Many of you know all too well just how challenging it can be to bring a project from the written words on a script to the full glare of the screen. Sure, there’s the joy of bringing it to life, but along the way there’s bound to be all sorts of problems. No matter if it’s difficult actors, the weather, trying to secure locations, trying to keep filming on schedule and under budget, or a combination of all that and more, it goes without saying that the art of making art is never easy. At times, it can often be hilariously (and painfully) funny.
Such is the case with the wacky animated/puppet-based series PUPPATICS, written and created by voice actor/puppeteer Sean Jo Arcand, produced by Zombie Tea Party Productions and now streaming its first 3 episodes on its official Youtube page (see link below). The series premiered mid-2013, and according to its producer/director Chris Esper, there’s no exact figure on how many more will be produced; that being said he hopes to continue to produce more episodes and to gain a larger audience through them.
PUPPATICS follows the misadventures of a group of puppets who initially set out to create a TV show but end up getting stuck trying to put it on Youtube, so much so that their difficult personalities and character flaws prove to be their undoing throughout the creative process – with hilarious results. That group includes Quackers (voiced and performed by puppeteer Sean Jo Arcand), the fearless and often temperamental leader of the puppet crew who struggles to maintain a sense of order on the set. His charges include Furball (also performed and voiced by Arcand), the youngest member of the group (at 4 years old) who is childlike and yet easily manipulated by the evil Teddy (voiced and performed by Sean’s brother Brian), a malevolent teddy bear who has designs on taking over the world wide web with Furball’s help.
There’s also Goofball (voiced and performed by Sean Jo Arcand) and Blockhead (performed and voiced by Josh Mercure), a dimwitted duo who only serve to make life miserable for Quackers, plus the perennially late for work King Slug (also voiced and performed by Mercure), and Face, a regular guy who’s just content to roll with the punches and whose ‘face’ is constructed entirely out of paper bags.
For Esper and Arcand, their love of puppets and the art of puppetry has always been a passion. So too has been filmmaking, and in PUPPATICS, the decidedly dark adult humor contrasts with its deceptively bright visual aesthetics. However, as Esper recalls, the tale of a group of puppets who find themselves in way over their heads as they seek internet stardom almost didn’t come to the screen. “The show has been at least 5 years in the making, I would say. Sean actually attempted to make the show before I came along, on his own for the most part. Then, we met each other and he told me about this concept about a show starring puppets who are trying to put on a web show,” he says.
“First of all, both of us are puppetry enthusiasts. We both have a strong love for the art, particularly the work of Jim Henson and the Muppets. Sean and I worked together prior to the show on this film I had made when I was in high school. Then, eventually we both got a little busy and lost touch for a little bit. Then, about a year and a half ago, we reconnected and Sean bought up the idea again. Now that I was out freelancing as a filmmaker and director, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to actually move forward and make this show happen,” he says.
Before he entered the filmmaking world, though, bringing people the art of puppetry was Esper’s main fascination and inspiration. It’s one that goes back to his childhood years, and one that Esper says is lacking in today’s slick and polished visual atmosphere. “I feel that it’s (puppetry) an art that’s a bit lost in this day and age especially with the advent of CGI. It’s fun and refreshing to go back to something that you remember as a child. Jim Henson also inspired me, of course. I’ve always been a big Muppet fan and as I got older and started getting more into filmmaking, I started seeing how Henson created his shows and characters and made me want to do the same. When I was in high school and before I decided to move into film, I actually did a little bit of puppetry myself. Like Sean, I would build some characters and did some little sketches when YouTube first came out with just myself and my camera. I also did some live shows for kids at camps and libraries and even learned marionette puppetry,” he remembers.
Bringing the show to life was just as much of a challenge for Esper and his crew as it was for the puppet characters portrayed in PUPPATICS. The Arcand brothers both voiced and performed various characters, as did Josh Mercure. All of this took place on set, but before a single frame could be shot, the show’s puppets had to be designed and the set’s crude yet simple animated backgrounds had to be drawn. Sean Arcand was in charge of the character design, and it’s a process that Esper was involved in throughout. “He also designs and builds the characters. Usually, he’ll show me sketches of characters he’s drawn in his pad. Then, he goes about sculpting and shaping characters using foam, fabric and various types of materials,” Esper says.
Then comes the task of designing the show’s virtual sets, projected through green screen technology that’s often found in many movies, TV shows and web series. That responsibility fell on series set designer Chad Kaplan. “He’s a very talented artist and animator, specializing in flash designs and drawings. Sean and I will express to Chad as to what we’re looking for, based on the episode we’re doing. Chad will then draw out some basic sketches with concepts of his own mixed with ours. Then, he’ll send it to use for input and go about adding colors and also pieces that may be in the foreground (such as a table). The characters are shot against a green screen and then when I’m editing, I just replace it with the sets that Chad had designed,” adds Esper.
It all comes together when each episode is shot, and while the process of bringing each episode to life is way more structured and professional than the characters’ attempts in PUPPATICS, that doesn’t mean that Esper and his team don’t encounter difficulties along the way. “The production process is interesting to say the least. We usually shoot in Sean’s apartment in front of his green screen and we use his work lights to light the screen and characters. Then, I’m usually behind the camera, while also recording external audio to sync up later in post production. It can be a bit complicated with just 3 people making it happen, but we always have a ton of laughs,” he says.
Even the task of producing a web series solely comprised of puppet characters can be a challenge, often in more ways than one. “It’s also creatively satisfying, for me, to be directing something without human actors. It’s also challenging to photograph puppets since you’re trying to conceal the puppeteers without any of their heads or arms popping into frame. It can also be a nightmare for them as well because the lights bring a lot of heat to the set, which can be very tiring especially when we’re doing take after take and their arms have to be in the air the whole time. Still though, it’s a very fun experience and the challenges are fun,” Esper adds.
Perhaps the biggest thing that sets PUPPATICS apart from most comedies is its humor, as well as a story that all web series creators can identify with – especially those who’ve encountered various problems on and off the set. “I think what sets this show apart from the rest is the humor and story. There’s a lot of people out there trying to create web shows, but obstacles always happen. I think the show identifies with, not just that type of demographic, but also the general public. I think we all have friends that are similar to these characters. There’s always that one person that in the group of friends that’s like Goofball or Quackers. I think audiences will identify with them in that sense. Not mention, it’s rare in 2014 to have show or movie where the stars are puppets,” Esper says.
While PUPPATICS will definitely appeal to the more mature adult audience through its style of humor, it’s not necessarily just for grownups. “Yes, we’re gearing towards more the adult crowd. The show could easily be watched by kids, but the humor and story, I think, are more relatable to the adult audience. There’s some jokes in there that adults would get that kids may not catch on to. Aside from The Muppets, I would also compare this show to some of the material on Adult Swim as mentioned earlier. It’s a show that has similar off the wall/strange humor,” according to Esper.
PUPPATICS proves in hilarious fashion that no matter how big or complicated a job can be – whether it’s creating and producing a web series, or just about any other creative or business endeavor – the task is always made easier when you’ve got friends to help you achieve those tasks. Yet, Esper’s biggest hope with PUPPATICS is to bring the word of puppetry to a wider audience, and to recapture his youth through finding the humor in the otherwise inane aspects of life. “My main goal as a director is to show the art of puppetry through this series and bring a new interest to it and also an old school feel of being a kid again by finding entertainment out of something one would find childish.”
(Note: The series is not currently closed-captioned, but Esper says that he hopes to add that feature later.)