Night Crawler

Puppet Regimes

"[Kam] built my inner workings," explains Sam with metaphysical seriousness, "my inner self, if you will." At Images in Motion, both partners write scripts and develop characters: Armstrong sews the bodies and costumes, and handles most official office duties; Portuges sketches the characters and sculpts them, binding each crevice and dimple with the necessary emotion. It's a talent that saw her working for Chris Walas on the Fly 2 very soon after her early graduation from Humboldt State with B.A.s in science and marketing, and an M.A. in theater that would change the department head's notion of puppetry forever

"Everyone at school was very unsupportive," says Portuguese. "Then a friend and I staged a production based on rats' similarity to humans, in that they are the only other animal willing to turn on their own kind. ... My parents decided it was great after I had worked on my first movie and won a few awards, but I don't tell them anymore. It's just bragging rights."

Bragging rights include James and the Giant Peach and the upcoming Monkeybone, as well as IIMM work on numerous Emmy Award-winning television shows, and their ongoing association with the National Forest Association, which includes creating and producing award-winning video campaigns and teaching outreach seminars for firefighters every year.

Lee Armstrong and a Being John Malkovich puppet (left).
Paul Trapani
Lee Armstrong and a Being John Malkovich puppet (left).

But the unwavering goal of the people who make up IIMM is to work on their own material. Portuges launches into the sweet-voiced song of a mosquito from their planned Unloved Alphabet, short vignettes that teach the alphabet by way of "unloved critters" (E is for earwig; D is for dung beetle). Even with talent and acclaim, Armstrong, Portuges, and their staff (international award-winning clown Mary Nagler, premed-student-turned-puppeteer Tim Miller, and Nightmare Before Christmasand RoboCopsculptor Greg Dystra) must fill orders: toys, like the internationally popular Spice Girls, Kate Winslet, Britney Spears, and the upcoming Pamela Lee Anderson dolls, Anastasiafigurines, Pound Puppies, Wizard of Ozmusic boxes, Skydancers, "walkaround puppets" (large foam suits used mostly in advertising), and special effects masks. With unrealistic time restrictions and often uncompromising toy companies, the crew customarily works 16-hour days. It's a constant hustle and waste of genius.

"We'd like to work on a TV show," says Armstrong. "I mean, we'd rather work on our own stuff, but given the choice between toys and working on someone else's puppets, we'll take puppets."

Besides income, the toys serve some practical application: A wax formula that took Portuges three months to perfect may help someone's project in the puppetry guild. And Portuges gives out this kind of help freely.

"Guarding a formula is silly," she says. "The art comes from a person's skill, not their materials."

"Puppeteers are very generous," says Armstrong, "and the guilds are invaluable."

At the puppetry guild's January meeting and annual holiday party, puppeteers from every walk of life -- birthday party to digital imagery -- gather at the festooned San Leandro Community Center bearing undesignated gifts, potluck dishes, and examples of their craft. The guild, which Lettie Schubert and co-founder (and Children's Fairyland puppet theater director) Lewis Mahlmann once saw drop to six members, has swelled to nearly 200 members this year. It seems, with the advent of digital technology and a new acceptance of animation-style entertainment, puppetry has become an acceptable profession in the eyes of parents and career counselors. Certainly the guild has been rejuvenated by young blood - the current president and newsletter editor are 22-year-old twin brothers Patrick and Sean Johnson, and 25-year-old cohort Anita Coultier is vice president. Many children are being brought up in the guild, just as Frank Oz was brought up by influential puppeteer Mike Oznowicz within the local chapter.

But, here, even the adults seemed filled with gregarious glee as they talk about upcoming projects and past glories. Thirty-five-year-old Brit Mike Quin -- most recently known for his work on Toy Story 2 -- grins about his early obsession with Muppets and his infiltration of Elstree Studios, where he got his first job, at the age of 16, as an extra for Jim Henson. He and his wife, puppeteer Karen Prell, met later on the set of Labyrinth. (They're not the only husband-wife team in attendance, a fact Quin chalks up to the intimacy of some of the working positions inside a large puppet.)

"I've never known a sad puppeteer," says Quin. "I've known sad directors and producers, not puppeteers. You're afforded too many opportunities to explore your fantasy self in puppetry."

In the theater, Randel Metz and the Puppet Company present a lovely rendition of The Nutcracker with Chinese dragons that blow fire, elephants that shoot water, and clowns that multiply before your very eyes. The crowd oohs and aahs appreciatively, and hisses at the rat king. Later, Quin shows an episode of his and Prell's beautiful, but failed, Bong Show, and Michael Lynch shares preliminary drawings of Episode One's C3PO, which weighed over 100 pounds and had to be worn 16 hours a day. The puppet, which was estimated as requiring 170 man days to construct, was ordered a little more than two weeks before the shooting date. It's a typical scenario in the puppet world, and the crowd groans knowingly.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.