The Life, Times and Advances in Puppetry with Mike Quinn

14 Jun

By Ed Sum
(The Vintage Tempest)

Mike Quinn is a man of many cinematic trades—a talent mentored by Jim Henson and Frank Oz—and he sees a bright future for puppetry, a style of performance theatre. His passion for it predates meeting these two icons and he is fully aware of its rich history. At an early age, he staged his own live puppet shows for family and friends, and he was always encouraged to pursue his dreams.

This form of entertainment can be traced back to the days of early man. Some simply manipulated the stuffed dolls with their hands and others took the form further, like to have a light source cast upon them so their shadows are projected upon a larger surface. This technique not only helped make them become larger than life but also create a mystique to enthral many a viewer. Quinn is well aware of the many styles of puppetry that can be used to tell a story. In the 90’s, his shift to work behind the camera showed his passion also included directing. He worked on many a TV pilot in the UK and said Mira Mara was one program where he brought in skilled shadow puppeteers to perform while a human actress was regaling fantastic tales to a cast of puppets. It went to full series production, was filmed throughout Wales and Scotland, and was broadcast in Gaelic speaking countries.

“I think this style is a very poetic and abstract artistic way of doing visuals. I also enjoy watching a different form known as bunraku (Japanese puppet theatre). You have three people working a full figure on a tabletop. They are usually seen behind the puppet, sometimes dressed in black, partially visible … they study forever to be very precise. It’s incredible!” observed Quinn.

As a youth, he watched influential programs like Gerry Anderson’s Joe 90 and Thunderbirds. Also included were a lot of old 10-minute shorts by the BBC, puppet shows made in the 1950s which he saw as reruns. Also, his love for puppet theatre was not limited to what was produced for television. He knew about its impact on society. He believes The Punch and Judy show hail to Italian Commedia Dell’arte. This form of theatre can be used to speak out against the government, but back then, to publicly voice dissent meant imprisonment. Under the disguise of puppet theatre, the performers were safe from scrutiny because the material can be considered farcical. Sometimes, these shows can also just be about having fun.

In 1976, The Muppet Show caught the attention of this young lad and it only furthered his love. When he became aware of the fact the studios were nearby, one fond story he loves telling is how he would hang out on set and watch how the magic was made. It eventually led to his employment in this industry.

“There are trends that I’ve seen ebb and flow. So, you just gotta sit it out until it’s ready for prime time. I’d say there’s quite an abundance in the States and the UK right now,” said Quinn.

Years later, he even met the crew who were behind making the shows he fondly watched. Networking is always key to success and it also gave him a broader understanding of how other skilled artists treated the medium. He discovered how the passion for this particular art in Europe is different than in America. The sensibilities have always been kinder.

“As everyone knows, Jim Henson tried to sell The Muppet Show to the American networks and they all initially rejected it,” said Quinn. “He went to the UK to get the show made. Once it was popular, they all wanted to have a piece. But of course, it was too late. They missed their opportunity.”

Little Shop Mike 2

When considering the other projects he’s been involved in, from playing the upper lip of Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors to Nien Nunb, a recurring character in Star Wars, the advancements in how this form developed kept him in the loop. It was not easy to manipulate life-size or giant-size puppets. When they were not based on the bipedal form, to move an octopus look real meant many things had to happen. He was part of the crew who were developing new ways to animate, and to know how it’s made kept this performer engaged and very enthusiastic.

Little Shop had humans interacting with an animatronic plant. Quinn said sixty people were involved in bringing the plant to life. Whereas Dark Crystal featured only puppets. “We were inventing the animatronic puppet to a degree—all we had before [as reference] was Yoda in Empire Strikes Back,” said Quinn.

A lot of that performance was on Frank Oz and a few of the Muppet guys (including Jim Henson as consultant) to construct and design this diminutive Jedi master. He worked with Wendy (Froud) Midener and Lucas on making that work. The crew working on The Dark Crystal knew they could not do the traditional Muppet bounce. They were aiming for realism than children’s theatre.

For the Skeksis, there were up to three people on the cable crew, operating the cable controls, ensuring all those blinks, sneers and jeers were real. For this puppeteer, he sees electronic manipulation is not an end, but rather a new frontier to breathe life to a sculpted figure—whether that’s mounted on a hand, strung on a rod or animated on a computer.

In PIXAR’s Toy Story 2, Quinn was primarily responsible for Woody’s Roundup, the television spot. “In the mid (to late) 90’s, I was looking at how computers could help me advance puppetry. When I was recruited by Pixar, there weren’t any CGI animation schools. Nobody knew how to animate computer characters because the idea was new. This company knew my work background and put us (all 12) through their university, teaching the software; we graduated to work as character animators,” said Quinn.

“I also got a friend in England to make real marionettes, two life-size Sheriff Woody dolls and worked with the technical directors on where to put the strings on the computer models, on the rigs—and explained how the jaw should open and how their eyes would blink. Theoretically, their eyes would roll down and the lids come down on top of them, as if the character would be blinking. If the mouth opened and closed too quickly, it would be hitting a little rubber stop inside the head and so there’d be little bounce on the jaw. If you watch the shots closely, you can see that.

“Everything was hand animated. The physics of the pendulum (which held up the marionette) had to be sorted out. String style is very specific discipline. Just because you are a regular puppeteer doesn’t mean you can do that. Henson and his team generally stayed away from working marionettes as much as possible in their show. When it was needed, they had specific people on call,” explained Quinn.

To convey emotion in a digital character was a new to many animators back then. Mike realised nobody had really done anything to this level before. He said it was a whole new way of bringing something to life on a very complex level when compared the work he and other co-workers did with the Muppets.

