What do you get when you combine 20 miniature movie sets, three-dozen puppets, a string quartet, three turntables and five video cameras?
A theater production called Nufonia Must Fall that’s a little complicated to describe.
The show is based on a graphic novel of the same name by Eric San, aka DJ Kid Koala. The name is a nod to the words “no fun” spelled backwards and San says that can be interpreted a couple of ways.
It could describe a place where there is no fun, ”or it can be a state of mind where your own worries and fears can inhibit you from enjoying your time when you’re here,” said San.
The production tells the story of Robot, an older model machine who is getting pushed out of each job he gets by a newer, faster, six-handed robot. (San was in the midst of what he calls “quarter-life” crisis while on tour with the likes of Radiohead and Ninja Tune when he was creating this story.)
“So the protagonist is kind of going through a bit of a crisis there and he meets Malorie and he's trying to write love songs but he can't sing,” said San.
Malorie is a female roboticist and Robot’s instant love-interest. What ensues is a sort of a comedy of errors love story, but the theater show is anything but a simple adaptation of this story.
On the top half of the stage, projects what looks like a stop-motion or Claymation film-version of the story—think Nightmare Before Christmas or Fantastic Mr. Fox.
In black and white, Malorie, Robot and their surroundings move and play with the shadows in dramatically lit scenes, hearkening back to the Charlie Chaplin films that inspired the original graphic novel. This aesthetic sensibility is heavily influenced by K.K. Barrett, who directs the show. His other works include “Being John Malkovich,” “Her” and “Where The Wild Things Are,” which all exhibit a sort of dreamy quality he also brings to this project.
As your eyes move down, closer to the stage, you see a string quartet, the Afiara quartet, and San, surrounded by keyboards and turntables, “a veritable UFO of weird percussion instruments and synthesizers and all these noise makers.”
Together, they live score the otherwise-silent movie. The musicians juggle kazoos and slide whistles that give life to the characters, like foley artists, playing all the rustles and sounds of their movements. San scratches records and run his vocals through filters: his more industrial sounds give “voice” to Robot.
And then if you shift your eyes again, there are dozens of miniature sets all around the stage. They look like movie sets, except measured in inches instead of feet: a city, an ice-skating rink, and the inside of a home.
Huddled around one of these sets, a troupe of three puppeteers subtly bringing plastic to life. This is what’s being projected above: live shots of these puppets.
“It starts with something very technical like you saw like left hand right hand. I go like that,” said Patrick Martel, one of the puppeteers, as he moves the head of Robot. “But, when we perform, ideally that technical stuff is out of the way and we just don't even have to think about it anymore. It becomes something more natural.”
When he touches the little wires that control Robot’s hands and head, it takes on a personality, and manages to express the subtlest of emotions.
“We talk a lot about the breath of the puppet,” explains Veronica Barron, another one of the puppeteers. “This show feels like a great example of how puppetry is both a performance medium that's more like dance in a lot of ways because you have to really think about how the body of the puppet is moving in unusual ways much as you would with dance but you also have to be thinking visually and seeing what it looks like in the still in the frame [of the camera]. “
Because, again, instead of performing directly to an audience, the puppets are playing to one of the five cameras on set. Instead of looking at the puppets as they ever so slightly manipulate a hand or head, the puppeteers look off to the side or below almost every one of the sets to a monitor.
But Martel says, isn’t not about the puppeteers working independently, the true breath and life of these puppets comes from the incredibly coordination of all the people on stage, musicians, puppeteers, cameras.
“It's almost like you're at a live taping of a sitcom to a certain extent,” said AJ Korkidakis, director of cinematography for the show.
But unlike a sitcom, working in miniature allows them to play in a world with fewer constraints. He can do a helicopter shot flying over a city, for instance, because it’s just a few feet tall.
“I'm not sure I'm going to get to do that again,” jokes Korkidakis.
On one set, he shows how the crew has come up with creative ways of simulating editing techniques, like making a montage, without all the tech, one of the side-affects of live-filming a show.
A camera starts out in front of a set of Robot and Malorie ice-skating. The set splits in two and pulls to the side revealing another set, a movie theatre where Bad Boys II is screening (they try and give a little nod to every city they’re in with a few Easter eggs). Then, that movie theater set opens and you’re on a lookout over a city.
“So you're going through multiple occasions and scenes but it's all being done practically,” said Korkidakis.
“Everyone asks “hey, when's a DVD coming?” and I'm like, it's not really a movie,” explains San. “You have to leave your house come to the theater, watch us make it live.”
“It's more dangerous [live]. It's more urgent. It really kind of brings you in the moment,” he said. “I've been on plenty of tours where I felt like we're doing the same set for 60 cities and you just kind of go on autopilot and that never ever happens with the show.”
That’s in part because they’re constantly adding new scenes and new sets to the show. The production has swelled from an original six sets and around a dozen puppets to roughly three times that. The unpredictability of each show also just a product of having more than a dozen humans having to coordinate.
“It's like 15 of us on one surfboard,” said San.
He says as an artists, and other people on the show echoed this sentiment, that one of the biggest pleasures of being part of Nufonia is that it’s new every time. The fun of that first performance isn’t lost, now some 60 plus shows into its international run.