Category Archives: Uncategorized

An Interview with Sarah Fornace from Manual Cinema

Manual Cinema is an Emmy Award winning performance collective, design studio, and film/video production company founded in 2010 and based in Chicago. In this interview, Cat Rock from Puppet Place chats with Manual Cinema’s Co-Artistic Director, Sarah Fornace about what makes shadow puppetry such a good medium for horror, and that amazing title sequence for Nia DaCosta’s latest horror feature film, ‘Candyman’ (2021).

Listen to more interviews with The Quay Brothers, Barry JC Purves, The Paper Cinema, Corina Duyn and more on our Vimeo channel here.

Pupaphobia: The Fear of Puppets

As Halloween approaches, Cat Rock looks into puppetry’s relationship with horror. With thoughts from Aya Nakamura, Kathleen Yore, Mike Oleon, and the Puppet Place residents. Featuring a special interview with Sarah Fornace from Manual Cinema about their recent shadow puppetry creation for the 2021 film “Candyman”. Cat explores why and how puppets have been used to unsettle and terrify audiences over the years.

“Puppetry as an art form provides a powerful feeling of escapism and is especially good at tapping into our subconscious fears; bringing to the surface hidden imagery and diving deep into otherworldly places. Strange objects or handmade figures that appear to live, to breathe, and to think in front of our very eyes are like magic, interpreted uniquely by each viewer. What a liberating experience! Even when we present something horrid the audience are still thankful for the journey, still amazed at how a bit of papier-mâché and fabric had them transfixed!” (Kathleen Yore – Odd Doll)

Seaside Terror – Odd Doll

Pupaphobia, the fear of puppets, settling in next to the more common fears of Coulrophobia (fear of Clowns) and Pediophobia (the fear of dolls), is an extreme version of a common human reaction to puppets, one of trepidation, caution and disconcerntainty. A reaction that is still used in horror media as a tool to incite terror and fright in many an audience.

From the horror trope of the evil living doll to the use of puppetry in the creations of monsters, aliens, and creatures, puppets and horror go hand in hand. So it begs the question, are puppets really scary? And if so, why?

The idea of an evil living puppet or doll is so common in media that it could have its own subgenera. Demonic puppets and dolls have appeared in films as early as 1945 (and as creepy symbols even earlier) with Hugo the ventriloquist dummies appearance in “The Dead of Night”. Other films and series include Magic, Dolls, Childs Play (featuring the murderous Chucky), the Puppet Master series, Annabel, The Boy, and let’s not forget films that use puppets to enhance their creep factor such as the Saw franchise’s mascot Jigsaw. Even Pixar used spooky ventriloquist dummies in their most recent Toy Story film. It is a wonder that children’s toy shops even sell puppets and human figures any more!

The first time I remember being exposed to the evil puppet concept was with the Goosebumps children’s horror book series, and their title “Night of the Living Dummy” back in 1993. The book went on to have two sequels and is one of the most popular and well known books in the Goosebumps series. Targeting adults and children, and exploring all media, from film, tv, books, and theatre, you cannot escape the connection between horror and puppetry. 

Story by R.L. Stein / Cover by Tim Jacobus

One theory is that puppetry taps into the robotics and computer graphics principle of the “Uncanny Valley”. People have been studying this concept to find out why there is a fine line between a humanoid construction being either likeable or repelling. We connect with human-like creations, in fact we are drawn to them, but only to a certain point, when an invisible line is crossed and that thing becomes too human, like we become disconcerted by its presence. Does this switch in perception evoke a sense of trepidation because it seems as if the figure is trying to trick us, making us believe it is a person when in fact it is a construct? Maybe there is something about not seeing true life behind those realistic puppet eyes that just makes us squirm.

Assume we could make a robot more and more similar to a human in form, would our affinity to this robot steadily increase as realism increased or would there be dips in the relationship between affinity and realism.” (Masahiro Mori, 1970) Ref 1

Puppetry legend Janni Younge once said, “The puppet is a dead thing that’s brought to life.” (Ref 3). Breathing life into your puppet is one of the core fundamentals of puppetry, the magic of manipulation is that you can look at an inanimate object and see a living thing. You connect with it, you believe it, and you feel it.  Depending on the context this can be a wonderfully magic moment or one that can fill you with a sense of wrongness. Puppets are things that are not alive, but act as if they are, if that is not the basis for horror then I don’t know what is.

KWAIDAN – Rouge28 Theatre

Aya Nakamura is Associate Artist of Rouge28 Theatre and has performed in the Japanese Ghost Story show KWAIDAN, she says, “People tend to find puppets scary when puppets are figurative. I believe it’s because it imitates living beings and the viewers can perceive it as being alive yet also, they know that it is not real. They cannot tell exactly how or why it becomes scary. We, as humans, find things that we do not know scary.”  

Can you say that puppets are the living dead?

Puppet Place resident artist Ben Mars says, “They behave as if conscious, but that consciousness is particularly other.”

Perhaps, it is the relationship between audience, puppet, and puppeteer that can trigger us. It is so easy for an audience to imprint on a puppet. That’s why they are such amazing things to use in performance. But if we are using those puppets in a malicious and cruel way, or they themselves are being treated horribly, do we as an audience feel it more because we see ourselves in the puppets? Is our ability to experience these scary situations ourselves through the lens of a puppet what makes them a great horror tool? There is something to be said there also about this lens providing a certain amount of protection to the viewer; we can engage fully with what is happening but from the safety of our own seat.

In Chicago, there is a new theatrical experience taking place created by Rough House Theatre. “The House of the Exquisite Corpse”, a horror peep-show, puppet-theatre anthology, invites the audience to peer through keyholes, cracks, and hidden doors to discover surreal worlds that will terrify and amaze…

Mike Oleon from Rough House had this to say, “Puppets beg to be animated with vital life force, and fear is one of our most fundamental emotions. Fill a puppet with something that provokes that fear and you will find they are perfect vessels through which audiences can experience the most profound terror and emerge unscathed. That is thrilling.”

