About Me

My Photo
Joseph Scarbrough is an independent producer/puppeteer from Knoxville, Tennessee, who loves to bring his menagerie of puppety oddball madness to people of all ages to enjoy.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Advances in Puppet Building: Are They TOO Perfect Now?

Trust me, these are not good puppets . . . and they're available at a Christian bookstore near you!
To be perfectly honest, I know that when it comes to puppetry, the actual building process is really one of my biggest weaknesses: I can perform a puppet, and I can certainly design a puppet, but to actually build one just isn't quite forte. However, I know good and bad puppets when I see them; we've certainly come a long way in the last sixty years or so in terms of puppet building: techniques and methods have improved and advanced, and in doing so, puppets can be built in ways that are absolutely pristine and flawless . . . perfect, even! But. . . . are puppets, perhaps, built a little too perfect now?
Showing how the Henson Stitch minimizes the appearance of seams on a puppet.
Before we get into that, we need to go over a little history lesson. When Jim Henson was bringing his Muppets into the world back in the 1950s, he wasn't just creating a bunch of wacky and goofy characters that we would come to love and adore, but rather, he was completely transforming the art of puppetry as we knew it: the true innovator that he was, Jim was pioneering a completely new style of puppetry that drew on earlier inspiriation from other styles of puppetry, combining them in ways to make puppets work better in many ways, especially the way they could be seen on film and television (the latter of which was also relatively new at the time). When being seen on television, a key to the Muppets' belief is that they appear as lifelike as possible; but they're puppets, so how is that possible? Remember, Jim was an innovator and pioneer: he developed methods of constructing and building puppets that minimized visible flaws and imperfections to help hide the fact they're puppets. One of the most talked about method of puppet construction that Jim developed is what's called "the Henson Stitch," this is a sewing technique that involves sewing into the edges of the fleece covering - it's a very painstaking method, but by sewing like this, you minimize the appearance of the seams. Of course, it also helps to have the right fabric as well: most professional puppet builders prefer to use a special kind of fleece known as Antron: Antron is a particularly fuzzy and frizzy fleece, so even after sewing, the fuzz of the fleece can be brushed over the seams to further minimize their appearance. In short: the fuzzier the fleece, the less likely you'll see seams.
Puppet builder extraordinare, Don Sahlin, gluing a foam pattern to create a puppet skull.
But building puppets is more than just sewing pieces of fleece together, you have to create an inner shell before you do anything else: this is what gives the puppet its shape, it's essentially the skeleton of the puppet, and the fleece is the skin. There are many different methods and techniques to putting together a foam skeleton, whether you cut patterns from half-inch to inch-thick pieces of foam and glue them together for simpler puppets, to carving and sculpting from giant blocks of foam for puppets that have more distinct shape to them. Much like sewing fleece, putting together the foam skeleton can also be a painstaking process that requires a keen eye and attention to detail, otherwise, you could end up with a lopsided, misshapen mass of foam rubber.
Aah! Visible arm rods! My face is melting!
As the old saying goes, "practice makes perfect." Puppets have been built in these ways for the better part of the past sixty years, so it's only natural that over that span of time, not only would these techniques improve, but others would be developed to help further make building puppets even better. Jim Henson didn't just create a new way of building puppets alone, his apprentices carried on and in time also developed and introduced additional techniques since the inception of the Muppets, and as they spread, even more people can find ways to improve on these techniques. Nowhere is that more evident than the Muppets themselves, the true modern pioneers of an ancient artform, and with the Muppets now back in mainstream media after a lengthy bout of somehow obscurity, more than a few people are taking notice: the Muppets certainly look different than they did before. Obviously, the main reason is because since Disney now owns the characters, the Jim Henson Company no longer builds the puppets, but rather, a company known as Puppet Heap does; the Henson Company does still build the SESAME STREET Muppets. As mentioned above, a key to building puppets it