…As the Puppet Turns…Interview with Michael Granberry

…As the Puppet Turns… Delving into the lives of the puppeteers… Installment #1:  Stop-Motion Animator, Michael Granberry interviewed by Gina Gambony

I have always been a fan of Michael Granberry, even before he started doing freaky awesome stop-motion animation for a living.  The first performance I ever saw involving puppets that was not for children was a show called “Peepers,” which Granberry wrote and performed in Wilmington, probably 10 or 12 years ago.  His theatrical creativity made an impression on everyone in the Wilmington theater community during his time here.

Granberry now lives in L.A., but he is joining us at the festival to host a screening of a selection of his stop-motion animated shorts-Saturday, July 17 at Kenan Auditorium, 7:00 pm (best for teens-adults). Following this, he will host festival registrants in an intimate session, sharing a selection of the puppets and techniques he uses for his stop-motion creations.

GG:  Michael, I’m wondering what first drew you to puppetry?

MG:  I think it was probably “The Muppet Show,” which was big when I was a kid. Of course I watched Sesame Street, too, but “The Muppet Show” was a little more expansive in the kinds of puppetry they used.

I loved Jim Henson’s work.

GG:  “The Muppet Show,” definitely best show ever.

MG:  I remember going to a show at the New Orleans Museum of Art called “The Art of the Muppets” where they just had ALL of the Muppets there…the well known ones and the very obscure ones.

GG:  Was that when you were a kid?

MG:  Yes, I was in 6th or 7th grade. I went to that show a couple of times while it was in town.

After that I never had any socks because I would sew eyes and noses onto all of mine and do shows.

GG:  Were you involved in theatre yet at that age?

MG:  I was, actually, yes. We’d moved to Louisiana from rural Tennessee and my siblings and I weren’t assimilating to the new neighborhood very well, so my folks took us to audition for a local children’s theatre production…yeah, THAT’LL help them fit in!!

It turned out to be great, though. We all fell in love with theatre and were instantly addicted to it.

GG: Ha! Well, all the troubled kids need theatre. And I think I remember reading that you played around with stop-motion when you were younger.

MG:  Yeah, I got started in all of it about the same time. I was already a fan of stop motion from watching all of the wonderful films of Ray Harryhausen, but it wasn’t until I was about 11 that my parents trusted me enough to purchase a Super 8mm camera to film with, which was probably a smart move on their part.

GG: It’s amazing how some parents really “get” what their kids need.

Many folks in the Wilmington area know more about your work in live theatre, during that Dark Time before you took the work of stop-motion more seriously. What got you back into the work?

MG: I got back into it after I’d moved to Los Angeles, and was working in film production accounting, which is great work, but, as you might imagine, didn’t offer much of a creative outlet.

Creative accountants go to jail, usually.

So I really needed something artsy to do and didn’t really have the time to get involved with the local theatre scene, so I started dipping my toes back into stop motion and it just kind of snowballed.

GG:  Some people who know you wonder what you do with your vivaciousness, your incredible stage energy, when put into the slow, tedious process of this work. Explain yourself.

MG:  Well, stop motion is acting, really, except you are creating a performance really really REALLY slowly, one fraction of an inch at a time.

When you are actually animating, you get into a “zone” and the passage of time doesn’t mean too much.

GG: Have you had any mentors in the development of your craft over the past several years?

MG:  Gosh, yes, so many, that’s been one of the best parts. The stop motion community is pretty small, as you might imagine, and everyone I’ve met has been so supportive. I got to meet Ray Harryhausen himself and he was incredibly gracious and kind. I also got to work for a mad genius named Corky Quakenbush of Space Bass Films, whose insane animations on Mad TV rekindled my animation passion at a time when I thought stop mo was virtually dead.

GG: It’s interesting that you say that–because someone recently said something to me about stop motion being on the way out because of computer generated animation. And my (unsophisticated but earnest) answer was that stop motion will always be a unique artform that can’t be eclipsed. Like shadow theatre can’t be compared to film, they are different genres.

MG:  Everyone said that stop motion was on the way out years ago when computer animation and CGI were brand new…even Harryhausen said stop motion was dead in an interview, which broke my 13-year-old heart at the time!

