A glimpse inside puppet masters’ world

By Sabrina Otero
Times-News correspondent
teens20@thetimesnews.com

Patrick Zung, Kathi Zung and Teens & Twenties writer Sabrina Otero pose for a recent photo. / Photo submitted

Patrick and Kathi Zung run a local puppet-making shop that produces such high quality work that their talent is sought internationally. Recently, Patrick agreed to address some frequently asked questions that curious younger and older teens might have on the subject and provide a real perspective on both the expectations and demands placed on true puppet masters. 

TEENS & TWENTIES: What is an average day for you both like?

ZUNG: The part of making puppets that I like the most is that there are no average days. Each process requires a different set of skills and as you move through the stages of building, you get to be a different person with a different job. One day, you’re a coordinator laying out a six-week schedule and coming up with lists of materials, the next you’re sculpting something, making a bunch of molds or designing an armature. Each job will bring its own weird set of conditions, and you have to reinvent or adapt what you know to fit the new problem.

TEENS & TWENTIES: Describe some of your more high-profile projects.

PATRICK ZUNG: Some projects that we’ve worked on that your readers might have seen would include: all of the puppets on Celebrity Deathmatch from halfway through season one to the end; the dog in the Nickelodeon ad that ran in front of a couple of their movies; all the cotton puppet characters for Cotton Inc.; the physical prototype for the Kmart blue  bulb, and if you live in England, a lot of the puppets from McDonalds’ commercials.

TEENS & TWENTIES: What are key differences that set you both apart from others in your line of work?

PATRICK ZUNG: I think the biggest difference between us and other puppets makers is that we’re still doing it and have worked continuously from 1998 till now. Most everyone in this field moved to 3-D computer land as fast as possible. You get paid more, and don’t have to use chemicals. You do, however, have to sit in the dark and stare at a computer screen.

TEENS & TWENTIES: What do you credit as one of the primary reasons for your success?

ZUNG:  I’m not sure why we’re successful. There aren’t a lot of people who can pull off this kind of work anymore because it requires so many different processes and disciplines and a really eclectic shop. You need to be a sculptor and a mold maker, a wood worker and a machinist; you have to know about foams and silicones and urethane rubbers, and every kind of paint. The amount of setups and steps to get from a drawing to finished puppet is well, many. It may be that we’re still at it because no one else wants to do it. That might be part of it. Certainly knowing people who need puppets helps and being pretty crazy about making the best puppets possible hopefully contributes to our continued viability.

TEENS & TWENTIES: What suggestions do you have for those wishing to work in this industry?

ZUNG: Anyone who wants to do this kind of work will have some real challenges just finding a place that can train or hire them. There isn’t a puppet making shop in every town. When I was working in Portland last year, I met some people who had gone to a special effects school and learned mold making or about foam, etc. Having done that, maybe it’s easier to get your name into a large special effects house if you have no other contacts. Personally, I lucked out because I had an older brother who had started as a storyboard artist for an ad agency and moved to production story boards where he made a lot of contacts in New York City. I was able to get work based off of him so I skipped that difficult first step. That said, you will have to move to where the work is and meet people in the industry.

TEENS & TWENTIES: Which aspect of your work in particular do you feel most proud of and why?

ZUNG: I’m not sure if there is a part I’m most proud of in my work. I think just focus on what next and keep working. I enjoy the act of working more than the actual idea of the finished product. Although I can admit that I’m excited about seeing this movie I worked on when it comes out next year. The film is called “Paranorman” and opens in August of 2012. I got to make the armatures and mechanics for the zombie judge which has a practical mechanical face as opposed to most of the characters in the film that use rapid prototyped replacement faces. That was some of the most fun I’ve had making puppets.

Sabrina Otero is a freshman at Western Alamance High School and a Teens & Twenties writer.

 

 

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