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Marionette Madness

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Deconstructing Puppets

The controversies surrounding Paramount’s Team America: World Police threaten to completely over-shadow the movie’s stars. In this case, the stars won’t mind, what with them being marionettes and all, but it would be a shame since the artistry, technical achievements, and logistical headaches involved with making the movie deserve examination. After all, Team America is the most technically complex marionette movie ever made.

The hero marionettes and their strings in full glory—manufactured, manipulated, and performed by artists from Chiodo Brothers, Inc., Burbank, Calif. Photo: Melinda Sue Gordan, G. Gorman.

“Who makes movies with marionettes anyway?” asks Trey Parker, director and co-creator/writer of the film with his South Park partner, Matt Stone. “We didn’t know anything about puppets when we started this 2 1/2 years ago. We saw the Thunderbirds show on TV one day, and we thought it would be a great idea. But we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.

“During the R&D phase, which was about a year, we were always riding this line of trying to stay endearing and charming with the puppets, yet wooden and clumsy like Thunderbirds. But the problem with Thunderbirds was you never got any emotion out of the characters. We knew from South Park‘s [simplistic, 2D characters] that we have to express all emotion with heads and eyes. How to do it here proved really complicated. We didn’t know anything about [animatronic servo motors] or computer controls or any of that stuff,” Parker says.

Fortunately, Burbank, Calif.-based Chiodo Bros., Inc., did. But even the longtime animatronic effects shop, run by brothers Edward, Stephen, and Charles Chiodo, had only limited experience with marionettes, and certainly not on a major film. Helping their efforts somewhat was the creative decision to show the puppet strings to audiences. This relieved the Chiodos from having to make their creations, designed by Norman Tempia, overly lifelike or fantastical.

“We used about 49 miles of string in the movie,” says Edward Chiodo. “Different line weights, different colors and technologies — wire, nylon braid, a bunch of things were tested. Lighting was so diverse that sometimes a string would go black on you, and we wanted these strings clearly illuminated. So finally, [DP] Bill Pope had us go with a single color for string — medium gray, a Dacron string. We used 3lb., 6lb., and 10lb. lines. Ironically, since we wanted to show strings, there was only one instance in which we removed strings, and that was done practically, not digitally. We had a scene in which six puppets perform in the same scene, about 10 strings per puppet. Trey was directing and stopped us because he could only see strings. He asked us to remove some of them. So we lost leg strings, which kept cutting in front of faces, and that made it more humorous because there was no control over the leg movement.”

Parker and Stone also insisted that virtually the entire illusion of the puppets “acting” be accomplished in-camera. The Chiodos, visual consultant David Rockwell, and production designer Jim Dultz therefore had to figure out how to cleverly stuff puppeteers onto third-scale sets on a soundstage in a converted warehouse in Culver City, Calif.

“Only one sequence in the entire movie captured the puppeteer in the frame, requiring a clean pass and digital work to take him out,” Stephen Chiodo insists. “It’s the sequence in which [North Korean dictator] Kim Jong Il does a musical number while walking down the staircase in his palace lobby. We had to do it in that case because as he walks down the stairs, the strings for the marionette would have had to be in excess of 25ft. to keep the artist out of the shot, and that wasn’t practical for giving the artist control over the puppet. Except for that scene, all other shots in the movie are puppeteered outside the frame.”

That gave Rockwell and Dultz the challenge of designing and building more than 100 puppet-friendly sets. “We figured out that every set could break every 8ft. horizontally to allow a catwalk to come across the top where the puppeteers would be stationed,” says Rockwell. “This affected the design approach because in tall spaces — like the opening scene in Paris, for instance — we had to compact everything together. But this fit with our desire to present a satirical, Americanized view of the world. So Paris therefore has everything packed into one convenient main square — the Louvre is right underneath the Eiffel Tower, and so on.

“The other thing we learned after our initial experience shooting the Paris sequence first was that foreground really matters. That’s where we put all the detail, for the most part, after we discovered how difficult it is to force long perspectives. If you have a long vista, like we tried with Paris, you need three different scales, and if it’s an action shot with lots of things moving, you need some detail at all three scales. So we stayed away from long vistas after we shot Paris and put most of the work into the first 20ft.”

Charles Chiodo adds that the various departments collaborated closely to meet conflicting needs. “We gave the set and costume teams a whole list of requirements,” he says. “Sets had to be broken up to give puppeteers access on the plywood gantry we placed above the sets. Holes had to be drilled in the bottom of sets for rod puppets. We also had to roll in condor baskets so that two or three puppeteers could come in and out. The wardrobes needed precise entry points for strings, so that made it more difficult for them to balance the costumes on the puppets correctly.”

