Saturday, January 26, 2013

A Day at the Puppet Show

Danny and I went to see the Bob Baker Marionette Theater today.  It is a bit of a local legend here in L.A. and I had heard about it frequently way back in the 90's when I was a puppeteer, but never managed to see it until today.  This was the last week of their extremely strange rendition of The Nutcracker.  Normally I wouldn't have chosen this show, but a local group called Atlas Obscura made arrangements to let us go backstage after the show.  I'm glad I did it and I'm signing up with Atlas Obscura for more unique and unusual outings in the future.

Check out all the pictures from the show and backstage here!

The theater and the show were many things to me: nostalgia (for my puppet roots, my early time in theater, and my childhood), sadness (it is clinging to the brink of financial collapse), and joy (because it is still pretty damn cool).  The entire thing is a strange, time-traveling snapshot of 1962, when the theater opened.  The music is playing from a record (or at least a recording of a record, complete with pops and scratches).  The lighting equipment is the same gear I haven't seen since I was 10 years old working in community theater (ACTUAL coffee can lights!).  The puppets are the same sort of exaggerated, vibrant, and sometimes borderline racist style that I came to know from the Kroffts and every cartoon repeat of my youth.  Each act was a single song with one puppet or set of puppets for the entire length and usually featured a single gag payoff near the end.  A ball-walking puppet, one with magically extending neck, or a dog with perky ears.  I was surprised both to see that this style of show is still marketed to children after 50 years (instead of directly at nostalgic adults) and that it actually still works on kids.  The jaded, modern adult in me really didn't plan to be charmed, but after the initial shock of how anachronistic it feels (watching young puppeteers performing very old acts), I actually enjoyed it immensely.

And MAN does it make me want to perform again.  I used to think that I might one day retire doing something like this (but with a lot more in-theater special effects, of course).  I don't really have that dream anymore.  This made me think about it again though, and it also made me realize how financially disastrous it could be.  This theater is sinking in debt and is about to have its facility pulled out from under it.  If the doors are locked up, they will lose 80 years of handmade puppets (3000 total) and just as much tradition.  It makes me want to try and find more ways to integrate puppetry into the projects I work on in the future.  It's a dying tradition here in the U.S. and I think it still has amazing potential.  Danny and I bought a handmade puppet on the way out.  We wanted to help out financially and take a piece of this art with us, no matter how small it is.

Go see it.  Go see it soon.  It's weird.  It's really old.  But it's still really cool.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Running Away from the Circus

Well, it's official.  I was informed today that there are no open shifts for the last week of IRIS' run.  The last show is on Saturday, January 19th, but as of the message today (and barring any emergencies), my last day with Cirque du Soleil was last Thursday.  I plan to hang out there for the final show but otherwise, I'm done.

As my friend, Ray so eloquently put it, "later".

I've ended many relationships with companies before this one (though only Disney was longer), but ending this one is a bit different.  This is the first time since 1989 that I am not working as a performer or technician in live shows.  In other words, that's what I've been doing for my entire career up until now.  What I'm doing now is still related in many ways, but I'm no longer on the front lines.  Feels weird.  Feels good and bad.  Feels overdue to me.

I'm excited to leave that part of my life behind (excluding all the awesome people) and move on to new things.  But before I go, I just wanted to have a moment of nostalgia and look back on all the incredible (and sometimes terrible) things I experienced.  

I was with Cirque for just over 5 years and 10 months and this is what happened:

Mar 1994 - I saw my first Cirque show, Mystere, in Las Vegas during its first year and fell in love with it.  I would see it 8 more times over the next 4 years and even trained as a tumbler in the hopes of joining the show.  In 1996, I started transitioning from performer to technician and gave up on that pursuit.

Mar 2007 - Thirteen years later, I'm hired as an Automation tech on Mystere.  As part of my job, I briefly and barely appeared on stage during shows.  To me, this counted as fulfillment of my 1994 dreams.

Jan 2008 - My friend Ray and I start a freelance business on the side for the main purpose of programming a show control system for the video department of the new show, Criss Angel Believe.  We worked on that show on and off for most of 2008.  

