I got into puppetry when I was quite young, inspired by the numerous trailblazing films of my childhood. I was incredibly lucky to grow up when I did, animatronics was a growing art form and movies like The Dark Crystal blew my mind, the extraordinary creatures on the screen both terrifying and enthralling me.
I started to try and make my own characters, learning by my mistakes and reading or watching anything that could help me. A bit of hard work and a lot of luck later I spent time with Jim Henson's Creature Shop and being phenomenally jammy, then trained as a muppet puppeteer. That, as they say, was that.
I normally work, day-to-day, as a voice artist and actor, providing characters for various cartoons and adverts, but I've been privileged to work on a number of amazing TV puppet shows over the last 20 years. However I should state right now, I'm no expert. Puppetry is a broad umbrella term for many disciplines, I wouldn't have the faintest clue what to do if I was asked to use a marionette... yet there are puppeteers who can take a puppet suspended on strings and move it in a way that will have you roaring with laughter one minute and weeping the next. Even within TV puppetry, there are performers who floor me with their skill, so day-to-day I am constantly learning and that's one of the most rewarding aspects of the job.
So what was Yonderland like? Challenging, exhausting, but most of all, fun. Film making is not a quick process, the hours are long and there is an awful lot of time in between bouts of filming whilst the camera crew, lighting, sound, props, set dressers, puppet team and most importantly director finalise a shot. Every department works incredibly hard, the puppet team having to constantly maintain and care for the puppets, as well as making miniature costumes and props as and when they're needed.
The sets for Yonderland were amazing, but also on the floor. That's sounds obvious, but ordinarily sets that involve puppets are built four feet off the floor. This means that to get out of shot when puppeteering say, Elf, you have to sit on the floor, but Elf also has real hands... that's a second puppeteer behind the first, holding their hands up either side of Elf and gesturing along with Elf's dialogue. Now because you're sitting on the floor getting out of shot, you can't really see what you're doing, so small monitors are placed on the floor showing what the camera can see. This is how you make sure the puppet is looking in the right direction or that your head beneath camera isn't drifting up into the shot. Suddenly though, you're taking up a lot of room and actors are having to work with and around you. If Elf has to walk with Debbie, both puppeteers have to be on small circular seats with wheels called 'Donuts'. Again that can get really tricky for the puppeteers and the actors working with them. In the Town and Forest sets, huge paths had to be swept clear for the 'donuts' to roll smoothly alongside 'Debbie', with monitors placed at points along the path for us to see, adding time and complexity to each set-up. We were lucky on Yonderland as Martha Howe Douglas, Laurence Rickard, Simon Farnaby, Ben Willbond, Mathew Baynton and Jim Howick were incredibly accepting and supportive of the challenges involved. Martha especially had the most interaction with the puppets, but treated them and us as equals, always doing what she could to make our lives easier.
Yes, Yonderland was hard, with only four puppeteers and generally a puppet in most scenes you were constantly busy, problem solving all the time. But that was true of everyone involved, striving to make each scene as good as it could be and the effort involved I think really comes over in the show. Our wonderful director Steve Connelly, constantly drove us his infectious energy, skill and big booming laugh keeping everyone's spirits up when people started to flag. That sense of fun was all over the studio and the family that was created for Yonderland was a happy one. It was an amazing thing to have been a part of.
If after reading this, you fancy having a go at puppeteering, do it. Grab a sock, stick two ping-pong balls on the top for eyes and draw on some pupils with black marker pen. There. You've just made a puppet. Pop it on your hand and try it out in front of a mirror, count from one to 10, remembering that the number seven has two syllables... that's a double mouth movement. Play with voices and generally have fun, after all if you're not enjoying yourself, what's the point.
Yonderland season one is available to own on DVD now.