Odd Planet Studios is based in Devon and was founded in 2013 by Simon Tytherleigh and Leon Cauchois, with a mission to make high-quality stop-motion animations. Their latest stop-motion puppet animation project, ‘The Legend of Jan Tregeagle’, is an exciting retelling of a classic Cornish legend. Amy Baker caught up with the film’s director, Simon Tytherleigh, to find out more about the production of this folktale from deepest, darkest Cornwall.
The Legend of Jan Tregeagle is your most recent film venture. What’s Jan’s story?
In one of the classic legends of Cornwall, Jan Tregeagle is a corrupt and greedy magistrate. A vision of Hell prompts a change of heart, but too late. The folk of Bodmin rejoice at his death, until by mistake he is summoned from his grave. What is now to be done with this wicked man? Should he ever be forgiven? Will the Hounds of Hell catch him? (Answer… you’ll have to watch the film!)
What stage is the production at the moment?
We have about 20% in the can, and the final movie looks like it will be between 17 and 20 minutes long, so an epic in stop motion terms! It moves very slowly, mostly because I want to have plenty of detail in the sets and puppets, and because we are reproducing some recognisable Cornish landmarks. Roos Mattaar in Bristol is doing some of the animating, and there are others on the team, but mostly it is driven forward by me. The film will be ‘coming dreckly’, as the Cornish say!
You’ve also been involved in, SFX makeup, theatre and boating! Do these things feed into your work?
Completely. I started out doing make-up effects in television, most memorably devising prosthetics for ‘Casualty’ in the early pioneering days. Working on TV and film drama gave me a sense of how to tell a story visually. I have also written, directed, and acted in a number of stage plays, which also taught me important lessons in dramatic construction. As for the boating, I built an ocean-going catamaran from scratch, which I sailed round the UK in 2018. It certainly taught me a lot about construction and materials, but the most important lesson was that persistence and determination win the day on long projects!
Cat Rock talks to Drew Massey (Co-creator/Puppeteer) and Colleen Smith (Puppeteer) on the upcoming Barbarian and the Troll TV puppet series being released this April on Nickelodeon. Get a behind the scenes look at the next big puppet series.
Hail and well met my friends! Have you heard the news sweeping across the land? A tale of adventure, mystery, and sentient axes?! The Barbarian and the Troll is an upcoming live-action puppet comedy series set to hit our screens later this year on Nickelodeon. Created by Drew Massey and Mike Mitchell the show will feature original puppet characters, beautiful visuals, and an all star comedy cast. This series is a must see for any lover of puppets, barbarians, wizards, trolls, or fantasy adventure. I caught up with Drew Massey, co-creator and puppeteer, and Colleen Smith, lead puppeteer of the show’s protagonist Brendar, about the production.
Drew, can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Drew Massey (DM): Hi! I’m Drew Massey, a regular guy from a middle class family who grew up watching the Muppet Show, Sesame Street, Krofft shows, and tons of fantasy films. I’ve always loved to draw and tell stories, and I’ve always loved puppets. For years I’ve seen a lot of potential in that medium to tell stories in an engaging way. So I became a puppeteer. I’ve worked on television shows, movies with budgets big and small, and lots of commercials.
Where did the story for the Barbarian and the Troll come from?
DM: Mike (Mitchell, co-creator and director of The Barbarian and the Troll) and I had lunch one day. We had known each other for many years and were both excited about the idea of doing a show with puppets together. He suggested a show with a barbarian and I suggested adding a troll to it. There it was. Barbarian and troll. From there we tossed ideas back and forth to nail down the specifics. We both love fantasy films and have lots of similar references from which we draw inspiration, so it was a very smooth collaboration. We inspire and amuse each other, so we just kept pitching funny ideas and building this world.
Colleen, can you tell us a bit about the show?
Colleen Smith (CS): It follows the adventures of Brendar the Barbarian and Evan the Troll. They travel across the land of Gothmoria searching for Brendar’s missing brother, picking up a hapless Wizard (Allan Trautman), a teen Owl (Sarah Sarang Oh) and a talking axe (James Murray) along the way. The cool part is, it’s all puppets. No humans to be found. There are only eight puppeteers on the whole show. So we all played a bunch of different characters, sometimes dropping one puppet to run and grab another one to enter the same shot. We filmed the whole thing in Vancouver, during Covid, so there was a lot of quarantining and nose swabs.
Those who swab together slay together!
So Drew, why puppets to tell this story?
DM: Puppets shows are very hard to pitch and sell, especially if they aren’t either super nasty or for very young children. We knew going in that selling our show was going to be an uphill battle, but we were determined to try to hit a sweet spot – a middle ground ripe for what we now know are called “co-viewing” opportunities, where hopefully there’s something for everyone, parents and kids alike. I think maybe because we had tried to do a show like this for so many years, each on our own, we knew the pitfalls. But we were doggedly determined to show people what we saw in our heads as being something really unique.
But to answer the question, ‘Why puppets?’ I would have to say because we wanted to break through a certain barrier with puppets the same way animation had done years before with Anime and CG. We were intent on removing the stigma of the medium and telling cool stories in a fantasy world without people being conscious of the fact that they are watching a puppet show. Time will tell whether or not we were successful. But we tried our hardest.
Colleen, tell us how you got into puppetry?
CS: I got into puppetry through improv. I trained, and now teach, at a theatre in Los Angeles called The Groundlings. It’s an improv and sketch theatre/school. When Brian Henson decided to train his puppeteers in improv, he brought in improvisers as well and trained them to puppeteer. That’s how I started to work for The Jim Henson Co. – first in the live improv show Puppet Up! and then in various projects like The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell (Netflix), The Happytime Murders (2018), and That Puppet Game Show (BBC).
How did you take to puppetry coming from your improv background?
