Breathing life into Dracula

Special to The Times

THE similarities between a Rodin sculpture and a puppet might not be immediately apparent to most people, but they are to 42-year-old Peter Brooke, creative supervisor of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop in Los Angeles. “I remember trekking across the fields [of Northumberland] to see some sculptures,” he says. “I saw works of Henry Moore and [Jacob] Epstein and Rodin, and I was probably 6 or 7. I don’t know whether that was the reason that I got involved in sculpture, but it certainly stands out as a significant memory.”

Born in the English seaside resort town of Scarborough, Brooke spent his childhood drawing and playing the flute and saxophone before heading off to study film and TV at Manchester Polytechnic. “I was intrigued by the idea of being able to make something and then bring it to life,” he says.

During a summer job at the animation company Cosgrove Hall, someone suggested that Brooke take his portfolio to Jim Henson’s Creature Shop in London, where he was hired to work as a designer and sculptor on “Jim Henson’s The Storyteller” in 1988. He transferred to Los Angeles to work on “Dinosaurs” in 1991, and more than a decade later, he’s living in Silver Lake and making puppets, most recently for a Dracula rock opera featured in the Judd Apatow-produced comedy “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” which opened Friday.


Puppet making for dummies: For “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” Brooke and his colleagues set to work fabricating Dracula and Van Helsing puppets based on drawings by production designer Jackson De Govia. “We start with the design, and then pretty quickly take that into three dimensions,” says Brooke. “We call them maquettes, which is really just a fancy word for a small sculpture. In this case, we didn’t need to do a maquette because these are soft puppets. Once we’ve got the shape right, chances are we would probably heat the foam mock-up, which would just soften the glue, and we’d be able to take it apart, and then we’d actually make a pattern so we could duplicate it. Then we can take it and start making it for real.”

Getting fleeced: Since the puppets are supposed to have been made by the film’s main character -- a jilted musician played by Jason Segel, who also penned the screenplay -- Brooke strove to give them just the right look. “I must say if you look at the final characters, they’re incredibly well-crafted handmade puppets,” he says. “Initially, we were thinking about this type of [felt] covering, which would reveal the seams to give it that handmade look. But in the end, we went for more of a traditional fleece covering. We use fleece an awful lot to cover the soft puppet heads because it’s got a little bit of a pile to it, like a fuzziness to it, which helps us hide the seams. It looks great on film, and it picks up the light well.”

The Transylvania express: Segel learned to puppeteer Dracula himself for the film. “He did a good job. As you can imagine, puppeteering these characters requires a certain coordination. For starts, this Dracula has fangs, but he also has to close his mouth. So there was that element about the mouth that we had to deal with. Jason did both [arm] rods. And in the final scene when a stake is driven through his heart by Van Helsing, we wanted to show him in his death throes. And so actually, there are two real pieces of red silk, which are pulled out and appear like blood. I mean, it’s supposed to be an amateur production that he puts on, so that’s why we used these old theatrical gags.”

Shelf life: Puppets, like people, don’t live forever. “We love to surround ourselves with neat-looking things,” says Brooke. “But the drawback is that this foam latex, given prolonged exposure to air, will just dry up and crumble. [So we store the puppets] in black plastic bags with our fingers crossed that it should be OK. I don’t get too attached to stuff, because our goal is to create the illusion on the film, and if that works and the illusion works on film, great. We’re ready to move on to the next job.”