has thrown into sharp focus the sheer amount of STEM activity that the company does in its day-to-day puppetry activities. From exploring the properties of different raw materials to working out how a pig’s hind legs actually move, we can identify physics, biology, chemistry, maths – and of course, engineering – at the core of puppet design and fabrication.
As we approached the reframing of negative narratives, the core creative team reflected upon their own childhoods; how we were taught science and technology subjects, and how we perceived their relevance.
During the project’s development, we have needed to think creatively about how to deliver such an ambitious, experiential performance event under Covid-safe conditions. Fortunately, our inflatable, all-weather structures have presented us with some amazing possibilities, and have given the delivery team its own bespoke working environment. The solution also gives added educational value to our young audiences and their teachers, with an experience outside of their normal learning environment.
You’re gearing up to tour this Autumn term 2021 and Spring term 2022; what do you hope the Key Stage 2 pupils will take away from their experience of RATLab when it visits schools?
We are excited by the potential of this project; it specifically targets children in areas of social deprivation and low arts engagement, and will be free to schools at the point of delivery. Our primary aims are to capture imaginations, inspire curiosity and collaboration, and to reinforce the idea that science is for everyone. We will introduce some of the basics of biomechanics: surgical repair, bone replacement, and injury prevention, whilst shining some light on the influential research carried out by UoB’s engineers, some of which has had real impact on the daily lives of people around the world.
Personally, I’d be delighted if a handful of kids that might normally perceive themselves as essentially arty or sports-oriented, begin to understand the everyday nature of engineering, and its role in every human-made thing we interact with.
Intronauts. Photo Paul Blakemore.
As the Arts, especially theatre and live puppetry, begins to find its feet again a year on from Covid-19; what are your hopes for the coming year in general, for Puppet Place, and for Green Ginger?
I am starting to get excited about making – and performing – new touring work again, I’ve definitely missed that. Green Ginger was fortunate to receive a grant from the Creative Relief Fund, support that has enabled us to invest in some research and development of new show ideas. I’m currently setting up some investigations into deeper exploration into the possibilities of Hologauze technology (www.holotronica.com) that we employed in our last show Intronauts. The production featured video projection onto a fine, silver-coated gauze stretched across the front of the stage; the gauze disappears with any light behind it, offering us endless possibilities of layering digital content with other scenic elements – including Green Ginger’s trademark lo-fi puppetry.
Puppet Place has also been collaborating with UWE’s architecture department, with its students helping us to reimagine the building for future redevelopment as a bespoke ‘centre of excellence’ in all things animated. And we are having important discussions across the city to explore practical solutions to the lack of diversity in our artform; exciting times ahead!
If you would like to find out more about Green Ginger and RATLab, please:
Founded by Izzy Bristow, Helena Houghton, and Cat Rock, The House of Funny Noises is a Bristol based film collective that aims to make short, sweet, and sickening puppet films and media. Working with friends and other local artists, in less than a year, they have produced and released six films. We caught up with them to find out how their year has gone, the challenges they faced, and what the future holds.
How did The House of Funny Noises form, what are you all about, and what are the goals behind your collective?
Helena Houghton (HH): Initially, it started during the first lockdown, while we were all out of work with not a lot to do, we took part in the LA Guild of Puppetry’s 48 hour Film Project. We decided to play on hard mode and make everything! We were up at 2:00 AM till 2:00 AM two days later making BELLY and after that we just thought, ‘great, let’s keep doing this!’. Since then we have made five more films and we are really enjoying ourselves.
As a collective, we are all about making films that are short, sweet, and sickening. Our main objective is to experiment, we love to push our imaginations to make fascinating and sometimes disgusting visuals, as well as tell concise thought provoking stories. We really enjoy taking a story and turning it on its head. For example, when filming SPROUT for the Raindance 60 second film competition we were given the theme ‘love in lockdown’, so we chose to make a dramatic romance and betrayal starring spider plants. We like to subvert expectations and find ways to make something fresh.
Over the last year, you’ve created a variety of puppet films; what have been the challenges you’ve faced?
HH: Working to deadlines has been difficult, a lot of what we have done has had a very quick turnaround time, so getting to grips with making puppet films fast, organising that, has been interesting.
