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April « 2010 « 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

The Generic Academy-Award-Winning Movie

So, just after I wrote about the formulas in Power Rangers and romantic comedy, I came across this Youtube video about what an Academy-Award-winning movie trailer would look like. I like how the trailer includes numerous clichés in not only characterization and storyline, but also cinematography.

I had this idea of writing a play (actually, more of a short sketch since I got the idea when I was writing for college theater) that uses lots of movie clichés. It will have a lot of cheesy characters and plot, and it will be titled “Cheese”. It will start out with a scene where a guy and a girl first meet and fall in love (of course). The two will find each other to be not quite someone they were looking for, but somehow strangely attractive (like what I said in my last post, and what they had in that video). Since there needs to be something, an item, an object, a symbol that joins them together in the first encounter and for the rest of their lives, I will invent some sort of dish for it, which, of course, uses lots of cheese. There will be a cheesy family dinner scene, complete with the typical awkward dinner conversations when one person meets the family of the significant other. Later the guy and the girl will, of course, break up for some cheesy reason, but of course, they will realize that they are the one and only for each other. They will have a teary-eyed reunion over, of course, the cheese dish. And they will be explicitly stating the moral of the story, while awkwardly working in the title of the story.

Of course, the moral of the story will be: We know this is cheesy, but why do we still love it so much? It’s just cheese! Nothing you’ve never had before! But I guess, no matter how cheesy it is, we still eat it up.

Unfortunately, while I had this basic structure, I never came up with details that I liked enough (in terms of character and plot), so I never wrote it. If you want to write it, feel free to take it as your writing prompt and run with it. I shall look forward to reading it someday. 😀

Why Power Rangers Writing Is Brilliant (Like Romantic Comedy)

When I was re-watching Power Rangers in Space three months ago, I was only doing it for nostalgic reasons. However, I actually found the writing to be surprisingly good. The writers managed to explore many themes and really develop the characters, even though it was for kids, was based on the classic good vs. evil storyline and had lots of clichés. In fact, in an odd way, those formulaic element actually helped, a lot.

You know what else also use formulas a lot? Romantic comedies. I realized that Power Rangers and romantic comedies had a lot in common.

The Formula

Here’s the Power Rangers formula:
1) Monster/Villain was looking for something or simply wanted to destroy the city for the hell of it
2) Power Rangers showed up
3) Power Rangers defeated the Monster
4) Monster became gigantic and tall as the buildings, somehow (using some kind of energy source)
5) Power Rangers brought on the Megazords (battle robots)
6) The Megazord defeated the Gigantic Monster and Villains vowed to try again

Here’s the romantic comedy formula:
1) Guy and Girl unexpectedly met each other in a serendipitous encounter
2) They found one another odd/weird/interesting/annoying and yet strangely attractive
3) They fell in love and had passionate sex
4) They broke up because they had a misunderstanding / found out they had too many differences / decided there were more important things than being together
5) They couldn’t forget each other and took each other back in tearful reunion
6) One more long passionate kiss with camera panning 360 degrees in scenic setting (followed by optional wedding / honeymoon / trip)

Now, we all know what’s going to happen. Although the Power Rangers appeared to be losing, they would eventually triumph. Although the couple was broken up, you knew they would beat the odds and be together again for the ending (and possible sequel).

Well, then why the hell are you still watching anyway?

The Characters

Since you already roughly know what is going to happen, we can now put the focus on the characters. The five (or six) Power Rangers are all given distinct characters. The romantic comedy leads and supporting cast all have looks and personalities you can either admire, relate to, or despise. You already roughly know what is going to happen, so character development can take center stage and really make the whole thing come alive.

The Expected and Unexpected

It is very satisfying to know the story is going the way that you think it’s going to go. Kids beg their parents to tell them their favorite story over and over, even though they’ve heard it many many times. In Power Rangers, you expect the good to triumph over the evil. In romantic comedies, you expect true love to brave through all obstacles. You expect that, and it’s very satisfying to see it play out. But also, another thing with formulas is that you can break them if you can do it right. Astronema, the prince of evil, is actually the long-lost sister of Andros, the Space Power Ranger? What? One of the villain, Dark Specter actually had quite a noble side. Wait, really? (And I couldn’t think of romantic comedy examples off the top of my head because I don’t have enough people making me watch those.) If a writer can deviate from the formula in interesting ways, they are very nice surprises. Of course, in the grand scheme of things, you still want to follow the formula to a degree.