“We were inventing that at that time,” recalled Mike. “I think what we were doing in the early 80s and what we’re doing now on the (new) Star Wars movies is in a fundamental level essentially the same.”

In a prior conversation, he agreed stop-motion animation is a form of puppetry. Willis O’Brien pioneered this technique and Ray Harryhausen advanced the form with Dynamation. These animators did more than manipulate the doll to express not only motion but also emotion. “You’re still using the same puppetry techniques and you’re still using the same methods to act [out expression]. The materials—for the most part—are the same. We’re still using foam latex and fibreglass (perhaps Kevlar and carbon fibre too),” said Quinn.

“In Return of the Jedi Nien Nunb was a hand puppet. I had two guys working cable controls for me. One to wiggle the ears and one on the eye blinks. Now when I wear the mask (in the new films), due to the advances in micro-servo motors and computer interface technology, I only require one puppeteer to work the entire face. It has so much more going on; it’s got a whole range of mouth movement and it can squish sideways—the cheeks can move. He can do all sorts of expressions and of course, can blink.

“Since we started using computer systems, a single puppeteer can work everything needed instead of three. For example, back on Labyrinth (1985), Shari Weiser was inside the costume that is Hoggle. Four puppeteers worked the face. Now, you can pre-record the movements ahead of time and play it back for perfect lip sync,” said Quinn

Puppeteers do not fear motion capture (Mo-Cap) as the future either. Ever since computer animation has taken a greater role in filmmaking, from Andy Serkis‘ performances as Gollum in Lord of the Rings or Caesar in Planet of the Apes, is what the cameras recording still considered puppetry?

Image result for mo cap

“The facial stuff—usually you never get 100 percent from Mo-cap. There’ll always be people to translate those tinier details into the model. Just look at Tarkin in Rogue One. It was a good attempt it still wasn’t perfect. A lot of post animation was done. The thing is, we as humans have our life experiences coded into us. All these things that make each of us so unique, weird and strange comes through in our choices when we’re acting,” reasoned Quinn.

“Expecting a computer to gain that knowledge and information and make those decisions—even flawed ones—shows. Of course, never say never. We’re still so far away right now from having artificial intelligence that we can buy into and think it’s real. Computer imagery is improving and it is hard to tell: Was that real or was that CG? Rendering humans are always going to be the hardest thing to do. I don’t see it happening yet. I know people don’t really want that.”

Mike does not know if the desire is there to replace humans as performers, puppeteers or actors. On digital stunt doubles, there’s a place for that and he likes it when it’s used to assist or aid in what’s being presented on screen. This technology was developed to help save lives than to endanger. However, nobody told Tom Cruise that. He insists on realism for those crazy Mission Impossible stunts. One of these days, he will change his mind. As the advances are happening more in the hardware end, so the performers are not covered head to toe, attitudes will change. And as for its use in puppetry, Mike knows there’s a lot which has not been done yet and he’s excited about seeing how Mo-cap can be used with his first passion.

“Different techniques are emerging. I also believe a lot has not been done yet in this world and that excites me. I also think about what Jim could have done. He would have been all over, experimenting, trying new things, exploring, always thinking ahead and seeing what was out there. The important thing is to keep an open mind, searching and experimenting with new materials. It’s a good time to be a puppeteer,” said Quinn.

When the original Star Wars trilogy pioneered new ways to bring to life spaceships and tauntauns before the digital revolution, perhaps the innovation he hopes to offer will bring more than just dinosaurs to life for cinematic recreation but also appear on stage (not to outdo the How to Train Your Dragon Live experience). Quinn hopes to pioneer a new technology he dubs QZimation. It will combine digital animation with analogue puppetry. Perhaps, in its fully realised form, this author speculates it can be used in augmented reality; Madonna’s performance with the band Gorillaz was very limited. However, no details to Mike’s ideas have been revealed. Diddley Sqot will be the first experimental project, and this animator believes it will have a place in the movie/television entertainment industry. The ideas are sketched out. Development is slow since he is involved in many projects at the same time.

Later this month he will be shooting scenes for one of the new rides in the forthcoming Star Wars Land at the Disney parks. In July, he will be back in England as part of the team of The Muppets Take London – Live At The O2 and is waiting to be called to set for filming Star Wars Episode IX. He confirmed Nien Nunb has an expanded presence in this work. But no details are offered yet.

“It’s nice that the Muppets are still going strong in the live environment. Also, I’m in several episodes in Showtime’s Kidding (set to premiere September 9, 2018). There’s 10 episodes in this season and I hope to be back. Jim Carrey is a great puppet ally. I think he fits right in.” said Quinn.

This program is about Mr. Pickles (Carrey), a children’s TV show host, and his puppets. In one moment, he’s living a fantasy. In another, the reality is harsh and he has to learn how to cope.

When he is not on set, he is busy recording lessons for his very own Secrets of Puppetry Academy. He teaches a lot of essential core techniques required for anyone interested in this world. This man has almost four decades (38 years) worth of experience to relate. He’s giving to others the skills he wished he had back when he started. The material he’s making available is for everybody whether they want to do it professionally or as a hobby, and it’s all reasonably priced. He knows people can travel to workshops but they are usually once a year and the cost is prohibitive. He’s aware there’s no substitute for getting one on one live interaction but that doesn’t really help everyone. “Plus, I’ll keep changing things and adding more items in as this program develops. Students can put in requests too. I’ve been getting good feedback from the students currently in the program and am very happy with how this academy is progressing,” smiled Quinn.

Next will be his memoirs. Given the breadth of experiences and the many projects he’s been involved in, to set everything on paper is in the pipeline. “Yes, I have a book outlined and am considering releasing it around the time of the opening of Star Wars Episode IX. It’ll mostly be about my career with just a little about my personal life,” revealed Quinn.

 

 

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