From flapping rubber lips to ending up on Family Guy
BLOG NO.15 – IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO READ PART 3 OF THE CLOSE ENCOUNTERS WITH DAVID BOWIE FIRST, CLICK HERE
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I wrote this whilst my Chronic Fatigue Syndrome was pretty bad, so apologies if there are typos or it doesn’t quite make sense in parts.
First, I think I must confess something: I thought I would do these Close Encounter blogs purely because I knew they would get more folk coming to my blog site and, hopefully, listening to my music too. Well, I was right on the first count, but, judging by my site and SoundCloud statistics, I don’t think it’s getting many people to have a listen to my musical attempts. Hardly surprising really, as most of those wanting to read these – include either current or budding puppeteers – are not that interested in folk-type music that is primarily about the history of a specific region of England. Just so you know, I have blogged about the other kinds of music I have done – see THIS one for example – and I will be doing more in the future. (I’ve added a couple of songs to the right-hand sidebar.)
What doing these has been is therapeutic. Before I started all this I was completely staying away from anything to do with puppetry or animatronics, because it was just too painful to think about, having had to give it all up over three years ago. I couldn’t even watch them on television. So this has helped me deal with that, and take away some of the pain. Still, it’s not always easy writing about it. There, now I’ve done my confessional, on with the blog….
In my 40-odd years as an actor, puppeteer and movement choreographer in theatre, television and film I was fortunate and honoured enough to meet and work with some music legends – both human and places – from Elton John to Capital Record Studios in LA. It’s only recently that I realised music has been with me my whole adult working life, in one form or another, and I thought I’d share these ‘close encounters’ with you. So here is Part 4 of those encounters….
I was honoured to be asked by another legend, director Frank Oz (original Miss Piggy and Animal, as well as Yoda) to be part of his up-and-coming film adaptation of the stage musical Little Shop Of Horrors – which itself was based on a 1960 film made in three days – whilst we were filming Labyrinth. At the time I still hadn’t seen the stage show, although I had friends who had puppeteered the Plant (known as Audrey II) both in the States (Marty Robinson) and London (Anthony Asbury and Marcus Clarke). Frank asked myself and Rob Tygner if we would be the principal lipsync puppeteers, me on the bottom lip – along with Brian Henson and Anthony Asbury on the Plants and Dave Greenaway on secondary lower jaw and Sue Dacre on tongue – and then would go on to ask me to be the voice (more like sounds) of the two smaller Audrey IIs. What an honour! (See video below.)
Although it had now been over ten years since I left the once coal mining town of Stanley, Co. Durham in Northeast England, I still had to pinch myself that this was happening to me. I still felt like that same working class teenager, and that these kinds of things just didn’t happen to people like him. Well, of course, they do, and did. I wasn’t the only Stanley person to have ended up in film and television. It started (allegedly) with Judi Bowker (who some may remember in the early 1970s from The Adventures of Black Beauty, and later from Clash of the Titans) who may not have been born in Stanley but who (allegedly)* lived in Tanfield for a while…or so it is said; but, more famously (and definitely) Anfield Plain lad Alun Armstrong, who will be best known for the British tv series New Tricks. (*I say (allegedly) with regard to Judi Bowker because I still haven’t been able to confirm this.)
Meanwhile, back at the story: so, off we trod from Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire (then twice the size it is now) to Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire. I preferred the former as it’s not stuck out in the sticks, but it was incredible to be working in the famous massive hanger-like building that is the 007 Stage; the original one that is, before it burnt down on Legend in 1985. As you can see by the above footage from the movie, it is huge; which is all very well in summer, but we were filming over the winter, and it was freezing! Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene had to suck on ice cubes before takes so their breaths wouldn’t show just how cold it really was.
Lip-syncing to Levi Stubbs – We would be lip-syncing to a musical legend indeed: Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops. What a voice! (See video below.) (Probably another legend long before some of your times.) Because of the size of the Plants, the only way we could do this lip-syncing was to film everything at 16fps (two-thirds speed) for the mid-size Plant, and 12fps (half speed) for the full sized version, so it would be sped up, but appear normal, when played at 24fps. This meant poor old Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene had to move and mime in slow motion as we listened to the backing track slowed down to 16 or 12 fps, but pitched up. We thought this might be a problem for Rick, who had the most to do, but no, he smashed it pretty quickly. We, in the meantime, had four months of rehearsal so we could cover every line we had to sing. We could only do a few lines at a time, because the two five foot tall metal poles we had in each hand to control a top or bottom lips where very taxing, as you were pulling and pushing thick cabling, along with rubber lips that had been covered and soaked in KY jelly. Added to this, Brian Henson (on the mid-size Plant) and Anthony Asbury (on the large) had quite a workout operating these two beasts! Marcus Clarke had a workout too, as he operated the counterweighted polearm that was attached to the back of the largest Audrey II, with Anthony Asbury sitting inside of it.
