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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.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Renaissance Age of Puppetry *VIDEO EXTENSIVE*

This is something I've mentioned in passing before, but recently felt more compelled to write about it in greater detail. If you're familiar with TV Tropes (a site that has gone horribly downhill in terms of moderation and overall management), you're aware of a trope known as the Renaissance Age of Animation: this describes the period from the 80s up till the Turn of the Millennium, when the animation industry, in general, seemed to be in a real boom, from feature films (Don Bluth departing from Disney, the genesis of Pixar) to TV series (the Spielberg-produced toons, Nickelodeon, Disney Channel, Cartoon Network, etc), and seemed to bring the medium out from its Dark Age (from the 50s and up till the 80s, when limited animation was the set standard). In comparison to this Renaissance Age of Animation, I've often felt that we've recently had a similar age with puppetry. As mentioned, one of the defining factors for the Renaissance Age of Animation was cable: granted, cable wasn't exactly new at the time, but it was really booming, and with niche channels aimed specifically at kids and animation buffs, we saw a string of really creative and imaginative new animated series that defined a generation - whether it was Nickelodeon juggernauts RUGRATS or HEY ARNOLD! to Cartoon Network smashes like DEXTER'S LABORATORY or THE POWERPUFF GIRLS - these shows really set new standards in television animation. Looking at that as a model, I would have to say that one of the main reasons I feel we've had a Renaissance Age of Puppetry is because of the internet: more specifically, YouTube. When YouTube first emerged in the mid-to-late 2000s, its sole purpose was to offer creators a virtual platform to showcase their original videographic work with the rest of the world (no, really, it was . . . and we ruined it, but that's another discussion for another day), and plenty of people turned to it for that very reason, including puppeteers of varying degrees of experience.
 
I began producing and uploading Steve D'Monster videos in 2007, though there were others already utilizing YouTube to showcase their puppetry before then; most notably, Kevin L. Williams's Muley the Mule, and Tim Kelly's Zook and Max. For both of these talented individuals, their respective creations had existed years prior to their YouTube debuts, both in illustrated and foam rubber form; Kevin and Tim are cartoonists and puppeteers, and Muley, Zook, and Max have appeared in comics and in puppet forms.
 
Not to mention around the same time, there was also TRANSYLVANIA TELEVISION, an adult-oriented horror-sendup comedy with surprisingly impressive production values that was also really popular at the time, with such characters as Furry Ackermonster, Dwayne Frankenstein, and Batfink.
 
And there was also Julio Robles's dysfunctional little troupe that make up the gang of ScrapsTV, which I always thought of as a puppet version of a tribute band, anchored by the likes of Freddy J. Frog and Kodiak T. Bear.
 
Around the time I began regularly producing and uploading Steve entries for YouTube, other puppet acts were coming forward with new videos on a regular basis as well, with perhaps one of the better-known (and longer-running) examples being Shane Keating's dry and sardonic green monster Fenwick, with his aptly-named sidekick Bob Blob.
 
Jordan Sibayan also brought his Colbynfriends characters (who - like Muley, Zook, and Max - also existed in both cartoon and puppet form) to YouTube as well; most notably are the two headfigures of the cast, the green ratillion Colby Hussir, and the deadpan canine Dumb Dog.
 
Angela Altomare also introduced a number of characters as well, including a series of puppet vlogs hosted by Carly Sanderson, and later Charlene Heart (neither of which, unfortunately, have any videos still available), and the delightful Roaring Twenties-inspired showgirl dog Harmony Barker.
 
A little while later, other acts began emerging as well, such as the now-defunct CHEEKTV, which featured the beanie-wearing, cockney-accented purple monster, Cheeky, who would often offer up commentary and parodies of celebrity news and gossip, viral videos, and current events.
 
Also later arriving to the scene was Casey the Muppet, an FAO-Schwartz Muppet Whatnot avatar of creator Casey Daron, the self-proclaimed World's Biggest Muppet Fan.
 
And those are just a few to name!
 
During this time as well, there was almost something of a cozy little brotherhood that was formed amongst those of us involved in this internet puppetry flux, so much so that it wasn't uncommon for some of us to begin actually making references to each other's videos or characters; Fenwick was bold enough to completely parody Steve's "'Snow' is a Four-Lettered Word" episode (which also instigated Fenwick and Steve's fictional and non-existent feud between each other):
 
Colby and Dumb Dog also made a crossover appearance in a DEAR STEVE entry:
 
PUPPET POWER even served to gather together many of these different internet puppets into one special (it even marked the triumphant return of Zook and Max, after disappearing for a while):
 
Much like the Renaissance Age of Animation bringing forward a slew of animated series that were unlike anything you had seen before in television animation, the puppets you found on YouTube were all unique and distinct in comparison to so many other puppet series found on television before them - which, because almost all of them had Henson people involved, evoked such a Muppety vibe, that it's almost hard not to generalize television puppetry as "Muppets." Each of the YouTube puppets brought their own brand of humor, commentary, satire, and other levels of entertainment that really distinguished them from others, yet they all maintained an appeal that you could easily watch their videos again and again, and never tire of them.
 