CS: One of the main rules of improv is eye contact. Which is impossible with puppets. I had to quickly readjust how I connected to my scene partners. I became a much better listener. And I was so used to conveying emotion and intent through my body and facial expressions. Getting a puppet to cry, glare, or wince is not as easy as it seems. Watching people like Leslie Carrera Rudolph or Louise Gold taught me a lot about how to convey emotion through a puppet. Or, how to bend a puppet to your will.
You puppeteer Brendar, the fierce female warrior and protagonist of the show, what was it like to puppeteer her?
CS: Fun and hard. The fun part is how still and small I got to be with her. My natural sense of humour and style is more subtle than what is wanted on most puppet shows, and sometimes I get lectured about going bigger. It was great to get to keep Brendar really still and stoic. (I mean really small; our director Mike says I barely moved her mouth in some takes.) But then, I get to flip to over-dramatic speeches or petulant and cranky speeches. If anyone saw That Puppet Game Show, Brendar has some similarities with Mancie. Frustrated, driven, and usually right. The hard part was the puppet is very long and heavy. If you’ve puppeteered, you understand what that means. But if you haven’t, it means you are fully extending your arm all the time. It leads to weird body angles and strange back pain. Brendar has a LOT of speeches, so by the end my right arm was jacked.
Spencer Grammer is the voice of Brendar, how does it compare to doing the voice yourself? Which came first, the puppet or the voice? How does working in a team like this affect the character development/performance?
CS: The vocals weren’t prerecorded for Brendar or any of the characters on this show. The shows were edited together and Spencer and the other voice actors did ADR after. All of the voices that are dubbed were cast about halfway into filming. I think pre-recorded vocals work when everything is set in stone or with short sketches, like with Crank Yankers. All of us were improvising throughout production. If we had a locked vocal track that would have limited what we could have done in the moment. So we took ownership of our characters. I’ve never worked on a puppet project where I was dubbed, so this was a first. I had a few moments where it was hard to figure out how to put so much of myself in her when I knew she would eventually be voiced by someone else. But I called Brian Henson and he reminded me that puppetry has always been a collaborative art form. Even if Brendar had my voice, Nicolette Santino would be responsible for so many of the funny and awesome things Brendar did with her hands. And when Brendar fought/interacted with other characters I played, or even herself, the other puppeteers all stepped in. I haven’t seen much of Brendar with Spencer’s voice yet, but I think it just adds a new layer to the performance. Basically Brendar is all of us, and we are all Brendar!
Put that on a T-shirt! Drew, how much of the show was pre-scripted versus improvised, given you had an amazing comedy team working on the show?
DM: Our writers were so great at hammering out the stories and keeping everything moving, the scripts were pretty much complete when we hit the stage. But there’s almost always room to put in extra jokes and find different character dynamics on the day, so that’s what we would often do when running scenes. Sometimes things wouldn’t be apparent until the actors and puppets were all on set together and scenes would get a few new jokes or attitude adjustments on the fly. And sometimes our cast would improvise something in the moment that was just so funny and true to the scene we would have to incorporate it. So I would say it was all scripted… but liberally enhanced.
What’s new and different about The Barbarian and the Troll, what exciting things can we hope to see when it’s released?
DM: The unique thing about The Barbarian and the Troll is that it’s an all-puppet fantasy comedy for adults and kids and it is gorgeous. Our Directors of Photography were just phenomenal in giving these puppets a visually cinematic treatment in a way that hasn’t been seen on television much. The stories are full of drama, comedy, magic, battles, and explosions. The world of Gothmoria, where The Barbarian and the Troll takes place, is chock full of wondrous creatures and lush landscapes. It’s got posh dragons, hungry evil trees, creepy-cute gnomes, talking peppers, disgruntled skeletons, frosty ogres, wacky witches, mini-krakens, zombies, ghosts, and a mace-wielding Knight named Steve, just to name a few. That doesn’t even cover our main cast! There are over a hundred new puppet characters in our show, which is just nuts. Prepare yourself an ocular insulin shot, because this show is wall-to-wall eye candy.
CS: I think the tone of the show is really different. It’s a show for kids, but we all let our humour creep in. Or I shoved mine in. And almost all of the puppeteers have worked together for a long time; we’ve been working as a ‘troupe’ for many years, so there is a familiarity to how we work together and how we interact. I think it will feel like a gaggle of friends rather than a cast. We also shot some scenes on location (in the freezing cold and rain) so the whole show is really beautiful. Tyler Walzak, our DP, the set designers, set dec, the camera crew, the puppet builders, wranglers, effects, props, and everyone are so talented! And the puppet designs by Mike and Drew are really fucking cool. Every time a new puppet came from LA, it was like Christmas. Oh, and the builders Jurgen Ferguson and Russ Walko, and Carol Binion who made the costumes… Everyone did incredible work.
Wow, so a lot of the puppeteers had worked together before on puppet comedies, that must have been great to work with a group you are so comfortable with?
CS: It made the whole shoot fun and relaxed. We would trade lines and punch up each other’s jokes. Sometimes we would just change a line in the moment and trust that everyone else would just adjust in the moment. It also made assisting a lot more dynamic. Nikki would make Brendar do hand gestures that I do in real life. And Jeny (Cassady), who met us at the beginning of this shoot, did sillier and more fantastical gestures and poses for Drew and Allan’s characters as the weeks progressed. And Sarah on gnome hands… You’ll see!
Any show production stories you want to share?
CS: I believe I got hit in the head by every weapon in the show – Brendar’s sword, Axe, Sharon’s sword, a mace, a cup. And once I plowed directly into the camera jib. Don’t worry, Catering/Medical checked me for a concussion. And since we had so many fun new locations and sets it meant I got to pull fun new debris from my bra each week. Sand, snow (paper and or potato flakes), wood chips, yarn, and so on.
Or, there was a scene where Brendar had a dramatic line and I wanted a ‘nails on a chalkboard’ moment. I asked the director if we could have something like that. “Maybe she could sharpen her sword,” and before I even finished the question, props handed me a sharpening stone they had made ‘just in case’. That was how great everyone was. When you see the sombrero in that same episode, it has a similar backstory.
