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September « 2009 « Puppet Kaos - where Kelvin Kao plays with puppets and tell random stories
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Puppet Kaos - where Kelvin Kao plays with puppets and tell random stories

TV Puppetry Workshop: Week 4

Today, we worked on voices a little bit. We stood in a circle, came up with random voices, and imitated each other’s voices. Somehow this group of people were quite good at it. I was impressed with how much people could mimic one another, especially when the two were of different genders.

We also learned to work with puppets that have gloves instead of rods for hands. The puppet was a lot bigger than the ones we’ve been working with, and each puppet took two people to control. I didn’t know we had to balance fabric on our head at times to hide the puppeteers and to make the puppet shape look better. And also it was fun to watch / figure out how two puppeteers could work together, sometimes in weird angles to get things done. When it clicked, it was a delight to watch.

We also did the telling a story thing. It was taped. Today, somehow I couldn’t really get into a groove. I thought it was on and off throughout the whole class. Sometimes I could focus on the performance and sometimes not. But when I watched the video of my exercise, I thought I did okay. It was not superb, but it wasn’t as boring as I thought either. I think the reason was that when I was performing, the monitor was giving me constant feedbacks. If something did not go according to what I had in mind, I knew that immediately. Sometimes I could fix that on the spot, but sometimes not. However, when I was watching the playback, I mostly only noticed what I did manage to do, and not so much the parts that I wasn’t able to get done. It was interesting to get that perspective.

It’s been fun. Two more classes left… that I have paid for. I think I am definitely going to sign up for the intermediate class someday. I haven’t yet decided whether I’ll take it right after this course, or wait till the next time it was offered. Will need to decide soon.

Related Posts:
TV Puppetry Workshop: Week 1
TV Puppetry Workshop: Week 2
TV Puppetry Workshop: Week 3

TV Puppetry Workshop: Week 3

Time certainly went by fast. At the end of the class, we were already half way through the course. This week, we didn’t do much that’s new, but we spent time fine-tuning things, especially with emphasis. When the puppets say things, there are words that should be emphasized so the message is clear and the performance is lively. We practiced saying the alphabet while putting emphasis on different syllables. We also did more improv. One with a puppet telling a story, and another with two puppets in a scene at a given location.

What was different from the last class was that the camera was actually recording this time. After each pair did their scenes, we watched what was recorded and analyzed them. We certainly got some wacky stories: one about two puppets in an MRI that somehow ended up singing “Bicycle Built for Two”, one about two puppets watching a space shuttle launch but ended up going up with it, one about a first date that turned into an impromptu wedding at the farmers market, and one about two puppets trying to fix a broken car at the skid row to drive off to become TV pitchmen who sell miracle products. I was really impressed with this group. The puppeteering had improved a lot, and the random stories people came up with were all really good, somehow.

Three more classes to go!

Related Posts:
TV Puppetry Workshop: Week 1
TV Puppetry Workshop: Week 2

New Taiwanese Puppet Series: Legend of the Dragon Blade

The new Pili series, Legend of the Dragon Blade (刀龍傳說) was just released last week. I looked at the opening theme (video below) and my thoughts were: Hm, very shiny. Yup, sparkle, sparkle. It was a good-looking video, though it didn’t feel as amazing as the previous two. That doesn’t mean that they’ve stopped re-inventing themselves, but just mean that this is sort of the beginning of a new stage.

What was really different about this series is the distribution. Decades ago, these puppetry series were half-hour episodes shown on network TV. About 20 years ago, the government decided to limit the hours of Taiwanese language programs in favor of Mandarin programs and the producers of these shows decided to go off air and go into the VHS rental market. Back in the days, there were only three networks, all owned and tightly controlled by the government. Cable television neither was allowed nor had the infrastructure to make it possible. So the VHS rental market was an important one, as it offered a variety of programs like music/sketch variety shows, American movies and Japanese drama. The puppet series went there too and was popular. This established the one-hour format that we still use to this day. When VHS was phased out, they switched to VCDs, and eventually DVDs.

Now, the company, Pili, had decided to make a really big change. They decided to stop using the DVD rental chains (like Blockbuster) for distribution and sign with FamilyMart instead. FamilyMart is a convenient store chain from Japan, and they also have franchises in Thailand, South Korea, Taiwan, mainland China (Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Suzhou), and the United States. (The North American version is branded Famima!! and all locations are in the Greater Los Angeles area.) The official reason was to make it more convenient for viewers because there are way more convenient stores than DVD rental stores, but of course, it was probably related to a fallout between the series producers and the distributors. It was more of a business decision to cut out the middle man. Whichever reason it was, it was a major experiment to change up the model that was in place for 20 years.

The other implication was also interesting. To rent these episodes, you put down a NT$10 deposit, and then pay the NT$120 rental fee. You can keep the DVDs for as long as you want. But how is this different from just paying NT$130 to purchase it? The difference is, if it were a purchase, you are now the owner of the disk and you can freely distribute it. You can sell it and you can rent it out. If it’s a rental, you do not actually own it. The company still owns them. You can watch them, but you can not, say, get the disks and open your own rental store.

