New Puppet Film – Waiting For Spring

Last month I created a short film for the 48 Hour Puppet Film Project. It was a fun and frantic experience to create a film in a weekend, as I’ve only made a few puppet films before. The final result, called Waiting For Spring, is about a little mouse who anxiously waits for spring, and is happy when it finally arrives. Here is the film, and below I’ll talk about how I made it.

The rules of the 48 Hour Puppet Film Project are that you can’t start until Friday evening, when you receive a list of three elements that the film must include. This year, the films had to include a specific theme – hope, a specific object – cardboard, and a specific action – jump. Upon receiving these at 9 PM on a Friday, I started thinking of ideas.

The inspiration came from the weather forecast for that weekend. We were getting a snowstorm on Saturday morning, and then a warm sunny day on Sunday when everything would melt. I came up with the idea for a mouse who is sadly watching the snow fall, and then later is happy when spring arrives. And I could take advantage of my backyard, which had many spring flowers already blooming.

I built the puppet Friday night, using materials I had on hand. I didn’t even have time to sew, it was held together with pins and tape. I also rigged up a flower pot with an opening in the back, to manipulate the puppet.

Saturday morning, I went out into the wet snow with my video camera and puppet, and experimented with different locations and camera angles to finally get my opening shots. I had to hurry because the snow was already starting to melt by 11:00.

That evening I edited the footage, and worked on the puppet to make it more sturdy. Usually when creating a new puppet, the puppeteer needs time to experiment with the movement, to figure out what the puppet can do, and how to manipulate it. I had almost no time for this, I had to experiment while actually filming. So many of the shots turned out poorly and couldn’t be used.

Most of the filming was done with me holding the video camera in one hand and holding the puppet in the other. I had intended the mouse to be a finger puppet, but I found it was nearly impossible to work the puppet this way without my hand being visible too. So I ended up using a stiff metal wire attached to the back of the puppet (which you can see in a few shots.) In a few instances, I put the camera down to move the puppet, or I put the puppet down to move the camera.

The filming on Sunday, after the snow melted, was a mad rush to get as many sunny shots as I could. Looking back, I wish I had more time to experiment with different locations, camera angles, and movements. I finished filming around 4:00, and rushed to edit the second half of the film, and also finish the music and sound.

The music was created with GarageBand, using the instruments that come with the program. I used the computer keyboard (“Musical Typing”) to type in the notes, and then adjusted them manually, since I made a lot of mistakes. After adding the music, I adjusted the shots again, to better fit the pacing of the score.

As the deadline of 9 PM on Sunday approached, I kept noticing small things that needed to be fixed, and each render took more time. So I missed the actual deadline, but I kept working all evening and finished very late that night.

This project was a great experience for me, because I’m usually a slow and methodical worker, and often start projects that I never finish. So this really got me to focus and get something done.

Hopefully it will inspire more film projects in the future!

Solo art exhibit this month

I’m having an exhibit of my artwork this month at our local library. The Friends of the Needham Public Library Gallery features a new exhibit each month, and I was invited to show my work during February.

This is my largest solo exhibit in recent memory, with thirty works of art, plus some of my handmade puppets. There are a few illustrations from my published books, but the majority of works are unpublished drawings, paintings, and cut paper art (like those in the foreground above.)

It was a challenge looking back through my work to decide which images to show. I wanted to show a wide sampling of what I’ve been up to, and also works that best represent me as an artist. Most of my work is illustrative, evoking a story of some kind. I’m also drawn to nature, especially trees, and all of the works in this exhibit involve trees in some way.

The Needham Free Public Library is located at 1139 Highland Avenue, Needham, MA 02494. It is open Mon-Thurs 9AM-9PM, Fri 9AM-5:30PM, and Sun 1-7PM. The library website also features a slideshow of my work during the month of February. If you’re in the area, stop by to take a look!

Cutting stories out of paper

Art © by John Lechner

It really is true that time moves faster as you get older. Not literal time, but our perception of time, which in many ways is far more important. So before any more time passes, I thought I’d share some recent projects.

Most recently, I finished a new paper cutting. I’ve been doing paper cuttings and shadow puppets for a few years now, and I really like the challenges and the effects you can achieve. I love how silhouettes force you to use your imagination, and this internal picture-creation can be far more powerful than any realistic image.

Here is a little bit about my process. I started with a pencil sketch, which I scanned and printed out bigger, and in reverse. This is because I would be drawing and cutting on the back side of the paper.

Art © by John Lechner

I then copied the design onto heavy black paper, and cut out the images with an x-acto knife. It was a slow process, and took several evenings.

Art © by John Lechner

Art © by John Lechner

And here is the final piece, which measures 11 x 14 inches.

