Images in Motion
Malkovich marionettes, Pixar and puppetry
Lee Armstrong and Kamela Portuges-Robbins with the marionette of John Cusack created for Being John Malkovich.
Lee Armstrong and Kamela Portugese-Robbins live in a fantasy world where anything is possible. Little girls befriend dragons, bunnies take on bullying bears and John Cusack can inhabit John Malkovich’s body and put on a show of dancing marionettes. That’s right, you heard me.
Puppets are their medium of choice, and their business, Images and Motion, brings life to creatures big and small. Really, it’s almost become an addiction. They can’t see a puppet and allow it to lie lifeless—they’re instantly drawn to a world of make-believe. Someone should probably step in with some sort of support group. But then again, it’s too fun to watch. Instead you find yourself traveling down the rabbit hole, lead by a couple of sassy chickens. And I’m not using colloquialisms, I mean a pair of chicken puppets named Fiona and Zee.
Like I said, anything is possible with Kamela and Lee. And you must believe that, in your heart of hearts, the way children believe that clapping will resurrect Tinkerbell, or else you will never understand these puppeteering pros.
Their careers have taken them from the playground of Fraggle Rock to the absurd underwater world of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou; from polishing pop stars to sculpting the colorful characters of the Pixar/Disney universe. Collectively, they have five Regional Emmys and have had their handmade puppets featured in Oscar-nominated films. Their success was found not in the hubbub of Hollywood but in their small, but well-equipped, studio right here in Sonoma.
“Sonoma is awesome, we feel so lucky to be here. We could be in L.A. and be a lot busier, but we’re busy enough and much happier here,” Lee says.
Lee was the first to launch her puppeteering dreams—and she made sure to hitch her wagon to the right star. As a 29-year-old just blossoming in the business, in 1982 she auditioned for a new show from puppeting legend Jim Henson, the musically whimsical Fraggle Rock.
“I auditioned along with every other puppeteer in Canada,” she laughs.
But he saw something in her quirky voices and effervescent ability to bring peppery personality to anything with a face. She was one of ten hired to work for the master of puppeteering.
“When I worked on Fraggle Rock, Jim (Henson) set the tone. He wanted people to share their ideas and contributions,” she recalls, fresh from a reunion of the popular children’s program.
By 1985, ready for a change, she left her native Canada and settled in the Bay Area where she searched for work as a puppeteer. It was shortly thereafter that she met Kamela, her business partner for life, at a puppeting festival. Before Lee, Kamela was in a field far away from the artistry she loves today, obtaining her master’s degree in business and marketing. While she loved the medium, she saw puppets as little more than a hobby.
“I asked Lee, ‘You really make a living doing this?’” Kamela says, remembering her surprise that this world of make-believe actually paid Lee’s real-life bills. The pair stayed in touch, but Lee can pinpoint the moment she knew she needed Kamela in her professional life.
“I went over to her house, which was basically a giant studio for all her projects. There she was in her bedroom, welding a giant camel,” Lee giggles. “I just thought, ‘This woman can do anything.’”
Largely self-taught, Kamela’s artistic skills are expansive. She can sculpt anything out of anything. From hand puppets to stick puppets, all the characters their company creates come from Kamela’s fingertips, although multiple employees contribute to the design.
It was this intricate skill set that launched one of the most lucrative aspects of Images in Motion’s business plan: sculpting dolls, figurines and models for toy companies and film studios. From Celine Dion to the Spice Girls to Britney Spears, Kamela has intricately studied every contour of many a celebrity’s face, head and hair for the Barbie-style dolls that tweens covet.
“I had to re-do Justin Bieber so many times because he kept changing his hair,” she laughs.
This line of business also brought them into the inner circle of the world’s most decorated animation studio: Disney/Pixar. When Finding Nemo came out in 2003, Images in Motion was hired to make resin castings of all of the underwater characters, from Nigel the seagull to Bubbles the fish to Squirt the sea turtle. They have since made every casting for nearly every character in every movie, from The
Incredibles to Up to the-soon-to-be-released Brave, which are used for 3-D computer modeling, making promotional toys and are even considered fine art. In the summer of 2010, the Oakland Museum of California held the exhibition Pixar: 25 Years of Animation, which included all of the character casts from the Emeryville-based film studio’s collection, 95 percent of which were made by Images in Motion.
“We’ve done hundreds and hundreds of them,” Lee said. “Pixar has been very good to us.”
Not all their jobs are as predictable as their work with Pixar, however. One of their most high-profile clients came out of nowhere. An independent production team contacted them to build marionettes for a quirky upcoming feature called Being John Malkovich, which went on to win three Oscar nominations. In the film, John Cusack, an aspiring puppeteer, discovers a portal in his office that miraculously leads to the brain of the two-time Academy Award-nominated actor John Malkovich, who portrays a hilarious version of himself. After 20 minutes inside his head, fittingly, the visitor is then dumped out of the sky into a ditch by the New Jersey Turnpike.
“They sent us the script and we just loved it,” says Lee, adding that they didn’t love the timeline they were given for the project.
“I had a month to build six marionettes. Oh, and an 8-foot-tall Emily Dickinson, on wheels,” Kamela says, her voice thick with frustration even a decade later. “Everything was put on hold, and I didn’t sleep the entire month.”
Not only did they need to make six, 16-inch functioning marionettes, each with 24 strings, they had to make the puppets lifelike as each was modeled after a different character of the film. Kamela became entranced making mini Malkoviches in multiple styles, Cusack as a monk, a frizzy-haired Cameron Diaz and a stunning Catherine Keener. While the construction process was grueling, the puppeteers did delight in teaching the film’s namesake how to bring the puppets to life.
“Anytime you see John Malkovich with a puppet in the film, he was puppeteering,” Kamela said. “He was really committed to learning how to do it right. He kept having us come back to his house to show him more things.”
The pair got a glimpse at the man behind a million characters, down to the type of sandwich he makes for his kids (tuna). “He is just a remarkable human being,” Kamela said.
They’re silver screen work also includes bringing to life a myriad of faces and the title character in Monkey Bone, puppeting the violin-playing grasshopper in James and the Giant Peach and working with the man of 1,000 voices, Robin Williams, in Bicentennial Man. They have also done promotional work for everything from Leap Frog educational toys to the National Institute of Service Excellence in Barbados to the National Bone Marrow Registry.
“We do all the building (of puppets), but we always hope we’ll be asked to puppeteer,” Lee says, explaining that’s where their passion lies. “I wouldn’t want to be an actor, I prefer puppeteering.”
Kamela added, “I like it because I can be anything. There are infinite characters you can play.”
And play they do. As we wrap up our interview, both grasp at puppets sitting nearby, launching back into their world of make-believe where anything is again possible.
Join them at imagesmedia.com.
Images in Motion