The House of the Exquisite Corpse – Rough House

Another very practical reason why puppets work so well in horror is that puppet design is only limited by a creator’s imagination (and budget!). Bodies can be elongated, features distorted, and finishings worn and damaged. Puppets can be made to look like something straight out of a nightmare.

As Chris Pirie from Green Ginger says, “It’s all about eye position. Too close together – uncanny. Too far apart – uncanny. Just right – really f**king freaky!”

We can bend puppets to physically resemble the thing that terrifies us. 

Aya Nakamura adds, “Puppets are good at taking the shape of the artists’ imaginations and visions. Puppet makers can create the creature as they wish. And their advantages are different from human actors. Puppets can fly and transform, they can have many tentacles or less limbs than humans. These help to make creatures and make them less ordinary humans or animals.”

From making slight unsettling changes to human figures to large leaps with tentacles, blood red eyes, and gnashing teeth, we can make puppets look like anything, and if we choose that anything can be really scary. 

Queen Takes Bishop – House of Funny Noises

Another notion is that puppets, dolls, and toys are closely linked to our childhood. At this early stage of life we are vulnerable, small inquisitive creatures, unknowing of the dangers of the real world that we come to learn as we grow up. The phrase ‘the past comes back to haunt us’ comes to mind, as a lot of our grown up fears come from our childhood experiences. Older siblings or bullies stealing and mutilating our favourite toys, clutching a doll for comfort whilst grownups argue in the other room, or staring at the freaky frog teddy in the dead of night just waiting for it to blink. By using puppets as a source of ill intent and evil, are we tapping into that childhood sense of vulnerability, uprooting those experiences that have come to mould us as adults?

It is also a time where our imaginations run wild and anything seems possible. Children learn and experience the world through play. By using these playful tools to create a sense of unease, are we tapping back into our powerful childhood imaginations, which now, as adults, are skewed to picture the dark as well as the light? Is that why an old, abandoned child’s playroom and warped children’s music can fill a person with dread? 

The House of the Exquisite Corpse – Rough House

As a puppeteer and puppet maker, I spend my life surrounded by weird, wonderful, and sometimes creepy puppets. I have never felt unsettled in their presence (apart from that one time I accidentally stumbled on a hunched over lifesize old man puppet in a pitch black Puppet Place, then I did jump), I feel in control of my tools and at my place of work. Is that it then? Is the idea of control a key factor? Puppets are designed to be controlled, manipulated, but often in horror there is a dramatic control shift, the puppet comes to life or is possessed for example. Is the fear of losing control physically represented by a puppet? In Nightmare on Elm Street 3 there is a Scene where one of the characters is forced to be a grotesque human puppet, manipulated by Freddy Krueger. In this example, this person could not be less in control. Perhaps, the lack of control of something that is meant to be controlled is what makes the fear of puppets a reality.

Max Dorey, from Puppet Place, makes an interesting comparison between puppets and classic novels, “Pinicio, perhaps the atypical and earliest puppet gone rogue, was written in 1883… Frankenstein, also about a creator losing control of their creation was written in 1818. The idea of a living doll I would say is scary because it is a total removal of power that then turns the aspect of control on its head.”

Interesting, that two very different stories have so many similarities when you start to think about them. The idea of control, taking it, losing it, wanting it, being tricked by someone who has it… Do we relate to this sense of powerlessness and futility when we see such a clear representation through a living doll? Do we relate to the manipulator, the controlled and the power struggle between them simultaneously?

Eloise Dunwell, from Puppet Place, adds, “Maybe what’s also strange is that performance can only come from what us humans can think up, so will it always be a representation of the psyche?”

Puppets need to be controlled by something, but by what? Perhaps the notion of a human manipulator scares us because we know how dark humanity can be. Especially when the identity of someone is removed. You need not look far on social media to see how people’s behaviour changes when they have the shield of anonymity. Does a puppet give that kind of shield if used by someone with dark intent, and is that what makes people distrust a puppet in certain instances? The puppet that you see could be so very different from the person hiding behind it.

Seaside Terror – Odd Doll

Humans can be scary, yes, but is it only people who can manipulate puppets? Puppets are literally vessels created to be controlled, so it isn’t surprising that puppets have been used in supernatural stories from ghosts to demons, voodoo to witchcraft. Do puppets give us the sense that we have created an unpredictable path between our world and another?

Emma Windsor from White Rabbit Animation says, “The notion of puppets and dolls as magic objects is deep rooted in our collective consciousness, I think. Pre-history, humanity was carving small objects that represented or were thought to capture the gods or supernatural forces, the The Venus of Willendorf figurine springs to mind. So I think this connection between small figurines and the supernatural is hard wired in most human cultures.”

If we grow up with this idea that puppets, dolls, and figures are innately magical, of course then we can use this to our advantage when telling stories of a dark nature.

No matter how you look at it, puppets are able to connect with audiences in a way that can draw out and enhance the fear within us all. So why are we drawn to the macabre and terrifying especially in terms of entertainment? One great example of a puppet horror stage show is Seaside Terror by Odd Doll. Stuffed with fun frights and ice cream chills, Seaside Terror is a celebration of British horror and British holidays of the 1970s.

Kathleen Yore, Artistic Director of Odd Doll, has this to say, “As an art form it provides a powerful feeling of escapism and is especially good at tapping into our subconscious fears; bringing to the surface hidden imagery and diving deep into otherworldly places. Strange objects or handmade figures that appear to live, to breathe, and to think in front of our very eyes are like magic, interpreted uniquely by each viewer. What a liberating experience! Even when we present something horrid the audience are still thankful for the journey, still amazed at how a bit of papier-mâché and fabric had them transfixed!”

Puppetry is an amazing storytelling medium by adding weight and engageability to new stories. When you create puppets you are creating a world with new rules. The characters, props, and set can all be manipulated to create this unique space, even the gravity can be different. You as the creator set your own laws. This merges so well with horror, where the unexpected and the twisting of reality can create unnerving stories. Again, back to the idea that something is familiar but a bit off. The fact that puppets are physical entities also enhances an audience’s connection with them. You feel like you can touch or be touched by them and bring you deeper into the world. This is why puppets and horror work so well on stage and on screen.