Colleen, what was your favourite part of this production, any characters, scenes or experiences stand out?
CS: The whole thing was such a crash course for me. I’ve been a puppeteer for about ten years now, but I’ve never been the lead character, especially on an action show. All the sword fights and stunts were really challenging and awesome. I also loved how collaborative Mike and Drew were about our characters. They really let me mess with Brendar and make her my own.
The last week was super intense. Lots of fight sequences and dance numbers and we were all exhausted. On one of the last days Nikki, Jeny (Cassady), Peggy (Etra) and I had to make a character run. The character had so many various limbs that it needed that many assists. The whole time we’d been filming, I kept getting the note to have my characters walk slower, but this time they let me run almost full out. The four of us booking it with this puppet while B Cam raced along with us was so much fun. I can’t wait for people to see it. It’s very much the definition of collaboration between the puppeteers and everyone else. It’s a short moment, but it’s my favourite. If you had seen me in the pilot presentation, when I was all too happy to have Alice Dinnean handle all the hard stuff, you would be real proud of my growth.
Drew anything else about the production you want to share?
DM: This show was incredibly challenging to make, but I think it came out great and people are going to love it. Mike and I have already discussed where to go story wise with subsequent seasons and even with all the cool stuff in season one, there’s a lot more in our brains that we want to put on screen!
Oh, and some of us do ‘British-style’ accents in this, so I ask in advance for your forgiveness. Just remember that it all takes place in Gothmoria, which is a land of many accents, and not anywhere in the UK. There. Disclaimer over.
Ultimately, we all had so much fun making this show, and I think we made something pretty great. I hope people like it enough that they watch it again and again.
The Barbarian and the Troll is set to hit Nickelodeon in April 2021, so keep an eye out for this fantasy adventure like no other! The Quest is yet to come!
Puppet Place is the UK’s hub for puppetry and animation. Our building, Unit 18, is full of brilliant artists and creatives working in puppetry, animation, film, visual arts, theatre, robotics, outdoor arts and creative technologies. In this article, we introduce you to some of the most recent Resident Artists to join our space and share more about their creative practice and passion.
Chatrapati Ākula & Kyle Hirani: Vāsthu
Who are you and what do you do? Vāsthu is a technology house providing R&D services at the intersection of arts and robotics. We weave together our varied experience and capabilities to deliver value to clients.
Why did you move into Puppet Place? When we left Launch Space at UWE Frenchay, we wanted to move into a place that was close to the centre, had a welcoming, warm and active community of creatives, and also had a maker/fabrication space. More importantly, the residents have been great people for as long as we’ve known them.
Who are you and what do you do? Hi, my name’s Matt Gibbs, and I’m a writer, narrative designer, and editor. The narrative designer part is probably the hardest part of that to pin down, it’s a term that is still being defined and refined in a number of industries. For me, it comes from my work with interactive narratives and games, whether for video and tabletop games or – more recently – art and creative technology experiences. It encompasses both linear and non-linear narratives, but centres the audience as integral to them, and focuses on the creation of all the elements, not just story, that support and enhance that. In short, it is about trust and empowering the audience – which is both fun and challenging. Alongside all of that, I also work in a variety of other mediums, including films and comics.
Why did you move into Puppet Place? It was working on The Lost Librarian with Lizzie Johnson (designer, fabricator, and producer) and Kyle Hirani (roboticist and creative technologist) that lured me into joining Puppet Place. Together we created an interactive story utilising creative technology, games and puzzles, which was commissioned by Libraries Unlimited (as part of their Evolve programme with funding from Arts Council England) and we’re currently working on a touring version for 2021. Lizzie was already a resident and I greatly enjoyed our collaboration, plus the wider support, ethos and atmosphere of Puppet Place. It has led to more collaborations and opportunities, and a growing understanding of puppetry in its many forms.
Who are you and what do you do? My name is Eloise and I studied Fine Art and Curating at UWE, (next door to Puppet Place at Spike Island.) I’ve been freelance curating for a few years, but I’m ready to dive back into my own practice and re-discover my creative side. The things I work on vary from paintings to photography, music, collected items and more craft-based works.
Why did you move into Puppet Place? I definitely love community hubs, so Puppet Place stood out because of all the amazing people working here. I’d visited Max Dorey a few times pre-pandemic as we were planning an exhibition together. Everyone we met was so polite and it was a really friendly atmosphere. I love the idea of people sharing resources and time to create amazing things!
Who are you and what do you do? My name’s Amy Baker, sometimes known as Wormy Baker, a stop-motion filmmaker. My films vary a lot in content and style, the only thing linking them all is that I made them. I like to stay playful and try new things. I moved to Bristol from Leicester to study animation and have been into filmmaking and craft for a long time, as well as sound and music. I like to be involved in every aspect of production, which means I’m a pony with many tricks but I’m not extremely skilled in a specific area. I’m also a dancer and enjoy a bit of yoga, which helps me to understand how bodies move and draws me to animation (the best bit!). I’m signed up to the Aardman Academy animation course due to start in May, so hopefully I’ll be improving lots very soon.
Why did you move into Puppet Place? The first time I came to Puppet Place was for an event where Emma Windsor was doing a talk. I loved the talk, the space was full of crazy props and they had wine and snacks! I wanted to get more involved and also wanted to try writing about animation, so I joined the Puppet Place press team. I’ve been helping with the newsletter for a year now. Puppet Place was the right size for me, has a nice community and is well organised. There are fabrication areas, a little garden and best of all, a carpet!
Who are you and what do you do? I am Helena Houghton, I am a puppet maker, props maker, film maker and animator. I’m also a founding member of The House of Funny Noises, alongside Cat Rock and Izzy Bristow. I make all kinds of puppets, large and small. At the moment my focus is on short films.
Why did you move into Puppet Place? I have been an Associate Artist for a while now with Puppet Place and decided to join as a Resident so I can work in a more social setting (or as social as it can be in a pandemic). I also wanted a place that I can spread out in for future projects as I had previously been working from home and feel like I will get more done with a dedicated space.
