Tuesday, January 12, 2010

French music video tribute to The Muppet Show

This is the second French CG animation homage to Jim Henson's Muppets I've seen so far.  Many elements of the Muppet Show are here -- the red curtain, musician Muppets, audience Muppets, a human performer singing a classic song.   No heckling Statler and Waldorf-like characters though, sadly.  Since these are all key-framed CG characters, these puppets do things no ordinary foam hand-and-rod puppet can do!  Dance with legs showing!  Throw things! 

Unfortunately, the animators focused so much on exaggerating the "puppety-ness" that puppetry basics like lip-synch and eye-focus are less than stellar.  Still, it's great to see a large-scale Muppet Musical Number again. 

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"War Horse": Intricate horse puppets on stage in London

Handspring Puppet Company from South Africa created amazing horse puppets for a play called War Horse, now playing in London.

(Click the link above to read about it in the New York Times)

Back in 1998 at the Henson Puppetry Festival in New York, I saw this troupe perform a sublimely great piece about apartheid, featuring an incredibly compelling alligator puppet. I'm excited to hear they are still around and getting into larger projects.

Here's a slideshow with more images.

from BoingBoing and animator friend Barry Purves

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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Microsoft's Project Natal: Motion Capture, Mime, Puppetry For your Xbox 360?

The computer vision wizards of Microsoft (including the Internet sensation Jonny Lee, the guy who hacked a Wiimote into a virtual whiteboard) have been busy working on a controller-less technology that, apparently, can sense shapes and forms and track their motions.

Imagine the uses for puppetry or mime! In the video above, the boy gets to perform the rampages of a giant Japanese monster. The girl drives a car by miming the hands on a steering wheel. I can see this being used for virtual Muppets, where a simple two-handed rod puppet could drive a virtual puppet decorated to look like whatever you want.

Some questions to ponder. Can Project Natal track depth accurately? What's the latency? How many things can it track? If a tracked object gets occluded and then reappears, is there a delay before it gets picked up again?

Low-cost motion capture / digital puppetry inches closer and closer. I hope Microsoft opens this up to XNA so that indie developers can play with it.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Animated Short "Love on the Line"

My friend Melissa, graduate animation student at UCLA, has completed her animated short called "Love on the Line," a story about, er... well, cyber-sex -- Victorian style! Melissa made large cut-out articulated puppets and animated them using stop-motion. On top of that she added 2-D computer animation for the ticker effect.

Incidentally, such telegraph romances actually happened according to the book The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the 19th Century's Online Pioneers, by Tom Standage.

"Love on the Line" has already won awards and been shown at festivals.

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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

"Hungry" bunraku puppet on Weight Watchers Ad

Andrew over on the PuppetVision blog wrote about this cool advertisement series featuring a hair monster named "Hungry" performed in a CG-enhanced bunraku puppetry style. He's sort of a cross between Gossamer from the Warner Bros Bugs Bunny cartoons and a Muppet, but able to roam about live-action scenes and use props quite impressively.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

This Is Where We Live Animation

This Is Where We Live from 4th Estate on Vimeo.
How lovely this piece! Completed in three weeks (!?!)

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Monday, December 01, 2008

Video Editor from the Future!

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Friday, June 20, 2008

SPORE Creature Creator: The Future of Digital Puppet-Building?

Will Wright is the mastermind behind Sim City and The Sims series (the best-selling PC game of all time). His upcoming SPORE game takes the player through stages of living things, starting with the microbial, then land-based fauna, then into social groups (tribal), then into civilization mode, then finally into space mode! But what's really exciting to me is the Creature Creator mode and the technology behind it.

Most modeling and animation package interfaces start with an interface left over from Computer Aided Design (CAD). That is, you model geometry first. When it's how you like it, you add skeletal rigging (bones) and mesh the two. Then you build in all sorts of constraints so that when you move parts of the puppet, it behaves realistically. Finally, after the digital puppet is ready, you can animate it or apply clip-art animation to it. Life takes a while to emerge.

SPORE's interface starts with the premise that you are tweaking a living being. You, the designer*, get to add in functioning hands, legs, and eyes (not just shapes of them) and this being will react to them, try them out, shake them around, and perhaps disapprove of your modifications. It's very much like the classic Chuck Jones Daffy Duck cartoon Duck Amuck where the unseen artist keeps redrawing Daffy's background and his body.

I do hope Autodesk and Softimage are watching. Wouldn't it be great to be able to construct creatures in this organic way? Wouldn't it be lovely to not have to worry about building IK handles and binding deformers and just start building an instantly animatable character? Granted, there are only 250 shapes available and with all this built-in procedural structure, there are limits to what you can build. But sometimes limitation is exactly what you want. (Who needs the thousands of combination that DON'T work as an animated being?)

* It's perhaps unfortunate that SPORE creatures don't seem to "evolve" when they mate, emphasizing the unnecessary (but fun) step of design.

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Thursday, February 28, 2008

LifeFormz: Livin' In the Fridge music video

One of the best ways to learn video puppetry, in my opinion, is to lip-synch to songs. It's how Jim Henson started -- he used the local TV station's record collection of Stan Freberg comedy sketches as well as popular songs. When I started LifeFormz, I discouraged new puppeteers joining us from jumping right into character dialog work.

"Aww, come on Brian!" they'd say. "This is just for fun, who cares if my head's in the scene or my puppet's head is flapping?" Well actually, the audience does. Do it right and the audience will believe in the character and respond to it. Do it wrong and it may laugh at how bad the puppet's moving or the funny dialog, but it won't have any connection to your character.

So when we started, all we did were music videos and very few spoken bits. With songs, we could focus on these techniques first:
  1. Proper lip-synch
  2. Eye gaze
  3. Rhythmic choreography
This music video (to the song "Livin' In the Fridge" by Weird Al Yankovic) was actually one of the last clips I worked on before graduating and it was finished and shown after I left. Unfortunately, you can tell -- note the difference in lip-synch of the red monster for the song up until he gets pushed into the fridge. Head-flapping! Stiff! Heh. Oh well. I think it turned out rather well despite my absence.

I love how we somehow found a real fridge, yanked off the door and attached it to a fake fridge interior with holes in the back. Making all the food puppets was really fun. We learned a lot about coverage -- how do we fill up the time with the lead singer, cut to close-ups of activities inside the fridge, and keep things reasonably consistent. The psychedelic sequence was really fun to make although it's a bit crude. (Layers of S-VHS tape being duplicated over and over just don't hold up, apparently.)

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Monday, February 25, 2008

LifeFormz: Foamhenge (Teatime)

One of two sketches called "In Search of the Unsolved, Mysterious, Unexplained, Unknown Things We Do Not Know Anything About."

How We Did It:
  • Bertrand Crumb in front of green screen, long shot to make him small.

  • Two 1 1/2 foot or so rod & mouth puppets of Stonehenge on a table in front of a black screen, medium-shot to make them seem big.

  • Both these are done at the same time, with the Amiga Video Toaster doing the Luma-key of a blue sky with clouds and the JVC analog switcher doing a Chroma-key of the result behind Bertrand Crumb.

  • Audio looping done in post.