Kathleen Yore says, “I believe that great horror and great puppetry is all about well thought out visual imagery. Experimenting with light and dark, what we see and don’t see, like a living comic book, moving from one picture to the next. So it goes without saying that puppetry lends itself perfectly to the telling of a scary story.”

They goes on to say, “Working with puppets provides a license to see how far we can push things; puppets poo, their teeth fall out, or they can die in gruesome ways. Despite being presented with such darkness, audiences often find themselves laughing. Perhaps working with puppets provides a form of distance from the true horror of what we are presenting?”

Puppets allow ‘space’ (see Sarah Fornace interview) for the audience to fill in the gaps. What we imagine can often be more terrifying than what we are shown. You can address the subject head on but in an abstract or slightly removed way, allowing an audience to insert themselves or their ideas into the story. This is why we are seeing more and more puppetry being used in mainstream media.

In 2021, Candyman hit cinemas nationwide bringing with it an eerie shadow puppet film created by Chicago’s Manual Cinema.

Their piece was used in the trailer of the film and is referred to throughout, a powerful yet disconcerting framing device which enhances the tone, atmosphere, and surrealism of the film. 

I caught up with Sarah Fornace from Manual Cinema to talk about Candyman.

Candyman – Manual Cinema

So let’s start with this idea that puppets address horror and violence with a layer of abstraction that gives the audience space to connect with the material. Here is the part of our interview where we start touching on that subject… 

The shadow puppetry in Candyman is beautifully creepy, working well with the live action world of the main film to enhance key points, emotions and atmosphere. I asked Sarah why shadow puppetry was the right choice for this production… 

As we talked we dove deeper into why puppetry works so well to tell horror stories and why they chose puppets over other performance styles specifically for the Candyman film… 

I love that sentence, “…everything a puppet does is inherently meaningful.”

When we use puppetry to tell a story, as a whole production or as a selected section, we are highlighting the importance of that story. A bit like Shakespeare using iambic pentameter to capture attention at key theatrical moments, puppetry adds weight and importance to a story by its sheer presence. When used within a horror context we are highlighting, without words, the weight of these moments, drawing the audience deeper into the narrative where what they see will hold greater impact.

As Kathleen puts it, “Certain horror films have put the fear of clowns, masks, and puppets into some of our audience, but when a puppetry performance begins, the overwhelming sense of craftsmanship and perfect manipulation which portrays every thought, every breath, every moment of the story, quickly eradicates any doubts about how magnificent this art form is. But of course, being aware of this underlying fear is something we as artists can very easily use to our advantage if we wanted to!”

No matter how you look at it, puppets have the ability to target the fears within us all. From the ideas of control, power and lack thereof, to the physical designs, universal appeal and their reality warping capabilities; to connections with our childhood selves and the idea that the unknown is a thing to fear. Puppets can engage us in pleasant magical ways, but like most things there is always another side to the coin, the more you can connect with something the more power it holds over you. So when used in just the right (or wrong) way, puppetry can tell the most terrifying of stories.

So remember, treat your puppets nicely, just in case, because you never know what puppets get up to when you leave them behind closed doors…

Candyman – Manual Cinema

Article by Cat Rock 


Thanks to:


Sarah Fornace – Manual Cinema 

https://manualcinema.com/

See the full edited interview here


Kathleen Yore – Artistic Director of Odd Doll 

https://www.odddoll.co.uk/


Aya Nakamura – Puppeteer • Puppet Maker • Theatre Maker

http://www.ayanakamura.com


Mike Oleon CO-ARTISTIC DIRECTOR Rough House 

https://www.roughhousetheater.com/


House of Funny Noises

https://www.houseoffunnynoises.com/


Puppet Place Residents and Associates

Ben Mars 

Max Dorey 

Eloise Dunwell 

Chris Pirie 

Emma Windsor


References

Ref 1 

In Search of the Uncanny Valley by Frank E Pollick
https://www.psy.gla.ac.uk/~frank/Documents/InSearchUncannyValley.pdf

Ref 2 

Uncanny Valley

Rosenthal-von der Pütten, AM et al. Neural Mechanisms for Accepting and Rejecting Artificial Social Partners in the Uncanny Valley. Journal of Neuroscience

https://www.jneurosci.org/content/39/33/6555

Ref 3 

Puppetery; Brinning a dead thing to life – Source CNN

https://edition.cnn.com/videos/world/2017/02/08/african-voices-capetown-puppetry-new-a.cnn

The Ray Harryhausen Film Awards: Pioneer of Moving Monsters

© The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation, photography by Brian Robertson, National Galleries Scotland

What do dinosaurs, skeletons, a giant octopus, and a phorusrhacos have in common? Ray Harryhausen’s legendary hands zapped life into all of them!

Since the 1950s, Ray Harryhausen has been hypnotising audiences world-over with his unprecedented stop-motion special effects. After seeing King Kong (1933), teen Ray Harryhausen was awe-struck and discovered a new life-long love for creating stop-motion creatures and bringing them to life. Harryhausen quickly became Hollywood’s go-to guy when it came to physical effects for live-action film, making beastly characters for sci-fi, fantasy, and horror films. He’s best known for his work on 20 Million Miles To Earth, Clash of the Titans, and Jason and the Argonauts. Ray’s career spanned three decades and created a strong foundation for future animators and model makers to build upon. His work combined so many skills and merged technicality with creativity in a way that created entire new worlds! Always innovative, he created a new animation/special effects technique called ‘Dynamism’. To quote a critic from The Guardian, ‘This is not just special effects, this is art.’

© The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation, Vanessa Harryhausen’s book, ‘Titan Of Cinema’.

In order to continue his legacy and inspire future generations of stop-motion artists, The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation have set up an awards programme that will be open to entries soon. I’ve spoken to John Walsh from the foundation to learn a bit more about The Ray and Diana HarryHausen Foundation and their exciting new awards programme!

Tell me about Ray Harryhausen’s impact on the film industry. 

Ray Harryhausen was an expert exponent of visual special effects through stop-motion animation. This involved moving a puppet in front of a camera one frame at a time to create the illusion of movement. Other people had been working in this field before Ray, notably Willis O’Brien on King Kong (1933), but Harryhausen would break new ground and influence generations of filmmakers to come. From Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg, and James Cameron. On his death in 2013, George Lucas said, “Without Ray Harryhausen, there would likely have been no Star Wars.”