But now that we’ve been super-saturated by CGI for twenty-plus years people are starting to get weary of it.

GG:  I could not agree more!

MG: As a result people are remembering, fondly in most cases, how much they love stop motion and it’s really making a comeback.

It’ll never be the go-to tool when people want photo-realistic special effects, but it’s resurgence in popularity just goes to show that there is a place for every medium.  And an audience for every medium.

GG: And you have made a career out of it, which is so amazing. When did you know that you weren’t just messing around as an artistic outlet, but you could really pursue this full time?

MG:  Ha! I think it’s when no one would hire me as an accountant anymore!

I took some time off after what turned out to be my last film job as an accountant to make a film called “From Beyond” based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft.

A lot of strange things happened…a producer saw one of my earlier films and contacted me with the idea that we pitch it as an animated series.

It got picked up by Turner Entertainment for a new website they were creating, called SuperDeluxe.com, which is no longer around.

So all of a sudden I was getting paid to write and animate my own show. It was crazy.

GG:  I’m particularly excited to see the piece from Mythic Journeys, “Vikram & Beetal,” [titled “The Bone Orchard”] where you animated puppets designed and created by Brian and Wendy Froud. How did you land that gig?

MG:  That was another utterly insane thing.

I saw an ad on Craigslist looking for 2D and 3D animators to work on a documentary about mythology. I wrote to the filmmakers and said, “what about stop motion?” They wrote me back and were like, “we hadn’t thought of that but we love stop motion”.

GG:   That’s so cool.  So, they were not even intending to use the Froud puppets originally?

MG:  I met with them and they said they’d like to work with me but they really didn’t know what they wanted me to do, so I left and forgot about them. A couple months later they called very excited and said they wanted the story, which they called “The Bone Orchard”, to be the framework of the ENTIRE feature-length documentary, with different scenes intercut throughout the film.

So instead of one little segment it turned into almost a half-hour story, chopped up into different “chapters”.

The Froud’s are members of the Mythic Imagination Institute, which was where the filmmakers got the idea for the film. They asked me what I thought of the idea of asking them to design the puppets and I told them, “good luck.”

They did and the Froud’s said YES.

I was dumbfounded.

GG:  That is….incredible fantastic WOW awesome.

MG:  I know, right?

They were beautiful pieces of art, too.

We had to be so careful with them, because they were one-offs, i.e., we only had one of each.

We actually had to build a few replacements, since puppets take a lot of abuse during animation, but for the most part you can’t really tell.

GG:  Your puppets take some SERIOUS abuse.

MG:  Yes, puppets seem to be magnets for violence, whether animated or live-action.

GG:  What is the release status of this film now?  Can I get it on netflix or what?

MG:  The feature documentary is on the film festival circuit now, winning a lot of awards, which is nice. The filmmakers also cut the stop motion section, “The Bone Orchard”, into a stand-alone short so that it could also be entered into festivals independently. It’s won a few awards on its own. I think they’ve got a distributor but not sure if it’s actually released for sale yet.

GG:   I’m excited that we get to see it in style at Kenan Auditorium.

MG: I’m excited to see it there, too!

GG:  Well, Mr. Granberry, thank you for joining us this evening for our first installment of …As the Puppet Turns…

MG:  My pleasure! Thanks for havin’ me.

Check out Michael Granberry’s new animation reel posted on YouTube!

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Sara Chase
    May 04, 2010 @ 15:58:55

    I also saw Peepers and loved it. I met Michael, and became acquainted with the creative genius that he is when he directed my son in Cape Fear Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 9 or ten years ago. It was an unforgettable and innovative interpretation, full of Michael’s special touches of effects, masks, costumes, and more. I’ve seen several of his stop-motion pieces online, and I definitely plan to attend his July event at Kenan. I should add, that in addition to his undeniable genius, he is a wonderful person as well!

    Reply

  2. Lor Kelly
    May 04, 2010 @ 04:30:53

    Enjoyed the interview very much. Great idea we will enjoy his work even more now that we know something about him .

    Reply

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