Jack and the Beanstalk at Upfront Puppet Theatre

The last time we visited Upfront Puppet Theatre we were there to watch their production of Aladdin and Anthony was 2 year old and Miranda was just a little baby. You can read about our previous visit when we watched “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” HERE.

The reason we didn’t have a post about that production was that our viewing of that was far more disrupted. I had hoped, with Anthony being 2, that he would manage to make it through the entire “Aladdin” show without having to be removed from the auditorium but instead of being better, it was worse. He had reached the age where he had to ask lots of questions about everything that was going on, AT THE TOP OF HIS VOICE. He was also finding it a bit scary too I think as it started off with the evil magician and a bit of stage pyrotechnics going on (if I remember rightly) and going into the scary cave etc. We reluctantly reached the decision for Tim to remove him as he was stopping the rest of the audience from hearing the voiceover recording of the characters and story. I did stay in to watch the rest with Miranda, but as I was trying to keep her occupied I did not feel like I had a good enough quality viewing of the show to write a proper review of it.

This time Anthony was 4 and Miranda was 2 and a half. I had a little word with her the night before the show. I told her that we were going to see a Puppet Show and that we would have to be nice and quiet so that everyone could hear what was going on and that if she made too much noise she would have to be taken out so that everyone could hear the story properly. She seemed to take this very much to heart and when I asked if she thought she could be nice and quiet during the show she said “Yes” very solemnly and said that she would be very quiet.

The next day when we were getting ready to go out she remembered what I had said without me mentioning it and said again that she was not going to make a noise and would be very quiet during the Puppet Show. I told them it was going to be “Jack and the Beanstalk” and asked if they remembered the story from when they did it at nursery, (they had made pictures of the Beanstalk with little cotton wool clouds and a cut out giant’s castle etc.) and Anthony had also brought home a story book with some little puppets in to act out the story. They had also learned what the giant said and had been chanting it to each other in the car on the day they had learned about it, so I reminded them of this.

I also told them that we would be having lunch at Upfront’s excellent vegetarian cafe before we so the show so they wouldn’t be disappointed at not seeing the show right away. They were still chomping at the bit to see the show, even though I had warned them in advance that we were eating first, and were asking when they would see the show; before, during and after the food. They examined the pictures on the leaflets attached to our table number with great interest which showed Jack, his cow and the Giant.

I wasn’t sure quite how long before the performance time we should be waiting outside to go in but didn’t want to leave it too late and so were waiting at 15 minutes before. Not many people were around and I was a bit concerned, then Anthony and Miranda made friends with a girl who had a hummingbird puppet from the shop and were comparing the different types of stones in the gravel outside (we had been asked to wait outside at the back of the theatre to avoid overcrowding in the foyer). We almost had a meltdown when Miranda did not want to give the hummingbird puppet back to the girl but promised her that we would visit the shop and find puppet that she would like after the show, (I had been intending to this anyway – it wasn’t just to keep her quiet).

Just as it was time for the show lots more people turned up and we started to go in. The seating was all socially distanced and the lady who was seating us was concerned that our teeny tiny children might not be able to see and moved our seats sideways a bit, (found out after it was Sarah from Noisy Oyster). So, it was a good while after the start time when we were all in and two blocks of seating in front of us were still conspicuously empty.

John Parkinson came out front and explained that we were still waiting for some people to arrive and that they had phoned explaining they were stuck in traffic and that it was so awful for people when they were trying their best to get to a show like this in time. To keep us entertained he found some puppets that I had noticed in a storage area at the side of the auditorium and gave us a little impromptu puppetry demonstration, (I think they were puppets from Stanelli’s Super Circus which I reviewed in another previous blog post – CLICK HERE to read). The first puppet was a dissecting skeleton marionette. If you are not familiar these were/and are very popular type of cabaret type* trick marionette, (*performed on shorter strings with the puppeteer on full view). The second was a “mystery” puppet, (in that they were stored in bags to stop the strings tangling and John had forgotten which one it was!) which turned out to be a violinist who would get so caught up in his violin playing that his trousers would fall down!

