When we hear the term “workplace comedy”, the setting we typically associate with said genre of comedy is a modern structure outfitted with computers, cramped cubicles and fancy executive offices. (See, of course, The Office, Parks and Recreation and Office Space as examples of workplace comedies.) Yet in real life, a workplace can be as intimate as your own home or as geographically spacious as the open seas.
It’s in the latter atmosphere where the web series Vessel 87 chronicles how the eclectic workers of a cargo shipping vessel try to face the awkwardness and monotony of life on the job. Co-created by brothers Nick and Hondo Weiss-Richmond, Vessel 87‘s first 11 episodes (all on YouTube and the show’s web site), fuse succinct storytelling with meticulously constructed shadow puppet characters voiced by an outstanding cast.
Jörundur Ragnarsson (Mr. Bjarnfreðarson) co-stars as Valgard, a socially awkward engineer whose mind is more on his fantasies than on his duties, much to the annoyance of his focused co-worker/third engineer Samantha (Kim Rosen). Ship first mate Francine (Sarah Stiles, Broadway’s Tootsie, Showtime’s Billions) and second mate Jonah (Preston Sadlier, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, High Maintenance) are united by their love for good times and their mutual desire for acceptance.
Meanwhile, ship accountant/purser Conrad (Tim O’Connor) tries to overcome his boredom by engaging in such productive activities as searching for the elusive turkey meat cooked by the vessel’s hermit-like chef Ricky (Andrés Eyzaguirre Bravo).
Back on dry land, Ricky’s wife Yvette (voiced by Gabrielle Beans) takes care of their baby boy, Baxter, but getting her husband to be a “people person” is an uphill battle.
Making Vessel 87 was a challenging endeavor for the Weiss-Richmond brothers, especially considering all the time and work it took for them to build the show’s deceivingly simple-looking shadow puppets from scratch. As Nick and Hondo recently explained to Snobby Robot, though, their shared talents and creative intuitions helped them to successfully overcome the difficulties of realizing Vessel 87‘s story; one where its characters, like all of us, want to find their purpose in a harsh world.
SR: What (and/or who) inspired you to make Vessel 87?
Nick: I had just wrapped up work on a somewhat complicated short film – a lot of people, a lot of moving parts – when I started tinkering around with these cut paper puppets. It was for a birthday invitation actually, and as a change of pace it felt really nice to be building miniature sets and doing everything myself, like in a little workshop. Ironically, I thought this project was going to be simpler and quicker than the more traditionally produced stuff I had been doing. It actually turned out to be quite a bit harder and more painstaking. That said, we love making it!
SR: As brothers/filmmakers/puppeteers, what have been some of the major advantages – and drawbacks – you’ve encountered in working together on this series?
Hondo: Overall, it’s been a terrific collaboration. As collaborators, I think we benefit a lot from being so close: we think and problem solve alike and there’s a ton of overlap in the types of stories we want to tell.
Nick: It’s also just a pleasure getting to work with someone you love. If there’s any downside, it might be that we’re both prone to some perfectionism. And not surprisingly, there are nearly limitless opportunities to be a perfectionist when cutting tiny paper puppets.
SR: Talk about how you designed the shadow puppets for Vessel 87, and how you matched them with the recorded voice cast performances.
Nick and Hondo: Our overarching design goal was simple: (to) create simple and visually arresting characters. We chose to work in silhouette for that reason. When it came time to actually figure out what a given character looked like, we used a combination of gut instinct and low quality reference images from the internet.
Step 1 was usually a head and torso puppet, standing in true profile, with a hinged jaw, or a pile of wasted wood and cardboard. Over time, we experimented with almost every aspect of the design, from level of realism and detail to scale and position (for example, three-quarter versus true profile) to material (balsa wood, cardboard, paper) to placement of the jaw hinge mechanism.
One of the interesting things about working with these DIY puppets is that they all operate so differently. Some have responsive and delicate mouth movements, while others snap unpredictably between wide open and completely shut. That means there’s often an initial moment when we begin puppeting, where one of us realizes they’ve been stuck with the Ricky puppet. Time to relearn how to operate this wild mouth.
SR: What was the production process like for the show?
Nick and Hondo: When the script for a given episode was complete, we sent it out to the voice actors, and gave them a couple weeks to get back to us with their initial takes, which they recorded at home. In the meantime, we storyboarded the episode, trying, hopefully, (but) not always successfully, to stay mindful of what’s difficult to do with shadow puppets (for example, feet walking across a floor).
While some sets and most puppets were used again and again, each episode had at least one big visual challenge – a heavy lift that was required to support the storytelling. A spinning compass rose, a full game of checkers, a flying bird. There was always something.
Then sometime during our building stage, the audio files would start coming back from the actors. We’d cut an audio-only version of the episode.
When it was finally time to shoot, we’d loop the audio from small sections of the episode, and work our way through, puppeting to match the soundtrack. Finally, we’d bring the video into the edit, sync to the voice tracks and add scoring.
SR: In what ways does Vessel 87 stand out from other workplace comedies?
Nick and Hondo: Of course, the use of paper shadow puppets is a big difference from most workplace comedies. We’re also in that subgroup of workplace comedies that are serialized, like Parks and Recreation, but (in) ultra-short form. That means we’re always trying to strike a balance between advancing the ongoing storylines and creating a scene that stands alone, at least somewhat. Even compared to an efficient network sitcom, in Vessel 87 there’s almost no time spent establishing the norms and rules of the world we’re in. Instead, we plunge headlong into the personal crusade of each character, and (we) try to build a world as we go.
SR: Though the setting is unique, in what ways can viewers relate to the comedy and characters in Vessel 87?
Nick and Hondo: This sounds trite, but we hope there’s a storyline for everyone in Vessel 87. Underneath the absurd situations and banter, the core theme is a search for meaning. But our characters are not on some sweeping hero’s journey of self discovery, at least not on the surface. They’re on a claustrophobic ship. They’re mopping floors, cooking repetitive meals, and plotting courses through the same shipping lanes again and again. The fun (and hopefully relatable) part is watching the characters go stir crazy, and the weird places all that extra energy leads.
SR: Overall, what do you hope viewers take away from watching this show?
Nick and Hondo: More than anything, we hope our viewers have fun!
(NOTE: Regarding closed-captioning of Vessel 87, the Weiss-Richmonds say: “We’d love to have captions available for those who’d like to turn them on. (That’s) a goal for the future!”)
ON THE WEB: https://www.vessel87.com/