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Puppet film ‘Lessons Learned’ – what now?

By A.L. Adams
June 25, 2014
Culture, Featured, Media

A line down the block? Present.

Cos-players in elf ears? Check.

A Portland Mercury preview, hastily echoed by a near-identical Portland Monthly post? Copy that.

We may have overhyped it, but who could blame us? Hollywood Theatre’s premiere of Lessons Learned was practically Nerd Christmas.

The entire puppet cast from Toby Froud's "Lessons Learned" greeted fans in the Hollywood Theatre lobby Saturday. L to R: Digby, Boy, Grandfather, Time, Fate

The entire puppet cast from Toby Froud’s “Lessons Learned” greeted fans in the Hollywood Theatre lobby Saturday.
L to R: Digby, Boy, Grandfather, Time, Fate

This was our first glimpse of the first movie from Toby Froud, the son of Brian and Wendy Froud, co-creators of the cult puppet classic The Dark Crystal. Already long-famous for his infant role beside David Bowie in another of his parents’ projects, Jim Henson’s The Labyrinth, Toby now lives in Hillsboro, sculpting for LAIKA’s BoxTrolls. But last year, Heather Henson—Jim Henson’s daughter—approached him with a question: Would he like to make his own puppet movie?

“I said ‘yes!'” quipped Froud at a post-film talkback, “then realized I’d said ‘yes…'”

But for anyone wishing a new Dark Crystal would materialize out of practically nowhere (more specifically, the warehouse Froud’s crew rented on Columbia Boulevard) … in retrospect, the numbers never promised any such wonder. Only three months of building and shooting, $53,000 in Kickstarter funds, and five puppets yielded just 15 minutes of footage. Compare that to The Dark Crystal, whose hero Jen doesn’t even embark on his quest until the 14-minute mark, after we’ve already seen at least seven sets and nearly 30 puppets (including insects and birds) … and clearly, Crystal-caliber storytelling wasn’t in the stars …

… or at least not yet.

“I’d like this to be the first in a series,” explained Froud, thrilled by the turnout. “And yes, I hope to do a feature film again some day.”

The good news is, if someone brings the money, Froud’s already got the magic. Even in its short runtime, Lessons manages to show the next-gen puppeteer’s grasp of his parents’ style, which he attributes to “being a huge fan of his parents” and “Growing up in England … in a house with granite walls three feet thick that were knobbly and dusty. There’s a history that’s there, and you can feel it. It’s become ingrained.” Froud even has a secret weapon for the worn-in look: “I like to have four buckets of brown, blue, green, and milky water on hand, to just throw on everything! Once it looks like a piece of moldy bread, it’s all good.”

Slapdash as that sounds, Lessons‘ craft is brilliantly acute. Close-ups of character faces are at least on par with, and possibly surpass, those in Crystal. The grandfather’s wrinkles are convincingly humanoid yet fit his gnomish face; the boy is more elfish yet resembles the old man; the puppets’ twitching ears, agile brows and blinking shiny black eyes move as naturally and intricately as their mouths, timed on a dime by the dream team of puppeteers who bring them to life. Veteran puppeteer William Todd-Jones, who reportedly dangled the infant Toby on a wire on Labyrinth‘s “Escher set,” maneuvered Lessons‘ boy puppet. Muppets alum David Skelly hammed it up with bumbling servant character Digby (“We couldn’t use a lot of what he did because it was too funny,” admitted Froud), and local LAIKA/Tears of Joy long-timer Lance Woolen handled Grandfather.

The music, too, complements the story; it’s ghostly, Gregorian and Celtic, with rumbles of bodhran and eerie harmonic ahhs. But Froud seems to already be questioning one of his sound-editing choices: purposely distorting the Fate and Time characters’ voices so their words can’t be deciphered by the viewer. “I’ll post what they say,” he promised bewildered fans Saturday, explaining that the inaudibility was a plot point: “The boy’s not supposed to be able to understand them yet; he’s too young.” However, since Grandfather never quite clarifies that fact for his grandson, audiences may be left wondering whether their hearing has failed them. Hopefully in future edits, the otherworldly characters will remain a little difficult to understand, but not impossible.

Lessons‘ sets are naturally less epic than Labyrinth or Crystal … but not by the margin you might expect. Details don’t abound, but Froud’s attention to them is fastidious: Grandfather’s shelves are stocked with intriguing knicknacks; the Lessons Learned “fileroom” is rich with texture and variety. In a particularly inspired shot, a puddle on the floor swallows up a tiny galleon. When the boy enters the disorienting dream-world where he confronts the characters of Time and Fate, the goblinish king and elaborate, scary spider perch atop wonderfully ancient, crumbling pillars rising out of a bank of gray fog. A likely a compromise where more architecture wasn’t feasible, the fog and pillars manage to uphold an elegant scene. The much-beloved “Froudian” aesthetic is in place; now Froud just needs the freedom to further embellish and elaborate.

Time is money, and puppet magic requires both, but Froud phrases his challenge another way: “I want to keep the momentum and the standard of it going.”

Momentum? Great turnout.

Standard? Great short.

It would seem all systems are go.

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