Episode #134 — Puppet Engineer Randy Erskine

We’d like to start off this week’s blog with a disclaimer. The views Luke expresses about chocolate do not necessarily reflect the views of the other individuals involved with this podcast. We don’t like to pass judgement, but after listening to his opinions you’ll probably come to the correct conclusion that they are mistaken and inaccurate. In fact, we wish Roald Dahl had created a new room in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” for Luke just to illustrate how wrongheaded he is about spicy chocolate. Maybe he would slowly turn into Anthony Kiedis. Or maybe he would be stuck on an endless loop in a really bad Food Network show on how to spice things up in the kitchen and the bedroom. Or maybe we all just need to accept that different people enjoy different flavor profiles.

In the spirit of accepting what brings one person joy might be concerning for another, we’d like to turn to thoughts of puppets. (It is springtime, after all.) Many have happy puppet associations: “Sesame Street,” “The Muppets,” Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” album. Others have watched “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” from “Tales from the Crypt” one too many times. (Side note: If you’ve never seen that episode, stop reading and go watch it. It stars Don Rickles, Bobcat Goldthwait, and a vengeful ventriloquist’s dummy named Morty. Season 2, episode 10 — we’ll wait until you’re done…)

Like we said, puppets. In this modern world of digital creations, puppets are still noteworthy and relevant parts of today’s culture. And this week’s guest works at a studio that is creating puppet masterpieces by hand. We spoke with Randy Erskine, who is a member of Selberg Studios. Selberg Studio was created by master sculptor Tim Selberg and to say that they make puppets is a massive understatement. A more apt description is that they create handcrafted animated figures. If you’ve seen “Goosebumps” or “Best In Show,” among other productions, you’ve seen their work. And if you’ve seen any famous ventriloquist acts, chances are they’ve had a hand in it. (Come on, we’re allowed at least one puppet pun.)

Luke is wary of puppets and Heidi is a fan of the children’s show “Hot Fudge” (Detroit!), so the questions for Randy came from two completely different mindsets. Between them both, most of your puppet-based questions should be covered. Ultimately, we were curious as to how someone gets involved in making these types of figures in the first place. Randy shared with us how he got started in puppet engineering, and also illustrated how you never know what you’re going to discover on Craigslist.

Randy explained about the surprising variety of creations made at the studio. They specialize in carved puppets, not soft puppets. Beyond the obvious differences in material, Randy elaborated on what separates them. And the more he talked about the mechanics, time, and craftsmanship involved, the more we wanted to know. Would you like a carved puppet that looks just like you? They can do that. Does a production company need mechanics to capture different movements and expressions in a way that keeps the puppeteer as safe and comfortable as possible? Randy is on the case!

There’s a reason that these carved figures have captured peoples’ imaginations for decades. Tune in to hear Randy’s theory about it, along with some fascinating descriptions about what goes into making a puppet concept into a reality. For more information about Randy and Selberg Studios, check them out on their website and on Facebook. They are worth visiting to see what these figures actually look like! Now, if you’ll excuse us, we’re off to watch that “Seinfeld” episode about Kenny Rogers Roasters. Rumor has it there’s a ventriloquist dummy named Mr. Marbles in it, but we’re sure he’s harmless…


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