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Friday, February 22, 2008

LifeFormz: Mr. Stick

*sigh* Ok, I had promised you some LifeFormz footage months ago (last year in fact), but I became frustrated with the results of digitizing the 15 year-old VHS tape I had -- bad sound, all washed out or too dark, and generally crappy. But just this past week I discovered I had another, much better tape. Yay!

So here's one of everybody's favorite sketches, Mr. Stick. Brian Flumen came up with the idea of a silent film actor who happened to be a stick. Somehow we evolved it into having a historical film host guy showing off a few of Mr. Stick's films, Mr. Stick Goes to Town, and the sequel, Mr. Stick Comes Back from Town, plus Mr. Stick Walks His Dog.

Brian performed the voice of the host here while I simultaneously listened and lip-synched along in front of a green screen Chroma-keyed (using an old JVC analog video switcher) with footage taken from U.Penn's Fine Arts Library. Besides wanting Brian to perform, the reason we did it this way was that Penn's UTV Station did not have good microphones in the studio at the time, only in the control room. That's why sadly, most of our sketches did not involve multiple characters speaking. Separately, Brian also performed Mr. Stick himself in front of a green screen with a Chroma-keyed image taken from a book of old streets we found somewhere.

Oh! The piano music... Well, in the grungy basement of the studio, back in a far storage closet, Steve and I found a piano, and one day, a young woman was practicing on it. We asked her if she would play something ragtimey, so she played The Entertainer. Perfect! Steve ended up speeding it up old-school style, by dubbing it off of one S-VHS player to another that was recording at a slower speed. Man, we would have LOVED having Logic or ProTools back then.

The Amiga Video Toaster provided the film-look and black-and-white FX.

One technical challenge we faced was that we could not do compositing after the fact like you can today. So anything being Chroma-keyed had to be ready, up and running in either the JVC switcher or the Amiga Video Toaster, or in some cases both! That also meant we needed enough people on hand to operate everything, essentially live. Although editing-wise, we often shot in a film style. This drove UTV nuts because we used WAY more S-VHS tape than everyone else and we produced episodes much much slower than they would have liked. (Not to mention the fact that our puppets and building materials were slowly taking up a huge section of UTV's office!) Cié la vie. We had a hit show and it won a Student Emmy, so they stopped complaining eventually.

Up next, "In Search of the Unknown Unexplained Mysterious Things We Do Not Know Anything About".

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Puppet Torture Game on the PS3

Do you remember the boy named Sid in the movie Toy Story who tortured and mangled toys? Do you have a Sony PS3? (No? Very easy to get, unlike the Nintendo Wii™). Well now's your chance to have Sid-like fun as you wreak havoc on your own virtual character doll.

In Sony's new PS3 game Pain, the goal is to fling your puppet (via sling-shot, cannon, what-have-you) into brick walls, bowling pins, glass and other shatterable material. Seems like not so much a game as a toy to let out your aggressions that you've culminated from real life or perhaps your deep-rooted hatred of representational inanimate objects.

Or looking at it another way, this game is the interactive, digital puppet equivalent of those Jackass movies.

Wouldn't it be cool if you could load in puppet characters / avatars from other games? (Take that, Mario!) Or build your own? Seems like there's a lot of cross-licensing opportunities.

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Monday, December 03, 2007

KÀ in Las Vegas: Videogame as Theatre?

I just got back from Vegas this weekend, my first time there. Naturally I'd heard all about some amazing Cirque du Soleil shows there, like "O", "Mystere", and "Zumanity," but when I got there, my native Las Vegan friends told me they loved a newer show called "KŔ".

Well, they couldn't have picked a better show for me to see.

Imagine if you will a multi-story tall auditorium stage that appears to have no bottom, out of which a myriad of theatrical environments emerge. A ship atop a stormy sea. A sandy beach. A monstrously high cliff. A wall for shadow puppets. Battlefields. A forest. Or, during the pre-show, intermittent bursts of flame. To the left and right are illuminated copper cage towers. Think H.G. Wells meets Ewok tree condos on Endor.

Of course there are the Cirque trademarks -- dancers, acrobats, twirlers, and people flying through the air. (If you have not seen a Cirque show, go rent Mystere, Quidam, or Dralion and come back. Or better yet, go see Varekai or whatever tour is out there now live) There is the fantastic music. Though in KÀ, the music is blended with extravagant sound effects, playing through speakers in everyone's seats. But this is the first of their Vegas shows to have a plot*, albeit a relatively simple one. Two twins are kidnapped and must be rescued across varied landscapes full of strange creatures and peoples.

Hmm. Sound videogame-esque? We'll touch on that shortly.

Unbeknownst to me while I was watching it, the Cirque du Soleil troupe brought in two of my theatrical heroes, Robert Le Page and Michael Curry to work on it, as director and puppet fabricator respectively. I wrote a review of Robert's amazing earlier work "The Far Side of the Moon" back in 2001 and got to talk with him a little about how he was experimenting with moving set technology and puppets. Of course, Michael Curry is the genius behind the Lion King Musical puppets, masks, and its morphing cliff stage.

The fusion of all these talents adds up to an unbelievable, jaw-dropping, almost indescribable experience. However, I think I've stumbled upon the right analogy here, although please don't assume I mean to undermine its theatricality in any way: KÀ is part live-action, ultra-high production value videogame sequence, part Cirque du soleil show, part martial arts.

To make my point, here is the state-of-the-art in camera-oriented videogames Super Mario Galaxy for the Wii™:

Now picture something along these lines, right in front of you, live with human beings, scaled to the size of a good-sized hotel. (Ok, not a giant orb spinning but I wouldn't put it past these guys to do something like that next time.) A giant spinning rectangular plane. Two, actually, both acting as stages so capable of transforming they might as well be virtual.

In a sense, KÀ really is part videogame with its use of real-time, tracked projected animations. The larger of the two stages in KÀ is not limited to physical texture, thanks to a clever use of computer vision and projection techniques. It becomes a cliff, or the dark sea with bubbles following a diving actor. Through the combination of this and flying rigs, the stage becomes more like the eye of the camera, with moves previously reserved for Film and now videogames.

Will this make good theatre? Or just another technological exercise like the motion captured, virtual camera move-fests of recent Zemeckis films like The Polar Express and Beowulf? We will see.

Coming soon, I'll try to go into more detail about how this technology works and how it will change live theatre.

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Saturday, November 03, 2007

Bump In the Night on YouTube

During the mid-1990s when there were still quality Saturday Morning Cartoons on the major networks, ABC had an excellent stop-motion animated show called "Bump In the Night" involving a monster under the bed (Mr. Bumpy), his neurotic side-kick toilet-bowl cleaner monster Squishington, their pal Molly Coddle, and various other toys and creatures living within the household of a boy and his sister.

Great talent worked on this show, including its creators Ken Pontac & David Bleiman. Many animators and fabricators had come off of Nightmare Before Christmas and some moved on to Pixar (which released its groundbreaking Toy Story a year later). Most of original songs during the Karaoke Café segments (shown separately) were written by none other than Jeff Moss, legendary Sesame Street composer of "Rubber Duckie," "One of these things is not like the other," and "I Love Trash." The animation was all done in the States. Voices were provided by Jim Cummings, Rob Paulsen (Animaniacs, Pinky & The Brain), and Gail Matthius.