And the decision seems to have been finalized very close to the actual release date. If you look at the end credit video, you can see that most text has transparent background, except for the distributor text. As someone that edits videos, it was obvious to me that the black background was used to cover up text that was originally there. That means this switch was finalized quite last minute.

How would this new distribution model work? Not much can be said yet, since it’s only been two weeks. We’ll see how it goes.

TV Puppetry Workshop: Week 2

It was the second week of Michael Earl’s TV Puppetry Workshop. This week, we repeated some of the exercises from last week (cuz the basic stuff is always worth repeating), and also did some new stuff, mostly with partner/group work and improv.

There were more interactions between puppets this class than the last class. We had four puppets on camera at the same time reciting Mary Had a Little Lamb. Whichever puppet not talking would look at the puppet that’s talking and they would all nod in agreement at the end. I found that I still have some eye line issues and was confused about the left-right reversal at times. Fun exercise though!

Even more fun was the improv stuff we did. I think everyone did great. I also noticed something interesting: When I did the scripted stuff, I tend to focus on making the puppet do what it does. There’s not much that shows up on my face. However, when I did improv, I caught myself acting with my face instead of my arm more. Maybe it was because I was used to doing improv as an actor, but not so much as a puppeteer. I feel like my reactions were transfered 60% to the face and 30% to my arm (The rest was lost). Need more practice, hehe.

My favorite idea from this class was about quietness and anticipation. Being able to have your arm still when there was no good reason for movement would create good anticipation. There’s power in the quietness. And I like the story Michael told about what Frank Oz said about people waiting for the bus. We then tried the waiting for the bus exercise too. You could do a lot by doing nothing. The only problem with anticipation was that, sometimes I would look at the puppet on the monitor anticipating it to do something, but then to realize, oh wait, it was attached to my arm so I was supposed to make that happen.

Looking forward to Week 3. :-)

One Thousand and One Nights of Stupidity: Play Him Off

This story is part of the One Thousand and One Nights of Stupidity Series, a series of stories that insult people’s intelligeance. Visit this link for the premise of the story and other installments.

Jane fired up the royal video conference software on the royal laptop. Joining her on the other side of the royal internet, was her sister Violet (who was not royal, but sometimes a royal pain in the ass).

“Hey sis, would you tell me a story?” said Violet.
“Of course!” said Jane. “But, I need to ask the Dear King first.”
“Oh, go right ahead!” cried King Shagua, “I love stories, especially if there are talking animals in them!”
“Then you are going to like this one,” said Jane. “This, is a story about a talking cat.”


A Cat was walking along a forest path while carrying a piano. An Elephant saw that and got really curious.

“Hey, Cat, why are you carrying a piano?” asked the Elephant.
“Oh, I am looking for a good place to play,” said the Cat. “Ah, that’s a good spot.”

The Cat put down the piano, and started playing a beautiful melody. Very soon, animals started joining in. The birds went chirp chirp, the frogs went ribbit ribbit, and the road runners went meep meep. It was heavenly. Heck, even the sharks swam up the river to listen to this beautiful music. When the song was over, the animals clapped and the Cat took a bow.

“Thank you, thank you,” said the Cat, “I hope my music makes this world a better place.”
“Oh, it sure did,” said the Elephant, “What inspired you to do this?”
“Ah, it was a long story,” answered the Cat, “As you all know, cats have nine lives. After I spent the first several lives playing with balls of yarn and can has cheese burgers, I got really bored and started wondering… can there be more? Can I do more? So, I started making a list of things that I want to do.”
“That helped a lot, huh?” asked the Elephant.
“Oh yeah. Using that list, I sorted out all my priorities and decided to take actions to make this world a better place. I still have that list on my wall. I call it my cat-a-list.”

The Cat went on to explain all those things he had done:

In the next life, he was an organizer. There used to be no system of organizing information. The Cat came up with ways of indexing information and carving it on a log. The system worked so well that people decided to call it a “cat-a-log”.

In the life after that, the Cat made the world a better place by becoming a chef. People used to have no idea what to put on their hot dogs and fries. The Cat saw this and decided to take a bunch of tomatoes and chop them up. And then he added salt and spices to it. The resulted sauce was delicious on hot dogs and fries. People loved it so much that they named it “cat-chop”.

After that, he decided to become a scientist. He made a discovery that’s so important that people named it after him. And that was where the term “cat-ion” came from.

He was still not satisfied, so he went into medical research hoping to help more people. And that was why he invented the “cat scan”.

“However, in this life, I decided that I could help even more people by playing music,” said the Cat.
“But what’s so special about that?” The Fox was skeptical. “I could’ve just listened to a CD or something.”
“Oh, music has the most impact when they are played at the right time in real-life events.” explained the Cat.
“Can you give me an example?’ Damn that Fox, always so skeptical.

