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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.

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