Eventually, though, that age of YouTube puppets did slowly begin to fade away and die down; although the aforementioned PUPPET POWER was inspired to be a puppet version of the Nicktoon KaBLAM! (bringing together different forms and styles of puppetry in one special), it was also sort of an attempt to give the Renaissance Age of Puppetry something of a booster shot. Unfortunately, by then, the old magic that permeated through the older videos had fizzled away. Although there are small number of these characters that still pop up on rare occasions (Muley being one of them), many of the others have stopped uploading new content quite some time ago, for a variety of different reasons.
 
It does appear, however, that there is some sort of renewed interest in internet puppetry. Recently, cartoonist and puppeteer Jonathan Brangwynne has been uploading a few humorous puppet shorts on Vimeo:
 
More recently, a new series debuted on YouTube called WILTON'S WORLD, featuring humorous insight on a variety of different current events and hot topics, as well as starring two of some of the most impressive internet puppets I've seen to grace YouTube since the days of TVTV:

 
I really could go on and on about this subject (even Blogger wouldn't allow all of the labels I wanted to tag onto this post), but I think that if you were a part of this so-called Renaissance Age of Puppetry, or just watched from the sidelines, then you probably remember those days well enough to know that the magic spoke for itself. I think, perhaps, the most significant thing about this age was that with such an incredible tool like YouTube, puppeteers across the board were able to express their art and creativity in a way that would otherwise not have been possible. That, and it certainly sparked something of a boom in the general interest of puppetry itself, and proved that there's more to puppetry out there than just Muppets.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Birthday Tribute to Marie Kerns

Happy Birthday, Marie Kerns!
Today is my good friend Marie Kerns's birthday, and in honor of the occasion, I really wanted to take a moment and act like I'm pretending to be her publicist or something, because I really think she deserves to have a little extra spotlight shed on her and her continued efforts to bring her art and creativity to the world.
 
There's a number of words that could be used to describe who Marie is, but I believe the best word that could be used is "dedicated," because dedication is perhaps the most prominent quality about her - so much so that I really admire her for it.
 
Upon graduating her digital animation course
I've known Marie for a number of years, and in all the years I've known her, she has consistently remained hard at work in her artistic endeavors; as multi-talented as she is, digital animation is certainly her calling card. I can still remember way back when, when she had graduated from a digital animation course in her native Vancouver (so being Canadian makes her even more awesome). In the years that followed, and up until today, she has been working almost non-stop on creating an animated fantasy series entitled TALES OF MYTHERWREL, and sharing that series with the rest of the world . . . and when I say non-stop, I mean that: I've seen the evolution of the production of this series, from the initial character designs and conceptual artwork, to pieces of test animation in various stages of rendering, to even seeing other talented people who are involved in the project as well. Marie has also certainly been putting herself out there too, attending conventions and other gatherings, to spread her work to the public, and stir up interest and support in further making MYTHERWREL a reality. And did I mention she's been working on this labo(u)r of love for years? That is dedication. And as I said, I really admire her dedication.
 
Marie collaborated with me on VAMPIRE GIRL
As I also mentioned, Marie is an incredibly multi-talented artist; in addition to being an animator and character designer, she's also experienced in both traditional and digital art, 3D modeling, writing/storytelling, and she can even make crafts, such as dreamcatchers and smudging feathers. She's also a nice collaborator as well - she helped with the creation of VAMPIRE GIRL in terms of character (she essentially developed Laura, Levana's nursing assistant friend) and story input.
 
But you know, I could go on and on babbling about Marie's creativity, but you really have to see it for yourself to get an idea of just what an amazing artist she really is, so here's some links you can follow to take a look at what she has accomplished over the years, including:
 
 Her demo reel:
 
TALES OF MYTHERWREL pitch video:
 
 
And, of course, these other links you should check out:
 
Once again, happy birthday, Marie! Thank you for your creativity, friendship, and of course, dedication!

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Fresh! Hot! Small! Square!

Another reason why Krystal is better than White Castle: they got Jim Henson's Creature Shop to provide puppetry for their commercials!

Friday, March 4, 2016

D'Monster/Crystal 2016

Don't want to vote for a bigoted blowhard who will rob from the poor to give the rich, or a candidate who attempts to reel in young voters by bringing in a porn star to campaign for them? Then vote for a monster instead!
 
 

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.