to make them seem as lifelike as possible, but even though it's always been a painstaking process, it seems to have become even moreso in recent years; it's not just advancements made in building techniques, but advancements in production technology is also playing a factor. One of the first things you may notice about newer Muppet productions is a serious lack of rods. How can this be? Puppet hands and arms are operated by rods, so how can they disappear? Digitally. As opposed to the older days of 35mm film and videotape, in this day of high definiton, more and more details are being picked up by cameras, and as a result, rods that were once barely visible on screen are now so much so that they need to be digitally erased in post. And again, because HD gets so much detail, one has to go to great lengths in building puppets to ensure seams are invisible. While this certainly shows what a long way we've come since the days of Jim Henson and Don Sahlin, somehow, something seems off about the entire process.
Fozzie's evolution from Muppet to . . . plush toy?
The benefit of the doubt could be that we haven't seen too many Muppet projects between the time of the Disney purchase in 2004 to THE MUPPETS smashing through the silver screen in 2011, but since then, many people have been talking about how "different" the characters look now. A combination in the evolution of puppet building and the advancements of production technology is resulting in pristine, flawless-looking puppets . . . but as much as they've gained in building techniques, something else in being lost at the same time. In a sense, the more they try to make puppets look as lifelike as possible, the more artificial they appear to be looking in this day and age. One common complaint I've been seeing lately is that Fozzie Bear no longer looks like a Muppet, and looks more like a teddy bear, or a plush toy - part of the problem is because certain furs and fabrics are hard to come by, and in many cases are no longer being made or are no longer available.
An older Anything Muppet with visible seams.
Hey there, handsome stranger!
In going to great lengths to improve the appearances of puppets on film and television, much of the puppets' charm is being lost at the same time. Building puppets to look good on film and television has always been a major facet of the entire artform, but what really makes or breaks the character is the performance: whether you have a beautifully crafted puppet, or an ugly mess put together with tape and chewing gum, it's all about the personality, and the life that's breathed into the character from the puppeteer performing it. Nowhere is that more evident than the number one frog himself, Kermit: as most people know, Kermit was not a frog when he was first created in 1955, he was simply an abstract character; he wasn't built using professional materials or high-quality fabrics - he was built from an old spring coat, and his eyes were made from a ping pong ball that was cut in half. In spite of the simplistic materials used to create the original Kermit, the personality was still intact, whether sitting on a wall and eating worms that turn out to be the noses of large monsters, or donning a little wig and lip-syncing to popular novelty records, this little vaguely lizard-like character was oozing with personality, which is what a puppet really needs in order to engage and appeal to audiences. Back in the 60s and 70s when the Muppets were really starting to find their footing, obviously they weren't perfect: sometimes heads were lopsided, sometimes fleece wasn't smooth, sometimes features were crooked or misshapen . . . but again, these characters had such wonderful and great personalities that you still loved them irregardless - it's similar to how Rocky and Bullwinkle had such incredibly smart and witty writing that the humor was enough to win you over the incredibly limited and lackluster animation. So what if you could see a rod here and there? So what if maybe a certain puppet was built in a hurry and you saw seams? There was still a warmth and realness to these characters just the same. In this day and age with puppets looking so pristine and flawless, while their endearing personalities are still intact, they're still losing that warmth and edge that they once had, making them seem a little cold and impersonal. I've said it before that sometimes advances in technology aren't necessarily so advance . . . could the same be said for puppets? Could the advances in puppet building actually be doing more harm than good? I think it's up for debate, from speaking for myself (from two perspectives: as a puppeteer and a puppetry afficianado in general) and other fans out there, I think perhaps the good is a little less.
Fleecy, pilly Bert, or silky smooth Bert? You be the judge.