In 2003 I had the pleasure of having a drink with Ken Pontac in Sausalito. He had been trying to teach an extension class called "Creating an Animated Series" about developing and pitching. Naturally I jumped at the chance, but only I and one of my friends signed up -- twice! Both times it was canceled due to lack of enrollment. Damn! Had it been in L.A. would it have worked? I don't know. But I knew who he was from Bump In the Night and was very happy to hang out with him for an afternoon. Recently he's been working on "Happy Tree Friends" cartoon series.

I managed to tape every episode (each contained 2 segments and a "Karaoke Café" song) aired onto high quality VHS tape back in 1994, but unfortunately I overwrote one by mistake, "Adventures in Microbia" & "Not a Peep." Ugh. So during my archiving project I intend to make the best of these available online, as I've only seen small, badly-recorded clips on YouTube so far. Unfortunately, the YouTube compression really mangles the opening sequence (full of camera moves and pans), but the episode itself looks okay. Ken mentioned back then he would like to get everything out on DVD, but I'm sure it'll take a while... It took 13 years to get another great animated series of that time, The Tick, onto DVD.

UPDATE: I found a better way to compress the videos such that youtube will accept them and they look better. Basically, I'm using H.264 with a bitrate of 1000.

Also, you can now purchase a few episodes on DVD!

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Japanese Bunraku Returns!

Bunraku performers and fans gather after some late night Japanese beer following the show.

On Friday some friends and I went to see an authentic Japanese Bunraku theatre performance in Little Tokyo. Apparently, this is the first time in 20 years that an official Japanese troupe has toured in the U.S. I was happy to see it was a full house and not just puppeteers, although my friend Sam had rallied a lot of us puppeteers and got us a discount. He also acted as translator after the show when two of the performers and a few fans went out for drinks afterwards.

The staging and sets were gorgeous. A huge curtain with silk-like metallic decoration opened to reveal Japanese landscapes including a temple wall, a precipice and the Underworld itself. I particularly liked the use of a real tree, which moved organically. Above the stage, a large screen showing English supertitles. To the right, the narrator and the musicians playing shamisen (guitar-like instruments played with a big wedge pick).

What was the show like? Well, writing about a puppetry performance is a bit futile in my opinion. The whole point is to fall for the magic moment where your mind thinks that there's a living thing on stage, despite the fact that it's actually a doll with three people behind it. One great thing about this show is that the director of the theatre presented and translated a demonstration by the performers, explaining how the puppets work, what the narrator does, what the musicians do to enhance the story. This was brilliant and really made the show itself accessible to everyone. Also, in part of the show, a musician puppet came out playing a shamisen. This puppet's performance matched the music and the fingering of the real musician pretty much exactly! Great attention to detail. (When have you ever seen an animation or a puppet performance of a character playing a musical instrument where the fingering was accurate??)

The troupe and bunraku puppetry itself originate in Osaka, Japan. The government subsidizes the troupe almost entirely. Apparently, it's not especially popular in Osaka itself (indeed, my friends there hadn't even heard of it), but the shows in Tokyo are often sold out.

I asked them (over some Sapporo) how old the stories were and whether new ones were being written. They said that the most recent one was 130 years-old, but the ones considered "classics" are 300 years old. There are some new ones out there they said, but by the way they shook their heads disapprovingly, it was clear these were inferior to the classics.

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Friday, October 12, 2007

15 Years Ago, Lifeformz was Born...

Lifeformz Cut-out Title
Lifeformz Cheese Monolith

Good grief! It doesn't feel so long ago, but sometime in the Fall of 1992 I raced back to the Penn campus via train from NYC (my first time there), having just seen a life-changing presentation at the Museum of TV & Radio about Jim Henson. The guest panel included Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Jane Henson, the late Jon Stone, and Michael Frith. I had a mission. When asked by an audience member "What should we do or study to become Muppeteers?", Jerry Nelson half-seriously blurted out "Computers!" and after the laughter died down, Jane Henson suggested "Cable Access Television." One of the brightest lightbulbs ever lit up over my head because I was already doing BOTH, at Penn's University TV Station (UTV) and doing some modeling & animation work for graduate & PhD Computer Graphics students at Penn's Center for Human Modeling & Simulation. There was no question about it, it had to be done. Yes, I was going to attempt to create a TV show with puppets and animation. But what to call it?

I'm not entirely certain when or how I arrived at the name of the project, but at some point I mentioned it to my good friend at the time, Steve, and he nodded approvingly. I printed up some flyers using my Atari ST & its ginormous laser printer advertising a new student group / experimental puppetry and animation show. We plastered them over campus, not entirely certain of the people who would show up to the first meeting. After all, Penn back then was NOT known for any sort of visual arts training. The Annenberg School of Communications was there, but its film & video classes had long been shut down because the Dean "did not want Penn to be a trade school." Bummer! Even its theater department (as I found out later when I set up an independent study to do the show) emphasized theory and academia over actually doing anything. So we sat at a table in Houston Hall, and waited for whoever showed up.

We started with a few women interested in building puppets, four computer scientists, an English major, and one artist. The next few meetings involved sitting at Houston Hall with trash bags of foam, glue guns, and fabric, but over the next year we took over a large chunk of UTV station with our puppets and materials. We had no scripts at first -- our model was Jim Henson's earliest show "Sam & Friends," and the earliest of those that involved only lip-synch and musical numbers. (It was frustrating to many of our members not to jump right into voices and elaborate sketches, but truthfully, we were not ready.) But the puppets evolved over time (after scrutinizing various Muppet & puppet-making books), and we got pretty good at using the limited 70s and 80s era video equipment. (The most modern thing in the station? An Amiga Video Toaster, which we mastered better than anyone else at UTV)

Towards the end of 1993 we became one of the most popular UTV shows (apparently our demographic was "stoners") and had grown to about 35 members and volunteers. We started experimenting with then state-of-the-art software for the Mac, Quicktime, hooking it up to a PowerGlove a couple years before Quicktime VR or other various image-based digital puppetry attempts came along. We even did a live performance, using puppets that played foam drum MIDI-triggers we rigged up.

Then, inspired by another student* at Northwestern who had won a Student Emmy for her puppetry TV show "Freeform" we submitted an edit of our show to the same competition. We won a Regional Student Emmy . Not bad, considering our competition was from Film Schools, and had budgets of $10,000 and one even starred Mel Gibson. Ours? $300 maybe) It was incredibly surreal to attend the Award ceremony in Beverly Hills, sit at a table with other award-winning students and get a photo taken with Brent Spiner (who says "lifeforms" quite a bit on Star Trek: Next Generation episodes).

Needless to say, it was a wonderful time in my life. It tickles me now that some very talented people passed through our group who later went on to be big shots working at Electronic Arts, ILM, Weta, and technical artists featured in WIRED magazine. One guy who never had time to work on the show (despite my nagging) who designed a recruiting poster for me went on to co-found Gnomon School of Visual FX.

