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Joseph Scarbrough launched what he called "The Scarblog" as a way of cataloging his work over the years, as well as going into greater detail of things on his mind (known as "Unfinished Thoughts").

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

My Unfinished Thoughts on HAPPYTIME MURDERS **UPDATE**

And for the first time ever, the term "Unfinished Thoughts" is taken to a literal level, as this movie has yet to be released, and I haven't seen it yet, so presently my unfinished thoughts are just that - they haven't been solidified as of yet.

There's already a lot of controversy surrounding the upcoming movie from The Jim Henson Company: HAPPYTIME MURDERS. And all of the controversy boils down to one aspect: it's an R-rated puppet movie. Now granted, this isn't the first time there's ever been an R-rated puppet movie . . . Matt Stone and Trey Parker did that over a decade ago, with their satirical action movie TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE, which featured a cast of marionettes, and the content included lewd humor, sexual situations, comic violence, and foul language. But then again, what would you expect from the creators of SOUTH PARK? That's probably why the thought of HAPPYTIME MURDERS being an R-rated puppet movie seems more shocking, because this isn't coming from the creators of an infamously lewd, raunchy, and vulgar animated franchise . . . it's coming from The Jim Henson Company - one of the leaders of family entertainment. Right?

That's where a lot of the controversy is being directed toward. The Jim Henson Company first announced they were making this movie about ten years ago, and at the time, it was a big deal: Disney still hadn't done much with the Muppets at this point since buying them in 2004, and it seemed like much of Henson's involvement in anything-puppetry related was through their Henson Alternative branch, which is responsible for the puppet improv showcases like Puppet Up! So, for Henson to be coming out with a puppet movie, that was certainly met with a lot of hype. From the get-go, it was announced that HAPPYTIME MURDERS was going to be an edgy noir-type movie, but that didn't seem to bother too many people - especially when you consider that Jim Henson himself always brought a certain level of edge and adult humor to the Muppets when he was alive, even if a lot of people tend to overlook it.

But things began to take a different direction with the public's perception when it was announced a few years back that Melissa McCarthy was being attached to the project, and that the movie was going to be a raunchy, vulgar, R-rated adult comedy; that's what seemed to suddenly set people off. It also didn't help that speculation was being circulated on the internet for titilation that Melissa McCarthy was not only starring in the movie, but was handling the screenplay and was responsible for the movie going into the raunchy and vulgar direction. That has been proven to be false, but it doesn't help that Melissa McCarthy is known for being among raunchy and vulgar R-rated comedy royalty in Hollywood. But this is a puppet movie, how can this be R-rated? That's the question people began asking after the announcement . . . and then, when the trailers were released, that just shocked people even more, seeing just how raunchy and vulgar the movie was going to be in terms of content . . . but then came the clincher: the movie's tagline, "No Sesame. All Street."

The controversy surrounding the movie just continued to snowball from there: upon the release of the trailers and other promotional material, Sesame Workshop filed a lawsuit against the company promoting the movie, STX Films, over the tagline they decided to use to promote the movie, on the grounds that it implies the adult movie is in somehow, someway, or some form, associated, affiliated, or connected with SESAME STREET.
https://io9.gizmodo.com/the-makers-of-sesame-street-are-suing-the-team-behind-t-1826333920

HAPPYTIME MURDERS isn't set to hit theaters until this August, but already there's just so much buzz - both positive and negative - surrounding this movie before it's even released. Where do I even begin to weigh in on all of this? The idea of Henson doing something adult-related with puppetry really isn't anything new under the sun at all: Jim Henson himself spent a number of years trying to convince the mass public that the stimga that puppets are only for kids isn't true at all, and that puppets could be for adults as well - in fact, Jim tried so hard to demolish that stigma that, in desperation to sell THE MUPPET SHOW to networks, he titled the original pilot episode SEX AND VIOLENCE.
The main title for THE MUPPET SHOW pilot
Not to mention, as noted above, The Jim Henson Company's Henson Alternative division is dedicated specifically to adult puppetry; if you've ever seen any of the puppet improv they do, you'll see just how blue they can be. So, to reiterate, adult puppetry isn't anything new, and it's clear that the adult audience is what Henson is targeting with HAPPYTIME MURDERS. But is this a good or a bad thing for puppetry? That's the discussion that's fueling the controversy surrounding the movie. Puppetry in and of itself has historically been an underrated and underappreciated artform - particularly in America - and with the success of preschool shows that utilized it, such as SESAME STREET, WIMZIE'S HOUSE, BETWEEN THE LIONS, and countless others, that pretty much furthers the stigma that Jim tried to shake so hard, that puppets are for kids. Really, what Henson is doing is actually continuing to follow Jim's lead in showing the world puppets can be for more than just kids, and that puppets can be for adults as well . . . but, are they taking it too far? That seems to be a matter of debate. I've written on Scarblog before about my thoughts regarding the excessive amount of filth and inappropriate content that seems to pollute the entertainment industry in recent years - particularly unnecessary sexual content - should Henson really go that route? Is it really necessary? As noted above, the Muppets have always indulged in edgy, adult humor . . . but it was almost always on a subtle, sophisticated level, that it could appeal to adults without being inappropriate for kids watching. Is it possible HAPPYTIME MURDERS could have just gone that route instead? Because the biggest concern much of the public has with this movie is that parents and families might take their kids to see this, because of the automatic assumption that a puppet movie is bound to be lighthearted and family-friendly. This also brings us to the next subject. . . .

