In August we were approached by Designworks to help produce an internal safety video for a pretty large company which ended up being a large problem solving endeavour. (as I write this, the work has not yet been released for public viewing so no links to video are available currently). This is a blog about some of the hurdles we faced along the way, some of the technical aspects of the shoot and how, mostly, when you surround yourself with great people, a team can produce some great work.
The brief involved personifying “chance” in the form of a puppet (aptly named Chance) who would act within a number of different sets where chance can lead to large safety issues if not properly addressed.
With this project there were a few requirements we needed to meet:
1 – Chance the puppet needed to be muppet like, but also needed to be built from scratch.
2 – The world of Chance the puppet also needed to be a bespoke art department build, involving a number of different, large-scale environments.
3 – The colour scheme of Chance’s world was all based on specific colour matches and each scene revolved around 3-4 key colours, based on Michael Crosbie’s (Design Lead @ Designworks) direction.
Over the course of two meetings, we spent much time questioning, gathering information and getting into a position to fully understand the brief in order to provide an accurate quote. As with many jobs, we needed to work to a fixed budget, so we had to communicate closely with the agency to ensure we could deliver their requirements, which ended up being one 2-minute video, four 10-minute interviews and 18 hero still images.
The first and most sensible thing we decided to do was get in a good creative producer (Ali Middleton) who we had worked with many times before and knew would be able to keep a good reign on the budget.
Building and Operating a Puppet
I’ll be honest – we had worked with small-scale hand puppets on projects before with New Zealand Post but we had never had to build one, so this was new territory to us.
We found an award-winning designer in the form of Fifi Colston, who agreed to come onboard and make not just one, but two puppets for us. As part of providing video and stills where two puppeteers would operate the puppet from underneath/behind/inside small spaces, we required one puppet from just the waist up, as well as a full body one that we could place into different positions for the stills aspect.
Fifi created a foam outline of the puppet that we used for sign-off purposes based on the design brief. Chance needed to be muppet like, but also way grungier – kind of like Animal from Sesame St but on steroids. He needed to be a snarly, foaming-at-the-mouth, cause-lots-of-trouble type that you definitely did not want to leave at home in charge of the kids.
Once we had sign-off on design, Fifi sourced a bunch of different covering materials. It would be fair to say that Fifi kicked it out of the park. The only hurdle we had was losing a bit of definition in Chance’s features when he got the fur onboard. She resolved this by some reshaping of various features, removal of some hair and further amendments to the face.
We required two puppeteers and brought on Nepia, a local puppeteer who was stoked to be given the chance to have a “bad ” character to play. We chose Nepia for a couple of reasons; not only did he bring great movement and character to the puppet, he also provided us a with great vocal character for Chance. It is a rare breed in puppeteers to get both excellent movement and vocal, so we were very lucky.
Set Building and Art Department
Having worked with the wonderful team at Avalon Studios, we decided the 4-day shoot would take place out there again. In order to fit the Chance character into the scenes, we needed to build a set raised up on rostrums and it would need to be around 8×10 metres to get the effect we needed…in other words, not a small build!
For the design of each shot, Michael Crosbie created a picture of what he was after and a colour palette to match.
Each shot required one background colour, one floor colour, and up to seven props, which ranged from wooden fishing rods that had been repainted, to wooden cutouts of shapes representing features within the organisation. All-in-all, we counted over 50 different props, each requiring hours of work to get right.
Nick Riera worked tirelessly in conjunction with Avalon Studios to build the sets. Nick’s work ethic really came to the forefront as the days we had in pre-production were limited. He and his team worked through each day of the shoot not just to manage what was happening on set, but also working behind the scenes to ensure the following day’s scenes would be ready to go as well.
The art department was probably the biggest challenge of the shoot. Because each set had a only a certain number of props and elements, everything needed to be just right. Much time was spent refining, re-shaping and re-painting.
When things go wrong, look for solutions
With any project that is done with limited time and budget, there are going to be challenges. In our case the biggest error came pretty late in the piece (the morning of the first days shooting) and was the result of us not paying enough attention to detail and testing in pre-production.
We have worked with colouramas in the past to great success and we decided that in order to get six different background colours, this would be the best way to go. Our plan to unwrap each colourama and hang it from a steel bar, which could be raised and lowered, was great…in theory. We had run a colourama test on a smaller scale (4-metre horizontal bar) a few days earlier which had worked well and we were confident that when it came to extending the the 4 metres to 10, we would be in a good space.
Wrong – cue problem solving.
We had allowed half a day on the first morning to pack in and get the first colourama up and running. By mid-morning, we had tried unsuccessfully several times to get the colouramas to hang in an even manner. The lighting brought up any bulbs or indiscrepencies in the colouramas in the form of shadowing and, as the DOP Steven Boniface said, “it looks like a wedding marquee.”
It’s always a hard thing to actually admit you are wrong and move on, but having the likes of Byron Sparrow (from Gunmetal Grips) and Steve both saying it’s not going to work, it becomes a case of then coming up with a Plan B…and fast.
Richard from Avalon Studios was our lifesaver on the day. We asked him if we could re-paint some of his old set walls that he had around the place. “Yes, of course” were the words that we needed to hear and Ali began to reshuffle the first day;s shooting to utilise some of the small sets that did not require the enormous colour backgrounds. A couple of phone calls later and we had two more people in to begin painting the walls that afternoon in readiness for tomorrow’s shooting schedule.
An incredibly understanding agency, who were very proactive in working towards a good outcome, also helped to refine a couple of shots to ensure we could still produce a top-level video.
Once we had resolved these issues, the rest of the shoot became much more straightforward.