Based in the heart of Bristol, Puppet Place offers workspace for artists and creatives including puppeteers, makers, technologists, designers and filmmakers. Benefits of becoming a resident at Puppet Place include your own desk space, a profile on our website, advice and information, discounted rates on hire rates in the fabrication and rehearsal studios and connection with a community of like-minded creatives. To find out more contact us at info [at] puppetplace.org, visit our website www.puppetplace.org or call 0117 929 3593.
A tantalising handful of exciting puppetry that is gearing up for the post lockdown world!
With people’s hopes pinned on theatres, venues, and events opening up this summer, many artists are gearing up to produce some dynamic new work for what promises to be a veritable cornucopia of creativity! We spoke to a colourful collection of companies, all of who are all planning their puppetry resurgence – from opera and science to festivals and flying dragons!
First I spoke to Sue Buckmaster at Theatre-Rites who have had a real ‘stop start’ of a year, but despite the set backs, and having turned much of their work digital, have managed to plow ahead with some exciting live projects for 2021.
Sue Buckmaster: Myself and the team at Theatre-Rites have had a busy Covid year.
First, our performance of RobotBoy at Bochum Schauspeilhaus, Germany, had to stop performing. It had performed to over 18, 000 young people, but was meant to continue. Therefore we made and edited a film version that is now doing a digital tour. The next showings are part of Animation Puppet Festival 2021 and The Croucher Science Week, Hong Kong.
My production with Akram Khan Company of Chotto Xenos had performed six times and then stopped. It has since had a stop/start world tour depending on the situation in each hosting country. Performances went ahead in Paris and Barcelona, but most have been delayed until later this year.
The Theatre-Rites second planned tour of BigUp was turned into a digital sharing. The company were meant to offer employment for a 9 week tour. Instead they employed the team, who all offered an online series of events called BigUp at Home.
In the summer we created Talking Rubbish, an online performance for the Spark Festival. I also created two online Masterclasses on Puppet Whispering and Creating Site-Specific work. Liam Jarvis and myself finished writing the Book ‘Animating Puppets, Objects and Sites’ and that will be available from Routledge Books in Summer 2021 as part of celebrating our 25th Birthday year.
We have been auditioning, researching, and developing our new show using Zoom. This will be announced in April and will take place in July 2021.
We have also been developing a new collaboration with the Burg Theatre, Vienna. This will go into production Winter 2021 and will be a celebration, remembrance, and an understanding of Nature in light of our overuse of plastic.
We are determined to keep art available for our young audiences and provide support for a sector which has been so badly hit by the pandemic.
I managed to catch up with Bristol’s very own Chris Pirie at Green Ginger who are partnering with The Royal Academy of Engineering and University of Bath, to develop an interactive STEM-focussed (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths) performance experience for Key Stage 2 (KS2) pupils in Bristol, Bath, and the South West, called – RATLab.
Chris Pirie: Covid-safe performances of RATLab will be presented within a bespoke inflatable dome that is installed in school playgrounds in the Autumn Term 2021 and Spring Term 2022. The performance challenges and disrupts conventional narratives around STEM and uses innovative theatre techniques to reframe engineering as:
• Creative, exciting, and able to improve the quality of life.
• An option for those interested in the arts and sports, not just science.
• More diverse than publicly perceived.
The partnership project aims to inspire creative public engagement, raise awareness of engineering’s diversity and impact, and engage with those underrepresented in the field. RATLab confronts the negative assumptions around STEM that are commonly held by KS2/3 pupils. Recent RAE research shows that rapid child development around 7 years – as pupils move from KS1 into KS2 – affects how perceptions of STEM subjects form. It also highlights how these assumptions inform decision-making later on, in relation to GCSE/A Level and eventual career pathways. RATLab is an exciting intervention, designed to disrupt misconceptions before they take root in young, developing minds.
Engineering research at UB has profoundly changed everyday life and this project celebrates these achievements, using GG’s puppetry and storytelling expertise to demonstrate how applied engineering positively influences our lives. The narrative content focusses UB’s work in developing new techniques and materials for joint replacement and research into sports injury that led to fundamental changes to the way rugby is played globally. Additionally, pupils will benefit from a learning experience in an innovative learning environment, away from everyday classroom activities.
I then spoke to Kerrin Tatman from Moving Parts in Newcastle who is delighted to have received funding for the 2021 Newcastle Puppet Festival!
Kerrin Tatman: It’s going to be different. It’s going to be safe, but spectacular. It’s going to be both live and online. It’s going to be in summer.
Normally the festival fills Newcastle’s venues and streets with puppetry performances and masterclasses from all around the UK and Europe. This won’t be possible this year for obvious reasons, but that isn’t to say that the 2021 event will be any less ambitious than usual. The main focus for 2021 will be a specially-commissioned, socially-distanced outdoor theatre spectacle that will be watched live and online by thousands of audience members. We are really excited about this – it is a big step for us and is moving into brand new territory. It will be bold, beautiful, and will transform one of Newcastle’s largely-unused public spaces into a puppet fantasy.
In addition to this, there will be a programme of talks, workshops, and small-scale performances taking place online over a month to sink your teeth into. A huge thank you to Arts Council England and our other funders for making this all possible.
Opposable Thumb Theatre are ecstatic and relieved to have just received match funding from Arts Council England towards making their new show ‘Big Boys Don’t Cry’. So, along with this and funding from Nordland Visual Theatre in Norway, plus support from The London Mime Festival, rehearsals can begin in mid-April.
They were originally flying out to Stamsund, on the Lofoten Islands to create the show, but due to quarantine restrictions they will be making it in Bristol. Dik is currently making puppets and props at Puppet Place and reliving his childhood dream of buying loads of Action Man in the hope that he can smuggle them into the storyline somehow.
