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

Les Miserables – Opening Night

Three weeks ago, I entered a video into the Les Miserables Obsessed video contest hosted by Center Theater Group. The grand prize was two front row tickets to the show. Unfortunately, I did not win (got 3rd place). But guess what? They decided to give every contestant a pair of front orchestra tickets anyway. Consolation prizes just don’t get any better than that! So here we were on opening night:

We were told to pick up our tickets at the press table. I was thinking that I would need to tell them that there were two tickets under my name, show them my ID and all that, but instead, the person there at the table (Andrew) asked whether I am Kelvin before I even said anything. I found it really amusing that he did this for every single contestant picking up his or her tickets. I guess this is what happens when you enter a video contest. No mystery about what you look like! Way to make us feel special, Andrew. 😀

We went in and sat down. And man, those were some awesome seats. I have never sat so close to the stage for a show like this. Lots of excitement and anticipation for me. And the house lights went down. The orchestra started playing the overture. I already had tears in my eyes at this point, even though nothing was visible on stage yet except a screen that said “1815, Toulon”. And then I probably spent a good part of the first 20 minutes in tears, not because the story was sad, but because the production simply looked absolutely gorgeous and I couldn’t believe I was watching it up close. I have always loved theater but I had no idea that it would have that kind of impact on me.

After watching the 25th Anniversary Concert many times and singing to the soundtrack for several months straight in the car, I knew exactly which line was coming up, and I could notice it when the minor adjustments were made (there weren’t many). Having the entire thing practically memorized was great, because it allowed me to soak in all the visual details, all those beautiful set pieces, lighting design, and man, I did not remember all those things flying around during “Master of the House”. The show was three hours long but never felt that long at all.

Although I didn’t win the front row tickets, I still considered myself the biggest winner. Somehow Matt Lucas, who played Thenardier in the 25th Anniversary Concert and is currently reprising the role at West End, tweeted about the video, which subsequently led to 60+ more people tweeting about it and 3000+ view on Youtube. Knowing that an actual Les Miserables cast member watched my video made me giddy and being able to entertain 3000+ people was very satisfying for the entertainer in me. For me, that’s the big win. I wouldn’t trade that for front row tickets (which money can buy, theoretically).

At the end of the day (yes, pun intended), I simply enjoy making videos that entertain people, especially my friends. Hearing “Kelvin, your weird ass video made my day” is very rewarding for me. I didn’t even bother telling people that they can vote once every 24 hours. I really want to share a video with you more than I care about the vote. Of course, if you did vote, you are even more awesome in my book. I want to thank everyone who voted, left me comments, and/or shared the video with your friends. Thank you all for your support, friendship, and kind words! :-)

Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas

It is a little late for Christmas specials now, but recently I came across this video of bloopers from Jim Henson’s 1977 special Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas. The video was takes after takes of the same shot to get the rolling of the drum right. It amused me to no end because the drum keep rolling in different fashions and the puppeteers kept commenting on it. And yes, I watched it many many many times.

To give you a little bit of background information, Emmet Otter and Ma Otter were walking by a music store, where the local River Bottom gang was creating havoc. Things got tossed around and a drum rolled out of the shop.

Emmet was performed by Jerry Nelson (Count von Count, Robin the Frog, Herry Monster, etc.) and Ma was performed by Frank Oz (Cookie Monster, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Yoda, etc.). I love how life-like they looked when they reacted to their surroundings and each other. And I guess it’s just very difficult for two puppets to stand next to each other without making silly comments.

After watching the video, I decided to find and watch the entire TV special. And guess what, I liked it a lot. The songs were beautifully written and I was really impressed by how they rigged all the set pieces and puppets, since they were not just seen from waist up. There were cars, boats, characters sliding and skating. There were many different kinds of puppets used too, and the whole thing just came together very well.

I loved the story and the characters too. I liked how the main characters are faced with real hardships but still stay nice and optimistic. And it didn’t get cheesy or preachy like some other Christmas specials. Some bad deeds went unpunished. Some of the characters took a chance on things. You could call them gutsy but you could also potentially call them stupid or irrational for taking a risk. I think that’s something I appreciate. They didn’t try to make the characters perfect in every way or have everything wrapped up perfectly in the end, but that made everything so much more believable. And I liked that.

And yes, Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas has become one of my favorite Christmas specials, right up there with A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (the 1964 claymation one), and Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983).

