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A Marionette Film I Plan On Making

Updated: Sep 19, 2022

Way back in 2006 I had an idea for a character and a setting. Almost immediately the story came, nearly fully formed, into being. As I started drawing characters and backgrounds the world-building developed quickly and the cast of characters expanded. There was just one problem; I had made it too big.

In those days I, and The CastIron Carousel Marionette Troupe, were exclusively thinking about ways to perform live marionette shows. Nothing was ever pre-recorded and we never shot video of those performances; out of a kind of superstitious protectionism, of the live experience, enjoyed by our tiny audiences. But this play was too complex, with too many moving parts and would require too much help and money to make it feasible for us at the time. I shelved it, knowing I would return when I had the skill and resources.

Now, fifteen years later, I think I'm finally ready. I have many more skills than I did then and a better grasp than ever on storytelling. However, I think this will be a film instead of a live show. As much as this would be great live theater show, I think I'll focus on a project I can do alone in my studio, for now. Miniature cinema can be a lone-artist project.

The story is about a robot in a post-apocalyptic, alternate-future, steampunk world. The world was once filled with gleaming New-Romantic skyscrapers and teeming with industrial worker robots and elevated trains but all that ended long before our story began.

A new world has grown up, where people build shelters inside the broken walls of tilted buildings, they power their dwellings with windmills, and collect rain water for rooftop farms. In this new world the time of networked robots and monorails is past and our hero is quietly doing a job nobody needs, forgotten by the industrious people outside.

The show is called NOTAMAN and it was always intended to be a 50-70 minute play, performed live, with dozens of marionettes, and many, complex, rapid set changes, using elaborate effects and lighting to accomplish a marionette stage play far beyond anything our audiences had ever experienced.

This is our main character, ANDi. He is an industrial laborer in a steel mill, designed to operate in inhuman temperatures without breaks and minimal maintenance, but he was used to having frequent contact with his fellows through the central network, and periodic updates to his operating systems from the central computer. That all stopped long ago and he continues to work, lonely, waiting the the world he knew to return.

ANDi does have one friend, a boy named Daniel who comes to visit him as he scavenges the blown-out buildings for technology, to bring to his grandpa, the village Doc. Daniel answers ANDi's questions about the outside world and helps bring him to the understanding that the way things were aren't coming back. ANDi must come to terms with the world as it exists now, and learn to move forward.

I don't wanna spoil any more of the story so I'll talk about some of the work I have already done, and plan to do, to make it into a film. Back in 2007 I started sculpting ANDi from oil clay and made primitive molds from his parts using tin silicone. The forms were crude, with unplanned lumpiness and the results, cast in urethane resin, were filled with bubbles. I wasn't very experienced yet. I had a long way to go before I could add the kinds of plot-dependent electronics I needed to tell the story.

Since then I've become adept enough to create the forms using 3D modeling, and at the beginning of October, I began remaking the parts in Shapr3D, starting with a new 2D drawing of all the parts from side, front and back. Working on parts that never got completed in the original build.

Even so, these forms are not easy to build in CAD. The dimpling texture, for instance, was something I knew I would have to do manually, once the parts were printed in resin, I would grind out every dimple with a Dremel rotary tool. Getting the forms wasn't easy either and I went through several attempts on each part to get it right. Trying to improve the forms of the original while keeping the aspects that made the originals appealing. Allowing enough material to carve away later with a burr.

The torso was the most challenging as this was a part I never got around to sculpting in 2007, and the shapes were even more complicated in CAD software, which isn't really made for organic sculpting. However, the reason I put this off originally was exactly the reason I was doing it now in 3D, with everything I've learned. There are plot points in the story which turn on ANDi's various illuminated features changing color and flickering at different rates. I also wanted his smoke-stacks to puff real vapor. All of that has to be housed in an area about the size of a small avocado.

Most of the electronics I needed to put in ANDi weren't even developed yet, or if they were, not readily available in 2007. It took a while for Arduino boards to get small and affordable. Now I can add multiple types of batteries, and boards, to the interior with room to spare and little coding experience. What once seemed like a tiny amount of space seems cavernous today. What I once thought I'd solve with little wells of dry-ice I can now do with a Bluetooth-triggered mini-vape pen filled with fog fluid.

Of course, this is only one small part of the production. I will need to print out all ANDi's parts in resin and then do a tremendous amount of hand-carved detail in the surfaces; then make molds for all the parts, and cast half a dozen duplicates for various scenes in the story. Not only will ANDi need duplicate puppets but many other characters in the story will too, as well as set-pieces. Some characters from previous plays will be re-dressed and recycled but I'm introducing a whole new crew of about five new puppets.

I still have a minimum of seven complicated sets to build. I expect this is where I will spend a tremendous amount of time and energy. Many of the sets were revised between 2010-2012 but I expect to do another round of revisions as I assess what's possible with my current skill set and budget.

Each set is a self-contained diorama. This was not the case for our plays back in the 2000s but it was an innovation which came out of the design work that went into this play. It caused The CastIron Carousel to go in this direction for all our following shows, beginning with Meeses Peeces (Our adaptation of Of Mice & Men by John Steinbeck) in 2012. We started preparing to do NOTAMAN with each show that followed. \

Everything was a testbed, and an experiment, to build up the skill base and knowledge needed. There are still lessons to learn but I feel now is the time to start building this show in earnest. As a film, but making sure every portion is still capable of being presented, live, on stage, for an audience at some point in the future.

Each diorama set is able to slide into audience view on a pair or rails, like a cafeteria tray. A new set is loaded out of the audience view, and when the time comes, that set pushes the previous one off-stage, almost like a cinematic pan as puppets walk from one set to the next. This means each set also has it's own self-contained mechanisms, power, and diegetic lighting, all controlled by a program or manually triggered by remote.

This will be especially complicated by sets like the Dr's Operating Theater, where many monitors provide light and scrolling effects. There will be steam and occasional sparks, but most importantly: fire.

In fact, we will use every theater trick in the book. Projectors. Fans and silk, cellophane streamers; and most fun--collapsing sets. I envision this show to have many surprising sequences of tension and drama.

Most importantly I feel it is a good story with strong characters. A little bit more positive approach to Post-Apocalypse and themes many will resonate with. A show meant for everyone but not without the CastIron Carousel trademark dark twinges. A world filled with haunting settings, mysterious urban spaces, and beautifully decayed industrial structures. Filled with ramshackle, off-kilter characters to match their environments.

I look forward to posting more about this project as I slowly chip away at it. I hope you'll check in from time to time to see how it's going. There's a lot of work to do and I'm eager to get back to it. Thank you for stopping by to have a look.

1 Comment

Frank Lentz
Frank Lentz
Feb 09, 2022

Marvelous. Looking forward to more!

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