Photo: Syfy

War Unicorn

Here's a really cool unicorn! Now make something much worse.

Creature Brief

We're down to six Skekstestants. Six sick Skekstestants. There's no rule that you can't start a piece by trying to create a new tongue-twister, is there? They don't say anything about it in Elements of Style. …I appear to have gotten off the subject before I really got started. Let's try again. We're down to six Skekstestants, who are introduced to a giant black unicorn that Gigi claims was on tour with Lady Gaga. It looks really good. Even though you can see the two puppeteers inside it, it still looks like a unicorn as it walks around. The challenge this week is to make a large-scale creature that "comes to life in the way it moves," according to Brian. I'm not 100% sure that means anything, but the idea is that the creature should rely less on looks and more on movement.

It's another team challenge, just like every other week when we haven't had a prime number of participants. I realize that creature design is not necessarily a solo endeavor, but competitive reality shows kind of are. They're working in pairs this week: Lex/Jake, Ben/Melissa, and Robert/Russ. Each team will get a professional performer, but both of the designers will also have to perform. In addition to my opinion that there aren't enough individual challenges, I also feel that that too much emphasis is being put on the puppeteering ability of non-puppeteers.

And to make things more complicated, the creatures will be performed under UV light, so there's a completely black rehearsal space where the Skekstestants will be able to test out kinds of reflective paint.

Arguing and Working

The professional puppeteers get to spend a little time with the teams, explaining their specialties and get excited about being birds and horses. In general, they like light things that don't get too complicated. One of the things that makes Lady Gaga Unicorn so convincing is that all its joints are built so the knees can't go the wrong way. Lex and Josh are making a dinosaur, but the other two teams are doing birds. I'll tell you right now why birds are better: they have fewer feet. The dinosaur team has to manage four feet, but the bird people have only two feet per bird.

The build process begins with people realizing they don't necessarily know what they're doing. It does seem like this creature creation process is a bit outside of everyone's experience, so it's just a matter of each person figuring out how to apply his/her specific skills. Russ is going to wear "the backpack," which is the harness that holds the whole thing up. He's a big dude. It could work.

While Lex is figuring out how to create a dinosaur out of sheets of foam, Josh is sculpting a head out of clay. He says it's because he's better at that than at L-200 foam, but everyone seems a little skeptical that a highly detailed foam head is going to be that relevant to this challenge. Ben seems to be running the Ben/Melissa team, and he he's happy to reject Melissa's ideas. She reminds us that they're working as a team but being judged individually, which still seems complicated. Ben complains that she doesn't immediately accept all his ideas, because he knows he's correct.

Master Session

John Criswell seems like a really cool guy. And he's the "Mechanization Supervisor," which seems like a neat job. But he doesn't really have much of use to say. He digs Robert/Russ's head, and he likes that the eyes blink. He recommends that they be on the right track "as far as movement goes," and that they use an airbrush because their creature will be appearing under a blacklight. He doesn't seem that concerned about two teams doing bird creatures, but he thinks Ben/Melissa's neck looks like a dryer hose. He also warns them that wings are challenging. See what I mean? That's not so useful.

Then he gets to Lex and Jake, who are doing a big, slow reptile. He thinks Jake's big solid head is not as mobile as it could be, and he notes that while Jake spent an entire day sculpting a head (because that's his comfort zone), Lex was at least trying something new.

More Working, Less Arguing

If you learn nothing else from this show, learn this: skeletons tend to be made of PVC pipe. Russ's backpack is getting very sketchy as more things get added to their bird, so he has to redesign it. Ben's bird is also too elaborate for Melissa's taste. That's a problem because it's supposed to be "Ben and Melissa's bird." Ben gets rid of some feathers, and Melissa complains. But we don't see the result, because we're running out of time in the day. There's just enough time to see Robert and Russ cutting feathers out of something called Plastazote.