Here we are 15 years later... Very soon you will get to see some video clips. About time, huh?

And now you know why the domain for this site is called "Lifeformz."

* Who was that student, you ask? Stephanie D'Abruzzo, who went on to work for Sesame Street and later became the co-star of the original (off and on Boadway) Avenue Q!

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Classic Sesame Street - "Fat Cat Sat"

I love this sketch from the early 70s. Simple "limbo" set. The humor is in the wacky lyrics, timing, choreography, dynamics of the music, and the contrasts and reactions between the characters. Lovely little rhythm guitar going on in the background (making the tempo feel faster than it really is). Great use of the screen space -- Jim Henson came up with the idea of using wide-angle lenses in video puppetry to give great depth of field, so the main singer puppet isn't moving back all that far, but it looks like he is.

Or for a hoot, try this faster version.

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Monday, September 24, 2007

More Puppet Up! Live Shows in Los Angeles

As I've blogged about before, Puppet Up! is a live improv show with puppets, produced by the Jim Henson Company. Go see it!

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Ventriloquist Terry Fator Wins America's Got Talent!!

I had been out of the country during the odyssey of this amazing performer, but brother Henry alerted me to Terry Fator's "What a Wonderful World" rendition (see bottom video). Have a look at this footage, especially this first one that blew judges David Hasselhoff and Sharon Osbourne away...

Etta James, anyone?

Friends in Low Places indeed!

Unfogettable, considering we're watching a man do Natalie Cole's voice???

Ventriloquism has seldom impressed me. Even the communities behind puppetry and ventriloquism have had a long history of staying separate, seldom intermingling. But I think Terry may have bridged the gap, and even presented these dying arts to millions of new fans.

I never watch these so-called "reality" or talent show-based shows. One can stand so many above average singers and dancers. Am I in the right universe? Somehow, a brilliant ventriloquist won this year! You can picture me on the couch (if you want) smiling like a madman when on tonight's show Finale the audience and judges adorned sock puppets, lip-synching along to Terry's singing puppet.

But unlike Terry or me, their mouths were moving. Mine was stuck wide open.


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Saturday, June 30, 2007

Tokyo: Puppet House

This is the reason why I don't like organised tours when traveling. What tour would take you to a little store of marionettes in downtown Tokyo? Fortunately for me, the Puppet House (Japanese-only website) was mentioned in my Lonely Planet travel guide.

Upstairs is a small room filled with hand-carved marionettes and finger puppets from the Czech Republic, Germany, and the United States.

Almost all are performable; however, co-owner Takuro Fukazawa explained to me that many are too small for an audience beyond yourself. "Personal puppetry," he calls it. Either way, the puppets are gorgeous, moving or not. He pulled out a "simple" marionette, showing me how to make it walk with balance. Then he handed over the controls to me. Ooops! Well, in my hands, the puppet character exhibited all sorts things: "anti-gravity," "drunkenness"... perhaps "epilepsy." Certainly not balance.

Had I the money and display space I would have bought several beautiful puppets I saw there. Fortunately, you can order them through their website, although it's Japanese-only. I recommend a visit!

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Watch a Finding Nemo: The Musical preview!

Brother Colin wrote in to tell me his buddies Robert Lopez, his wife Kristen, and Michael Morgan worked on the amazing Finding Nemo: The Musical down in Orlando, Florida at Disney's Animal Kingdom themepark.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Jim Henson and the gang, circa 1965

There has been some amazing old footage of Jim Henson and the Muppets (pre-Sesame Street, pre-Muppet Show) showing up on YouTube lately. This example demonstrates the back-breaking work it took to produce a Muppet commercial for Wilson's Meats.

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Monday, April 30, 2007

Animatronics for Fun, if not Profit

It may seem crazy in this computer graphics-laden world, but it seems like it's easier than ever to get started in animatronics and robotics as a hobby.

Here, for example is ALEX, a simple animatronic kit from BPE Solutions. You can upgrade it to make it talk automatically with audio. Buy lots of them and have your own Picasso-meets-Disney Theme Park ride!

They also offer an animatronics book for the aspiring Faz Fazakis or Stan Winston in your life.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Sesame Street Martian costumes, Uh-huh Uh-huh Yip Yip Yip Yip

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Monday, April 02, 2007

Video Projection Technology for Theatre

Interesting New York Times article about how a theatre company is using an old-fashioned technique in new ways for creating special effects in live performance.
The Eyeliner system makes use of an old stage trick called Pepper’s Ghost that by most accounts was first seen onstage in an 1862 production of Charles Dickens’s “Haunted Man,” at the Royal Polytechnic Institution in London. John Henry Pepper (1821-1900) is usually credited with discovering the illusion, though an engineer named Henry Dircks was really first to suggest placing an angled piece of plate glass between audience and actors, allowing off-stage objects or people to “appear” reflected on the glass as if they were onstage. When the off-stage lights were turned off, the ghosts seemed to vanish.

With Eyeliner, the unwieldy glass pane is replaced with a lighter, nearly invisible screen invented by Uwe Maass, the managing director of Event Works, a company in Dubai. Another company, Vision4, from Denmark, holds the licensing rights for New York.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Dancing Puppet Game on the Nintendo Wii!

I knew it would happen eventually.

Electronic Arts (Montreal Division) is about to release a game called "Boogie" that seems a lot like my idea for a combined Dance Dance Revolution, Guitar Hero, and puppetry performance game. Curious to see how they've used the Wii's controller for making the character dance. Are you just triggering dance motions with certain gestures, or can you really put your own nuance into the movement?

I hope it does well, so that publishers will be open to more puppetry-oriented games.

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Friday, March 16, 2007

Puppets and DJ Scratching

In honor of my recent DJ class and continued interest in all things puppet, I bring you this oldy-but-goody, from the Netherlands.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Learn how to make a Fairy from Wendy Froud!

I just found this instructional DVD on how to sculpt a fairy, taught by the wife of Brian Froud, master illustrator of Goblins and Fairies in books and in Jim Henson movies like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal!

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Friday, March 02, 2007

Celebrate Roger Mara's Life: May 26th, 2007

Elizabeth Luce, long time collaborator and friend to Roger Mara wrote me to let me know there's going to be a gathering for friends, fans, and puppeteers who knew and loved the late great Roger Mara, whom I had the pleasure and honor of knowing while I was on the board of the San Francisco Bay Area Puppeteers Guild.

If you're able to be in the Bay Area this May, come celebrate with us!
A Celebration of Roger Mara's Life
October 20, 1953 - January 15, 2007

We are glad to announce a gathering for the celebration of Roger Mara's life. Friends, Family, Cohorts, and Fellow Puppeteers are all welcome! Please spread the word!

Saturday, May 26th
11:00 AM to 2:30 PM
Fireside Room, Lucie Stern Center
1305 Middlefield Road
Palo Alto, CA 94301

We have stories to share, puppets to see, friends to meet, songs to sing, and video of Roger's work.


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Monday, February 26, 2007

Heads Up! Puppet Up! in Anaheim, March 4th

Hey L.A. Puppetry fans!

