The Puppet Master

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Busy staging and shooting his third Classics in Miniature live-action puppet film, The Legend of Joan of Arc, Steven Ritz-Barr says puppets are as popular as ever, even with blockbuster filmmakers.

“Children who grew up in the late 1980s and early ’90s are nostalgic for pre-CGI times and their favorite puppet shows,” said Ritz-Barr, who has been involved in puppetry for 35 years

“The characters in the early Star Wars movies were puppets. Jabba The Hut was a puppet. Now George Lucas is bringing puppets back for his next Star Wars movie. And Jim Henson’s Dark Crystal is making a comeback on Netflix.”

Russian puppet master Eugene Seregin creates the puppets for Ritz-Barr’s films. “He’s one of the best puppet makers in the world,” said Ritz-Barr. “There are only five of them left. His puppets blink and are extremely expressive, and easy to operate. It took Eugene eight months to make Joan and the horse.”

The Joan of Arc puppet cost $10,000, but Ritz-Barr considers it priceless. “Eugene wouldn’t just sell his puppets to anyone. They are his children,” said Ritz-Barr, who pays Seregin a retainer—enough to pay his rent and live on. There are 22 puppets in The Legend of Joan of Arc that up to four puppeteers operate during filming.

Ritz-Barr has made a good living from puppets, teaching puppet making and judging competitions around the world. He has worked on Aliens, Batman Returns (operating the penguins), Men in Black and Team America, plus numerous TV shows. “Jim Henson got me my SAG card.”

His road to puppets began with an interest in discovering the reasons behind people’s many and varied beliefs, which led him to study religion and then communication before becoming a theater major in college.

Instead of becoming an elementary school teacher as he’d intended—because “children have great imaginations”—Ritz-Barr went to mime school in Paris for a year, but ended up staying for a decade “teaching puppetry when I didn’t know anything about puppetry.”

Ritz-Barr worked for former French president Jaques Chirac, while Chirac was still mayor of Paris, at a workshop funded by the city. “Chirac signed the paychecks for the city employees. I wish I had kept one.”

Ritz-Barr was Mr. Punch for years. “I did a French version of Mr. Punch.” Then came his big break. “I took a three-week workshop with Jim Henson at the Institute of Puppetry, north of Paris. I was hired as a translator because I spoke French and they wanted someone who knew puppetry.” There he learned how to operate puppets while looking at a monitor, a major skill set in itself.

While working and performing in Hamburg, Barr met and fell in love with a German psychiatrist, Dr. Beate Ritz. She didn’t want to live in France and he didn’t want to live in Germany, so the Ritz-Barrs moved to Los Angeles, settling in Topanga in 1989. Their sons Julian and Leo were born and raised here. Dr. Ritz now works in epidemiology.

As luck would have it, Henson moved his company to Los Angeles in 1990 and offered Ritz-Barr a job on the Muppet 3D movie as an operator. “Because of my theater training, I know how to move and can project it into characters. Most puppeteers don’t do that, which gave me a big advantage. Besides, I could get into difficult positions because I’m small.”

Jim Henson died soon after moving to LA, but Ritz-Barr also worked for Henson’s son, Brian, on the “Muppets Tonight” TV show.

Puppets are not immune from the vagaries of show business. After a busy period of 25 years, Ritz-Barr found himself hustling for work and decided to tell classic stories with puppets. He began with Faust. Next came Don Quixote, voiced by Michael York, who was also the producer. While Ritz-Barr doesn’t make big money from his films, Don Quixote won awards and broke even. There is serious interest from producers in Tunisia to do versions of The Legend of Joan of Arc and Don Quixote in Arabic, following a social media campaign that reached more than 100,000 people.

Describing Joan of Arc as the original schizophrenic who heard voices in her head, Ritz-Barr says the French people believed her and armies followed her. “She broke gender norms by becoming a general at age 17,” said Ritz-Barr. “There were two accusations against Joan of Arc that led to her being burned at the stake. She claimed to speak directly to God, which was considered heresy, and she refused to wear women’s clothes. I was haunted by her story.”

Despite advances in technology that have brought us computer-generated effects, Ritz-Barr says there’s still a place for traditional puppetry in modern media. With the costs of camera gear, lighting equipment and editing programs coming down so much in the past few years, along with the advent of streaming services, the processes of production and distribution have made it possible for people like Ritz-Barr to make their own films for a fraction of what it would have cost ten years ago.

“Puppetry is enjoying a renaissance in theatre and film,” he said. “I try to make films that a family can sit down and watch together, but with content that goes beyond just entertainment. I don’t use puppets as a gimmick, more like sacred objects. They can be very powerful.”

Ritz-Barr has written papers on the psychology of puppets. “A puppet is a real object that gives its own shadow. You don’t have to create the shadow as with CGI, which doesn’t exist in reality. Kids can touch the puppet and see it exists as an object. Puppets are a great device with which to tell stories.”

Ritz-Barr doesn’t have the funds to remove the strings from his films and, anyway, he doesn’t want to. “Michael York said he wouldn’t have voiced Don Quixote if we removed the strings. He said seeing the strings makes you realize there’s someone behind the puppet. You can feel their presence. We’re live human performers doing this—making art, not commerce.”

It takes a talented collection of artists to trick people into seeing a face when they know it is an object. “When this trick is achieved honestly, rather than with too many gimmicks and gadgets that tend to draw the brain away from the human face and the human emotion, the emotional impact of the message can be very potent,” said Ritz-Barr who breaks the fourth wall by letting the audience see the puppeteers at the end of the films.

The Legend of Joan of Arc is close to completion. As soon as the music has been composed and the voices added, the film will be entered into festivals under animation categories and available through streaming services and DVD.

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Claire Fordham

Fordham worked for the BBC, ITN and Sky News in the UK and wrote a weekly anecdotal column for Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper, The Sun. She currently writes regularly for Huffington Post, The Malibu Times and the Messenger Mountain News. See "A Chat with Claire Fordham" on this website under Podcasts.

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