Here’s a little #throwbackthursday for you all you Jurassic Park Fans! Don’t know about you, but I’m excited to see Jurassic World pretty much solely for the adept puppetry they still use in the franchise, despite all the technological advances of the last 20 years. As John Rosengrant (co-owner of Legacy Effects) says, “There’s some chemistry that happens between the actors and the piece” only to be captured through the magic of puppetry. Check out the process of building and manipulating the emotional death of the Apatosaurus in Jurassic World:
For me, one of the most exciting elements of being a part of Coyote Girl: The Short Film was exploring the art of puppetry through the medium of film. Both forms of story telling are expressions that Biggs and I alike have little experience with compared to our work on stage as actors, but to which we both find a strong draw. For myself as an actor (and I believe for the writer/director in Biggs) film and puppetry, both, are facets of performance that illuminate a simplicity and honesty in our work. The expansion and contraction that comes with jumping from stage to screen and back again mirrors the transient nature of playing a story as an actor and puppeteer simultaneously. This passing through many veils, masks, forms, expressions to articulate a primal truth hits the core of what I understand Outcast Café to be, and what enables, in my opinion, good story telling.
So, in spite of often feeling like I was on a novice’s path to creating this piece, the sense of trust I harbor towards the risks of puppetry and working on film come almost innately in comparison to being an actor on stage. Perhaps this permission comes from this distance from the self/ego I’ve discussed before during our filming log. Both puppetry and working on film give me a greater sense of offering my energy and skill to aiding the story as a collaborator, rather than veering off into any abhorrently self-aware, self-centered, self-obsessed trap that I fear in acting.
Regardless, the challenge of puppetry on film was one that my mind may have been cautious about, but my heart was hungry for. Since the wrap of the film I’ve done a lot of wandering around on the internet looking into puppets on film. BAM and the Jim Henson Foundation hosted an entire event devoted to this art form through which I found March’s #inspiringfellow , Toby Froud, as well as many other talented artists. I’ve watched old Muppet re-runs, shadow puppet music videos, Labyrinth, and even Jaws with a whole new awareness and appreciation. I’m exceedingly excited to share the results of our work with the world and often wish to thank Coyote himself as a trusted collaborator, but in the meantime I want to share a very exciting discovery I made recently:
On the world wide web exists a place that features incredible short films of all types and has an entire category labeled “Puppetry”. This place is called “Short of the Week”. In celebration of our upcoming short film with puppets, I want to share a couple treats from “Short of the Week” that I find have something in common with Coyote Girl. Sometimes it’s stylistic, sometimes it’s subject matter, and sometimes it’s just the joy of puppets! And after you’ve watched these goodies, browse the site for hundreds of other awesome short films.
It’s rainy in the Berkshires today. The whole world looks black and white. So here’s a celebratory still from our short upcoming film Coyote Girl . Fun fact about our process: Coyote Girl was shot in color and edited to greyscale in post. Check out this shot from the film featuring actor Gail Shalan as Riley Ann and the infamous Coyote in action:
With a few raw materials, an old coyote skull, some petty cash, a rough idea, and a good dose of faith in hand, off I went to make a puppet!
When I returned to the Berkshires in late June of 2013, Biggs presented me with the top half of a coyote skull that he’d found and a plush coyote, about four feet long, constructed of muslin and stuffing, by the lovely Emily Justice Dunn, creator of our Drape and Baby Noah from “The Dick and The Rose”. We had discussed, while I was still in New York, the upcoming story he was spinning into play and screenplay form, and that in this story we needed a talking Coyote. He told me to take inspiration from Emily’s sweet pup, mix it up with what we learned in Tom’s workshop, and dive boldly into the experiment of making an approximately life-sized Coyote puppet for an upcoming short film and play.
So home I went to do some research on Handspring Puppet company, the amazing South African group that Tom worked with on War Horse, a company that has been producing incredible animal puppets that move in lifelike ways while maintaining a creative, homespun, story telling aesthetic in their overall look. I knew this is what I felt inspired by and envisioned for Coyote. Before I moved back up to the Berkshires, I’d had the good fortune of being invited to puppeteer with HiveMind Theatre Company in their short puppet play at St.Ann’s Warehouse’s Toy Theatre Festival. Over the rehearsal period, I watched puppets be tinkered with and built from wood, fabric, paper, glue, paint, staples, and pretty much anything else you could imagine. Witnessing the work behind Chan Thou’s Tuk Tuk also gave me confidence to dabble in the unknown.
And so several months of experiments began as I started on what I envisioned as a two to three person, Bunraku-style, life-sized Coyote puppet. I started with a rough, wooden skeleton. I used the size and shape of Emily’s plush Coyote, as well as photos of coyote skeletons found online, to create templates out of large sheets of masonite that I had on hand. Then, I planned to connect them with wire, dowels, and backpack strap (a useful, strong material that Tom suggested). The main part of the skeleton consisted of a ribcage with a front and back piece of masonite and wire “ribs” connecting the two. A hole was cut in the front piece to allow for the neck stick of the head to come through and the back piece was designed with a wrist rest so that one hand could manipulate the shoulders and head together. The rib cage then connected to a spine, which would have some hips constructed in a similar fashion to the shoulder piece, with an identical, dowel-sized hole for the tale. The legs were built of masonite, dowel,and backpack strap with appropriate joints and as natural movement as possible ( this inspiration I pulled from Handspring), and the feet were weighted to potentially relieve the puppeteers of excess manipulation.
