Joining us at January’s Nicer Tuesdays was director and puppeteering duo Jonny Sabbagh and Will Harper, otherwise known as Jonny and Will.
Having met on the Technical Arts / Interpretation course at Wimbledon School of Art, the pair quickly realised their joint interest in making films and characters. “I’ve been making puppets since I was a little boy and then I found a course where I could carry this on,” explained Jonny. They then spent most of their time doing that “instead of doing what we were supposed to be doing, like our dissertations”.
After leaving college they set up their own production company making “weird films” using puppets and in-camera techniques. “It was at a point where everything was CGI and everyone was saying you’re in the wrong business, but we stuck to our guns because we always liked that hand-crafted feel,” said Will.
This drive and initiative paid off as the two gradually “wormed” their way into various art departments, working on music videos and advertisements, until they finally found themselves at Blink Productions. “We got signed as directors because we were always going on about our own ideas,” Jonny explained.
But their path was never certain, with Will joking: “Every time we get a puppeteering job, we think no one’s going to want this ever again, this might be the last time we’ll work.” But the niche nature of their art ended up propelling them forward, keeping them busy, “Then suddenly the phone rings and they say we need another sausage to walk across the screen."
But the real challenge comes during the pitching process, as the two try to convince their clients of the possibilities of puppeteering. “It’s really hard. You draw an apron and tell them to imagine it dancing,” explained the duo in a recent instance when working with Ikea. However it’s not until the rough video tests on an iPhone that they can begin to inspire people to see the potential: “We call these mapping out of our ideas “shitomatics”, and they’re what win the jobs.”
Speaking of their recent projects, Jonny and Will also told the Nicer Tuesdays audience about their Grumpy King pitch a few years ago to Cartoon Network. Originally intended as an idea for the network’s station identification, it ended up being fleshed out into its own show after they were told it was “a terrible ident”. It became a dream project for them where they got to “write it, come up with the ideas, and watch lots of cartoons for work.”
Jonny and Will summarised their experiences and the learning process so far by explaining how they’ve brought it back to basics, “We’ve spent years simplifying things down to literally a sock. You start with a million eyebrows and eyelids that move, but actually on-screen the simpler is always the better.”