© The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation

What is the Ray & Diana Harryhausen Foundation, and how can people get involved?

Ray and Diana set up the charity in the 1980s to protect the vast collection, estimated at 50,000 items, and educate other animators in Ray’s working practices. We are active on social media and have exhibitions. You can find our website here and details of our current and most extensive exhibition to date here. We have an active social media presence and an award-winning podcast series too. 

© The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation

Can you describe for us the new ‘Ray Harryhausen Film Awards’ programme?

Ray Harryhausen’s influence on cinema past and present is truly titanic. I devised these awards in Ray’s name to recognise new standards of excellence in the growing field of animation. I hope the awards will promote Ray’s legacy and identify new talent coming into the industry. More information will be released on the Awards website in the coming months. 

Vanessa Harryhausen © The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation

Is there anything, in particular, you’ll be looking out for in your award entries?

Innovation and technique, of course, are critical for any judging panel. However, the quality of the films in that category is crucial in awarding the best examples. It is a case of surprising the judges and hoping you get recognised. I have been on the other side as an award recipient and nominee on numerous occasions, so I know how much an award or even a nomination can help a career. 

© The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation, Ray & John Walsh with Kraken.

How do you hope these awards will influence emergent filmmaking talent?

Animation can be a solitary experience for a filmmaker, so the awards will act as a network and a chance for other filmmakers to discuss their work. It is also part of any filmmaker’s development to see what their peers are working with or even struggling to achieve. In any creative field, growth is the key to success. Sometimes that can be a frustrating and challenging road to travel but satisfying when you arrive at your completed project ready to show the world. 

John Walsh is a trustee of The Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation. Watch his documentary about Harryhausen’s life and work, and follow him on Twitter.

If you fancy reading more about Ray Harryhausen’s career and seeing some magic from behind the scenes, the books; Harryhausen The Lost Movies by John Walsh and the award-winning Ray Harryhausen Titan of Cinema by Vanessa Harryhausen are highly recommended.

The Season of the Witch: Discovering ‘The Lost Librarian’

The Lost Librarian is a ground-breaking escape room for inquisitive explorers of all ages. Using interactive books, employing creative technology, groups of up to six people experience a 60-minute journey, uncovering a fantastical retelling of the Devon Witches and the legacy that they have left behind.

The project is the brainchild of Puppet Place resident artists Lizzie Johnson, Kyle Hirani, Matt Gibbs, and Chat Akula, and the installation was commissioned by Libraries Unlimited. We sat down with writer and narrative designer, Matt Gibbs, to find out more about this innovative installation.


Lost Librarian 2021 Tour, testing at Puppet Place – Photo: Matt Gibbs

The Lost Librarian is an innovative ‘escape room’ project that brings together art, design, technology, and storytelling. Can you tell us about the idea and story, and how the project got off the ground?

MG: The Lost Librarian began at the end of 2018, when Lizzie (Designer, Fabricator and Project Manager) and Kyle (Roboticist and Creative Technologist) were commissioned by Libraries Unlimited to devise and produce an interactive creative technology experience for Exeter’s libraries as part of their Evolve programme with funding from Arts Council England. The aim was to get more teenagers engaging with the library. Lizzie and Kyle approached me soon after to help them shape the narrative and puzzles for the books that they wanted to create; wooden artefacts that would live on the shelves of any library, each containing a different puzzle and an element of story.

In January 2019, the three of us began exploring approaches, not only to the narrative, but the sorts of creative technology – capacitive touch, light, motion, and sound sensors, magnetic viewfinders, thermochromic paint, etc – that we wanted to incorporate into the puzzles. We explored several themes related to the history of Exeter, but eventually settled on a fictional retelling of the Bideford Witch Trials; three Devon women who were accused of witchcraft and condemned in 1682 at the Exeter Assizes. It is a subject that is very much aligned with our own interests, enabling us to explore feminism, persecution of women, and even fake news, in an engaging way through these books.

Lost Librarian 2021 Tour – Photo: Libraries Unlimited

The Lost Librarian’s first run in Exeter’s Central, St. Thomas, and Topsham libraries was a great success; with over 20 books being spread across those locations, forming a puzzle trail that the public could freely interact with, as well as being setup especially for Library Late events, where the library was opened up to older audiences to explore and play.

Based on the success of the initial run and these events, Libraries Unlimited commissioned us again, this time to reimagine and rework the installation as a touring exhibit for all of Devon libraries for 2020. This gave us the opportunity to completely re-examine what worked and what didn’t, and collaborate with Youth and SEND groups to gather their input and feedback. All was going well… and then Covid 19 changed the Arts world.

But, after three lockdowns and reworking the installation and creative technology for a post Covid world, the Lost Librarian is on tour again!

Libraries Unlimited: The Lost Librarian Puzzle Trail

The Lost Librarian project combines many skillsets including fabrication, technology, and interactive storytelling. Can you tell us more about your collaboration? What were the main challenges? What are you most proud of?

MG: There’s a whole host of talented folk involved in the current touring version of the Lost Librarian. Joining the core creative team is Chat Akula (Robotocist) who has written the complex coding for the new books with Kyle. In addition, we’ve been lucky enough to work with: Nick Wilsher (Creative Technologist), Luke Gregg (Fabricator & Carpenter), Helena Houghton (Fabricator & Prop Maker), Katie Hood (Fabricator & Prop Maker), Est Johnson (Prop Maker), Cat Rock (Voice Director), Michael Basri (Composer), and Sheila Atim (as the voice of Molly Allison).

It’s been exciting to work with so many people, but it hasn’t been without its challenges. Covid 19 has been our biggest obstacle; the stop-start nature of our work and access to the studio at Puppet Place has been hard. We also had to redesign the experience with Covid in mind, bringing it off the library shelves and onto three podiums to make access and cleaning easier. We’ve even had to remove creative technology we’d planned to employ – for example, breath based puzzles were immediately no longer suitable!

