Cinema is an art form that yields endless possibilities for storytelling, but very few filmmakers have embraced puppetry as a narrative device.
One of the famous rare exceptions was Jim Henson, but his movies were conceived as entertainments for children and family audiences. What about puppet movies created for adults?
In case you haven’t noticed, numerous artists working within the Atlanta film community are subverting stereotypes and expectations in the ways they use puppets to tell stories that address violence (Wild is the Wind), gaming culture (Magic: The Gathering—The Musical), racism (Shadow Puppets), loneliness (The Wind Up Boy) and even Greek mythology (Maiden to Monster). Among them are Raymond Carr, Molly Coffee, and the film collective New Puppet Order, which consists of the core team of Sam Carter, Darrell C. Hazelrig, and Beau Brown, with key support from such collaborators as Evan Fowler and Gregg Van Laningham.
Certainly the Center for Puppetry Arts has something to do with this local phenomenon. And Xperimental Puppetry Theater (XPT), the Center’s yearly performance event, provides the impetus for independent filmmakers to use puppets as narrative devices. No less important as an influence is the Dailies Film Project at Push Push Theater, which provided a challenging collaborative environment for Carr, Carter, Hazelrig, and others in their evolution as filmmakers.
Carr, who operates Ninja Puppet Productions, moved to Atlanta from Los Angeles when he was a teenager and began an internship at the Center for Puppetry Arts. He was soon recruited to work on Lazytown, a TV series being produced in Iceland that involved latex puppetry. When he returned to Atlanta, he became involved with the Dailies film project, for which he made one of his first shorts featuring puppets, the macabre black comedy/fantasy Jessica Likes to Hurt People (2007).
It was during breaks in the North American tour schedule of Walking With Dinosaurs: The Arena Spectacular—which Carr served as head puppeteer—that he developed and shot Wild Is the Wind (2011). A dark psychological fantasy, the short features two characters, Sarin, a professional assassin, and Wick, the strange creature who lives in her basement and tends to any wounds she receives in her line of work. The fact that Sarin’s job-related injuries become progressively bloodier as the story progresses suggests that she isn’t very good at her job and adds a touch of black humor to the proceedings. But it is her symbiotic relationship with Wick and their conversations (which range from favorite CNN newscasters to the existence of God) that makes Wild Is the Wind such a mysterious and intriguing work.
“You can create these objects and images and characters that are just as otherworldly as an animated character, but they still have the weight and texture of a practical, real-life entity,” Carr said. “Part of it is that it’s still alien and otherworldly, but it’s still grounded in some sense of reality. Wild Is the Wind is the culmination of all that, an absurd situation where everybody is talking about very normal things. Someone just parodying a Muppet movie with a puppet going around saying fuck all the time—that’s boring to me.”
Carr’s current project is a film short titled Bait, which employs puppet monster miniatures to tell a surreal, dreamlike tale of a father who uses his son as a lure to track down a demon-worshiping cult. An even more experimental approach is being taken for The Dark Piece, Carr’s work-in-progress that was commissioned by Heather Henson for her internationally renowned film festival, Handmade Puppet Dreams. The short will combine traditional tabletop puppetry with visual-effect compositing techniques to create an entire environment composed of puppeteers.
Carter, Hazelrig, and Brown, who constitute the core brain trust of New Puppet Order, have learned to channel their individual strengths into a fluid, group dynamic. Sometimes sharing writing, directorial, or production duties, these three have, over time, settled into their preferred roles: Carter concentrating on writing and producing, Hazelrig taking the directorial reins, and Brown crafting the visual concepts as the chief puppet maker and lead puppeteer.
Shadow Puppets (2010), considered the first official New Puppet Order film, displays the imagination and quirky, idiosyncratic sense of humor that would become a distinguishing trait. This reality-bending satire plops us down in a suburbia where people and puppets coexist as the social norm.
Carter recounts that he and writing partner/collaborator Evan Fowler “sat down and started talking about what’s funny with puppets. We finally came to the conclusion that if the world of the Muppets was a real place, there would be people who would be horribly racist and really, really freaked out by the fact that there were talking frogs and talking pigs, and so we started playing around with this idea of a puppet bigot.”
Carter went on to produce other short films for New Puppet Order but Conrad Fails at Normal (2013), which he co-wrote with Fowler and codirected with Hazelrig, is a return to the off-kilter black comedy and bizarre plot twists of Shadow Puppets. Conrad goes for a walk in the park, stops to rest on a bench, and is joined by a stranger who comes on like a pervert but soon reveals his surprising musical talents. Without spoiling anything, let’s just say that Italian opera and the song “Danny Boy” are put to imaginative use here in a way that straddles the line between obscene and whimsical.
