Hi everyone, I recently had a chance to talk to Chris Brake, the puppeteer behind Scraps and the in-development Canned Laughter. In the following interview we talk about all thing puppet related, Sesame Street, Tim Burton, and puppetry’s place in the modern cinematic landscape.
Q: Who would you say is your biggest filmmaking influence?
A: Depending on what day of the week you ask me, it could be Alfred Hitchcock, Spike Jonze, Steven Spielberg, Billy Wilder, Robert Altman, John Cassavetes, Tim Burton.
Q: How did you get into puppetry?
A: I’ve always had a fascination with puppetry that started with the TV shows and films I watched growing up. As with most kids, ‘Sesame Street’ was my gateway, but I then went on to fall in love with ‘The Muppets’, the Gerry Anderson ‘Supermarionation’ shows, and some of the more anarchic stuff like ‘Round The Bend’. What I really adored about all of those shows was that they presented this completely alternative reality where the whole world was re-designed to fit the puppets. Every show felt like a complete escape into an entirely imagined space, and there was something really appealing about that to a boy in the suburbs.
Q: What sort of messages do you try and convey with your films?
A: I’m always drawn to stories about outsiders who kind of sit on the fringes of society. The main theme that seems to run throughout all of my work relates to how they create their own little world where they feel accepted or loved within it. They’re always either about finding peace with whatever makes you different or moving on from whatever you think defines you.
Q: Do you think puppetry still has a place in modern cinema?
A: Absolutely. Puppetry allows you to tell stories in such a way that you can be symbolic or allegorical in really different ways than how might be explored in a ‘normal’ live-action film. But at the end of the day it’s a tool, and when filmmakers use that tool really well it can be profoundly moving and generate incredible depths of empathy from an audience.
Q: What challenges did you encounter trying to get your film made and how did you overcome them?
A: Mounting a puppet film presents a lot of technical challenges, but the key to overcoming them is always preparation. I tend to storyboard every shot in my films so that I can have discussions with the Puppeteer and the Cinematographer about where the camera needs to be placed, what actions the puppet needs to undertake, and therefore what potential issues need to be considered in order to accommodate both the puppet and the Puppeteer.
Q: How do you go about planning the design and look of the puppets you use in your shorts?
A: I always start with a sketch, often before I even have a script, and from there I tend to develop some concept art before handing that over to the puppet builder or fabricator. From there they then add their own interpretation of my sketches and develop the look further. With puppetry there’s also technical considerations around what mechanisms need to be included within it, so the build of the puppet has to accommodate those requirements under the skin of whatever the design is, and in such a way that the puppeteer is able to easily operate it.
Q: If you could go back in time to when you were first starting out in filmmaking what would you say to your younger self?
A: Write what you love, not what you think other people will love.
Q: If you won an award for one of your films who would you thank?
A: Everyone who took a chance on me. (Might be a long speech. I fully expect to get played off the stage).
Q: Future plans?
A: Hopefully a debut feature. Watch this space…
If you enjoyed this interview then check out Chris Brake’s Scraps and if you have anything to spare check out his Kickstarter.