‘Big Boys Don’t Cry’, intends to dissect the emotional complexities of being a father and losing one, in a riotous and euphoric explosion of colour, dance, clown, and puppets, or something like that!
Tessa Bide is powerhouse of creativity! Here are her thoughts on the last year and her news for what is next…
Tessa Bide: After a real rollercoaster of a year full of some bleak lows but also some surprising, exciting highs, I entered my first R&D in over 2.5 years in February. Six years ago I wrote a story called ‘The Magic Snow Globe’ for a Christmas show commission and it’s sat on my hard drive since. It centres on a relationship between a girl and her grandma, and the girl’s journey to find snow, so we built an intergenerational R&D to support the project.
I lead outreach between a local group of elders, ‘Monday Club’ at BS3 Community Centre and year 5 students from Headley Park Primary. What I hadn’t expected, but what our partner Wyldwood Arts had guided us towards, was that soon, the intergenerational element became much more interesting than the classic adventure story with echoes of The Wizard of Oz.
The ten day R&D, working with a team of new collaborators I’d never worked with before, took a really interesting direction. It quickly became clear that making work this side of the pandemic is a very different experience. Artists so often serve to hold a mirror to society and reflect what needs to be celebrated, changed, or thrown away, and also to bring people together. This year has been so huge, we all felt we couldn’t ignore that in what we made. Very early on, we decided to ‘park’ the version of the show that would tour to studio theatres, and instead started workshopping community shows, a show on a beach, a show in a train carriage, shadow puppetry shows on windows of care homes…
This last year has made puppeteers and theatre makers rethink how and where they present their work, and at the moment, studio theatres don’t seem very relevant or, perhaps, exciting. Of course I’m sure they will be again, and I will always love performing on a stage, but at the moment, I think we’re in an exciting time where theatre and puppetry is getting to the masses in perhaps a more egalitarian way… bypassing some of the traditional gatekeepers.
What emerged from the R&D was a lot of learning about the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of good intergenerational, participatory work, and six shows that we want to make! Some centre around puppetry, after all we were working with gorgeous maquettes and shadow puppets from Isabel Lyster, but some don’t. Now we start the next step of talking to people about them and seeing which ones leave a mark and which ones don’t.
Over the next six months we are also digitally touring our co-production with Soap Soup Theatre, The Selfish Giant, via the Puppet Animation Festival and several other venues; and The Anarchist’s Mobile Library – both in its new digital audio/BSL format and, fingers crossed, live, in-person gigs this Summer around my neighbourhood in Filwood thanks to an Originators Fund grant from Bristol City Council. We’re still here, we’ve made it through, and we’ve done a lot of learning. Bring it on.
Lastly, there is the awe inspiring ‘The Hatchling’ due to take flight 14-15 August 2021.
This summer, theatre-makers Trigger will stage The Hatchling, an extraordinary free outdoor performance featuring the world’s first flying puppet.
A dragon taller than a double-decker bus will hatch and roam through Plymouth, inviting the public to accompany her on her journey. On Sunday at sunset, The Hatchling will transform into a kite with a 20m wingspan and soar over the coast in a unique feat of artistry and engineering.
The Hatchling’s creative team includes puppetry expert Mervyn Millar, who was part of the original War Horse team, and Carl Robertshaw, a designer for the London 2012 Olympic Ceremonies and a five-time sport kite world champion.
Visit www.thehatchling.co.uk for the latest updates. There will be an article coming in our next issue taking a closer look at the team behind this project.
In conclusion, I take huge inspiration from those who have fought against all odds to keep things going and do what artists do best, which is to adapt, adjust, and accommodate to any obstacles that are put in their way. It appears that in some cases these obstacles only serve to make both people’s work and their resolve to keep creating even stronger!
All hail to the ‘Puppetry Phoenix’ as it rises from the ashes of the pandemic!
‘Under the Sea‘, Sugarmoon’s latest single; an easy breezy love song that brings us some much needed serenity. Warm beach vibes and whimsical dreams of frolicking in the sea or maybe diving to an under water world. The song brings a hopeful reminder of the fun times ahead when there are no more lockdown restrictions. Harriett Bradbury, Animation Director, has captured the song beautifully in her new music video. A band of sea critters performs the song, ‘Under the Sea’, under the sea! The video is an injection of charm with each character showing a distinct personality. My favourite is the crab with his rosy cheeks and tiny bowtie. I can imagine the creatures playing at a prom in a teen movie, they’re all smart and ready for their big show.
This isn’t Harriett’s first film full of characters you just want to squeeze and put in your pocket. Harriett Bradbury’s work often takes cute and funny creatures and makes them feel like real characters with quirks and insecurities. Her award winning film, ‘Love Bugs’ is a great example of this where Dusty the moth goes on a series of bad dates. One fly orders a plate of poo at a fancy restaurant, another slaps Dusty in the face for looking at her glowing behind (firefly). Harriett’s films are thoughtfully put together from the idea to the design to the performance. Every detail creates a world in which humour, warmth and story are at the centre.
Tell us about yourself and the work you do.
I am a stop motion filmmaker based in Bristol and currently working as a junior compositor at A Productions Ltd. It’s definitely tricky balancing personal projects alongside a full time job, but I try to develop them whenever I can. I enjoy every step of the filmmaking process, from writing to post production, and get so much gratification seeing a project grow from a tiny spark of an idea to a fully formed film. Although animation feels incredibly tedious when you’re in the midst of it, seeing something come to life at your hands is magical and worth the slog.
Although I would consider myself a stop motion filmmaker and a bit of a generalist, puppet design and fabrication was my first love. Anyone who has seen my work will know I have a real soft spot for anything anthropomorphised. Aesthetically, I enjoy working with low tech materials and don’t think it’s necessary to spend a lot of money to make something effective. Plus, there is something very charming about things that look like the material it’s made out of – as if you’re reinvigorating the life of an inanimate object.
What led you to puppet animation?
I’ve always been more inclined toward puppet animation. Working in 3D space makes way more sense to me and I love the tangibility of stop motion. I’ve always had an active interest in theatre, puppetry, and filmmaking, so it felt like a very natural route for me to take.