Another wonderful thing about doing this film was my wife, Fiona, was working as a puppeteer on it also, for a while, puppeteering one of the singing pods. (See photo above.) We’d bring our first son Ben into the dressing room each day and had a nanny look after him when we were filming. It wasn’t his first experience of the movies, as we took him to the Labyrinth wrap party when he was just a week old. Funny that he should end up working for the catering firm employed on Muppets Most Wanted 28 years later; so we were kind of working together. The singing pods Fiona would be working were part of the Mean Green Mother From Outer Space song, when the Plant was at its largest and ‘fullest’. There were vines and pods everywhere, which meant an awful lot of puppeteers were needed: around 50 actually. It did look fantastic. It would all be done with CGI now.
Dad-Doo! – I also got to audition for a part as a Da-Doo guy for the Total Eclipse Of The Sun song, and got the job. (See video below.) I’m on the right-side end of the group. On the other end is, Danny John-Jules, better know as Cat from Red Dwarf and, more recently, policeman Dwayne Myers from Death in Paradise. Danny had already had Muppet and Henson connections as he voiced a couple of characters in Labyrinth and was even a dancer in The Great Muppet Caper. You’ll also see some of Pat Garret‘s wonderful choreography. I would work with and use Pat as a puppeteer on a few projects, one of which will be covered in a later Part.
Ping-pong – One of the undying memories most of us took away from making this film…was playing ping-pong/table tennis. Frank Oz loved to play, so behind the set was a ping-pong table, which you had to book to use; and it got a lot of use! If you watch the making-of video from the film, you will see this subject covered in detail. It was a great way to unwind. Some took it a lot more seriously than others, but I’m not going to name any names…Franks Oz.
Ending re-shoot – After the film had been completed, it was tested with several audiences in various parts of California. They loved it…right up to the part where the two leads are killed, as happens in the stage show. The test cards they returned were not good, and Frank and Warner Bros soon knew they had a problem and would have to reshoot the ending. It was one thing in a stage musical for the heroes to be killed off, but there they came back at the curtain call to take a bow; in a film, they were gone. So it was that we returned to Pinewood for two weeks to do the reshoot. For Rob Tygner and myself, who were the only ones left stuck down in the emptied 007 water tank where we operated from, it was a pretty boring fortnight. We’d come in at 7am, flap the lips around as (spoiler alert!) the Plant was electrocuted, read a book between takes, and leave at 7pm. I have to say, unless you know where the original and new endings were joined together, you’d never know.
The original ending has since been made available on DVD, and you can see it at this link on YouTube. It has some amazing model work by Richard Conway, and we may have picked up the Oscar for best SFX that year had it had the original ending. Instead it would be Aliens that would win it. Doh!
(Just as an aside, I happen to have listened to another Northeast England lad, Sting, and his album The Dream Of Blue Turtle very often on my 45 minute drive to and from Pinewood and my home, which was near Tring in Hertfordshire at the time.)
Immortalised on Family Guy – One evening I was sitting in the back room at home doing some writing, when I heard my three of my sons shouting “Come here dad!” I shouted back that I was busy! Once I did make it into the living room to see what they wanted, they told me I had just appeared on Family Guy. This did not compute; why would I be on Family Guy? They then went on to explain that they had done a pastiche of the Total Eclipse Of The Sun song from Little Shop. It took a while before I ever found the video of it, but I did…and there I was! I even sent a Tweet to Seth McFarlane, asking if it was possible to have a frame from it? I also contacted Fox TV, but got nothing back, from either. I expected this from Fox but not Seth McFarlane. I’m hoping it was just because it got lost in a mass of other Tweets.
Little Shop has to have been the happiest film I ever worked on, and I am eternally grateful to Frank that he asked me to do it. It also contains some of the work I am most proud of, created with a fantastic team of makers and puppeteers. A big thank you must also go out to Lyle Conway who designed that amazing Plant!
I AM NOT WORTHY
If you think these stories are interesting, they will be nothing compared to those the puppeteers from The Muppets or Sesame Street could tell. They’ve worked with more musical legends than I’ve had hot dinners. Having said that, I do have more to come, and Part 5 will be my Close Encounters with George Martin (producer of The Beatles), Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits and a Newcastle lad) and Irishman Paddy Moloney (The Chieftains). Before that, however, Blog. No.16 will be a deeper look at the reasons why I wrote these 66 tracks in Why Oh Way? That blog may turn into a Vlog if my Chronic Fatigue Syndrome continues to be as bad as it currently is, which makes writing and reading very difficult.
Thanks, as always, for reading and please do leave a Star Rating it at the top of the Page (good or bad, I don’t mind), or Like it below if you’re a member of WordPress. You can also leave a Comment below. Until next time,