November 13, 2015

Photo Essay: Creatures Under Construction

I spent a lot of time animating my stuffed animals to entertain myself and my sister when we were kids.

For a while, I thought I would end up becoming a puppeteer.

When I moved to New York City after college, I explored three very different career paths: 1) magazine publishing, 2) the music industry, and 3) Children's Television Workshop / Sesame Street / Jim Henson / Muppet-related work.

As the years passed, I became so consumed by my jobs in the music biz—and trying to write on the side—that I forgot all about my dreams of bringing inanimate objects to life.

But now that I've lived in LA for a while, I've gotten comfortable enough to let my freak flag fly and find fellow puppet-loving pals. Its unique uncoolness makes it ever so cool.

Photo courtesy of Swazzle

In LA, any talent you have can probably be exploited in the entertainment industry. Patrick and Sean Johnson, the twin brothers who founded Swazzle, have managed to make a career out of puppet fabrication and puppeteering, having worked with everybody from The Simpsons to Pee-Wee Herman to JibJab. They provide the puppets for local stage productions of Little Shop of Horrors, Shrek, and Avenue Q.

Patrick even does the puppet on the LendingTree TV commercials.

Swazzle has got their own cast of characters, too, who star in their own original productions...

...and whose appearances clearly have been inspired by the brothers' time working with The Muppets and Jim Henson's Creature Shop.

Swazzle runs their own version of a creature shop in a 1000 square foot space in an industrial park in Glendale...

...where furry friends abound...

...waiting for someone to stick their arm up into them...

...and give them the illusion of life.

Each creature is carefully constructed from a basic combination of components: foam, fur, and fleece (not felt!).

What makes them stand apart from each other is how they are assembled, and which colors their various parts are dyed.

But they all basically start the same: as a sheet and/or a block of foam, which is then cut with a bandsaw.

It's a little unnerving to see the critters without their skin and fur...

...their hollow insides just big enough for an adult-sized human hand to articulate the neck and push the words out of their mouths.

Some of the furry friends' "hands" (not paws or claws) are built as solid pieces, while others are more like a glove that the puppeteer wears to gesture with his own hand. (Think Fozzie Bear.)

Creature construction hasn't changed a whole lot from the age of sock puppets and the birth of The Muppets, except with the advent of 3D printing.

Now, small models are relatively easy to make. Most puppets don't have to be very big for on-camera work anyway.

But analog tools and materials like antique Singer sewing machines and good ol' hot pink thread are still essential to the process... are dyes, glues, and various other goos.

I let everybody in my group have a shot at learning on-camera puppeteering techniques before I slithered over to a work table and slipped my arm into one.

Although I'm generally right-handed (as is the industry standard for on-camera puppetry), I decided to try using my left hand to operate the head and body and my right hand to maneuver the rods that move the limbs. (It's kind of like using chopsticks.)

Although the head movement is more important, my non-dominant left hand could more easily make the puppet talk than gesticulate. Of course, my right hand could do either. But you need both hands for these types of puppets.

Personally, I'd rather look a puppet in the eye than hold it way above my head with an outstretched arm. It's hard to believe that puppeteers still have to hide under tables and behind couches, but I guess no one will ever really want to see the puppeteers. They're supposed to be invisible, the hidden heroes of live action animation.

And I'm not very good at disappearing.

I'm not very good at remembering that the puppets aren't real, either.

Some of my best friends have been imaginary.

Related Posts:
These Secrets for a Puppet-Lover to Keep
Photo Essay: Unleashing a Creature of My Imagination

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