Under the sea! Can you tell us about your latest project?
Yes! I worked with local Bristol band, Sugarmoon to create a music video for their latest track ‘Under the Sea’. The song is so fun and was an absolute pleasure to work with. It took five months to complete in total, including all pre-production work. Luckily, I had a pretty solid idea of what the video was going to look like and so design and fabrication didn’t take as long as it usually might.
Originally, I had planned to make wire armature puppets, but due to time and budget parameters I decided to use paper instead. Previous to this project, I had never really worked with paper or used a multi-plane camera before, so it was definitely a learning curve and has certainly helped me grow as a stop motion artist. Working with paper allowed me to work more illustratively and create something completely different to my previous work. I’ve never been a traditional pen and paper animator, so it was wonderful to design a bunch of 2D characters and still be able to animate them physically with stop motion.
I can’t wait to share it with everyone! The track is so joyful, it’s impossible not to smile when listening to it. The video definitely reflects that exuberant spirit, and I feel grateful that I got to work with such great material. The video was released on the 2nd April and you can also hear the song on Spotify.
Do you have any big creative influences?
I have a very eclectic taste in art and film and so find myself influenced by so many different sources. Even so, I find the bulk of my ideas are based in comedy; especially deadpan or absurdist humour. There is so much to be said about the power of making people laugh, and it’s something I will always strive for with my work. I’ve loved the poems of Spike Milligan since I was a kid, so he immediately springs to mind as someone who has been very influential to me.
Any future animation plans?
I have a couple of collaborative projects in my peripheral vision, but I can’t really talk about them yet! Other than that, I have lots of ideas bouncing around for future short films and I’d love to use paper animation again, but nothing set in stone. I’ve also been thinking of ways I can set up a shooting space at home but nothing has come to fruition yet. Basically, there is so much I want to do! If I can continue creating my own work around my 9-5, I will be a very happy woman.
What are you looking forward to as restrictions ease?
I really miss going for a pint after work on a Friday. I have everything crossed that we can have a more sociable summer and reunite with the friends and family we haven’t been able to see for the last year. There have been too many missed birthday celebrations and two of my closest friends had to postpone their wedding. That will be a right knees up when it comes around!
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!
Josh Elwell talked to Puppeteer Rachel Leonard ahead of this extraordinary and epic journey across Europe at such a pivotal time.
I caught up with Rachel Leonard on board her 125 year old narrow boat (which you can find listed in the National Historic Ships Register) on the edge of Bath. We spoke just as she was about to go into a week of R&D for a new project, with the team behind Little Angel’s The Journey Home.
Rachel has been performing with puppets for nearly 30 years, having learnt her trade at Little Angel and The Puppet Theatre Barge. She works with many exciting companies, from Handspring and Little Angel to the National Theatre, the RSC, and Kneehigh. However, like so many other performers she has felt the effects of the last year with all its huge challenges.
We began by talking about ‘resilience’ and ways that freelance puppeteers have managed to negotiate these crazy times. One of Rachel’s survival techniques is ‘living small’. She lives on her boat and keeps her outgoings to a minimum. She believes this lifestyle affords her a huge amount of independence. Living this way enables her to be a little more selective than most, and to be able to engage with projects that have real meaning for her. It is one such project that drew me to want to talk to Rachel in the first place.
Some of you may have caught sight on social media of an extraordinary giant puppet girl called, Amal. Amal is the focal point for a project called The Walk, the epic journey of a 9 year old refugee girl travelling 8,000km across Europe to find her mother.
Little Amal will start her journey at the Syria/Turkey boarder in July this year and make her way through Greece, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, and France, before reaching the United Kingdom in November. Amal has a hugely important purpose – to shine light on the struggles of the many refugee children she represents.
Along the way cities, towns, and villages will welcome Little Amal with art – from major street parades and city-wide performances of music, dance, and theatre, to intimate community events. Little Amal will connect with young people from refugee and non-refugee communities through creative learning projects, developed specifically for each location.
The Walk is being produced by Good Chance Theatre, famous for their work in The Jungle in Calais. Good Chance have joined forces with Handspring Puppet Company to design and build Amal, and Rachel is one of the puppeteers who will be animating Amal in this hugely exciting and important project.
Rachel was fizzing with excitement about Amal and said that she feels it is perhaps one of the most important projects that she has ever been a part of. Involved in the development of the The Walk from early on in Amal’s creation, Rachel will be one of the international team of puppeteers operating her from inside and out.
The team will rotate; taking turns working her arms and supporting her back (with rods, from the ground) and working from within the puppet, at Amal’s ‘heart’. The heart position is the most complex; requiring the wearing of stilts to create her legs, and a backpack harness to take the weight of the puppet. The operator in this position is controlling her head and facial expression from a ‘harp-like’ construction of pulleys in her tummy. Mechanisms have been kept low-fi to be as robust and repairable as possible along the route.
There is however just one electronic feature; her eyeballs, which are powered by a small battery pack and operated by a mini-thumb control. As it is not possible to see her face from within the puppet, attitudes and facial expressions must be learnt by muscle memory and through prompts given by other members of the team who can feedback instructions. Due to the tricky nature of this role and the heat that builds up with the exertion of it, the puppeteers will only do short stints inside the puppet. Rachel hopes that, with practice, they will get the changeovers, “Slick, like a pit stop!”
Rachel says, “She is magnificent as she walks through the landscape. You cannot help but feel for her. Despite her being 3.5 metres tall, children call to her, look after and care for her. She is both charming, mesmerising, and moving.”
Amal will walk into many different events on her 3 month journey. Each event will form important stages of her emotional development. Each meeting, gathering, sharing, celebration or carnival will serve as an important part of her overall journey and story. In her wake she will leave a legacy of sponsorship and scholarships for educational opportunities. Each event and stopping point in Amal’s journey will provide a catalyst for change and an opportunity to understand the plight of children just like her.