Just heard from Sean Johnson (aka Frosty) that Brian Henson and his live video puppetry troupe Puppet Up! are performing one nightly only, Sunday March 4th at the Grove in Anaheim, CA @ 8 PM.

Tickets are $33 each (plus exorbitant Ticketmaster fees > $10).

I've seen these folks at The Improv last year (and attended two of Victor Yerrid's and Patrick Bristow's puppet improv classes). They're awesome.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Michel Ocelot's "Princes & Princesses"

Beautiful silhouette animation. The technique certainly looks similar to Lotte Reiniger's cut-out animation work back in the 1920s, but a Wikipedia entry suggests this was done with computer. (I'm suspicious of that claim, given the time it was made). Anyways, YouTube does not do it justice -- the twilight effect is quite lovely particularly when projected in a theatre.

The director, Michel Ocelot, is the President of ASIFA-International, and also the director of a full-length animated feature called Azur and Asmar which just got bought by the Weinstein Company.

I first saw this short at a Spike & Mike Animation Festival years ago, but had not found it on any DVD compilation until now. You can find it (with 5 other shorts in this style) at Hong Kong Flix for about $12! Unfortunately, the extras are in French with only Korean subtitles.

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Saturday, February 17, 2007

Google Gmail Marionettes!

Ahhh, Google. You keep impressing me. Now you have Geeks and Puppets coming together to demonstrate how the Gmail Email service can improve communications.

Previously, Gmail was invitation-only, but it has as of Valentine's Day, opened its doors to everyone. I highly recommend it over Yahoo! Mail Beta, a sluggish copy-cat. Although I have used Yahoo! Mail for years, the latest version is slowwwww and heavy if (like me) you have a decade worth of email. Gmail on the other hand, is nimble and has far better searching ability (it is Google, after all). I also like how its Chat client is built-in, unlike Yahoo which has a very heavy downloadable client with far too many features. Most of my friends are using Microsoft's MSN Messenger now (although the two are compatible) or Skype. A few are still using the ridiculous AOL AIM Instant Messenger. And fewer still are using the one that started them all, ICQ.

While we're on the subject, there are the Multi-IM clients, like the Mac-only Adium, the Open Source Miranda, and the popular Trillian.

All of these formerly smallish utilities are growing up to be mini-browsers; browsers are growing to become large applications. The eco-system on my desktop is getting a bit unruly! But I suppose that's the price to pay for a good competitive landscape. Otherwise, everything would be Microsoft.

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Monday, February 12, 2007

Edward Gorey's THE DOUBTFUL GUEST to be made into a Jim Henson Company Film

From AWN.com:
Debuting in 1957, THE DOUBTFUL GUEST is the story of an inexplicable creature that shows up unannounced and unwelcome at a family-owned bed & breakfast. Brad Peyton (EVELYN: THE CUTEST EVIL DEAD GIRL) is attached to direct and Matthew Huffman will write the screenplay.
This could be cool, but once again, adapting a teeny tiny children's book into a full-length motion picture is frought with peril.

Anyone heard of this director or writer?

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Star Wars Trench Sequence as Hand Theatre

Hilarious! I love the Death Star explosion at the end.

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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Go see FLATLAND: A Miniature Opera

My friend Jenny sent this along:

The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Information is pleased to announce:

FLATLAND: A Romance of Many Dimensions
A Miniature Opera by Randall Wong
Performed by Dina Emerson and Randall Wong

Adapted from Edwin Abbott's celebrated 1884 geometric novel, FLATLAND is a miniature opera about the multiplicity of dimensions and the discovery of what exists beyond the seen. Flatland is a two dimensional world peopled by geometric shapes -- points, lines, squares, and circles -- who learn that the universe consists of more than their single plane. In the tradition of the Victorian Toy Theater, the opera is staged upon a large tabletop, giving the effect of a performance viewed through the wrong end of a telescope. FLATLAND, composed and co-performed by esteemed male soprano Randall Wong, juxtaposes the grand and the microscopically absurd, and collides Victorian stagecraft and illusion with modern toys and technology.

Friday, January 26th: 8 p.m.
Saturday, January 27th: 3 p.m. & 8 p.m.
Sunday, January 28th: 3 p.m. & 7 p.m.

Nota Bene: FLATLAND will be staged in the Tula Tearoom.
Due to the unique restrictions of the space, we shall not be able to seat latecomers once the performances have started.

The Museum of Jurassic Technology
9341 Venice Boulevard
Culver City, CA 90232

$15 General admission
$10 Museum members, students, seniors, active service personnel

Please address queries & reservation requests to events (at) mjt.org

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Finding Nemo, the MUSICAL?

Brother Colin writes in from Boston:
"Okay, so I know the composers and the star of a theme park show. Big deal. Only the show is at Disney World, and the show is "Finding Nemo."

Try to get your brain around the scale and technical ambition evident in these clips and photos."
Jeez. Live-action Pixar that's not on Ice? Wow.

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Monday, December 18, 2006

Frosty & Steve Podcast

My friends over at Swazzle have started a video podcast for the Holidays, called Frosty & Steve, featuring our favorite snowman and his sidekick snowball. Each episode counts down the twelve days of Christmas with a special guest.

I really like the snowy textures on the characters! See how they made the puppets on Sean's blog, puppet101.

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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Gametrak Fusion -- Is this the Puppet Controller To Die For?

It appears there may be an inexpensive motion capture technology on the horizon (2007). From the specs, it is superior to the Nintendo Wii remote, as it uses ultrasound to detect exact 3-D positions at high speeds, and supposedly it gathers shape information about whatever you've attached the sensor to. They claim this could be used for collision detection and physics.

Also, it's platform-neutral, connects via USB, and will cost about $56.

One could build any number of puppetry controls with it! Virtual rod-puppets, marionette-controllers, shadow puppets. One could even attach it to actual puppets, driving virtual versions on screen.

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Sunday, October 08, 2006

MAKE Podcast: How to build your own Shadow Puppets

MAKE is a fantastic magazine for all kinds of build-it-yourself projects.

Weekend Projects With Bre Pettis is their weekly podcast about creations that can be built in a weekend.

This week's project is SHADOW PUPPETS! Bre shows us how to make simple construction paper and polycarbonate (Lexan™) monsters.


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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Machinima Application Design Requirements, Take One

Examples of Machinima have finally gone viral, such as Overman's Male Restroom Etiquette, which got over a million downloads from YouTube the other day. It was created mostly using the engine and assets of Will Wright's The Sims 2.

There has been much talk of "Hey, this will forever change how we make film!" but before we get carried away, let's think about some of the challenges and requirements of an ideal platform for making movies inexpensively.

* Assets

A primary problem of Machinima is the limited number of existing rigged characters (actors), props, costumes, and environments available in any given engine. The easiest are Sims 2, Second Life, and a few others with communities making things in their spare time. The most flexible are engines where one can model using any available tools, such as Unreal, Panda3D, Blender), but require a lot of skill, time and large teams to produce decent work.

A problem with prefabricated assets is that they follow a particular aesthetic. Sure, you've got a lot of objects to play with in The Sims, but they all look Sims-y. What if you want a dark, noir look? What if you want black & white? Or you want it to look and feel like a movie or video, with gorgeous lighting? You'll end up needing to fix things in post, which can be done, but that adds a lot to the cost. A director has limited choices in any pre-existing game engine.