But we can all take pride in handling these obstacles, finding solutions and ways forward together, and with the help of Libraries Unlimited who have been hugely supportive throughout.

Lost Librarian 2021 Tour – Photo: Libraries Unlimited

Where has the Lost Librarian been run? What have participants gained from the experience? What have they enjoyed the most?

MG: The first leg of the Lost Librarian tour began in July and covered Exeter, Barnstaple, and Newton Abbot libraries. And feedback has been wonderful and overwhelmingly positive so far from the families and groups that have experienced it.

From our testing and the feedback from Libraries Unlimited, participants often get swept up and engaged in the experience. The wonder people experience interacting with these wooden artefacts, especially the capacitive touch elements – enabling them to trace their finger over wooden surfaces as they would use their mobile devices – is a joy to behold!

What is usually an hour of play, feels like only half an hour has passed for most folk, and everyone enjoys the increasing levels of difficulty and variety in the puzzles. This sparks group collaboration; and that, coupled with the narrative, seems to set it apart from escape room experiences. There was a lovely piece in The Bookseller about the tour that sums it up well.

One delightful aspect we discovered is that because Molly, our Lost Librarian, voiced beautifully by Sheila Atim, reads the ‘story’ of the first book out to participants, they then take it upon themselves, usually in turns, to read the later books to each other. That too, is a joy to hear!

Lost Librarian 2021 Tour – Photo: Matt Gibbs

Are there plans to tour the Lost Librarian again in the near future? And/or do you have any similar projects in the pipeline that you can share?

MG: The Lost Librarian has just finished a run at The Hayridge in Cullompton, and is about to head to Tavistock (from 23rd October) and then Okehampton (from 13th November). We’re then having it back at Puppet Place over Christmas, where it will be having a bit of TLC, before heading out again to more Devon libraries in Spring.

As for other creative technology and narrative led projects, the short answer is ‘Yes!’ As a group; Lizzie, Kyle, Chat, and I enjoy collaborating and working together and there are many other ideas that we wish to explore at the intersection of play, narrative, design, and creative technology. There is one we have been talking about developing for a couple of years now – and we have just received an Arts Council Grant to help fund the R&D for that!

Interview by Emma Windsor


More about the team

Vāsthu (Kyle Kyle Hirani & Chat Akula)
Founded in 2017 by Kyle Kyle Hirani & Chat Akula, Vāsthu provides R&D services for projects at the intersection of Arts and Robotics. Clients include, Amalgam, Pif-Paf, and the Center for Fine Print and Research. Visit the website: www.vasthu.co.uk

Elizabeth Johnson
Elizabeth Johnson is a designer, fabricator, and project manager, whose work includes interactive installations for The National Trust, and work for Daphne Wright, Bristol Old Vic, Raucous, Rusty Squid, and Tobacco Factory Theatres. Facebook: ElizabethJohnsonMakes

Matt Gibbs
A WGGB award nominated writer and narrative designer, Matt Gibbs’ work includes games, such as Battlefield 1 and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Visit the website: www.mattgibbs.net

Bristol 48 hour Puppet Film Challenge: Thoughts and advice from our Judges

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.

THE BARBARIAN AND THE TROLL – Colleen Smith (Photo: Colleen Smith)

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.

Dwynwen puppet for LLYFR GLAS NEBO – Olivia Racionzer (Photo: Olivia Racionzer)

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.

COULROPHOBIA – Adam Blake & Dik Downey (Photo: Stephan Poller)

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.

More details, including how to register, can be found via: bristol48hpuppetfilmchallenge.co.uk

Bristol 48 hour Puppet Film Challenge 2021 Trailer by House of Funny Noises

Colleen Smith is an actress, comedian, and puppeteer who has worked on several Jim Henson Company projects and most recently The Barbarian and The Troll for Nickelodeon.

Website: colleensmi.com / Twitter: @ColleenSmi

Dik Downey is a Puppet maker, puppeteer, performer, director, sculptor, artist, and clown! And is part of Opposable Thumb with Adam Blake.

Website: opposablethumbtheatre.com / Twitter: @dikdowney / Instagram: @dik_downey

Olivia Racionzer is a designer, maker, and puppeteer, freelancing in theatre and film & television, most recently working on His Dark Materials for the BBC in the Creature Effects Department.

Website: oliviaracionzer.com / Twitter: @oliviaracionzer


Interviewed by Matt Gibbs


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.

All films submitted will be screened online from 11th – 12th September, 2021, and the winning entries, selected by a team of top judges, will be screened at the Finale on Sunday 12th September, 2021, at 7:00pm (BST), both online and on the Big Screen in Bristol’s famous Millennium Square.

Don’t miss this fantastic opportunity to flex your puppetry prowess on the silver screen – there will be prizes! Find out more at bristol48hpuppetfilmchallenge.co.uk and keep up to date with all the latest news about the Challenge on Facebook and Instagram.

How The Bristol 48 hour Puppet Film Challenge Was Born: An Interview with Cat Rock

Last year, Cat Rock, Izzy Bristow, and Helena Houghton came up with a brilliant plan to inspire creative people around the world with a puppet film challenge that must be completed in just 48 hours. The online event was such a success that Cat decided to bring it back this year and challenge anyone from anywhere to make a short puppet film over this August bank holiday weekend, 27th – 29th. We caught up with her to find out more.

Who are you and what inspired you to organise the Bristol 48 hour Puppet Film Challenge?

I’m Cat Rock, Resident Artist and Trustee of Puppet Place, and Co-Director of The House of Funny Noises. I am a puppeteer and puppet maker working in theatre and film, who loves the surreal and bizarre world of puppetry. I have had the pleasure of working with weird and wonderful characters, both puppet and human, and I am excited to see what the future holds for the puppet industry.

I started the Challenge last year in 2020 with help from the other soon to be members of the House of Funny Noises, Izzy Bristow and Helena Houghton. It was April and we were in the midst of the pandemic, staring longingly out of the window and looking at blank work calendars all round. It was a hard time for everyone. I know I was very lucky to be trapped in isolation with a house filled with creative puppet people. It sucked, but this gave us an opportunity – the first time ever – that we all had free time at the same time! So, Izzy brought to our attention that the LA Guild of Puppetry were doing a film project, making a puppet film in 48 hours. Well, time is the one thing we had last year, so we decided to enter.

