Interview with Puppet Designer Travis Stevens

Frank

In Moonshot, the man in charge of the company sending supplies to the moon is actually a robot named Frank. It was important to the design of the film for the filmmakers to use as many practical effects as possible, so artist Travis Stevens was hired to build a hilarious puppet. He sat down to answer a few questions about  the process of bringing Frank to life.

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Ross Godwin operates Frank’s coffee arm.

What work inspired the design for Frank? Were there any movies, books, or comics that influenced the look?

When I began thinking about Frank, I knew I needed to imagine something I could actually build with the most easily acquired resources- but without sacrificing visual appeal. I wanted something clunky and lived-in; something that would exist in the dingy Moonshot world. My mind immediately latched onto using a classic chrome toaster for the base of the head, and I did a very basic concept sketch that Matt approved. It was cubeish chrome head with other angular pieces imitating the shapes of normal human anatomy, as well as a “mail-slot” mouth that could open and close with a sliding metal panel. It was similar in spirit to the Frank that was built- the glasses, semi-humanoid features, but much simpler and polished.

As I began searching thrift stores for parts, I was an opportunist. I would see a piece and connect it to parts of classic robots from pop-culture, assembling it in my head and hoping I could connect it physically as well as I imagined it.  Finding these bits, Frank ultimately becomes a combination / derivation of three classic robots- and one classic 80s pop star.

I’ve always been a huge Star Wars fan, and this of course influenced the design. In Empire Strikes Back, 2-1B is a medical droid at the Hoth Base. The chrome toaster skull, worn metal, and LED eye sockets are mainly pulled from his design, and I eventually decided to use part of a vintage film projector for the mouth that captures even more of his essence. Equal to 2-1B in inspiration is Rosie from the Jetsons. Metal, clunky, light up eyes- the classic sci-fi robot. Not much to explain, and it’s pretty obvious. Bits and pieces of other film or TV robots made their way in- Bender and other assorted Futurama characters, but more possibilities arose as I kept finding mechanical bits and pieces. I think the last robo-predecessor was the Kryptonian DC supervillain, Brainiac, as depicted in the Super Friends and Kenner Super Powers toy line from the 80s. His head became a little more complicated, including 2 back sections and changing LEDs, as Brainiac had visible components in an extensive domed cranium.. This became convenient, as the different segments allowed me to hide the battery backs and switches that would keep Frank functional and interesting.

Very early on I decided that Frank should be connected to legendary Genesis drummer / frontman, Phil Collins. I’m not sure why he entered the picture, but the very first sketch had a version of his receding hairline- the top panel, and two side panels imitating his distinctive male-pattern baldness. I made these into coppery solar panels- very geometric, but exactly what a middle-aged office-working robot would have as he gave his employees a hard time while popping the robot equivalent of Tums and blood-thinners. Sussudio.

What makes Frank work? How many people does it take to operate the puppet? 

Frank ended up being much simpler than I had originally intended. I wanted the head to turn and be able to nod / lean to the sides without bobbing around too awkwardly-kind of difficult when much of the puppet is relatively heavy metal parts, and I don’t have much puppet construction experience. Early on, I knew I could easily wire an LED into the mouth to represent Frank’s speaking visually, so that came out effectively. Unfortunately, I had also planned on having moveable eyebrows- gears were present that would allow the eyebrows to twist into different expressions. As I spent more (AND MORE) time trimming and machining metal pieces that would allow the entire puppet to fit together, I had to throw out this idea- time and logistical concerns just wouldn’t allow it, which I regret. Frank deserved those eyebrows- though I love the permanent skeptical eyebrows he ended up with.

Frank’s torso is a very simple frame with some odd pieces added to it- part of broken clothing iron, medieval shields that probably decorated someone’s trailer in the 70s, and some leftover IKEA hardware. Metal hinges allow his head to nod forward and back, and the entire head is mounted directly on a plastic bed frame castor. A metal rod extends through the body cavity, through the plastic wheel, and up into the toaster (concealed by tubes covering the throat), where it attaches to a bolt going through the head to control both head direction and tilt. It’s weird, and it took me a while to think about how I would arrange it spatially so things could move without looking too unintentionally wonky. It takes a little getting used to- my apologies to the puppeteers.

It took 3 people to operate Frank. Imitation robotic arms were later added to the puppet; I originally imagined hokey erector set arms that would rise from under his desk, but much more elaborate pieces were attached directly to his shoulders. One person puppeteered each arm using wires, and a third operated the head, including his LED mouth. This has a simple push switch mounted at the bottom of the control rod, which turns the light on as long as the button is depressed.

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One of Travis’ original sketches for Frank

What was the most challenging part of building the puppet?

Once I had everything, finding a way to attach everything nicely was tricky- there is a considerable amount of wood used as backing for screws inside the head, which took up space that could have been used to do other things (like the eyebrows). Every piece had to be custom fit, so considering how many little details there were, I spent a lot of painstaking time with my Dremel cutting wheels, a beltsander, and some files. This was obnoxious and tedious. I would attach one piece, and then have to start the fitting process again with the next detail that the camera would never probably see.

The other difficult area was figuring out how to cover the neck without interfering with the head’s movement. I wanted metallic tubes lining his throat as though they were mechanical jugular veins, and a part to mirror an adam’s apple above the collar. There were a few issues with these restricting desirable movement.

Stay tuned for more Moonshot crew interviews!

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One thought on “Interview with Puppet Designer Travis Stevens

  1. This is very interesting and insightful as I’m embarking on a robot myself and am a puppet builder but make the soft rod and arm (Muppet) style. So I’m learning a lot. Whether I go hardscape, soft to look hard or a combo, it will be an adventure.

    Like

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