Monday, November 9, 2015

My Unfinished Thoughts on Sex on TV (Part 2)

In fact, if you may recall when I wrote the post, I came down on a then-new NBC sitcom that was another example of glorifying reckless, mindless, and selfish sexual behavior involving a group of losers that wish they had better sex lives: UNDATEABLE; little did I know then that not only would this show turn out to be a hit, but now as I write this, the show is in its second season. Wow. People today really are obsessed with sex, aren't they (I ask, sarcastically)? I know some people are trying to turn your attention away from the sexual aspect of the show by saying, "Oh, no, this show isn't about sex, it's just about a group of buddies, that's all." Yeah. That's like saying, "Oh, no, THE BIG BANG THEORY isn't about sex, it's just about a group of nerds, that's all." Yeah. Funny how whenever I've tried to watch the show in the past, all I ever saw were said "nerds" in bed with random girls -- something that, when I was growing up, was one of the farthest things from nerds' minds. . . . THE BIG BANG THEORY (and Cons, too) have done a great job transforming nerds into sexual deviants.
Since my post last year, something new has also emerged from all of this: a thing called Amy Schumer. This lady (actually, that's being too polite, but whatever) showed up out of nowhere and literally became an A-list celebrity overnight . . . and what's her claim to fame? Why, of course! Sex! Seriously: this so-called comedian has literally built a career for herself for basically gracing the stage and going into a routine of talking about all the guys she's slept with. And she's popular and successful because of it. Even when she plays fictional characters, those fictional characters are just as reckless and irresponsible in their sex lives as she is in real life. And did I mention she's built a successful career out of this? What is wrong with people today? Have people no shame? Well, at least some people are finally starting to realize what a hack Lena Dunham is with her homemade porn, GIRLS, and she's losing some appeal with people too when she revealed that she routinely sexually assaulted her own little sister when they were growing up.
Finally, I also mentioned in my last post that I wonder why the FCC is allowing all of this content to grace the television landscape these days . . . in fact, I didn't just wonder why, I wanted answers. With that said, I actually contacted the FCC last summer, asking to know why, if it's supposedly their job to monitor content in entertainment, that they allow this filth. A few days later I received a response from them. You know what they said? They denied responsibility. No kidding. They told me plainly that they don't bother monitoring content on television and that what we see on television is the responsibility of the individual networks that air the content.
And of course, with so many producers turning to Netflix to put their new shows out there, and Netflix - being a product of the internet - allowing them to get away with what they want to, many producers are taking advantage of this and cranking up their sexual content even moreso because they can.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

It's Halloween, Yo!

And in honor of the occasion, here's Bethany Crystal with her brand-spankin' new spooky music video, "Monster Eyes!" Check it out; don't forget to rate, comment, and subscribe!
Song written and copyright by Lois Zucek & Gary Earl
From the album IT'S HALLOWEEN!

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The End of Boomsday

To explain this to non-locals, Boomsday is a holiday we have in Knoxville that's also something of a tourist attraction as well: every year on the Sunday before Labor Day, we bid a much-needed farewell to summer with a big celebration that consists of several festivities including live music, family activities, and of course the coup de grace: fireworks. Think of it as an encore of the Fourth of July, but in the beginning of September. It's always a fun holiday to experience - providing the weather is cooperative - and because it's a local/regional holiday, that makes it all the more special for us.

However, yesterday, the city announced that 2015 will be the last year for Boomsday. Why is that? Well, Charlie Brown may not like to hear this, but as it turns out, it costs a lot of money to organize Boomsday every year (last year, the fireworks alone cost $250,000) . . . and at the same time, the city loses a lot of money from the holiday as well. There's been a number of different factors at play, ranging from a lack of corporate sponsors due to the recession, to local restaurants and hotels not receiving enough business from out-of-town tourists; in short, because there's no more money to be made off the holiday, the city has decided to end it after this year.

Boomsday holiday artwork c. 2010

Steve has expressed his love of Boomsday before, but after hearing about its demise, he is less than happy about it, as seen in yet another live meltdown while reporting the news:

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Steve D'Monster is Back!

You wanted him, and now you've got him! Steve D'Monster is back in an all know wacky escapade! See what kind of mischief he gets himself into this time!