[Rewind] Over-The-Top Puppetry, With Raymond Carr
We’re rewinding back to March 2018 to revisit our episode with Raymond Carr, who has since worked on a Disney+ show called Earth to Ned, made his own Afrofuturistic sci-fi adventure film called Joyriders, and worked on Space Jam 2. It’s hard to imagine anything more surreal than the stories Jim Henson Company-trained puppeteer Raymond Carr brings to this episode of The Cultured Podcast. Raised by Christian clowns, Raymond spent his childhood touring the country in a pink 18-foot trailer with his family. Raymond shares how his nontraditional upbringing inspired his career in puppetry, which has since led him to perform everywhere from Madison Square Garden to Iceland.
Read the episode transcript below.
Michelle Khouri 0:00
Hello my babies! We are back with another re-release because you know what? We are taking a much needed Cultured break during the holidays. But don’t you fear, we are going to be back with brand new episodes of Cultured in January 2021. But in the meantime, we’ve got these amazing episodes that were very hard to pick as our favies for re-release because we now have a canon of quite a bit of episodes, which obviously you can listen to anytime you want. But it was very obvious to us that we wanted to pick Raymond Carr as one of the re-release episodes because he is an exceptional puppeteer. And ever since we spoke about two years ago, Raymond has been doing a lot more work with the Jim Henson Company. In fact, you can see some of his big time work on Disney+ on a show called “Earth to Ned” and he, himself, made his own Afro futuristic sci fi adventure film called “Joyriders”. And you can follow joy riders on Instagram @joyridersmovie, and he’s done a whole lot more. So, if any of you are millennials like me, then you are especially stoked to hear that he worked on Space Jam Two! What? Space Jam! All right. This is such a fun conversation. It is a walk down memory lane. We had such a fun time recording this together and learning about very different forms of puppeteering from the master himself, Raymond Carr. Without further ado, let’s talk to Raymond!
Welcome to The Cultured Podcast. I’m your host, Michelle Khouri, and together will journey into the unknown reaches of the art world.
Hello my dearies! So good to have you for another episode of The Cultured Podcast. It’s Michelle Khouri, duh! Didn’t you hear it at the beginning of this episode? And we are here to get cultured with a whole different kind of art form. We’re talking puppetry today. And we have none other than Raymond Carr. Raymond has over 15 years of experience bringing puppets to life and let me tell you, there are way more styles of puppetry than just marionets with those strings, okay? Also, according to Raymond, please do not call it puppet master. That is so passe. Hello, it’s puppeteer. Raymond has done everything from filmmaking. He has been a theatrical director, he has been a designer, he has toured the entire continent. I mean, he’s been to almost every single major city in North America, he’s gone to Europe, worked in Iceland for a bit. There is so much to dig into on this episode. But first, we have a very special inspiration for this week, Raymond himself is bringing us the inspiration. And I will let him take it from here because this is a good one, y’all.
Raymond Carr 3:16
Alright, so while recording this “Black Panther” has just opened. And I know a lot of people are talking about it. But for me, it was truly inspiring because it was the first blockbuster Afro futurist film. It imagined African culture in a very sci fi way. Generally, we think of sci fi and fantasy through the lens of a European point of view. And that for me, as a black man, I’ve always been in love with sci fi and fantasy. And to see that idea, through an African point of view was something that we’ve just literally never seen before on screen. So it was inspiring, because it’s something that I love and being able to see myself and people that look like me participate in that conversation of sci fi fantasy, was something that I’ve longed for for a long time. And I’m finally able to see. So, it’s also something that people are paying attention to, and hopefully will change the game.
Michelle Khouri 4:15
Wow-wow-wee-wa, thank you so much. That was, I couldn’t have said it better myself, literally. And now, with Raymond’s inspiration in tow, we now get Raymond inspiring us. So hi, Raymond.
Raymond Carr 4:31
Michelle Khouri 4:32
Why don’t you tell us how you got into puppetry? Because that, I feel like, has got to be an interesting story.
Raymond Carr 4:40
I lost a bet. That’s it.
Michelle Khouri 4:42
Okay. All right, well moving on.
Raymond Carr 4:44
No, um, I said, I like to say that because the reality is slightly more ridiculous. I was homeschooled by church clowns. I grew up in a family of traveling Christian clowns and performers and my brother and I would basically sit behind a PVC pipe puppet stage and do puppet shows that we would break down and bring back up. And we had a 18 foot pink trailer that let down into a stage with a dancing dinosaur costume that we would get into. And-
Michelle Khouri 5:14
Raymond Carr 5:15
Michelle Khouri 5:15
We’re gonna have to pause. Because, I think our whole audience, I just all of us need to process what you just said.
Raymond Carr 5:23
It’s better to just like, go forward. It’s like, it’s not-
Michelle Khouri 5:26
No, it’s the most epic childhood I’ve ever heard of.
Raymond Carr 5:30
I’m 36 and I’m still processing, so…
Michelle Khouri 5:33
Raymond Carr 5:36
Yeah. So I was a puppeteer. And it was mostly just for the church. And then-
Michelle Khouri 5:43
So wait, hold on.
