Meet the Puppet Masters

Family Programming

Believe it or not, puppets were key in shooting 2016 film “The Jungle Book.”

The animals in the film might be computer generated imagery (CGI), but large-scale puppets were on set throughout the shooting, portraying animals for the 10-year-old star to interact with.

Sean Johnson — cofounder of Swazzle puppet company — was one of the puppeteers there for it all.

“I was a deer, I was a squirrel, I was whatever they needed me to be,” he recalls. “You won’t actually see me in the movie, but you’ll see me through the eyes of Mogli.”

This is but one example of how the puppet industry is still thriving – which Sean knows all about.

Pulling Some Strings

Swazzle, which Sean cofounded with his twin brother Patrick 17 years ago, is constantly immersed in projects, including constructing and operating custom puppets for film, TV and theater.

Their work can be seen on popular shows on Netflix, Fox, VH1, Cartoon Network, on the Broadway stage and even in Japanese Subaru commercials.

Their all-original puppets star in the production of “The Little Prince,” coming to The Smith Center on March 1.

“A lot of where we’re seeing puppets thrive right now is in theatrical experiences,” Sean says.

The Johnson brothers’ success hails back to when the twins were 13, their eyes glued to the TV for shows like “The Muppet Show” and “The Jim Henson Hour.”

Starting out building sock puppets as children, they learned professional puppet-building techniques as they grew older, leading to their own company. This quickly expanded from building puppets for free library shows to working with large-scale productions.

“There wasn’t an option to do anything else,” Sean explains. “This is my passion, my drive, what gets me up in the morning.”

Puppet Production

Each Swazzle puppet is unique, taking weeks to construct.

The process starts with a simple design, followed by building a full-scale mockup of soft foam before constructing the final product.

More work is poured into conceiving and writing Swazzle’s many original productions, including how to convey each puppet’s singular personality.

“We always say puppets are like people,” Sean says. “It’s what on the inside that counts.”

Why Puppets

Sean acknowledges puppets aren’t seen as often anymore, with the rise of CGI in TV and films.

“In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, if you picked up a puppet, you had a career,” he says. “If a commercial required a talking tube of toothpaste or a movie required a dragon, that was a puppet.”

Puppets remain popular for shows, however, because they elicit such strong audience response, Sean says.

“The Little Prince,” for instance, has emotionally powerful scenes that people can easily connect to through puppets.

“I feel like puppets can open people up in a way they might not expect,” Sean says. “It’s like, who doesn’t cry when Kermit sings ‘The Rainbow Connection?’ You can have the best singer in the world perform that song, but when Kermit sings it, that’s when it really gets you.”