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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Brisbane puppeteer Brett Hansen talks about his new creation Troggg

Brett Hansen recently unleashed Troggg on the Brisbane entertainment scene. Expect to see Troggg popping up at parties (not just for children), weddings, comedy nights, on TV, and even hosting the odd film festival! Some of this conversation will make its way into a future bmag column.

Brett, where does your love of puppets come from?

When I was just a baby, my parents would put Sesame Street on in the mornings and I fell I love with it straight away. At the time the Muppet Show was on TV as well. Sesame Street, Muppet Show, loved them. Became aware of Jim Henson as a person and performer and really got interested in the behind-the-scenes side of it from a very early age - while [Jim] was still alive. Because I was so interested I would just be glued to the screen whenever Sesame Street or the Muppets were on, and the movies as well. I loved the movies. 

My parents ended up buying me a couple of puppets to play with, kids’ puppets. And I would sit there with puppets on my hands and just mimic what I was watching. Mimic the lip-synch and the movements and the way they walk and I was just mirror exactly what I was seeing on TV and I would watch behind-the-scenes footage whenever they played it. 

We had an old videotape of The Muppet Movie taped off television, probably the night it premiered on TV and after the movie was a special, behind the scenes of Jim Henson and the Muppets. And there was footage of Sesame Street and Muppet Show characters and a sneak-preview glimpse of the upcoming film, The Dark Crystal. And I was just intrigued. That’s when I sort of learned about Jim Henson and that all of these characters were part of his creation and they showed the puppeteers operating them. They showed the live hand puppets and the rod puppets [and] yeah, I just loved it.

Why are you still so interested that you’re now carving your own puppeteering career?

I always – even then [as a child] – thought that those adults with those puppets looked like they were having such a good time. They go to work and they stick their hands up puppets for a living, make good money doing it. Why not have fun in your job?

At the same time, Henson took it very seriously, didn’t he?

Yes certainly, it’s a puppetry style on its own. They were always striving to make their puppets look more and more believable. As funny as the Sesame St and Muppet Show characters looked, they were always doing new things with television – with green screen, or with certain props that they would use to dangle legs over to make it look like they were actually sitting down. You could see their whole body. In the Muppet movies, they’d have Kermit the Frog riding his bicycle! 

They were always doing all sorts of weird and wonderful things to make them seem real, right down to the point of Jim Henson in a cage under water puppeteering Kermit from underneath the pond where he’s singing Rainbow Connection. And in the second movie, Frank Oz is weighed down with bricks in a swimming pool with Miss Piggy coming out and he’s got people giving him air to breath every 30 seconds or something but he has to hold his breath while he’s puppeteering! 

They did all these crazy things to make their puppets as realistic as possible. Filming them outdoors – no one had ever done that before until Henson. No CGI. All real, which was always very impressive. And you could occasionally see rods and you could see parts of the live hands puppets where you could see where their hand would go up and say “Oh look, there’s an extra bit down there, that must be where they stick their hand” and it was interesting to see how it worked but they did a really good job of keeping that illusion of realism.

Tell us about Troggg. Who’s Troggg?

Troggg is a character who I designed, a blue monster who I describe as an alien monster from the planet Crouton. I designed him towards the end of 2012 and waited six months for him to arrive. I had him built professionally by an ex-Jim Henson Muppet builder who used to work on Sesame Street.

How do you do that? Lots of emailing of designs?

Yes, that’s it. To-and-fro email conversation. I drew a picture, sent him a sketch and he said “Can you give us a bit of an idea of the textures that you would like?” So, because I really wanted that Muppet style, my design but in a Muppet style, I sent him pictures of different fur textures from other Muppets. Nose and eye and hair textures and I said these are the sort of colours and textures that I’d be after for this drawing and he said “Yes, I can do that”. 

