Panel: Puppetry in (Stop)Motion
In a live-stream, the filmmakers behind Calgary Underground Film Festival’s 2021 selections of Frank & Zed — an American flick hailing from Portland, Oregon — and The Old Man Movie — a selection from Estonia — sat down for a discussion of puppetry in their (stop)motion passion projects. Featured on the panel was moderator and puppeteer Xstine Cook, a Canadian filmmaker and Artistic Director at the Calgary Animated Objects Society, alongside Directors Jesse Blanchard (Frank & Zed) and Oskar Lehemaa (The Old Man Movie) and animator Mikk Mägi (The Old Man Movie). The panel itself was a casual dialogue on all things puppetry — everything from fun banter on their favourite types of movies and sources of inspiration to more generic things like props used and how they received funding to make their ideas come to life.
The Old Man Movie began as a short animated film based on the character of the Old Man, which was created by Mägi and a friend of his approximately 10 years ago. According to him, the short went viral in Estonia at the time. Lehemaa and Mägi began working on The Old Man Movie with a crew of 20 people and had initially hired a small community of talented puppet makers who had never made such large puppets for an innovative animated movie. They mentioned that everyday was a new adventure on set because the project was so unique and experimental. Animating stop-motion scenes was a long process. Mägi talked about how as a writer and director you have a vision in your mind of what the project is going to be, “but then you are faced with the realities of the project and deadlines” as well as the limitations of the artform and the budget. Mägi also claimed that tackling a big project like this is a work in progress — for instance, for funding they reached out to the Estonian National Film Institute that gives funding to make movies, but they didn’t get full amount. The rest of their funding came from outside sources.
About the project and the creative process behind it, Lehemaa stated that as a creative artist you should take something you are passionate about and push it. He felt, several times, either you push it further or polish it — for example, for a joke, you have to go all the way or the joke will fall flat and won’t go anywhere. Mägi tagged on by mentioning that you shouldn’t take yourself too seriously, stay true to yourself and have fun and make a movie you would like to watch. This manifested itself in how they went about making the film as a lot of the writing and shooting they did was improvising and making each other laugh. They said that they didn’t really have a target audience, instead they tried to make something that appealed to them.
A favourite prop from the team of The Old Man Movie was a chainsaw used by a character named “Old Milker’ — a direct reference to two iconic chainsaws from Evil Dead 2, Lehemaa’s favourite horror movie of all time, and Spider Man 2. Old Milker is the main antagonist of the film and sets out with a crew of contract workers to kill the cow that has been set loose. Throughout the film he carries this chainsaw with him as he hunts down the cow.
For Frank & Zed, Blanchard — a self-made writer and puppeteer — expressed how he always wanted to do a barbershop horror short, which later inspired him to make Frank & Zed. Cook mentioned that “the amount of workmanship and craftsmanship and artisanship that’s gone into making all of [the] puppets and sets” is staggering, especially when you take into consideration that it took nearly six years for Frank & Zed to become a reality. When talking about the shooting process and making sure that the film has the intended effect on the audience, Blanchard mentioned the idea of being uncomfortable, being worried about each step and pushing things too far. The example he gave was the case of Zed’s teeth. As a real-life prop, the teeth are so big that they made him really uncomfortable, but that’s ultimately what contributes to the originality of the character and the effect it has on the audience. However, he also talked about how as the creator you may overthink a lot of details and choices that the audience won’t really notice.
In terms of what he struggled with during the filmmaking process, Blanchard mentioned how keeping people coming in and motivated was really hard at times. On average, the team would have to do eight shots a day and there are a total of 3000 in the film. For instance, shooting the “orgy of blood” — which was 1500 shots — with tiny little details was way too long and difficult in an environment with no air conditioning. A core group of five people did the majority of the work, for which he felt blessed. Because of the sporadic turn out of workers on set and lack of funds, it took a total of six years to make Frank & Zed. Blanchard jokingly called America the “land of the free” because when it comes to creative and film work you are constantly freelancing or taking on side gigs and hustling just to make ends meet. To get investments for Frank & Zed he launched a kickstarter which was where the majority of the funding came from. Nonetheless, side jobs were necessary to sustaining funds. All the side jobs that he and the core crew on the production team had to do contributed to the slow pace at which the film was put together.
When asked about why this story was important to him as a writer and why he chose to tell it, Blanchard expressed that it was well worth it as he wanted to truly flesh out the characters, make their lives more interesting and have them truly come to life. At the same time, Blanchard playfully mentioned that putting all of this energy into something that seems silly is, in retrospect necessary.
When asked what makes a good or bad raunchy puppet movie, Blanchard said you have to do something so intensive that spurs innovation — it’s not merely a puppet film, you have to approach it as if you’re making Lord of the Rings. If you are really excited about the story and are genuine and make it real the audience cannot call you out for being phony.
A favourite prop from the Frank & Zed team is Frank’s heart. Frank is inspired by Frankenstein’s monster. His heart is visible in his body through a glass covered cavity and he also has a meter that determines how much energy he has left. Frank’s heart is a key piece in the film and is shown on screen often. Blanchard enthusiastically displayed the heart during the online stream and mentioned that it was an intense cathartic relief of having the shoot done and over with as he didn’t enjoy making and utilizing the heart due to the difficulty of the process.
When asked how they moved the muscles of the heart, Blanchard explained that it was literally made of garbage — “it’s just two balloons and then we painted over them with latex.” When you would push on the balloon, it became distorted and moved.