Sesame Workshop's lawsuit is being met with all kinds of criticism. Again, Sesame Workshop is suing STX Films over the "No Sesame. All Street." tagline being used to promote the movie, on the grounds that it might lead unsuspecting moviegoers - with kids - to think this movie is in someway connected to SESAME STREET, when it isn't. And again, the concern is being risen that people may think with this being a puppet movie, that it's sure to be family-friendly. However, Sesame Workshop is being criticized for this move . . . I can understand their motive to initiate some damage control as they see fit, but many people feel as though this lawsuit is going to have the opposite effect: that it's not only going to do more damage to Sesame Workshop's image for filing such a lawsuit, but that the lawsuit itself is only going to drum up even more interest and intigue in the movie, and unintentionally promote it even more. That, I can also understand: this is exactly how Billy Graham unintentionally turned Sid & Marty Kroffts' marionette burlesque LE POUPEE DE PARIS into an overnight sensation, by telling the public not to see the show because of the topless women in it (without specifying the women were actually marionettes).

Finally, this is just my opinion, but I'm going to be blunt and honest here: I am not a fan of Melissa McCarthy. I do not like her at all. I don't find her funny, I don't find her entertaining, I don't find her likable, and as an overweight man, her frequently being typecasted as a revolting fat slob and/or a fat comic relief character doesn't do anything to help the image of plus-sized people like us, especially women, who clearly struggle with body image issues far more than men do. And, if you ask me, Melissa McCarthy seems very much like a "flavor-of-the-month" celebrity . . . and for Henson to go with her to star in this movie of theirs seems very ironic: when working on LABYRINTH back in the 80s, Jim was initially wanting to cast Sting as Jareth the Goblin King, but his sons Brian (who's producing and directing HAPPYTIME MURDERS) and John insisted David Bowie was who he wanted, because Sting is "now," but David Bowie is "forever." Melissa McCarthy is definitely "now," and with Hollywood having a pool of many other funnier, more talented, and certainly more likable actresses with broader appeal, surely there was someone better out there they could have attached to the movie. But, at the same time, that's just it: Melissa McCarthy is now, and in order to lure the public into seeing the movie, Henson was clearly going to need a currently relevant and prominent Hollywood celebrity who contemporary audiences would want to see.

So the bottom line is this: HAPPYTIME MURDERS certainly has a lot going on for it, even before it's released. The movie is clearly an attempt to prove to the world that a movie with puppets could work, and that puppetry has a place in the entertainment industry - not to mention this movie gave work for so many different puppeteers out there (including Kevin Clash, whom we haven't seen much since his unfortunate scandal). Plus, the movie is further proving to the world that puppets aren't just for kids, which is a good thing since that stimga doesn't seem to ever die . . . but does the adult humor of this movie have to be so raunchy, vulgar, and filthy? I can tolerate adult humor when it's sly, subtle, sophisticated, and tongue-in-cheek . . . when it's blunt, forced, and in-your-face, not so much. And again . . . not a fan of Melissa McCarthy.

So, would I, personally, go out and see this movie for myself? I'm currently still undecided. On the one hand, as a puppeteer, there's a sense of wanting to see the movie as a means of showing support for the artform, and the puppeteers who got steady work because of it; on the other hand, because I hate Melissa McCarthy, and not a fan of raunchy and vulgar humor, I feel as though seeing this movie would be more of an obligation and that doing so would be doing so begrudgingly and out of reluctance.

We'll see.

