The 2018 Atlanta Film Festival is currently in full swing, running from now until next Sunday, April 22. The festival is host to many world premieres of films, such as the puppetry feature length film, Yamasong: March of the Hollows premiering on Sunday, April 15 at 2:15pm at the Hilan Theatre. The film features a voice cast of Hollywood A-listers including Nathan Fillion, Abigail Breslin, Whoopi Goldberg, Malcolm McDowell, Freida Pinto, George Takei, Peter Weller, and Ed Asner, and is the first feature length non-muppet puppetry film in over a decade. We sat down with director Sam Koji Hale and Dark Dunes producer Mallory O'Meara ahead of the premiere to discuss Yamasong, its production, the cast, and of course, puppets.
Congratulations on having the world premiere of Yamasong: March of the Hollows here at the Atlanta Film Festival.
Mallory O'Meara: Yes, very exciting!
How long have you been in the process of making this film?
Sam Koji Hale: It's been a little while.
I know there was a short film also called Yamasong in 2010.
Hale: Right, that was 2010. We showed that around including Dragon Con in Atlanta. That's probably where we had the best reception to, and we got Best Fantasy Short and then we won Best Short of the festival. That's where it started, and then it kinda went into hibernation for a while until I met Sultan [Saeed Al Darmaki] and Dark Dunes, and then the talks went pretty quickly from there about making a feature film.
O'Meara: Yeah, we were pretty excited about Yamasong as soon as we found out about it. It was my first time developing a project for myself and I was like, “Yes! This is the one! This is it! This is we want to do!” And it sorta went from there starting in 2000 and...
Hale: 2014. Yeah, yeah. And then everything was in stages; there's the writing stage, the build stage, the shoot, the VFX. VFX took the longest.
So is March of the Hollows a sequel, a re-imagining of the short, or does it just build on what the short created?
O'Meara: Yamasong is technically a sequel to the short but they both stand alone. The short is a lot more conceptual, and there's no dialogue in the short. Whereas Yamasong has dialogue like a full feature. The events of the short spark what happens in Yamasong, but you don't need to see the short to understand what's going on. We have a little intro, that's kinda our Star Wars...
Hale: It's in the first two minutes; it gives you the big beats of the short and actually some footage of the short that ties it together with some narration.
Let's talk about bringing this cast together. Yamasong has a fantastic cast of actors. What did it take to get everyone to agree to this? Was it just like, “Do you want to be a puppet?”
O'Meara: Haha, actually it was sorta similar to that. Our gateways into that was our executive producers, Toby Froud and Heather Henson. Some of our cast, Nathan Fillion, one of his dreams in life was to be in a Henson/Froud puppet film. And when the script came across his desk and he realized what kind of project it was he was absolutely on board. Once we started getting a few key cast members it was like a snowball effect and developed its own gravitas. Everyone was like, “Oh, this is a very special film.” They were really into it.
Hale: And Dark Dunes did a great job as far as bringing people together. I remember in the beginning they asked me for a wish list. So I gave them a wish list and then they took that and ran with it and then supplemented it with a lot of great names I would have never thought of too. But yeah, Nathan Fillion and George Takei, those were two who were on my list so it's great to get them. And then getting Whoopi was a coup. Whoopi Goldberg is amazing.
O'Meara: Yeah, that was really exciting.
What challenges did you face when working with puppets?
Hale: I've been working with puppets for over 15 years and what we commonly say is when you shoot a puppet film, every shot is a special effect. Cause you got to figure out the lighting. You got to figure out the placement of the puppeteers. Once they get in the shot then you got to tweak all your lighting and then you got to get your camera. It's taking the work flow of live-action and then adding the work flow of animation on top of it and then the special work flow of puppets. So it's kinda a hybrid of all of those.
O'Meara: A magical dance.
Hale: The benefit of puppets compared to say like stop motion is we're shooting everything live and in camera so we can do multiple takes until we get the take we like. Where with stop motion you have one animator in a closed off space working one frame at a time, and by the end of the day you have a couple of minutes of animation. We can get more in a day with live puppets. There are definitely challenges, but we work with a lot of professional puppeteers, and they're all just solid. They get in there and they're all problem solvers. If they run into anything, like a shot that's a little complicated or whatever, we just go into a conversation where it's like, “we can do this or we can do this or we can do this.” Someone told me at a puppet festival I just went to the joke is, “How many puppeteers does it take to change a light bulb?” And the answer is, “One to change the light bulb and the other nine to say, I wouldn't have done it that way.””
What's the process like? Did you have the cast in place before filming or was that done afterward?
O'Meara: It was sorta piecemeal.
Hale: It was piecemealed. Ideally you get all the voices first and then you shoot after that. That's a pretty standard way to work with puppets.
Hale: But we were kinda building the coalition of voice actors as we went. We were literally getting a couple of actors, get their voices, and then we'd go in the studio and start shooting their character. It did make things complicated because you could shoot one side of a conversation but we maybe didn't have the other person on the other side so then we'd swing back and get it a month later. Then we'd have to make sure to match the lighting and the sets and all that. We'd ramp up for a week. Shoot stuff. Ramp down again until we get another voice, and then we ramp up again. I think if we get to do it again we would do all the voices at once and then we can shoot in more of a traditional way.
O'Meara: Yeah, that was the big difference between this and a live-action shoot where you just sorta go and blitz through it. Whereas with this film we shot the film over eight months, was it?
Hale: Yeah, it was stretched out over a good chunk of time.
O'Meara: And of course some of the puppets needed some help, needed a little doctoring here and there. It was a different process for all of us. I don't think any of us had shot like that before. The next puppet film we do will definitely be to get everything done first and then go.
Hale: I've done shorts so I'm used to working with puppets, but there are very few puppet features that have been made in a while. The longer work flow was something that was pretty fresh to a lot of people.
Do you think we're going to see a resurgence for puppet animation?
O'Meara: I mean we already have. Dark Crystal, Netflix is doing that.
Hale: Dark Crystal is coming I think next year. We may be at the front of the surge, potentially. I mean, there's other puppet stuff going on. There's a lot of new puppet series that are being shot right now for Netflix, Amazon, Warner Bros. There's a lot of puppet things in projects. There are a lot of friends I have in puppeteers that are working right now. There's a kids show being shot here in Atlanta right now by the makers of the Teletubbies. So they're going to have a whole new series that's coming out probably next year, too. I think we're on the cusp.
O'Meara: I think the pendulum is swinging back to people who have a lot of 80s nostalgia. Ready Player One is the tiptop of that. People miss that look. They miss seeing the practical effects. We've seen that for the past few years. Everything went so CGI, and then people went, “Oh, wait, we're sick of that. We miss practical.” I think puppets is going to be at the tail end of that. It's like, “Oh yeah we forgot puppets are great too!”I think Yamasong is going to be on the crest of that wave.
What are you guys most excited about presenting the film here? What do you hope audiences take away from Yamasong?
O'Meara: Just a sense of wonder. This is the first puppet feature film that has been made in America since Team America.
Hale: So 12 years, 14 years or something like that.
O'Meara: People haven't seen anything like this and my hope is that people walk out of that theater going, “Wow, I've never seen anything like this. Oh my gosh.” Because puppets make everybody feel like a kid again. It's so universal; it's so accessible. If people can feel that magic, that's what I'm hoping for.
Hale: And Atlanta is a puppet friendly city. You have the Center for Puppetry Arts here, and there's a lot of puppet community in Atlanta. Just like when we premiered the original short, I think it's an ideal city to actually premiere a feature with puppets. In all of North America I think Atlanta is probably the best choice.