The Suspension of Disbelief

Also, the suspension of disbelief is an important element in these two genres. Come on, really? Power Rangers? Are you telling me that a bunch of people in colorful spandex are here to save the Earth? Why are there still buildings left in Angel Grove when monsters and robots fight there all the time? And aren’t those monsters and robots just actors in rubber suits? And for romantic comedy, come on, would that line actually work in real life? If someone does that to you, would you say “oooh, that’s hot” or “ew, that’s creepy!”? In real life, and especially when you don’t look like a movie star, let’s just say that results might vary. So, suspension of disbelief is very important for these genres.

When you can accept that men in spandex are fighting rubber monsters using plastic toys, you can accept a story about a magical stone with dark powers creating a black hole and warping the time-space continuum. When you can get an “aww” from the highly unlikely ways two people get together, you are willing to accept how they get back together again after the break-up. Once you can accept the premise, you are willing to accept a lot more weird things that the writers throw at you. It works that well.

The Process and the Result

Since these things tend to follow a formula, it’s the process that counts, not the result. Given the not-so-surprising beginning and ending, what happens in between becomes the most import and variable part of these stories. You know the good guys will win, but you want to know how. You know the main characters will live happily ever after, but you want to know how they are going to get to that point. So the process is the main focus. However, this also means that if the process isn’t written and executed right, you will have really mediocre results. This is why some Power Rangers series have great stories, while some do not. The same thing applies to romantic comedies.

But hey, when everything works, these things can be so downright brilliant.

The Puppet Show (Day 2)

Two weekends ago, I was on a sound stage at USC helping out with a student film as a puppeteer. This past Saturday, I was once again helping out. Last time, we filmed the close-ups of the puppets so it was mostly me doing the puppeteering. This time, we filmed the wider shots, so it was mostly the actors Matt and Jen doing the puppeteering while I gave suggestions and assisted if I could do so while remaining invisible. I thought they did great on their own and my inputs were not all that necessary for today.

In addition to the producer Dave, director Michael, and Director of Photography Nicole, this time we also had Leonard helping out with the lighting. When it came to lunch time, Dave, who was running the sound, went to take care of lunch. So Leonard took over the boom. Since Leonard was also in charge of the slate earlier, I just stepped in and assumed that duty. I figured I might as well take over since I was only giving suggestions instead of actually puppeteering at this point. Putting the slate into the shot and saying “scene 2A, take 1” was actually pretty fun for me.

I was also doing some puppet wrangling. In one of the shot, a part of the puppet was supposed to be pulled off. So this involved me sewing it on loosely (without knotting) and pulling it off during a slow-mo close-up. We did a few takes so I ended up performing it, sat down to sew, and then repeated that a few times.

The best part of the day? Of course, it was when Michael accidentally knocked over his bottle and got water all over Nicole’s face during lunch in front of all the performers. You might be thinking, how awful of me to say that. Of course, it was only a funny moment because Nicole was a really good sport. The teasing ensued and we all had a good laugh. (This would’ve been all very different if she were a diva.) And she proceeded to call it the best memory of the shoot so far on Facebook.

So that was it for me. The rest of them got one more day to shoot on location, and there would be lots of ADR to do for them, but my work here was done. I am just going to wait till they finish the film. It should be fun to watch. :-)

(Photo courtesy of David Lee)

Puppetry Resources for Beginners

Every now and then, I would emails from people interested in learning about puppetry but don’t know where to start, so I thought it would be a good idea to organize some links into a post. This post will be about Muppet-types, since that’s what people usually ask about.

To start learning puppeteering, it will be helpful to have a puppet to practice with. You can either make one, or purchase one.

Making a puppet

I built some puppets to use for practice based on the How to Make Puppets video series by Paul Louis Muller on eHow. I followed the method he covered in the videos for the most part, with a few modifications of my own. You can also find my own tutorials on this website for building a monster puppet with arm rods, a monster puppet with glove hands, and a sheep puppet. One thing I do want to point out that wasn’t really mentioned in the video was that rubber cement might be toxic (depending on what chemicals the manufacturer used) until dry, so you need have good ventilation and safety precautions in place. I prefer to just use hot glue, though it might not be as sturdy.