I can’t tell how much fun and what a creative relief it was to just throw yourself into such a challenge. There’s no time to question, there’s no time to doubt, you just have to get stuck in and puppet, puppet, puppet! This was the first puppet film I had made as a group and not just as a hired puppeteer, and it was an amazing time. We made a film called ‘BELLY’ and I’m very proud of this weird and scrappy piece of puppet film. ‘BELLY’ did well, receiving an honourable mention and winning best of the Rocky Mountain Puppetry Guild, which Izzy is a part of.

After this we decided to form the House of Funny Noises and explore deeper into the world of puppet film. We are up to ten films now and recently completed a commission for the Beverley Puppet Festival. We gained so much out of taking part in the LA Puppetry Guilds project that I wanted to start one here in Bristol. Puppetry from the UK and Europe has such a different feel to it than a lot of American produced projects. I wanted to create a platform that would help get our stories and puppets out there, whilst also giving people a creative challenge during a very difficult time.

Thus the Bristol 48 hour Puppet Film Challenge was born!

Last year’s Challenge was a huge success with over 70 entries submitted from around the world! Why do you think people were so eager to take the challenge?

2020, what an interesting year (readers you can replace interesting with whichever cursing adjective you like!). I believe that so many people gravitated towards the Challenge because everyone was looking for a way to engage, communicate, and express with other people in a time where direct contact was not allowed. Even though you were more likely working by yourself or with those you lived with, by participating you were a part of something bigger, and that is what we needed, a connection to a larger thing that wasn’t plague related.

Photo by Arran Glasss

The Challenge provided people with an opportunity to do something practical, it was not a Zoom call, or staring into the abyss of the Netflix homepage, you had to get up and create and produce a fully formed thing. You got the enjoyment and adrenalin of working under pressure as well as coming up with your own story and creation. We received so many comments from people saying how much this short event helped them in the pandemic – having a goal, having a target, a reason to do something. It sparked people’s imagination and in the end 70 wonderful puppet films now exist because of it. People will always surprise you with their passion and talent.

Photo by Josh Elwell

What were your favourite entries from last year’s Challenge?

What were my favourite entries!? Oh, that’s a hard question, I loved so many. A few that stand out to me when I think back are “Little Red Parting Gift” by Anima Mundi Figurteater. I loved the story, action, characters, it’s one I could watch again and again. I also love “Switch” by Stooge Films; who doesn’t love puppet noir, so brilliantly shot and creative. I also have a place in my heart for “Why Am I A Stick?” by NonSuch productions. It’s a film about a man who turns into a stick! So bizarre yet done so well with wonderful puppets and props, I’d watch the feature of that one.

“Why Am I A Stick?” by NonSuch productions

One more I’d like to mention is “The Monstrosity of Time Travel” by SandyLang Co. I loved this one. Short, sweet, totally my jam. Unfortunately last year this film was actually not eligible for judging as it was a full stop motion piece… However, after seeing some of the amazing stop motion entries we have changed the boundaries for this year’s event, and fully stop motion films will be eligible in 2021!

What do you hope for this year’s Challenge?

This year we hope to be able to reach more participants and viewers, we want to expand the diversity of engagement, and become a more inclusive event. It will be a slow and steady progression, but we are on the right track. This year we hope to see even more amazing films and connect more puppet people with other creatives.

We also have a new thing happening this year. We are partnering with We The Curious in Bristol to bring the Finale of the Challenge to the Big Screen in Millennium Square. So all the films that make it into the Top Ten, the Honourable Mentions, and Award Winners will be shown on Sunday, 12th September at 7pm on one of Bristol’s biggest outdoors screens! Bringing puppets to the public!

We The Curious – Big Screen in Millennium Square, Bristol City Centre

In regards to what kind of puppetry can be used in the Challenge, all direct manipulation puppetry is accepted. So that means any kind of puppetry where someone directly moves the puppet to bring it to life. For example hand and rod puppet, object manipulation, strings and marionettes, stop motion, basically if you move it with your body, or you move it with a physical force it is accepted (for example wind dance puppets). The only type that is really excluded for the Challenge is computer generated animation and manipulation. These can feature in films, but there must be practical and direct puppetry elements.

We are excited to see what people do!

Photo by Ana Colomer

We hope that people will get a few things out of participating in the Challenge:

1) A fun challenge to be creative with puppets where people produce fully completed films.

2) The opportunity to see and engage with other puppet films and puppet creators from around the world.

3) A chance to get your creations in front of a wide audience and under the eyes of our panel of industry professionals.

Lockdowns may be lifting and things are very slowly returning to some resemblance of what was before, but there is always a place for creativity and puppets.

What does the future hold for the Challenge?

I want the Bristol 48 hour Puppet Film Challenge to become a well known and eagerly anticipated cultural event. I want the people of the South West to get involved and I want to see participation from all over the World. The goal is for the Challenge to become a self-sustaining exciting event that grows and produces amazing puppet films every year, eventually becoming an integral part of the Bristol Puppet Festival when it is able to return. This in turn could enable us to produce similar events creating more platforms on which puppet media can stand.

Another main aspiration of the Challenge is to grow its legacy. We want to do this by creating feature length anthologies of select films from the Challenge that could go on tour to puppet festivals, venues, and even reach out into communities who don’t have great access to the puppetry world, encouraging local community engagement. We might be starting our legacy this year, so keep your eyes peeled and please feel free to get in contact if you have a venue or organisation that would like to talk about the possibilities.


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.

All films submitted will be screened online from 11th – 12th September, 2021, and the winning entries, selected by a team of top judges, will be screened at the Finale on Sunday 12th September, 2021, at 7:00pm (BST), both online and on the Big Screen in Bristol’s famous Millennium Square.

Don’t miss this fantastic opportunity to flex your puppetry prowess on the silver screen – there will be prizes! Find out more at bristol48hpuppetfilmchallenge.co.uk and keep up to date with all the latest news about the Challenge on Facebook and Instagram.

