Andy Gent’s job as head of puppet fabrication keeps him busy. The cast of Frankenweenie comprises around 250-300 puppets, each of which needs to be built, costumed and maintained. What’s more, as Gent puts it, “Ultimately, everything comes through here”.
The “here” Gent is referring to is the Puppet Fabrication Workshop – better known to the crew of Frankenweenie as the ‘Puppet Hospital’. It’s a fairly small space, hidden away up a flight of stairs at the back of one of the storage warehouses; a hard place to find, even if you knew where you were looking. It’s also full – people, puppets and drawings jockey for space. Workbenches are crammed with fabricators, working elbow to elbow, shelves are stacked with tiny outfits, discarded skins and lifeless armatures, and the walls are covered in detailed designs for each of the main characters.
“We start with sketches, we’ve got the designs from Tim”, Gent explains, gesturing to the images on the walls, “and then we start making maquettes. These are the plasticine maquettes of the characters, we’ll put some paint on to see what it looks like in 3D” he picks a sculpted Sparky from the shelf, holding it up so we can examine it. It may be made out of plasticine, but the level of detail is astonishing. It offers an interesting contrast with the sketch of Sparky adorning the wall, “It might look really good as a drawing, but if you notice here, Sparky, both his eyes are on one side of his head, so when you turn that into 3D, it would look weird, so we then realise it in 3D so you can see round it.”
Replacing the plasticine model, Gent picks up one of the armatures. There’s a hard, resin skull, clearly in the shape of Sparky’s head, attached to a series of articulated, brass-coloured tubes. “This is an early example of what goers on inside Sparky; this is the armature. Until we’ve got the mould, we can’t really start to make these parts,” Gent moves one of the limbs slightly, “and this is where he starts to come alive. You can see how he’s going to work, how he’s going to pose, what he’s going to do. You can see his ears moving, his eyebrows, he’s got jaws” Gent points to the Sparky-ture’s skull, “And to get all the tiny little shapes around his mouth, he’s got paddles in here, so these can all be posed, so we can change his expressions”.
“They’ve got very specified mechanisms in their faces, so they can do some amazing, different changes in expression.” Gent’s explanation is almost redundant, as the naked armature speaks for itself, “I think there’s about 40 mechanical parts. There’s about 300 parts all worked out roughly, in this little fella, just to make him come alive, and run around, and do basic things like sitting.”
The next stage in the process of creating the puppets is to cover the armature, first in foam, giving the puppet shape and body, and then in a silicone skin that Gent describes as ‘like a mask’. Silicone not only makes the characters hard wearing, but also has, as Gent puts it, “a quality that makes it look like flesh”.
“Once we’ve got to the foam and silicone, they’re all finished in here, with the paint on to them all,” Gent says, as he leads the way into the back room that serves as a paint shop.
“The unusual thing about Frankenweenie is that it’s black and white. You will see some bits of colour on certain things, but that’s because we know what tone it’ll come out with when you see it in black and white, but essentially we are painting in greyscales”. The remarkable thing about the ‘greyscales’ Gent talks about is how colourful they are. While none of the models could be described as anything other than ‘grey’, each has a slight colour, from cool blue, to a welcoming yellow-ish green. Even an almost crimson shade of red. These variations would be barely noticeable in isolation, but here, together there’s an impressive spectrum.
“You’d think it was fairly straightforward, working out things in black and white, but because this has got quite a nice dark feel to it, it’s not as straightforward,” laments Gent, “everything’s black or white – the thing’s crash either way, so we’ve had to work out what’s the right mid-greyscales to work either way, because we’ve got daytime and night time shots. It’s taken a little bit of finding our way going back to black and white, although it sounds simpler, it was actually a bit of a challenge to start with. Now we understand what works for the shots, everything’s easier to do, but it was quite a moment of working it out.
“The amount of detail that has to be looked at, because you’re doing everything the wrong way round really – you’re making everything really tiny, then projecting it onto a giant screen, so we have to keep an eye on all those little details that make it so fantastic when you see it projected onto a big screen,” Gent pauses, looking around the room. Eventually he happens upon what he’s looking for, a polythene bag, absolutely filled with tiny spheres. He pulls one out to show us. It has a pupil, “Around the eyes this was a specified thing, they have to be hand painted with tiny little lines to blend in with the skin, and then a little bit of paint around the outside, and they all have to be identical. So you’ve got to repeat this process by hand, every time we make every eye to go on all the puppets.”
