Looking through artist Katy Strutz’s puppets evokes a series of reactions — mostly wonder and amazement, with a little bit of bewilderment thrown in. As I scroll through the intricate, painstakingly crafted sculptures, all I can think is, “How?” It’s dizzying to think about the countless hours that went into crafting each puppet, and how details like the tiny stitches in the clothing all come together to create a character that can go on to take life in a stop-motion animation.
Strutz currently works as a sculptor and fabricator for animation studios like Shadowmachine and Laika, with credits on films like Kubo and the Two Strings and Missing Link. Equipped with some clay, glue, fabric, and paint, Strutz can make magic in ways that go beyond all imagination. She’s used her talents to create portraitures of pop culture figures, from the heroines of Stranger Things to Frida Kahlo, and even a little puppet version of herself.
We caught up with Strutz to talk about her inspirations, learning on the job, and portraiture as a form of appreciation.
What first got you interested in puppets?
I started sculpting and making puppets around sophomore year of college, but when I look back, there’s clearly a whole trail of breadcrumbs leading me to stop-motion before then.
As a kid, I sewed rag doll versions of myself and my friends, and fabricated elaborate beds for everything down to my retainer. The obsession with dolls and animated movies has always been there and has never gone away. I just hadn’t really been told before college that these things were art.
What’s the most challenging part, and what do you love the most about it?
One of the biggest challenges with this medium is how labor-intensive it is. Drawing a character can take an hour. Making one by hand can take a month. Once you have it, you can take a million pictures of it, but theres a lot of hustle on the front end, and it takes a bit of stamina to get from idea to finished puppet. I’m always trying to find ways to cut corners and move more quickly.
The other biggest challenge is also one of my favorite parts — that you’re working with so many different materials and such a variety of crafts. It can be daunting, because you are drawing, sculpting, working with metals and epoxies, patterning clothes, building a tree, dealing with lighting and photography, editing images… It’s a lot to master, but the variety of it inherently brings a rhythm that can protect me from feeling burnt out.
So many! Of the feature films, some of my favorites include Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Isle of Dogs, Mary and Max, and Jiří Trnka’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The Rankin/Bass Christmas movies were definitely the beginning of my love of stop-motion. I remember feeling like there was something so special and real about them compared to hand-drawn animation, and the charm of them is completely timeless.
Madame Tutli-Putli is probably my favorite short when it comes to fabrication. The filmmakers edited video of real human eyes on top of beautiful, tactile puppets, and the finished effect is so striking.
I love all of Suzie Templeton’s films as well, both stylistically and for their thematic darkness, and lastly, I think the shorts Henry Selick made for MTV are all pretty incredible.
My favorite films leave evidence that the things you see on-screen actually exist in real space. Once you lose that, I think the effort becomes a waste of time, especially in the age of CGI. I’ve realized I’m very drawn to the uncanny valley, which is generally defined as the unsettling zone where humanoid things fall between too lifelike and not lifelike enough. This may go without saying, but I’m a very adamant believer that animation is a medium and not a genre, and it is absolutely for people of all ages.
You mention that you studied illustration at RISD, but took as many puppetry classes as you could. Do you feel like you learned a lot of your skills from school, or were they picked up from working professionally?
A mix of both! In some ways, I feel like I’ve been in art school for eight years and counting.
RISD is not a school that particularly cares about training you for an industry job, and the illustration program really prevents you from pigeonholing yourself while you’re a student. I took classes on making children’s books, editorial illustration, digital painting, oil painting, anatomy, etc.
There were definitely a few classes that translated directly into puppetry. I took an intensive course in traditional figure sculpture over winter session sophomore year, and my love for it really took me by surprise, because I had never thought of myself as a “3D person” before. But after that, I was totally hooked and continued to take independent studies with my teacher, Alba Corrado. I took a 3D illustration course that taught me to make everything from paper and recycled scraps which, to this day, serves as an important reminder to keep things simple and scrappy whenever I can. I only took one intro to stop-motion class, but that’s where I learned all of the indispensable basics — how to make a wire armature, how to lip-sync, and how to animate.
Beyond that, a lot of the fabrication I did in school was self-taught, and by junior year I just made it my mission to make all of my assignments revolve around sculpture and puppets.
Most of what I know about fabrication now I have been lucky enough to learn on the job, either because it was part of my job training or because I asked a co-worker to show me how to do something after hours. It’s been completely humbling to get to learn from masters of all these different disciplines, and the skill sharing is one of my favorite things about the industry. I still spend a lot of time teaching myself new skills and processes as well, and continually seek the balance between making the art I want to make and building my professional portfolio. Something I love about stop-motion is that it can be really simple or it can be super technical and complex, and there’s a lot of room to play between the two. The amount of things you can learn is truly bottomless, so my skill set feels like a perpetual work in progress!