Hazelrig made his New Puppet Order debut as director on The Dark Companion (2011), which he also wrote. The short represented both a challenge and an opportunity for Hazelrig in its presentation of Howard, a paranoid being shadowed by someone only he can see. The twist here is that Howard is a puppet but most of the cast are actors. A witty, existential drama with in-joke references to the 1950 film Harvey, The Dark Companion was inspired by Hazelrig’s contemplation of a live puppet show. “I realized that when you go to a puppet show, you’re supposed to be absorbed by the puppet and take in just the puppet,” he said. “But there [are] these people there and they’re all dressed in black and it’s creepy. I can’t ignore that. Eureka. I’ve got it. This puppet can see his puppeteer. No one else can.”
Hazelrig also performed double duty as writer and director on New Puppet Order’s Maiden to Monster. For inspiration, Hazelrig turned to Greek mythology and the myth of Medusa, a story that was ripe for reinterpretation. “Medusa was the girl who could never be loved,” Hazelrig said. “Everybody thinks of her as this crazy, evil monster … but what if she didn’t want to turn people into stone? She just wanted to be cared for and loved, but no one could get close.”
With its atmospheric lightning, rich production design, and nontraditional presentation of the encounter between Medusa and Perseus, Maiden to Monster is closer to art cinema than it is to anything else and offers another point of departure for puppetry on film.
Brown, who has been involved in almost every New Puppet Order short since Shadow Puppets as the head puppet builder and lead puppeteer, comes from an extensive background in puppet theater and currently hosts and produces the Puckin’ Fuppet Show at Fabrefaction Theater.
“The Wind Up Boy was my directorial and writing debut,” Brown said. “It was a big departure for us to do something so serious and to do something without dialogue. Tom Thon carried that whole film without saying a word. It’s a real testament to his skill.” But the title creation is also mesmerizing and “was created by an artist named Scott Fensterer. I bought a mannequin, and he completely redid all the facial features, the hair, and put the glass eyes in there. I built all the puppet parts, all the rods and hand control, making him walk. So it was a group effort.”
Set inside the apartment of a lonely old man, the short draws you into his private, insular world which is at first mundane and then enters the realm of the fantastic after a mechanical boy mannequin with a wind-up key is salvaged from the trash. From this point on, the short moves into increasingly unpredictable territory, with subtle mood shifts that go from suspenseful to creepy to poignant to lighthearted before fading out on an ending that is both melancholy and bitterly ironic.
Unlike the eloquent mannequin created for the aforementioned short, the puppets Brown created for Ed Is a Portal (2013) are both grotesque and comical in their look and behavior. Written by Carter and directed by Hazelrig, this short follows the title character through a particularly bad day: Ed’s throbbing headache turns out to be the result of aliens from another dimension using his head as a portal to invade Earth. It’s all in a day’s work for his taquito-munching roomies, who act as crisis management for the back of Ed’s head. What could easily have become an overemphasis on the technical aspects of the film are balanced by the hilariously deadpan treatment of the absurd situation and the blasé attitudes of all concerned.
A similar sensibility is on display in the films of Molly Coffee, who started as a photographer and transitioned into filmmaking. Orgazimation (2009), a 21-episode web series of Claymation shorts produced and directed by Coffee and written by her frequent collaborator Charles (Chuck) Thomas, is one of their early stop-motion experiments that pokes fun at horror and sci-fi conventions. For Frowning (2011), another Claymation puppet short produced and directed by Coffee, a serial killer clown roams the streets of Atlanta, occasionally entertaining his ill-fated victims by juggling or creating balloon animals before striking.
Much more ambitious in scope and concept was Coffee’s next creation, Magic: The Gathering—The Musical (2012). A rock opera–like take on a championship tournament for competing players of the popular fantasy card game, Magic: The Gathering, the 27-minute short is a marvel of set design and musical production numbers, showcasing a large puppet cast. But that wasn’t the plan in the beginning. “Me and Chuck had always envisioned it with real people in a little comic book shop,” Coffee said, “but the second I saw Shadow Puppets it was like, ‘I can make it with puppets!’ We can build the sets. We can have complete control over the world we are creating if we go with puppets.”
Although Magic pays homage to the Muppets in its visual design, the concept is much more eccentric and nontraditional in its execution. All of the dialogue is sung, which allows Coffee to parody a wide range of musical styles veering from hip-hop to rock ’n’ roll to Broadway musicals (one number parodies a famous song from Jesus Christ Superstar).
Coffee, who runs her own company, Zombie Cat Productions, is currently working on a new project. “It’s a TV show that is a mixture of people and puppets. The closest thing to compare it to is probably Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. It’s really big and colorful and has the look and feel of a children’s show but is very much adult humor.”
All of these filmmakers collaborate often on one another’s work but still follow their own creative vision when it comes to using puppets as a narrative device. In this regard, they stand united with Sam Carter when he says, “The world of adult puppetry needs a revolution. It needs its own Simpsons. The vast majority of puppetry that you see is a parody of the Muppets, and we’ve done our share that fall into that category, but there’s a lot more than can be done, a lot of other stories that you can tell that aren’t just playing off of the wholesomeness of the Muppets. I think that’s what we’re trying to do and what we’re doing.”