Back in early 2018, we got the wonderful news that our documentary Being Frank: the Chris Sievey Story had been selected to have its world premiere at the prestigious SxSW festival in Austin, Texas.
Speaking with Rebecca the Webmistress, who was conveniently located in Dallas, less than a 3 hour drive from Austin, a plan was hatched as to how we could attend the premiere without spending a fortune.
Once it was decided I would make the trip, Rebecca asked if there was anything they could do to help with promotion for the film. Bearing in mind we had zero budget for such things, I jokingly quipped “Make a 15 foot tall little frank!” She instantly replied “Yes, we could do that.” I was staggered by her commitment to the cause.
We slept on the daunting proposition of constructing a giant cardboard puppet. The time scale was tight, was there enough time to carry out the work? Rebecca was experienced in the art of papier-mache with many birthday piñatas to her credit but this was an industrial level of home crafting. The restriction of ‘zero budget’ also concerned me. Was there a thrifty way to make such a thing? Rebecca and her husband Richard both had full-time jobs and I couldn’t offer any physical help as Dallas was 4,606 miles from Timperley.
The decision to go ahead with the project (now referred to as BLF) was given a green light when Richard managed to score a ‘large quantity’ of uncirculated local newspapers for absolutely nothing. Don’t ask any questions.
The vital statistics were scaled down to a slightly more manageable 8 foot tall. At the jokingly proposed 15 foot tall, the head would have been approx 4 foot diameter, requiring too much material, being far too labour-intensive and not to mention adding transport issues.
Work started immediately once the newspapers were acquired. A giant balloon was used as the basis of the head. For the papier-mache, Rebecca opted for a tried and tested American ‘Staflo starch’ method rather than a wallpaper paste, as used in the UK. For the next 4 weeks, she applied layer after layer every day, until the head was approximately 25mm thick. Now I don’t know if you ever tried your hand at papier-mache ...BUT 25MM THICKNESS IS A LOT! Especially on something that is around 27 inches in diameter. That’s some hefty papier-mache real estate.
During the laborious and painstaking construction of the head, Rebecca’s double garage was requisitioned. I monitored the progress via emailed photos and video, offering my advice about the general shape etc. I think the warm Texas climate helped immensely with the natural drying process right there in the garage. If you were in the UK, you would have struggled to find a big enough airing cupboard!
Around this time, a fantastic piece of un-creased cardboard was located at a nearby electrical appliance store. I believe it was a box from a Texas-sized refrigerator. Again no cost incurred.
As the premiere date loomed, I flew to Dallas. Rebecca collected me from the airport and we went straight into an intense 48 hour session to finish the work before we needed to drive to Austin for the event.
I was struck by both the high level of Rebecca’s traditional crafting skills and her ability to embrace and adapt technology. High resolution photos of an actual little frank body and head were scaled up in Adobe ‘Photoshop and Illustrator’ and then projected via a swanky little device onto the head and body respectively. This gave us a very accurate reference for the finished puppet. Ears were trimmed, the nose was re-calibrated. The projector was later returned to the store incurring no cost.
Once we were happy with the proportions of the head, Rebecca took care of the puppet body and I took on painting duties for the head .
We now had an impressive 8 foot tall puppet. It was very imposing but I was a bit disappointed it wasn’t 15 foot tall. I came up with the ludicrous idea of optionally mounting the puppet on an extendable pole...so that he could be seen from a further distance, if needed.
BLF was rather top-heavy and unstable. To combat this, I developed a portable method of keeping him upright using a microphone stand, some PVC plumbing pipe and three 50lb bags of gravel from Home Depot DIY store to use as stage-weights at the base. The gravel was quite expensive but Richard and Rebecca were able to re-purpose it for some re-modelling in the backyard, so that’s good!
Even though we had scaled down the size of the project, it became apparent that alongside three passengers and luggage, the puppet and associated kit was still too big to fit in Rebecca and Richard’s daily driver. Authorisation was given from the BFI to cover the cost of hire of an ‘SUV to get BLF to SxSW’
Part 2 to follow!