Rehearsal

This is actual rehearsal footage! Or it would be if more of the creatures were ready. Really, it's a second mentor session where the teams get valuable feedback from their puppeteers. It's early enough for Ben/Melissa's performer to object to the wings, which have too many joints and feathers. Robert can't operate his bird legs well, and the creature doesn't look like it's walking. Luckily, he has a professional puppeteer who can give him advice.

Yet More Working, Still Some Arguing

Ben and Melissa decide they have to rethink their wing strategy, and they are magically working well together. Melissa has figured out how to communicate with him: he responds to drawings, not words. That's reasonable. Kudos to her for adapting to his communication method, and for coming up with a new plan for the wings. Lex and Jake have something kind of awful that just looks like a rug draped over a couch. Everybody starts airbrushing their creations in the dark room until John comes to toss them all out.

Screen Test

Robert and Russ are first. Their bird has its feathers outlined and has glowing eyes. It looks good, although the feet are a little bit floaty. They don't look like they're connecting to the floor, and I suspect that these creature designers don't have much mime training. Ben and Melissa's bird is all glowing, and it makes much more of a visual impact. The feet (I'm kind of obsessed with feet this week) (not like that) look much more realistic. They're not perfect, though; it's clear with all of these creatures where the good performer is. It's the one moving the head and neck.

Then Jake and Lex's dinosaur comes out, and it's just awful. I like both of them, so it brings me no joy to say this, but it's just a huge clunky mess. Even under the blacklight, it looks like a carpet. And the legs are big and stiff and flail around without ever appearing to be what the dinosaur is standing on.

Judging

Russ and Robert have named their bird "Lady Ca-CAW," which is kind of cute. Brian is concerned about their decision not to have pupils on the eyes, although he admits that the eyes still managed to have "intention." He also tells a story about how every feather on Big Bird is hand-applied, and the costume travels first class. He likes the decision not to have pupils, even though they usually do.

Melissa/Ben. The judges like their surprisingly simple wings (they're just two hunks of foam with feathers kind of half-sculpted onto them and then highlighted with reflective paint) and the way the neck moves, although Brian thinks maybe it needs a covering. Melissa says they wanted to throw in a net or something, but everything they tried glowed under UV light. Brian says that a coating of sunblock will stop the glowing. That's a helpful hint if you're ever in this exact situation.

Lex/Jake. Lex did the structure of the legs, and takes responsibility for the jointing system that's currently making the dinosaur's knees point sideways like that. Brian admits that even on big movies, they'll sometimes be tying things together with string at the last second to keep them from moving in the wrong direction.

Private Judging

With the six Skekstesetants sequestered (I think I found my tongue-twister!), the judges mostly reiterate what they said to their faces. Insert shots elucidate the comments a little more, though. Ross and Robert's feet tended to slide around the floor, but Melissa and Ben's feet come up an inch before being set back down. It looks much more like a foot that way. The judges were very impressed that Melissa and Ben's feathered wings were single chunks of foam, because that's not what it looked like with the blacklight on. Brian is a fan of last-minute changes of plans, and I assume he means that he's a fan of them when they work out. Kirk likes that the wings show "knowledge of what you can get away with. Which is most of this business." If you can make something that looks like it's covered in feathers, that's better than actually feathering it. They try to be nice about Lex and Jake. Brian thinks Jake wasted his time by sculpting a head. It's true that under the blacklight, we couldn't see any of the details he worked so hard on.

Elimination

With only three creatures, it's hard to set up drama at this stage. It seems like you're usually going to have either an obvious winner or an obvious loser. Melissa and Ben have the best creature, so Russ and Robert are safe. The individual winner from the winning team is Melissa, because the wings were cool. Ben gives her a congratulatory hug, because everybody seems to be getting along.

That leaves Lex and Jake. Lex is eliminated for those bad legs. She admits that they wanted to do something bigger than the other two teams' two-legged creatures, and they weren't up to the challenge.

Verdict

Giant puppets are cool.

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