The project has been set back due to Covid and of course everyone is desperately hoping that this won’t happen again. However, Rachel remains hugely positive. She has agreed to talk to us again during The Walk, and then again once she has reached Manchester in November. In the meantime, Rachel’s bags are packed and the 8,000km road between Turkey and the UK awaits her and Amal’s footsteps.
‘May the road rise up to meet you and may the wind be always at your back!’ – Traditional Irish Blessing
Good Chance needs your support to help make The Walk happen.The Walk‘s Step Up appeal is raising funds to support Little Amal‘s journey, the artistic and education programmes of The Walk, and the crucial work being done to raise awareness of the refugee crisis and advocate for young refugees to have access to an education.
Every young refugee deserves a Good Chance of fulfilling their potential.
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.
Satyajit Ramdas Padhye is a third generation ventriloquist, puppeteer, and puppet maker from India. He is the son of Ramdas Padhye, India’s leading ventriloquist and grandson of Prof. Yeshwant Keshav Padhye, who created Ardhavatrao, India’s most loved puppet character. Emma Windsor caught up with him to find out more about his family history, his passion for puppetry and his hopes for the the art form in India.
Can you tell us about the history of Ardhavatrao and your family?
My grandfather Prof. Yeshwant Keshav Padhye was a renowned magician. He once saw a solider from First World War doing ventriloquism and hence thought of trying his hand at ventriloquism, and thus created a character called “Ardhavatrao” that he conceived in the middle of 1916 and 1917. This character is now more than 100 years old and is actively being performed by my father Ramdas Padhye who popularised this art of ventriloquism and puppetry in India since 1967. My father learnt this art from his father Yeshwant Padhye and has performed more than 9,900 shows across different media including stage, TV shows, feature films, and ad-films.
Why did you decide to continue with your Grandfather’s legacy? What is most important to you about puppetry as an art form?
Well, I was very naturally drawn towards the art since my father Ramdas Padhye has been into this art for the last five decades, popularising this art in India, and is a celebrity. My father never forced me into it as art cannot be forced. It should come naturally to you. So, although I am a Chartered Accountant by education, I never pursued it as a profession, but ventriloquism and puppetry became by profession.
The most important thing about puppetry as an art form is that it has a universal appeal and can evoke a lot of emotions. I guess puppets speak more than an actor and I guess it is less offending when puppets speak the truth.
You were recently involved in the production of the film ‘Ludo’ with filmmaker Anurag Basu. Can you tell us more about that and your role in the production?
Mr Anurag Basu, who is famous director in India, was planning his next film Ludo where one of the lead actors Aditya Roy Kapur was playing a role of a ventriloquist and voice-over artiste. Anurag Basu called me and asked me to train Aditya for the role of a ventriloquist. He also knew that my dad Ramdas Padhye creates look-alike puppets of people and hence hired us to create a puppet which looked exactly like Aditya. We used 3D scanning and 3D printing technique for the first time in India to create a look-alike puppet of the actor. It was a challenging process as it was never done before. We could achieve this because of our excellent team.
What are your hopes for the future of puppetry in India?
I think the future of puppetry looks bright for our country India, as there is lot of interest in the art of ventriloquism as well as puppetry. The younger generations are aware about this art because of the internet and we have the youngest population. In fact we get lot of inquires about learning the art of ventriloquism and puppetry. I guess there will be many puppeteers and ventriloquists from India in the coming years.
Cat Rock talks to Katie Greenland, Assistant Professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, from the Stronger – SAFE project about how they are trying to eliminate the Trachoma endemic in Ethiopia with the help of Puppetry.
Have you ever had an eye infection? A lot of us know the joys of eye problems, from a sty to keratitis, a rouge eyelash to the torment of a ripped contact lens. Many of us will know just how horrible contracting conjunctivitis is, I know I do! For most people, especially here in the United Kingdom, it is a simple trip to the pharmacy that will sort this problem, a few days of drops and you’re done.
But pretend for a moment that you live in a community where you do not have the resources or knowledge to treat your infection, where water is so precious and limited that you have to make a choice about who gets to wash their face. Picture seeing eye infections spread through your family and friends, causing them immense discomfort and pain, as you eventually watch them succumb to blindness. Now imagine watching all this unfold though your own infected eyes, knowing that this could have been prevented.
Tragically this is the case in many places as the trachoma-endemic rages on.
The situation is dire and things desperately need to change. Trachoma is a mild eye infection mainly affecting children, the serious consequences come from repeat infections that over time cause scarring and eyelashes to turn inwards and scratch the eye which is very painful and can eventually lead to blindness. luckily the team behind the ‘Stronger – SAFE’ project are on the ground fighting this endemic. Using new and exciting ways to engage communities they hope to save the eyesight of millions… with the help of some puppets!
Meet Caltu, a young girl from the Oromia Ethiopia. She will be traveling around communities performing in a drama demonstrating face washing and other measures that can help prevent the spread and contraction Trachoma.
So what is ‘Stronger – SAFE’?
The ‘Stronger – SAFE’ project will include a series of community interventions that will target the caregivers of preschool children. The pre-schoolers are the most likely age group to catch and transmit this disease. The team hopes that by highlighting the importance of prioritising this age group, creating a campaign that is relatable and memorable, focusing on the importance of face washing, that they will help reduce the overwhelming presence of Trachoma. This will take place near Shashemene, which is about 200km south of Addis Ababa, in the West Arsi Zone in Oromia, Ethiopia.
How did you come to the idea of using puppets as part of ‘Stronger – SAFE’ and what do you hope puppets will bring to the program?
Katie Greenland (KG): We are working in low literacy, quiet rural communities, which means we don’t have people who can read pamphlets or even posters, or things like that. They don’t have a lot of television, radio, and other media access. Things like roadshows and dramas are very popular; I was already planning a drama which is a standard approach for behaviour change communication.
