Like A Puppet On A String
A Blog Post By Greg
This blog will be about our recently started, ongoing series of short marionette films – if you want to watch the series so far before reading the post so you can watch it ‘cold’, then you can do that here:
I can’t remember the very first time my Dad sat me down to watch Gerry Anderson’s series ‘Thunderbirds’, but I can remember spending hours watching that series, as well as ‘Stingray’ and ‘Captain Scarlett’.
We had all of the toys – my mother made Thunderbirds outfits, and we were given toys of the Thunderbird craft (Thunderbird 2 was always my favourite). One of the first toys I remember saving up to buy myself was a toy vehicle from Captain Scarlett (I actually remember after getting it that I kept waking up in the night and checking it wasn’t a dream!).
Most of all though, I remember watching the series, and enjoying seeing the puppets. It’s not that we were young and didn’t mind seeing the strings – the strings and the puppetry were all part of the magic.
That was over a quarter of a century ago. I grew up (an arguable statement, I acknowledge), to become a showman and performer, and I always had those Thunderbirds lurking in the back of my head, but I could never quite figure out how marionettes would fit into my shows and so while I looked at them often while looking for something new to add to the shows, I never actually ordered one.
I came close in 2019. I had found a company in Prague named Czech Marionettes, and I had been looking through the marionettes on their website. So many marionettes leapt out at me – a marionette you can buy to assemble yourself named ANY, a beautiful Charlie Chaplin character with moving eyes, an absolutely incredible dragon called Spike and… well I could go on for a long time (I have a large ‘wish list’ tucked away in my head). I very nearly bought a skeleton marionette named ‘Baby Bonnie’ to dance around at my shows, but that was just as we were on the verge of releasing our first travel video, ‘Mexico: Mayan Mystery and Marine Majesty’, and our funds had to go towards booking our travels, so that we could build up our travel films and make that the focus of our career.
I ought to point out at this point in time that the Czech Marionettes company have not asked us to write this blog, nor have they paid us to promote them – so although they are being incredibly supportive of our entry into the world of marionettes, any gushing about their work here is all my own!
This brings us to this year and the arrival of Covid-19, which, as well as leading to the tragic loss of so many lives, has also been a game changer for so many people. For us that meant that live shows disappeared, at least until the autumn, and so I moved my shows online to create a fortnightly comedy and magic show.
Suddenly with the need to create a lot of new material, and a lot of that in the form of new short films, it felt like it was finally time to realise the idea which had been hovering in my mind for the last twenty-five years and take my first steps into the world of marionette filmmaking. We weren’t looking to make the Thunderbirds – this would be something smaller in scale and more intimate feeling – but would be an ongoing series of short films starring a marionette. All we needed was a star.
I got in touch with Czech Marionettes to speak to them about their marionettes, and they understood what we were planning to do in our series and were really supportive of our ideas. Not long after that our first marionette arrived.
The first marionette which we received from the people at Czech Marionettes was a wonderful creation. Named ANY, it is a hand-crafted wooden marionette designed to be ‘neutral’ – no gender, no specific personality features, a blank slate to fill with a personality. To make it more interesting, he came in kit form, which meant that I would be able to assemble him myself.
***As an aside, an interesting point here. You’ll notice that I said that the ANY marionette arrives with no gender, and yet I refer to him as ‘him’. I have done so since I first mentioned him in an email to the company, and they asked me why. This took a little thought, and then I realised that I was already giving a little of my personality to ANY, and our ANY was male.
Assembling ANY felt magical. This is no doubt part of my personality, and may seem strange to some, but I hope that from the comments I have received about ANY and his adventures that most of you will understand, that from the first moments putting him together it felt like we were bringing him to life.
While the kit was relatively simple to put together, it felt deeper than just putting parts in place. Many of the parts need sanding down, and especially as we were sanding down the face, on which you could see the chisel marks from the craft person who had made it, it felt like we were part of a team who had been involved in making this little piece of puppet art.
Once we had ANY pieced together and strung, the joy of letting him take his first steps in the world began. With strings controlling his arms, legs, head, body, and even when we want, his nose, there is a lot to think about each time we move him, and the simplest of actions or gestures for ANY can require a fairly complex set of movements from the strings. What I found amazing, however, was how intuitive and natural it felt to be working with him. I could immediately sense his personality shining through – he is, like us, an adventurer, and he is clever and quick at problem solving.
We started filming with him straight away – because ANY is waking up and finding his feet during the first episode, and I therefore wanted it filmed while I was still starting to learn his movements myself. If you watch through the series (four episodes have been released so far) you will hopefully see that as ANY’s confidence grows, so too does our confidence working and filming with him.
We have a long way to go to become expert marionette filmmakers, but we are incredibly proud of what we have achieved so far, and I am very grateful to my wife, Felicity, my sister-in-law Jenny, everyone who watches and comments on our YouTube videos and to Czech Marionettes (whose work you can see here), all of whom have helped this 35 year old man (and the eternal ten year old Thunderbird fan who lives inside him) to start achieving his marionette dreams. Thanks also, of course, to ANY – for bringing our series to life!
Thank you for reading – please take unbelievably good care of yourselves, and of each other!
P.S. This week I released my second audiobook – ‘The Ever So Slightly Exaggerated Tales Of Mr Greg Chapman Volume 2: Losing The Lost World’. For more information and to get a copy, click HERE!