The Cat was about to answer but was interrupted when the Hippo started hiccuping. This was very awkward! The animals were all staring at the Hippo, and nobody said a word. Yep, shouldn’t have drunk all that soda pop.

“Watch this,” said the Cat.

He started playing a tune on the piano. It was upbeat and catchy, and everyone started clapping their hands (or feet, or paws, or fins) together. Everyone was having so much fun and the Hippo felt so much more at ease, and guess what, his hiccups stopped.

“Wow, that was amazing,” said the Fox, “but could that have been a fluke?”

Suddenly there was a loud thud. Everyone looked around and realized that it was an owl that fell to the ground. Apparently, he stayed up all night and accidentally fell off the tree because he was too sleepy.

“Aw, it hurts,” cried the Owl.
“No worries,” said the Cat, “I’ll help you out.”

The Cat started playing again. The Owl stretched his wings, and flied back into the tree again. As that was happening, people were cheering.

“Play him off! Play him off!” Everyone happily chanted.

The Fox was now convinced. Who knew that a cat playing a piano could make all the tension, awkwardness, and pain go away just like that? The Cat smiled and bowed. He knew that his music had indeed made a difference, even though this time, nobody could think of a cat-related pun to name something after him.


“I am inspired!” said Violet, “I want to become a musician and help people!”
“But the story is not over yet,” said Jane. “There’s this last part of the story.”


As everyone was happily celebrating the gift of music, a meteor fell from the sky. It hit the piano and made the piano explode. It was so sudden. Nobody could believe their eyes. They just stood there and stared at the piano that was no more.

Not a sound. Not a word. It was silent, and awkward.

Hm.

Too bad there’s no one to play him off now.


“What a stupid ending!” said the King.
“You know what? I agree.” said Jane.

This story was partially based on Michelle‘s suggestions from the last story. Likewise, you can leave random ideas in the comments section of this post and I just might work them into the next story!

TV Puppetry Workshop: Week 1

I’ve always wanted to get some real training in puppeteering (some stuff simply is hard to be self-taught), so when I heard that Muppeteer Michael Earl will be teaching a class in the Los Angeles area, I did the only logical thing – sign up (right away). I heard good things about it from both April and Gaston too, so that’s another plus. I would’ve signed up anyway, but that certainly made me look forward to the class more.

So yesterday was the first class. We started with a little warm-up and then briefly introduced ourselves. There were eight students enrolled and all seem to be really nice people. Michael then started covering the basics, such as breath, focus, and weight. I didn’t know if these concepts were defined by some old puppeteers back in the days or derived from acting and/or dance. I was already aware of these terms and why they were important. However, it was one thing to be told that something was important, but another to watch a master do it right there in front of me, and make me realize “Holy crap! Those things do make a huge difference!”

Pretty much the whole class involved Michael demonstrating an exercise, and each of us taking turns doing it on camera. We ran through many exercises (which were all lots of fun, by the way) and he threw in a little something new into every single one. Some of these were with puppets and some of these were with just our hands. Some of these were set to music and some of them weren’t. And they all seemed to be well designed to help us improve our skills.

He also pointed out that he did not want us to just copy a bunch of techniques. Instead he wanted each individual student to develop what would work for him/herself. I found that one of the best thing about this class was that I got to watch a master perform right in front of me. When I saw something great on the monitor, I could just turn my head and see how he was doing it. Being able to observe that was even better than simply being told what to do.

One of my favorite idea from the class today was that the puppet was the star, whatever below your chest was the staff, and the staff shouldn’t be doing the star’s job. I liked that idea a lot. People that weren’t used to puppeteering tend to do things like performing with their face rather than their arm. They would be happy or angry on their face instead of showing it with the puppet, or they ran with their legs while they could’ve just planted their feet and bounce the puppet up and down. I really like this star vs. staff idea.

I also noticed a few things that I could work on. I had a hard time making my arm vertical right away. It tended to be tilted and I had to take time to adjust it. Also, I couldn’t focus the puppet’s eyes on the camera right away and also the head wasn’t level without conscious adjustments for a few seconds. Of course, those would get better with practice. It might also have to do with the way I normally practice. I tend to have the puppet on my side instead of over my head. This makes my arm bend in different ways and the puppet lean backward instead of forward. Also I tend to look right at it (turned towards me) than using a camera. This made the eye line incorrect when I need to put it over my head. Again, more adjustments to make.

It was a fun class and I felt like I learned a lot just from the very first class. (How much of that will stay in my head long term, of course, is still unknown.) But I felt like the whole class improved a lot in those three hours. We were definitely a lot better (or at least, a lot more comfortable) at the end of the class than when we walked into the classroom three hours earlier. Of course, that didn’t mean we were good, but the easiest leap was the initial leap from zero to… something not zero. I am glad I am taking the class, and will look forward to the next few Saturdays. :-)

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