The Animatronic Puppet Revolution: A Conversation with Mike Quinn and Dave Barclay

 

mike dave interview

Jason Mondine – For decades, the only way to bring fantasy characters to life in live action movies was either stop-motion animation or a guy in a rubber suit. Then in the 1980’s, the creative geniuses of Jim Henson and George Lucas converged to create a new technique, the animatronic puppet. And thanks to two truly terrible decisions made one decade before (American movie moguls saying, “Hey, let’s demolish all of our biggest sound stages and build condos” and American television studios saying, “The Muppet Show? Eh, that’ll never work.”), the center for all of that creativity was just outside of London, England.

For two young British puppeteers, Mike Quinn and Dave Barclay, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. I was able to chat with both of them recently at Washington State Summer Con in Seattle, about Gelflings, Skeksis, Jedi knights and Fraggles.


IMG_20190615_203933

Mike Quinn with Jason Mondine and his puppet character Ellie the Cat

Mike’s career began with the Muppets, using the time-tested technique of showing up on the set and hanging out a lot. Before too long, he was performing in The Great Muppet Caper, Tale of the Bunny Picnic and The Storyteller. 

Muppet Mindset: It’s well known that no American TV station wanted to produce the Muppet Show.

Mike Quinn: That’s correct. Yeah. Jim really tried hard to sell it to the networks in the States and nobody would pick it up. For whatever reason. Either they didn’t get it, or didn’t think it would do well, or didn’t want to take the risk or spend the money, because it wasn’t going to be a cheap show. So eventually Jim went to Lew Grade in the U.K., and Lew was one of those guys who did a lot for puppetry, because he also had commissioned things like Thunderbirds, and all those I.T.C. shows that his company owned. So it turned out that the U.K. was just a really good home for the Muppets. Who would have thought, right? For five years. And then of course the movies as well. The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper and The Dark Crystal. All were Lew Grade.

MM: Back in the 1970’s, there was no internet. How did you even find out this was going on?

Mike: As a big fan in 1976, when it first ran in the UK, I got hooked really quickly. I was obsessing about how were they made and how do they work these things, just couldn’t get enough. There was very little behind the scenes content. A few pictures, but not much. And I must have read in a newspaper at some point that they were filmed at ATV Studios in Borehamwood in Elstree, which blew my mind, because everyone assumed it was an American show made in the States. And I remember looking it up on a map, “Where is that?” and realized, gosh, it’s a 30-minute bus ride from where I lived, which was crazy! I literally would get on one bus, the 107 bus from the bottom of my street and it would drop my off right outside the studio. About 30 to 35 minutes and I was there.

After being hired on, one of Mike’s unique traits came in handy.

MM: Is being a left-handed puppeteer more of an advantage or a drawback?

Mike: Advantage actually, for the most part. Because most of the Muppet guys are right-handed. So when I’m left handed, I can come in to the side of frame, and just reach in, which is the opposite side (from the image on the monitor) when you’re doing puppets.

MM: Yeah that easy position on the side of the frame (instead of crouching down beneath).

Mike: I often ended up doing that stuff. Mostly it’s an advantage because it’s easy to fit in to a shot, without all those bodies squashed in between.

IMG_20190615_173322

Dave Barclay with Ellie

Meanwhile, Dave’s career launched in a galaxy far, far away, first helping to sculpt and then assisting the Great and Powerful (Frank) Oz in performing the original Yoda on The Empire Strikes Back.

MM: Again, in the pre-internet age, how did you find out about all the opportunities happening at the time?

Dave Barclay: I found out by a series of events. I had a summer job in Hamley’s Toy Store, which is a big London toy store, demonstrating and selling toy marionettes. One time, I came back from lunch and Mark Hamill had been in from Star Wars and had bought two thousand dollars’ worth of puppets. I was most distressed because, A. I was a huge Star Wars fan, and I had missed the chance to meet him. And B. I didn’t get the commission on the puppets. So it felt like the worst possible day of my life at the time. 

Fortunately for him, and us, the story didn’t end there.

Dave: But about a year later, Mark came back to work on Empire, and he asked the guys at Hamley’s, did they know anyone who could build a custom Darth Vader 18-inch marionette for him. And they said, “Yeah. The guy, Dave Barclay, he could do that for you”. So Mark finally got in touch with me through a series of friends, and I met him and built that marionette puppet for him.

MM: Very cool.

