Last year I was commissioned by Chris Keenan from Prime Objective and Stephen Spencer from Nice Monster Studios to build a couple of traditional wooden marionettes for a music video. It was stressed from the start that this wasn’t a big budget affair (few music videos are these days) but when they outlined the idea and sent me some concept drawings I thought it sounded like a fun project so I agreed to be involved. As there wasn’t a budget to speak of I was able to do the build and testing over a period of a couple of months, using my spare moments to pick up the chisels or work on some joints. The marionettes themselves were quite small, around 33 cms in all with a large proportion of that being the heads which were even more oversized than usual. The small scale made the joints and movements tricky. The girl character in particular had issues, her lower limbs had such negligible weight that gravity wasn’t enough to overcome any slight friction from the joints and I had to add little lead inserts into her arms just to get some feedback when puppeteering.
Stephen had decided that he wanted moving and blinking eyes and moving mouths but he knew that not only would this be expensive it would make the marionettes more difficult to operate. Being a animator and director he wanted to try a new technique of using CGI to overlay the eyes in post production. To achieve this I had to shape the heads and eyes to which we would later fit tracking markers. The markers allow the computer to position the eyes correctly to the angle of the head.
Whilst I was busy making the puppets Carina Stuart and Emily Woodall were working hard creating the sets. In a stroke of good fortune Emily had just finished her degree and was living back with her parents who happened to be just down the road from me so I was able to visit her with the mockup puppet and also loan her one of more or less the same size to use as a guide for the props.
The shoot itself was done at Second Home Studios in Birmingham, owned by Chris Randall who made us all welcome and worked hard for the two filming days doing….well just about everything that needed doing. The first day (Friday) was for getting all the puppetry shots so I was to be there for 8am. Living in Sussex meant a very early morning to get to the Birmingham studios in time.. As with most filmed projects, getting the first shot always seems to take an age and this was to be no exception, I think it was nearly 12 before we had anything done. Emily and Carina had built a lovely booth type theatre for the puppets and I was working from a gantry behind. It was a real stretch for a couple of scenes and I had to add some extensions to the controls to get the puppets to the front as my arms weren’t long enough. I wonder how many puppeteers have ever wished for longer arms (or more arms for that matter). The other tricky part was to do with the trackers on the heads. The angle of the head I relation to the camera had to be within certain limits so you could pick up the detail on the markers so this added another difficulty. Anyway we all worked hard throughout the day, and night, wrapping up at 11:30 in the end.
Over the weekend I had some niggling thoughts in my head about a couple of the shots we had done and how they could be bettered, unable to let these go I rang Chris Keenan and asked if I could come back on Monday not only to help the band with the puppets but also if we had time to have another go at a couple of moves. Chris was more than happy with this and said originally he wanted me there with the band but the budget didn’t allow for it so I agreed to go and do the second day unpaid. So another very early start on Monday to get to Birmingham but it was a nicer day as there was less pressure on me. I was there mainly to teach the band how to operate the marionettes, or at least look like they know what they are doing. In fact John Fell (pictured - guitar and vocals) who is seen with the boy puppet in the video actually turned out to be a natural picking it up very quickly.
I was able to nip in a couple of times with the puppets and get a couple more shots as each of the scenes we’d shot on Friday were repeated, this time with the band.
You may think it’s a glamourous life working in film but that’s far from true, more often than not it’s a lot of hard work, late nights and early mornings. It may not have been the best paid job I have ever done but it was certainly one of the most enjoyable.
The video for the song is a love story of two marionettes trying to find each other. It’s always tricky to convey a story in such a short space of time and without words but I think it worked and all the effort put in by everyone shines through.
Here is the finished video: