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Some puppets broke the (local) internet recently in what appeared to be a professional television commercial for the Bear’s Worst Show Ever, starring puppet versions of Scott McCord and Yukon Jack. It turned out to be one amazing contest entry for the “Worst Ad Ever.”
It didn’t win the $10,000 prize.
Puppetsmith Trevor Duffy says he was surprised, given all the work put into it (each puppet DJ took about 30 hours to make; you can watch the video below), all the hype and positive comments afterwards – but there is a bright side: In the manner of American Idol runners-up often doing better than the winners, the Bear promptly put Duffy on retainer for future marketing campaigns.
“So we didn’t win the contest, but we won a marketing contract,” Duffy says.
This was just one project the 37-year-old puppeteer and his partners Danny Jaycock and Simon Gushulak have been making an impact with. They write some of their own material, and often team up with Edmonton comedians, musicians and filmmakers, while developing their own brand of puppet comedy improv. Acts include the live children’s show The Imaginarium that comes with its own portable stage. They do music videos, the latest for Fire Next Time. They made puppet musicians for folk singer Colleen Brown, and giant battle-bots for the metal band Striker. Duffy used to be a musician (for the band Dark Sand), so he has connections. In 2013, he built 26 puppets for the show Felt Up on Bite TV, created by comedian Simon Glassman (below), in which various guests talked about embarrassing sexual secrets – in puppet form. It was a scream.
Perhaps the biggest deal of all is their family show The Durflings that’s in development for a TV series.
These puppets sure are making a lot of noise, for puppets.
GigCity recently paid a visit to the puppetmaker’s workshop – where the magic happens.
Like Geppetto with his beloved Pinocchio, Duffy is passionate about his art. On how he got started, some 17 years ago, he says, “As soon as I turned this flat piece of fabric into this thing that had life, I had this amazing feeling: Wow, you can actually do that! Over time, I’ve learned new techniques, tried new things, thrown things out, time and time again to the point where we’re producing these …”
Here he gestures to a collection of foam homunculi displayed along one wall of his rumpus room. The craftsmanship is meticulous, the characters vivid and maybe a little spooky. There’s Klaatu and Loopy Durfling, sitting next to Buck and Brody Brock (another set of puppet radio hosts), various birds and fuzzy monsters – and they’re all staring at me. That they’re “Muppety” is a compliment, Duffy says, and more a description of the style of puppet than anything else.
“Every time I make a new one,” he continues, “I get that same feeling. As soon as you put those eyes on, you’re like, wow, this thing has life! Put the puppeteer’s hand in and start puppeteering.”
Before a quick tour of the workshop, to see the “Glue Room” and the “Assembly Room,” Duffy sticks his arm up one of his favourite characters and demonstrates. While he’s no ventriloquist, it’s uncanny how the character takes over. That’s exactly what he says, “It takes you over. They speak and you kind of remove yourself. You’re thinking of this guy’s backstory, and relating him to other characters. People watching are in awe. I could lock eyes on you, and be working the puppet, and you’d be looking at the puppet.”
Another favourite character – especially with his two-year-old son – is named “Poops the Goose.”
The puppeteer explains, “The Book of Poops opens up, and Loopy and Leena have to sing with Poops the Goose in order for Poops the Goose to poop them treasure.”
Coming soon to a children’s show near you.
The Girl Who Talks to the Moon is a locally produced children’s program combining live action, stop-motion animation and charming puppetry.
Aimed at a young audience, the first episode tells the story of a little girl named Harmony who seeks the help of an excitable raven named Xuuya to make a present for the personified Moon.
Filmmaker Heather Hatch is a fundamental creative partner in the project. She helped produce it, write it and was the living link between the story and the culture from which it draws inspiration.
“It was really important I was involved because the concepts needed to reflect Haida values,” Hatch, 38, explains. Those values boiled down to a single word — “Respect.”
Hatch’s work included frequent consultation with Haida elder Diane Brown. Of the 20 or so fluent Haida speakers left on the planet, Brown is the youngest — she’s 69.
“I would read the script to her and she would tell me if it was correct in getting values right and taking things from stories that I shouldn’t.
“I learned if I’m going to tell Haida mythology, I have to tell it correctly.”
Hatch traces her unearthed roots back to Skidegate on Graham Island’s southeast side. Adopted, she didn’t know she had Haida blood until she was 16, and has since been making up for lost time. “I’ve been going back to Haida Gwaii for 17 years. A lot of that was just to meet family I’d never met before.”
Hatch’s Haida birth father passed away five years ago. “I really felt a sense of loss and needed to understand where I was from.”
Along this path, she directed an independent film — Woman Who Returns — about reconnecting with her clan. This included making a traditional coat, decorated with a beautiful raven her grandmother designed.
“I really love my grandmother — my Nanaay — Dolores Davis. I have a very close bond with her, and even (this CBC pilot) reflects that. Harmony’s relationship with the moon is based on it.”
Davis, 85, is also one of the handful of remaining Haida speakers.
“The more I learn,” said Hatch, “the more I feel there’s a lot of Indigenous people who don’t have a way back home.”
The five-minute pilot is being produced by Edmonton’s Catapult Pictures, headed by Rebecca Campbell, instrumental to the concept. Local musician Dwayne Martineau composed and wrote the songs, which teach Haida words for thank you and let’s play — Ha’waa and Hala t’alang naang. Local filmmaker Frederick Kroetsch was a big help, including behind the camera and working on the animation.
Comedian and writer Neil Grahn, 55, directed.
The well-known Edmontonian explains. “Haida Gwaii is this magnificent magical isle that many people have never heard of — they think it was this place called Queen Charlotte Islands discovered by some European guy in a boat. And they don’t really know the stories.
“For us to get to tell the tales from that land — it’s a gift.”
The sets were inspired by the island’s beauty, including mystical forests — and of course the ocean. Hatch explains. “Having the girl travel in a canoe was important because in my culture that was the main method of getting around.
“My Nanaay designed the raven (pattern) on the boat. She’s a brilliant artist … but she’s losing her vision. I needed help for the design of the canoe. She did a rough sketch — because the artist’s hands remember.
“I was able to help her with her barking instructions,” Hatch laughs.
Harmony is played by nine-year-old Marika Gladstone, another resident of Skidegate — total population around 800. The entire island boasts less than 5,000 residents.
For her pitch video, Gladstone acted out a Dr. Seuss story. “I could tell she had that spark and creativity,” said Hatch.
Grahn says of Gladstone. “Your star is a sweet little girl, so directing is a completely different beast. There were times when Marika was starting to flag a little with her energy, so with an adult actor I might say, ‘Hey let’s talk it over, go have a coffee.’
“With Marika, I’d get her to run all over and she’d come back with a big smile.
“Basically, we needed recess sometimes,” Grahn laughs.
Hatch adds, “I’ve never seen a young girl be so calm and composed with all that attention on her. She’s — I would say — a natural. To keep her going on set I taught her the Cadillac Ranch line dance.
“Remember being nine?” she laughs. “She just did it over and over again.”
Gladstone recently acted in a $1.8-million budget Haida-language feature entitled The Edge of the Knife, created by the producers behind the stunning Inuit film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. Expected in theatres next year, it has the same goal of cultural preservation.
Xuuya’s puppeteer Danny Jaycock said filming was a joy. At one point Xuuya rises up, wings spread wide. “I was getting a little anxious, the raven was getting a little bit rowdy. His hair was in a sideways Mohawk, his wing was all bent, and he came up and the whole crew started laughing.”
Xuuya, it seems, looked to everyone like he’d been partying all night. “That was a pretty fun moment,” Jaycock laughs, Xuuya cawing in his hands.
The production filmed in a warehouse in Sherwood Park with a crew of about 15. The modest budget came from CBC, Alberta Media Fund and the Shaw Rocket Fund. Everyone involved hopes CBC picks it up as a series.
But for Hatch, the most important thing about the effort was the same lesson she was hearing from her culture — deep respect.
“I can’t just say I respect the food from the ocean, I have to think about it.