Dave: He invited me along to the studio to deliver it to him. And it was the day his son was born, so he was in amazing form. He was giving out cigars to everyone. Really happy. He introduced me to Stuart Freeborn, who was the makeup supervisor. And a week later, Stuart offered me a job on the Yoda team. So I had absolutely no idea that all of this puppetry was happening. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and that happened to be a toy store selling toy puppets. There’s no logic to that connecting to working on Star Wars and then being the very first British puppet maker to go on Dark Crystal.

MM: You started your career working on one of the most iconic puppets of all time, with one of the most famous puppeteers of all time. So, I have to ask. What’s Kathryn Mullen really like?

Dave: (Laughs) Excellent. Yes. She is phenomenal. When you look at what she did on Kira on Dark Crystal and Mokey on Fraggle Rock. Oh yeah. Kathy Mullen. Amazing performer. Just a lovely person. Really dedicated to her art. And has done amazing things for children’s TV and has promoted puppetry throughout her entire life. So, she is a real hero.

dave barclay

We’ll get to Fraggle Rock in due time. Back to Yoda.

Dave: For me, as a second generation puppeteer, being part of Yoda, I felt so lucky, because it really was the first animatronic puppet in cinema. It’s what I wanted to do, and my wish came true, and I got to do it. But I was so lucky because no one had done it before, and there was no manual on how you did this stuff. So, Stuart had an approach on how you shoot Yoda. And I think, primarily, because he’s such a great makeup artist, everything he did had to sit on skin and look like skin. Yoda’s skin looks like skin. Where a number of, let’s say, some of the Dark Crystal characters, they don’t look like skin. They look more fantastical. Yoda had to fit in to a “real” world, so Stuart’s ability to make it look like skin and feel real, I think, was a big fundamental reason that Yoda worked so well.

MM: So you’re bringing in the makeup techniques from cinema, and combining them with the performance methods that Jim Henson had developed to make puppets read better on a screen. And together they created something that was just completely believable and realistic.

Dave: Yeah. In fact, I wasn’t originally part of the puppeteer crew. One of the puppeteers became allergic to something on set, so they needed another puppeteer to go down. And Stuart Freeborn said, “Well, yeah. Dave is a second-generation puppeteer. He can fill in for the afternoon.” So I was suddenly thrown in at the deep end, given the eye controls. “Oh hi, Frank”. I had seen Frank Oz from a distance, but I hadn’t really spent any time with him. He explained what the shot was. I said, “Oh, okay. I’ve got it.” We did it. And got through the day, and I thought well, that was an amazing thing. But he said, “No. I like what you did. You can stay on doing the eyes”. So suddenly I’m part of that.

Eventually, Frank Oz had to leave to shoot Sesame Street, leaving Dave to step in for the final shots.

MM: One of my favorite Yoda moments is when he falls off Luke’s foot and you have the closeup of him saying, “concentrate”. I just love the way his head is following his body with that sense of mass. It just seemed so natural.

Dave: Oh, yes. Well, we were on Dark Crystal when that shot came up, basically. I was told that they were going to release me for the day to go and work on Yoda. So I asked Frank, “I hear that we’re doing Yoda. Do you want me to do the eyes again?” He said, “Oh, no.” My heart sank slightly. Then he said, “No, no. You’re puppeteering Yoda.” And I said, “Oh, really??” He said, “I saw the rushes of what you did. It was fine. It’s only Yoda.” He was very down to Earth.

frank jim yoda

If you call dissing Yoda down to Earth. Of course, Frank is one of the few people who can get away with that.

Dave: So I arrived, we were the last shot of the day, and we were already in to overtime. And the crew just wanted to get out of there. And I didn’t know what we were doing. No one had told me. So I asked, and they explained it. “You are here, you fall down this way”. And I had been thinking that it would just be the back of the head or something. If it was important then Frank certainly would have done it. So I was like, “Oh, my goodness.” There was no rehearsal. I’m there and they say we’re rolling. So the first take was absolutely terrible. And I can see on everybody’s faces on the crew, it’s like, “Who is this kid? Why isn’t Frank doing this? We want to get home”. So, yeah, no stress, no panic. And I thought, no, no. I just have to think this through and try and get that mass right. So I think we did maybe two more takes, and I think it was the second take that was the one that was in the film. And they said, “Oh, that’s fine. Good. Cut and wrap.” So it was, again, in the deep end. I’d never done anything like that before, trying to work out what the gravity would be. Trying to channel Frank as well, thinking, “What would Frank do?”

MM: “What would Frank do?” That should be a bumper sticker.

Dave: (laughs) Yes.