I’ve been making puppets just with fabric, cardboard, and poly-fil. If you are interested in building puppets out of foam, there are patterns out there that you can buy as well. Many people have purchased the Project Puppet patterns and build good looking puppets out of them. You can also purchase patterns from School of Puppetry. What’s good about this one is that there are videos demonstrating the puppet-building process, so you can follow along.

As for materials, I like getting them from Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Stores, because they carry a good selection of fabrics, which many craft stores don’t, and there is one in my area. I mostly just buy fabric there and get other random items (such as ping-pong balls, index cards, bamboo skewers) elsewhere.

Purchasing a Puppet

I am not particularly familiar with this aspect, since I build my own puppets. But eBay and Etsy should be good places to look. I was planning to buy a monster puppet from puppet builder Stacey Gordon of Puppet Pie, but her house got flooded. I am going to wait for her to unpack her stuff but I do like her puppets and want to purchase one from her.

Learning to Manipulate

Also on eHow is this video series on puppet manipulation. You can learn the basics from watching the video and just from your own trial and error. I also like the exercises and video demonstrations on puppeteer / instructor Amy Harder’s Puppetry Lab website. It’s really no longer updated, but there are goodies in the archive. I particularly like the videos because Amy shows interesting techniques in her enthusiastic ways.

Of course, the best way to learn is still from classes where you interact with an instructor face-to-face. That’s something no amount of video-watching can really replicate. With classes, you will be able to see things from different angles, and you will have a instructor giving you tips as you practice. If you are in the Los Angeles area, I highly recommend Michael Earl’s TV Puppetry Workshop. You can also see my notes here to get an idea on what’s covered in class.

For those of you that’s starting to learn about this topic, I hope this is useful. Feel free to leave a comment or email me if there are other questions. :-)

The Puppet Show

Over the weekend, I was at USC helping out with a film school project. We spent Saturday discussing the project and getting the puppets ready, and then we spent Sunday shooting on a sound stage on the USC campus. We are not done yet. There will be more scenes to shoot next weekend.

I was first contacted by my friend Dave, who was attending film school at USC and was the producer of the film. I then met the writer/director Michael and went over some ideas. It was about a man grabbing stuffed animals to put on a little puppet show to rehearse for his new role as a new dad, so we used stuffed animals as puppets. The director brought the cast (a bunch of stuffed animals) and for the main character, he even brought three identical ones. We ended up keeping one unmodified, cutting one open (which didn’t make me cringe as much as I thought I would) to make into a puppet, and modified the ear of one of them based on the storyline. Also, the main character was an elephant, so we also put a piece of a wire hanger into its trunk. That way, we could control the angle and the shape of the trunk.

Then there came the shoot date. I arrived at the studio while Dave, Michael, and the DP Nicole were adjusting the lights. It was an interesting experience for me to watch them work, because I got to see how the lighting changed the shot while they made the adjustments such as moving the lights around, changing the levels, using the barn doors and clipping gel to the lights. When it comes to video productions, I’ve never been good at the lighting aspect, so it was a good opportunity to watch them and pick up a thing or two.

Then we filmed. It was a fun shoot, as all shoots involving puppets should be. I realized there were good things and bad things about the habits that I’ve developed. After taking classes for TV puppetry, this left-is-right and right-is-left thing has already become second nature to me. I have no trouble at all moving and tilting the puppet to whichever spot I want in the shot. The downside with the training, however, is that I’ve gotten into the habit of breaking the fourth wall (talking to, looking into the camera directly) while I am not supposed to. On Sesame Street or similar puppet shows, characters often directly interact with the camera as a way of including the kids watching, or use the technique to emphasize things. While it was a good thing to do in many cases, it can also make them very narcissistic puppets! The director pointed out the eye line problem a few times and I had to more consciously watch out for this problem, since looking at the camera is not always appropriate for every situation. So that was another thing that I would watch out for in the future (that includes our next shoot on Saturday).

Just to make the day more interesting, there was an earthquake during the shoot. The epicenter was in Baja California, Mexico, we could feel it in Mexico too. When it first happened, the other people were setting up a shot and I was making modifications to a puppet. At first we weren’t even sure if we were just dizzy or it was an earthquake. Michael and Nicole had never even experienced an earthquake before so this shall go down as an unforgetable day for them. As for me, somehow I’ve always lived in places that has earthquakes (Taiwan and California) so it isn’t entirely new to me.

It was a fun shoot and I look forward to the next one. And here’s a picture of me on set. (Courtesy of Dave Lee) :-)

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