My close encounters with several music legends in one day!
BLOG NO.24 – IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO READ PART 6 OF THE CLOSE ENCOUNTERS FIRST, CLICK HERE
I wrote this whilst my Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS) was very bad, so apologies if there are typos or it doesn’t quite make sense in parts. I’m just pleased to have got it out at all. Do let me know if you spot anything.
(Blue text are external links, which will open in a new browser window. If you’re looking at this in your email inbox, the videos won’t play there but will opened in a browser window from YouTube)
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.) 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 7 of those encounters….
In 1989 the Jim Henson Creature Shop in London, for whom I worked, were asked to do the suits and animatronic heads for New Line’s up coming feature film, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (or Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles as it had to be called in the UK.) Brian Henson – whom I’d worked with a lot by this point – asked me to puppeteer the face of Michelangelo (Mikey) and assist him as puppet coordinator. Brian himself would also be second unit director. Another great plus was it would be directed by a British director I had worked with before, and would work with again, Steve Barron. He was the principal director on the Henson tv series I had performed on called The Storyteller, and would he would a few years later director another movie I’d do, The Adventures Of Pinocchio (1995).
Whilst we had used the joystick part of the Henson Performance Control System (also called the BIG 1) on The Storyteller, this would be the first movie where one puppeteer would control the whole face, with a joystick-kind-of-contraption in one hand and a lipsync-mitt in the other. We would also go on to experiment with an infra-red face reading rig on TMNT II, to aid lipsync, but we didn’t really take to them much. To put this in context, only a few years earlier on Labyrinth it took four of us to perform Hoggle‘s face. In the below YouTube video, you can see me explain how the realtime CGI version of the system for the making of Lost In Space featurette, which was basically a later and better, but fundamentally the same, hardware as that used on TMNT. Take a look from 5:00 to 7:10.
So, off I went to CarolCo Studios in North Carolina with wife and two young sons, Ben and Toby in tow, where we’d also film the exterior in the height of the North Carolina humid summer heat; and we puppeteers weren’t even in the suits! Apart from when I was in Cameroon in African, I had never experienced such heat and humidity.
TMNT I may have been the better movie, but it certainly wasn’t to work on. With only one head per character (we had two on the second movie) that also restricted the actors’ head movements (this was improved by the second movie), and an untried new performance system, things got a little…tense at times; especially when there were only two characters in a scene and both heads had problems, which happened in a scene between my character, Mikey, and Leonardo. They had to cut it so you just looked at the character listening to the other talk.
Us puppeteers were, of course, just one quarter of a Ninja Turtle. The other three-quarters were made of the actor in the suit with the animatronic heads, the martial arts/stunt guys from Hong Kong in the suits with ‘stunt heads’, and the voice artist who would dub over our voices later. This was the first time of many I would work with the wonderful Michelan (Miche) Sisti (pictured with me left). He was a joy to work with, and has gone on to be a puppeteer himself. What was helpful for all the guys in the rubber suits was each of their puppeteers had been in their rubbery shoes also at various points in their careers, so we knew what it was like to be in an awkward, hot costume that was hard to see out of or breath in. (The last time I would do so was in 2012.)
So, the first movie was a smash hit, but because the tv animation series was too, the second film would have to be less dark and appeal to a younger audience. Michelangelo’s character would also have to perform without his famous nunchakus, because they had been banned in the UK, amongst other countries. At least this time we would be in North Carolina in the Fall, and me and my family would have a lovely house on the beach; but this time Fiona was pregnant with our third son, Josh, and I only agreed to do the project if they could cover the cost of the birth there. To my surprised they did! Fiona was pretty amazing in this respect. She had already given birth to our second son, Toby, in Austria, whilst I was working on a film called The Bear. She almost had our fourth, Tom, in Australia whilst working on Babe. Luckily that film didn’t go over schedule any more and he was born back in the UK.