Slave_Master

Meanwhile, Mike was cast in the Dark Crystal as the Slave Master Skeksis.

MM: I remember watching Empire, Jedi, The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth as they came out and thinking this was something new and revolutionary. Did it seem like that while you were working on them?

Mike: You’re right. Yeah, I mean, Yoda was the first. I remember when I saw the first pictures of Yoda, and thought, I can’t wait to see this. And that was the first real animatronic puppet, and then Dark Crystal was pretty well the first animatronic movie, and it was very sophisticated. So we had to learn, all of us, how do you make these guys walk, how do you make the heads turn realistically, how do you make them blink in a nice way, what do the eyes do. We couldn’t do the “Muppet” thing anymore. It had to be a lot more creature-like and realistic. So we sort of had to invent that stuff.

MM: What kind of training did that involve?

Mike: We had a lot of workshops. We were filming the Great Muppet Caper at the same time that we were in pre-production on Dark Crystal. So we would do film tests at the end of the day (shooting on Muppet Caper) for Dark Crystal. We had workshops that Jim and Frank would give in the evening as well on video and in front of mirrors talking about basic puppetry techniques, and how to do the creature stuff. So, quite a few months of rehearsal. And as the puppets became more ready, we would start to rehearse with the Skeksis on the sound stages, and try to work with the cable crew and how to get them to work the face. So we spent a long time with that. And a lot of those things that I was taught in those workshops with Jim and Frank and the other puppeteers, I rolled in to my Secrets of Puppetry Academy now, so I want that legacy to continue. I don’t want that information to be lost. I think it should be available to everybody, for the ones who want to know it. It’s important to get that out to everybody, because anybody can do this if they spend enough time doing it. It’s not something just for the “elite”.

MM: True. And boy, does it take practice.

Mike: Yeah basically, and passion.

Aspiring puppeteers can enroll at http://secretsofpuppetry.com/

Return of the Jedi featured an animatronic population explosion. Dave found himself promoted to chief puppeteer on the crew of Jabba the Hutt. Meanwhile, Mike slid into the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon as Lando Calrissian’s co-pilot, Nien Nunb.

mike-quinn-nien-nunb.png

MM: It seemed like Yoda was a proof of concept, because then when Jedi came out, suddenly there were so many more aliens being done this way.

Mike: Right. With assorted puppetry techniques. Yeah.

MM: When you were doing Nien Nunb, was there any accommodation made to the cockpit set to help you fit?

Mike: Absolutely. Yes. Unfortunately, because it was tight in there, they had to actually cut out the bottom of the seat part of the Falcon. There was steel they had to cut apart just to get me to be able to lie flat on my back under there. And the guys, I know, were kind of worried about destroying this seat. “You’re sure you want this cut? You’re sure we’re going to have to do this?” “Yeah, I’m sorry. I can’t get out of shot.” “Well, we can’t cut any more. This is a 1973 racing car seat”. I remember that so well. They were so worried. “No. Cut it off”. Not that you ever saw it anyway. So, that was the only thing they had to do for me.

MM: My favorite Nien Nunb acting moment is right after the superlaser fires. There’s a moment when the character is just standing there stunned, and there’s a quick blink, and you can see him thinking, “Oh, oh! I’m still co-piloting”. It was a wonderful spontaneous moment that I’m sure was not spontaneous in its creation.

Mike: No, it probably was, because we were flying by the seat of our pants with that stuff. We didn’t really rehearse it.

MM: Oh, okay.

Mike: We did a few takes on everything. But for me I was mostly just trying to feel the scene and using the techniques that I had learned physically. It’s like a musical instrument. If you know the instrument well enough you don’t have to think about how to play it. You think about the music.

MM: Were you able to do the eye blinks yourself?

Mike: No. That was Simon Williamson who did my eye blinks on cable control. He was right behind me. And Tim Rose did the ear wiggles on cable. So we were all working together right behind that seat there. It was mostly just feeling it and trying to find those moments. And very much where I was at at the time was what he was doing.  Nien Nunb came across as this kind of “Let’s go get ‘em, happy go lucky, I’m excited to be here, let’s do this” kind of thing, and that’s sort of where I was at the time, so I think some of that came through, that enthusiasm. So in just playing the scene, you get those moments. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I mean, we could have rehearsed it, I suppose, but we didn’t.

fraggles

While still in London, Dave got a sneak peek at a new Muppet production being shot across the pond in Toronto, Canada.

