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Night Crawler 

Puppet Regimes

Wednesday, Jan 19 2000
Puppet Regimes
Under a pale sky flocked by billowy clouds tinged with deus ex machina sunlight, and nestled in the emerald toes of a small leafy hilltop, is the home of a plum-colored gremlin named Sam and a family of singing rabbits.

There's no doubt about it.

Snapping off the static of my car radio, I find myself bound in shimmering forest light and spongy quiet. Stepping out of the car, a rainbow-winged beetle careens into my ankle and drunkenly tumbles to the ground, sputtering angrily until it is able to take off again. Next door, a white-haired gnome of a man diligently focuses his attention on a pair of reddish 2-by-4s, but his hammer blows are swallowed by the leafy cover, and even at this close range, all I can hear is the rhythmic eer-rup of a nearby frog jamboree. Near the front door indicated on my map, an arching garden trellis rises out of the thick foliage next to a huge grinning Gleebot. The Gleebot is lilac in color with floppy, leathery ears and a face that is something akin to an apple-cheeked dinosaur-poodle with a cleft palate, but not exactly. It's cute, even at 6 feet tall. The front door, which is painted with climbing vines and broad leaves, in keeping with the neighborhood motif, opens on the slender, beaming face of Lee Armstrong, one-half of the partnership that is Images in Motion Media Inc. -- the cottage company that most recently created the marionettes for the motion picture Being John Malkovich, centered around a disillusioned yet delusional puppeteer played by John Cusak.

Armstrong delivers a piping welcome and bustles me, with birdlike energy, past framed pictures of Gleebots and other fancies, into a warm little kitchen dominated by a colorful movie poster for The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Armstrong's husband cruises through, offering a laid-back handshake and a nod on his way to the bedroom, which, I am told, brims with musical instruments.

"He puts up with all this foolishness," says Armstrong, referring to puppetry and not yet to the journalists who will inevitably make the trek to her door in years to come. She bustles around the kitchen, offering plates of food in the gracious manner of one accustomed to feeding folks -- hot tea, pastries, crackers, brie, strawberries -- and relates the story of her career with the breezy casualness bred of good fortune and familial support.

Raised in Nova Scotia, Armstrong found herself at the Canadian employment agency at the age of 19, asking to be filed among those people looking for jobs in the arts. There was no such file, but, under her persistent behest, a folder was created and Armstrong's name included. The following day, a call came in for a puppeteer. The yearlong job led her to a gathering of the Puppeteers of America, where she met 1,000 other predisposed folks, many of whom were making a moderate living off puppets, and that was it.

"Puppetry is a little like the ministry," she laughs. "You don't choose it; you're called to it."

After several national television shows in Canada, a job with the Muppets on Fraggle Rock brought Armstrong to the Bay Area, where she lived for a time with the infamous Lettie Schubert, co-founder of the San Francisco Bay Area Puppeteers Guild (one of the largest such groups in the country), and met Kamala Portuges, the other half of IIMM.

"Kam would have been a wonderful doctor, or anything else she had wanted to be," says Armstrong. "She is a very, very smart woman."

Compared with the trilling brightness of Armstrong, Portuges seems almost solemn. With dark hair and a calm, quiet, unwavering gaze, her face displays the seriousness and tension one might expect to see in a classic literary outsider.

"One thing I cannot stand is the American assumption that puppetry is for children," says Portuges. It is a sentiment relayed earlier by Armstrong, who cited European puppet theater as her inspiration in Canada, but in Portuges I discover the gravity and frustrated passion that emerged in the expressions and movements of the Malkovich marionettes.

"Puppetry is a universal medium, capable of great emotional depth," says Portuges, citing Henk Borwinkle, a puppeteer who worked inside insane asylums "raising questions about the composition of the mind and exploring the confines between what is real and imagined."

"We do a lot of cute stuff, too," says Portuges with her hand inside the furry purple belly of her Gleebot Sam, a companion to Armstrong's pink Gleebot, Sheila. "It's what we get paid for."

Cute as Sam is, he is also one of Portuges' primary characters, and one of the stars of IIMM's upcoming independent video. As Sam joins our conversation, with wriggling nose and thoughtful hand gestures, I become aware of his well-drawn personality, very distinct from Portuges' own but with similar shading -- slightly sarcastic, a little gravelly, very funny, and full of soft, careful sighs. As has been the case with many directors who have worked with Portuges, I soon find myself wanting to direct questions at the puppet as well as the person.