Raymond Carr 5:45
Michelle Khouri 5:45
Still processing. You guys would travel around as a family doing like a Christian circus?
Raymond Carr 5:54
No, it’s more so like, that we were the children’s portion of like, the big revivals or conferences at churches and what have you. We were like the children’s entertainment for those sorts of things. So we weren’t, yeah, so we were, I mean, it was incorporating children’s ministry. So, there is a message and music and songs and all kinds of stuff. But we really performed almost vaudevillian, because we didn’t have a script or anything. We just had, you know, some sketches, and some bits and characters that we knew that we had, we just had like a sheet of paper that my mom would write down on a legal pad. And we knew what we were supposed to do vaguely and then just talked our way through for four hours, because they were, you know, church services that just went on forever.
Michelle Khouri 6:33
How old were you?
Raymond Carr 6:34
I did this from the ages of probably 10 through now? No, I, I was, I’ve performed with my parents since I was 10. And I probably stopped when I was, like, 19 or so. But-
Michelle Khouri 6:51
-and it was you and your brother? And how old was your brother?
Raymond Carr 6:54
He’s two years older than me.
Michelle Khouri 6:55
So at the ages of 10 and 12, you were improvising puppet shows?
Raymond Carr 7:00
Michelle Khouri 7:01
Raymond Carr 7:03
Michelle Khouri 7:04
That might be one of the most interesting things I’ve ever heard. I’m not even, like, I’m prone to exaggeration and hyperbole but I’m not…
Raymond Carr 7:11
Well, I mean, look, there — mind-blowing even further — there is an industry for Christian puppetry and clowning. We didn’t make this up ourselves. There’s curriculum and books and music and puppets. You could buy over the counter through Christian resources that have all this kinds of stuff, all in the name of reaching children for Jesus, and all that jazz. So yeah, that’s what I, this was on the west coast. So, we traveled a bunch at the height of it. We were performing at around 200 times a year. So-
Michelle Khouri 7:39
Raymond Carr 7:39
Yeah, we were homeschooled, by the way, as I said–
Michelle Khouri 7:42
Well yeah, you had a whole slew of conferences to clown around at.
Raymond Carr 7:47
Yeah, exactly. Which made it slightly less legal? I don’t know there’s child labor law. issues you could, you know-
Michelle Khouri 7:53
-those don’t apply to clowning.
Raymond Carr 7:55
Michelle Khouri 7:55
Raymond Carr 7:56
Or when it’s your parents. Um, so this is in Southern California. So we moved from Santa Monica, California to Union City, Georgia when I was 17, which is-
Michelle Khouri 8:07
A huge change.
Raymond Carr 8:08
Yeah, it was very not cool, um…
Michelle Khouri 8:11
Still processing that one, too.
Raymond Carr 8:13
I was so emo. I was so, so emo. It was, it was adorable.
Michelle Khouri 8:18
Oh my god, you were a sad puppeteer?
Raymond Carr 8:21
Such a sad puppeteer. It was really sad.
Michelle Khouri 8:24
Raymond, can I be in the biopic of your life? There’s absolutely no way there’s not going to be a movie about your life.
Raymond Carr 8:32
Go ahead and you can star as me if you like.
Michelle Khouri 8:35
I’d be such a perfect role.
Raymond Carr 8:37
Michelle Khouri 8:39
I have a feeling if what’s-her-name as Nina Simone didn’t cut it, maybe there would be some issue with me playing you.
Raymond Carr 8:44
No, you’re fine. You get, you get, put it in my will, you’re fine. Yeah, from there, I moved to Georgia, where my parents got a job at a church, being children’s pastors, a big mega church, and I was sad and emo. And then I discovered the glory that is the Center for Puppetry Arts, which, you know, for those of you who are local in Atlanta, Georgia, you know, how amazing that place is. And that was the first time I met artists that were professional, you know, I didn’t consider myself an artist, despite the fact that we were performing all the time. And I don’t think my parents did either.
Michelle Khouri 8:48
Yeah, and for those who don’t know, I mean, the Center for Puppetry Arts is the largest museum for puppetry in, I think, the world.
Raymond Carr 9:25
Largest puppetry theater and museum in America and one of the largest in the world. And it’s currently home to the Jim Henson exhibit. And we have, they have more of Jim Henson’s collection than MoMA or the Smithsonian. So you should definitely check it out.
Michelle Khouri 9:40
And it just underwent a renovation a couple of years ago.
Raymond Carr 9:42
It’s a beautiful facility.
Michelle Khouri 9:44
So that’s where you got your start thinking of yourself-
Raymond Carr 9:47
Michelle Khouri 9:47
-as a career puppeteer, potentially.
Raymond Carr 9:49
Yeah, I mean, it was, it was an interesting transition for those who have, you know, come up in some sort of amateur form of artistry and not really realizing, oh wait, people do this for a living. And so that was a big eye opener. And so I started doing shows there. They have a great program called experimental puppetry theater, EPT, where it’s a grant based program and you submit an idea and they give you up to $400 to, and all the center’s resources to put on the short, you know, five to 10 minute piece. And then they showcase it in the summer. So I’ve done, I’ve directed a couple of shows through that process. And-
Michelle Khouri 10:23
What are some of those shows?
