Ever wondered what it’s like operating the fantastic monster models and practical ‘creatures’ that inhabit some of our most beloved films and TV shows?
We spoke to Andy Heath, award winning puppeteer, designer and fabricator, who has worked on movies including The Muppets Most Wanted and a certain little-known recent film called Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Andy’s latest project, The Truthful Phone, is an homage to iconic puppet-centric family fantasy movies like The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth and Gremlins.
Here are seven fascinating things he told us about bringing weird and wonderful creatures to life on screen.
1. The movie world is falling in love with puppets again – and that’s great
“On The Force Awakens there were lots of amazing practical effects and a lot of puppets and animatronics. They really should make more films like this, and I’m so thrilled that Star Wars appears to be flying the Practical Effects flag.
“I worked on Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy 11 years ago as my first film, and that was when I saw what a difference practical effects make to the scene first hand. The actors have something to react to, and in return creatures can react back. That’s where the fun improvisation comes from. There’s such a believability to a character when you know it can be bumped and pushed, and can also push back.”
2. The 80s glory days are coming back
“We’re currently involved in a short film called The Truthful Phone, based on this short story by Terry Jones. Both Iestyn Evans (my business and performing partner at ‘Talk to the Hand’) and I were huge fans of films like Labyrinth and Gremlins while growing up, and this is the kind of project where we are given a bit more freedom on how to realise some new characters.
“The creature which features in the teaser is basically our prototype Coblyn (Welsh for Goblin). He’s a mischief maker.”
3. Working with The Muppets is as fun as you’d expect
“I’ve been very privileged to work with all the people who inspired me growing up. The Muppets would have to be the main highlight, as they really are the very best at what they do. The characters they have created, and in some cases inherited, just live!
“I strive to improve myself with each job, as we all do, and watching all those guys at work was so educational. Of course, we got to try on all the puppets too, which is every fanboy’s dream.”
4. Working on Star Wars is as exciting as you’d expect
“The atmosphere on Force Awakens was amazing. Every puppeteer on that set grew up with those movies and everyone wanted to be there. That was one of those jobs that wasn’t just a job, but a privilege. Most of us knew each other from the industry and we all work together fairly regularly, but there was this sense of awe in us all being there as part of this generation spanning legacy.
“It was a remarkably well run and calm set. You got the sense that it fed right down from J.J Abrams, who was clearly having a ball, right through to us all.
“There was a lot of research and development a few months before filming began on one of the largest practical creatures in the movie, and although I didn’t get to be part of him for the movie due to other work commitments, workshopping him was a total blast.”
5. You can get away with murder
“I think there’s a general understanding that puppets can get away with a lot more than people can. It’s a lot easier for a puppet to shoot down a celebrity with a dry quip, and it’s also quite funny to see a creature you know can’t really exist behave in a way that surprises you.
“It really depends on the actor you’re performing alongside. If you have the pleasure of looking back on old Muppet Show episodes, you can easily tell which guests bought into the lunacy and totally believed in those characters, from those that didn’t. They’re the ones clearly having fun!”
6. Every job has its merits
“Movies can sometimes involve a lot of waiting around, although there is an amazing delayed payoff when you finally get to see it on the big screen.
“TV is more relaxed. I think you also build up more of a family feel on a series. You have time to get to know one another, and that allows for some great dynamics, both behind, and in front of the camera. I personally prefer television in general, just because you are constantly working.
“Short films can be a total joy. There isn’t much time, so you just bring the best game you possibly can and throw everything into the mix, and hopefully you get some really happy accidents too.
“We also work in theatre, and I had the pleasure of performing Audrey 2 for the Menier’s production of Little Shop of Horrors in the West End, a few years ago now. That was a complete blast. The thrill of being live every night was intoxicating. The show featured Sheridan Smith as Audrey, but we also had Mike McShane as the voice of the plant. He’s a brilliant improviser and keeping up with him every night was a highlight of my career.”
7. Jim Henson got one thing wrong
“He once said no one would want to go and be a puppeteer. Of course, it was one of the rare occasions he was wrong.
“His influence and passion inspired us all, and now I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Want to find out more about The Truthful Phone?
The Jim Henson-esque caper is being made in Wales, and is currently raising funds via Kickstarter.
Andy describes it as “a bit bonkers”.
“It mixes sinister with comedy, and that’s always a great combination.”
You can discover all about the new project at its official website.