The Journal visits the tiny workshop of Max Humphries, the puppet maker whose extraordinary creations will be blowing the minds of many a child at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre this summer
Words: Jean-Paul Aubin-Parvu
Images: Orlando Gili, Robert Day
“Why are children so fascinated by dinosaurs?” ponders puppet designer and maker, Max Humphries. “That’s a really good question. There’s obviously the mystery surrounding dinosaurs: the fact that they were here and then weren’t. Kids also like the variation—there are lots of dinosaurs and you can have your favourites, almost like Pokémon. Also, you can go and see their bones. Dinosaurs are majestic, mysterious and almost mythological in their scale. And yet they really existed, which is the coolest thing about them.” With that Max takes a puff on his pipe.
We are sitting outside his tiny workshop at Farnham Maltings. It was here that Max and his small team created the prehistoric puppets that will fill the stage for Dinosaur World Live, a new interactive family show running at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre this summer. As a child, Max was completely obsessed by dinosaurs, partly inspired by the work of his father, book illustrator Tudor Humphries. “My dad illustrated many dinosaur books, so I grew up spending all my time at the Natural History Museum,” he says. “Dinosaurs were a big part of my childhood.”
Being asked to be puppet designer for a show about prehistoric creatures was pretty much his dream job. “When Ollie, the producer, contacted me and said they were thinking of doing a dinosaur show I don’t think he was quite prepared for my knowledge and exuberance about dinosaurs. So I hit it full on. Yeah, it’s totally my jam—I love dinosaurs!”
Dinosaur World Live tells the story of a palaeontologist, Miranda (played by Elizabeth Mary Williams), who, after being shipwrecked, was raised on an island inhabited by dinosaurs. Many years later, having fixed her boat, she brings some of her reptilian chums over to meet the people of the UK. The dinosaurs range in size from a theatre-filling Tyrannosaurus rex right down to a cuddly baby triceratops in a funky coloured spotted babygrow. Other species include Giraffatitan, Segnosaurus and Microraptor.
The suspension of disbelief
The show, whose creative team includes writer and director Derek Bond and puppet director Laura Cubitt, is aimed at children of three years and above. “Children come without any preconceptions and they aren’t jaded like adults,” says Max. “Also, they are completely in touch with the suspension of disbelief and are much more likely to play along without worrying about what other people think of them. And when you put them onstage and ask them to walk a baby T rex, they are fully up there walking a baby T rex.”
Max’s involvement as puppet designer was a marathon slog lasting the best part of 10 months, with him and his team working 12-hour days, six days a week. He launched into the project with a clear vision. “My goal was to put dinosaurs on stage in a way that felt very theatrical, so it didn’t feel like a museum exhibit. It had to feel like something that was living and breathing, and you were there with these creatures.”
Remarkably, these giant dinosaur puppets were made in a workshop so small you could barely swing a sabre tooth cat in there. “I made them in the tiny workshop behind us,” says Max. “And then we had a garage hired from the museum in town, so we did it between the two. It’s quite hard to fit a 10-metre-long T rex into a nine-metre-long workshop, but we managed it somehow. It was a bit of a squeeze.”
The process began with research. Possessing a strong knowledge of dinosaurs gave Max a head-start. The next step was to employ a skilled paleontological artist—the search for which was fairly straightforward. “Obviously I employed my dad because he’s been doing it for years. So, he came up and we talked about what dinosaurs we were going to make. I always start with a drawing and then from the drawing I work out the mechanisms.”
From the inside out
Max works from the inside out. “Once I know what I’m going to make, I start building the skeleton. I work out where the puppeteers are going to go, how the thing needs to move and what it needs to do. Once I have the skeleton, I then start working out how the puppet is going to look on top of that, and building up. And if you get the skeleton right, the puppet will move beautifully. The outside of a creature reflects its internal structure.”
While Max focused on the machinery, including all the levers, cogs, linkages, gears and springs, colleague Chuck Brown used the same plans to create wax models, showing what the body of each puppet would look like to scale. “The skeletons, we mainly make out of aluminium, laser cut plywood, water jet cut materials and 3D printing, and then lots of hand machined and hand made parts as well,” says Max. “So, it’s a mix of using industrial scale parts and parts that I’m literally making on my lathe.” The body of the puppet, made from foam, is carefully attached to the skeleton. Feathers and skin are added, carved into the body to produce the desired textures, before the final painting begins.
One of the most striking things about Max’s dinosaur puppets is just how colourful they are. “My original pitch for the show was that I didn’t want green, grey and brown dinosaurs. My puppets are very brightly coloured—bright blues, greens and reds. They’re the colours you’ll see if you’re lucky enough to go to the jungle—vibrant colours. I think the Victorian illustrations of dinosaurs have done a lot to define how we think of them, which is kind of insane, because obviously we don’t really know what they looked like in terms of colour.”
In deciding which species to include, Max didn’t want to focus solely on the Victorian classics. “I have tried to keep it as scientifically up to date as possible, which is why I pushed for having dinosaurs such as the Segnosaurus in the show alongside the classic T rex and Triceratops, Many of the dinosaurs that people are most familiar with are the ones discovered 150 years ago, but there have been loads of cool dinosaurs discovered since then.”
