We met Tom Stewart in one of our Live Online Webinars--a Foam Fabrication monster-suit lesson with FX artist Ted Haines--and we were impressed with the depth of his knowledge and experience building puppets. In our student-feature interview below we asked Tom about how puppets became central to his life and work.
Since 2005, Tom has been actively developing his own puppet building techniques and style at his company, THE CREATURE WORKS. Tom is also a contributor to Puppet Buzz, and a member of the Ontario Puppetry Association. He hosts beginner puppet-making tutorial videos and provides news about puppets and puppeteering on his website, Puppeteers Unite! Please enjoy our latest interview and some pictures of Tom's felt and fur friends.
- Chris Vaughan - Stan Winston School LIVE Coordinator
Pictured above: Hoodwink, a furry purple monster created by Tom Stewart.
THE CREATURE WORKS
SWSCA: Can you tell us a little bit about The Creature Works?
TOM: The Creature Works is essentially a puppet building company I run. I have a workshop at my house that affords the capability to take someone’s design, and create a puppet for use in public appearances or for Television.
SWSCA: How long have you been making puppets?
TOM: I started building when I was about 11. I started my own “production studio” in my room and shot small animations and skits with a rented VHS camcorder. The videos were horrible but my family seemed to enjoy them. I also performed live shows but found I loved building puppets more than performing, so I started doing more building than shows. I was lucky to volunteer and work with a variety of puppetry troupes. I learned the fundamentals of puppet building through these experiences. At that time, there was nothing about puppet building online, and unless you worked with specific companies, information was very limited and often kept secret.
I stopped building puppets around 1993 because I went to school for Film Production; upon graduating, I began working in the “film business” in Toronto for a number of companies. I found the work very sporadic and the hours very long. I left the film business after about 10 years; I was exhausted, and thought I needed a change, and a consistent paycheck.
SWSCA: Was that when you started back into puppetry?
TOM: Not initially. This is a bit off-topic but I had two younger siblings diagnosed with Leukemia starting when I was about 5 years old. Later, we attended a camp called Camp Trillium; they run programs for children who have cancer and their families. It was a place that has had the most impact in my life and I always found time to work for them during the summer months, and work in film during the winter. Now you know why I had trouble finding work in film. One particular summer, I was often in front of the entire camp doing announcements and found that the only way I could hold everyone’s attention was to through puppetry. A family at camp gave me a small puppet that I used. This planted the puppetry seed once again.
I remember getting home that summer and going back online, searching for puppet building information. This time the wealth of knowledge was mind blowing! I was able to find information on techniques and materials, as well as join forums where I could create relationships with likeminded people to talk shop. That was when my puppet building skills grew tremendously.
Pictured above: A Monkey puppet created by Tom Stewart of The Creature Works.
PUPPETS ON COMMISSION
SWSCA: Do you only build puppets on commission or do you create your own for puppet shows as well?
TOM: I have only been building on commission. I would love to perform again but find the building is keeping me from doing it. I believe that to be a great puppet builder you should also be performing; you are able to see what works and what doesn’t. You get to feel if the puppet is comfortable to work with all day or if there is some aspect of the character that needs to change to make a day of puppetry easier.
Perhaps in the future I’ll start to work on a show, both for the internet and live performance purposes.
SWSCA: Can you tell our readers a little more about your work with Camp Trillium?
TOM: I am presently employed full time with Camp Trillium. I am their graphic designer and video “guy.” In the summer, I also work with the youngest age group of kids at Day Camp. I bring my puppets and they tend to make a daily appearance. I love giving back to a camp that has given me and my family so much, and feel truly blessed that I have the opportunity to work there.
Pictured above: "Howie" a humanoid puppet by puppet-maker Tom Stewart.
ALL WORKS OF ART
SWSCA: What is it about the craft of Puppet Building that inspires you?
TOM: I think what inspires me is a the sense of nostalgia I get when I am undertaking a certain technique I know was a past process developed through others' blood, sweat and tears. I am honored to be able to have that information and I get emotional when I think of everyone in the past that has shared that information from generation to generation, so that my work can be that much better and made easier. I really do get emotional over it, and feel that we as artists really should impart that knowledge to others.
SWSCA: Whose work inspires you?
TOM: The Muppets still inspire me; the volume of knowledge that has come from those builders is astounding. The Muppets are all works of art. There are some phenomenal builders today that I admire such as: Terry Angus, James Wojtal Jr., Jarrod Boutcher, and Pasha Romanowski, to name a few.
Pictured above: Various puppets built by Tom Stewart, many of his characters inspired by Jim Henson's Muppets.
SWSCA & THE PROFESSIONAL PUPPET-BUILDER
SWSCA: As a professional, what do you feel you were able to get from Stan Winston School’s webinars and tutorials?
TOM: I feel there is always something to be learned. Though some techniques or mediums taught have nothing to do with puppet building, I take these courses because I never know when I might learn something that one day helps me out with a particular problem.
Going back to my past comment on information, we now live in a computer driven world; everything seems like it is being manufactured mechanically. There is little uniqueness out there, and the skill needed to make things is being lost. My fear is that in ten, twenty, thirty years, information regarding certain arts will be lost or forgotten. Being able to build something from nothing is very empowering and I feel it is a great detriment to society if we lose that ability or passion.
SWSCA: What advice would you give someone wanting to get into puppet building?
TOM: Don’t! You will be taking work from me. LOL! All kidding aside, I recommend going into it slowly. Start small and simple. I have many new builders ask me how to make a Fozzie Bear; although you might have the skills to build one, I would recommend learning the fundamentals first. Take courses; join forums; gain knowledge; so when the time comes when you want to build yourself a Fozzie replica, you’ll be able to accomplish the look and quality you desire.
Pictured above: A stork (left) and a raven (right), puppet birds made by puppet-maker Tom Stewart.
LET GO OF THE FUTURE
SWSCA: What is next for The Creature Works?
TOM: I am presently building for major television companies and would love to develop a show for kids. I also would love to start a small online video series.
Tom was recently commissioned to make a puppet for the band Dove and Gun. Tom says, "The music video is a little dark in contrast to the Puppet but I think they wanted it that way. The puppeteer was Trish Leeper, who played 'Ma Gorg' on FRAGGLE ROCK."
Pictured above: A desperate, melancholic puppet made as a commission for a rather disturbing music video.
Pictured above: Puppet builder, Tom Stewart, does his business: building puppets!
Follow Tom Stewart
Our Live Online Courses are a wonderful way for us to get to know you as we've gotten to know Tom. Our students interact with Hollywood's masters of special effects and gain valuable feedback and guidance to help make their visons a reality. I would encourage all of you to check out our live online classes and learn the skills that will propel your work to a professional level.
Thanks again, Tom, for being a part of the SWSCA family. Keep those puppets coming!
Chris Vaughan - Stan Winston School LIVE Coordinator
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