Eventually it was decided that we would have to start without the delayed audience members and we were upgraded to some seats right at the front, mostly because of their concern that our teeny tiny children would be able to see properly I think!

When the show was about to start Miranda spent some time saying “shhh!” over and over quietly, (to make sure the rest of us were behaving properly I think) and after that settled down and was quiet throughout the first half. Anthony sat beautifully still and attentive without a word as well, (I was very relieved after my previous experiences with him at the Puppet Theatre, but I had been fairly confident that Anthony was old enough to cope with it now).

We then had a small tub of yummy Lakeland ice cream each at the interval and after that watched the second half of the show. Miranda was still eating hers when the show started again and was not entirely successful at getting all of the ice-cream into her mouth in the dark, but did pretty well over-all.

In the second half (I think it was at the moment when the Giant spots Jack and said he was coming to get him) came the moment I had been worrying about…Anthony shouted out “Oh NO!!” and I feared we would have a meltdown from Anthony due to his concern for Jack. We reassured him that everything would come out well for Jack in the end and I think the fact that Anthony already knew the story may have helped here.

We have been struggling with Anthony and watching films or television with any kind of dramatic suspense, (Miranda has been fine with it and often says “don’t worry, Anthony” to him). Once he has seen something already he is generally fine but otherwise can go into full on trauma saying “Oh No! What’s going to happen?” and shaking and wailing etc. Examples of traumatic content include the “Shaun the Sheep Movie” and the “Thunderbirds are Go” CITV series. Even Mr. Tumble putting his foot in a bucket of water for washing the car (CBeebies “Something Special”) has been upsetting for him whereas Miranda seems to understand slapstick humour far better.

Books are not a problem and he loves watching the “Thunderbirds” episodes over and over now but is largely anti watching fiction films. His favourite thing is watching factory videos about how Jelly Beans etc. are made and other non-fiction content about how things work like “Maddie’s Do You Know” from CBeebies. We intend to persevere, however, as otherwise he will never get used to watching fiction stories on TV and film and he is doing better with it generally speaking as this trip to the theatre shows.

But, back to the “Jack and the Beanstalk” show itself. Highlights of the show for me were the staging and special effects (which John always makes very special) Jack’s little dog and Daisy the dancing cow.

We particularly enjoyed the lighting and the scenery which moved smoothly to one side to show different locations and the clever way they showed Jack climbing the beanstalk. They not only had Jack move up the beanstalk but also had the scenery move downwards to show his progress up away from his house and above the clouds to where the Giant’s castle was. We also had smoke effects for Jack moving into the clouds as well, (Anthony was very impressed with this and wanted to know how it worked, of course).

Another lovely dramatic touch was the pyrotechnics accompanying the dramatic transformation of the Fairy Godmother puppet. It was one of those trick marionettes that turns upside down to reveal a costume change and was, in my opinion, a very appropriate dramatic use for such a puppet.

It was a smaller and more intimate stage (similar in size to the one that John started out with in the converted barn originally, according to John) than the one used for the performances we had seen at Upfront previously but I felt the smaller scale of the show and smaller number of puppets meant that the puppeteers were a bit less stretched perhaps and I felt like the quality of the puppeteering was particularly good, (I found out at the end that as well as John and Elaine Parkinson; Nik Palmer and Sarah Rowland-Barker of Noisy Oyster were also puppeteering on the show).

The only small issue I spotted was a moment when I think the dog puppet must have got tangled or stuck somehow, but I imagine that it would be an exceptionally rare marionette performance that would be completed without technical hitches of any sort. I have had performances where some of my shadow puppets have got stuck with their legs in a funny position or some such but you just have to carry on and hope the audience don’t notice or try to fix it as you are going along. This I guess is one of the joys of live performance. If you are a performer or puppeteer, perhaps you would like to share an example of how you have coped with technical difficulties/things going wrong in your performances in the comments section below, or you could share something you have seen as an audience member!

