Zombies at Screen Novelties (all photographs by the author)
What are you to do with your life if you love puppets, and are fascinated with old stop motion animation movies?
If you’re like Chris Finnegan, Mark Caballero and Seamus Walsh, you cut your teeth on cable TV shows like MTV’s Celebrity Death Match and Robot Chicken, and then carve out your own niche in the small industry, with your own production studio. At Screen Novelties — located on Los Angeles’s East Side in Historic Filipinotown, near Echo Park — partners Chris, Mark, and Seamus have found a way to live out their dreams of making stop motion films of their own, and they’ve let their imaginations run wild.
Restored neon sign (with added x-ray element)
Los Angeles Obscura Society got an exclusive visit to Screen Novelties’ historic building — marked outside by a neon giraffe sign they helped restore — where materials are collected (such as flocking, glitter, googly eyes, and feather boas), puppets are fabricated, sets are built, and the creatures of their dreams come to life.
We were sworn to secrecy as we saw some high-profile projects for major studio clients currently in production on a “hot set,” where photos were forbidden. As Mark describes it, the world of stop motion animation is a bit of a secret society anyway — none of its members really want the rest of the world to know exactly how things are done.
Seaumus demonstrating some of their puppets, currently on display
But most of the techniques and processes haven’t changed all that much since the original creators of the craft, and the Japanese artisans who brought it to prominence with TV specials like Ruldolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. That old-fashioned style of puppet animation continues to serve as major inspiration for Screen Novelties, who embrace whimsy and enjoy being just a little bit silly. Add a bit of technology into the mix (a little green screen here, a dash of CGI there, maybe a 3D printed head on top), and Screen Novelties has created their own unique style, which they hope will be expressed increasingly in their own original productions.
Regardless of our ages, we were each transported back to our own childhoods, witnessing the birthplace of these figures that seemed familiar yet were entirely new, waiting to be animated, one frame at a time. We couldn’t believe our eyes, as we watched puppets get a new head of hair, sometimes their heads, limbs or even lips being swapped out for different actions and expressions.
After our tours of the facilities, our sold-out crowd gathered upstairs in the office loft/gallery to sip on custom cocktails (“The Witch Doctor,” a tropical drink, and a smoked bacon and maple Old Fashioned) while we watched selections from Screen Novelties’ own portfolio, as well as from their extensive collection of vintage and rare stop motion animation films.
All photos by the author.
Historic corner building
Sock puppets from Oscar Telecast”Flight” parody
Set shop and green screen
Top secret soundstage
Upstairs loft / office space / screening room
Screen Novelties with field agents Sandi Hemmerlein and Erin Johnson and Matt Blitz of LA Obscura Society
Thanks to everyone at Screen Novelties for your hospitality! We were delighted to get a glimpse into your world. And now we all want to become your interns.
We hope to come back soon!
The Obscura Society is the real-world exploration arm of Atlas Obscura We seek out secret histories, unusual access, and opportunities for our community to explore strange and overlooked places hidden all around us. Join us on our next adventure, and keep up with LA Obscura Society events on our mailing list.