Update: August 22, 2018

Alright. I've made my mind up, and here on my finished thoughts on HAPPYTIME MURDERS: I will not see this movie. There are too many factors at play that are weighing in over any mild interest I may have in seeing it. The R-rated (and even X-rated) content, the inclusion of not only Melissa McCarthy, but also Maya Rudolph and Joel McHale (I have nothing against either of them, but I find them to be incredibly overrated), and the movie reportedly relying too heavily on shock value than storytelling are overshadowing my only reason for being interested in seeing it: it's a puppetry movie. So, that's it.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Meeting Steve Whitmire

I thought I would never have the opportunity to actually meet a Muppet Performer in my life, let alone two in less than a year. After getting to meet some of the cast of SESAME STREET - including Big Bird and Oscar performer Caroll Spinney - last October at the Knoxville Fanboy Expo, I was really excited to learn that Steve Whitmire - known for such characters as Kermit the Frog and Ernie after Jim Henson's death, as long as Rizzo the Rat, Bean Bunny, Wembley Fraggle, and many others - would also be in my town, at the exact same Expo, this summer. Needless to say, I didn't hesitate to attend.

As with the Sesame cast back in October, Steve's visit included a Q&A panel that I took the time to sit in on, and even participate in (you can hear me ask about writers Jim Lewis and Joey Mazzarino). This time, however, because it was just Steve, and the panel was in a smaller room with a smaller crowd size, the panel was a lot more intimate and personal, with more questions coming from those attending, as opposed to mostly pre-planned questions as with the Sesame cast. It was really enjoyable to listen to Steve share the experiences throughout his career with the Muppets; he was thoroughly engaging throughout the panel:

Afterwards, I went down into the bottom floor where the convention was being held in two connecting ballrooms, and with the large crowd size, it took me quite a while to find Steve's table, but I finally did and got a moment to speak with him. When I introduced myself, I was surprised to see that he actually recognized my name! Well . . . sort of. We spent a few minutes talking about characters he performed, such as Bean Bunny (and why he went from the main protagonist in THE TALE OF THE BUNNY PICNIC, to basically being the victim of the other Muppets' brutality for being obnoxiously cute), as well as the art of puppetry in general. He was an incredibly nice guy, with a very warm personality, which made meeting and speaking with him all the more special, and as with meeting the Sesame cast last October, is an experience in my life that I will never forget and would never trade for the world.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

HeartFelt

If you're already a puppeteer, or even aspiring to be a puppeteer, you have to see this wonderful short film by Ryan Sargent. The accuracy and relatability of this story hits so close to home that, of course, only those whose passion is in puppetry can truly comprehend and appreciate this.


Saturday, May 5, 2018

My Unfinished Thoughts on Sid & Marty Krofft

I often write about Jim Henson and/or his work with the Muppets, or other projects of his from on this blog - but can I help it? The man is my biggest hero; he's one of the reasons I was inspired to become a puppeteer. That isn't to say that he's my only inspirational hero, though. There have been other noteworthy puppeteers whose influence has rubbed off on me - such as ventriloquist Shari Lewis: that's such an amazing skill, and a tough one to master at that. But perhaps the ones who have been a significant amount of inspiration on me are the ones who practically owned Saturday Morning TV in the 70s and 80s with their psychedelic worlds of strangers in strange lands befriending all sorts of wacky foam rubber creatures, while always thwarting off some outlandish villain in heavy make-up.

I am referring, of course, to Sid & Marty Krofft.


Walt Disney always said to put your name on top of what
you produce.
As much as I admire Jim Henson for what he's done with the art of puppetry, I admire the Kroffts for not only that, but also for their consistent and protective business practises as well (well . . . evidently, Marty is the one with a knack for business; Sid, not so much): as independent producers who worked tirelessly to keep their enterprise afloat with meager budgets that didn't even begin to cover the costs for their lavish sets and life-sized foam rubber creatures, the Kroffts are really the poster boys for artistic entrepreneurs. Taking advice from Walt Disney himself, the Kroffts never sold out to bigger conglomerate corporations (lookin' at you, Jim Henson Company), never sold off their intellectual properties (still lookin' at you, Henson Company), and managed to hold onto everything they ever created over their decades-spanning careers (my eyes haven't left, JHC). This is why the Kroffts are among my biggest heroes: they're savvy enough to make sure that nobody out there takes anything away from them, and remain very protective of what they've created . . . something that Ross Bagdasarian, Jr. and Janice Karman learned the hard way after they sold the Alvin and The Chipmunks franchise to Universal Studios in the 90s. While much of what I've done to craft my puppetry comes from Henson, much of my business sense (or, what little sense I've been able to make of business) most definitely comes from Krofft - whatever I create, I intend to hold onto for dear life.