Move and manipulate
The puppets are all capable of sophisticated movements. They can blink, they have mouths that open and tongues that can stick out and lick things. Every movement has to be triggered by a puppeteer—no easy task considering it takes several puppeteers to move and manipulate the adult T-rex. “A big part of our job is trying to strip weight down as much as possible,” explains Max. “But the more weight you strip down the weaker the puppet gets. So, you have to keep this balance of strength to weight—it’s a constant problem.”
Arguably the show’s greatest triumph is just how natural each of these movements is. “A lot of that comes from Laura Cubitt,” insists Max. “Laura is ex-Warhorse and one of the best puppet directors in the country. She is really good at finding those animalistic movements, which was very important to us from the start. We wanted it to feel like these were trained animals that had been brought on stage, rather than just a procession of beautiful images. That theatrical likeness was something really important.”
Max, 34, grew up in rural Devon with his parents and three brothers. His father worked from home. “Dad would often set us artistic challenges at the start of the day,” recalls Max. “We’d often come downstairs to find paper laid out for us, so there was a lot of painting, drawing and making stuff. I did my first puppet show at about the age of four, and from then on whenever people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d tell them I wanted to make puppets. And basically, I’ve been making puppets nonstop for the last 30 years.”
During his teens Max landed a job as a Punch & Judy man and went on to study theatre design at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, which included two modules on puppet making. “From there I spent the next year or so working for whatever people could pay me, just to learn more about puppets. I earned about £4,000 to live off in my first year, and was like a wandering journeyman. I was then in Bristol for a couple of years, working with Green Ginger and Pickled Image.”
Puppeteer in residence
These days Max is puppeteer in residence at the Farnham Maltings arts centre in Surrey. “They are really supportive and even let me have one of the unused spaces as a workshop. The Maltings does amazing work and I’m very proud to be here. I took on my first apprentice, Chuck Brown, about six years ago, my second, Charlie Hoare, probably three years ago and have just taken on my third, Izzy Bristow.”
Farnham Maltings is a stunning location to ply one’s trade, but don’t imagine Max leading a rarefied existence. His workshop is freezing in winter and a furnace during summer. But Max seems far too engrossed in puppet making to even notice. “What I love about puppetry is you have to be an engineer, sculptor, leatherworker, shoemaker and dressmaker. And then you have to learn carpentry, metalwork, electronics, brazing and welding. And that’s not even getting into all the things I do on the computer. So, I’ve had to teach myself 3D modelling for the 3D printing we do, and tech drawing so I can get all the stuff laser cut and water jet cut. But that’s what I love about it. I can meet any craftsman, take one of their skills and apply it to my work.”
Max’s work draws inspiration from Japan’s Bunraku puppet school, the automata of 18th and 19th century Europe and the drama theory of Edward Gordon Craig—Max even boasts a tattoo of the great man. But inspiration can strike anywhere. “I was at the Science Museum a while ago where they have the big beam engines built by James Watt, and I used one of his mechanisms and built that into one of my eye mechanisms, just because I could see how I could use that with the puppetry. So, I’m constantly inspired by everything I see.”
Max is also a student of movement. “Graceful movement is something I always want to get in my puppets. If I’m making an animal, the first thing I’ll do is look at slow motion video of how it moves. And then I’ll study its skeleton, so I know exactly where the joints are, and work out how these things have to move. Movement is always where my work comes from.”
Cirque du Soleil
That work has been utilised by the likes of Cirque du Soleil, the National Theatre, the Royal Opera House, the Royal Ballet, the New York Met, Little Bulb Theatre, Figurteatret i Nordland, the Bristol Old Vic and Lyric Hammersmith. “Working with Cirque du Soleil was both a professional and personal highlight,” beams Max. “I was working with the designer from Pan’s Labyrinth, which is one of my favourite films. It was quite daunting working in a shed with a guy who’s won an Oscar. I went out to Canada and spent a long time with those guys, who are amazing. Their work is unique to them and the scale of it and the ambition is just breathtaking.”
As well as Dinosaur World Live, audiences at the Open Air Theatre this summer will also have the chance to marvel at Max’s creations for the production of Little Shop of Horrors. But there’s no rest for the wicked, because he and his team are currently hard at work creating the puppets for the forthcoming Madagascar musical. “That’s going to tour all over the UK,” says Max. “So right now we’re making lots of penguins and lemurs.”
No doubt these adorable creatures will prove as big a hit with young theatregoers as they have with Max’s two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. “She loves all the puppets,” smiles Max. “She has grown up in the workshop and will also often FaceTime me for a chat before bedtime. She’ll then ask to see what I’m working on, which can take quite a while. But, yeah, she loves them.”
And has she ever asked him to bring any of the puppets home with him? “No, but she gets a bit sad sometimes when they leave the workshop to go off to the shows. I think she’s really going to miss the penguins, because she absolutely loves them.”
Perhaps Max could make a spare one for her? “If only I had the time,” he laughs.