“The Dark Crystal Age of Resistance” v “The Dark Crystal” Movie (1982)

The Dark Crystal (1982) movie was one of the formative puppetry experiences of my youth. As I was born in 1982 I did not get to experience it at the cinema but rather watched it on the television in later years.

Sadly I do not remember exactly how old I was when I first saw it but, at a guess, I would say around 7 years old.

I remember it was frightening, or rather, had frightening bits but I was not distressed by it in the same way I had been by Moley in the Wild Wood (in Wind in the Willows by Cosgrove Hall). I used to make my Mum fast forward that bit on the video when I was 3 or 4 years old.

I think the worst bits were the collapsing face of the old emperor and the draining of the essence of the podling and then Kira, (though she did escape). The little detail of the tiny Podling child with her little doll when the Garthim raid the Podling village is also moving, (but I think adult parent of 2 small children me picked up on that more than child me did). However my main feelings about the film were that it was an exciting magical world. I did not even think of it as puppetry. The characters and the story were real creatures from another world that we just happened to have a window inside. I think I felt the same way about the characters from the Cosgrove Hall Wind in the Willows. As stop motion models/puppets everything was really real and was actually occupying real space rather than being a bunch of pixels in a computer.

I also found the Skeksis amusing rather than scary through much of the film. The disgusting way that they eat is so wonderfully tactile and filled me with the same childish glee that one gets from a Roald Dahl book such as “The Twits” or “George’s Marvellous Medicine”. The Chamberlain and his constant repetitious “whining” “mmmMMMMMmmm” was one of my particular, favourite bits of the film.

Re-watching the film with adult (and puppeteer’s) eyes sadly involves my analytical brain popping into gear. I can see the traditional puppetry style of the Jim Henson company in the way the Podlings and some of the other puppets move (the same style that we see animating Muppets and characters from Sesame Street). I was also a big fan of Sesame street growing up. I was too young for the Muppet Show and again, at the time did not think of the characters as puppets, (they were real).

I can also clearly see the multiple legs of the Garthim masking the real legs of the puppeteers (because I am looking for them) and that the Land-striders are the same shape as a person with stilts on arms and legs (because that’s what they are). What I am not sure about is whether I notice this because I am a puppeteer and puppet maker or because I am now an adult.

The Dark Crystal Age of Resistance has modern technology to help make the world as real as possible for an adult audience (they assume that fans of the original will be watching the prequel and are therefore now adults). In theory (as with the original) it is supposed to be for a family audience, but if so I would say it is definitely more suitable for older children. They have used green screen technology to remove puppeteers from shots and CGI to remove visible puppet rods. They have also used CGI for various special effects, backgrounds and the creatures that are in the place of wheels in the Skeksis’ carriages. From my research I have discovered that Jim Henson was not entirely happy with the puppet Gelfling as major protagonists as they did not have a lot of expression due to the small size of the heads and this is the reason they used human actors in the subsequent Froud/Henson collaboration film “Labyrinth“.

The Gelfling head animatronics in AOR is an improvement on the original heads with movable eyebrows allowing for a range of expressions though the jaw/mouth is rigid and simply opens and closes. The heads have also been augmented with CGI for certain shots (adding in eye blinks etc.).

The Director says that his aim was to make people forget that they are watching puppets and I’d say that the Gelflings and Podlings are the most problematic when it comes to that, (the Podlings are definitely a bit “Muppety” but very fun to watch). On my first watch through of the series (I binge watched it) I definitely found the rigid mouths of the Gelfling puppets a little off putting and found the expressions they were capable of a bit limited at first, but as the story progressed I found I became more absorbed by the story and less conscious of the Gelfling puppets’ limitations. They are undoubtedly beautiful puppets and I found Deet the most engaging of the main, Gelfling, characters. Her colouring (particularly her lustrous amber eyes) is very beautiful and she has a wistful, poignant expression that fits with the character’s eventual tragic ending (I say “ending” as with the series being cancelled we are sadly never going to find out what eventually happens to Deet).