Feb 2008 - I transfer to The Beatles LOVE.  It is by far the most challenging board op job I ever have... but it was cool.  

Dec 2008 - After a few months of very serious concentration and reaction-timing issues that resulted in the only official job reprimand I've EVER had, I finally figured out what was going on and fixed it.  Turns out that I had extremely high blood sugar and migraine medications in high dosages that were working against me.  Fixing both issues brought me a clarity I didn't know I was missing and my job performance turned around dramatically in a very short time.

Jun 2009 - I learn to walk on stilts in order to help Cirque du Soleil break the world record for "most stilt-walkers at once".  It's weird, but I can cross breaking a world record off my bucket list.  I still have the stilts!

Jun 2009 - A blog entry I wrote about my job (with company permission) ends up getting reposted on the official LOVE Facebook page and  Yay, nerdery!

Aug 2009 - I get to run a bungee rig in the LOVE Theater for the season finale of The Amazing Race.  And I (barely) appear in the background of the episode.

Jan 2010 - I close the one and only real business I ever owned / co-owned, Logic Box.  My friend Ray and I originally opened it so we could do freelance work on Criss Angel Believe.

Aug 2010 - We film a new commercial for LOVE in 3D.  It's a pretty major shoot and a lot of fun.  Danny and family attend as background audience members too.

Oct 2010 - I run the aerial automation for the 3D movie, World's Away.  I get to "work with" and meet James Cameron in the process.

Dec 2010 - One of the dancers on LOVE is arrested (and later convicted) of murdering and dismembering his girlfriend (a dancer from another show).  Though I didn't really know him (or her at all), he was actually one of my favorite performers and I watched him nightly for a month not knowing he had committed the crime.

Dec 2010 - I help out with the filming of American Idol at LOVE, though my participation was minimal.

Apr 2011 - Danny and I move to L.A. so I can install and open IRIS at the Kodak Theater.

Sept 2011 - I become a part-timer for IRIS as I start my new job at Thinkwell.  I had initially planned to leave Cirque entirely until a co-worker made the part-time suggestion during my last 2 weeks.  As a result, I got to be a part of the show for its entire run.

Mar 2012 - 5 year anniversary with Cirque.  It won't be recognized for 10 more months because of the way part timer hours are calculated.

Dec 2012 - I finally get to see World's Away and it is a great finale to the Cirque experience.

Jan 2013 - Times up.  Thanks for (almost) everything.


Saturday, January 5, 2013

Worlds Away (My Review / Behind the Scenes)

Cirque du Soleil's Worlds Away movie has a plot about as deep as the average music video.  That means it has slightly more story than the average live Cirque du Soleil show.  But that's all good because it is basically a concert film anyway... with the band replaced by a circus.

I really recommend seeing this film, not just because I helped make it (more on that in a minute) but because it presents a very unique perspective.  The movie takes place in the "worlds" that make up the 7 permanent Cirque shows that were playing in Las Vegas in 2010.  Of course, you should see Worlds Away if you are a die-hard Cirque fan or will never have a chance to "collect them all" in Vegas.  But the best reason to buy a ticket is so you can see and feel what it is like to be in the shows.  The way the film was rigged and shot puts you very close to the action, above and below it.  You'll see the up close and personal show that I saw as an employee and you'll witness things only the acrobats themselves get to see.  In these gravity-defying environments, the 3D immerses you in the scale and heights of these acts instead of seeming like just another in-your-face gag.  From "O", the true depth of the pool and the complex maneuvers on the swinging Bateau are so much clearer than they ever were for me in the audience.  The sheer size of Viva Elvis' trampoline rig (and awesome acrobatics) actually works far better on film than it ever did dwarfing its performers in the live show.  The bottomless pit that is KA really feels like you're teetering on the edge of a floating island in space.  And the layered flying chaos of The Beatles LOVE's Get Back and Octopus' Garden reveals more of its many details here than you can take in during the live show.  My only complaint is that not including Mystere's fast track and Korean plank act is a decision bordering on criminal.  Still the best purely acrobatic act in Vegas Cirque's arsenal, it would have been mind-blowing in 3D.

