Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Chensational Puppets on The Eleventh Hour (CTV)

Talk about an old story. Truth be told I really wish I had been blogging during the whole thing, but I am forced to give a post report on this great experience. In November 2003 I was contacted and asked to show my puppets for a possible job for the Gemini Award winning Canadian drama called The Eleventh Hour on CTV. I remember meeting with Executive Associate Dave Hayman and showing him a few of my puppets.

Later I received a phone call asking to show the puppet to the director/producer. A few days later I made my way back to the offices and I waited in a room with my puppets. I was nervous. I mean here was the director/producer of this big budget (in Canadian terms) television show and I had to show him my puppets. I tried to relax and think about what I was going to say. I sat at the end of this giant boardroom table and I had moral support from my (now) wife Stacy.

After a while Dave Hayman came in with three people. He introduced each one and their job descriptions. I was a little more nervous. I didn't realize that I had to pitch myself in front of four people. Slowly more and more people came in. All with impressive titles, "Art Director/Head of Department", "First Assistant Director", "Costume Designer", "Set Decorator", etc. The parade of people was unbelievable. Finally, David Wellington the Creative Producer/Director came in. In all it would seem that there were about fifteen people sitting at this long table waiting for my pitch.

I did my thing, pointing out why I thought my company was the best for the project. When I was done David asked me a few questions, tried on a puppet, thanked me for my time and quietly led the procession of people out of the room. I sat there a little worried and stunned by the whole thing, but a few minutes later Dave Hayman returned and informed me that I was hired.

What a thrill! The episode was titled The Revenge Specialist and I was asked to build two weird looking bunny puppets. As a side note, the episode was nominated for a Gemini award for the acting talents of Waneta Storms in her role as Isobel Lambert, Producer.

To build the puppets I worked from illustrations designed by Nelvana Animation. The episode was about a popular children's television show (starring these two bunnies) under investigation for inappropriate actions by the creators of the show. I puppeteered for the episode along with fellow puppeteer Jay Williams.

It was an awesome experience. I hope to post more about it sometime in the future.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Making a theatre puppet

I started thinking about the considerations I used when designing the Maurice puppet for Andrew MacDonald-Smith. I have often heard the argument of using hand stitches instead of a sewing machine when making puppets. There are two sides to this argument. I know that sewing by hand (which I tend to do) hides seams extremely well on a puppet, but there are benefits of sewing by machine. I find machine seams (although easier to see) are extremely superior in strength than a hand sewn stitch.

One of the considerations I had when making this puppet for Andrew was about the durability. As a result I chose to go with a machine sewn puppet.

I started with antron fleece which I dyed to a light blue colour.

I cut out the body pattern and glued the pieces together.

The head was assembled and I added a sleeve inside the puppet to make it more comfortable during hot performances on stage.

The eyes, nose and head are all ready.

The pattern for the fabric skin is created and traced on to the fabric.

The pieces are cut out and organized together. These happen to be the human arm pieces.

Pieces are sewn together with a sewing machine (making sure that each part is as strong as can be).

The final result is a puppet that is extremely durable. Reports are that Maurice has been used a tremendous amount and he is going strong. Everyone has their own thoughts on using a machine instead of sewing by hand. I have found that both are quite acceptable in different circumstances and when all is said and done, the results can be quite pleasing.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

A Chensational puppet on stage!

I just finished getting an update from Edmonton actor Andrew MacDonald-Smith about the puppet that he had ordered from me over a year ago. Initially Andrew said that he was inspired by Muppet type puppets that he had seen in the smash stage show called Avenue Q. After I explained to him that I would not be willing to build any of the characters from the show for him, he understood and hired me to build a style of puppet that had a similar cartoon look.

I was given a great amount of flexibility in terms of design, although Andrew did want the skin to be blue and the nose to be green. I sent him a very rough sketch and he approved it. I started to build the puppet and before long he had his very own stage puppet.

Andrew reports that his puppet has been named "Maurice" and that they have both done quite a bit of acting over the past year. Andrew has used Maurice in a variety of improve shows including something called the "After Intermission Special". Andrew describes the show as being "like and after school special, but for an 11pm crowd. It still has the spirit of an after school special but with a slight adult edge. He (Maurice) learns a lesson, but it's somehow twisted."