We’ve all had to learn how to film and edit properly. I have some experience from university, but that was a while ago, and for Cat and Izzy it was their first time doing film like this and we are all still constantly learning and pushing ourselves. Mostly, I think learning how we work together has been the biggest challenge, but it’s also been great. We are definitely growing with each project and I think doing it all in the middle of a pandemic is quite an achievement. We make an excellent team.
What have you learnt from the experience, often with very quick turnarounds, of making puppet films?
HH: As a collective, I think we have learnt that communication is key. We all work in different ways and that is difficult, but also has a lot of merit. Everytime we work together we learn from each other. We have started doing a ‘lessons learnt’ meeting at the end of each project so when we move on to the next thing we document what works and what doesn’t.
We have picked up a host of skills through doing this, all of us are puppet makers originally, but we do everything, all the lighting, camera work, and post production ourselves so that has been a fun learning curve. Importantly, you need just as much rehearsal time as filming, it’s no good spending lots of time making a fancy puppet and set without getting to know them before you shoot!
I have learnt a lot about the way I work with others, as a very visual worker, I need to sketch and storyboard things out before we get into anything, to feel like I have a good idea of what we are making and how we want it to feel. Also, I have learnt a lot about live action puppets through Cat and Izzy’s guidance, getting better at designing mechanisms and learning more about performance.
Izzy Bristow (IB): Editing, I have learnt so much about what it is to have an idea, build it up into something, and then have the reality of time and budget slap us in the face. Oddly enough, what is left when all the extra bits are shed away is a much more concise and elegant version of the original idea.
Cat Rock (CR): Opportunity comes to those who are prepared! This is one of my favorite quotes and it really sums up what I have learned from working in the House of Funny Noises. You need to take the time to build your skill set and working practice so that you have a solid base on which to stand. With each project we have learnt a little bit more and developed as a group, on the next project we work better together and more efficiently, building on what we experienced before.
Over the last year (it’s nearly our anniversary!), we have grown so much and now we are in a position to take on opportunities and challenges, bringing our point of view into the puppetry world. We have prepared ourselves with the skills and determination to grab the opportunities to come.
What have been your favourite moments, and films themselves, from amongst the pieces you’ve produced? What do you hope audiences take away from them?
IB: I think SNOT (Going Out) is my favorite. Cat did an excellent job of figuring out the limitations of the LA Guild of Puppetry’s Halloween 48 hour Challenge and then creating a film that looks like it didn’t have anything holding it back at all. The story fits perfectly in the time allotted and within the small set she made all on her own (due to scheduling problems it was a film Cat took on without us but with Matt Gibbs behind the camera).
CR: One of my personal favorite moments was from our first film BELLY. I performed an upside down mouth monster and then we recorded foley for the scene. It was funny, grose, weird, and utterly fun to film. The cherry on top of the cake is that when the judges from the LA Guild of Puppetry’s 48 hour Film Project were talking about the film, which won honourable mention, one judge said, “The chin puppet was very effective. Too effective! Incredibly gross. Congratulations, but I never want to see anything like that again…” This made my day!
HH: My favourite film is probably SLINGJAW WRASSE. It’s quite hard to be both funny and informative, and Izzy wrote a fantastic script, plus the beautiful yellow puppet made by Nick Wilsher and finished by Izzy is wonderfully eye-catching.
HH: Any time we make something a bit messy too; we had so much fun making the fish egg scene in SLINGJAW WRASSE. We had a big tank of water, lots of gunge that Cat had made, and bright pink boba beads. We played around with getting just the right amount of gross for the shot and again on SNOT (Going Out) the creature was so gooey.
I think we hope our audience will just enjoy them, each film is individual. We want to make people feel the expression we put into them. SNOT is kind of gross and scary, WORM is a bit cute and fun, SLINGJAW WRASSE is that combo of informative silly and nerdy, etc, etc.
What’s next for the House of Funny Noises? What more can we look forward to in 2021?
HH: We are thrilled to say that we will be making a short film for the Beverley Puppet Festival’s ‘Sanctuary’ project, which we are looking forward to telling you more about in the future! Currently, we’re working with the festival team to gather ideas and inspiration from the people of Beverley.
In April, we’re taking part in the next 48 hour Puppet Film Project from the LA Guild of Puppetry. Later in the summer, we’ll also be helping Puppet Place run the second ever Bristol 48 hour Puppet Film Challenge, for which we have just organised one of the judges, so stay tuned for that announcement.