On subsequent re-watchings of the series, I found, (as I often do) that as I already knew what was going to happen in the story, that my brain, (once again) started to focus on how everything was done technically.

I loved the very knowing and amusing reference to the artform of puppetry in the “puppet show within a puppet show” episode. The miniature puppets were wonderful and there was no pretence that these were anything other than puppets telling a story. The Dark Crystal film was criticised by some for not having enough humour in it (hence the change of tack in “Labyrinth”) but this episode of AOR was packed with humour from the very eccentric “Heretic” and “The Wanderer” and the interplay between the two.

I have read that the decline in popularity of the Bunraku theatre in Japan was possibly due to the fact that the puppets were too realistic and that once a puppet reaches a certain level of realism then it prompts the question: Why use puppets at all when an actor can portray so much more expression? The obvious answer to this in relation to the puppet Gelfling is that they are not human, merely human-like. I don’t know how much better a human with make-up/prosthetics would look compared to a realistic puppet, but I suppose the obvious comparison here would be Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” films. The Hobbits and Elves are wonderfully expressive because they are human actors and of course they pioneered the motion capture suit technology for the character of Gollum, (which one could argue is another form of puppetry).

However, I have seen the screen test footage that “The Jim Henson Company” created using a puppet Skeksis and a CGI Gelfling and even though (in my opinion) the Gelfling was a bit basic CGI wise compared to Gollum, the Skeksis and Gelfling do not match up together in terms of the way real objects catch the light etc. The puppet Skeksis in my opinion would not be better as human actors because they are not human-like and, therefore, they play to the strengths of the puppet; which is to do things that a human actor cannot do and to be things that human actors cannot be. There is no room for improvement with the Skeksis in terms of their appearance or performance in my opinion. They recreated the brilliance of the Skeksis in the original film and gave us more of what we liked in the first place and developed it and took it further, with a little CGI augmentation here and there (tongue movements for example).

The combination of Warwick Brownlow-Pike as puppeteer and Simon Pegg as the voice actor did a fantastic job of bringing the character I loved so much from the original film back to life and recreating and building on that original performance by Frank Oz and Barry Dennen. I would say that Warwick should take the greater credit for the acting performance of The Chamberlain when you consider that the voice-actors were matching their performance to the visual performance that the puppeteers had already created.

So if we agree that the Skeksis need no improvement and that they don’t match visually with CGI Gelfling then we are back to the decision to make the Gelfling puppets with little “pops” of CGI like the AOR did in fact use.

I think the problem is that the quality and realism of everything in the series is so high (with nearly everything physically there and lovingly handcrafted by experts at the top of their game) that very small flaws stick out rather more than they would otherwise do.

This series is, and will remain, an example of a crowning achievement of what is possible with puppetry; breaking new ground and inventing new ways of doing puppetry for TV that have simply never been done before. The puppets have been pushed to the absolute limits of what is possible and the Director, Louis Leterrier, pioneered the use of multiple hand held steady-cams to shoot the puppets which particularly pays off in the epic sequence where Rian is rescued from The Chamberlain’s carriage.

Performers of TV/film puppetry are used to being in complete control of what the camera sees by using monitors to view their performance as they do it. But, obviously with this approach (even with a split screen monitor) the puppeteer is not in quite so much control of the shots and I imagine they would have to approach the performance more like a human actor would. Leterrier directed all of the 10 one hour long episodes (a huge commitment which gives the series a unified overall vision) and he brought his experience of directing action fantasy films such as the 2008 The Incredible Hulk film to the project.

This is such a rich source of material to discuss one could write whole books about it (and indeed many people have). I am aware that I have only covered a fraction of what there is to talk about with both the original film and the Netflix series, (including the contentious issue of the cancellation of the series) but I have to draw a line somewhere.