“When we’ve got it to painted silicone, obviously we’ve got to make the costumes” once more Gent searches around the room for an example of what he is describing, “they’re like making another puppet, that’s the best way of thinking about them” example in hand, Gent begins ‘animating’ the costume “When you lift your arm and do stuff, your clothes follow what’s underneath, and with the puppets, they’ll do the same thing, but we need to control every part of it so that it doesn’t boil* on the camera, so we’ll back them, we’ll put foils on to the back of them, or we’ll wire them, so that they’ll have to animate them up, and animate them down.”
To stand up to the rigours of set, these costumes need to be very hard-wearing, as Gent’s metaphor implies, “I think the best way of looking at a costume is that if you wear the same clothes for a year, and somebody just moves your clothes around all day long, you can imagine what state your clothes would be in. It’s the same thing with these, but you’ve got giants moving the costumes around”. Of course, no matter how hard-wearing a costume is, damage still happens, and to limit the amount of downtime when it does, the fabrication shop makes multiples of each costumes.
They also make multiples of each puppet, and even multiple versions. “You’ll find that something that will start at the beginning of the film, by the end of it could be very different, because it’s an ongoing process of development, getting it to work.” This may be due to the evolution of a design, or it may be to facilitate a certain shot, as Gent continues, “What was a simple mechanism like the one I showed you, by the time it was on the set is half the size with all the parts inside, and ultimately much more complicated, because we found out it needed to do more things.”
“For some things, we’ll do multiple versions of the same puppet, and that’s quite a nice thing to see for the one-off shots, it just means they can get that extra bit of movement out of them.” The example that Gent has to hand is a head for the Bob puppet, “one shot where Bob has to do something that he couldn’t do, he’s got a very special neck that was made for a really big, giant scream”. The Mr Rzykruski puppet also has interchangeable mouths. Each of these had to be made by hand, “it means we can sculpt the shapes so we can get really dramatic mouth shapes, which some of the necks can’t do. It’s using all the different tricks to get the whole thing together”.
For the fabricators, there comes a point where they have to stop making amendments, and pass the puppets on, “Then the animators, once they’ve got hold of him, you’ve got that magic moment where you see it come back, and you don’t think of it as a puppet, you think of it as a real character, and you know you’ve won there, because it’s really come to life. We saw that fairly early on this.”
For any other artists, this would be where the story ends, but for the puppet fabricators of Frankenweenie, it’s barely the half way mark. Much like the costumes they wear, the puppets are under a great deal of stress on set, subjected to wildly fluctuating temperatures, and constant manipulation for hours every day. As such, they are also prone to the occasional failure.
“It’s an amazing thing that happens when something breaks” Gent explains, “If we can fix it on set, we will do, so in effect – it can be a bit jokey but, a puppet nurse may have to go down to set, and do the repairs on set, and if we can’t, and it’s midway through a six-week shot, we have to very carefully lift the puppet off, bring it up here, do whatever ‘surgery’ – for want of a better word – put a new limb on, or something like that, and then sew the costume back up.”
This is a stressful and difficult task for the team, and one that can take some time to achieve, but it’s minor compared to when a puppet reaches the end of its useful life, “So with Sparky, once he gets to a certain point, there’s no return, we have to take him all apart, clean down all of the parts that go inside, and then add a foam back on, and put the skin back on, so we recast him. Takes us quite some time, if it does go to that point, it takes us a week to get him back onto the stage once we’ve recast him, trimmed the seams, painted – just over a week really. That’s one of the reasons we need so many of that puppet, it’s so complicated to put back together again.”
Appropriately enough, given the subject of the movie, these damaged puppets are often recycled, “You’ll see various incarnations of him with missing legs, tails gone, but we can use the other parts elsewhere. It is a little bit Frankenstein when you see him on the stages, that’s how it works.”
*Boiling – when part of a puppet unintentionally moves between takes, creating a rippling effect on camera.