Chloe Lang is the name of the ten-year-old American actress who plays Stephanie in the next season of the TV series about LazyTown, which is currently being filmed. Chloe is a great athlete who loves to sing and dance. She is excited to see herself on screen. What is your full name and how old are you?My name is Chloe Lang and I am 10 years old. Where are you from? I live in Connecticut,...
The first season of LazyTown has become a great success in many countries. For the second season, Neal Scanlan has come back to Reykjavík to help redesign the mechanical puppets, which he and his company, The Neal Scanlan Studio in London, created for the first season.
Now he only stayed for two days with a different co-worker than when the previous episodes were made. Then there were five people on behalf of Scanlan during the shooting at the LazyTown studio in Garðabær, and the stay was much longer because everything was new and there was a lot to learn.
“That’s what happens when the production of a series develops and flourishes” says the soft-spoken professional with many in the company calling him a genius at his job. “The Icelandic professionals in LazyTown led by Guðmundar Þórs Kárason, a puppet maker, have mastered the playing technique of the mechanical puppets, their handling and maintenance so well that there is no better choice for us English people to go home.”
Scanlan and his colleagues changed the puppets in LazyTown a bit for filming season two. “For the puppets we used quite a lot of latex, which is suitable as a skin substitute, because we try to give the actor or director as much space as possible for theatrical expression, e.g. with eyelids and eyebrows. The operator has to achieve this facial expression with one hand in the puppet, and in the other he has several tube models that can change facial expressions, raise eyebrows, close eyes and the like.
Now we have modified the puppets to increase the effect and make it easier by separating the eyelids from the skin or latex, which makes it more durable at the same time. Such changes in the making of the puppets should also relieve the director from the exhausting task of holding a puppet in the air with one hand for a long time, as this requires a lot of strength and patience, and make it more agile so that it can be better be used during the filming itself.”
After Neal Scanlan and his team and Magnús and his team decided to join forces to create mechanical puppets for LazyTown, a long period of design and development of the appearance and personalities of the characters for television began.
“Magnús had already worked with some of them for other media, such as stage shows, and had a very clear idea of how everyone should look. It was our joint project to find the right look, we design it and then build the mechanical puppets to build for television. My job is often to interpret and then create in 3D what my clients imagine in their heads. So it was with LazyTown. We had a very fruitful and fun collaboration to create a family of characters with both an overall look and individuality.”
He says that numerous visitors come to his company with a head full of ideas, both private individuals and production companies and television stations with suggestions for new programs or films. These ideas are developed and the projects are implemented very differently.
“But when Magnús Scheving walked into our workshop in the old North London chocolate factory and introduced us to the LazyTown project, it was like a hurricane had come through the door. It was a very unconventional, funny, light-hearted and extremely passionate presentation , and it immediately became clear to me that Magnús had a well-developed, fresh and bright idea, and it was only a matter of time before it took off.
I felt that this project would achieve its goal; anything else would be out of the question. I have always believed that hard work is the key to success. If you work hard, you will succeed. It’s not more complicated.”
Neal Scanlan says children’s television has really taken off in the UK since the Teletubbies were a hit and Tweenies and Fimbles followed, and his company designed and built the puppets for them.
“For us, the LazyTown project was a continuation of that experience, but different in several ways, including the content of the episodes, which is the health and well-being of children. LazyTown does not follow an old script but creates something new. And we are already being approached by parties who want to follow in LazyTown’s footsteps in one way or another!”
And LazyTown’s puppets immediately gained the recognition by winning the Icelandic Edda award in the “looks” category shared by Neal, Magnús and Guðmundur Þór. “Receiving the Edda Award made me very happy,” says Scanlan.
Robot technology in the clutches of the computer
Neal Scanlan has been working on animatronics and similar subjects for film and television for a quarter of a century and his company has been around for a decade. When he took his first steps, computer effects were not available for directors to visualize his vision, and puppetry played a key role. But isn’t there a real danger that computer technology will push the puppets off the table?
“To some extent. I think computer technology will actually replace traditional technology in most areas, including filmmaking. It’s just a matter of time. Let’s take King Kong as an example, most of the sets didn’t exist when the scenes were shot, but were made afterwards on a computer. Under such working conditions, you don’t have to worry about weather conditions and light, this is just done digitally in post production. In 1993’s Jurassic Park, Spielberg used computer technology to show us dinosaurs running for the first time which collide with cars and people; the actors saw nothing of this during filming.”
“However, the puppet technology is such that it gives the actors the ability to react or act against a real, visible environment; they don’t have to imagine it. Still, I think there will come a time when our technology will no longer be needed.”