Because of the Covid pandemic, I was part of a team reviewing proposals for some FCDO (Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office) and Unilever Covid related funding. I saw a proposal form the Sesame Workshop, which received funding; it just made me start thinking, that if we were using puppets it might make the drama more memorable and maybe more attractive. I was thinking about what we could do to engage the children. It would be more fun with the puppets and they would then be able to interact with the children making it memorable. We could then use them in other elements like house-to-house meetings and small group events.
It would also help the mothers to remember that they need to prioritise these young children. This is one of the problems that is happening at the moment. People are washing their own faces and older children are washing their faces with soap before they go to school, babies are well taken care of, but there is a gap when it comes to this age group. We wanted to emphasize that person within the family. We have messages about prioritising preschool children, if you don’t have enough water for face washing it is these children that need to be prioritised. This goes against the norms at the moment (in Ethiopia) of who gets prioritised, which would usually be the head of the household and the man. Also With a puppet, you’re not saying your child’s face is dirty and needs washing, you have that degree of removal by saying it to the puppet. It’s easier to have the puppet say, “My face is dirty and needs washing…” rather than trying to make people feel that it’s directly talking about their family.
We all know how powerful puppetry can be, by adding this element into these already well received dramas you not only bring a new and exciting twist to the performance, but by making the child the puppet, the unique factor, you highlight the importance of that child in the story. You bring attention to them, make them the focus, and this will really engage the audience with the different face washing behaviours associated with that character.
What was the puppet design process like, what factors did you take into consideration when developing Caltu?
KG: Before we even engaged Izzy Bristow (the puppet designer and maker) we wanted to understand how puppets might be received, which is quite tricky with remote working because usually I would do that kind of work on the ground. I would have bought a puppet here that I could have taken with me to do some field research. Instead we had to do all that remotely, via our field team. We sent them images (of puppets) that they could then show in the communities and to a wide range of people, we could then understand what they thought of puppets.
We learnt that basically people don’t really know much about puppets, that they really didn’t understand when they didn’t really look like a person. They’ve never seen them, which is another reason why I wanted to use them. Because they are ‘novel’ I thought that would be what would make them memorable. It probably was a bit hard for Izzy…
Izzy Bristow (IB): The Design Process for these puppets was a bit tricky. As a culture somewhat cut off from the visual shorthands and design sensibilities of the Anglo-European world that dictates most of what we think of when we think of “puppets for kids”, the Oromo (region in Ethiopia) focus group really didn’t like the simple and cartoonish look of muppets that they were approached with initially.
Even with forewarning, I went through three different initial design phases and then extensive tweaking of the final pattern to create a puppet realistic enough that the field team and focus group found appealing, but still achievable to make with the time and budget allotted. However, throughout the whole process I was supported incredibly well by the Stronger – SAFE team. Clair specifically, was there to answer questions and make sure my designs and suggestions were turned around quickly within their Ethiopia team.
KG: We had to be very careful that we made sure that she looked like a local person. We spent a long time thinking what colour she should be wearing; it couldn’t be linked to any political colours as there is a lot of political unrest in the area. We needed to be sure that her skin tone was correct and her features were correct; even her hair, because different hairstyles would have just meant that she wasn’t a girl from ‘here’. You have that balance of trying to get somebody who is from ‘here’ and also a slightly aspirational figure.
IB: It is an unfortunate truth that we live in a made world that is designed with white skin as a default, this made it difficult to find fabric that was the right colour to reflect the skin of the Oromo people. In the end I had to dye the fleece myself, which was time consuming but well worth it.
KG: There was a lot of back and forth about what she should wear and obviously making sure that her features were right and wouldn’t be offensive, this was really key. Each time there was an iteration we had to make sure, as best as we could in the current climate with all the movement restrictions, that we got as much community feedback as we could.
IB: This was the first time I’ve ever had to design anything that needed to be run by a focus group. It is definitely an interesting experience that wasn’t wholly good or bad. For some things like the costume, having feedback from so many people helped zero in on the ideal solution pretty quickly. It is very satisfying to know that everyone in a group responds well to a design. As for tricker things like the face, where the rendering medium is a shallow representation of the final, and where there are less common cultural touchstones to share ideas, having a lot of different uncertain reactions was a bit overwhelming at times.
A much harder challenge to overcome was my own design bias. It is one thing to understand that the client has different culturally defined ideas of what is cute and what is uncanny, and another entirely to act on it. Things like the super wide mouths of muppets that allow the exaggerated and enthusiastic movement we know and love were just as unacceptable and repelling as the ridged ventriloquist dummy style mouths. The solution to have a small almost immobile mouth was one I fought internally to the very end, but it was what the focus group liked best.
What stage is the Stronger – SAFE program at and what happens next?
KG: It’s a big trial, so that means we have 68 clusters (a cluster is a small community of about 90 households), half of them will receive the face washing interventions which include the puppetry elements and half won’t. We are at the stage where we have actually started collecting data for our baseline, which we need to do before we intervene. We need to understand what are people doing right now; are they washing their faces with soap? When in the day? Who’s washing? All those kinds of things. Then we do the intervention and then after that we will measure the outcomes.
Hopefully, we would see that there’s more face washing after they have been exposed to our intervention. Behaviour change is really hard so we will also be measuring other things throughout the intervention; did they enjoy it? Did they remember it? Which aspects were most memorable for them and why? So even if we don’t see any behaviour change as a result, we hopefully learn a bit more about why.
Stronger – SAFE are hoping to begin the interventions in the Spring. If all goes to plan, it will take about three and a half months to conduct with the 34 communities involved, then they will collect data again. They are hoping to have some initial results by the end of the year.
We all know the power of puppetry and what can be achieved through the exciting process of manipulation, design, and play. To see puppets being used for such an amazing project shows the breath of puppets and puppeteers potential. Puppets can entertain, they can inspire, and hopefully, alongside the hard work of everyone involved with Stronger – SAFE, they can help save the eye sight of so many people.
We look forward to talking with the Stronger – SAFE team in the future.