Mak’s Blogs

Blog No.50: That’s All Folks!


The end of the line

This is going to be my last post here, and in a few days time I will be closing the blog. For those of you who did like some of my music, remember all the tracks are downloadable on SoundCloud, and you can get them through Blog No. 2 and Blog No. 9. (Click the blue links to open those blogs in a new window.)

I want to say a HUGE thank you to all of you who have supported and followed these blog, and and even BIGGER thank you to those who kept me going as long as I did with your Star Ratings, Likes and Comments. They all meant a great deal to me.

This may be the end of this blog, but, who knows, I may start a new kind of blog sometime in the future.

Once again, thank you from the bottom of my heart, and best wishes to all of you.

Mak

Blog No.49 – Time for a break


BLOG NO.48/VLOG NO.5 – IF YOU’D LIKE TO READ BLOG NO.43 FIRST, CLICK HERE. If you’d like to read first why I wrote my 65 folk tracks, then click HERE to read that blog. (Blue text are external links, which will open in a new browser window.)

Recently, as followers of these blogs will know, my health hasn’t been great, and since I have had Shingles on top of my ME/CFS and other conditions, it’s been even worse. This has curtailed my blogging to a great extent. Because of this, and because some of the blogs aren’t getting many views or my music much listened to, I’ve decided to take a break from it for the foreseeable future, which could turn out to be forever. I will leave the site active for now, in case anyone stumbles across it.

Thanks to all who have supported my blogs, and especially to those who have rated, liked and left comments. (You know who you are.) You’re the ones who have kept it going. I will let you know if I decide to close the blog and delete my songs from SoundCloud…or not, as the case may be. In the meantime, you might get some reblogs now and again, for those who missed them first time around.

Thanks as always for reading,

Mak

Blog No.25: My Close Encounters Of The Music Legend Kind – Part 7 – Kate Bush, Vanilla Ice, Talking Turtles and a Cameo


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

 If you’d like to read first why I wrote my 65 folk tracks, then click HERE to read that blog. (Blue text are external links, which will open in a new browser window.)

(Those getting this via email won’t be able to see the videos. Clicking on the title of the blog in the email will open it in a tab of your web browser. For those reading on an iPad, the videos will open in a separate browser windows and not play on the Page. Apologies but out of my control. If you see any typos, pease let me know. Thanks.)

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.

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….

Raphael (red), Leonardo (blue), Michelangelo (orange) and Donatello (purple) reading the UK’s Radio Times

TMNT I

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).

Performing Michelangelo’s face via the BIG 1 on TMNT II.

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.

Miche and I

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.)

TMNT II – THE SECRET OF THE OOZE

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.

Kate Bush (Photo by David Gerrard)

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.

Animatronic face performers of TMNT II left to right: Rob Tygner (Leonardo) Rob Mills (Donatello) Me (Michelangelo) and Dave Greenaway (Raphael)

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.

Michelangelo with Vanilla Ice

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?)

My cameo role in TMNT II

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.

Fiona with newly born Josh in the pushchair, Ben on Leif Tildan’s lap (Donatello) and Toby on Rob Mills’ lap (Donatello face puppeteer). You can guess which son went on to be a performer.

THE CLIP

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.

THE END

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.

Thanks, as always, for reading and please do leave a Star Rating 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,

Mak

Blog No.15: My Close Encounters Of The Music Legend Kind – Part 4 – the legendary ‘Little Shop Of Horrors’ & Levi Stubbs


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. If you’d like to read first why I wrote my 65 folk tracks, then click HERE to read that blog. (Blue text are external links, which will open in a new browser window.)

(Those getting this via email won’t be able to see the videos. Clicking on the title of the blog in the email will open it in a tab of your web browser. For those reading on an iPad, the videos will open in a separate browser windows and not play on the Page. Apologies but out of my control. If you see any typos, pease let me know. Thanks.)

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.

Levi Stubbs singing ‘Mean Green Mother From Outer Space’ at the 59th Annual Academy Awards

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.

Audrey II at ‘her’ largest with singing pods

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,

Mak