We talked with director Abby Portner about making a spoof of "Psycho" using Jim Henson puppets.
Whether it's with Animal Collective or as a solo musician, Avey Tare (née Dave Portner) is notorious for radical sound re-invention, constantly changing both his style and his collaborators. His newest, horror-themed project was inspired by creep-meets-camp pop anthems like "Monster Mash" and "They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!" and features help from friends Angel Deradoorian and Jeremy Hyman (formerly of The Dirty Projectors, and of Ponytail, respectively). Known under the moniker Avey Tare's Slasher Flicks, the band's debut album, Enter The Slasher House, will be available on April 8th via Domino. The music video for first single, "Little Fang," just premiered this morning (above), and The Creators Project got an inside look into the filming.
While his bandmates might be new, one collaborator on Slasher Flicks has worked with Avey Tare on every single past project, and also happens to share his blood. Abby Portner, celebrated illustrator and Avey Tare's sister, has designed the playfully-manic art for several Animal Collective albums, posters, videos, set productions, as well as the psychedelic visuals for their tours and Animal Collective Radio, which preceded the band's 2012 LP, Centipede Hz. She's continuing her creative kinship with the amazingly odd "Little Fang" video.
Though no stranger to film, this music video was a step up for the artist, as she had to work with a full crew and on-the-fly troubleshooting. "Little Fang" is a surrealist twist on the classic kid runs away from home to join the circus trope where a fuzzy cat puppet (designed by The Jim Henson Company of The Muppets fame) plays the restless protagonist.
Portner talked to The Creators Project about how the video was inspired by her desire to make a spoof of Psycho using puppets, as well as how puppet wrangling is no easy task: we dare you to try and film a scene in a house of mirrors without showing a single camera or the puppeteer.
The Creators Project: Was the narrative your idea? I love how it’s a surreal twist on the “child runs away from home to join the circus” trope.
Yeah I pitched it to Dave. I was with [Animal Collective] in Brazil a few months ago and designed their stage setup there so it had flashing carnival lights and lots of bright things. Carnivals have been on my mind. Plus the fake horror movie vibe was already there. I wanted to do something like a mock of a horror movie but make it lighthearted. It’s intense and freaky but also really funny.
Do you remember that scene in Psycho where they’re in the car? I wanted to do that, but have a puppet driving it, and that’s where I started. The whole start was this whole funny mock of Psycho. I even got approved from Alfred Hitchcock Foundation. Then I went to Dave and was like “I want to do a video with a Jim Henson puppet and I don’t know if it’s impossible, but this is my idea.”
We actually wanted to shoot it at the Psycho set at Universal Studios but it fell through last minute because of insurance issues and other stuff. I was destroyed for a minute, but it would have made the video too literal, so I found this carnival instead.
Tell me about the puppet you used for the video. It’s so good.
One of my dreams since being a kid was to make a puppet, a Jim Henson puppet. I used to work for [The Jim Henson Company] as a freelance designer. I even got hired as a production manager in the Creature Shop. They’re amazing and were really helpful with this whole project. It was so cool to take it from an idea in my head to a drawing to a literal puppet.
I literally lost my mind when they sent me the first photo of her. The first one didn’t have any hair on her. I have worked in the Creature Shop and was still surprised. You have no idea how excited I was!
Can you tell me about some of the effects in the video? I really like when Dave’s face gets a ghost mask of sorts. How did you create these effects?
[Laughs] Really, you liked it? That was a process! Dave and I wanted to make a bad ghost effect a la the 1920s. I did it basically by doubling his face a bunch of times in AfterEffects and then blew it out with light. I did it a million different times where you could tell it was him, but we thought it was funnier if it made it into a cartoonish ghost mask of sorts.
The other drafts were like too CG, or turned him into this weird silver head superhero or robot thing. They didn't look right. I’d cut out his eyes and leave his mouth, but it didn’t work. It was weird. So we went the opposite and made it cartoonish.
We tried to keep it really goofy throughout and have a mix of computerized traits, like eyes, but also mix it by having a guy holding stick with eyes on them.
The part where the cat arrives at the carnival and all of a sudden there are splotches of psychedelic color reminded me of the infamous scene in “The Wizard of Oz” where Dorothy arrives in Oz. Was that intentional?
It was totally an intentional thing. I’m a huge Disney fan. The floating eyes throughout the video are Chehiire Cat references, in a way. I wanted to make it dark but then make it psychedelic and colorful.
Why did you choose a cat as the subject? I would have guessed a bat for “Little Fang.”
It was maybe going to be a tiny werewolf, but I had a really hard time drawing it and seeing it as a werewolf child [Laughs]. He’s also based off of Dave’s cat. He has an aloof cat and Little Fang [the puppet] is sort of referencing him.
I told [The Jim Henson Company] that they should not make the cat’s hair too perfect. You don’t see the body because of the way the puppeteer is holding it, but it’s all crazy and almost wolf-like.
What was difficult about making this video? Any issues come up on the fly?
There were a lot of things that came up, especially because it was my first time doing something of this size. Typically, I either do it all myself or collaborate with one other person, so this was really interesting having a crew and a camera. It’s easy to forget that you have to light everything well and do it legit [laughs]. I also had to learn to trust a crew with this idea I had. That was a huge learning curve for me. “Is this going to be like trusting people?” [laughs]
Plus having a puppet is really crazy. It’s not a person. You can’t film it and make it walk like an actor! There’s a puppet wrangler, and if you want it to move you need to have a ramp. I had to learn about all this puppet stuff that you wouldn’t expect!
[People at The Jim Henson Company] told me I’d need a puppet wrangler and said they are totally amazing and totally necessary. I thought that was ridiculous and I didn’t believe him, but he was so right! You need all this stuff to make it look real. For example, there’s that scene in the house of mirrors, which we had built just for this. The camera crew was like “You’re asking us to shoot in a house of mirrors and not see the camera or the puppeteer...?” It took a whole day.
Do you imagine yourself directing more in the future?
I want to it was really fun! I feel like it was a really good learning experience, and visually it was consistent with my illustration and drawing style. I can direct these videos and they still look like my drawings. That was important to me.
Where’s the puppet now?
I have her now. She’s in a box. My dog’s afraid of her. I would love to have her appear somewhere else, maybe another video or at a live show as a cameo. It was cool to create this character. I don’t want her to disappear.
Photos by Katherine Sheenan