The Winners! 2020’s Bristol 48 hour Puppet Film Challenge

As much as it is all about taking part, I’ve been told that winning is an experience that feels very good. At last, you can stand tall on that podium, sit up on that high horse and look down at all the little runners up! Joking aside, we’re getting close to the 2021 Bristol 48 hour Puppet Film Challenge and there’s excitement in the air.

Finishing the challenge itself is a tremendous feat. Coming up with a concept, constructing puppets, making all the little set bits, animating/puppeteering, filming, and then editing the whole thing in 48 hours – it’s a little bit crazy and a lot of fun! Creating a puppet film is difficult, but what’s more difficult is pleasing both a panel of expert judges and all of your screaming fans. Last years winners will already know this very well! There were so many gems in last years competition, I can’t imagine how hard it was to agree on the winners.

In third place we had ‘Joey of the Past’ by Taylor Bibat. A music video-style film with a score from his band, ‘ElvisBride’. This film took the theme of last year, TIME and used the item, THREAD and created something pensive and surreal. Joey is a time traveller swinging across the screen clinging to a thread, maybe representing string theory?

Tell us about your film Taylor.

I was told about the Bristol 48hr Puppet Challenge by Chris Pirie who I had recently performed with in an opera in Chicago. Because of COVID-19 I decided to do my best with just my own two hands and readied the apartment for 48 hours of creative flurry! The three cats were confused, but along for the ride. When the prompts of “thread,” “flip,”and “time” were announced I realised that the song “Joey of the Past,” written by Troy Martin for the band ElvisBride of which I was a member years back, was perfect. With support from Bry Sanders, I teased out the images I wanted to play with; time represented by thread, Sisyphean struggle and problem solving around it, that dreamlike state between waking and sleep. Ultimately my plans were mostly thwarted by lack of extra hands because two is never enough, an ever failing monitor set up resulting in puppeteering blind and other tech challenges that left me exhausted and frustrated. I remember thinking that I wish the filming process had been itself filmed as it felt like an ongoing clown act with me constantly “eating” problem after problem. At a certain point I stopped shooting and got to editing, putting aside the plan and collaging with whatever footage I had. The only measure of success I cared about was turning something in before time ran out. 

Did you already have the song to work with or was that created for the challenge?

The song was already written and recorded years prior. I was in a band called ElvisBride when I lived in Chicago and the music is very special to me. This song in particular always fascinated me and I was so happy to get to explore it visually. I love for ElvisBride music to be heard by new people, even all these years after the band has broken up. 

What was it like watching the screening and hearing from the judges? 

To be honest, winning any sort of recognition was so far from my mind that I didn’t think to watch it live as I knew I could come back to it later. It wasn’t until I got a text from a friend saying I was in the Top 10 that I got to a computer and turned it on. I was then shocked that I placed in third! To have the amazing judges refer to the “excellent animation and movement” and “really skilled manipulation,” along with comments on its relationship to COVID, “Intriguing design ideas”, the mechanics of the simple set being “enormously satisfying” and of course the music. I was just beside myself and felt a profound sense of confidence and joy. This specific feedback from these brilliant puppet artists was invaluable. I had surpassed my goal of just getting something turned in and felt so proud of the work I had done just with my two hands over the course of 48 hours. Thanks Bristol 48hr Puppet Film Challenge and House of Funny Noises. What a pleasure to participate in such a wonderful event!

In second place, was ‘Why am I a Stick’ by NonSuch Productions. An epic adventure where a man wakes up and turns into a stick! We follow his journey in solving the mystery of why he is a stick and how he might return to his human form. A bit like Freaky Friday! Existential and funny, with lots of charm and a lovely fly. Let’s hear from Jennifer Sinclair, one of Nonsuch production’s puppet creators and wranglers.

NonSuch Productions

What gave you the idea to turn a man into a stick?

The inspiration for the film came from many different places, and the storyline itself was inspired by the prompts of the Challenge. Stickington (the name of our lead character) however, was created because of a picnic. We were on a post-lockdown, two-household, socially-distanced picnic and were discussing the upcoming challenge and what we might do. Somebody mentioned that it might be difficult to get puppet-making materials with the restrictions still in place and so we were discussing what household items might make good puppets. We then chanced upon a stick that looked a bit like a face and the rest is history! We had our protagonist and after a long night of brainstorming, storyboarding (and some wine!) after the announcement of the prompts at 7:00pm on the Friday, we decided to send our stick-man on a journey of self-discovery and adventure!

How did you get involved in the challenge?

We heard about the Challenge from some friends in the Bristol Puppetry community and thought it sounded like fun (and it was!). We aren’t professional puppeteers, but love to be creative and make things together and we really enjoyed making the film and seeing all of the entries!

Which element of the challenge was the most fun for you?

Being together and making something we are proud of. There were times that things didn’t work how we wanted or we felt like we were running out of time, but throughout we were laughing (even ruining takes because we were giggling!) and enjoying working collaboratively. Having limited time and resources is challenging, but necessity is the mother of invention and the Challenge gives you an opportunity to really flex your creative muscles, think on your feet and work together to get things done.

NonSuch Productions

And the winner was… ‘The Moon, the Sun, and the Sweep’ by Bear Thompson & Áine de Siún! A unique and dreamy film with a porcelain doll protagonist who falls to her death whilst sweeping. She ascends through a glittering spacey scene as we all reflect on the concept of time and the fragility of life. Here’s what Bear had to say about his time doing the 48hr challenge.

‘The Moon, the Sun, and the Sweep’ by Bear Thompson & Áine de Siú

Can you describe the concept of The Moon, the Sun, and the Sweep?

The Moon, the Sun, and the Sweep is about not letting the day to day get swept away. 

How did you manage your precious 48 hours?

On the first day we brainstormed lots of different ideas. It wasn’t until the second day, when we started making things, that it all came together. We both had different roles so we could work on different things to save time and it was a lot of fun working together too. 

What advice would you give to future competitors?

Our advice would be to crack on and start making and trying things out, but don’t panic if after 24 hours you still don’t have anything. Allow the story to change and use what’s around you to inspire ideas. Use the prompts to shape the story and try to think outside the box and include them in as many ways as possible. Make it your own style, because every single film last year was so unique and it was amazing to see them all. You’ll have a great time!

