By Marcia Hunt
One of the puppet protagonists (photo by Daniel Kang).
As the pandemic enters its second year, programs such as the film BFA have been forced to rework their programs to adhere to COVID-19 safety guidelines. Because of restrictions placed on filming, many seniors are choosing to write full-length screenplays and record podcasts, instead of shooting a short film, as they would in a conventional year.
Anna White and Emily Kaye, two senior film majors, were determined to shoot a film. More specifically, the pair were set on shooting a romance.
“Emily and I were really set on doing a film our senior year,” White said. “There are a bunch of rules and guidelines about who can be on set, where you can shoot, and we have to be approved for everything. Since the film was about a sort of romance, we knew it wasn't going to be an easy project to shoot.”
To overcome the restrictions that would make shooting a romance with people nearly impossible, the pair opted out of casting human actors.
Instead, they chose puppets.
“Originally, I didn’t want to use puppets,” Kaye said. “But during a senior project meeting, I started Googling puppet shows and I came across this Chinese TV show called ‘Pili.’ I saw it and then I was, like, ‘Wait, this could actually work.’ That’s when we decided that we were going to film a puppet show.”
The two decided that in the vein of “Pili,” they were going to use hyper-realistic puppets. Kaye’s father, a theatre professor at the University of New Hampshire, helped them find a puppet maker.
“My dad works with a professor, Carol Jo Fisher, whose whole thing is making puppets,” she said. “We commissioned her to make us two puppets. After she finished them, she said, ‘I’m never making puppets like those again.’”
The uncanny puppets were designed to move as humanly as possible.
“We had a fairly long list of what we wanted the puppets to be able to do so that they translated on film,” White said. “Their mouths can move, but we haven't figured out how to get them to do that yet. Their arms move and their heads move from side to side. They're very weird, but I think that adds a lot to the piece.”
“I have to turn their box away so I don’t have to look at them when I’m in the room!” Kaye added.
The other puppet protagonist (photo by Daniel Kang).
The filmmakers found the eerie puppets ideal for their plot, which puts its otherworldly focus on two nonbinary, biblical angels.
“The film is about two angels who decide to kill God,” Kaye explained. “One of the angels is a narcissist who makes this plan to kill God so that they can be his successor. The other angel goes along with the plan. As their plan falls into place, the second angel starts to see the narcissistic angel without the rose-tinted glasses and realizes they’re no better than God. But they're in too deep.”
Surprisingly, although neither director considers herself a puppeteer, the unconventional project was actually similar to the broad range of fantasy movies the best friends have worked on since freshman year. The pair even worked on a movie with Muppet-like puppets, which featured a six-foot puppet monster.
“We have very similar styles when working on narrative pieces,” White said. “We enjoy similar realms, so I think we do a good job merging when we need to.”
However, the co-directors still faced challenges on their journey to production day.
One of the earlier obstacles came with the audition process. They received 500 auditions responses to an ad for auditions, which they had to narrow down to two. The auditions, like all of the other work, were divided evenly between Kaye and White.
"Each of us has different strengths,” Kaye said. “I was fine going through 500 auditions but I get nervous emailing people. So, Anna would engage with the actors, while I was alone clicking through and judging their auditions.”
Much of the work, especially early on in the process, took place simultaneously.
“A lot of things happen all at once,” White said. “We did a lot of planning with the set designer while we were looking through the actors. And this is going on when we’re getting more in depth with picking out props and editing the audio. All of the voice actors’ performances had to be edited so the puppets could have something to move along to while filming.”
The two would find that working with puppets was harder than it looks.
“The puppet-maker made the puppets specifically easy for beginners to use, but then we got the puppets and it’s been much harder than we could ever have even imagined,” White said. “There are so many restrictions that come with moving them.
“Essentially there are four main points of motion with the puppets, so you have to have four hands to get a fluid bodily motion. There are two people to a puppet. One hand has to move the head, one has to hold the body, and you need one hand on each arm.”
The puppets with their puppeteers (photo by Daniel Kang).
The project’s puppeteers honed their skills with a daily hour of puppet rehearsal. Rehearsals allowed them to block out each scene before they start filming.
Kaye, who had written the screenplay for the film last summer, had to make changes to accommodate for their new actors.
