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Making Team America

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By Carl KozlowskiPuppeteers aren’t known for being Hollywood’s most in-demand craftspeople. Yet Trey Parker and Matt Stone, of South Park fame, may have opened some doors for this specialized profession with the release of their ambitious and controversial Team America: World Police—a movie whose entire cast is puppets.“I never laughed so hard in my life as when I was making this film,” says Scott Land, who after 28 years of operating his own marionette business landed the job of lead puppeteer on Team America. Land worked under the leadership of the film’s puppet producers, Chiodo Brothers Productions, and director Parker on the $32 million-budgeted, six-month production. “Some of the scenes were quite shocking,” says the puppetmaster, referring to the film’s sexual references and sex scenes which, despite being performed by puppets, were outlandish enough to nearly earn the film an NC-17 rating. But it’s the film’s nonstop action sequences, involving fistfights, guns and explosives, that afforded the hardest work. “Most people have never seen movement like this from puppets and they may never do so again,” says Land. On most shooting days, the film’s set was occupied by about a dozen puppeteers, who worked at various angles on bridges and cherrypickers that rose up to 15 feet above the stages to keep themselves out of camera range. The biggest action sequences required up to 47 puppeteers to pull off, and while standard Arriflex cameras were used, a variety of techniques enabled the puppets to have unusually expressive faces.“Steven Chiodo would direct which puppet you would do, then Trey would tell us what to do in a scene,” Land explains. “We were on a bridge or cherrypicker while Trey would do the voices live and would pull a remote controller in his hands to run the marionettes’ mouths and make them lipsync perfectly.”In the more complicated scenes, legendary puppeteers including Norman Tempia, Kevin Carlson and Yurgen Heimann were brought in to do facial expressions. According to Land, “three of us would be working on a puppet at once so that it would be organically moving and that’s why the film looks so fresh, real and in the moment.”According to Steven Chiodo, the intent by Parker and his writing/producing partner Stone was to shoot the puppets so they looked as realistic as possible. Nine servo motors in each puppet’s head were a key to making the facial expressions sufficiently complex. The Chiodos were recruited for the project because they had run their own house for stop motion, animatronics and puppet costumes since the early ’80s, and had previously created “a 39-year-old, talking aborted fetus” for an episode of the 2001–02 Comedy Central series That’s My Bush!“The Ranger’s performance was interesting in this movie, because Matt and Trey’s humor comes from the characters being heroes that are still inept,” says Chiodo. “It was making a call when to be funky and funny and when to pull out a great performance that makes it work so well. Trey and Matt didn’t know how much work would be involved with this, so they were always flying by the seat of their pants. But thanks to that approach, they felt free to improvise, which made the film so much fresher.”Adds Land: “They came in very naïve to the project and quickly discovered how difficult it would be, how much more involved than South Park it was, but also how expressive the puppets were. They decided to rewrite the script and thus required everyone to change all the rigging and sets. The overall approach enabled us to look like the complete opposite of soulless CGI and put a really human quality into every shot.”Chiodo believes the film’s expected mass success will open more avenues for puppeteering in films, enabling them to be used in productions aimed at adults and not just children. And Land reckons that despite Parker and Stone’s vows to the press that they will never work with puppets again due to the production difficulties, the South Park duo will be flooded with offers to continue their artistic breakthroughs.“Let’s face it, even if they don’t want to do another puppet film, they’ve established a great core group of puppeteers and crew that could pull off another great one,” says Land. “The bottom line is we learned to flow and it just worked.”

Written by Carl Kozlowski

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