Dead Puppet Society geniuses work to bring characters the size of cars to life

In a workshop tucked away near a theater on Brisbane’s southside, a team of creatives is bringing creatures to life through their love of puppets.

The Dead Puppet Society is widely considered one of Australia’s most ground-breaking production houses using craftsmanship and technology to create large-scale puppet characters.

Currently, the group is completing puppets for their new show Holding Achilles, which will feature a giant bear, shields, bows, arrows and spears.

But the puppets are not as you may think, there are no strings attached to the cleverly crafted laser-cut shapes of plywood, rubber and metal.

The small bear cub progressed from sketches into puppet form.(ABC Radio Brisbane: Jessica Hinchliffe)

Dead Puppet Society creative director David Morton has been working on the pieces for more than 12 months with one of the hero puppets, a giant bear, consuming most of his time.

“His name is Heracles, which is a tongue-in-cheek joke towards some of the classic myths,” Mr Morton said.

“He’s a bear cub when we first meet him, and Achilles and Patroclus adopt him as a pet and we show the transition of time of him getting bigger.

“He goes from labrador size to a fully grown bear – seeing him come to life from a rough sketch to now putting the pieces together.”

Large leg of bear puppet with people standing next to it.
Each leg of the adult bear will be moved by a performer.(ABC Radio Brisbane: Jessica Hinchliffe)

When completed, the adult bear will be as big as a small car, made up of 44 pieces, with the longest limb measuring more than 1.8 meters and being operated by five people on stage.

“A lot of the other puppets we’re making are quite simple and elegant in their simplicity, but the bear is all bells and whistles,” Mr Morton said.

Handcrafted to surprise

The production is steeped in Greek mythology with the retelling of the Trojan War, but through the eyes of Achilles’ boyfriend Patroclus.

“Over the last decade we have built some really cool things but to go into something like Greek mythology and putting our spin on it has been a treat, especially to look at classical artefacts and riff on that,” Mr Morton said.

A shield on a bench with tools nearby.
Achilles’ shield shows historical images sourced from the early translations of the Iliad.(ABC Radio Brisbane: Jessica Hinchliffe)

Head of fabrication Savannah Mojidi spent weeks working on Achilles’ shield — tracing the design alone took more than five hours.

“It’s pretty cool, the design came from Homer’s Iliad which is a historical Greek document and once we traced it the laser cutter helped out engraving it,” she said.

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“The painting though took us a long time, hours upon hours, as we had to draw in all the lines with silver by hand.”

Creating a new puppet style

Every effort is made to ensure the puppets move and act realistically.

“For the bear, we look at a skeleton to see how they move,” Ms Mojidi said.

A sketch of a bear puppet.
One of the original sketches of Heracles the bear.(Supplied: Dead Puppet Society)

“The cub is smaller and will be a one-person operation but the big one is more involved as we need to pick up each foot, so we have performers for each leg and then one at the head as well.”

She says seeing the puppets come to life on stage after months of work will be satisfying.

“It’s all a very new and in-depth puppet style so it’s been great to see it all come together and seeing the puppets with the actors will be amazing,” Ms Mojidi said.

Woman sanding clear plastic in the shape of a shield.
Savannah Mojidi waterproofs the inside of the shield.(ABC Radio Brisbane: Jessica Hinchliffe)

“I’ve been making these props for months now; having them sitting on our tables in the workshop and then seeing them on stage coming to life will be exciting.”

‘Total feast for the senses’

Executive producer Nicholas Paine said a new friend “Thunder” had helped the group construct the puppets quicker than in previous productions.

“Thunder is our brand-new laser cutter which we have in-house so we’re not waiting for things to be cut anymore meaning our prototypes and everything we need for the puppets are cut here – it’s been a game changer”.

A small ship constructed from plywood, hands off to the right-hand side.
Dozens of small ships will be used in an armada in the show.(ABC Radio Brisbane: Jessica Hinchliffe)

Mr Paine says the opportunity to work with Sydney theater group Legs on the Wall will allow the show to have flow and movement, with actors also featuring onstage alongside the puppets and props.

“It’s certainly different from any production we’ve made before, everything we set out to create is very visual and kind of immersive,” he said.

Two men holding a wooden boat.
David Morton and Nicholas Paine founded Dead Puppet Society to create visually rich productions.(ABC Radio Brisbane: Jessica Hinchliffe)

The production includes an original score composed by Tony Buchen and Chris Bear from Grizzly Bear, and will be performed live by Montaigne at each show.

“It will have an operatic vibe to the production and be a total feast for the senses. It’s going to be quite spectacular,” Mr Paine said.

The production will premiere as part of the Brisbane Festival opening at QPAC on August 29.

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