At one time marionettes were relegated to shadow theatre and children’s pantomime but Australia’s Global Creatures Technologies and producer Carmen Pavlovic have taken puppetry to newer heights. Their animatronic uber-puppet King Kong is as tall as a house, requires 16 people to manipulate him and is so heavy (he tips the scales at 1,100 kilograms) that he needs to be tethered to a crane to move him about the stage. Kong is the central character in an upcoming stage musical about the beauty and the simian beast.
“I see him as a sculpture,” says creature designer Sonny Tilders, the man who designed the creation and supervised its construction. Tilders’ sculpture is made of aluminium and latex. A layer of inflatable balloon bags is stretched over the armature – they simulate contracting and expanding muscles – which flex and contort with the aid of 16 microprocessors wrapped inside the torso. The head alone is packed with 15 industrial servo motors and two hydraulic cylinders which gives the off-stage operator precise control over the eyebrows, eyelids, nose, mouth and jaw.
Check out the Promo Video of King Kong on Stage:
And yet Kong is more than a machine controlled by someone with a joystick. “We made a decision early on not to go down the hyper real path”, says Tilders. That meant acknowledging the fact it’s a huge puppet and not blacking out the people who manipulate him, in effect letting people in on the artifice. And here’s where it gets tricky. 13 puppeteers are always on stage. Not only are they visible but they’re part of the story, moving the puppet’s feet when he lopes across the stage or jumping off Kong’s shoulder to provide a counterweight when he raises his arm.
Collectively called The King’s Men and drawn primarily from the ranks of Melbourne’s National Institute of Circus Acts, these are the athletic, robust folks that give the puppet a personality or for lack of a better word, its soul. “Every action of the Kong involves these three departments working together,” says Puppetry Director Peter Wilson referring to the two people working the controls off stage, one crew member working the automation and the 13 puppeteers on stage.
Introducing the puppeteers to the audience has done before. Bunraku, the traditional puppet theatre of Japan, employs three visible manipulators to bring each of their small puppets to life. The puppeteers become part of the performance. More recently, South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company introduced us to War Horse. A simple sculpture in wood and fabric, War Horse becomes a living, breathing character, and a sympathetic one too, when manipulated by two puppeteers under the body and another manually moves its head.
“The challenge,” says Peter Wilson referring to Kong’s on stage debut “is to maintain that emotional engagement so that the audience will suspend their disbelief throughout his entire journey. A puppeteer has this absolute awareness of everything on stage,” adds Wilson “but it is all seen, observed and felt through the character.” In other words the manipulator is an extension of that character and if successful becomes invisible. It remains to be seen whether audiences will buy the conceit but regardless of whether they deem the musical a hit or a miss, Tilders and his crew will have pushed the envelope, using expression and technology to re-define what we consider puppet theatre. “That’s really what animatronics is, a combination of those renaissance skills, the aesthetics and the science,” says Tilders.
Presently in previews, King Kong opens in Melbourne on 15th June 2013 . The producers hope to take Kong, all 330 metres of electrical cable and microprocessors of him, to Broadway after his Australian run.
Check out the video below for an interview with Sonny Tilders and see his finished creation crash about the stage.