“I’m definitely trying to convey this idea with the show, but with light, happy things, because kids want to be entertained. It’s meant to engage a child’s imagination.
“In the episode, they build a kite. But the toy is built because she doesn’t have a toy for her Nanaay, so it’s about gifting and respect.”
Working with Xuuya, Harmony learns about conservation, co-operation and creativity. “It’s sort of subtle, but it’s how I was thinking about all the stories.”
Hatch grew through the collaboration and consultation with Brown. “As I’m learning, it’s really funny for me because I thought I was being respectful by telling a story about a crab that pinches the young girl on the shoulder because he can’t hug anybody, so they learn a different way to show affection for each other.
“But (elder) Diane Brown said I can’t do that because I’m not telling the full myth of the crab that pinches the shoulder of the Haida because they’re not learning the Haida language fast enough.”
Hatch is aware of the modern implications of the old story.
“For me it was motivation because, really, we’re not learning the Haida language fast enough right now. The elders are dying.”
These elders have often noted the future of their culture rests in the hands of the youngest playing among them.
Thus, said Hatch, “It’s a show for Haida children first.
“But,” she promises, “the universality of it will resonate across Canada.”
We can credit the provincial marriage commissioner that hitched Trevor Duffy to his wife a few years back with the kernel of an idea that eventually grew into the Imaginarium.
“I met up with the commissioner, Bob Ligertwood, who owns owns Naked Cyber Cafe, and he started telling me about these puppet shows in Paris,” relates Duffy over the phone from his downtown Edmonton home, where he’s dealing with both puppet and newborn baby matters. “They would have these tiny carts that played music, and when children heard it they would run over to see the performance. I thought to myself, that’s brilliant, I want to do it on a larger scale.”
The first-time father (and his company, Duffy’s Puppets, originally known as EDM FX) had already had plenty of experience working with puppets, first building them for the Castledowns Variety Show back in 2002. After working on a few more community endeavours, the new company seized a very minor Simpsons character called Gabbo and spun out a variety show based around it, followed by an award-winning 2011 web series called Felt Up, in conjunction with local comedians Simon Glassman and Mike Robertson.
It wasn’t long before Duffy and friend Chris Boyle decided to strike out on their own with the web-based effort called Social Fabric (mild bad language warning!), rolling out the first episode in 2014, after which they were commissioned to add puppets to videos for two wildly dissimilar Edmonton artists, four-piece metal act Striker (Second Attack) and singer-songwriter Colleen Brown (Soap and Denim). The Imaginarium is their latest project, a family-friendly show based around 12 new characters (including puppet stars Lena and Loopy) that the company can bring to summer music festivals for both kids and adults. Trevor Duffy answers questions about his company’s newest venture, which will be travelling down to the yearly Sasquatch Gathering this weekend.
Q: The Imaginarium had its debut shows earlier in the summer at the Magnificent River Rats Festival in Athabasca and also at the EDM focused Astral Harvest up in Northern Alberta; how have audiences been reacting?
A: At Astral Harvest I had a few people come up to me and thank us for the show. Probably it was just really nice for them to have something that isn’t exclusively music related at a festival. We did early and late shows in Athabasca, and while we weren’t trying to tailor it exclusively just to children, or to adults, like we did in the past with Social Fabric, the early crowd in Athabasca laughed at our Harry Potter jokes, while at the 11 p.m. show people laughed at everything.
Q: Possibly they were a little more lubricated and looser at that point.
A: (Laughs) Maybe we found the stoner market.
Q: Do you keep the team small with the Imaginarium?
A: Everybody helps out with the entire process, nobody just shows up to perform. There are four of us; Simon Gushlak, Chris Boyle, Danny Jaycock and me, and we’re responsible for the audio tech, lighting cues, everything. Not just doing the puppeteering.
Q: As you’ve said, you’ve done both kids shows and adult shows, but this time you’re specifically sticking with a family friendly theme on the Imaginarium.
A: We just don’t want to be pigeonholed in one particular area. We’re still interested in both, and even though we’ve applied for a spot at the first Vancouver International Puppet Festival with the Imaginarium we’re also interested in seeing what other companies are doing in the “after dark” segment of the festival.