“Puppets don't move the way people move so a lot of the rewriting was cutting out actions that I didn’t think I’d have to,” Kaye said. “The puppets’ joints can't move to allow for simple stuff like covering their own face with their hands or brushing each other’s cheeks. There was a lot of rewriting to figure out the blocking.”
Instead of trying to hide the extra cast members, the pair have decided to embrace the puppeteers.
“For the film we’re not planning on hiding the puppeteers because so much of the story is about who’s in control and who’s controlling who,” White explained. “We realized it will add to the message if we show the puppeteers and decorate them to fit the scene. For example, there’s a garden scene so we’ll use vines and stuff to immerse them more into the world.”
When the co-directors reached the point of shooting, they finally saw their work come to fruition.
Like other seniors in the film BFA, Kaye and White shot their puppet show at the on-campus soundstage. For one of their faculty advisors, Prof. Aryana Anderson, this was the first time she had seen the puppets in person.
“Not being able to be very physically present in the filmmaking process was hard for me,” Anderson said. “It was hard for all of us, I think. So, to see it all come together in production has honestly been pretty emotional.
“This is especially because there is a sense of uncertainty and a deep amount of trust you have to give to students when you can't be with them at every single step. I was a bit overwhelmed with pride at how well they had prepared for their shoot, and have great confidence in them as they move forward.”
A shot of the set (photo by Daniel Kang).
Although the project wasn’t supposed to be a puppet show, the two have made the most of their change of plans.
And they’re creating something they’re proud of.
“Even if it is a disaster, I’m glad we did it this way,” Kaye said. “I would have never seen it in this light or using this medium. I think the obstacles we came across with the puppets and the COVID-19 problem-solving make the themes and the actual story stronger.”
“COVID has definitely made it a lot more difficult but all of the problems helped the film get to a place that fits it,” White agreed.
Anderson is impressed with the work the two co-directors have done during the pandemic.
“The co-directors have taken the pandemic in mind at every step of the process, from ideation to production, and have come up with really smart and creative solutions,” she said. “Their project began with evaluating the obstacles presented by the pandemic and finding ways to integrate creative solutions into the story they wanted to tell in meaningful ways.”
Anderson, a veteran of the film industry, believes that while COVID-19 has presented the film world with many difficulties, student filmmakers persevering through the challenges are better prepared to succeed in their careers.
"The problem-solving skills students are exercising will serve them well,” she said. “I believe they will actually have a competitive advantage as new roles emerge because of the experiences they have gained since 2020. We are a year into the pandemic, and many job postings already require experience working safely under the new industry guidelines.
“These students will have successfully produced projects despite the pandemic, while many people are not working at all. Once we recover, I believe that they will be well-positioned to be leaders in the industry because they will have forged their careers under extraordinary circumstances.”
Kaye and White are optimistic as graduation approaches.
“I do more social media work when working outside of Purchase,” said White. “My goal has always been to transition that work to places like Vogue or Refinery29 because I have a lot of documentary experience.”
“I plan on freelancing it [after college] so hopefully I can land something,” Kaye said. “I work a lot in YouTube, which will probably transition me more to streaming. Honestly, with all the streaming services and the big boom of production coming after COVID-19, there will be lots of opportunities. I see a lot of potential for us in the future.”
The pair plan on submitting their puppet show to upcoming virtual film festivals. More updates and information about where to watch the film when it comes out will be available on the co-directors' personal Instagram accounts: @annaw4653 and @the_captain_kaye.
As you may have noticed, the most recent issue of The Beat had numerous notes and proofing suggestions left in Marcia Hunt’s article “Anna & Emily Make a Puppet Show” (now known as "Marionettes and Success"). As editor-In-chief, I take full responsibility for this error. It was my duty to effectively review the piece before publication and I failed to do so, resulting in these mistakes.
I apologize to Marcia for marring her work; though unintentional, it was insulting to you and your dedication. It was not reflective of your standards, or The Beat’s.
I want to apologize to the subjects of the story, for running something that lacked proper review, and that key information about your lives and work was missing.
And, I want to apologize to our readers; just as the story subjects do, you deserve a fuller and more accurate accounting of these artists and their work.
Going forward, I vow to do better as an editor-In-chief to maintain The Beat’s standards and to deliver accurate and engaging content.
Thank you for reading.
-Jordan Meiland, Editor-In-Chief