It’s a Monster World (Review)

Last week, I went to It’s a Monster World, a new musical by Emmy Award-winning puppeteer Michael Earl and film maker Roberto Ferriera, and performed by Puppet School‘s advanced TV puppetry students. It was performed live in the North Hollywood Park Auditorium in front of a sold-out audience (of roughly 200, if I counted and did the multiplications right) and also shown on the public access channel (huh, those still exist?). To give you a quick idea of what it was like, here’s a picture taken from Puppet School’s Facebook page.

The show was sort of a hybrid of TV and stage puppetry. The puppeteers wore black but were visible. The main part of the action was defined by the camera frame and was projected onto the big screen, while there could be extras off camera as well. Consider a party. The main characters would be talking and you’d see them on the screen (the TV element), but on the side and in the back of the stage you got other party goers there as well (the stage element). Of course, there was that obligatory closing musical number at the end of every musical where the whole cast came out to sing together (See picture below). That part, was, of course, more stage-y. But really, in the cases of TV puppetry where the camera angle don’t change much and the character doesn’t actively play with the camera (like Elmo does), it’s a little like stage too. I don’t think there’s always a clear separation.

The story took place in Monstertown, formerly Weaselville (something like that, I don’t remember the exact names). The town was populated by weasels but was later taken over by a bunch of rude monsters. A weasel girl sneaked into the Monster Ball in disguise with her monster friend, met this really nice weasel boy and fell in love. However, others discovered that she was not a monster and proceeded to try to catch her and throw her out. Ah, unlikely love between people from different groups that would not accept each other, what would musicals do without you?

Anyway, later in a confrontation, it was revealed that the governor (or was it mayor?) was the one that was in love with the weasel girl’s grandma but that was a love that could not be because the two groups couldn’t accept each other. And he got bitter and angry, changed the town’s name to Monstertown, and forbade the two groups from mingling. But of course, grandma’s love melted his heart and he decided that we should all love one another like we used to and musical number ensued about how together we stood ten feet tall. The end.

It was a nice story, and somewhat predictable too but not in a bad way (as in, you clearly knew who you were rooting for and you knew what they needed to do to pull it through, and guess what, they did, hooray!). I enjoyed the story, the jokes, the songs, and the references to other musicals and pop culture. But most of all, it was fun to watch 19 puppeteers perform at the same time. There is truly something magical about puppet shows, and all those people in the audience (adults who are likely kids at heart) could probably tell you that. And it was definitely a plus that several of the performers are my friends. That always makes things even more fun.

If I am to be picky about anything from the show, I’d say that the audio wasn’t handled very well (understandable though for a venue like this). They needed to be more careful about the placement of the headsets, boom mic and monitors to prevent feedback. The lighting didn’t bring out the colors of the puppets very well, but on the other hand (okay, there’s potentially an unintended puppetry pun here somewhere), it was about a gloomy part of town. So maybe that was intended. And also, I kinda wish I had signed up for the class because it looked like a fun group of people with whom to work on a show. But hey, it was great to watch as well.

The show was performed by Keiko Agena, Laura Barbera, Ben Bell, Rich Corbin, Jennifer Dohn, Michael Earl, Keith Ferguson, Tricia Gilfone, Andrew Hamilton, Heidi Hilliker, Chett Hoffman, Traci Kato-Kiriyama, Paddy Ja Lee, Jennifer Newfield, Heiko Obermöller, Minoo Rahbar, Jenny San Angel, Henry Watkins, and Dennis S. Wilkes.

To see more pictures from the show, visit Puppet School’s It’s a Monster World photo album on Facebook, where I took these two pictures from.

And for the people that’s been Googling “it’s a monster world michael earl review” and ended up on this site these past few days: I hope you are happy now. 😀

Walking with Dinosaurs

Two weekends ago, I went to see Walking with Dinosaurs. For those who don’t know what it is, it’s this arena spectacular where you travel through time and see life-size dinosaurs walk, eat, fight and thrive in front of your eyes. It was done using gigantic puppets, and I became interested in it after seeing the documentary on PBS. So when the Los Angeles Guild of Puppetry was putting together a group to see it, along with a tour backstage afterwards, I thought, “Of course!” and grabbed a ticket right away.

Here’s what happened that night:

I drove to Staples Center and was going to park in the venue’s parking structure, but there was something blocking the street. I wasn’t sure what was going on, so I drove around a little more and eventually parked at a public parking lot (which is really private as we all know) right across Staples Center. For Los Angeles and being right across the street, 10 dollars was a pretty good price. The show was already about to start, though, so all few remaining spaces were open for a good reason: the two cars next to it were closer to the spot than desired. But oh well, I guess I got no choice. It was kinda fun to squeeze out of the door, as you can see in the picture.