With dozens of shows, a number of specials, and even an odd number of movies under their belts, the Kroffts were recently honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 45th Daytime Emmy's this year!

If you can believe it, Sid & Marty Krofft are back in action! Just when you think they'd be spending time kicking back, relaxing, and enjoying the fruits of their labor from years past (Marty has said if you retire, and stay home watching daytime television, you'd be dead within a month), the Kroffts have brought in a surge of new projects, from their successful preschool series on Nick Jr. MUTT & STUFF, to digital reboots of SIGMUND AND THE SEAMONSTERS and ELECTRAWOMAN & DYNAGIRL, the Kroffts are certainly beginning to leave a mark on a new generations of fans to enjoy!

Not just ElectraWoman & DynaGirl . . . this is ElectraWoman & DynaGirl -
ON STEROIDS!
Granted, I haven't seen much of their new work - aside from seeing a number of episodes of MUTT & STUFF on Nick Jr., their reboots of SIGMUND AND THE SEAMONSTERS and ELECTRAWOMAN & DYNAGIRL are on platforms I don't have access to, so all I've been able to see of these are online clips, trailers, promos, and what have you. From what I've seen, it's absolutely amazing to see what the Kroffts can do when they actually have budgets to work with! If you know your Krofft history like I do, their shows from the 70s were almost always over budgeted . . . I don't think networks realize that puppetry is not an inexpensive art form - and while the networks would budget the Kroffts' shows for a few thousand dollars, it actually took a few million to create their expansive puppets, costumes, sets, props, and everything else. This time, however, that doesn't appear to be the case. In fact, looking at examples of the Kroffts' recent outings, the difference is quite startling: the production values look almost cinematic, and the puppets and suits almost look like something you would except to see from Jim Henson's Creature Shop. It's almost as if the Kroffts broke free from the confines of limitations and stomped them into the ground.

A magical world of flat, cardboard scenery
With that being said however, I'm also sensing a feeling that what the Kroffts are gaining in budgets and advances in technology, they're losing in charm. Both Sid and Marty have joked that back in the day, the networks would see how much they could produce for as little money as possible, and as a result, if there's one thing that their previous shows are known for is their campiness: through all the limitations the Kroffts had to work through, we got show after show after show after show with sets looking like they were made out of painted cardboard; stiff-looking characters with mouths that didn't necessarily hit each syllable properly, or large googly eyes that had no focus; not to mention the primitive, low-quality video tape recording. Nevertheless, the World of Sid & Marty Krofft was something people hadn't ever seen before, so it can definitely be argued that it was those limitations, small budgets, and campiness that gave Krofft shows their charm - because what they lacked in financial stability, they made up for with adventurous stories, engaging plots, unique premises, and wacky, yet lovable characters.

This isn't unlike what I wrote about a few years ago, about how puppets are now being built so perfectly and flawlessly that they're actually becoming cold and artificial in the process.

But to reiterate, one of the main reasons for the Kroffts' campy look of the 70s and even into the 80s was meager budgets handed out by the networks. Now that we're seeing what the Kroffts can do when they have actual budgets to work with, who knows? Perhaps if they had this kind of financial backing way back when, this could be what Krofft shows were meant to look like all along. As I said, there's certainly a very grand, cinematic scope to their current work that was lacking from their older work (with, perhaps, H.R. PUFNSTUF being an exception, considering it was shot on film as opposed to video tape). Clearly, these aren't the Krofft shows of previous generations . . . but again, the Kroffts are garnering all new generations of fans now that they're back in action, and it's wonderful to see they're still going strong after nearly six decades of psychedelic and magical adventures in puppetry and live action; who knows where all this may lead them in years to come?

And again, after those six decades of Krofft magic, they more than deserved their Lifetime Achievement Award!

Friday, March 23, 2018

My Unfinished Thoughts on Film Vs. Digital **UPDATE**

Okay, you know what? I really need to stop with the video-extensive posts - they're really making Scarblog laggy and sluggish. But, the videos are necessary for this write-up, weighing in on a longtime debate among filmmakers and producers: film vs. digital.

Now, granted, I really have no authority to even really weigh in on this subject myself, as I have never actually had the experience of working with motion picture film at all; the only physical media I've ever worked with in the past was videotape. So, I really can't speak from any kind of experience this time around, and my opinions on the matter are strictly and purely observation, so I really can't be taken to task for something I'm not an expert on.

