Puppetry for beginners, making a film for St Neots Film Festival

Written by Lizzy Ball

Inspired by the creative talks at the St Neots PechaKucha, Ben Pitt and I started discussing a potential project during the break. Ben had written some songs for children and wanted to make a puppet video to make them come alive. I’d been to a workshop on making an animation video and was on the lookout for a new project. We knew the St Neots Film Festival was coming up and Ben wanted to submit it as an entry.

At a spontaneous meeting at the pub a few weeks later, Ben introduced me to Steve Mulvey, a keen photographer looking to expand his repertoire. Ben pitched his idea to us – a song sung by a little girl who loved her torch! He’d made a preview video and had thought it through in detail. We were both on board.

We met up at Ben’s house He wanted to make a puppet, and we immediately started discussing materials, joints, and movements. It sounded quite ambitious. Eyes that could move in all directions, eyelids that could blink, and lips that could purse. A few sketches later we had a plan involving bending metal, ping pong balls and some stretchy lycra.

Ben got started. He created fully posable eyes, complete with eyelids, it was impressive. But then we added polystyrene cheeks and a forehead and stretched the lycra over. Stitching the skin in place, our creation took on an eerie character. We discovered all about the Uncanny Valley, the no-man’s land where the puppet was somewhere between not looking cute enough to be cute and not life-like enough to be life-like. Ben’s son summed it up well when he said the puppet was hideous.

Doubt and uncertainty entered the story. Should we start again? Should we persevere as time was ticking before the day we’d booked as the day for the shoot? Finally, we decided to start again and carve the eye sockets out of polystyrene. It was like a snowstorm in Ben’s living room as I chased the bobbles around with the hoover. The next time I went round, Ben had what looked like a small decapitated child laid out on the floor. The pyjama-clothed body was made of whisky boxes and pipe cladding. I liked the inventiveness. We carried on to a late hour, sewing, painting, stuffing.

Then it was the day of the shoot. Steve drove up with Ben’s children’s entire worldly possessions in the boot. First emerged a bed, then some papier mache rhinos, lamps, and duvets, and then came Georgina, as our puppet had come to be known. We put together the set in the corner of the Loves Farm House. Ben had organised a filming schedule and Steve was extremely professional with his filming techniques. It was an exhausting afternoon. The lights were hot, and the poses we had to hold while capturing the perfect shot were strenuous. But the experience was truly exciting and it was a pleasure to learn about filmmaking firsthand.

Ben finished the editing just in time to submit to the St Neots Film Festival 2016. And then it was there – up on the big screen at Cineworld. We didn’t win, but being up with other filmmakers was very inspiring. It’s given us some great ideas for our next project for the St Neots Film Festival 2017 – but maybe not with a puppet.