The production carried an average of 14 core puppeteers every day, and they would bring in day players as needed for bigger scenes. “We averaged about 25 or 26 puppeteers a day for the run of the show, with 47 used one day. Plus, a support staff of about 10 people and an overnight crew of six to prepare puppets for the next day,” Charles says.

The Chiodos add that one initial challenge involved simply finding enough artists to run the hundreds of latex-skinned puppets seen in the film. “It’s a unique specialty art,” says Stephen Chiodo. “Most puppeteers who work on features come from the effects world and do hand puppets or rod work. But this job required marionettes, so the best guys we used came primarily out of the birthday party world — private parties and state fairs, things like that. We held a nationwide casting call, saw 150 artists, made our choices, and then got to work since we had only six weeks to get 30 puppets ready for the first phase of production and testing.”

Trey Parker (left), director and co-writer, and co-writer Matt Stone with their creations, inspired by the old Thunderbirds TV show, but “way more complicated,” according to Parker.Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon. Copyright © 2004 by Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

The most complicated aspect of the puppet work involved enhanced facial expressions, which required sophisticated facial animatronics. “We had nine servos slammed into the heads of each hero puppet,” says Edward Chiodo. “They were very sophisticated, especially jammed into such small spaces. They were capable of full facial articulation and lip articulation — far more than was actually seen in the movie. Creatively, the original plan was to go with simply mouth opening and closing. Then, they realized they needed more facial expressiveness, and we designed this system, permitting full articulation. Then, they pulled us back from that and simplified it with lips and eyebrows having more articulation than anything else.”

The servo-motor units were controlled by a facial control computer software system manufactured by Gilderfluke & Co., Burbank, Calif., which was specially reconfigured to suit the production’s needs.

“Gilderfluke is a great control tool, but it’s used primarily for theme parks, restaurant attractions, things like that — program the servos once, and they run for a day or a week,” explains Edward Chiodo. “That was not the goal here. We had to do a certain amount of programming in advance, and then have the system workable enough to have a live-performance aspect to it, to change things on the fly as the story changes. We took their basic system and used it in ways they had not anticipated by developing a proprietary input system on how to program the faces. They had always used sliders, but we created a joystick system for it.

“The system was entirely wireless — WiFi with Blue Tooth technology at a low frequency,” he adds. “We wanted a powerful broadcast system, at first, but the receiver pack was simply too big to fit into the puppets. So they developed a special WiFi system for us — small and limited in range, but state-of-the-art. This production was the first time it was used in a commercial application.”

Even with their artistic skill, meticulous planning, collaborative approach, and technology, the job was massively complicated, according to Stephen Chiodo, because it was so comprehensive.

“We had a fabrication crew in our Burbank facility up until the project moved to the stage,” says Edward. “We moved our support staff to the stage and moved our manufacturing operation there, as well. But there were so many changes, so much wear-and-tear as pieces broke or were degraded by heat and light conditions. We couldn’t always slip out and fix everything to our satisfaction if they were in the middle of filming, so we often ended up doing quickie surgery — instant paint jobs, filling cracks with rubber, all that stuff. We were often tearing puppets apart and using their pieces to build other puppets on the fly. It was a delicate balancing act.”


Deconstructing Puppets

Trey Parker and Matt Stone were particularly creative, and demented, in how they used puppets in special effects scenes throughout Team America. For the most part, they left the technical particulars up to special effects supervisor Joe Viskocil. But they had certain requirements for the mayhem.

For one thing, they wanted to poke as much fun as possible at celebrities like Michael Moore and Susan Sarandon. Therefore, for the scene in which Moore explodes, they wanted special ingredients to come flying out of his body.

“The Moore puppet was rigged with ham, actually,” says Charles Chiodo. “Trey Parker was very specific that he wanted ham to fly out of him. Normally, we would use bits of rubber. But for this puppet, we just took a trip to the craft services table and grabbed some lunch meat, mixed it with Karo syrup blood, and let it happen.”

The Sarandon puppet’s death occurs during a violent drop from a ledge. “We had a paraffin wax breakaway body because the guys wanted it to splatter into bits,” adds Charlie Chiodo. “But when we tested it, it didn’t shatter the way they envisioned. So we eventually came up with the idea of filling up several condoms with fake blood, dressing that as our ‘puppet,’ and then dropping it. That really went splat.”

For those keeping track of such things, the vomit that spewed out of the puppet Gary after a self-pitying drinking binge was left to Viskocil, who simply concocted a mixture of pea soup and bacon bits.

“We needed the head to have full articulation, so we specially rigged an animatronic head with a tube and gasket system to seal the mouth in the back of the head,” explains Charlie Chiodo. “When the time came, we made gallons of the mixture fly out of the puppet over and over, using the gasket system.”