Currently, low-cost modeling software programs are too primitive. They do not help a 3-D artist (much less a Machinima director) be an artist at a high, conceptual level. Photographers now have means (to some extent) to alter their works far above the level of pixels of color -- they can use adverbs and similes via Photoshop filters. High end (expensive) software is beginning to use genetic algorithms, advanced auto-rigging, computational geometry techniques, and novel painting techniques (like Zbrush) but it will be a few years before these are available in low-end or free software. (Though from what I've seen, many of the techniques being incorporated into Will Wright's next game, Spore could be adopted into inexpensive content creation tools even sooner. Something along the lines of this.)

* Control

As a puppeteer, my biggest gripe with typical game engines is the lack of decent control. Even Susanne Vega commented (via her Avatar) in Second Life, that the experience of performing in SL was like playing with puppets at home with her kids, only that she couldn't move hers how she wanted. Traditional gamepads and joysticks are good for position and for triggering canned poses, but software has not been made that lets them become a means of performance beyond simple humorous videogame-y moves.

Sims offers a large number of "canned" behaviors, which I believe is one reason why Male Restroom Ettiquette did so well. Sure, it could have been done in Halo with expressionless soldiers. But how much funnier to see characters holding themselves in agony as they wait for a toilet, a behavior all-too-familiar in the Sims?

* Puppeteering / Live Action, vs. Animation and Layered Editing

In music, there are sequencer software programs meant for explicitly laying down tracks, and editing them. This is akin to the Beatles doing take after take per song on Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club band, then painstakingly crafting it with effects, filters, sound effects, overdubs, and other production techniques until it worked.

Then there are programs like Ableton Live, meant for triggering musical events or playing in real-time. This can be a lot more spontaneous, like improvisational jazz or improvisational theatre.

Right now, with most game engines, the tools are more akin to puppeteering / live Action then they are full fledged animation and video editing platforms. Most machinima is edited after the fact, the end result being a video. (Would it be possible to do a LIVE Machinima piece? I think so.)

* Content / Storytelling

So what kinds of stories and content can be made with machinima? Over the last hundred years, film has evolved to cover the gamut of topics - romance, horror, drama, comedy, history, sex, religion, documentary, science, you name it. Videogames, so far at least, are largely limited to people, monsters and robots running around with guns, battle-axes or cars.

For machinima to really be significant, we're going to need more assets, and far better control over the characters if they are to be compelling. The democratization of tools for editing video and sound have already made filmmaking easier. The same for tools that make assets will help tremendously.

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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Premiere of short film, "Gretchen"

Sometimes Love is Syrupy.If you are in Los Angeles, check out the premiere of Gretchen, a comedy/horror short about a couple torn asunder by "the greatest pancake ever." It's part of the Valley Film Festival on Friday September 15th @ 10 PM.

It was directed by Geoffrey Stebbins. Puppets built by Sam Hale, Jessica Stebbins and yours truly. Puppeteering by me also.

I don't want to give away anything, but I will say it was great fun to do! More production details coming soon.


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Friday, August 11, 2006

Puppets on Yahoo!??

Man, I bet this street marionettist (from Barcelona, apparently) has never had an audience this big before. And right there on the front page, a link to Yahoo! Directory: Puppetry.

The comments on the video are all enthusiastic. So many people have never seen a decent live puppet show before. Thank you, Internet!

Now if we could just get some footage of master puppeteers on the front page of Yahoo! Then we're talking. How about it, Hugo & Ines? Bob Hartmann? Phil Huber? Albrecht Roser? Let's get your work online if its not already.

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Monday, June 26, 2006

Puppet Up! Puppets at the Improv

My friends Sean & Patrick from Swazzle have been attending a very special improv class at the Henson lot, taught by The Groundlings, and Muppeteer Victor Yerrid. (Patrick invited me to participate in two of the "beginner" classes) This past week, they (and the whole troupe including Brian Henson) performed at the Hollywood Improv.

I had been there a few years ago to see some of the cast of Whose Line Is It Anyway? (Ryan Stiles, Drew Carey). This was similar, though with small flat-screen monitors everywhere for the puppeteers to use while performing, and large ones for the audience. There's definitely an added level of hilarity when you add puppets -- people laugh as soon as, say, a crab and an aardvark, or a valley girl and three aliens, appear on the screen. Not that Ryan Stiles or Colin Mochrie couldn't inspire outbursts of laughter with their physical and vocal mimicry, but seeing them as stylized puppets takes it to another level. For most people, puppetry is a novelty and video puppetry (ala Muppetry) even more so.

This went above-and-beyond just puppets and "adult situations" though. Anybody can swear and move a puppet around. These performers can act, switch characters on the fly, and make you believe that a bunch of foam dolls are really living things. The results were extremely funny. Tyler Bunch made up an hysterically dumb super-hero (at a homeless shelter) on the spot. Julianne Beuscher, the lone female performer, killed with everyone of her characters, whether a valley girl in post-Apocalyptic Australia, a Philippino girl suffering from overly tight panties, or a mouse torn between her beaver lover and a dream of cutting nosehair (he finds it hurts too much). Victor Yerrid and a Middle Eastern-sounding aardvark wanting to get his "ears" enlarged. Both Sean and Patrick held their own as nerdy guys, Haliburton phone operating rabbits, boardgaming crabs, and inconsiderate alien neighbors. There were no bombs in either show Saturday night, which I thought was amazing.

In July, the Puppet Up! folks plan to do this again as a live taping. Part of the troupe is off to Edinburgh to perform in a festival. Who knows? This could end up as a TV show (preferably on cable)

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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Nintendo Wii™ Controller: Puppet Control?

You know how I've been wanting a cheap but accurate controller for manipulating virtual puppets on either a PC or a videogame console. Ever since the Nintendo N64 offered 3-D graphics on par with a circa-1994 Silicon Graphics machine, this seemed inevitable, though that was 10 years ago.

But soon, with the Nintendo Revolution Wii™ and it's 6-degree of freedom, wireless remote, capable of tracking rotation AND position, Internet connectivity, and fairly good (though not the most impressive) 3-D graphics engine, the time has come! This thing could make a great virtual rod control. Imagine four of these per box, which would be connected to other performers on the Net, performing in the same scene, or watching and providing virtual applause!

Come on! Who's with me? The development kit is only $2000 (compared to the $20,000 Sony Playstation2 kit).

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posted by Brian at 11:41 AM 1 comments links to this post

Friday, April 28, 2006

Super Mario Brothers, as a Black Light puppet show

This video impressed many at the special FX company I work for. Most of us recognized the entire level of the classic Nintendo game, Super Mario Bros., performed live using bright objects held by people wearing black. This sort of theatre can be seen in Prague and other places, and as Andrew pointed out below, the objects are often painted with UV paint and the light is a black light, enhancing the illusion of inanimate objects moving or disappearing.

Nice to see blacklight Black Light Theatre finally reach the masses!