This time I would also be the puppet coordinator and captain, as Brian Henson wouldn’t be joining us. In pre-production the job requires you to go through the scripts with the director and work out any problems and come up with solutions, especially when it came to the puppet characters of Splinter the rat in TMNT. In production you also work with the director, but also various other departments in preparing sets, props and rigs. If this extra responsibility and Fiona’s pregnancy wasn’t enough, preparations for this film didn’t get off to a good start for me. I’d been working at home before rehearsals started and decided to go out for some fresh air. As I took a step up to go back into the kitchen, boom! my back went! I couldn’t move. and there was no one else in the house. I had to lean over and grab a chair to use as a zimmer-frame so I could get to the telephone and call the doctor. At the time he thought I’d slipped a disc, and I thought that was the end of the movie. It turned out to be a slipped and crack vertebrae. I was not going to give up though, and did most of my co-ordinating via the phone whilst lying of my back. Luckily for me, it eased enough for me to be able to start rehearsals in London, whilst seeing a physio’ almost every night to keep me going. I also bought a Balan’s chair, which you both sit and kneel on at the same time, so I didn’t have to stand all day.
PERFORMING FOR KATE BUSH
The rehearsals got off to a music legend start, when Kate Bush turned up. She happened to be a friend of one of the Creature Shop admin team, and she’d asked if it would be OK to come and have a look? As if running rehearsals wasn’t nerve-racking enough for me (being puppeteer co-ordinatorI) I now had this lovely legend watching! I wasn’t a fan of all her work, but I certainly had a few albums, and, regardless, she was a mega-star! She was fascinated by the process and asked me very intelligent questions, as you might imagine.
It would be yet another one of those occasion where I would be too shy or embarrassed to ask for an autograph or photo with a star. This happened all the way through my career, and all these Close Encounters, and would only end in 2007 when I had my photo take with Jake Shears from The Scissor Sisters whom I worked with on the opening of The Brit Awards that year. That, in fact, will be the last Close Encounter I will write about.
KEEPS ON GOING….
I knew the only way to keep going during shooting was if I had a physio’ with me in North Carolina. Luckily I knew an excellent one from when I was doing Little Shop Of Horrors, called Dave Allen (not the famous Irish comedian!) so I paid for him to fly out to the States, his accommodation and his services. Well, it was either that or have no income at all; and keep me going he did, and others started to pay him to look after them. About halfway through the shoot, the production decided to take up half of the cost – luckily for me – and he kept a great many going, especially the guys in the suits, both actors and stunt doubles.
Yet even with all of the above – coordinating, injured back and pregnant wife – I still enjoyed working on TMNT II far more than the first movie…and that’s saying something! Of course, New Line were a lot more relaxed after the success of TMNT I, and we all knew what we were doing this time around. As I mentioned, we also had two heads per character, which meant we could swap them if one went down – which they did – saving production time and many.
SINGING WITH VANILLA ICE
The production would call on the late-1980s music rap artist Vanilla Ice to perform in the film, much to many of our surprises. As you will see in the video below, Mikey would get to be on stage with him and sing the song Vanilla Ice composed for the movie, ‘Go Ninja!‘ The song was certainly a hit with the young audience, but a day of constantly listening to it made it wear thin for us. It was even harder for the suit performers, who had to do a dance number in their hot, noisy and heavy animatronic heads.
Vanilla Ice proved to be a very charming guy, despite his ‘tough’ media persona. I think he was just as much made-up that he was working with the Jim Henson Creature Shop and the now extremely famous Ninja Turtles as we were of working with him.
A LITTLE PART FOR A LITTLE GUY
The production always tried to give both the suite performers and puppeteers a cameo in the TMNT movies, but I missed out on the first one. Luckily for me I got one on TMNT II as Vanilla Ice’s tour manager’s assistant. You will see part of my stunning performance in the clip at the end of the blog. Below here is a still from the scene, with me (the slightly shorter of the two) sporting both ponytail and ear clasps. (At this time I would be still wondering how this working class lad from Stanley, Co. Durham in Northeast England got to be there?)
WHEN A CHILD IS BORN
Josh was born on November 15th, 1990. Luckily for the production, who were covering the cost, he turned out to be the easiest and quickest birth of them all. Fiona had plenty of visitors from the cast, and it wasn’t long until she was able to visit the set, as you can see from the photo below. Michelan (pointing at baby Josh in the pushchair) would become his God-father.
I’ll leave you with the YouTube clip I’ve been referring to, which starts with what was the second of my cameo character’s appearances.
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 8 of the Close Encounter Of The Music Legend Kind will be about singing with the legends that are Kermit and Miss Piggy on The Muppet’s Beach Party Album and being involved in recording the sitcom Dinosaurs’ BIG SONGS album at Capitol Records in Los Angeles.
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