To those at Netflix who think that the series is too expensive to make versus the amount of new subscribers they gained who wanted to watch this series; I would say that I would recommend anybody to subscribe to Netflix* just to get to watch this show (if you haven’t already seen it). If you haven’t already seen the original 1982 film or want to re-watch it; you can’t get this on Netflix. I downloaded the film via *YouTube Movies but perhaps it is available from other places too? Please mention in the comments section if you know of other places you can get hold of the film.

On a non-puppetry note if you are a similar age to me and remember “She-Ra” and “He-man” from your youth with affection there is an original Netflix series “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power” (which is a Manga style animation). It is aimed at people of our age who remember the series from our youth and the characters/plots/writing are sophisticated with lots of emotional depth. It is, in short, immensely superior to the original which was created solely to sell toys. So if you do decide to subscribe to Netflix I would recommend this as well (I have also enjoyed/am enjoying their series of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” and “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective agency”).

I welcome comments and would be particularly interested to hear from anyone who was involved in the making of “The Dark Crystal” or “The Dark Crystal Age of Resistance”. πŸ™‚

*Please note I have not been paid anything by Netflix or Youtube to mention them and am wholly impartial.

Review – Manual Cinema’s “Ada/Ava”

Last week “Manual Cinema” (for whom I have ever increasing respect and admiration) decided to stream a video recording of their live theatre show “Ada/Ava” for free. I watched it through twice and was delighted to see that it included a little behind the scenes video at the end for the benefit of online viewers as a replacement for the usual live demonstration that they do for live audience members at their shows.

I will not explain the full modus operandi of the theatre company and this particular show, as the video above (which I found subsequently) says it all, really.

The breakthrough “aha” moment for me was discovering that they use multiple OHPs to achieve the cinematic “cut” effects live.

I was aware that it is possible to get a layering effect with multiple shadows by using more than one light source at the same time, but the idea of using more than one OHP to do this simply never occurred to me before.

I have also seen the use of live actors combined with shadow puppets before and shadow head pieces. This was a particularly good choice for this story because it meant that the facial features of the actors not only matched the puppet versions of the same character but that they could use non-identical actors to portray the identical twin sisters.

I liked the fact that nothing was done just for the sake of being clever – everything was done to serve the story arc. However, many clever effects were used for the right reasons (e.g. to create dream like or supernatural effects or to show the distorted reflections in the “Mirror Maze”). As it says in the video above a lot of the silhouettes and puppet mechanisms are very simple but are used well in combination with everything else to create powerful and rich story-telling.

I liked the blurring between the world of reality and the world of the supernatural/dream state and this is something that could be achieved very well through this medium. The way that the ordinary every day routine was set up so meticulously at the beginning of the story really pays dividends once everything starts to unravel for Ada. Supernatural effects need a contrast with ordinary reality to make them effective and the ordinary reality for the twins was set-up with wonderful care at the beginning (even if it was an unusual old-fashioned Gothic sort of existence as lighthouse keepers in an exposed and isolated location).

There was also carefully chosen use of colour in the show. Ada and Ava’s life in the lighthouse being largely monochrome and colour being used for the bright new goods at the “Boxmart” and for the carnival lights and backgrounds etc. The sky and seascapes/backgrounds also used colour whilst the puppets were kept as black silhouettes. They used their computer to print out photorealistic backgrounds on acetate for most of these.

I was also particularly impressed with the effects the created of the signs made from illuminated lights at the fairground. It strikes me as particularly clever to create lights using shadow puppets and I am almost 100% sure I know how they did it.