Raymond Carr 10:24
My first show I did when I was 18 years old, I actually applied for it when I was 17, and I was 18 when I, it was an 18 and up show, so they they made sure my birthday was before the performance so that’s how they got away with it.
Michelle Khouri 10:34
Raymond Carr 10:35
But the show I did was called “Baby Says Eat Me”. And-
Michelle Khouri 10:38
“Baby Says Eat Me”?
Raymond Carr 10:39
Yes, it was about this adorable baby who was so jealous of food because everybody likes food more than it. He went around telling everybody to eat me. And he eventually tried to all these different things, get people that try and eat him and he jumped in the oven and like poured food on his face and all this kind of stuff. And at the end of it, he finally succumbed and ate himself.
Michelle Khouri 10:59
Oh my god.
Raymond Carr 11:00
Yeah, so that was my first adult oriented puppet show.
Michelle Khouri 11:04
Be still my heart, that’s amazing.
Raymond Carr 11:06
Yeah, it was, it was a beautiful…Yeah, it was actually originally written by one of my homeschool friends that came up with, Sarah Martin. And that was one of the reasons why we stayed friends is because I thought she was just as weird as me. And so from there, I’ve done you know, a bunch of I did a bunraku, which is a Japanese style of puppetry, where you have, it’s traditional, almost like Kabuki style, where the puppeteers dress in all black, but they hold puppets in full visibility that are full body puppets. And so there’ll be one person operating the feet, one person operating the hands, and then one person operating the head and body to get this fully range motion of puppetry. And they do these gorgeous ornate costumes for the puppets and beautiful set pieces. Like many artists forms in Japan that you have to spend years and years before you can even participate in this process. And that’s kind of where my production company’s name comes from Ninja Puppet Production, because the puppeteers look like ninjas when they’re dressed in all black. But I did a version of the story of David and Goliath as told through Kabuki Samurai style so, the dragon, we made a dragon that was 13 feet tall operated by seven different puppeteers. That was all blacklight and that was Goliath. And then we had Samurai puppets and all this kind of stuff so it’s a beautiful style.
Michelle Khouri 12:17
Well and I imagine it takes a tremendous amount of-
Raymond Carr 12:20
Michelle Khouri 12:21
-coordination. Yeah, like anticipating somebody else’s movement.
Raymond Carr 12:26
Yeah, it’s a fascinating- and I love it so much because it does require a lot of coordination but when it’s at the height of it you still get this level of improvisation and and thinking on your feet and a real synergy with your other performers. That is very difficult to get outside of that, is like a lot of movement artists that get you know, see you get the symbiotic relationship with other performers still to infuse this life with this inanimate object. Which is when it works, it really, really works.
Michelle Khouri 12:52
Unknown Speaker 12:53
Yeah, it’s beautiful.
Michelle Khouri 12:54
Raymond Carr 12:55
Yeah, flash forward, did some shows at center. Then, I went to, I auditioned for a TV show called “LazyTown,” which was on Nick Jr. for a while. And so, pink haired girl in the sky and blue tights that spins around and stuff. It was a fitness show. But we shot that in Reykjavik, Iceland, so I spent a year out there living in the 101, down in Laugavegur.
Michelle Khouri 13:13
You lived on Laugavegur?
Raymond Carr 13:15
Yeah, I did. I did.
Michelle Khouri 13:16
For a year? Do you know that one of my dreams is to be a sheep herder in…- why are you laughing?
Raymond Carr 13:23
I dated a sheep herder.
Michelle Khouri 13:24
Raymond Carr 13:24
Yeah, well, her family, she comes from a family of sheep farmers. Yeah.
Michelle Khouri 13:29
Raymond Carr 13:31
This is kind of gross but her job was like, her father had to like, slaughter the sheeps so she had told me like all these horror stories about like, having to kill sheep with her father.
Michelle Khouri 13:40
Why were they killing the sheep?
Raymond Carr 13:41
Because, that’s lamb. I guess in the meat, in the-
Michelle Khouri 13:45
But that’s- who eats sheep?
Raymond Carr 13:48
Lots of people.
Michelle Khouri 13:50
I was thinking I would be more, like, you know-
Raymond Carr 13:52
-Icelanders eat sheep.
Michelle Khouri 13:53
-harvesting the wool-
Raymond Carr 13:55
Michelle Khouri 13:55
-just like shaving them. Giving them a little grooming every once in a while, not chopping their heads off.
Raymond Carr 14:02
Yeah. I’ll show you pictures later.
Michelle Khouri 14:05
Oh, I don’t know if I want… Ok, we’re gonna move on. My dreams are burst.