Dave: We wrapped Dark Crystal, and Jim basically let everyone go because the production was over and he was going to post-production. But he decided to keep two people on out of the whole crew to do promotional stuff for Dark Crystal, and then to do research and development for what became Labyrinth. So that was myself and Lyle Conway. We were the only two people he kept on, and we had the whole workshop to ourselves. We did all of the exhibition figures for Dark Crystal. While we were doing that, I saw the very first ever rough cut of the pilot of Fraggle Rock. And it was rough. They were still working on it.

MM: Rough cuts are like that.

Dave: Yeah. That’s the reason for having a rough cut. And Duncan Kenworthy, who was showing it to us, asked, “What do you think of the show”? And I said, “Oh, the show is good, but I love Sprocket!” This was before I knew that Jim had decided there would be international co-productions of Fraggle Rock. And they needed puppeteers to do the wraparounds of Sprocket and the actor in different countries. In France, in England, and Germany. I just thought I’d love to do something like him, because I love the fact that he doesn’t have dialog. Most puppeteers wouldn’t, but the fact that he’s just got the barking. If you’re a puppet mime, what a wonderful opportunity! Normally, it’s like, “blblblblb” (mimes a puppet mouth opening and closing). And that’s it. But here, Sprocket’s not going to do that. And so it’s pure technique and puppetry, the works. That got back to Jim, and he said, “All right. Yeah. Let’s let David do it”. So I didn’t have to audition.

MM: Sprocket was performed in Canada by Steve Whitmire, assisted by one of my heroes, Karen Prell.

Dave: Oh, yes. Karen’s amazing, from doing Rockin’ Robin on The Muppet Show, being a monster on Sesame Street, and of course, Red Fraggle. I first actually met her when I traveled up to Toronto on Fraggle Rock. They sent me out, and I got to watch Steve for a couple of weeks. I said, “Well, what do you do, Steve?” And Steve said, “Um, I don’t know. I mean, I just do Sprocket the way it is”. But Karen said, “Oh, no. This is what Steve does”.

MM: I can totally see her saying that.

Dave: Yes. She explained what Steve does, and really gave me an insight into Steve’s technique. Mine’s slightly different, but it’s still good to know how they work. So, then I got to do England, France, and Germany. And again, as often is the case, Mike and I, they would always team us up on it. So, we started off doing that. Mike did Gobo. He did a great job of doing Gobo in all the early productions. I started off doing Traveling Matt, and then Mike did a couple. Then I said to Martin Baker, “I think Mike’s got a better match to Dave Goelz in his puppeteering style than I do.” So, Mike did more Matts. And we were just great friends and still are. We had a blast.

Mike: Yeah. Part of the plan that Jim had was to do many different international co-productions. They were initially looking at Saudi Arabia and Japan. They didn’t happen. But we got to reshoot the human/dog parts for the U.K., France and Germany. And that would also mean that we had to redo Gobo getting the post card sections to match continuity with the original show back in the Fraggle hole, to match the right post card, the correct hand, the right costume, the right speed…

MM: So, you studied Jerry Nelson’s movements, and of course Dave Goelz with traveling Matt?

Mike: Oh, definitely, absolutely, especially Dave (Goelz). I spent a long time with him learning how to approach Traveling Matt. In the beginning, I was trying to figure it all out. And when he explained to me the character, and how a segment was made, then I got it. Then he would dub over my voice. Not for the French and German, but for the English versions. Some shows we did three times over for each country. 

MM: Oh, that’s part of the job.

Mike: Yes. In England, Doc was a lighthouse keeper. In France, he was a retired chef. In Germany he was a copy of the original Canadian show.

Dave: For me the real joy of that was it’s the only time that I’ve performed the same character three different ways. The Germans wanted an exact copy of the original show. They got the plans of the set, reproduced it exactly but dressed it Bavarian. They translated all the scripts exactly into German, word for word, and even put in the same edit points. They said, “It’s perfect. You can’t get it better. We’re not going to mess it up.” And so, we would actually watch through the shots that Steve and Karen had done for Sprocket with Gerry Parkes and then we would exactly recreate that. That gave me a chance to look at places where I could add something, because I had a chance to take another pass on what Steve had done. That was a really interesting experience. In France, it was really big, over the top, sort of almost cartoony style of puppetry. So, it was a very different style of character. Same show and the same wraparounds for each show, but completely different story lines. And then we go to England, and they want it to be a realistic, real dog, the opposite of France, and so trying to be very minimalistic, but still within Muppet style because it has to fit in the Fraggle world. But pull it way down and do a different style. And so, I did three different versions of the same character. That is the only time I’ve done it, but what an amazing opportunity as a puppeteer.

the great bong2

In the 90’s, CGI became the new Bright Shiny, and puppet roles were harder to come by. So Mike, Dave and Karen Prell created their own original show in England.

