‘They talked to the puppet like an actor’

Spectral Motion breaks down their practical characters for ‘Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities’. An excerpt from befores & afters magazine.

When Guillermo del Toro asked regular collaborator Spectral Motion to be involved in his Cabinet of Curiosities series, company founder Mike Elizalde very quickly observed that the filmmaker’s take on the look and feel of the project would be immeasurable.

“Although there were different directors for the episodes,” says Elizalde, certainly Guillermo’s influence was palpable. It’s clear that he definitely had his eyes on all of this.”

“He’s just wonderful because he’s so specific about what he wants,” adds Spectral Motion project manager Kevin McTurk. “And, he’s a monster guy, so it’s very thrilling to have him on the Zooms laying out what he wants. We were thrilled to take it on.”

Central to Spectral Motion’s tasks on the series were a ghoul character, a queen rat and a ‘melted man’, all stunningly realized for on-set performances. Here’s an excerpt from issue #10 of befores & afters magazine about the ghoul.

The animatronics by Spectral Motion behind the ghoul.

The ghoul character appears in the episode ‘Pickman’s Model’, directed by Keith Thomas. Based on concepts from creature concept designer Guy Davis, Spectral Motion was tasked with building a half-scale 36-inch tall rod puppet that would be filmed against greenscreen and composited into final shots in the episode as a seven-foot tall monster.

“The early conversations were that Guillermo wanted to see what sort of puppet performance we could bring as opposed to a man in a suit,” notes McTurk. “He loved the gangly quality that we could bring to a puppeteering performance.”

A video of Spectral Motion’s puppet.

The creature began at Spectral as a traditional clay sculpture orchestrated by Akihito Ikeda, Andy Bergholtz and Savannah Suderman. The direction del Toro gave here, relates McTurk, was that the ghoul have a very defined chin waggle. “He wanted it textured like a guanábana. We weighted it and experimented ways of getting the proper sway. Then we also had different levels of rot on the legs and very specific looks on the hands. There were also insert hands that were full-sized and insert feet, which we could use to grab Crispin Glover’s character.”

In terms of the puppeteering of the ghoul, this occurred on a half-scale greenscreen set in Toronto, representing the emergence of the creature from a well. Spectral Motion’s team, consisting of Richard Landon, Ron Binion and McTurk, were joined by local puppeteers Sean Sansom and Gord Robertson. “Richard, he’s a very tall guy so he was pulling the puppet out of the well. Ron was working on the arms as they came out of the well. I was on the jaw and pumping the saliva. Gord was on the feet, and Sean was on the mechanical tongue. It was a group effort,” says McTurk.

More of Spectral Motion’s impressive practical effects work.

Witnessing his crew contributing this kind of live performance and creature work was particularly exciting for Elizalde.

“When we are on set performing with a puppet, we bill ourselves as puppeteers, but in fact, we’re actors. We perform, we live the part of the character and whatever specific component we’re puppeteering, we’re emoting. We’re living what that puppet is supposed to be experiencing. And that I think that really imparts a soulfulness and a real presence to what you’re seeing on screen.”

Issue #10 is all in on practical effects.

Read more in issue #10, including on Spectral Motion’s rat and melting man.

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