Still, this has become a really interesting debate. Living now in this digital age, advances in technology sure have made things a lot easier for all of us, haven't they? As far as movie making goes, digital has certainly made the whole production process a breeze: imagine, just shoot something with a fancy-dancy camera, import your footage into a computer, do all of your editing and other little post-production technicals with software, export your final product, and boom, you're done! Isn't that just wonderful! Yeah! Well. . . . Sure, that sounds like an ideal production process, but, could this be too good of a thing? After all, filmmaking is certainly an artform unto it's own, but is it possible that these advances in technology may actually be causing the art to suffer? Is something being lost in the switch from physical, 35mm film to digital media?

I think Quentin Tarantino (tidbit trivia: he's from my hometown) can perhaps sum this all up better than I can as he mentions his preference of film in this interview:

As I mentioned above, I really am no authority or expert on this subject as I've never actually worked with 35mm film (or physical analog film in general), but as I said, even I can make observations of my own, and I have to say, even I can certain tell a difference. Sure, the right kind of digital media certainly can give you a wonderful picture with a lot of sharpness and detail - particularly HD - but there's something that digital can't seem to capture as well as film could: tone. Rather than go into a lot of technical mumble-jumble you don't want to read anyway, here's another video I found that notes the comparisons between actual motion picture film and digital very well:

Even with a treatment to make digital look like film, there's still an obvious difference that you can see. Film seems to capture a certain kind of color and contrast better than digital can capture - even if you try to fix it in post. After I left videotape behind and went to digital, my first stint with digital was standard definition (SD), but since I was using an inexpensive commercial digital camera (and I only had Movie Maker to work with for editing), the results were always middling: muted colors (blues and pinks in particular) were always a headache, but everything had to be lit just right because of the camera's poor exposure. Too little light resulted in a dark, fuzzy, out of focus picture; too much light resulted in a washed-out picture reminiscent of nuclear winter.
Too little or too much lighting can make for some rather unsatisfactory results for your overall shot.

That all changed when I got Adobe Premiere and an HD camera. Since my HD camera has the ability to adjust its exposure, that made lighting a shot much easier, not to mention it picks up colors and detail so much better than my previous camera. TECHNICOLOR DREAMS was my first true HD production, and I've been shooting in HD and editing in Adobe Premiere ever since. Still, there was something about the digital look that wasn't entirely satisfying to me, so I began to play around with the effects to try and enhance the footage I was looking at; by adjusting the brightness and contrast, increasing the color saturation, adding just a hint of grain, and rendering at 24 frames per second (digital is 29.97), I'm able to try to, at least, recreate the look of film. But it's still not quite the same.
Editing TECHNICOLOR DREAMS, my first true HD production.

I've often said that older shows that were shot on 35mm film look remarkably better than shows that are shot digitally today. Take a look at this screencap from a 1970 episode of HOGAN'S HEROES on DVD:
The picture is sharp, the colors are rich, and the contrast is strong.

Now, if we really want to talk about bright, rich, vivid colors, we need look no further than H.R. PUFNSTUF:

Unfortunately, afterwards, Sid & Marty Krofft looked for any way to cut costs (at $54,000 an episode budget, it cost upward of $1,000,000 to produce H.R. PUFNSTUF), and film was one of their first casualties - the rest of their shows were shot on videotape (which was still primitive in the 70s), and they suffered as seen here in on THE BUGALOOS.

Much of what you see uploaded to YouTube has been recorded digitally, in some way or form. Depending on the cameras that are used, and how the videos themselves have been edited, processed and even compressed, they can look pretty good, but still lacking. However, other film enthusiasts out there have taken to YouTube to show the world just how remarkable film can still look today, such as this:

This one is a personal favorite of mine, not only does it still look remarkable compressed down to 720p, but some of this guy's shots actually look like something from a real Hollywood movie:
UPDATE August 49, 2016
I happened to stumble onto this wonderful video essay about the film vs. digital debate, as told by filmmaker Toby Kearton, and I have to say, he puts this into such a wonderful and insightful perspective, that I really shouldn't have even bothered writing up this whole post; I could have just as easily linked to the video and said I agree with what he says. Check it out:

UPDATE March 23, 2018 
Looks like in addition to records for music lovers, Kodak is answering the call for a resurgence in analog film for filmmakers, as they're launching a new kind of handycam that can actually shoot on analog film cartridges!