Best of British
The woman building robot boys and intergalactic beasts for the big screen
The magic of puppetry
BECKY JOHNSON DISCOVERED her passion for craft as a child. ‘I did dance classes and they needed a puppet for Little Shop of Horrors – and my dad offered to help make one,’ she says. They made it in their garage, using hula hoops and sleeping bags. ‘I realised that I preferred making stuff to performing.’
Her first job in special effects was as a trainee on Tim Burton’s 2005 film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in a team that was responsible for making candyfloss sheep, Oompa Loompas and a human-sized hamster ball. ‘Though I was mainly making tea,’ she adds.
It was in 2010 that she first met her future husband and business partner, Paul Vincett – while building an eightfoot ogre for the New York Gotham Chamber Opera’s production of El Gato Con Botas (Puss in Boots). ‘Paul showed me his work, and we found each other incredibly inspiring,’ she says. They married earlier this year.
Vincett had set up Stitches and Glue, a puppet- and costume-making business, off the back of a university project. After they met, Johnson joined him as a company director and they have created puppets and costumes for theatre productions including The Lion King ,aswellas the films Paddington, Beauty and the Beast and the current Star Wars franchise.
Today, their workshop is in the Surrey village of Laleham, near several film studios, and they spend long hours on film sets assisting the actors. ‘If you’ve built a creature costume and it is worn by a performer, they’ll need breaks,’ Johnson explains. ‘Often you’re the only one who knows how to get them out.’
One of Stitches and Glue’s most rewarding projects was making a puppet inspired by Japanese bunraku puppets for Animating the Brain ,a show commissioned by The Wellcome Trust. The brief was to make a figure that looked like a boy and a robot. The finished puppet, Labboy, is made of plywood, engineering plastic and Airtex fabric, which helps to achieve a metal look. To check it moved correctly, the director performed what Johnson calls a ‘puppet Pilates class’, because ‘if you’ve got a puppet whose legs bend the wrong way, it will spoil the illusion’. stitchesandglue.com
Left Johnson with Labboy. Above Another of her puppets, Boom Box Boy. Interview by Jessica Carpani. Photographs by Tori Ferenc