Caitlyn spent her four years at TCNJ exploring many sides of digital and traditional storytelling. She was Station Manager of the campus TV organization, Lions Television, and founding member and President of the TCNJ Stand-Up Comedy Society. By junior year, she had fully embraced her passion for children's media and animation, leading her to an internship at Nickelodeon. From there, she interned at NBCUniversal and, finally, Sesame Street, which was the perfect complement to producing Freak and The Beast. She intends on continuing to work in the fields of animation, children’s media, and comedy in development and production, with a passion for experimental and unique forms of storytelling.
Best friends Freak and The Beast have never tackled a first day of school without each other, so they have a feeling this one might be the worst ever...But come on, it's middle school! How scary could it be?
Freak and The Beast is a comedic pilot featuring handmade, original puppets and both traditional and digital sets. This thesis project encapsulates the fully-produced pilot episode, as well as a behind-the-scenes look at building puppets and sets, and how FATB adapted to being entirely self-shot due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a stage manager at Sesame Street told me, “Working with puppets is a daily magic trick.” Between hiding puppeteers, working with limited facial expressions and body movements, and having puppets interact with props that they can’t actually grab, producing a puppet-starring show poses countless unique challenges. Since my set and puppet designs were finalized before my firsthand experience at Sesame Street in the spring, I learned how to design puppets and puppeteer-friendly sets through research online. I watched videos (RJFS On Set: Creating the World of Blark and Son), read books (Imagination Illustrated: The Jim Henson Journal), and looked at images to try and reverse-engineer how I could construct decent sets and TV-quality puppets in my apartment. From there, it was a whole lot of trial and error. At every step, I came across challenges I thought were unfixable.
Process and Tools
Since September, I’ve taken Freak and The Beast from initial concept to final delivery. Roughly in order, that process involved developing the character designs, script, storyboarding, set designs, constructing the puppets, constructing the sets, filming, and editing, though I often jumped around that timeline to make sure all the elements were working together. I learned to work with wood, metal, styrofoam, felt, faux fur, and a million other weird little materials along the way. During filming, I worked with my Canon 80D (using EOS Utility to shoot remotely), a couple LED panel lights, and a green screen. The footage was edited and mostly keyed using Premiere, with additional green screen fixes in After Effects. The opening sequence and transitions were animated in After Effects.
I see Jim Henson as one of my major creative influences, which is what led me to puppets for my senior thesis. I’ve always admired his innovative spirit and the importance with which he treated children’s entertainment. Throughout Freak and The Beast, I’ve looked to his works and writing for inspiration. I was also inspired by one of my favorite childhood shows, Mr. Meaty – a short-lived Nickelodeon series that had a lasting influence on the tone and humor of Freak and The Beast.
After graduation, I intend to keep working in entertainment with a focus on animation, children’s media, and comedy. I particularly love uniquely challenging, experimental forms of storytelling, such as puppetry and stop-motion. Making Freak and The Beast has been a priceless experience, and I know the lessons I’ve taken away from this project will make me a better writer, producer, director for my next endeavor.
With Freak and The Beast, I hoped to promote healthy images of young female friendships. Growing up, it was hard to find girl characters that I thought I could be friends with, and even harder to find a duo that I could relate to. Beyond that, middle school is a difficult time for everyone. In those short three years, most people have their first encounters with insecurity, heartbreak, and feelings of otherness. Some of us performed our insecurity with people-pleasing neuroticism, and some of us became grumpy misanthropes. In that way, Freak and The Beast represent a universal experience. I hoped that people of all ages could see themselves in Freak and The Beast, celebrate the embarrassing ways in which we all cope with insecurity, and reflect on how lucky we are that everyone else feels the same way. Some of us are even lucky enough to have a Freak to our Beast.
The biggest hurdle I overcame was having to let go of certain aspects of the project to adapt to new circumstances and unanticipated challenges. For example, I had several more set designs to work on when I was forced to switch to green screen. I was really disappointed that I couldn’t show off more of my set design skills, especially after learning so much from the bedroom set. This project has taught me so much about being brutal with your own work. If you suddenly realize this aspect that you’ve dumped hours into doesn’t add anything to the project, scrap it. If this detail that your perfectionist self thought the project NEEDED has already taken up two days of your limited timeframe and it still isn’t working, move on. I was only able to get Freak and The Beast done under these circumstances by acting like my own boss and not getting unnecessarily attached to my work. Of course, Freak and The Beast is made of my heart and soul, and there are plenty of details that weren’t absolutely necessary, but that balance was only achieved by learning self-discipline and using my honest judgement.
Adapting to the COVID Pandemic
Three weeks before FATB was scheduled to shoot with a crew of seven people, TCNJ closed for the semester. Within a week, I rented a U-Haul truck to get my set out of my college apartment and back home to my mom’s house. From there, I had to rewrite the scenes featuring the remaining three sets to work for green screen, since all my materials were suddenly backordered and I no longer had access to craft or hardware stores. Before the pandemic, I planned to focus my on-set efforts to directing only – making sure we were getting engaging performances from the puppeteers, looking out for details and continuity, etc. Suddenly, I was writing, performing, directing, and shooting Freak and The Beast all by myself. My responsibilities included things I didn’t see myself as necessarily good at, like lighting and cinematography. While I certainly am proud of the final product, I hesitate to say that it’s as good as it would’ve been under normal circumstances. Nonetheless, I am truly grateful for the involuntary opportunity to take on such a huge challenge and work on skills I wouldn’t have otherwise, and I couldn’t imagine FATB any other way.
While my main collaboration (working with my puppeteers and crew) was interrupted by the pandemic, this project was completed with the generous support of my mom and Austin, an IMM alum. When I was hunched over underneath a fake puppet bed trying to direct, perform, and shoot a scene for Freak and The Beast, my mom was there to hit the record button or adjust a stray piece of fur. When I had to rewrite large portions of FATB to fit my new circumstances, Austin helped me in co-writing the dialogue to be funnier, punchier, and overall even better than the initial script.