In Maurice Sendak’s Higgelty Piggelty Pop! Jennie is a Sealyham terrier who, despite having everything, feels that there must be more to life. She packs her bags and abandons her lap of luxury to embark on a quest for something more, and finds it in something less. With the aid of producer Spike Jonze, filmmakers Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski (AKA Montreal’s Clyde Henry Productions) and cinematographer Stéphanie Anne Weber Biron were tasked with adapting the popular children’s tale as part of the Where the Wild Things Are home video release. (Get it through CHUD). Clyde Henry are best known for their 2008 Oscar-nominated short film, Madame Tutli-Putli. (Which I wrote about in the January 2008 issue of American Cinematographer).
Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski.
Higgelty Piggelty Pop! is a fairly lighthearted story, but then as things go on, it gets darker, and a little more weird. I mean, weirder than a talking dog and a pig. It’s a very complex story for a children’s book.
Maciek Szczerbowski: We had free reign to choose any Sendak story we wanted, so we went to library and read them all. Higglety Piggelty Pop! was the one that begged for a second reading to uncover all the underlying layers that you don’t really catch in the first perusal. It ends as a kind of mystery. It compels you to read it again and when you do, only then do you understand what it’s about. It shares a lot with the last film we made, Madame Tutli-Putli, which was kind of a voyage to an afterworld, a death trip.
Chris Lavis: This is Sendak’s most personal story, and his most favorite work.
Maciek: The character of Jennie is based on his possibly best friend in his life ever, his Sealyham terrier Jennie, for whom Higgelty Piggelty is a kind of eulogy.
Did that at all affect your translation?
Chris: It affected it us after we met him. After that we were much more careful to figure out what influenced him and where he was coming from: his love of food, 19th century English art, and the time he spent in Wales.
This seems like Clyde Henry’s most ambitious project yet. I think the credits ran longer than your first film.
Maciek: We had no other choice on this project. We had 10 months to deliver this film, compared to Tutli-Putli, which was in the 4-year range. We gathered all of our friends without the opportunity to do any kind of character development or experimentation and we had to concentrate on getting things made. Most of the puppets still had wet paint when we were shooting them because they had just been finished.
Chris: If Tutli-Putli was like going to the tailor and getting a suit just for you and it’s just made by a guy and his assistant, Higgelty Piggelty is an entire clothing line. We had to do much more management than usual, keeping the various teams together and worrying about the camera, the art direction, and the miniatures. A lot of times we weren’t even around and other people were in charge. We’d be working on edits and getting emails of shots for approval. It was a more traditional filmmaking process. There were things about it that we liked and things we didn’t like.
Chris: We went through a digital intermediate process and we weren’t even there for that. Our colorist Denis Pilon was fantastic but it’s something I wish we’d been around for. On the other hand, we did all our own editing, but it would’ve been great to have a talented editor to help us with a first pass. Instead we did every single frame and that ended up costing us a lot of time.
Maciek: We took the project as a kind of rehearsal for any kind of subsequent films.
Chris: At the end of Tutli-Putli we had a completely different list of things we did right and things we fucked up horribly, but we’ve also never done a film with live action or dialogue. We come from a stop motion tradition where people have gone their entire careers without doing dialogue.
This film is an amalgamation of a lot of different processes: Stop motion, puppetry, live action actors in costumes. Let’s talk about a little bit about each of these elements.
Stéphanie Anne Weber Biron: We don’t want to give away all our secrets! Jennie is a life-size puppet with a puppeteer. The cat is a person in an outfit with an animatronic face. The pig is a puppet. Most of what you see is a life-sized set with live action elements and a little bit of stop motion and miniature work.
Maciek: Jennie herself was a couple of puppets – a hand puppet and a marionette. We could screw up every other element of the film, but if we got Jennie, the beating heart of the film, right, we’d be okay.
What kinds of obstacles were you up against?
Maciek: There were three things we had to worry about: the puppet, the puppeteer, and the voice. With most characters, we got two out of three right, but with Jennie it had to be all three.
First of all she’s not just a white dog, but a very specific breed, and a rare one. The people who own them are very specific about that they don’t own a dog, but that they own a Sealyham terrier. Part of getting Jennie right was to honor the racial fetishism of Sealyham terrier owners. We did some research and were lucky enough to find a breeder near Montreal. She brought us three of the terriers, and Chris and Stephanie and I went to meet them and filmed them rolling around, eating, standing on their hind legs. Then we found a fantastic builder, Vicki Veenstra, who set about recreating a faithful and
functional version of that breed.