I wanted it to be a live hands puppet – one where I could actually operate his hand.  You can’t buy those sorts of puppets. You can buy rod puppets – there are hundreds of those available for the public to buy – but you just can’t buy live hands puppets. So I figured I might as well go all out and have a special custom-made one of my own design that I could use as the face of my business, my logo, the star of all my shows. So that’s the story of Troggg.

And what are the shows?

At this stage, I’ve been doing a few kids’ puppet shows, for three and four year olds. But on my website, I’ve advertised to do MC gigs. I’ve got Troggg MCing at corporate functions, wedding receptions, trivia nights, comedy nights, impro comedy nights. He’s got an MC gig at a film festival coming up in July so he’s going to stand there behind a lectern and welcome everyone to the film festival and they’ll look up and see this puppet monster hosting and it’ll be weird but that’ll be good.

Troggg’s TV debut was meant to be on AGT but he arrived a week late?

He didn’t arrive on time. I had a stand-up comic act ready for Troggg and I went to the Australia’s Got Talent audition – one week before Troggg arrived, that was the day of the audition. So I had to go in with one of my other [commercially-available] puppets and I gave them a photo of Troggg and I said “just pretend that this is who it is”. It didn’t work out because it didn’t have the impact that Troggg would have had so I might try again next year.

But Troggg debuted on TV a few weeks later?

Troggg was a guest sidekick on The Late Nite Show on Channel31, throwing out various comments and jokes here and there based on the topics that came up. And I was quite happy with how it worked out. Got a few laughs and had a few tweets saying “Wow, Troggg’s cool”. I think he felt at home on television, under the lights with his crazy blue fur.

How was that, being under the desk for an hour?! 

Only for very brief moments was it comfortable! I had to shuffle around quite a bit cause my feet fell asleep. With the Muppets, the puppeteers stand up and their arms are stretched right up. It’s actually a lot more comfortable to stand and be upright when you’re performing puppets like this. 

The sets on The Muppet Show and Sesame Street are actually way up high and you’ve got these puppeteers standing upright with their arms stretched right up with their puppets and they’re quite heavy puppets. I mean Troggg is built in the style of a Muppet so he’s very heavy so to be crouched right down behind a very small desk, and have my arm stretched up, it just got a little bit uncomfortable at times but we got there in the end.

But it was good, just to have a puppet up there and then they’re doing the countdown “we’re going to be on air in ten seconds” and I thought “here we go, Troggg’s going to be on air. It’s going to be great!”

What’s Troggg’s TV future then?

I can see him either doing something similar, like a new Agro or Ossie Ostrich, sitting there and nodding and adding funny comments here and there, either on a kids show or on a comedy variety show. But also I can see him entertaining kids on TV as well. 

I’ve been doing a bit of puppetry consultancy, which was my official title in Avenue-Q last year, but I’ve been working with some QUT film students who are doing a puppet web series about an angry rooster puppet so I’ve been helping them with the movement of the puppets and one of the actors in the web series is in a Channel Seven kids show that has puppets so he said “look, if we’re ever after another puppeteer, we know where you are”.  So I can imagine being on a kids show either with Troggg or with other puppets that they provide.

So look out Jamie Dunn and Agro?

That’s it! Well Jamie Dunn is not doing a whole lot with puppets these days. Agro occasionally makes a public appearance but that sort of thing would be good. To bring puppets back to television, cause we haven’t seen many puppets on TV in recent years, ever since Agro and Ossie Ostrich disappeared.

Why’s that? 

Kids shows are a lot more hip these days. You’ve got these kids who look they’re just out of high school being really cool and hip and they’re hosting the kids shows now. No puppets, just these kids yelling at the camera and the camera zooming in and out. “Yeah, we got prizes, we got prizes, let’s cut to a cartoon” and there’s no puppets. I don’t know why that is. Maybe kids think puppets are lame. 

But I think with the Muppets making their triumphant come-back last year and with the sequel in the works, I think puppets are starting to come back. We’re going through this weird phase where the eighties are making a bit of a comeback now. References to old video games and TV shows and remakes of old eighties movies and things. They’re all coming back so I think puppets are starting to make a comeback too. There’s definitely a market out there. 

What about Troggg doing an adult TV show?

Yes, that’d be great too. I really enjoyed [working on] Avenue-Q. It was an adult parody of Sesame Street, which sold out. All the adults turned up. I guess people who were reminded of the Muppets and they could relate to the [more adult] subject matter as well as remembering their childhood as well, so they relate to the characters and the subject matter. So I can see an adult puppet series happening as well, either a theatre production that I do with Troggg or a TV series or a film would be nice.

You’ve worked as a puppet consultant. What’s the secret to making puppets come alive?

Eye focus is a big thing but lip-synch I find is the trick. Just making it second-nature that your hand moves exactly as your mouth moves. But also emphasis on certain words so the head moving forward when you emphasise a word. And making sure the puppet remains alive at all times. A lot of people flop the puppet to the side if it’s not talking but just to keep it up and nodding and alert and looking around. I just think that’s the basics. Keeping it alive and making sure the lips move exactly as yours do.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Bmag June 18th 2013 - Bill Oddie, How we watch TV now, No TV for some

Last weekend, I opened our copy of the Sun-Herald (yes, they still persist with a Queensland edition of the Sydney paper) and there was a half-page ad for the TV series Heartbeat on DVD. I was never a huge fan of this particular show, but box-set collecting has become something of a hobby – unlike media files, you can touch DVDs, admire them, lend them to friends – so the ad jumped out at me.

But seeing nine complete seasons of the classic Yorkshire police drama so prominently and lovingly advertised did rub salt in a long-standing wound in my DVD collection.

You see, there’s one series I would purchase in an instant and that’s The Goodies. Yes, I know there are best-of DVDs but never has the entire run been released. As Bill Oddie is in Brisbane this week (at the Tivoli on Thursday 20 June) I couldn’t help myself. I had to know why.

Oddie told me: “It’s been a mystery to us. I have to say the BBC has not been terribly co-operative and on the brink of childishness at one point.” He adopts a posh voice and quotes from a reply sent by the BBC to fans asking if a major Goodies anniversary would be marked: “'No, we have no plans. And I think we should remind you that the final season was actually done for ITV'. It was almost like they were saying we never forgive, we never forget!”

I express my personal enthusiasm for sitting down and watching every episode of The Goodies to which Bill Oddie replies: “There are a lot you know. There are nearly 100 programs!” I know and would still buy the complete box-set!

Whether it be box-sets, downloading all the episodes or setting the PVR to record a whole series, it seems we are increasingly choosing to watch every episode of our favourite TV shows. Ten or 20 years ago you would curse yourself for missing an episode but you wouldn’t go looking for it. Now you can, and so people do. But because we still have the same number of hours in the day, we each follow a smaller number of TV shows.

Realising this shift is American’s TOLN, The Online Network, the new home of former ABC soaps All My Children and One Life to Live. TOLN says viewers now choose one series or the other – and then watch every episode – instead of catching what they can of both.

In response to this, TOLN has reduced the number of episodes of each show to just two per week, saying in a statement: “We are making it far too challenging for viewers to keep up. “Most of us are just trying to find time to watch series of 13 to 22 episodes a season so asking viewers to assign time for over 100 episodes is a daunting task.” I wonder what this will mean for Australian TV in the future.

Last month (bmag, 21 May), I wrote about the analogue television switch-off in Brisbane. It turns out there was a contingency plan to switch analogue back on if there was a huge number of complaints. I’m told that happened in regional Victoria, one of the first areas to move from analogue to digital, but it wasn’t necessary here.

That’s not to say 100 per cent of us were digital-ready by the 28 May deadline. At 612 ABC we received the first “why doesn’t my TV work?” call at 9.12am, 12 minutes after the plug was pulled. bmag reader Susan Barnes wasn’t ready either. But, in a lovely email, she explains why it was “a kind of epiphany”.

“I have lived without TV before so I went out and bought a basic reading lamp instead. I have turned on the radio and am finding time to listen to my CDs and delve into the unopened novels on my bookshelves. I will also be investigating the local library’s DVD collection. And if the ABC comes up with something I feel I really must see I can watch it on my computer.

“So far it is wonderful – I am getting more done, eating better, getting to bed earlier, getting more exercise and feeling much happier. I can thoroughly recommend this course of action to anyone who is still struggling with the switch.”

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Bmag June 4th 2013 - Outback adventures and more on that LBD!

I could happily take a driving holiday in western Queensland every year. The clean air, the big skies, the open roads, the small towns, the big pubs with their iconic architecture. Even the limited phone reception. It all adds up to the ultimate escape from the drudgery of the big smoke. With the Australian dollar starting to drop, and overseas holidays getting just a little bit more expensive every day, now could be the perfect time for you to head west for your next trip. It’s easier than you might think.

In 2009, I took wife Nikki and then-nine-year-old Jack to Winton. We did the trip in just 10 days during the September school holidays. I’m going to show you how and point out some of the highlights along the way so that you might consider doing the same. The reward when you get to Winton is the Outback Festival with its famous dunny races! First stop for us (Monday night) was Toowoomba. Just a couple of hours from Brisbane, it broke the back of the holiday.

Next day, after viewing the winning Carnival of Flowers display, we drove the four hours to Mitchell to experience the wonderfullyrelaxing Great Artesian Spa. Floating in the naturally-heated spa is where we met a number of fellow travellers who we would keep bumping into over the next week or so. Just a two-hour drive on the Wednesday saw us in Charleville, where the must-see attractions are the Bilby Experience by day, the Skydome by night and a steak at the Charleville RSL in-between! Charleville to Longreach on the Thursday was one of our longest drives (515km) but stops include the famous Tambo Teddies and the Black Stump at Blackall.

Friday morning we reached Winton (180km from Longreach) and then totally immersed ourselves in the town and its Outback Festival! Exhausted after two full days in and around Winton (Waltzing Matilda Centre, Royal Open Air Theatre, Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum) and with dust in our teeth and nostrils, we headed back to Longreach (Stockman’s Hall of Fame and Qantas Museum, where you can tour every nook and cranny of a 747).

On the Monday, it was time to think about heading home. We stayed a couple of nights at a beach resort in Yeppoon – what a contrast after a week in the west – and arrived back in Brisbane on the Thursday. And that’s when you pinch yourself. It’s hard to believe the distance you’ve travelled and landscapes you’ve seen in just 10 days!

You might think it a challenge to take children but, remember, you don’t drive long distances every day. And for the days you do, a portable DVD player or movies on a computer will easily kill a couple of hours. That said, you don’t want them staring at a screen all day. Space out the movies and allow time for the children to get out and touch the dirt. Encourage them to take their own photos to show teachers and friends. I think children are far more patient and interested in the world around them than we give them credit for.

As for the adults getting bored, there’s always the pleasure of calculating distances and estimating the time of arrival at the next town (or is that just me? Another obscure Spencer hobby perhaps?!) In a few weeks, I’ll be giving away a trip to the 2013 Winton Outback Festival so stay tuned to my breakfast radio show for details.

I’m still receiving mail about that little black dress I bought Nikki for her birthday. Men and women alike will enjoy this email from Jackie Jones: “We are in our 50s and 60s and still go through the same scenario every time he passes a mannequin wearing little shorts, skirts and dresses. Even shirts he thinks would look great as a dress.

“I’ve found the best compromise (especially when I don’t know what to buy him for his birthday) is to buy one of these little numbers, do a dinner date at home and wear it for him. “So the next time your wife doesn’t know what to buy you just tell her to whiz by that shop and pick up that little black dress!”