Whether it’s long-form or short-form content, there are so many different ways to storyboard, direct, write, shoot, and experiment with film. But how does one exactly bring a concept to life from start to finish?
NYFA alum Dylan Mars Greenberg, who has been hailed as a cult filmmaker, explains that it’s all about surrounding yourself with the right people. Greenberg, known for feature films Dark Prism, ReAgitator, and the upcoming film Spirit Riser, recently directed a short for Adult Swim’s Smalls compilation called The Puppeteer’s Assistant, which required a skilled team to pull it off.
The short film, which was comprised of live-action and CGI elements, was an ambitious project that required a group effort to get the concept off the ground from paper to screen and shoot during the COVID-19 pandemic. Greenberg, along with collaborators Hannah Schilsky and Glitter Macabre, spoke with NYFA about how they were able to bring their short to life and create the magic and majesty of the live-action/CGI puppets.
New York Film Academy (NYFA): How did The Puppeteer’s Assistant come to be? How did it get picked up by Adult Swim?
Dylan Mars Greenberg (DG): At the encouragement of my friend Avi Ezor, I originally brought some of my ideas and past work to Development Meeting, an excellent streaming show which unfortunately doesn’t exist anymore. The format was that anyone can call in and pitch things to the hosts and, if they like it, they send you a few hundred dollars. They liked what I showed them and sent me some money, so that was a really wonderful way to get a foot in the door. Then, Avi encouraged me to reach out to Dave Hughes, who is in charge of the Adult Swim Smalls and creator of the show Off The Air, on Twitter. Dave was very friendly and cool and invited me to email him! So I pitched him a few ideas, which just didn’t exactly fit the bill of what they were looking for until I remembered a puppet story, which I had actually come up with a while ago. I sometimes would just tell people about how puppets can’t drink saltwater as a joke because my natural sense of humor is to make up facts about things that just obviously don’t make any sense. So I pitched that and it clicked!
New York Film Academy (NYFA): How did you get involved in The Puppeteer’s Assistant?
Hannah Schilsky (HS): Dylan called me up very excited one day saying she had a project she wanted me to work on. While she explained the premise of the story they had written, in my mind, I had already decided I was on board. All of the creepy but beautiful wooden puppets I would get to sculpt appealed to my aesthetic, and the story is so absurd, it’s hilarious!
Glitter Macabre (GM): A year or two ago Dylan told me and Matilda Sabal (who created the miniature set seen in the short) a bit about puppets who drank salt water and turned evil. The idea was very silly and ominous, so I loved it. Dylan and I collaborate often, and when the idea was picked up by Adult Swim we started talking makeup and styling. Dylan asked me to create concept sketches for the puppets.
NYFA: When making this kind of short, what comes first: the concept or budget? How did you begin to envision the production as a whole?
DG: The concept definitely came first! I had actually thought about making it into a short earlier, just on my own, but making it for Adult Swim was a million times cooler! Once that came into place, I knew immediately for the live-action actors I wanted Jac Bernhard, who I met on the set of the movie Adam, and my friend and long-time collaborator Josafat Concepcion. I wanted to have a wide array of people with very distinctive voices do the puppets, so I got one of my closest collaborators, actor Amanda Flowers, to voice the princess puppet. Then, I reached out to my friend since elementary school Nicolai Gorden, who is now working as a voice actor professionally. I got Avi [Ezor], my friend Bonnie Bloomgarden from the band Death Valley Girls, who has a distinctive high voice, and I decided to voice the clown puppet myself. The next step was to figure out how to make the puppets actually come to life, which is where Hannah Schilsky and Glitter Macabre come in.
HS: My roles as both a producer and the 3D artist making all of the CGI put me in a position where I felt incredibly invested in this project and wanted to push it as far as I could. When Dylan sent me the script I knew right away how time-consuming of an endeavor this would be to pull off. I didn’t want to limit the story based on how much it would take to realistically hire a 3D artist. Having a producer title and seeing my time as an investment made a huge difference in the way I interacted with every aspect of the project. It motivated me to throw myself wholeheartedly into working on it every night after working a full-time day job. Ultimately, we ended up with a short film that included every frame of the original storyboards and that’s something I am really proud of.
GM: For me, the concept comes first-but both Dylan and I tend to start thinking about how to do something right away. Almost as soon as the idea was pitched she had created a storyboard. Those drawings inspired my designs for the characters. For example, she wanted The Boy to have a little ruffle around his neck and a curl painted on his forehead. We talked about the budget and supplies I would need early on while I was collecting pictures of suitably cute-and-creepy marionettes and rocking horses. Since the film was created in quarantine, we discussed filming the whole thing by ourselves.
At one point she [Greenberg] asked if I would put her in a big white beard and I would play the Boy. I am delighted he was instead played by Jac and that so many fabulous elements could be incorporated.
NYFA: With multiple elements involved (live-action/puppetry/animation), how did you and the crew juggle it all to combine seamlessly?
DG: I know this is such a cliché statement, but it was definitely a learning process. I had done a short film with Khloaris productions called The Bathtub, where we shot the actors on green screen and then composited them into miniatures. So, I had some experience with that concept and felt the best way to do it would be to once again shoot everyone on green screen. Believe it or not, I usually don’t do this, but in this instance, I did in fact storyboard each shot. I think that was essential for all the elements to blend together because that immediately puts us all on the same page in terms of what is happening where. I wanted the live actors and the animated characters to feel consistent which is where Glitter’s styling came in. Aside from the clown, which was fully designed by Hannah, Glitter drew each puppet character in detail, and then Hannah rendered them in three dimensions.