We have also been having a great time collecting a folder of all the story ideas we would like to do. Some are epic, spooky fantasy, such as ‘BELTANE’ (WT), written by Matt Gibbs, that we are seeking funding for, while others are surreal comedies like our as yet unnamed boob film, which will focus on the comedy and double standards of breasts. We hope to be filming that one late spring, early this summer. We have a lot to keep us busy and we are excited to rise to the challenge!
Air Giants is an exciting collaboration between Emma Powell, Richard Sewell, and Robert Nixdorf. Together they create strikingly beautiful, soft robotic creatures that come to life at the intersection of puppetry, robotics, technology, and software design. Matt Gibbs caught up with Emma Powell, one of the co-founders and the creative director of Air Giants, about their emotionally expressive creations.
How did you and the team first conceive of the idea behind Air Giants?
My colleague Richard Sewell is a prolific tester of ideas, and he has tested some ideas using soft robotic principles at a very large scale. I saw some of his early experiments and fell in love with it as a medium! Together with Robert Nixdorf, we started hatching a plan to take the principles much further and apply some of the human-robotic interaction principles we’d learned from other projects, as well as refining and improving the beautiful motion the technology offers.
We were lucky to get prototype funding from the South West Creative Technology Network which allowed us to tackle a lot of the technical challenges involved and find people who would be interested in exhibiting and commissioning the work.
The idea of creating creatures came quite quickly because even our first prototypes had a powerful sense of life about them. We love the idea of working with more abstract forms too, and some of the projects we are developing at the moment are about transforming whole spaces into interactive environments.
How do you go about bringing such a sense of life and movement to these robotic creatures? What challenges do you face?
It’s certainly a challenge! Puppetry is a useful tool in exploring the possibilities. We often use table-top scale puppetered versions of designs to map out motions and interactions before thinking about how to realise these at full size. My own background in puppetry is very useful here. There’s something about the nuances of the way a real object moves that I haven’t found possible to express properly through storyboarding.
Then we have to take the vocabulary of movements we’re aiming for and figure out how we can translate that into the pneumatically controlled fabric. We now know a lot about the geometries and pressures needed to make it all happen, but it can still take a few modelling attempts at a smaller scale of about one metre before we finalise a design.
Once the design is in place, the actual fabrication requires a lot of space for laying out and cutting huge pieces of fabric. There is also lots of valve assembly, bespoke control coding for each new piece, and a huge amount of sewing to do.
What is challenging is that this is new ground – there’s no handbook for what we’re doing! Soft robotics is being developed in many university labs, but there’s nothing of this scale which we can reference. Everything from the specific geometries of the internal compartments to the air control valves has been designed by us from scratch. We’ve been learning fast, and we’re excited to see that the possibilities here are incredibly broad.
How important is the movement and lighting to creating emotion? And what do you hope audiences will take away from the experience?
The movement really is key for us. The scale and spectacle of the work is striking, but it’s amazing how people respond to the movement at an instinctual level. Much of the motion is bio-inspired and the wide range of wiggling, flexing, and other contortions we can create are not usually associated with robotics.
Audiences are constantly trying to read meaning and behaviour into the movement the robots make, so designing the motion and responses is a large chunk of the work for us. I think there are very strong parallels to the art of puppeteering here.
We want people to have joyful experiences of the work and to have a sense of having met something intelligent, otherworldly, and engaging. It should be a moment of magic and a way to step outside of normal life – something we could all use at the moment.
What are your hopes for Air Giants in 2021? What more can we look forward to?
We’ve got a few exciting projects we’re hoping to get the green light for in 2021. I can’t say too much, but hopefully we’ll be bringing work to lots of people in all sorts of places, from town centres to botanical gardens.
We’re interested in co-design, site specific work, and collaborations with other creative industries. We’re very approachable and love to make connections happen, so please feel free to get in touch!
We’re looking forward to experiencing more of these gentle giants in the months to come and exploring the new spaces they might inhabit.
Air Giants is the brainchild of Emma Powell, Richard Sewell, and Robert Nixdorf; who create huge, emotionally expressive soft robotic creatures and spaces.
Emma Powell is an artist and director from Bristol, UK, who creates exciting, inspiring, and accessible work in theatre, film, and events.