I went in there and proceeded to find my seat. By the time I sat down, it was 6:58pm, so I was pretty much right on the dot for the 7pm show time. The show did not start right away, probably because they expected people to take longer to get seated with the number of kids in the crowd. I sat down and started talking to the person next to me. His name was David and he just flew in from Seattle the day before for the show and to see the old friends in the guild. Now that was commitment! And the lights came down and the show was starting. I told myself that I was going to be out of my mind.

The show began with the narrator introducing us to the baby dinosaurs getting out of their eggs. And then a bigger dinosaur came out to snatch it for food. This was a suit puppet. The movements were pretty fluid and dinosaur-like (as far as I can tell). The only thing that was a little odd was that the puppeteer’s knees bend forward while the dinosaur’s knees bend backward, so it looked like it has two sets of knees. Still, I was thinking “this was pretty cool puppetry”. And then the bigger puppets came out. These were radio controlled puppets that were big, but somehow moved impressively life-like as well.

I took this picture, and that’s when it occurred to me: “Wait, I am here to watch the show, not take pictures!” I didn’t pay for a seat on the lowest level to take pictures. I was there to soak up the whole experience and be out of my mind. Heck, there were probably way better pictures on Flickr anyway! So I put my camera away. And then what followed was an experience that I have had watching many puppet shows: I started out observing and noticing how the puppets work and how the puppeteering was done, but eventually I was too busy watching these characters come to life and do their stuff to actually pay attention to those things. These were not a bunch of mechanisms manipulated by puppeteers, these were just dinosaurs. That’s what good puppeteering was. You forgot about the puppeteer.

I think many audience members’ favorite bit was the part with the T. rexes. The baby T. rex was cornered by two big dinosaurs. Then Mama T. rex came to the rescue. And then mom roared to the audience while the baby did his best impression of it. Let’s just say that he got a long way to go. Some of the dinosaurs, like the Brachiosaurus, were so big that they came close to hitting the lights hanging from the ceiling. Many of the dinosaurs were several stories tall and I would not want to be chased by any of them.

The dinosaur puppets were quite sophisticated, but there were many things that were quite simple but effective as well. For example, I really liked the plants. They were essentially just gigantic balloons, but when they were inflated and deflated, it conveyed the growth and death of plants really well. I also liked the butterflies. They really did look like butterflies flying amongst the plants, even though on the objective level, I knew they were just pieces of paper being blown at by air from beneath. They were simple surprises that really brought the environment to life.

My words couldn’t really do this show justice, but let me just say this: I watched the whole thing with a silly grin on my face. I really enjoyed the show. Someone told me that the show was targeted at kids of age nine. Well, perfect. That was about my mental age and maturity level. 😀

After the show, there was something else to be excited about: the backstage tour. (Did I mention that the Los Angeles Guild of Puppetry was really awesome? Yeah it is.) We first went backstage to see the dinosaurs. They were all plugged into the wall charging for the next show. We were allowed to touch the skin of the dinosaurs, as long as we stayed away from the movable mechanisms. They were made of spandex so they felt like… well, spandex. But it was cool that they painted them in such a way that they looked like skin. The radio controlled dinosaurs sat on chassis, and each had a driver inside driving the dinosaurs to different places on the stage. The walk cycle mechanism was also attached to the chassis. Many parts of the dinosaurs were essentially balloons to reduce weight. After the show, the air was let out so some of them looked like starving dinosaurs.

After that, we headed to the voodoo lounge where the puppeteers controlled the dinosaurs. Each radio controlled dinosaur had two puppeteers in addition to the driver. The lead puppeteer would twist and turn this neck-like device, appropriately called the voodoo rig, and the dinosaur on stage would move their bodies accordingly. The auxiliary puppeteer had a joystick that controlled the smaller movements like eyes and mouth. They also got a keyboard that controlled the sounds. The puppeteer Ed told us that the T.rex’s final dramatic roar was right next to the fart sound and no mistake had been made so far.

While much of this information could be found in documentaries and interviews, the people giving the tour went into a lot more details on which button did what, which parts were hydraulics, how the puppets were balanced, and the unique quirks in puppeteering. For example, since the puppets could be facing toward or away from the puppeteers, sometimes the left and right was reversed, but sometimes not. That took some getting used to. It was an informative tour cuz there were no dumbing down for this audience.

It was quite a fun night. Once again, thanks to the Los Angeles Guild of Puppetry for putting this outing together. The North American tour is over now, so if you want to see it, you can still catch it in Europe and Asia! Actually, you never know. Maybe that tour company will come back to North America, or head to Australia. If you want to learn more about the behind the scenes details, check out these articles. I definitely recommend the show if you have a chance to see it!

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