"[Kam] built my inner workings," explains Sam with metaphysical seriousness, "my inner self, if you will." At Images in Motion, both partners write scripts and develop characters: Armstrong sews the bodies and costumes, and handles most official office duties; Portuges sketches the characters and sculpts them, binding each crevice and dimple with the necessary emotion. It's a talent that saw her working for Chris Walas on the Fly 2 very soon after her early graduation from Humboldt State with B.A.s in science and marketing, and an M.A. in theater that would change the department head's notion of puppetry forever

"Everyone at school was very unsupportive," says Portuguese. "Then a friend and I staged a production based on rats' similarity to humans, in that they are the only other animal willing to turn on their own kind. ... My parents decided it was great after I had worked on my first movie and won a few awards, but I don't tell them anymore. It's just bragging rights."

Bragging rights include James and the Giant Peach and the upcoming Monkeybone, as well as IIMM work on numerous Emmy Award-winning television shows, and their ongoing association with the National Forest Association, which includes creating and producing award-winning video campaigns and teaching outreach seminars for firefighters every year.

But the unwavering goal of the people who make up IIMM is to work on their own material. Portuges launches into the sweet-voiced song of a mosquito from their planned Unloved Alphabet, short vignettes that teach the alphabet by way of "unloved critters" (E is for earwig; D is for dung beetle). Even with talent and acclaim, Armstrong, Portuges, and their staff (international award-winning clown Mary Nagler, premed-student-turned-puppeteer Tim Miller, and Nightmare Before Christmas and RoboCop sculptor Greg Dystra) must fill orders: toys, like the internationally popular Spice Girls, Kate Winslet, Britney Spears, and the upcoming Pamela Lee Anderson dolls, Anastasia figurines, Pound Puppies, Wizard of Oz music boxes, Skydancers, "walkaround puppets" (large foam suits used mostly in advertising), and special effects masks. With unrealistic time restrictions and often uncompromising toy companies, the crew customarily works 16-hour days. It's a constant hustle and waste of genius.

"We'd like to work on a TV show," says Armstrong. "I mean, we'd rather work on our own stuff, but given the choice between toys and working on someone else's puppets, we'll take puppets."

Besides income, the toys serve some practical application: A wax formula that took Portuges three months to perfect may help someone's project in the puppetry guild. And Portuges gives out this kind of help freely.

"Guarding a formula is silly," she says. "The art comes from a person's skill, not their materials."

"Puppeteers are very generous," says Armstrong, "and the guilds are invaluable."

At the puppetry guild's January meeting and annual holiday party, puppeteers from every walk of life -- birthday party to digital imagery -- gather at the festooned San Leandro Community Center bearing undesignated gifts, potluck dishes, and examples of their craft. The guild, which Lettie Schubert and co-founder (and Children's Fairyland puppet theater director) Lewis Mahlmann once saw drop to six members, has swelled to nearly 200 members this year. It seems, with the advent of digital technology and a new acceptance of animation-style entertainment, puppetry has become an acceptable profession in the eyes of parents and career counselors. Certainly the guild has been rejuvenated by young blood - the current president and newsletter editor are 22-year-old twin brothers Patrick and Sean Johnson, and 25-year-old cohort Anita Coultier is vice president. Many children are being brought up in the guild, just as Frank Oz was brought up by influential puppeteer Mike Oznowicz within the local chapter.

But, here, even the adults seemed filled with gregarious glee as they talk about upcoming projects and past glories. Thirty-five-year-old Brit Mike Quin -- most recently known for his work on Toy Story 2 -- grins about his early obsession with Muppets and his infiltration of Elstree Studios, where he got his first job, at the age of 16, as an extra for Jim Henson. He and his wife, puppeteer Karen Prell, met later on the set of Labyrinth. (They're not the only husband-wife team in attendance, a fact Quin chalks up to the intimacy of some of the working positions inside a large puppet.)

"I've never known a sad puppeteer," says Quin. "I've known sad directors and producers, not puppeteers. You're afforded too many opportunities to explore your fantasy self in puppetry."

In the theater, Randel Metz and the Puppet Company present a lovely rendition of The Nutcracker with Chinese dragons that blow fire, elephants that shoot water, and clowns that multiply before your very eyes. The crowd oohs and aahs appreciatively, and hisses at the rat king. Later, Quin shows an episode of his and Prell's beautiful, but failed, Bong Show, and Michael Lynch shares preliminary drawings of Episode One's C3PO, which weighed over 100 pounds and had to be worn 16 hours a day. The puppet, which was estimated as requiring 170 man days to construct, was ordered a little more than two weeks before the shooting date. It's a typical scenario in the puppet world, and the crowd groans knowingly.

"A friend once called puppetry the ugly stepchild of theater," says Portuges. "It's a very difficult way to make a living. People don't know what goes into it. They forget that it's an art, but there's no doubt about it. Puppetry is art. I wouldn't do anything else."

No one in the guild would disagree.

"My mother used to say," laughs Coultier, "if you tied my hands up, I'd never talk again. For me, this is it."

Send comments, quips, and tips to CrawlerLee Armstrong

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Silke Tudor


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