Raymond Carr 14:11
Yeah, sorry about that. Ah, so I worked on that show for a year. And then I came back to Atlanta and continue doing my own stuff and worked in commercials and what have you. I went on tour with a show called “Walking with Dinosaurs”, which was a life sized animatronic dinosaur show. And that played arenas. So we played Madison Square Garden, the Staples Center, and Philips Arena, of course, but it was North America, so even to Canada and Mexico, as well.
Michelle Khouri 14:37
Raymond Carr 14:38
Yeah. And each, we were the fourth largest touring show in the world at the time. So it was like Springsteen, U2, one other, and us.
Michelle Khouri 14:45
And, and “Walking With Dinosaurs.”
Raymond Carr 14:47
Yeah. So we travel with 25 semi trucks. 75 people. Yeah, it was crazy.
Michelle Khouri 14:51
Was that like?
Raymond Carr 14:52
It was two years, so it was a lot of good and a lot of intense. You know, I’m so incredibly grateful for it. I was the head of animatronic puppetry performance, where we called ourselves Voodoo puppets, because we operated them remotely. So we had a sophisticated animatronic rig operating these dinosaurs that were free roam on the floor of these arenas.
Michelle Khouri 15:13
Raymond Carr 15:14
Yeah, there’s three people, there was a little car underneath it that would operate the legs. And then next to me was somebody with a keyboard and a joystick to operate the mouth. And then I had what looked like a small vertebrae set up for a back that at the end of it had almost like a bicycle arm control on it. And then on the other end of it had a vertical bicycle arm grip, that would operate the tail, and then the front of it operated the neck and head. And we communicated to each other with headsets and had a full script of commands and things of that nature. So-
Michelle Khouri 15:45
So for each dinosaur, it was like three people operating the dinosaur.
Raymond Carr 15:49
Michelle Khouri 15:50
And how many dinosaurs were there?
Raymond Carr 15:51
We had 17 dinosaurs.
Michelle Khouri 15:52
Holy moly. That’s where you get the 75 people.
Raymond Carr 15:55
Yeah, our tallest dinosaur was mother Brachiosaurus, and that was 40 feet tall. But we refer to those as bunraku puppets, as well. The style of puppetry is, it’s a bit of a stretch for that term, but it was the same thing where three puppeteers on one puppet, all communicating to each other and working in symbiosis to create one single performance.
Michelle Khouri 16:16
So, high tech bunraku.
Raymond Carr 16:17
Yeah, definitely. And that was an amazing, amazing experience. We even got parodied on The Simpsons, which was fun.
Michelle Khouri 16:23
What! You’ve made it.
Raymond Carr 16:26
Yeah, I know.
Michelle Khouri 16:27
You have made it.
Raymond Carr 16:28
That was the height of my career.
Michelle Khouri 16:29
Raymond Carr 16:32
Oh, and there was an episode of CSI episode where, that revolved around Walking with Dinosaurs.
Michelle Khouri 16:37
Raymond Carr 16:38
The characters, because it was like CSI Vegas, and yeah, as a stupid thing. I still get, like 25 cents every two weeks or something like that.
Michelle Khouri 16:44
I’m gonna watch that show. So, I can contribute.
Raymond Carr 16:46
Yeah. Ah, so I got my SAG card. Yeah. So from there, I came back to Atlanta and really keyed in on, into the independent film industry and worked with a lot of really awesome indie filmmakers, David Brockner, Dan Bush, Jacob Gentry, a lot of awesome people that have made movies and went to Sundance and that I was fortunate enough to participate with and started making my own kind of creature centric puppet movies that have monsters and, and other weird things attached to them. But I was able to, you know, up my production value based on the context that I had made.
Michelle Khouri 17:21
What do you mean by that?
Raymond Carr 17:22
One of the great things about Atlanta is that there’s a lot of collaboration and a lot of, you know, favors are currency. And so I found that I would work on other people’s films and after a while, I had a bunch of favors saved up and so I can be like, “Hey, guys, come work on this weird puppet movie” and they all would. And so I was able to get high tech, HD cameras. And well, back in the day, they were just HD cameras now 4k and 6k cameras and the, the sound equipment needed and you know, this level of production people involved to make these movies, you know, something really interesting. Or at least feel like a movie, you know. So I started doing that quite a bit, made a movie that went to Slam Dance, which is a film festival in Salt Lake City, right next to Sundance, and went to Comic Con, performed. And it did well at the London Sci Fi Festival and Atlanta Film Festival. And-
Michelle Khouri 18:16
Let me ask you.
Raymond Carr 18:17
I mean, in just the quick synopsis you’ve given us so far, it’s astounding where puppetry has taken you.
Raymond Carr 18:25
Michelle Khouri 18:25
Would you have ever been able to imagine that puppetry could take you to these places?
