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Strange Hill High - from the point of view of the Puppeteer!

Strange Hill High, series 2. CBBC/Fremantle Media/Factory TM.
First TX: 29 April 2014, 5pm, CBBC. At time of press, currently available on iPlayer & DVD.

Live rod-puppetry & CG animation combine to create the award-winning & BAFTA-nominated show, Strange Hill High. Lead Puppeteer, Tim Jones talks to us about his studio experience and why he thinks this puppet show is not t just for children...

They are going to leave the puppet-rods in shot? That was the moment I realised I wanted to be a puppeteer on Strange Hill High.

It is perfectly possible, of course, to digitally remove puppet rods for telly these days, which is why it feels refreshingly-brave to allow the audience to actually see the mechanics behind this performance art. Many of the special effects are created live in-camera, too, with CG mouths bringing the finishing touches to each puppets performance.

As a puppeteer for over 15 years, most of my live puppetry requires that I also perform the characters voice. This is great for improvisation (it had been ideal for my CBBC puppet-presenting with Emlyn the Gremlyn, as well as my own one-man-show theatre work) as it allows for spontaneity and comedy improvisation. However, puppeteering to a prerecorded Voice Over was something I had only previously dabbled in. I wasnt sure if I would feel too restricted in what I could bring to the performance. I neednt have worried: the voices for Strange Hill High are provided by a fantastic cast including Richard Ayoade, Emma Kennedy, John Thomson, Ben Smith, Marc Silk and Caroline Aherne and puppeteering to the VO track was another reminder of how much character is portrayed non-verbally through body-language: just because a character isnt saying something, it does not mean they are not saying anything, right? Its really satisfying to see how much drama and humour the puppeteer team have added to the show; bringing a significant extra-dimension to our heroic characters. Live Puppetry really allows us to continually improve a performance and encouraging the team to bounce ideas off each other, we can add subtle-nuances to every shot. This sharing tangibly keeps the energy up on-screen, as well as on-set (or in our case, under the set).

The scripts for Strange Hill High are very funny already but I think weve managed to up-the-comedy-stakes (there is a phrase you do not hear everyday!) My team for series 2 consisted of: Senior puppeteers Josh Elwell, Nick Kellington, Mikey Brett and Assistant Puppeteers Emily Cooper, Kim Scopes, Karolina Czyz and Julie Kellington. Julia Frost-Atherton and Aiysha Nugent-Robinson were our puppetry-interns for a few weeks. The team worked brilliantly together (in some very cramped conditions) to take everything we had learnt in series 1 to the next level. As lead puppeteer on series 2, I really wanted to free-up the puppets a lot more - taking them off their metal stands and allowing them to move from their central core. This gives them even more dynamism and the impression of a living body affected by gravity.

Each time the camera is repositioned for a different shot, we needed to very slightly re-choreograph each character, allowing puppeteers access to the puppets, as well as the puppeteers arms around each others under the set. Strange Hill High is shot and edited more like a movie, and less like the more traditional puppet show (theatre-style/face-on). We had many reverse (over-the-shoulder) shots and this meant we had to be more accurate with the eye-lines of each character, to avoid continuity-issues in the final edit.

The characters for Strange Hill High were designed by Gaz Roberts and then beautifully engineered and sculpted by MacKinnon & Saunders (Bob the Builder, Corpse Bride, Fantastic Mr Fox, etc). Most SHH puppets have a central body-rod with a trigger below their feet that allows the head to rotate and nod. The puppets arms are controlled by rods with a joint at the wrist and usually require a second puppeteer to perform them. This allows the first puppeteer to concentrate on the characters focus, speech and core movements.

If a character needs to kick a ball or pass a prop to another character, it can take up to 4 puppeteers per-puppet to make the sequence work. Each puppet - through its design, formation, clothing and head-shape, etc, brings its own style of movement and its always interesting to find the boundaries of how far you can (literally) push a puppet to get its best performance.

Strange Hill High is very cinematic in its visual style and this looks amazing on screen but for the puppeteers, the low light-levels (of those beautifully atmospheric, spooky shots) - along with the relatively small-scale of the puppets, reduces the focal depth for the camera. This in-turn means that we usually have to puppeteer to an accuracy of within just a few millimetres! It was always a challenge to get the best possible performance within these constraints but most puppeteers will be used to not having enough space!

Knowing that lip-synch would be added on afterwards, it was also important for us to puppeteer the broader movements and the rhythms of the characters speech, instead of (overdoing the) lip-synching with the puppets head or entire torso.

We all learnt so much on the first series, the whole studio (Factory Transmedia Ltd, Producer Phil Chalk) and all its departments continually improved the processes to get the best out of this unusual mix of small-scale live-puppetry and post-production computer animation. Hypervynorama (as coined by the shows creator, Kat Van Henderson) is arguably the most refreshing thing on television at the moment, for any age group.

Stylistically, Strange Hill High mixes Japanese vinyl dolls, multi-puppeteer/rod-puppetry, movie-realistic environments, and (using tracking-dots on the puppets faces) computer animation (Studio CG Liaison, Anne Wilkins) for facial expressions, the occasional laser, explosions and dangly-boogers!

Strange Hill High Showrunner Josh Weinstein (The Simpsons, Futurama), Executive Producer Sarah Muller and Script Editor Andrew Burrell have ensured that the scripts are smart, funny and irreverent; almost to the point of subversive! They really play-up to the viewer. CBBCs target audience is 6 to 11 yr olds but every parent I have spoken to enjoys SHH as much as their children. And perhaps they should: there are story-lines and beautifully-lit-spooky-corridors (DOP Martin Kelly) that nod to specific action and horror movies; complete with some genuinely sinister bad-guys! However, this only enhances the show for older viewers, rather than detract anything for the younger ones. Some sequences (thanks to Director Chris Tichborne and Senior Director Geoff Walker) have my children (aged 8 and 6) fidgeting nervously on the sofa whilst I reassure them that its just Daddy and his work-mates messing-round with puppets! Some of it, though - is brilliantly creepy!

I think you will have as much fun watching Strange Hill High as we did making it - you will just be more comfortable.

Tim Jones
July 2014

Reprinted with kind permission by Tim Jones from his blog here

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