‘Spooky Girls’: a new puppet short-film series

The Hand and the Shadow production company has a new series of puppet films about teen witches ready to roll

UPDATE: Spooky Girls is now watchable on Vimeo.

A funny thing happens when you have puppeteer friends: sometimes, the coolest strangers who show up in your photo feed turn out, upon closer inspection, to be handcrafted. That’s been happening to me lately with specimens from The Hand And The Shadow production company’s as-yet-unreleased The Spooky Girls. See for yourself.

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Tracy gives a documentary-style “interview” in one of the Spooky Girls shorts. Each character gets to have their say this way.

Pretty lifelike, no? Yeah, spookily so.

The Spooky Girls is the passion project of Jason Thibodeaux, Gabriel Temme, and Sarah Frechette (whom nerds of the oeuvre may remember from a feature in Artslandia Kids 2015, various LAIKA credits, and Night Shade Puppet Theatre, a shadow-puppet troupe that’s played TBA and Disjecta with Japanther). Wrapping a year of hard work in studio, they plan to start rolling out 11 short webisodes on and after Halloween, although the platform (YouTube, Vimeo, etc.) hasn’t yet been announced. Then, they hope to crowdfund a feature film.

When I stopped by The Hand And The Shadow’s studio workspace—a warehouse on North Columbia Boulevard—they’d just finished shooting a scene on their “pizza place” set (a dead ringer for Rocco’s). Tracy, a lavender-haired post-punk character a little shorter than my forearm, was perched in a red vinyl booth, poised to enjoy a tiny chocolate sundae.

The Spooky Girls are a coven of five teenage witches about to conjure more magic than they can master. There’s Tracy, an enthusiastic futurist and avid snacker who designs her own clothes; Kendra, the group’s ringleader, following in the footsteps of her world-famous witch mom; Nixy, a fatalistic goth; Lucia, a bookish introvert mourning the recent death of her boyfriend; and Tynan, the token boy, who tirelessly researches the group’s witchy pursuits. In addition to their interactions, each character gets a documentary-style interview to oil the cogs of exposition.

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Puppeteer Sarah Frechette puts Tracy through the motions.

If all this sounds a little too much like “The Craft, with puppets” for your taste, trust me, there’s more to appreciate here—namely, the craft with puppets! Hand and Shadow’s technicianship is high (or possibly even next) level, even within the worldwide standards of the puppet-filming industry. Thanks to Temme’s more than 100 custom-designed-and-machined armature parts per character, these puppets are capable of many finely-articulated movements that your mama’s marionette could never do, and the mechanisms that control their fine motor skills are almost completely concealed.

Furthermore, even though Thibodeaux has sculpted the puppets’ silicone faces each in one piece, the characters are still able to open and close their mouths and change their expressions—a real rarity. Coraline, for instance, couldn’t move her mouth; she had snap-in facial features whose edges had to be smudged out digitally “in post.” Peter from the Oscar-winning Peter and The Wolf similarly kept his mouth shut for the entire film. And yet, in a warehouse on Columbia, some teenage witch puppets suddenly have new abilities. Spooky!

Another unique feature of this project is the performance. Puppets of this caliber are usually filmed in stop-motion, a sequence of freeze frames. But in Spooky Girls, Frechette, a professional live puppeteer, manipulates the characters in real time, essentially making them “act.” (It’s similar in this regard to Toby Froud’s Lessons Learned, which premiered at the Hollywood Theatre in 2014.)

Until the shows start rolling out, the biggest mystery remains: how will the story unfold, and with whom will it resonate? “We want these characters to feel really authentic, and actually young,” says Thibodeaux. “They’re based on real people.”

“It’s fun to talk to people who are 16 or 17 years old about what they’re into, and hear their perspectives,” says Frechette. “In some cases, they have the biggest philosophical ideas.”

And, as much as I hate to admit it, these teenage puppets are still among the coolest-looking friends to grace my Facebook page. Blessed be!

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