Raymond Carr 18:30
It depends on when, at what point you ask me in life. You know, I think that I’ve been very fortunate to give some ridiculous opportunities. And I think that as somebody who is, like many artists, who came up around and didn’t really know what it meant to really be an artist, or maybe saw people that you were inspired by, but didn’t know how they got there, you know, to really like thinking about like, the Muppets went, you know, I remember having conversation with my other friends of mine as a teenager that were into puppets or whatever and think about “Yeah, I’d really like to work with the Muppets”, not knowing any of us, how to actually do any of that. It is, it is amazing. But I also really, I try and look forward while still keeping a level head about my own expectations, and also my own abilities. You know, being able to really stay grounded in what I’m able to do and rely and know me as an artist, I feel like the thing that age has given me has been a sense of awareness as to what I am to other people and who I am to myself and where I stand as an artist. And also, having that foundation makes me have a better realistic idea of where I’m going as an artist, too. So, all that is a round about way, way of saying no, I didn’t know.
Michelle Khouri 19:53
No, I could have never imagined.
Raymond Carr 19:54
Yeah, this is amazing.
Michelle Khouri 19:57
I mean, you did have this, if ever there were a non traditional upbringing, it was yours, yours is the one under the textbook definition of non traditional upbringing. And I think that was an opportunity to show you that there are so many other ways to live and to do things. And so, you know, not to put thoughts into your head. But I know that for instance, I grew up within a matriarchy of older women. And so how that’s informed me is that I’m very self assured as a young woman. And also, I believe that I can do whatever I want at whatever age because all of these older women kept partying and living a good life, they still are into their 80s, you know, that, they’re my aunts. So, I think that really informs you.
Raymond Carr 20:45
No doubt like, it definitely does. Being a young black man in the in the 90s, having that awareness of what other black men were doing at that time, and I like, you know, I grew up in Inglewood during certain parts of my life and all that kind of stuff. And so I feel like I had, obviously a different experience from a lot of people around me, that did inform me and took the reins off of my trajectory to a certain extent because I was able to think differently, than maybe a more traditional setting or conditioning, if you will. And you know, I am eternally grateful for the people, my parents, other mentors that have allowed me to do the thing and not have to worry about, you know, falling on my face too much, you know?
Michelle Khouri 21:35
Yeah. Or your puppets falling on your face.
Raymond Carr 21:36
Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
Michelle Khouri 21:39
Hey, that was a pretty non-cliché one.
Raymond Carr 21:42
It was funny, it was funny.
Michelle Khouri 21:44
Don’t patronize me.
Raymond Carr 21:45
No, that was great! It was so funny.
Michelle Khouri 21:49
Oh, that was even more patronizing. Okay. Well, and I can imagine your, with your parents, and what they used to do, there was nothing but support when you decided to pursue puppetry.
Raymond Carr 22:00
They’ve always been very supportive, like to a fault. I think, I think in hindsight, they probably should have told me to, like, slow it down for a minute there. But I, they they’ve always been, like, wildly supportive of my nonsense. Even when they don’t understand, and they don’t understand, like the vast majority of the art that I do now. Which, you know, granted most audiences don’t either, so but they still like nod and give a thumbs up when they see it, and they still try and come to my shows and when they can.
Michelle Khouri 22:28
That’s so sweet.
Raymond Carr 22:29
Yeah, it is.
Michelle Khouri 22:29
So, now let’s dive into a little bit about the different aspects of puppetry. So can you break down some of your, because there’s just such a vastness of puppetry styles, but can you break down some of the more common ones and then some of your favorite?
Raymond Carr 22:44
Probably the version that most people are familiar with is what we call Muppet style, which is pretty self explanatory. It’s Sesame Street Muppets. Basically, you hands over your head and you’re moving your hands like you’re moving the mouth of the puppet. And that’s referred to as “moving mouth hand and rod puppet” because, you know, they have rods in their hands and what have you. And that was obviously made popular by Jim Henson. And he pretty much basically invented that style. So before that, you know, there were some glove puppets like you would see on Mr. Rogers or Kukla, Fran, and Ollie or Howdy Doody marionettes, and all that kind of stuff. But what Jim did is that they, all those shows on TV had puppet stages. And Jim decided to just remove the puppet stage and just have the edge of the frame in the, in the camera, be the puppet stage, you know, and so he would frame it for specifically for puppetry. And that was like a big innovation for the time.
Michelle Khouri 23:34
Raymond Carr 23:35
Yeah, that was a game changer. So that’s why all of his stuff like, blew people away because he treated it as almost like animation. It was like a combination of like vaudeville and animation, where he was able to have all these outlandish sketches where the puppets were blown up and being eaten and thrown against the wall and all that kind of Madcap animation style comedy, but it was still very, felt very quick and very like, jokey and like, in this vaudevillian kind of sketch way. And so that’s the innovation that he provided The Henson Company. I’ve been fortunate enough to be working with The Henson Company now for a couple years now, and they still thrive on that style, even though it’s come through a lot of different iterations. I’m currently involved with Puppet Up, which is their adult puppet improv team. And they had a run in Vegas for a while and we’ve done some shows here and there. They’ll be back on tour eventually. But that is Muppet style puppets except, Whose Line Is It Anyway style improv, where they’re interacting with the crowds, but then there’s a, there’s a camera and then there’s a projection screen above the puppeteers. So you’re, and the puppets are like being lifted up in front of the camera. So it just looks like, if you want to look up it just looks like a improvised TV show. But if you look down, you can see the puppeteers below.