-Rachneet Randhawa, General Editor
Puppet film reviews:
Blanchard and his crew first gave us a taste of their work with their pre-feature short, Shine. The short set the tone for Frank & Zed and introduced Blanchard’s style of puppetry. Shine might be better described as a music video for a song of the same name, performed by a puppet barbershop quartet. As the quartet sings, the spotlight shines on them. In the darkness beyond however, lies a monster that hacks off different body parts of the puppets as they accidentally move out of the light. The quartet is eaten until one puppet stands. Holding a note for his life, the short ends in a tragic yet comic tone.
Frank & Zed
Don’t let the puppet cast fool you. At its core, Frank & Zed is a tragedy involving a prophetic curse, conspiring high ranking officials, a coup d’etat and a fabricated war. However, it’s also a tale of friendship, guilt, betrayal and reconciliation. Many moons before the events of the film, a king strikes a deal with a demon to stop a foul being, called the Moroi, from attacking and terrorizing his village. The demon complies for a cost — when the last king of his bloodline dies, “tenfold will perish in an orgy of blood.” Years later, the villagers are down to their last kings and in order to stop the curse — and by a lack of trust in the throne — a Lord Titus and the village’s priest conspire against the king and decide to end the curse once and for all. This is where our heroes come in. Frank and Zed are two monsters created to serve the Moroi. Frank is a Frankenstein’s monster-esque being and Zed is a zombie. They live together in a symbiotic friendship where Zed helps recharge Frank’s electricity-operated heart and Frank spends the day gathering animal brains for Zed. Their paths and those of the villagers cross as Titus and the priest plan to start a war by convincing the villages that a legendary creature called the Drachmacat — servant to the Moroi — is still alive. They hope to pay the debt in blood and save themselves. Unfortunately for Frank and Zed, they are what the villagers call the Drachmacat.
Despite the fake blood and gore, the film has heart and is funny and delightful. The script is hilarious and so are the villagers. The relationship between Frank and Zed is also raw and wholesome. Despite Frank’s past wrongs and Zed’s resentment of him for it, they are a great pair who deeply care about each other and help one another survive. The film also has great production value. It is incredibly well done for being made out of a garage studio. The set design is absolutely beautiful and realistically natural. The puppet work is wonderfully executed — the glimpse we get behind the scene during the credits of the film really makes the audience appreciate all the work that has gone into making this film more. The format supports the clunky nature of Frank and Zed’s gait and coordination really well. Most of the shots were closeups or extreme closeups, which makes sense, considering the nature of the film. This choice also helped amplify the chaos and gore. I must add, for a film featuring puppets, it’s shockingly anatomically correct — but then again, I’m sure puppet anatomy is very different from human anatomy. Lastly, “an orgy of blood” is somehow an understatement for the events that unfold in the second half of the film. The sheer amount of fake blood used is impressive.
Frank & Zed was an enjoyable watch.
The Old Man Movie
In true adventure film fashion, in The Old Man Movie, a pair of kids have to right past wrongs by going on an epic cow chase — on a tractor — while they try to outrun a murderous Old Milker and time as the udder of a cow gone unmilked for over 24 hours will explode to bring about a “lactocalypse.” The film begins with yet another backstory. Some years prior to the events of the film, the Old Milker sets off a lactocalypse in the village as he is unable to milk his cow over a 24 hour period. The villagers don’t take it as a warning and continue using cows for their milk. However, the Milker knows the evil beyond the cow and vows never to allow for the same thing to happen again. In the present day, Priidik, Aino and little Mart are visiting their grandpa in the countryside for the summer. After an encounter with an incredibly gassy pig and a malevolent rooster as well as a Norse funeral for a very-much alive grandpa, the kids are put to work in the barn and are introduced to their grandpa’s cow. Throughout his long day of work, watching the cow being milked and taking grandpa’s abuse, Priidik — in an act of sympathy sets the cow loose in the barn. But when he fails to close the barn door, the cow escapes and the village falls into panic. On one hand, the villagers show up in the morning demanding milk, on the other, the Old Milker learns of the incident and sets off to kill the cow before it devastates the village with its dairy-based terrors. In the meantime, grandpa, Aino and Priidik set off to retrieve the cow, while having been left behind, Mart — secretly an evil genius — comes up with a way to keep the customers satisfied until the cow arrives.
The Old Man Movie is funny in a really lewd and raunchy way. There are small moments of humour scattered throughout the film so there’s always something to look forward to. A lot of things are in the details with this film, so even the smallest things add on to the whole experience. Even the most primitive humour — like fart jokes — are done creatively and done well. But there are also other jokes that have been developed into major plot points — the cow being protected by a festival of hipster youth, a very sexual “ancient ritual” involving a tree god and an entire 15 minutes dedicated to a bear’s anus, to name a few — that bring a lot of originality to the film and make it fun to watch. The film will have you in stitches from laughing. The music featured in the show is also fantastic and really adds on to the whole experience of watching it.
A lot of detail has also gone into the design of the film. The puppets are simple yet very intricate. I really like the design of the Old Milkman who probably had the most physical details out of all the characters. The world that Mägi and Lehemaa had created was also super detailed and meticulously designed, especially in the later parts of the film. Unlike Frank & Zed, The Old Man Movie isn’t a live-action puppet film, rather a stop-motion animated film using puppets. This makes a lot of things like massive explosions and villagers who end up covered in milk because of it even more impressive. In comparison, The Old Man Movie was definitely less gory, yet what it lacked in blood, it made up for in lactose-based products.
The Old Man Movie was a new and fresh take on old jokes and tropes — a great watch.
-Ava Zardynezhad, General Editor