It is always personally satisfying to hear about any of my puppets getting used the way they were intended. It is even more gratifying to hear that the puppet is holding up very well. As a builder it is important to have a product that can stand up to the challenges of day-to-day use. It seems that our dear friend Maurice has done smashingly well.

If you are ever in Edmonton be sure to stop by Oh Susanna! to get a little taste of the unique entertainment you are sure to find. Who knows if you are lucky enough you might get a chance to see Andrew and Maurice doing their "After Intermission Special" on every month.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Materials vs. Imagination

I talked about this before but the issue of puppets and the materials that are used to build them has many different areas of debate. I have already explained that the costs of a puppet has less to do with the material costs and more to do with the time and labour involved in building them.

As a teacher I always try to incorporate puppetry into my classroom in one way or another. A while back I was doing a puppet building unit with my grade 1 students. I believe in free creativity when building puppets so I taught my students about materials, reusing materials and about thinking of the different body parts they would need for their puppet character and then encouraged them to use their imaginations to help make their puppets.

The issue of materials struck a very interesting idea for me. You see my students were disappointed that they would not have access to all of the fabrics, polyfil, craft eyes, etc., that I used for my puppets. Instead they had a giant box of every imaginable material that your could think of. My students were unconvinced that even with all of the "stuff" in the box that they could make a cool puppet. I made them a deal. I said that I would work along side them to make a puppet and use the same materials that they had.

I was in charge of the hot glue gun (can't let those little fingers get hurt) and my helpers walked around and answered questions for the students. I would glue the requests from my students and in the down time I would cut and glue materials for my own puppet.

I pointed out to my students the huge quantity of dark grey foam in the box. Some students use the foam others focused on boxes for heads and bodies.

As I built my puppet I had students ask me questions like "What are you going to use the styrofoam tray for Mr Chen?". My answers were very straight forward "I will use them for the top and bottom parts of the mouth." and I was often met with a smile and the little student would run off (actually walk...and I do make sure they are careful with the scissors) and start making a mouth of their own.

When all was said and done the students had made some of the most amazing puppets. I wish I had taken pictures but during the actual building I just was so immersed that I forgot to. What I do have is the grey gargoyle puppet that I built out of foam, stryofoam meat tray, hot glue, scraps of fabric and two round plastic toys that I cut, oh and some whiteout and black permanent marker for the eyes.

At the end of everything my students understood that it really is not the materials that you use. I mean really puppets are just foam, fabric and plastic. It is much more essential that you never forget to use the most important element for puppet building. Your imagination.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Grumpy Tiger, Hiding Dragon

It was a while back, but I remember an old high school friend of mine contacting me and giving me the heads up that a friend of hers was interested in having some puppets built. Sure enough I received the phone call and agreed to meet Carmen Gillespie at a downtown coffee shop. She told me about this little independent film she was doing.

The concept was very simple. A little annoying dragon harasses a grumpy tiger and at the end of the film...well...I hate to ruin the ending. I guess I will leave it at that.

At any rate Carmen proceeded to show me the storyboards and the character designs for the puppets. I loved the dragon design right away. Carmen was yet another great client in that she also allowed me some artistic freedom when it came to the final designs of the puppets.

I really loved the idea of the short and I agreed to give her a great deal on the puppets, but I wanted to be a part of the production. She agreed to let me puppeteer and I went to work right away.

The dragon was very cute. Carmen Gillespie puppeteer the dragon. I was very impressed with the puppeteering abilities of Carmen. It is not often that people are so easily able to pick up the ability to puppeteer, Carmen nailed it.

The orange tiger ended up having a moving eyebrow mechanism built in to the design and was accented with two human arm gloves. The gloves allowed myself and another puppeteer to operate the puppet with realistic arm movements.

The black tiger was a nice challenge, because I was forced to keep careful notes with my first tiger puppet design. It was essential so that I could build the second tiger to the same specifications as the first.

When all was said and done the shoot was about two full days and was a great experience. As of now Carmen has not yet attempted to submit the film to any festivals. It is within the plans, but not just yet. As soon as anything happens with Grumpy Tiger, Hiding Dragon I will post information here.

Challenging yourself

It always amazes me how my interests in puppetry always seem to be changing. When I am building I always take in to account my desire to take on new challenges as well. When I was asked by ventriloquist and performer Tim Holland to build a new puppet for him I was intrigued.