Michelle Khouri 24:49
Oh, that’s so cool.
Raymond Carr 24:49
And then in between sketches and stuff, they do recreations of some of Jim Henson’s old sketches that he would do like on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show and all that kind of stuff. In addition to that, they’ve translated the moving mouth, hand puppet style and to animatronics and animation. So the show that I’m currently on with the Henson Company is called “Splashing Bubbles”. And it’s a show for PBS that teaches kids about oceanography. And it’s a series of fish. And what we have, the way we, the way it’s different, it’s a computer generated show, but it’s still used with what they call digital puppetry. And we have in my hand is basically covered and a little bit of a sock that has a series of servos and and sensors that are around it.
Michelle Khouri 25:19
What’s a servo?
Raymond Carr 25:34
A servo is not the proper term, but basic electronics that are measuring the movement of my hand. So, if I open my hand up, the digital character’s mouth opens, if I close it, vice versa. I have a joystick in my left hand that moves the eyes left to right, there’s a thumb toggle that makes the eyes blink and can control the eyebrows. I have a series of foot pedals that control the cheeks and the nose and all these sorts of things. I’m basically sitting in a chair doing all of these things to manipulate the computer generated character’s face. At the same time, I’m reading a script. So we’re like a television show, we are shooting a television show, reading this script in real time, while manipulating the mouth of the puppet. Then at the same time, there’s somebody on the floor in front of me that’s on this 500 square foot basically, pad, that has sensors all around it in the ceiling, that are taking the movement of this rod puppet that they’re holding, this is basically looks like a fish with a series of ping pong balls, glowing ping pong balls all over it, and you move the fish around, like you would on stage in the theater situation. And then you immediately see it moving in real time on screens all around you. So it’s kind of like a real time video game. And we’re working in concert with each other.
Michelle Khouri 26:52
Wait… You’re saying a whole lot that I need to process? I think you’re probably like the only guest who’s left me speechless multiple times. Okay.
Raymond Carr 27:04
All right, where’d I lose you?
Michelle Khouri 27:05
No, you didn’t! This is unbelievable. Okay, so you are controlling all of these levers and buttons and joysticks. At the same time as speaking the script? At the same time as looking at the screens to see it come to life?
Raymond Carr 27:24
Yes. The other half of me, another performer, is on the floor moving the puppet around.
Michelle Khouri 27:25
How…? I’m such a good journalist-
Raymond Carr 27:27
-the magic of puppetry!
Michelle Khouri 27:34
“How though?” No, but did that take you a ton of time to get used to?
Raymond Carr 27:40
Yes and no. The specific system that we were using, The Henson Digital Puppetry System, I did have several weeks on that to try and really perfect the, the, the idea of using that. But the basic premise of it was still based on Muppet style performances. And the Henson Company is a performance centric production company. They are, they lead by their performers and they’re one of the best companies to work for, for any aspect of performance. Because the performance really do deep dive in and lead the conversations as far as like how much time you have with the material versus like, you know, there’s not always somebody who’s over your shoulder screaming that you need to move forward, which is, you know, it happens on the set. So it’s, they’re such a great company to work for. So yes, it did take me a while to figure that out. But the benefit is that we were doing a 15 page episode a day of animation, CG animation, which–
Michelle Khouri 28:35
Which is unheard of-
Raymond Carr 28:36
Michelle Khouri 28:36
– in actual, traditional animation.
Raymond Carr 28:38
Right. Normally, in context, it would take months to get that. Of course, these were low res versions of it. So they would need to process it and bring them to full resolution, but just that itself, it just is processing power and such. So it’s such a faster process. So that’s the system that I’ve been working with, with the Henson Company “Splashing Bubbles” is doing well still, I believe it’s still the third largest, biggest show on PBS Kids right now, which is great.
Michelle Khouri 29:04
Raymond Carr 29:06
Yeah, it’s great. And it’s a musical. So it’s all set to Motown music, which is a lot of fun.
Michelle Khouri 29:10
Do you have to sing at all?
Raymond Carr 29:11
Michelle Khouri 29:12
Oh my god, can you sing us a little song?
Raymond Carr 29:15
I am, so my character is a puffer fish named Dunk. And puffer fish actually makes sand patterns in the sand. And they use it as a mating, but they’ll make like almost crop circle, perfectly symmetrical circles in the sand that are like very interesting and delicate.
Michelle Khouri 29:29
I have an ex who used to do that around me. Just kidding, that was a puffer fish joke.
Raymond Carr 29:35
That was funny. Yeah, so he has a song that is it’s: “I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m just doing it!” And it’s all about him just doing stuff. Because he likes it, not because if anybody’s- alright, take it down. Trying to have a serious conversation here.
Michelle Khouri 29:55
Are we? Oh, my God. I wasn’t expecting that. I need more. I think this shows for me, I think I need to watch this show.
Raymond Carr 30:05
Yeah, it’s great. I play two characters I play well, several characters. I play a puffer fish named Dunk, and I play this, the mayor of the reef, it’s Reef Town.
