Mistress of Puppets

Heather Henson hones the family craft to a fine art

Aside from those, however, these puppet characters aren't your (or Henson's) daddy's Muppets! The eclectic denizens of this new Henson domain run the gamut of puppet stories and techniques:

• In Janie Geiser's "The Red Book," images fly by on what appear to be sheets of a cardboard, in a surreal attempt to capture a sense of memory loss.

• Mike Mitchell's "Herd," which initially appears to be live-action, depicts a fast-food worker stalked by one pissed-off vegan alien.

Heather Henson. Photo by John Gilhooley.
Heather Henson. Photo by John Gilhooley.

• Steve Johnson, who created such lifelike animatronics as the swordfish in The Perfect Storm, gives us "Everloving," with ragged puppets shot underwater for a surreal effect you'd swear was completely CG.

• Hoku Uchiyama's "Prelude #2" uses Punch and Judy-like hand puppets to demonstrate the hazards of drunk driving, while another of his shorts features "Faust" as performed by marionettes.

• Laura Heit's "Amazing, Mysterious & True Story of Mary Anning & Her Monsters" uses metal cutouts in the style of Victorian toy theater to correct the historical record on a not-so-famous paleontologist.

• Tony Giordano, Jason Murphy and Scott Shoemaker's "Harker" uses rod puppets and old-fashioned film techniques in a parody/homage to F.W. Murnau's classic Nosferatu.

• Paul Andrejco's "Last Rites" makes simple yet canny use of one of those "Punching Nun" puppets one finds at novelty stores.

And the show isn't just about shorts. One of the clips on display is a trailer for the forthcoming feature Dante's Inferno, a collaboration between painter Sandow Birk, filmmaker Sean Meredith and puppeteer/comedian Paul Zaloom (Beakman's World). Featuring the voices of Dermot Mulroney and James Cromwell, it's a modern-day update of the Italian damnation tale, using contemporary American imagery as familiar to audiences today as Dante's classical touchstones would have been to his audience. Also, it's entirely done with handmade cardboard cutouts.

"I've had a lot of people who've told me that in the first five minutes or so of the film, they don't know if they're gonna be able to stay for the whole thing," says Meredith, laughing, referring to the full-length version. "They're like, 'Oh, no. If this is . . . if the whole movie's like this,I don't know if I'm gonna be able to stay.' And then they say, 'Oh, my God!' and then, it's suddenly the end of the movie, and, 'This was great!' A lot of people, it just takes a little while to settle in to this way of telling a story and watching a visual like that."

Meredith's experience echoes that of many of the other filmmakers, even those with substantially shorter movies. Heit, who curated a festival of puppet films in Chicago prior to being in this one, says that once you get the audience to watch, they usually like what they see.

"People are definitely interested, and once they've seen it, they're really interested," Heit says. "But the whole problem is that there aren't a lot of people doing it, so it's hard to get enough films together and then find a place to show 'em, really. I know when I did the screenings I did, it was sort of half stop-motion and half puppetry 'cause I couldn't find enough puppetry."

Genevieve Anderson, a doll-maker and sculptor whose short "Ola's Box of Clovers" combines some of her own family home movies with puppet work to create a comic and poignant portrait of her grandmother, finds that having audiences enjoy her work isn't always enough to make it viable. Her latest project is a 15-minute puppet adaptation of the Czech novel Too Loud a Solitude, produced by Henson with the hope that eventually it will garner interest for a feature-length version (a shorter "trailer of a trailer" plays the festival and the exhibition). The unique look of the sets and Anderson's elaborate handmade dolls are instantly eye-catching. "We've been working with this project for three years now, and we've taken it to lots of companies," she says, "including the smaller divisions at Dreamworks and HBO Films and Klasky-Csupo, and tons of places and people are like, 'Wow! So cooool. So coool. Let me know what happens.'"

What happens is no upfront offers. "Nobody wants to be the first on board because it doesn't make sense financially," Anderson says. "Everybody gives you money to create a project, but you have to be able to plug it into a formula that shows them they'll recoup their money. And this doesn't fit into any formula. But people's enthusiasm about seeing something new is really encouraging. I think you just have to stand for it and keep believing in it and proving what you're doing."

And "Handmade Puppet Dreams," as yet, isn't raking in the big bucks as a show, though that may be in part because Henson hasn't yet maximized the cash-in potential in the same way that, say, Spike & Mike's animation festival has. She admits as much, while acknowledging that perhaps more merchandising is something she should do.

Unlike siblings Brian and Lisa, who are very hands-on with the business side of things, "I have not come to terms with the fact . . . Like, I don't want to admit it," she says. "I don't wanna be this person, but I think I'm a little bit more of a puppet philanthropist than I wanna admit. I don't necessarily do this for the money. If I was approaching this more as a business, I would be selling DVDs . . . [and] if that's what the audience wants, then I should be delivering on that."

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