Something I’m super thankful for is that whether my illustration degree prepared me to work in stop-motion or not, it has definitely given me the courage to walk away from jobs and opportunities that I didn’t feel were leading me where I wanted to go and has prevented me from ever feeling trapped in a role or feeling limited by my job title.
Do you prefer doing sculptures or fabrication more? Being a fabricator seems like a role that I think not a lot of people know about, myself included. Can you walk us through some of the responsibilities of that?
It depends a lot on the type of production you are working on. Generally, working as a fabricator means people give you a design and then you make that thing exist in the real world with the capability of holding a pose and moving one millimeter at a time.
When you are a fabricator on a film, the roles tend to be much more specialized and you dive deep within one focused area of expertise, such as costumes or mold making. Working on commercials typically allows you to be a bit more of a quick-and-dirty jack of all trades. Either way, fabrication always involves a lot of careful craft and tedious precision. Both experiences are valuable in their own way, and I always appreciate opportunities to learn new skills on a job. Whenever I can, sculpting on productions is my preference because it’s a skill I’m passionate about and am eager to practice as much as possible.
What has your experience been like working at Laika?
I was a puppet intern on Kubo and a junior costumer on Missing Link. Learning to make costumes was incredibly humbling, and ending up in that department came as a bit of a surprise. My education prepared me for a lot, but going into this job, the only useful skills I really had to offer were snippets I learned from my mom and grandma. I left school feeling like a big fish, so it was probably pretty healthy to have it instantly proven that I was still a total dingus with a lot to learn. As an intern, I spent a lot of time googling things in the bathroom, and I pretty much owe my survival in that job to the women I worked with for taking the time to teach me this painstaking craft.
Costuming for stop-motion is like building a puppet on top of a puppet, and Laika’s costumes are pretty unparalleled in their quality and complexity. You have to know the rules of patterning, textile production, and garment construction, but you also need to understand the mechanics of making something animatable, which means lining your patterns with a mosaic of metals, plastics, stretchy things, and a bucket of glue. Additionally, working in miniature means you have to develop an eye for duplicating things down to the half millimeter. It all broadly defies every rule of human capability.
Your Twin Peaks caricatures are incredible, and you have such a knack for capturing faces. What’s the process behind nailing someone’s essence so perfectly?
Thank you so much! Portraiture has always been an obsession of mine, and it’s something I’m still striving to improve at. Part of why I did the Twin Peaks series was to practice making caricatures of a bunch of different faces without just emphasizing the same features every time or getting too formulaic. I think capturing likeness comes down to practice and paying attention.
I do also enjoy making my own characters and have been meaning to get back to that for a while now, but if I could, I would make a puppet of every single person I’ve ever met and every celebrity I’ve ever loved. Real people are just so nuanced and bizarre, and I love portraiture as a form of appreciation. I think portraits teach you about specificity and how to find what stands out about a person. My two favorite caricaturists are Al Hirschfeld and Jeff Stahl.
What’s your favorite project you’ve worked on?
Working on The Shivering Truth was definitely my favorite experience so far. It was the first production I got to work on as a character sculptor, and I have never been so thrilled to go to work. It was also so inspiring to work on a project with a woman directing — the wonderful Cat Solen.
What’s your dream project, something you’d love to work on in the future?
Something I’m really looking forward to is making my own films, which I haven’t done since school. I’ve spent the past couple years really honing in on what I feel is my style and my approach to fabrication, and I’m finally feeling ready to apply that to a film… so stay tuned!
A real dream project for me would be to make a stop-motion biopic. I love biographies, but I’m always so distracted by the actor in prosthetics. You don’t have that problem with puppets! With animation, you hardly have any limitations at all, and I think that’s very exciting.
Any artists you admire and want to shout out?
Recently Tyler Mitchell’s photos have really been blowing me away. Fashion photography never fails to inspire me.
I always have a ton of admiration for illustrators as well and their commitment to building their own worlds. My friends and RISD classmates Haejin Park, Sophie Page, and Paige Mehrer have a collective called Plum and everything they make is so creative and has motivated me over and over to keep pushing myself with my personal work. I also really love Esme Shapiro’s paintings. She manages to strike a perfect balance between complete whimsy and total sophistication, and I don’t know how she does it!
As for 3D artists, I have of course always looked up to Red Nose Studio, who really paved the way for 3D illustrators and continues to make gorgeous work at a breakneck pace. I also love the playful irreverence of Wilfrid Wood, and just recently discovered the giant, otherworldly felt sculptures of Paolo Puck.