Michelle Khouri 30:14
And how does he sound?
Raymond Carr 30:15
This mayor’s thing, that sounds like this. So I had to go all the way down from here to all the way up to here.
Michelle Khouri 30:21
Raymond Carr 30:22
Michelle Khouri 30:22
That was impressive.
Raymond Carr 30:23
So yeah, it’s, it’s, it’s a wild time.
Michelle Khouri 30:26
Well, you were saying that the system that you use you actually didn’t, it didn’t. It like felt natural because of, that’s the kind of puppetry you’ve been doing all along.
Raymond Carr 30:35
Yeah. And it’s also the style of puppetry that they, the interface that we use, basically joystick and the hand control is what they’ve been developing. It’s what they did for the TV show Dinosaurs, back in the 90s. It’s how they did the Ninja Turtles back in the 90s. It’s how they’ve done, you know, a Little Shop of Horrors, all of these, all these creatures with moving mouths that have facial expressions and animatronic features, that’s done with the system, except this system just takes it into the digital range and makes them computer generated characters.
Michelle Khouri 31:04
Raymond Carr 31:05
Michelle Khouri 31:06
Okay, so we’ve talked about moving…
Raymond Carr 31:09
Hand and mouth moving, Muppet style puppets.
Michelle Khouri 31:13
Muppet style puppets. It’s much better. And we’ve talked about bunraku?
Raymond Carr 31:18
Michelle Khouri 31:19
Bunraku, I’m very bad at this. And we’ve talked about animation-
Raymond Carr 31:23
Michelle Khouri 31:23
Raymond Carr 31:23
Michelle Khouri 31:24
Raymond Carr 31:25
Michelle Khouri 31:25
What are some others?
Raymond Carr 31:27
You know, one of the other styles that I like to use is, I either do something called tabletop puppetry, which is essentially more of an avant garde traditional way of doing it. It’s a lot of what the center, if you’ve seen a show, a show at the Center for Puppetry Arts, that’s generally referred to as tabletop puppetry where it’s usually like, the level of a table and there’s people operating it. Sometimes it can be found object puppetry, where you’re literally just moving an object like a can or an apple or something like that, and you’re bringing it to life. Rod puppetry, oftentimes, is, I use a lot. Where it’s literally just rods going in the back of the puppet and on the hands of the puppet and you’re manipulating in that very basic style. It’s used in a lot of Indonesian style puppetry and Asian art forms. It’s very traditional style of puppetry. I generally shy away from marionettes. I don’t really do much. It’s really easy to make a marionette look bad. And it’s really hard to make it look good.
Michelle Khouri 32:21
And marionettes are, of course, the traditional strung-
Raymond Carr 32:24
String puppets. Yeah. Yeah, and-
Michelle Khouri 32:27
Are they just too high strung?
Raymond Carr 32:28
Ha, yeah. So, no. String puppets, I don’t really well, it’s it’s really, it’s really hard to use them. And I like the direct control of like, a tabletop or bunraku, because my hands are literally on the puppet and I can make it grab things and do things and do precision movements. And I find that to be more effective. And I love a good Marionette show. It’s just not what I always gravitate towards. Performance wise myself.
Michelle Khouri 32:54
I just love seeing shows like at Center for Puppetry Arts, they often combined-
Raymond Carr 32:58
Michelle Khouri 32:59
Quite a few different forms of puppetry. And to me, that’s fascinating because you start seeing how, how different the essence of the character takes shape based on each style, because it can really lend a very different feel. What are some of the projects you’re working on right now? Other than Splashing Bubbles.
Raymond Carr 33:16
My performance partner and I, Raymond Wade Tilton, we go by Raymond versus Raymond. We havem we did a show last year at Village Theatre. We got a grant from the Idea Capital, which is a local grant opportunity in Atlanta.
Michelle Khouri 33:30
That’s awesome. Congratulations.
Raymond Carr 33:31
Yeah, they gave us a grant to put on a show at Village Theatre, and it’s, it was basically like a combination of close to a decade’s worth of work that both Wade and I have been doing. It was all adult, avant garde, random, artsy, fartsy stuff. Yeah, he’s, I always say that he’s the fartsy to my artsy. So-
Michelle Khouri 33:50
He’s just really gassy.
Raymond Carr 33:51
A little bit. So for now, we are in development for a new show. We’ve done performances at the Goat Farm and I Drum and and all over town and at the Center for puppetry Arts. So we’re in preparation, basically getting a bunch of new material that we’ve actually been playing around at some local theaters and secret shows and things of that nature.
Michelle Khouri 34:12
Ooh, what’s that scene?
Raymond Carr 34:13
I know, right.
Michelle Khouri 34:14
Now, real quick, you know, you mentioned being a black man.
Raymond Carr 34:17
Yeah, that is true. That is what I am.
Michelle Khouri 34:19
Yeah, I can see that.
Raymond Carr 34:20
Michelle Khouri 34:21
And so, but is there a lot of diversity in puppetry? Or has that presented a challenge for you?