The second difficulty was finding a puppeteer. We never thought it would be as hard as it was, but we actually found an amazing lady, Marcelle Hudon, someone who lives for this. She really bleeds and breathes for this stuff. She gave us more time and effort than we ever had the right to expect.
Through all of this we still hadn’t cast the voice yet. Some of Jennie’s performance was filmed before we got Meryl Streep as the voice, so the performance of the dog and how it flaps its jaws is intrinsically linked to the voice of our puppeteer, who’s a French woman and has a very thick accent. We needed to find someone with a voice that worked in rhythm with Marcelle’s.
Chris: We had an old recording of Meryl Streep reading the book from start to finish, directed by Sendak. It was just one of the things that was kicking around the studio. When we were editing the rehearsals, we threw her vocals in and it was instantly magic. It was a perfect fit with what Marcelle was doing, and it wasn’t a crazy idea because she’d worked with Maurice and Spike and she understood the character. There wasn’t a minute where we had to explain who Jennie was.
Stéphanie, let’s talk about your role as the cinematographer.
Stéphanie: It was definitely different. I haven’t done a lot of films with puppets or a heavy amount of special effects. There were a lot of technical challenges because of the puppets, but it was really thrilling for me. It was the first time I’d worked with directors who pushed me to design my own contraptions to create special lighting effects. They encouraged me to be far out.
How far out?
Stéphanie: I had all these sequined outfits in my wardrobe from my years of partying, and I took all those old clothes and sewed them together to make a sequined reflecting device for a scene. At one point I had bought a bunch of reflective wrapping paper and weird things. I tried putting the reflective paper on my head and spinning around-
Chris: We did a few takes like that and there was a lot of eye-rolling from the crew.
Stéphanie: So we ended up putting it on a tripod. Maciek and Chris are such strong visual artists and have their own aesthetic and I was completely submerged in it.
Chris: I think Stéphanie’s biggest challenge was to take an animatic of each scene, and what she had to do was translate that with the constrictions of the RED camera. Things would always go wrong with the puppets so sometimes she’s doing as many as twenty takes with a huge camera on her shoulder.
Stéphanie: And we were doing things that would normally require motion control. There’s one shot where the Jennie is sitting at a table and she’s a hand puppet. Then a live-action character picks her up and sets her on the floor. When the camera booms down below the table, the dog is on the floor now she’s a string puppet. That’s two separate shots made to be one, but we didn’t even have a jib or a peewee dolly with a pedestal. The camera was hanging off a strap from an aluminum pole and I was stabilizing it with my hand.
Was it just you designing all of the strange camera and lighting contraptions?
Stéphanie: I had an official crew, but there were some shots that were so complex, I needed ten or more people moving a flag or doing one of those homemade lighting effects. For the shot where Jennie’s in the milk wagon, it had to look like they’re moving along with the sun affecting them through the trees, so I had to find everyone in the studio and be like “Hey I know you do costumes, but hold this flag or this branch.”
Did you have a lot of freedom to translate the animatics?
Stéphanie: None at all. I’d be on the the set, curled up in the smallest ball with the camera crammed up against the wall, and these guys would ask me to move over just one more centimeter. We couldn’t put the camera everywhere because we’d reveal the gaps in the set. Still, I was trying to push them to stray away from the animatics.
Maciek: These puppets and the sets only exist from a few angles. We had real physical restrictions we had to take into account. Without having some kind of guide we would’ve been even worse off.
Chris: When something works it’s hard to say you were wrong, but one of the things we discovered is while the animatic process is critical to animation it can be a detriment to live action. We could’ve been so much looser and given ourselves so many more options. We could’ve been more open to Stéphanie or the puppeteer doing something different. I think because we were coming off of Tutli-Putli and were insecure about the schedule we were jerks about our animatics.
What’s next for Clyde Henry?
Chris: The next thing we’ll do is a feature film. The technique will be closer to Higgelty Piggelty Pop! in that it’ll be a combination of live action, VFX, and puppetry, but the process will be more like Tutli-Putli where we’ll do much more research and take our time in preproduction. I want to say that it’ll be The White Circus, but then you never know what will happen. There was a year where we thought Tutli-Putli was dead and we put away the notebooks, and then there was a time when we thought Higgelty Piggelty was dead, but that seems to be the process. Either way, people have seen the last Clyde Henry project for a long time.
[Behind the scenes photography by Ina Lopez.]
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