Thursday, 5 March 2009

Notes on Puppet


Puppet was my degree film and it’s been about 2 years since I finished it. My first instinct is to be very defensive about it. I think it’s flawed and might come across as gratuitously weird. I didn’t make it to be weird, though. I was just using a lot of ideas that had been with me for a while.

The story went through some very different permutations but the main idea was always that there is this world where puppets live, and where perhaps all lost or unused things end up. My first draft was a TV broadcast, from the puppets to us, in which they acted out a complex, ritualistic narrative based on their observations of the human world. It would have been the animated equivalent of Finnegan’s Wake so I’m glad I didn’t go through with that.

The next idea was a detail from the first one, which I isolated and elaborated on. There was a group of puppets, who would use a wire hook to fish out, as it were, objects from our world and collect them. They’d try to figure out what they were for and play with them and put them in glass jars. Then, because the puppet world is a magical place, the objects (a fork, an old sock, a severed doll’s head…) would come alive and be put together as new puppets. I simplified that idea and came up with the story of just one puppet, who has crossed over from the puppet realm and gotten lost. And there you have it.

The film was shot on a set modeled on a specific place (an alley off Bread Street in Edinburgh) which is where the location shots were done. I tried making the set as grimy as possible (There were complaints from the janitors, who apparently didn’t realize that the rubbish was a part of the set – they just thought I was really messy). I winged it through most of the shoot; I hadn’t really planned much apart from the story and chose camera angles and lighting on the fly. This is one of the good things about stop-motion: it’s easier to ad-lib because you’re not drawing every single frame. The birthday cake at the end, for example, was not in the original story at all. It had come with one of the dolls and I thought it would be a nice touch. Only later did I realize what a crucial plot element it had become. Sometimes things just come together like that.

I was very conscious from the start that the film wouldn’t be liked by everybody and it did turn out to be quite polarizing, among fellow students and tutors alike. (Although the tutors in the animation department were into it, apparently there were some in other departments who hated it). I’m aware of the flaws in it. As a piece of work, it was obviously very a huge deal to me. My four years at art college essentially culminated in this one thing. In your first movie (as, I imagine, in a first novel or any first large artistic project) you put in ideas that have accumulated over many, many years. It’s an exorcism of sorts and in that way it runs the risk of being self-indulgent. I certainly realized even then, that I was cramming all these ideas (which some would find extremely weird) together into a pretext of a story and I can imagine people being bewildered by it all. The important thing to realize about film, is that, unlike a still image, it demands a larger investment from the viewer. You are asking for their time and attention and with that comes a responsibility: if they feel that their time has been wasted, you have lost. And people’s attention spans are very short so each second of a film has to be a convincing argument for the viewer not to turn away from the screen.

All this aside, I don't think that the movie could have been anything else than what it is. The main thing I was trying to achieve was atmosphere. I think that works ok. The second thing is the puppet itself, which is something to empathize with throughout this strange and dark experience.

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