Raymond Carr 34:27
There is not a lot of diversity in puppetry, and it’s more so presented a lot of opportunities for me, honestly.
Michelle Khouri 34:32
Raymond Carr 34:32
Michelle Khouri 34:33
Raymond Carr 34:34
Yeah, I mean, it’s, it’s a thing where, especially people like the Henson Company, they are actively seeking diverse cast members and talent, because if I wanted to play a five year old Latina girl, I can but might as well get, you know, a Latina to actually play that role. Because there’s a there’s a certain level of authenticity that is infused in that, especially when you have, a lot of puppetry, it requires improvisation and, and just off the cuff kind of figuring it out. And if you have that as your background, might as well tap into that. So yes, the diversity thing, among responsible production companies, like the Henson Company and others, has actually been to my benefit. Opportunities are out there and it has a lot to do with access from those minorities, in general, like somebody in the African American community may not think of an avant garde artist, art form to pursue as their career choice, because they haven’t been exposed to that as an option for them. In their community. And maybe a lot of their relatives or friends might not really embrace that, that lifestyle of all these sorts of things. So giving kids of color, the permission to be weird, and to make art and all that kind of stuff, and letting them know that there are opportunities, and actually, people are looking for you. You know, for years, we were told that you weren’t allowed. And now we’re switched the other way. Or it’s like, no, they want you out there. And giving those kids the green light to be go out and be weird and make art is exciting.
Michelle Khouri 36:07
I’m so thankful you were given that opportunity. Because it’s resulted in this like fascinating human being who’s done such incredible things and you’ve created all of these imaginary worlds, you brought them to life. And now you’re here telling us about them and inspiring us. So thank you, Raymond.
Raymond Carr 36:24
Thank you for having me.
Michelle Khouri 36:25
This has been so fun.
Y’all, thank you for allowing us to string you along on this journey. Get it? Anyway, before Raymond kills me, I just want to thank you, again, for coming along for the ride. I learned so much. I think I really do think this is the first episode where I was constantly left speechless, because there is so much complexity behind the art of puppeteering. How cool. If you want to learn a little bit more about Raymond and his work on many endeavors, one of which is super sexy and secret, well, we’ll find out soon, you can go to ninjapuppetproductions.com it’s exactly how it sounds is how you spell it. Until next week, keep it classy. Keep it curious. Keep it cultured.
Weekly Inspiration: Black Panther
This week’s inspiration is brought to The Cultured Podcast by our episode guest, Raymond Carr. He highlights the stirring power of Marvel’s latest blockbuster, Black Panther. This revolutionary film celebrates the majesty of Africa, escaping the predictable European viewpoint and tired tribal tropes. Black Panther champions an authentic and refreshing narrative created by black artists. The first blockbuster Afrofuturist film is shattering the issue of flawed representation in major media, and offering abundant personal inspiration to Raymond. As the first Marvel film with a predominantly black cast, the biggest debut by an African-American director, and one of the third-fastest grossing film of all time, Black Panther represents an inclusive future to which we can all look forward.
Unearthing the nuances of puppetry with Raymond Carr
It’s hard to imagine anything more surreal than the stories Jim Henson Company-trained puppeteer Raymond Carr brings to this episode of The Cultured Podcast. Raised by Christian clowns, Raymond spent his childhood touring the country in a pink 18-foot trailer with his family. They performed vaudevillian puppetry over 200 per year with performances lasting upwards of four hours!
Raymond shares how his nontraditional upbringing inspired his career in puppetry, which has since led him to perform everywhere from Madison Square Garden to Iceland.
Raymond and Michelle survey the technical side of puppetry, the unique wonder each style evokes, and how Raymond’s imagination is able to run wild through this fantastical artform. Growing up as a young black man in Inglewood in the 1990s, Raymond explains how his parents and mentors were a crucial support system for his artistically alternative dreams. He encourages young creatives to embrace their weirdness in order to fulfill their artistic potential.
About Raymond Carr, Puppeteer filmmaker, theatrical director, and designer
Raymond Carr has been a Puppeteer filmmaker, theatrical director, and designer for more than 15 years. He has traveled to every major city in North America and parts of Europe working on multi-million dollar productions. He is skilled in state of the art animatronics, Muppet-style puppetry, motion capture digital puppetry, and traditional theatrical puppetry. Raymond is one of the main characters for the Jim Henson Company’s new show, Splash and Bubbles on PBS Kids. Some of Raymond’s other credits include: Nick Jr’s Lazytown, Walking with Dinosaurs The Arena Spectacular Tour, various projects for Cartoon Network & Adult Swim, The Center for Puppetry Art, The National Black Arts Festival, Ibex Puppetry run by Heather Henson, numerous commercials for companies like DropBox, Scoutmob, and Aaron’s Furniture. He also performs improv with The Jim Henson Company’s live show Puppet Up Uncensored. His award-winning films have been accepted into Oscar-qualifying film festivals all over the world. He currently resides in Atlanta where he runs his company Ninja Puppet Productions.
Mentioned in the episode:
Experimental Puppetry Theatre Program
Henson Digital Puppetry System