ZOMBIE PUPPETS COME ALIVE IN 'FRANK & ZED'
Filmmaker Jesse Blanchard didn't want to create just another CGI-fueled monster horror flick.
There's seemingly enough of those out in the world, as cheaper, quicker computer technology has replaced much of the handmade movie set props used traditionally.
No, the 36-year-old Portland resident decided to take a different route to stand out with his film "Frank & Zed" — old-school puppetry.
"I've been making films for a long time. I was frustrated that I couldn't tell the stories I wanted to. Out of desperation, I said, 'Let's just try puppets and see what happens,'" Blanchard says. "I knew I wanted to make a monster movie and the monster was going to be a puppet. That's the term for a real monster that isn't CGI," short for computer-generated imagery.
So he and his small team of five, part of a company called Puppetcore, embarked on a years-long journey of constructing the puppets, the sets and everything else needed to make an actual feature-length film. Which, Blanchard realized, is a lot to do. He's done plenty of shorts before — including having one picked up by legendary "Night of the Living Dead" director George Romero in 2007, released with "Diary of the Dead." But tackling the first feature was a whole different ballgame.
"I heard someone describe making a film like eating a battleship. You have to just break off a piece and start chewing. You can't think about what you have to do — you just have to get started," he says.
Next thing he knew he was trying to figure out how, exactly, one is supposed to film a zombie puppet climbing its own intestines up a wall.
In his humble home in the Montavilla neighborhood, a small set is constructed in the bottom of the garage out back. There's a table, where some of his puppets lie lifeless until Blanchard picks up one — a zombie creature with skin stitched together, one normal eyeball and one nearly popping out of his skull. That's Frank. Blanchard puts his hand up the puppet's insides, and Frank's mouth starts moving and making noises. Zed, Frank's scrawnier puppet in crime, lies nearby with his mouth agape showing not his pearly whites.
The movie takes place in medieval times, following a battle that left a village decimated, but Frank and Zed are left to depend on one another for survival. When their land is trespassed, things turn gruesome, resulting in a massive, gory puppet battle.
Blanchard describes his movie as a "monster-buddy action comedy horror film."
Not fully completed yet, it runs 90 minutes. A rough cut of the film showed at Eastern Oregon Film Festival, where Blanchard snagged an Audience Award.
A large portion of the film was funded through Kickstarter campaigns, which Blanchard put much effort into, including creating handmade gifts for donors.
The last leg of funding for the final 10 percent of the movie was just raised last week. Although it asked for $15,000, it raised $16,482.
The first Kickstarter campaign launched in October 2015, raising $14,694, and then relaunched in November 2015 as a staff pick of the website, doubling a $15,000 goal and raising $32,074.
Seems like a lot, but filmmaking isn't cheap — let alone something as complex as a full-length, live-action movie of puppets.
"It's a lot of money. It's been just a ton of money. Then, you know, it's almost exclusively a volunteer effort," Blanchard says, adding that he has put about $50,000 into the project aside from the crowdfunding.
"The puppeteers spend eight hours (filming). Every single shot starts with failure. It starts looking so bad, and just absurd in the worst way. You're like, 'It's not going to work — we can't do this,'" he says. "The camera doesn't see you, so you have to be in the worst possible position to perform these actions. Completely twisting around."
At one point, he decided he wanted a fire-breathing puppet. They used Everclear alcohol for the flammable liquid. However, they didn't foresee that the alcohol would cause the glue holding the puppets together to react, forcing them to start from scratch.
"We had to rebuild the whole thing. You don't know what you don't know. You're just stumbling blindly, and discovering as you do things," Blanchard explains. "What's exciting and what's hard about this is you have these crazy layers of illusion. You have a character that's not real. It's of cloth and rubber, right. And they're performing an action they can't perform. Their hands don't move."
Puppet movies without any computer animation might be few and far between, but it is an art form that has been around for something like 3,000 years. But it doesn't often make it to the big screen. Blanchard discovered his movie would be the first feature-length film done with only glove puppets, with no human actors, in nearly 30 years. The last one was Peter Jackson's "Meet the Feebles," in 1989.
Many puppet movies go the route of children's fantasy or comedy because of their naturally silly element. "Team America" (2004) by South Park's Trey Parker and Matt Stone was a memorable satire on the United States and world politics, while more recently, "Muppets Most Wanted" (2014) grossed $80.4 million at the box office.
There are other types of puppet movies, too, including the films that come out of Laika, the studio based in Hillsboro that uses stop-motion animation to create movies including "Coraline" and, more recently, "Kubo and the Two Strings."
Blanchard says Portland in particular has a thriving animation scene.
"I really knew I needed to leverage the Portland community, so working in puppetry was the strand of animation I decided to chase," he says. "This is the way I wanted to find success. I wanted to stay here. I love this city, which is why I wanted to make it work."
Blanchard hasn't hit "Muppets" or Laika-level fame and fortune, yet. He keeps himself very busy even outside of "Frank & Zed" production, including creating his own stereoscopic 3D camera system called the Robert Rig, which went on tour with Paul McCartney. That's with his production company called Goat & Yeti.
"The dream right now is to make a reasonable living, telling the stories I want to tell. That's all I want at this point. To be able to go to the dentist, and eat out every once in a while, and tell these stories," Blanchard says. "It's not a sexy quote. But the thing I'm proudest of is that I got it done. I made this film. This crazy fantasy monster movie."