He thinks that the activities of a company like The Neal Scanlan Studio will increasingly develop into the production of various types of prosthetics and trick makeup. He and his colleagues recently did such work during the production of the latest Spielberg film Munich, which is now being screened in Iceland. So let me take an example: Golda Meir, the Prime Minister of Israel, who is a character in the movie, was unusually tall and masculine in appearance. It was up to us to make the actress who played her role as much as the model if necessary with a prosthetic nose, prosthetic arms, and the like. We have done the same kind of work regarding the consequences of acts of violence, corpses, and mutilations; if a man is shot in the forehead, we put on him an artificial forehead with lines for blood, etc.”
Scanlan and co previously worked with director Tim Burton on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. “It was a fun experience because Tim prefers to work with scenery and puppets and a tangible environment during filming rather than creating this with computers in post-production. And he is a director who keeps coming up with new ideas during the shooting itself, so we hardly had time to realize them at the same time.”
“I think computer effects will take over certain types of Hollywood blockbusters, but creating 3D environments during filming will continue to be necessary to create movies that create a sense of true realism. But we must all be willing to accept these changes, adapt to them and adopt a new way of thinking, or else the profession will die.” Neal Scanlan himself says that he is not fascinated by the world and the possibilities from the computer.
“I was given the opportunity to create with my hands. For my taste, computer work is rather dull and sterile by comparison. However, mixed technology, the collaboration between computer and 3D creation, offers some exciting possibilities as we have actually used here in LazyTown, and can make significant savings. But I’m glad I was born in a different time and have been exposed to methods other than computer technology. I think at least the robot technology will survive as long as I do, so I don’t panic!
He started in the business when he was 19 years old. “I was fascinated by the special effects of the past, especially those created by the father of visual effects, Ray Harryhausen, and based on “stop-motion”
i.e. the models were moved by hand between shots, which produced fairly continuous motion on a normal time scale.”
“I was particularly influenced by Jason and the Argonauts, then only five years old; it was almost a religious experience! Then I was determined that this is what I wanted to work on and nothing else, and I did everything I could to gain knowledge and experience in this area. At that time there was no school material, no instruction book or other data that could be consulted. You had to learn by doing your own experiments and imitating what you saw on screen.”
At that time, “animatronics” replaced “stop-motion” technology, just as computer technology now replaces mechanical puppets. After several years of animation, Scanlan’s animatronics career began with the movie Return to Oz (1984), and more followed, until he met Jim Henson, the father of the Pranksters, “whom I consider an utter genius at this profession”.
The first Henson film Scanlan worked on was Labyrinth (1985), followed by The Little Shop of Horrors (1986) and soon after, he became a founding member of The Jim Henson Creature Shop, where he worked with the master on a number of films as lead puppeteer and art director, such as on The Storyteller, Witches, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, etc. Jim Henson died in 1990 , but the company survived and Neal Scanlan worked for it for about fifteen years.
After winning the 1996 Oscar for visual effects in the comedy Babe, Neal Scanlan decided to part ways with the Jim Henson Creature Shop and start his own company.
“Babe was a turning point in my career in that regard,” he says. “And I’m extremely proud with the Oscar. The awards ceremony was surreal. You’re a king one night and all paths are open! And then later, as an individual, I got offers for projects and I felt that if I ever went out on my own, I had to act now. I also felt that I had done so much for the Henson Company that I had to go my own way now.”
What were the experiences of working for yourself?
“I’ve never worked so hard,” says Neal Scanlan with a smile. “But it was and still is very exciting. Sometimes there are moments when you panic, because no one but me is responsible for your financial situation. But overall, I enjoy choosing talented people around me who are in a certain become the ‘hands of my mind’ and give me the freedom to get ideas, bring them to fruition with their talents, and give them the freedom to use and develop those same talents.”
Ten people regularly work at the company, and the number can rise up to 70 people, depending on the project. He says the company is very mobile. “For example, we shut down for a whole year, moving the business to the Pinewood factory while we were working on Charlie And the Chocolate Factory.”
Subsequently, a further collaboration with the director of that film, Tim Burton, is on the agenda. “Other than that, life in this industry is kind of a daily event that can completely change in one day depending on whether projects are started or canceled.”
He says he has often thought about switching paths. “Sometimes I want to do something completely different, like make casseroles!” But life is based on opportunity, and sometimes you have to wait for the opportunity to come.” One of the opportunities he’s had is directing so-called “2nd Unit” takes for movies.
“It’s mostly special effects and based on props, stand-ins or stuntmen, and I’ve had a lot of fun directing not just puppets, but living people for a change.” Who knows if I will do this more often when the opportunity arises. I don’t just want my career to last a lifetime, but also to be varied and challenging.”
Versatility is exactly what Neal Scanlan says he noticed in the behavior of the Icelanders he met while working in Iceland. “The same person can be a carpenter one minute, in production the next. I noticed the same thing when I was working in Australia and think this is a characteristic of islanders. There are so many open opportunities here. You feel how business is steadily growing and is thriving, unlike my homeland, where a lot of old and good things are falling apart and innovation doesn’t weigh well enough to counterbalance, e.g. in the cinema. It’s so important that people are open and fruitful.”