I saw Worlds Away 2 weeks ago with Danny and a group of good friends.  It was a small but full and enthusiastic theater.  I felt like seeing it was the grand finale to a cool chapter in my life.  It's a big deal because I actually worked on this movie, and not just in a tiny indirect way.  My work is clearly visible in a good chunk of the film.  And the timing is perfect because my current Cirque home, IRIS in Hollywood, is closing in 2 weeks, bringing to an end my nearly 6 years with the company.  Seeing my name in the credits in a real live movie theater (credits which also include Andrew Adamson and James Freakin' Cameron) could not be a cooler way to do it.

Way back in late 2010 and early 2011, this movie was filmed in the Cirque theaters in Vegas.  It heavily features "O", KA, and LOVE (where I was working) in particular.  If you don't know what I did for Cirque and LOVE, this thing I wrote in 2009 sums it up pretty well.  In the movie, I am controlling the flights of almost every one (and thing) in the air during the Beatles segments including Jellyfish, bungee acrobats, giant scary puppets, the weird Uncle Sam high striker girl, and Lucy in her Sky of Diamonds.

When this project popped up in Nov 2010, it was pretty sudden and sort of secretive, even for those of us involved.  LOVE was filmed first so we had no idea what was coming.  We had just made a fairly involved 3D commercial for our show as well as episodes of American Idol and The Amazing Race (which I actually appeared in... barely) so it really felt like "just another film shoot" at first.  In fact, I was told that it was just a small project being done for a limited release for a private investor or something like that.  Whatever, no big deal.  We'll do it and never hear about it again.  But then we started to learn more.  "The guy that directed Shrek and Narnia is doing this" and "James Cameron's company is supplying the 3D gear".  Very cool and a bigger deal. And then we had a secret guest in the building.  Apparently personally asked by Cirque Founder, Guy LaLiberte, James Cameron showed up in our theater to help work out the complexities of filming something like this in 3D.  Not knowing what his official capacity (if any) was going to be, we were all sworn to secrecy about him being in the building.  That proved to be tricky though because Mr. Cameron is a man of the people (Tech people anyway) and he kept eating in the employee cafeteria in front of hundreds of Mirage employees.  Soon, he became Executive Producer but he continued to help with the shoot, often directing or running cameras himself.  It was AWESOME.  

And then I got to meet him.  An impromptu meet and greet started with the LOVE crew one afternoon.  Fascinated by technology, he actually started asking us how our show equipment works.  It's an amazing feeling having someone like that take an interest in you and your job. 

A second shoot took place in Feb 2011 and then the movie just vanished into the ether.  I thought it got shelved and kind of forgot about it for awhile.  Almost 2 years later, I had left LOVE and moved to L.A. to open IRIS.  And finally, it re-emerged and made it to the screen in Dec 2012.  I had missed the employee preview so I was even more excited when it premiered.  

I went with Danny and 4 good friends.  And I have to admit, I was actually feeling goosebumps and adrenaline through the entire thing.  It was less about the movie itself and more about the memories of making it and the anticipation of seeing how the parts were put together and feeling a little like a rockstar when my friends audibly reacted to it.  It was total self-centered joy.  

And at the end when my name rolled by, my friends applauded, giving me that rush that I haven't felt since I stopped performing on stage long ago.  I'm sure they felt obligated, but I loved them for it all the same.  After my Cirque time is over in a couple of weeks, I will always look back on this as a really great ending to a really great experience.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Greetings Internets

Hi there.  

I want to start writing a blog again.  I was pretty chatty on my old LiveJournal blog up until I moved to L.A.  When I arrived here, I was so busy that I just stopped.  I'm not really that busy anymore, I feel out of practice, and I have a whole bunch of random things to say.  So I'm starting it back up.

I'm going to keep the LiveJournal blog alive for archival purposes, but I think that system / scene is pretty much dead now.  Blogger works well for my nerdy project, so it should be good for this too.

Let's see how long this whim lasts.