‘The Moon, the Sun, and the Sweep’ by Bear Thompson & Áine de Siú

If you fancy having a great time making your own puppet film in 48 hours, then lucky for you, there’s still time to sign up! And you can also watch last year’s films for inspiration.

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.

This years Festival is 11th – 12th September, 2021, with timings and viewing platforms to be announced! The Finale will be screening at We The Curious in Bristol on Sunday, 12th September, 2021, at 7:00pm (BST).

For more information about visit bristol48hpuppetfilmchallenge.co.uk

 

Here Be Dragons! An Interview with Angie Bual about The Hatchling

The Hatchling in progress

Created by a leading design team specialising in puppetry, kites and immersive theatre, The Hatchling will be a ground-breaking outdoor theatrical performance that will unfold over a weekend of events in Plymouth. The spectacular giant dragon puppet will hatch in Plymouth City Centre, and with a wingspan of over 20 metres, will attempt to fly over the sea on Plymouth coast at the end of her journey. We caught up with Artistic Director of Trigger, Angie Bual to find out more about this amazing project.


Can you tell us about the origins of the idea and who is involved? How did this amazing project get started?

The Hatchling was created to be an unforgettable, one-off live event, free for all to attend – which now feels particularly pertinent after a year of isolation. We wanted to bring a sense of awe and wonder to Plymouth, and to involve the local community in all elements from the puppet’s design to the final performance.

The project is a celebration of cultural diversity, openness and unity, asking us to celebrate our commonalities over our differences, and it is a real opportunity to confront issues around migration and freedom of movement through the global symbol of the dragon. Whilst found in stories in every ancient culture around the world, the dragon is revered and respected in eastern mythology but often considered menacing in western folklore. The power public art has to unify us has never been more important.

The Hatchling walking. Credit – Carl Robertshaw

We’re working with 25 partners, and people at the top of their game from the fields of design, puppetry, aviation, and paleontology. This includes Mervyn Millar, part of the original creative team of the acclaimed stage production War Horse, and Carl Robertshaw, a designer who has created sets for the London 2012 Olympic Ceremonies, collaborated with artists including Ellie Goulding and Kylie, and is a 5-time sport kite world champion. The project has only been possible through this multi-disciplinary collaboration.

We were lucky to have public funding from the National Lottery through Arts Council England and support from Plymouth City Council and Mayflower 400.

Can you tell us about the design and build process for The Hatchling? How will the puppet fly?

The Hatchling is the largest ever puppet to be solely human operated, so the building process has been no mean feat. Standing at over 6.5m tall, her wings unfolded will span across a huge 20m. We worked with a paleontologist on the design to produce an anatomical dragon based on the prehistoric Pterosaur – the earliest vertebrate known to have evolved powered flight.

The Hatchling preparing for flight. Credit – Carl Robertshaw

The puppet is constructed from super lightweight carbon fibre weighing less than a piece of hand luggage, allowing it to be operated by a team of 36 puppeteers working in rotation in groups of 15. As for how exactly the puppet flies, that will be a surprise at the event – come and see!

The Hatchling in production. Credit – Holly Bobbins
The Hatchling in production. Credit – Holly Bobbins

When and where will the event be held? What can audiences expect?

The event is taking place in Plymouth city centre from the 14th to 15th August 2021.

Audiences will be able to see our beautiful dragon hatch, explore her surroundings and interact with the city – from intimate experiences to city-wide performances – before taking a world-first flight across the sea in a miraculous metamorphosis on the evening of Sunday 15 August. The sunset spectacle will feature lighting design by Mat Daw and a choral score by Ruth Chan.

This is a really exciting time for Trigger as we have also been selected as one of 10 creative teams to deliver a multi-million-pound project for Festival UK* 2022. More details to come in the next year.

Interview with Emma Windsor


To find out more about The Hatchling, visit the website at www.thehatchling.co.uk and subscribe to the mailing list. Catch up with all the latest news on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Reaching Out Hands: An Interview With Kay Yasugi

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.

It has been great to see the Australian puppetry community start to get back out into the real world. Shows are touring around the country, including Bluey’s Big Play (based on the popular children’s television program). Puppet theatres and companies are putting on shows and exhibitions too, including ImaginArta Australian Puppet Centre (New South Wales), Erth Visual and Physical Inc (New South Wales), Terrapin Puppet Theatre (Tasmania), Larrikin Puppets (Queensland), and Dead Puppet Society (Queensland). Spare Parts Puppet Theatre (Western Australia) launched their large-scale installation The Last Numbat last year and have also organised shows as well as intensive training workshops.

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.

Also check out the Talking Sock podcast about Aussie puppetry practitioners.

You can discover more about Kay’s work and advocacy via:

Websites: www.pupperoos.com & www.digitalseagull.com

Instagram: www.instagram.com/kay_yasugi

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Pupperoos

Interviewed by Matt Gibbs

Kay Yasugi and mother Youngkyu Kwon

Reimagining The Maze: An Interview with Chris Pirie about RATLab

We caught up with Puppet Place resident artist, Chris Pirie of Green Ginger, to talk about RATLab, a partnership with The Royal Academy of Engineering and University of Bath to develop an interactive STEM-focussed performance.

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 is an exciting place to be working as our sector slowly re-emerges from the pandemic. All the co-working spaces are full, and the building is buzzing with projects as we relax the caps placed on capacity. Opposable Thumb (opposablethumbtheatre.com) have been creating a new touring production, and House of Funny Noises (www.houseoffunnynoises.com) have been busy making a new film ready for Beverley Puppet Festival. We have been fortunate to be in a position to sustain our external hires, with Max Humphries block-booking the rehearsal space and Fabrication Bay for more monstrous builds for Dinosaur World Live (dinosaurworldlive.com).

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:

Visit https://www.greenginger.net/

Follow Green Ginger on Instagram (@greengingertheatre)

Follow Green Ginger on Facebook (@greengingertheatre)

Follow Green Ginger on Twitter (@greenginger)

Interviewed by Matt Gibbs