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Monday, April 17, 2006

1960's Muppet Short

Puppeteered and voiced by Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl.

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Saturday, March 04, 2006

Henson screenings at the Museum of TV & Radio

If you're a Henson fan anywhere near New York or Los Angeles, the MT & R is showing many screenings of Muppet and other Henson works on weekends until April 30th. Of course, you can always see their collection of 140+ Henson television works, but these are showing in their large auditoriums.

By the way, I'm soo angry I did not pay more attention to MT & R's screenings. Last night, only a few walkable blocks from my apartment, the cast and producers of Battlestar Galactica were in an MT & R panel at the Director's Guild of America (where I saw Tim Burton). Aaaaah! I could have so easily gone to that. Oh well. I'll see them at Comic Con I guess (though in a far less intimate setting).

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Saturday, February 04, 2006

Lord of the Rings on stage!

My brother Colin knows the director Mark Warchus and has seen some of the early rehearsals for this quite ambitious adaptation of everyone's favorite Hobbit trilogy. It premieres this February in Toronto. From the Playbill article and my brother's descriptions, it sounds really really cool! Though there is music, it's not a musical. The set sounds even more elaborate than The Lion King. The adaptation is deliberately different than Peter Jackson's and has the blessing of the Tolkien estate.

You can find out more info and buy tickets on their main website

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Thursday, December 01, 2005

Brave New World of Puppetry, Part II

Andrew over at the Puppet Vision blog is starting some exciting projects regarding digital puppetry, and it got me thinking again of my blog entry back in May 2003 (see archive) on this topic, the articles I wrote for the Puppetry Journal, and the early digital puppetry attempts that Ranjit and I did in Lifeformz back in 1993. From what I can tell, Andrew has been building two engines for displaying and triggering both flat and dimensional puppets. This is very cool! But as I mentioned in my blog, there is still much work to be done:
For real-timers like actors or puppeteers, there are few options to manipulate the virtual world that virtual puppets live in. Products do exist, such as the DataGlove™, various 3D coordinate tracking sensors by Ascension™, Polhemus™ & Vicon™, and even musician-oriented mixing boards, or remote-control car joysticks and videogame controllers can be coerced into a form of puppetry interface. However, this is not ideal for the Puppeteer, whether shadow, hand, rod, talking mouth, or marionette.
We need real-time TWO-handed computer controls built specifically for puppeteers, and software written that can enhance the motion in ways impossible with real puppets.
It sounds like Andrew's working on the latter. Are there any tinkerers out there who are up for the former?

Nazooka over in Belgium is doing some neat stuff, and my friend Dave Barclay over at PerformFX has invented a nifty glove controller. But like nearly everything I've seen (protozoa, mediaLab, Jim Henson Co, etc), it's proprietary and unavailable for sale. What we need is an open-source platform to develop real-time controlled 2-D and 3-D puppet applications with environments, props, lights and camera. It sounds like Panda 3D is a good start, but now we need ways to interface it with wacom tablets and other inputs, preferably ones that we can all afford!

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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Virtual Puppets Exhibit

Oooh, I hope I can get to Pittsburgh sometime because there's a nifty interactive puppet exhibit there. There have been other attempts at interactive puppets, but this Animateering project with swappable character parts, two-player mode, 3-D animation, and marionette-like controls looks impressive. This photo shows the control box, which hooks up to two projectors, a bunch of interactive lights and glowing buttons. Guests use the touch-screen monitors to create their puppets.

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Monday, November 21, 2005

Plain Stoopid & Talking Inanimate Objects

My friends Geoff and Jessica started this web comic. Jessica's a Lighting ATD here at SPI, and last year I did some puppet work with them on Geoff's killer pancake movie. I just read that Geoff was accepted into a Hollywood screenwriter's program. Congrats!

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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Everyone's Favorite Dummies

A site devoted to Ventriloquism and Vaudeville.

You may not realize this but in general, ventriloquists and puppeteers do not tend to hang out in the same circles. I'm not sure why this is. If anyone knows what caused this rift, please let me know.

[link], via memepool

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Monday, October 31, 2005

Puppetry Blogs!

Oh good. I'm glad someone is doing it. While now and then you'll find a puppet-related item or two in this blog (a discombobulated collection of my thoughts), it's great that some blogs are covering the art-form full-time.


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Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Malcovich, Malcovich!

Behold! Mr. Spike Jonze & Charlie Kaufman, director and writer of one of my favorite movies, Being John Malcovich, were both around after an Arclight screening for Q & A.

Spike Jonze, looking a bit scared, and me, looking giddy.

Charlie Kaufman, who loved my shirt of Charlotte from Making Fiends.
Amy Winfrey has a famous fan!

I asked Charlie (as he was signing someone else's autograph) "Do you like puppets?" and he turned his said to say "Yes! I love puppets!" But that's about all I was able to find out, as a young woman approached me to chat about that same topic.

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Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Team America: Almost Hilarious?

Saw Team America this weekend while my brother Colin was in town. He and our friend Josh and I agreed: it's hysterical, but flawed.

I get the sense the whole thing was rushed. And it was! They had they're first cut ready 3 weeks before it opened, according to a Sony projectionist friend of mine. (Team America had its dailies on the Sony lot). With more time, Trey & Matt would have had the opportunity to add more humor towards the middle (where it started to slow a bit) and make better use of the marionette gags. The ending didn't have the "progressive punch" I'm used to. In fact, I'd say it was more of a "Conservativism may be violent, but hey, get used to it" message.

It was very exciting to see puppeteers get top billing though. And I don't care if a certain song was reused from an episode. I was singing "Montage!" on my way out of the theatre.

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Monday, October 11, 2004

What I did this weekend: Got eaten by a 3-story high, singing plant

When my friend Eric Kurland called Tuesday evening to see if I wanted to go see Little Shop of Horrors, I was bummed because I had to work. Grr. So I checked to see about getting tickets for the weekend. SOLD OUT??? There was only one thing to do. Ebay it. Found front row tickets, and for that amount I could have paid for a red light violation. But how many times do you get to be that close to a giant, singing plant in motion?

Of course I needed someone to go with. My usual suspects were out. One was in San Diego. The other said not only was she busy, but that she "just doesn't like singing plants." (She told me about a guy she knew who has a similar problem, with any singing inanimate objects! Whoa! I have dubbed his condition "anthropomorphophobia.") Then I tried my lesbian friend ("I'd love to go, but I have a birthday party that I don't really want to go to, but they live right across from me and I can't get out of it.") Desperate, I tried a friend's younger sister whom I hadn't talked to in a year! "OH! I'D LOVE TO GO" she said "BUT I HAVE TO WORK!!" But she offered to let me into Disneyland sometime at least. *sigh* On to the guy friends. I have one that I knew right away would hate it. Another had a previous engagement. Another had a poker game. Then, amazingly, I got a call from a friend who's been working at Michael Curry Productions (the guy who made the puppets and set for The Lion King) who was in town for a business trip over the weekend. Told him I had tickets. "Oh I'd LOVE to go. But there's a chance I have to do a meeting with Disney at 8" And of course, he did have a meeting.