MM: From the very little I can see of The Great Bong, it seems like such an innovative and cool show. Is there any way for people to still see some of the episodes?

Mike: We’re trying to see if we can digitize them so that we can put them out online. There were twenty-six 11-minute episodes. They were all written by Karen. I directed 6 episodes, and Dave and I produced all of them. They were just very simple, basic hand puppets with eye blink animatronics, and foam faces. And we had no money and no time for the show. The TV studio said it can’t be done, so we did it, just because they told us it couldn’t be. And we built the sets ourselves, we had very limited resources.

MM: I am so familiar with what you’re talking about.

Mike: But it was fun! One of the things that was innovative about that show, we were using celebrity voices. English celebrities. Normally, you either pre-record everything, the entire show, or they dub it afterwards. And if you wrote a vast speech, getting to dub afterwards would have been near impossible and expensive. And of course, when you’re working to a pre-recorded track, you’re kind of chasing that. You don’t get to really act in the moment. So what we did, our solution was we digitized each line of dialogue for each character and divided them up into, like, a digital jukebox situation. So instead of having a microphone on our headbands, we had a micro-switch. And so each time we’d tap that micro-switch with our chin, it would trigger the next line of our character.

the great bong

MM: Wow!

Mike: And it was so good! We could tighten our lines, we could leave a space for a reaction before triggering the next line.

Dave: I have all of the original tapes. I have everything. They’ve been carefully stacked in my garage for probably the last 25 years. One of the issues is that we did have a contract that told us that we owned all the rights, but with various moving in the actual legal company, we don’t have that piece of paper anymore. But I found out from a friend that there’s a way that we can get around that. So, I think we probably will. But of course, all of us are so crazy busy, it’s like, “When are we going to do it?” But something I really want to do. I’ve actually been looking in to getting those transferred digitally. At the time I tried to persuade Production to do it wide screen, 16:9. We shot it 4:3 much to my chagrin because I knew 16:9 was coming.

MM: Yeah. Wide screen was totally coming.

Dave: And to be honest, puppets look better on the wide screen any way. Because you have less head room. You always have extra head room with puppets, because you’re always framing them off at the bottom of the frame. So, 16:9’s better. I’d like to try and do a 4:3 to 16:9 version of it, which I did do some tests, and it looks pretty good. 

MM: Mike, do you have any current or future projects in addition to the Secrets of Puppetry?

Mike: I’m in the middle of writing my book, “Talk to the Hand”, which is about my career and my life, I’m busy with season 2 of “Kidding” with Jim Carrey for Showtime, and I’m also shooting some Muppet segments for Disney Plus. So, there’s a lot going on right now.

MM: Dave, same question.

Dave: Yes, actually. The project that I’m just trying to wrap up is based on one of my parents’ puppet plays. It’s called Ice King. It’s a play they wrote when I was six. Original show. I loved it, and so I’ve spent the last ten years trying to make it into a full-length feature movie. And I’m just about finished. I’m using motion capture, again because it’s fully funded by myself. And basically, I’ve done everything. I brought some of my puppeteer friends in to do the motion capture. But that’s about it. I’ve done everything else.

MM: It’s amazing what one person can do now with modern technology.

Dave: Yes. So, that’s been my passion project based on their show. My son is a two-time Emmy nominated sound mixer. He’s doing the sound. We’re working on the 5.1 surround sound mix. Then I’ve just got to do the color timing, and then it’s ready. I’ll probably have to go self-distribution. Just the way things are. It’s not a Hollywood film, so I don’t think any of the studios would be interested. It’s a small low budget film and just for kids. So It doesn’t fit the studio requirements. But I’m looking forward to getting that out there.


Thanks to both Mike Quinn and Dave Barclay for being ever so generous with their time and energy. I’ve always said that puppeteers make the friendliest celebrities, and neither proved me wrong even in the slightest. Thanks as well for posing for photos with my cat puppet Ellie, born last year at Beyond the Sock, the subject of my article last year. Your work has captured my imagination, transported me to the most fantastic realms, and inspired me as an artist to reach for the most ambitious heights.

Follow the links below to learn more about these extraordinary artists and their upcoming projects.

http://www.quinnzone.com/

http://davebarclay.com/

(Oh, and this is what Kathryn Mullen’s really like)