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The Beginning of
a Revolution

What does it take to reinvent puppetry?

By Stephanie Tsank
Puppet Designer, Zack Buchman at a public event, holding a Grumpy Cat puppet
Zack Buchman and a friend at a Barnes and Noble event, Union Square. Photo: Dmitri Slepovitch

“Have you heard of ‘Grumpy Cat’? ” asks Zack Buchman, Founder and Creative Director of Furry Puppet Studio, as he strolls through his Brooklyn studio, stopping to lift a frowning feline puppet, its bright blue eyes fixed in a state of perpetual annoyance, into the air.

He is referring, of course, to the celebrity cat whose pointed expression of disgust has inspired everything from television interviews to countless memes. Grumpy Cat reappears here now in the only official version of her puppet form, judgmental scowl fully intact.

Buchman, a former animator who left home and moved to New York City at a young age, has a pretty unorthodox background for a creative director who’s at the helm of his own business. “Actually, I never ended up going to college,” he says. “But I think that it ended up giving me this outsider perspective and an unusual outlook. Which is why our work is so different.”

Indeed, it seems that Buchman’s unique perspective has a lot to do with the attention that Furry Puppet Studio is getting: he and his team have together conceptualized and fabricated custom puppets for a wide variety of productions, from TV shows to music videos featuring some unexpected guest stars, such as Jon Hamm and Michelle Obama.

Buchman, as he tells it, draws artistic inspiration from the pixelated computer games he was exposed to in his childhood and “naturally, Jim Henson’s early work.” He believes wholeheartedly in the power of smart character design and is “a big fan of keeping things simple.”

Jon Hamm giving a piggyback ride to a blue yeti puppet
Jon Hamm, bonding with a blue yeti. Image courtesy of Funny Or Die

These early computer games, whose aesthetics influenced Buchman’s taste at a young age, continue to serve as a source of inspiration. Buchman reflects: “Every pixel mattered. Working with such primitive means forced the designers in those days, such as Pixar’s director Steve Purcell, to make surprisingly clever choices in order to preserve the essence of the character.”

Likewise, the creative process at Furry Puppet Studio often begins humbly, with an incidental scribble, or a doodle discarded in the margins of a sketchbook. The team then combines forces to “figure out the essence of the doodle and what makes it so special,” says Buchman. This crucial kernel of inspiration has the potential to emerge into a full-blown character; a fleshy (or furry) being that maintains the singular elements of its original form.

“We go to all of this trouble because we believe the medium is truly exceptional,” Buchman explains, observing that puppets have a distinct way of developing long-lasting bonds and meaningful exchanges with audiences. “There is an emotional connection that simply doesn’t exist in the same way in other mediums,” he says.

Puppet maker at his studio, looking at one of his creations: A blue puppet with two horns and surprised expression.
Last minute preening before a close-up

The vibe of Furry Puppet Studio is akin to that of a candy store: bright colors, surprising shapes, and visual treats. The creative team at the studio is no different in their diversity, eclecticism and innovative techniques, utilizing 3D printers and manufacturing their own fabric, which they lovingly call “dream fleece.”

Roaming the studio is Yaron Farkash, Buchman’s childhood friend and creative partner, and Moscow-born, master puppet-builder Maria Gurevich; “The most incredible foam carver I’ve ever met,” says Buchman, “she’s like a real-life Edward Scissorhands.” Rounding out the team are Tom Newby, mechanical engineer extraordinaire, whose appearance recalls “the professor from Back to the Future” and Poly Smith, a legendary costume designer who, Buchman reveals, is “a co-inventor of the sports bra. I’m serious, Google it!”

Given the team’s dynamism and Buchman’s creative flair, Furry Puppet Studio is poised to be a leader in the movement to reinvent puppetry. Though of course, looking ahead while keeping the medium’s past achievements in view remains a palpable challenge.

In a rare moment of seriousness, Buchman carefully places the Grumpy Cat puppet on a nearby windowsill in his studio—a ledge that already holds a variety of colorful creatures of varied sizes and expressions. Grumpy Cat is perfectly at home in this mélange of blue monsters, 3D-printed eyeballs, and neon birds, and so too, is Buchman. When asked to elaborate on the inspiration for his newest creation, Buchman gestures toward a sketchbook on his desk. “It all started in a strange dream,” he says.

The team rests between takes at a Greenwich Village shoot.
The team rests between takes at a Greenwich Village shoot.
llama puppet costume with mechanical eyes
Maria Gurevich about to send off her latest creation
Bare foam head with mechanical eyelids over glass wide, on puppet builder's desk
Mechanical magic in the making
Scribbles by artist Kristen McCabe. © Furry Puppet Studio Inc.
Scribbles by artist Kristen McCabe. © Furry Puppet Studio Inc.

DJ unicorn puppet