I was also very pleased that everything turned out right for Ada in the end. There was a point in the plot where the audience are left wondering if Ada is going to be tempted into suicide in order to re-join her sister. I am generally only a fan of horror/violence if it a prelude to a moral or a happy ending. What is the point of a story if not to give us an emotional lift and sense of resolution and satisfaction? The way we perceive reality is coloured by the stories we tell ourselves about it and if we constantly tell ourselves the world is a dark, dangerous and negative place then that is how everything will seem to us. I am glad to say that in this story she comes to terms with the death of her sister and is able to move on and be her individual self but also to remember and treasure her sister at the same time.

A big THANK-YOU from me (and my husband Tim Austin who also watched it) to “Manual Cinema” for their generosity in sharing this video with everyone for free and for sharing the techniques that they used. It has given us much food for thought as well as wonderful entertainment. What a wonderful set of talented folk! I don’t normally do stars with my reviews, but if I did, it would be 5 stars from me πŸ˜ŠπŸ‘βœ³βœ³βœ³βœ³βœ³.

It was also Manual Cinema that created the Candyman film trailer that gave us a lot of inspiration for our current online shadow puppet series that we are working on:

We are still working on a funding application for “The Secret Keeper” at present so work is paused on that for a while (as they do not fund work retrospectively). As soon as there are any developments on that I will let you all know 🀞.

Making the Profile Police Chief Lip-Synch Shadow Puppet

The Police-chief design is meant to look futuristic but also firmly routed in present day military and police uniforms and body armour. I also wanted the design to obviously be a version of the British Police uniform because the story is set in a future version of the U.K. That said I also took some inspiration from the uniforms of other countries and a bit of sci-fi. You can draw your own conclusions on what those inspirations were but the very outsized hat was a deliberate choice.

The character has what you might call “small man” syndrome and feels he has to compensate with big status symbols (Hat and body armour). The other regular police officers/underlings will not have hats like this.

The uniform and hat also have the emblem of the City on them (a stylised phoenix) which you will see in lots of places in the course of the story.

I chose the same nodding mechanism design as I had used for “our hero” (the head pivoting on the neck rather than the neck pivoting on the body as I chose for the Prime Minister) as with the high collar on the uniform, this character would not have a lot of free movement of his neck.

This character has very close cropped hair or stubble and I was not quite sure how to achieve this at first but I am happy with the finished effect. The fact that the hat covers most of his head meant I did not have to do too much stubble cutting out!

We have now got a producer on board and we are looking for funding for the project. We are firstly aiming to secure some R&D money to produce the first 10 minute episode. This means, sadly that I will have to pause the making side of things for a while (as anything we do before securing the funding we will not get paid for). I will however be able to blog about other things and keep you up to date and progress (if any) with “The Secret Keeper” show.

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Making the face-on puppet of our “Secret Keeper” Hero!

As I wanted the character to have white hair I had made the decision to make most of the hair as a cut-away so that it would appear as light as possible when I made the previous “in profile” puppet. For this one, however, there was rather more hair to cut as the head is bigger! It was a bit challenging to cut out such curly hair but it felt like less of a slog than the pin-stripe pattern on the Prime Minister puppets!

I found it relatively easy to transfer the profile image of this character into a front facing drawing but realised after drawing it that the glasses the character wears could be problematic when the eyelid/eyebrow pieces are in position as they will obscure the top part of the frames. I worked out, however, that the frames would appear in silhouette as the clear eyebrows pass over the top of them if I made the glasses frames as a solid shape and the eyebrows as a cut away shape. We tried out the eyebrows in different positions to see if this worked and both Tim and I were satisfied that this was effective.

What I am not sure about is whether the shape of the eyebrow/eyelid pieces and the lower lip needs to be changed as the character is looking permanently grumpy regardless of the eyebrow/lid position. I had spent so much time trying to get the puppet right by this stage though that I decided to leave the puppet looking grumpy for now and sort this issue out later if necessary.

I’ve just realised I didn’t include any pictures with the eyeballs in position, as I forgot to take any! So that’s something to look forward to for another time 😊.

If you would like to make any comments or have any questions, please do so at the bottom of the post!

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