It’s one thing to see puppets come to life on stage and on screen, and an entirely different thing to see them given life before they hit the big time. And over at Hoboken, New Jersey-based Puppet Heap, it’s the shop’s business to craft individual personalities from slabs of foam and various scraps of fabric.
The company is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year and has come a long way from its start in a 900-square-foot space. Founder Paul Andrejco has worked with puppets for almost two decades, and after a freelance stint at The Jim Henson Company, he decided to open his own studio in 2004. It’s since grown into a one-stop studio that now covers 5,000 square feet and houses a multi-talented crew skilled in everything from sculpting and painting to costume design and filmmaking.
With top clients including Sesame Workshop, Disney and Big Idea, it’s safe to say that the company might just be at the top of the puppet-making heap. ‘Puppets are the antidote to CG lives,’ says Andrejco, who notes his business is on the upswing as puppets are becoming more popular with an older demo, especially in commercials. While he wasn’t at liberty to discuss exactly what his company has done for the biggies, Puppet Heap has worked on other notable projects in the kids entertainment space, including Bookaboo from London’s Happy Films that airs on CiTV in the UK.
Andrejco chuckles as he recalls working on the rockin’ dog puppet. ‘We must have tried between 25 and 30 different dogs, and at one point, we thought, ‘You know, this isn’t going to work.” It took two years, working with Happy’s Lucy Goodman to eventually come up with bandana-clad canine puppet Bookaboo that went on to score a BAFTA last year.
Among its many projects, the Heap is also keeping busy with working on season two of Bookaboo and with kidlit author Grace Chang to create an 18-foot-tall dragon puppet called Jin Jin based on her books Jin Jin the Dragon and Jin Jin and the Rain Wizard. The shop is also responsible for Winston the Turtle, one of the puppets used by US reality series America’s Got Talent winner Terry Fator.
But building the puppets isn’t all the company does. The Heap also has a wood, molding and casting shop to produce puppet-sized props and costumes for the creatures it creates. And since the company’s staff can’t be on-site for every alteration or quick-fix, it provides a handy repair kit for its out-of-town clients. For theatrical productions in and around the New York area, it has a team of ‘puppet doctors’ on call, in case of emergencies.
To make sure that their creations are ready for their close ups, the finished product goes into the company’s in-house video and photo studio for a test run, where staffers set the puppets up in front of a camera to make sure everything’s in its right place and looks exactly how it should on-screen.