Then Glitter drew sketches of what we’d make the live actors look like, and actually made them look just as cartoonish with the power of makeup. That created a real consistency. Matilda Sabal also designed the set, which is a real miniature, and then I actually was tasked with photographing it from hundreds of different angles, sending it to Hannah, and then Hannah scanned those images and rebuilt the set on the computer. She’s a genius, I still can’t wrap my head around that. Then, there was basically the filming with the live actors, which took about four hours, and once the models were rendered, several sessions of essentially directing the animation like it was live-action. So, in real life, Adam Ninyo was the DP and in the animated world, Hannah is the DP, because she’s in control of the virtual camera, and in a way, she’s like a God. I say that because I’m asking her to make these creatures move in a certain way but she’s the one actually making them do that. It really felt close to directing living actors, I’d never experienced that before.
HS: The true ring leader behind that operation was Dylan. While I was in a work bubble only worrying about what I had to do they were herding the cats, myself included. She was personally involved with every aspect of the production, on top of tracking progress and dependencies, and that is how things ran so smoothly.
GM: Dylan was the center of communication between the production team. Once the script/storyboard was created, things were in motion. Hannah designed the clown puppet. It was perfect and told me how the marionettes should be proportioned, how they would move. I illustrated the other four puppets and sent ideas for textures, colors, fabrics. I looked at photos of the voice actors as references. The Fairy Princess puppet was directly inspired by Amanda Flowers. I believe the first time we met on one of Dylan’s music video shoots, she was wearing a giant fluffy pink dress! I also talked to Matilda about the set colors to make sure no one would be blending into the walls. It felt like a very smooth and positive process to me. I love the details that Hannah brought to life – like one of the King puppet’s eyes being a moving spiral. Everyone’s work came together really well, which speaks to the strength of Dylan’s vision and passion for this project.
NYFA: What were some challenges you faced along the way? Is there anything you wish you would’ve known prior to working on the short?
DG: I think I was really lucky in that I had such a great team working with me, there were very few problems. We did however shoot this in a pandemic so we had to keep everything as COVID safe as possible. We had all the crew and myself wearing masks at all times. Glitter wore a mask while doing the actor’s makeup in the first location. However, they had to redo some makeup once we were on set because we had to transport the actors to the set in a car and we all wore masks in the car, so the masks smudged the makeup a bit. I also made sure the actors themselves were distanced from each other, and I shot one scene where Josafat leans in to tell Jac something in two separate shots because I didn’t want to risk Josafat possibly getting even a small amount of saliva on Jac’s face while speaking. So, we filmed Jac reacting, and then Josa leaning in, and combined both shots together in post. Also, I wanted to make sure we had everything perfect with the green screen because so often there are problems with keying and you get artifacts of green around the actors. So, I made sure there was enough in the budget for a really good green screen studio with proper lighting, which BC Studios provided. I had the editor on set to check each shot we did and during a break actually do some test shots, to make sure the green was keying out properly.
HS: This project was my first time attempting to render an entire short film using the cinematic tools inside of Unreal Engine. There was never an out-of-control moment where I felt like it wasn’t going to work, but I was definitely battling with a bunch of features before I took a step back and revisited the documentation. There will always be information that would have been very useful to know before starting a project, but it’s the sink or swim situations where I really level up.
GM: My only wish is that I had asked for some extra time on makeup! It was a crazy hot day, one of the hottest of the year, and we only had a few hours to shoot on green screen. Jac and Josa were sweating in full makeup and face masks on the way to the location, and I was quietly panicking. But I am very happy with how things came out.
NYFA: What are some other parts about making this project that you would like to share?/Is there anything else you would like to add?
GM: This is the first animated film I have worked on. I have been inspired by animation since childhood, particularly stop motion films like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride-I was very much thinking of those character designs while working on this project. Seeing my illustrations come to life in this way was very special.
HS: For anyone who has watched this I hope it brought you some joy in these crazy times.
DG: I’d like to thank everyone who helped me on this project. It truly was a collaborative effort and I couldn’t have done it without the incredible team of young brilliant artists who all made this a truly hilarious and beautiful short. I’d also like to encourage all filmmakers reading this to embrace weirdness, and if you have an idea floating around in your head that keeps making you laugh, or cry, or feel something, to write it down. Even if you don’t make it immediately, that idea could come in handy years from now.
New York Film Academy would like to thank director and alum Dylan Mars Greenberg, producer and animator Hannah Schilsky, and puppet artist and stylist Glitter Macabre for taking the time to share their experience making The Puppeteer’s Assistant for Adult Swim.
To watch the short, click the video below.
The Puppeteer’s Assistant
Created and directed by: Dylan Mars Greenberg
Starring: Jac Bernhard, Josafat Concepcion, Amanda Flowers, Nicolai Gorden, Bonnie Bloomgarden, Avi Ezor, and Dylan Mars Greenberg
Music by: Matt Ellin
Produced and animated by: Hannah Schilsky
Director of photography: Adam Ninyo
Edited by: Phill Skokos
Model built by: Matilda Sabal
Humans and puppets styled by: Glitter Macabre
Associate producer Avi Ezor
Makeup assistant: Leor Freedman
Sound: James Boylan
Additional animation: Ezra Pailer
Color: Gene Rosati Jr.
Shot at BC Studios
Special thanks to Dave Hughes and Danya Levine