Then came the head. Building roughly in the format taught by Tom Lee, I created a coyote skull out of crumpled paper and masking tape. Mounted on a short dowel (functioning as the neck, and also as a mechanism to control the head from within or beneath the body), I took the rough skull shape and added finesse with fine, transparent paper (similar to the traditionally-used rice paper) and watered-down wood glue. After completing the moveable top half of the skull, I also made a working jaw. Biggs wanted an active tongue, if possible, so I began to play around with trigger systems and got a little in over my head. I’m no engineer and that’s for sure! But, with a little help and patience, I managed to rig a spring trigger inside the mouth to move the jaw from the hand which would be inside the rib cage, and saw potential to make moving ears/ tongue.
However, my patience began to ware thin. I was struggling with maintaining focus and inspiration as well as solving what felt like challenging physics, and I was reminded of why I chose the artistic path that I did. I’m a collaborator, and find my fuel in the melding of my passion with others. I was having a really hard time working mostly alone, in silence, assembling a creature I couldn’t yet bring to life in a satisfactory way. There were other issues, too. The head I’d worked so hard on, was much to large and long for an actual coyote. The body was becoming too complex to manipulate with ease and we weren’t sure that we’d have more than just myself as a puppeteer, especially for the film, so I needed to get back to the drawing board and work on a simpler, smaller, more accurate puppet for a single puppeteer. The good news is that I could focus on just the top half of the body for the film’s sake. I decided to start from a place of necessity, the bare bones of what the puppet needed to do, and to come from a puppeteer’s functional perspective rather than a design-oriented angle. But this a tale for next time…
Happy #tbt (Throw Back Thursday) everyone! Can’t believe our shoot of Coyote Girl is becoming a memory. Keeping the sweet memories fresh with another exciting sneak peek of a still from our short film. To keep you all up to date, our movie is currently being authored in Santa Cruz, CA. Looking forward to having those mastered discs very soon! Keep your eyes out at your local film festivals and we’ll release info about our circuit for Coyote Girl A.S.A.P:
How long does it take to build a puppet? A minute, an hour, a day, a year? All of the above. The discovery and then simple manipulation of an inanimate object within minutes can create a puppet. The careful stitching and gluing of a collection of materials over several hours, days, or weeks can produce a puppet. The trial and error experimentation with many forms, patterns, shapes, ideas, and animations of a specific character can eventually materialize into an appropriate puppet for a new film and play in development over the course of what has now been a two year process. This hardly marks the end of our development of Coyote, as we are still discovering the ways in which we need the thing and creating more and more uses for it as we continue development of Riley Ann Visits the Outcast Café.
If you were to ask me, I’d say this puppet began over a conversation about a workshop held in Williamsburg, BK in April 2013. After closing The Dick and The Rose in the summer of 2012, I decided to return to NYC in hopes of some artistic and general clarity. Biggs continued to develop the next chapter of his tale at home and on the farm, and knew that puppets had become an inviting, compelling, and powerful way to tell his stories. Not knowing the exact form, but knowing that they would return and I’d most likely be the one putting my hand up their butts or wherever else they might call for, he contacted me with a fantastic offer to hone my natural draw to puppets as a storytelling mechanism. Right down the street from my then apartment Triskelion Arts happened to be hosting a weekend long workshop with the incredibly talented and knowledgable Tom Lee and we were to attend!
Tom is one of the original creators and animators of the puppets used in the international hit War Horse. He’s also built puppets for many other renowned works and teaches as a professor of theatre and puppetry at Sarah Lawrence College. Having studied and observed the traditional (rather laborious and extensive) Bunraku form of puppetry in Japan, Tom developed his own form of building, manipulating, and teaching the art of puppets to many others. So, Biggs and I spent an eye-opening weekend with Tom, and a diverse smattering of fellow artists with varying puppetry experience, refining our skills in storytelling through the animation of inanimate objects. We also discovered the magic, the power and delight, of the puppeteer as the puppet maker. There is a certain ceremony in bringing life from scratch to the thing we will call ‘puppet’. From this place comes our inspiration, and our patience and persistence, to embark on a brand new journey with Coyote Girl/ Riley Ann Visits the Outcast Café in which I, as puppeteer, and Biggs as creator, dive head first into the unknown territory of building our own puppet: Coyote.
Stay tuned for the next installment of “The Evolution of Coyote” coming soon!
Outcast Café is hard at work on our future projects. Our team is spread far and wide right now (and so is our film Coyote Girl) before we come together again early this Spring to start work on the next installment of Robert Biggs’ original works. We can’t wait to tell you more about are plans for the Spring of 2015, but first lets all go back to some past adventures in a little image throwback. Enjoy!
We’re very excited to announce that we are now on the way to getting Coyote Girl out into the world. Sims and Biggs are hard at work completing the Withoutabox application for submission to a handful of national and international film festivals this upcoming year. Meanwhile, Rick and Biggs peruse the film on the big screen for any final edits or adjustments. For your viewing pleasure, here is another gorgeous still from our short film. I think it might be my favorite:
Last week, after a month of hard work in the cutting room, Rick, Biggs and Sims sent me the unmastered final cut! Wow. It looks gorgeous! I don’t want to give away too much, but we are all very proud and happy. While Coyote Girl ‘s soundtrack and final bits of mastering get wrapped up over these next few weeks I thought it might be fun to share some of the stunning stills I pulled from the cut of the film I received.