So I was stuck seeing it myself. The plan was to sell off the other ticket, but I got lost and was about 20 minutes late (!). Arrrrgh. Driving to that theatre if you don't do it right is like trying to swim up a waterfall. But I caught my favorite numbers at least. Besides the plant, my favorite performer was actually in the female chorus, named Yasemeen Steilman. Oh my. So adorable. Yes, being in the front row has its advantages.

Incidentally, it's moments like these where I can't stand copyright law, because I ought to have been able to take a photo from that distance (sans flash) and show you my experience. How can I possibly communicate to you the magnitude of the plant, which during the final act, extrudes up and out over the audience, right over my head and looking like it would arch down and bite my head off?

Ah well. Your imagination will have to suffice.

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Friday, October 01, 2004

Bush & Kerry Puppets, Avenue Q style

Bush & Kerry puppets debate, courtesy of Avenue Q.

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Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Fraggle Rock on DVD!

Hooray! You can finally get three episodes of the beloved 1980's Muppet series, Fraggle Rock.

Unfortunately, it's only available at Wal-Mart for now.

I received my copy as a gift from none other than Red Fraggle herself, Karen Prell.

(Thank you, Karen!)

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Friday, August 08, 2003

Adventures in Southern California

Spent the last week in San Diego & Los Angeles in an unplanned adventure to find work at Siggraph and help my friend Sam with his puppet TV show pilot. Sure enough, I got a job offer from Sony Pictures Imageworks!! Wow.

It was a bit of coup getting the interview. They weren't taking reels or resumes at their booth. But for some reason they put up a sign advertising a "Production Services Technician" position over on the memoboards (where people leave notes that get placed alphabetically in vain attempt to reach other people). So after arriving at 8 AM I had the crazy idea to leave a note -- on the sign itself. Sure enough, the note was gone a few hours later, and then I got a voicemail saying I had an interview scheduled for the next day at their booth. Whoa! I guess it pays to deface posters now and then!

The interview went well. It's the only time I've had three women interview me for a tech position. Thanks to the free Starbucks frappucino cans at Dreamworks/PDI's booth, I nailed it. But the next challenge was getting to LA to stay with my friend Sam. Fortunately our LA friend Eric (whom I had seen at Comic Con a week or so earlier) had mentioned he might come down for Siggraph. A quick call to him, and voila! A ride back.

Meanwhile I was staying with a crew of Pixelcorps artists. We could have easily formed our own production company. John the Modeller, Scott the Compositor, Robby the R&D guy, Greg the Animator and me (running the thing, probably). I definitely had the most luck finding work, and getting into the cool parties. My friend Nick is moving up the ranks at PDI now and when I saw him at the booth, he gave me and Greg two invites for the exclusive Dreamworks/PDI party. Yayy! It was pretty sweet -- free booze, food, and the chance to see Jeffrey Katzenberg perform a meager puppet show describing one of their upcoming films ("Over the Hedge").

LA was fun too. Got to build and paint sets for a pirate ship filled with ogres, hamsters, and a pirate named Sid. Did I mention it was in the desert? Yep, 1.5 hours east of LA in the town of Phelan (the location of a woman I just met in Comic Con... Random!) I also performed right-hand for Victor Yerrid, a puppeteer from Crank Yankers and Greg the Bunny. Performed a hamster, and an Easter Island puppet too.

And of course, the interview with Sony! Their facility is rather nice. Marry gave me the tour and despite the weird hours, the job sounds great! They train you to do whatever you want, and try to make you want to stay rather than burn or kick you out like so many places. She told me if the crew liked me, they would email me a technical test. When I got home, it took me about a day to finish 3 questions (it didn't say anything about a deadline) involving a lot of scripting. Today I got the offer!

So I'll stop it with the "sure enough"'s and sign off so that I can go say "I got a jobb, I got a jobbb" to a dozen more friends.

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posted by Brian at 3:26 PM links to this post

Friday, May 30, 2003

Brave new world of puppetry, part I

Like it or not, the world of Motion Arts is going Virtual. Puppetry, the ancient art of manipulating things, is alive and well in today's world of virtual, computer-generated images.

However, the software being written for those who manipulate virtual beings, such as Maya, Softimage, MotionBuilder, Lightwave 3D, 3DStudio Max, Cinema 4D or even Animation Master, is designed for Animators, artisans of a much more recent Artform based on Cinema, Comics (and occasionally Sculpture). Animators, whether the 2D illustration or the 3D puppet variety, are thinking in terms of single photographs or frames. Traditional puppeteers do not think in frames -- their performance is continuous and in real-time, like those of actors, dancers, mime artists, or even stuntpeople.

Computers and Frame-based Arts go hand-in-hand. Digital things broken up into pieces are what computers eat for lunch. The interfaces into computers are like this also -- individual keystrokes, the coordinates of a mouse (or drawing tablet) over time, images from a digital camera, etc. Those that are somewhat useful and common enough are designed for the standard one-hand mouse and one-hand on keyboard that we've been locked into by the legacy of the Desktop GUI invented by Xerox in the early 70's.

For real-timers like actors or puppeteers, there are few options to manipulate the virtual world that virtual puppets live in. Products do exist, such as the DataGlove™, various 3D coordinate tracking sensors by Ascension™, Polhemus™ & Vicon™, and even musician-oriented mixing boards, or remote-control car joysticks and videogame controllers can be coerced into a form of puppetry interface. However, this is not ideal for the Puppeteer, whether shadow, hand, rod, talking mouth, or marionette.
We need real-time TWO-handed computer controls built specifically for puppeteers, and software written that can enhance the motion in ways impossible with real puppets.

Of course, very method of control (interface) has its stylistic nuances. Animation looks like animation, captured motion off a human being looks like that human being, stop-motion has its own look too. Some of this nuance is physical, but the rest is in the training philosophy adopted by the performer. Animators tend to adopt the Disney/Nine Old Men "Principles of Animation." Puppeteers adopt similar principles. Actors, Dancers, and Mime artists have many philosophies to choose from within each of their circles. There is a criticism many classically-trained Animators have about the real-time approaches to Virtual Puppets. Using a glove makes the mouth move "like a Muppet." True to some extent, except that software can be modified to make the motion style more flexible. IF such software existed.

Advantages of Real-time over Frame-based control

There is always the question -- why bother? Well, if these controls existed and were cheap enough and did what I propose, you could do some things the Frame Artists cannot do:

* Live Virtual Puppet Theatre! There is something magical about seeing things live, even if they are on a screen.
* Improvisation!
* Faster scene takes (for larger CG productions)
* Give children something more to do with their computers than just play standard, violent videogames, such as Virtual Puppet storytelling. This could even be done over the Internet...

Technological Hurdles, and the Future

Alas, despite the power of 3D graphics cards available only within the last few years, we are still not up to the point where one can cost effectively create an entire Muppet Show, even one scene from the show, on a computer using real-time tools. It's still more viable to use socks, cheap video cameras, and real sets. But while we wait for the machines to get fast enough, someone needs to build good real-time puppet controls and software for them.

Here's a good start by MIT researcher Andy Wilson.

After all, why should Animation have the monopoly on Virtual Character motion?

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posted by Brian at 7:25 PM