Q: Looking at the photos this seems like it’s much more convoluted to set up than a musical performance.
A: Yeah, we’ve been able to set it up in 20 minutes, but ideally it takes about 45 to do it comfortably, what with the stage dressing, backdrop, curtains and acting area. It would be nice to get it to where we just roll it out and go, that was the original concept, but we’re still getting to that point. We also have to deal with the elements, because you really don’t want it to blow over and fall on a kid!
Don’t be fooled by the looks of fluffy, blue-skinned Atticus and his friends.
With their floppy arms and happy faces, the stars of the new YouTube series called Social Fabric may look like your typical, family-friendly TV spectacle.
But local creators Trevor Duffy and Chris Boyle are quick to explain that their show is about adult humour and the type of people you meet in a bar.
“I think people have seen those type of faces around,” said Boyle. “I mean, look at the bearded guy with glasses.”
That puppet is Guy (also spoken and played by Boyle), a pseudo-intellectual who spends his afternoons at the local watering hole, accompanied by his two hipster band-mates, nerd Atticus and the group’s self-appointed leader Pos.
When the three find out that Ted, the obnoxious son of a local beer baron, has taken over the brewery and changed the formula of their favourite beer, they set out on an adventure to get the old taste back.
It happens with a lot of crude commentary, with the help of scientist Doc (who’s liking for experiments on living things reminds one of The Muppets’ Dr. Bunsen), sassy love interest Flo, Guy’s older brother Bud, and human bartender Phil.
“They are all loosely based off our friends, and the personality traits that our friends have,” says Duffy, adding that many of the characters were also inspired by people Boyle met while working at the Artery, a live-music venue in Edmonton.
So far, the show consists of one, 15-minute episode with a second moving into production this summer. A first public showing will take place on Monday, June 9 at NextFest in Edmonton.
Boyle and Duffy say the show is very much a work in progress and a hobby they attend to on weekends and evenings, when not working at their regular jobs.
It took them almost a year to build the puppets, write the script for the first episode and film it, said Boyle. Now they’re looking to get the show out there and see how people respond to it.
“This is a very new venture for us as far as creators of puppets and such,” said Boyle. “So it’s just kind of seeing where it takes us.”
But the two 30-somethings aren’t newcomers to the world of puppeteers.
Growing up with Mr. Rogers and The Muppet Show, the likes of puppet creators such as Jim Henson left their mark on Boyle, who went to school in St. Albert, and Duffy, an Edmonton native.
Before creating Social Fabric, the two friends had already worked with puppets for 13 years, acting at live events and even creating them for Felt-Up, another Edmonton-based TV show.
The latter inspired them to create their own characters. Social Fabric was born in early 2013.
“It’s just a long line of puppeteering that has gotten us to this point of doing our own,” said Boyle, who adds that they almost have more fun filming the show than watching it.
“Puppets doing stuff, it’s hilarious. When we are doing production we’ll do a scene and we just end up laughing and laughing because it’s so funny to make them do stuff, to see them walking.”
While the two act out Atticus and Guy, they often need the help of their friends to perform the other characters. That can be difficult when everyone has a different schedule, said Duffy.
Filming took place on locations across Edmonton, and in a wheat field near St. Albert. They produced at The Electric Treehouse, a friend’s private recording studio in St. Albert.
“We saw the processes they were using (at Felt-Up), how they work and how they made it happen,” said Boyle. “And then post-production that’s where we didn’t know what was going on and we had to learn how to do it.”
This season of Social Fabric will consist of three episodes and a few short films, said Duffy. But they are already looking to use their puppets in other productions.
They want to create an interview show where a puppet talks to different bands, he said. They are also producing a music video with the use of their fluffy companions.
It would be great if they could turn the show into something sustainable, added Boyle. But they can’t compete with The Muppets, and there’s also not a big market for adult-humour puppet shows, he said.
“It will be a real eye opener on Monday to see during NextFest with a group of people that we don’t know, to see what part they laugh at,” he said.