You see he asked me to build a severed head puppet that also had the illusion of being held by a false hand. I had never done anything like this before and I jumped at the chance to try it. The result was a pretty cool puppet that had a built in blinking eye mechanism.

If you would like to see Tim and this unique puppet, then please check out his company called Foolesque. Tim is also available for festivals and corporate clients as well.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Wonderful little workshop

I thought that it might be worth the time to share a few things about my workshop. It is far from ideal but it works (for now). In a few months I will be moving and my workshop set up will look a little different. For now it is a converted space in my basement.

The setup is pretty basic. I have a ton of shelves all along the walls loaded with plastic bins full of materials and puppets (some of which have been sold since this picture was taken). In my basement I have the option to open the window (which I do) when working with contact cement and other toxic fumes. I personally choose to use rubber disposable gloves as well as wearing a respirator. As one last added feature I installed a powerful hoodfan over my gluing area to help take most of the toxic fumes outside. I have a few puppets that are works in progress lying around as well.

Here is a little kitty puppet that I have been working on for a show idea that I will be developing through my company Chensational Puppets. He will be the pet of a crotchety old man who takes pleasure in tormenting door-to-door salesmen.

These two little snake puppets were to be a part of a great show pilot. At the last minute the executive producers decided to go with traditional animation rather than puppets, and the team that had been assembled was suddenly out on their ears (Ouch! The business can be tough).

Finally, this is an eel puppet I made for a New York area comedian. It was an updated version of an old sock puppet he had been using. Sometimes I take on jobs just because I like the challenge involved. This puppet allowed me to take an old character and give him a modern facelift. Pretty cool I think.

Like it or not this is my workshop. The basics are here and I have made many a puppet during my year or so of having it set up like this. I look forward to moving and I know that my new workshop will be just as nice...and a whole lot brighter!

Saturday, April 09, 2005

A small town with lots of puppets

If you are not from the Ottawa area chances are that you have never heard of the town of Almonte. It was the birthplace of basketball inventor James Naismith, but it's streets are not adorned with basketball sculptures or basketball themed paintings. No this little town is a haven for a variety of talented artists and has several small art galleries within its small borders. But walking through the town it slowly becomes apparent that this town is also full of puppets. They smile to you from almost every store window.

Now why would a small town like this have so many puppets? It is also the home of puppet builder Noreen Young. Noreen has used her love of puppets to help bring a wonderful vitality to the town and has helped to make it stand out from most towns that I have been to. It has become almost a right of passage for each store owner in the town to purchase a custom puppet built by Noreen to be displayed in their window.

Noreen contributes to the town in many ways including with her annual Noreen Young Bursary Dinner and Gala. This event helps raise money to offer financial support to young people from Mississippi Mills and Carlton Place who are pursuing post-secondary studies in arts.

I was fortunate enough to be a part of yet another wonderful puppet project put on by Noreen (which is no longer showing). This time she had organized and curated a beautiful puppet exhibit in the town of Almonte's newly built Chamber of Commerce. It was truly an honour for me to have my puppets along side some of my favourite builders'.

Here is one of my chimp puppets along side Iggy from Under the Umbrella Tree (one of Noreen Young's puppets) and a roach puppet built by Matt Ficner.

The exhibit also showcased puppet marionettes built by master puppet builder/puppeteer Ronnie Burkett.

Here is a great picture that demonstrates Noreen's uncanny ability to capture the likeness of people. This is a Ronald Reagan puppet cozying up with a creature built by Trish Leeper. Patricia (Trish) Leeper is a puppet builder/puppeteer whose puppets many Canadians have probably seen on television and not even realized it. She is an amazing builder (and puppeteer) and these little creature puppets are extremely affordable. They are great for the aspiring puppeteer to get the feel of a well constructed performance puppet and at a good price.

These bat puppets where probably my favourite puppets in the entire exhibit. These were built by puppet builder Vicki Veenstra. Used in the television series the Longhouse Tales.

Ultimately this little town is something very special. So, if you have a love of puppets or the arts in general, make it a point to stop by Almonte on your way through to Ottawa. Who knows, you just may come back with a deeper love of puppets.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Is puppet building art?

I have often heard people say "Are you kidding me? For a puppet?" when they hear the answer to the classic question "How much would it cost for one of those puppets?" The reality is that a good quality puppets costs money.

I will often hear the retort "It's only fabric and foam." Yes this is true. But would you go to an art gallery look at a painting for $3000.00 and then remark "It's only paint."? Of course not. The art is not valued for the simple materials it is made from, but rather the artistic energy put in to creating it.

