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SDCC 2020: Puppets! Fantasy! Musicals! – Exploring Big Adventures on a Small Scale – Panel Coverage

When I saw the title of this panel, I was immediately sold. Puppets, fantasy, and musicals are three of my favorite things. It’s an extremely short panel, only 20 minutes, but well worth watching for anyone who’s a fan of puppetry and the stories you can tell with it.

The panel focuses on Chosen?, an upcoming, puppet-based webseries, written and directed by Jon Roufael. Should you know who that is? Is he famous? “No, you shouldn’t, and no, I’m not,” explains Roufael at the very beginning. What he and his team are, rather, is a group of people who got together to make something cool.

The panel began with individual conversations between Roufael and each of the other team members, followed by a brief group discussion. First up was the only one with actual, legitimate puppet credits to her name, Rachel Burson, who talked about puppet design and creation.

Burson went into her process for puppet design. While other designers build around a puppet’s personality, she prefers to work off of an aesthetic. The personality of the puppet, she’d rather leave up to the puppeteer. Roufael agreed, and talked about the origins of Elmo: nobody knew what to do with this puppet, until Kevin Clash came along and gave him life.

Burson went on to discuss how she got into puppetry in the first place. When renting a set of puppets for a project, she discovered that they didn’t work very well. So, she bought a book on puppets and, eventually, learned how to make better ones. She describes bringing her very first puppet—flawed, heavy, and awkward—to Ohio Comic-Con, where people fawned over it and wanted to know where she’d bought it. Suddenly came the dawning realization: “Can I really do this?”

Next up was Travis Nilan, the composer, who talked about creating music for the series. To him, a fantasy means lutes, strings, and drums to create a more classical sound. Music is particularly important in Chosen?, given that it is, in fact, a musical.

That question of how to create fantasy then carried into the next conversation with co-director Justin Moran.  In discussing how to use puppets to create a fantasy experience, Roufael actually echoed Burson’s earlier sentiment: “Can I really do this?”

Moran talked about the suspension of disbelief inherent in puppetry and the element of live theater that they create. The audience signs off on the limitations and just goes with it. Whatever you’re lacking, they can fill in the blanks, allowing you to create a sweeping epic even on a very small scale. “If you do it right,” he said, “you can make it feel both claustrophobic and immense at the same time.”

A team as small as theirs means everyone has to wear multiple hats, and it was often a “learn as you go” experience for all of them. In particular, no one was prepared for what it would mean to hold and operate these puppets for long stretches at a time, or how much their arms would end up hurting. In this regard, Moran considers himself a “pioneer of the Just Push Through It method.” Burson concurred and said that Jim Henson, when talking to a brand new class of puppeteers, would have everyone raise their hand in the air for a full minute, to give them an idea of what they’d be in for.

After the discussion came the premiere of the first episode of Chosen?, their new puppet fantasy musical web series. Interestingly enough, a lot of the discussion in the panel actually centered around the second episode, which was the first one they shot. I look forward to seeing that one when it comes out. In the meantime, episode 1 is a lot of fun. The bulk of it consists of a song which the main character sings, while playing the lute, for a crowd of adoring fans.

This panel was an inspiration for me. As someone who loves to create theater and film and who wants to work with puppets, too, it was a reminder that great things are possible, even without a lot of money and resources—as well as a great reminder that #StoriesMatter in all the different ways you can tell them. With a few like-minded friends and a willingness to experiment, you can put together something really cool.

If you’ve enjoyed this panel coverage for Comic-Con @ Home and want to check out the panel for yourself, you can do so at this link!


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