Ben Levesque and Chris Lilly are the creators of the intergalactic puppet series Starship Sassafrass, and today, they're the subjects of our creator interview!
batteryPOP: Where did you get the idea for Starship Sassafrass?
Chris: For several years we had our own puppet theater called Sassafrass Junction. I always thought Sassafras was a wonderful wacky word and it just seemed perfect for the little imaginary town we created. (We purposefully misspelled Sassafras by adding the extra "s" because it just felt right. haha) . After the theater closed and we set our sites on the web series, it just seemed natural to continue with this Sassafrass world we had created and sort of lived in for years. We just moved it into space because both Ben and I were science fiction buffs, and Starship Sassafrass was born. And honestly, who doesn't love a good space adventure?!
batteryPOP: Are there any shows (puppet or otherwise) that inspired you?
Chris: As a child of the 70's i was raised on everything Jim Henson. Be it Sesame Street , The Muppet Show and later Fraggle Rock. I always found myself more interested in what was going on behind the scenes and down below the puppets. Even at pre school age I was jealous of the kid's who appeared on Sesame Street and could actually look down below Grover or Cookie Monster and see the puppeteers. Weird I know.
I must mention another HUGE influence for the show , for me, was The Great Space Coaster. It was this quirky little show set on a tiny floating asteroid/planet in space. I never missed an episode!
Ben: I was always a huge fan of the Muppet Show and Fraggle Rock, as well as Sesame Street and Bear in the Big Blue House. (Pretty much anything Jim Henson ever created. I would watch the Muppet Movies over and over again as a child. I also really love classic Science Fiction like Star Trek and Star Wars, so combining both puppets and space seemed like a fantastic idea!
batteryPOP: What is your favorite part about creating and puppeteering puppets?
Chris: The power of puppets!! Before opening our puppet theater I never fully respected the power of puppets. That all changed when one afternoon we were inside the theater preparing for our opening and decided to go to the big glass windows out front and peer out with the puppets. Two grown burly men walked by , they seemed like "blue collar" type guys, tough guys ya know?! But, when they saw the puppets , suddenly they were kid's again. Their faces lit up and they smiled from ear to ear. For the next few years , at the theater , we saw this same reaction , whether they were 2 years old, or 80, they were transfixed on these little creatures we had on our hands. And the weirdest thing was the way , we, as puppeteers, simply disappeared. It was like we weren't even there. Everyone would stare into the puppets eyes and have conversations with them. It was quite wonderful!!
Ben: My favorite part about puppetry is the versatility it provides for the performer. As an actor the, number of roles that any one person can play is severely limited based on their age or gender. As a puppeteer, you can be literally anything from an old man, to a young girl, to a space alien on a starship! The possibilities are endless and only limited by your imagination!
batteryPOP: Where will the crew from Starship Sassafrass head next?
Chris and Ben: Right now we have a fun little "side-show" we've been working on called "T Time". It stars our human character Dr. Tottlebottom (Dr. T.) and several of the puppets that have yet to get a lot of air time on the main show. It's a little "talk show" where we are able to answer letters from fans , do some arts and crafts and science experiments, and basically just cut loose and have a laugh! We also have been writing a 3 part action/adventure mini-series for the main show. Dex, Kelvin and the gang need to go on an adventure. and we think we've written a fun one for them! We have some new characters to introduce , along with some exciting new locations for the gang to visit!
batteryPOP: If you could create a new character for the show, what would he or she (or it) be?
Chris and Ben: We love new characters. It's so exciting to have a clean slate and create this whole new personality for them. As mentioned above we have some new ones coming soon. But we also have lots and lots of ideas for new characters down the road. One of which is a big hearted cuddly monster that lives in the belly of the ship and works as , essentially, the trash compactor for the ship. He has a hearty appetite to say the least. We hope to teach a lesson about not judging a book by it's cover with him.
batteryPOP: How many people does it take to make an episode of Starship Sassafrass, and what kinds of jobs do they do?
Chris and Ben: We had around 10 people involved to create our first episode. For certain shots with a lot of puppets on screen (like all the furry "trebles" surrounding Dr. T.) you need alot of hands in the air. So we tried to arrange shooting those scenes when the entire crew was there. Alot of the shots are close ups of one particular puppet and those are sometimes shot with just 2 people working at a time.
We have some of the crew who work in all different capacities. Ben and Chris write and puppeteer and do voice work. Ben also does the lion's share of the digital effects work. While Chris takes on the directors duties and tries his best to do all the lighting and camera set ups. Micah is a puppeteer and editor, and is learning to do some of the digital effects as well. Michael puppeteers and also helps as a production assistant, holding the boom mic, holding cue cards , etc. Lee is a jack of all trades. Besides helping out with puppeteering duties, he also is our official "puppet wrangler". He keeps the puppets in tip top condition and makes sure they look their best on screen. He also helps as a production assistant as well. Julie is a puppeteer and provides the voice of Bee Bop. And Martha and Courtney are fantastic puppeteers who help out as well! Last but not least, we have to mention the wonderful Tara Barton who portrays Dr. T.! She is vital to the writing process of that character because she has been portraying her for many many years and knows her inside and out. Starting as the host/narrator at our puppet theater years ago and evolving into the honorary "captain" of the Starship Sassafrass.
batteryPOP: What's the craziest thing that ever happened on set?
Chris: Nothing super crazy has happened besides some funny "blooper" moments. And a situation where we had to digitally edit out a "pizza stain" that happened after lunch and was not initially caught during filming.
But give us time and I am sure some wackiness is bound to happen soon!
Ben: Some of the best moments that happen on set is when we are just goofing off and we stumble upon something hilarious that we end up throwing into the show! We live for those moments and they rally help drive our creative process.
batteryPOP: When you were 10, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Chris: Believe it or not, I wanted to grow up and have my own "Muppet" show. Look at us now! Hahaha!
Ben: It wasn't until I was about 12 that I knew I wanted to be a puppeteer! When I was ten I desperately wanted to be a paleontologist and dig up and study dinosaur fossils!
Thanks to Chris and Ben for answering all our questions! Be sure to check out Starship Sassafrass HERE!