One of the best building companies around is a company called Puppet Heap in the United States...Hoboken, New jersey to be exact. Their puppets are nothing short of beautiful. I have started collecting puppets myself from other puppet builders that I respect and if money was no object then Puppet Heap would be on the other end of my phone taking a few orders from me. Are their puppets made from anything different than a cheap factory puppet. Maybe some higher quality materials, but more than that they are made by truly talented artists.

Puppet builder Rick Lyon has done a great job summing up the differences between a mass produced puppet and a custom designed puppet here.

What ultimately holds true for me is the simple fact that a puppet which I desire to own has all of the same elements to any piece of art that I have ever wanted. There is a connection with the piece. Some way or some how that piece speaks to me (I will stay away from some easy puns). To me puppet building is an art. A way for me to express myself on many levels. Through my puppet builder eyes I am now able to see a whole new world of puppets and can truly appreciate this ancient art form.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Where ya gonna' go? Follow me to Clown School!

At least those are some of the lyrics to the television series pilot that has been developed by Ronald Czajkowski. Clown School follows the crazy adventures of a group of mismatched clowns.

When I was approached by Ron to build "Mr. Giggles" (the only puppet character in the show) I was given a lot of artistic freedom. It was a great build for me because I was able to work with very few restrictions. I was told that the puppet had to be a middle aged, orange, spider monkey, who was cute. The rest was up to me. I was happy with the final result.

Ron has demonstrated himself to be extremely committed to the concept and has done some impressive things to help make the show viable. He has gone out and hired Sam Henderson of Spongebob Squarepants fame to help write the scripts for all of the pilot shows.

What is happening with the show now? When last I heard, Ron had set up a pitch session with the president of Nickelodeon. I wish him the best in his production dreams and I look forward to hearing more good news on the show's status. I will post more when I hear something.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Alistair Ant back to his old tricks

After a rest from the showbiz lights and fame, Alistair Ant is back to performing. Alistair Ant Productions is the live performance children's entertainment company that is owned and operated by Rob and Soli Joy. When Rob and Soli first asked me to build Alistair, they were very clear that they did not want a traditional "muppety" looking puppet. After a while I came back with a latex puppet that still had a unique cuteness to him. It was then that Alistair Ant was born.

After the initial success of their first Alistair show entitled "The Bigger the Better Said Alistair Ant", they then went on to create the latest Alistair adventure called "Double Trouble for Alistair Ant". For his latest adventure I was asked to build an identical Alistair Ant puppet and a new character named "Sluggo"(a yellow slug).

Rob and Soli are amazing talents and their shows are not to be missed. Even though the shows are clearly geared to young children, I have been completely enteretained during each show I have seen. That is not the case for most children's shows I have seen. I must say that after seeing their shows live I am left with only one major question. Why are these performers not on television? They are equally as talented and any Canadian children's performers currently on television, and I would say they are better that most of them. It will only be a matter of time before they are on television. I can't wait! I would love to see it happen. If you want to check out their shows, or hire them please visit them at their website here. It is well worth it!

Sunday, April 03, 2005

The Spadasheo puppet builder

All of my memories have been flooding back since I found that Spadasheo picture. The first thing I noticed about the puppets from Spadasheo was the shading and the variety of colours they had. They didn't look like other puppets I had seen before. I could see that the builder had used an airbrush and markers to add depth and shading to the puppets. It was an unusual effect.

It was something
I had never see before, but it was all in a days work for the builder. You see it is just a part of the amazing style of puppet builder Matt Ficner. You may or may not have heard of him, but most would agree that his work is unforgettable.

He was the builder of the puppets for the Spadasheo pilot, and his style is quite distinct. He has used his artistic eye and combined that with an intelligent curiosity to use a variety of found items when he makes his puppets. Where some builders choose to make slight changes to pre-existing puppet patterns and call them custom puppets, Matt is truly a custom puppet builder. He starts from the ground up and uses whatever he can find to make it work. Latex, springs, plastic pieces, cut up Halloween masks, mouse pads, you name it and you just might find it on one of his puppets.

The amazing thing is that as strange as these object may seem to have on a puppet, they are seamlessly a part of the entire puppet aesthetic.

Matt has his own company called
Matt Ficner Productions, Inc. Check it out.