Art © by John Lechner

This artwork will be on display at the Needham Library throughout the month of April, part of an exhibit for the Needham Open Studios, which I will also be participating in. You can visit the Open Studios website here.

* * *

Also this past winter, I designed the set for a theatrical performance called I Spy Butterfly, by Faye Dupras, with music by Max Weigert (pictured below).

I Spy Butterfly, performed by Faye Dupras and Max Weigert

The show, which features puppetry, live actors and music, tells the sweet story of a young girl who loves insects and befriends a caterpillar. It weaves together themes of change, nature, and friendship, and is a magical performance for all ages.

The show was developed by Faye and Max over a period of months, where they worked out the action and the structure of the set. I came in to design the look of the scenery, which was then built by Larry Dersch and painted by Lauren White, so it was a team effort. Below is one of my paintings for the set, and also the final product. It was fun to work on such a creative project. The show will be performed again this May at Puppet Showplace Theater, in Brookline, MA.

Set design for I Spy Butterfly

Elsewhere in my life, I’ve been doing a lot of writing, revising old manuscripts and starting new ones. Hopefully that will all come to fruition at some point, and you’ll see another book from me. In the meantime, stay tuned for future developments!

* * *

Poetry and art: bringing Keats to the stage

Endymion crankie scroll

I’ve long had an interest in puppetry, and lately I’ve been experimenting with a related form of theatrical storytelling – the moving panorama, or “crankie.” In this kind of performance, the storyteller turns a crank to reveal a scrolling image, accompanied by a story or song. It’s an old form of theater, and it’s making a quiet comeback in today’s high-tech world.

The appeal of the crankie is hard to pin down, it is deceptively simple on the surface. And yet when the scrolling images are revealed in front of an audience, there is a kind of breathless anticipation of what’s coming next. The forward motion of the images and the forward motion of the story or music create something very magical and unique.

There is a great small theater in the Boston area called Puppet Showplace Theater, and they often host evening cabaret shows for adults called puppet slams. Each puppet slam is a variety of short acts, sometimes experimental, often funny, always unpredictable. It’s a great place to push the boundaries of the art form, as artists have employed video, object theater, and animation at these events. For the past two years I have created and performed crankie stories at the fall “fairy tale” puppet slam. This year I wanted to try another. And rather than use an original story as in the past, I decided to adapt and illustrate a classic poem by Keats, the opening stanza to his epic Endymion.

Why this particular poem? I wanted something lyrical, short, in the public domain, with allusions to myth or fairy tale, from an author with whom I felt a connection. The opening stanza of Endymion, an epic poem inspired by a Greek legend, fit all the requirements. It was open-ended enough for me to experiment with, and short enough to complete in the three weeks before the event.


A scrolling panorama falls somewhere between a comic and an animated film — the images are still, but they move (sort of) as they scroll past the frame. The goal is to make the images flow easily from one scene to the next, and use the reveal of the scroll to increase the drama, much as you would use the page-turn in a picture book. The way images move across the opening is part of the magic. I started the project with small storyboards, to see if the basic concept would work.  Then I did two more sets of storyboards, refining each one.

Then I began sketching on a large scroll of paper, eighteen inches high and thirty feet long.  (I used almost the entire length.)  At each stage, I revised and revised, especially the final big scroll. After finishing the pencil drawing, I painted over the lines with waterproof ink and a brush.

Ink drawing

Then I painted over that with watercolors. Since watercolor paper is too heavy and stiff to roll up into a scroll, I used drawing paper (100 lb), and the painting was not always easy. Colors often dulled, and the paper often buckled, though rolling up the paper helped straighten things out. I had to simplify my art style, both for the physical medium and also to make the images clear for the audience.

Painting in progress

Crankie practiceAs I rehearsed the poem with the images, I decided that music would help tie everything together.  I recorded myself playing the ukulele, and tried out different ideas until I had something that matched the piece, and recorded it. Finally it was all finished, I fit the big scroll into the crankie stage (built by my sister Nancy) and was ready to go.

It was a challenging project in many ways — interpreting a classic text, using one continuous image, making the images bold and clear for an audience, getting it done in time. But it was all very rewarding. I performed the final work at Puppet Showplace Theater for their puppet slam in October, reciting the poem while turning the images, as the music played in the background.

Back of crankie scroll

Performing it for a live audience is perhaps the most magical part of the whole experience.  As an author, I’ve done many book readings where I’ve held up my book to show the pictures, but books aren’t really designed for this kind of experience. Even when a book is projected onto a screen, it’s not the same as holding it in your lap, and seeing the pictures close up. But a scrolling crankie is designed for a live audience, and the medium has great potential for dramatic effect.

Here are some photos of the final images. You can learn more about crankies over at The Crankie Factory website.

Crankie title page

Sample illustration

Sample illustration

Sample illustration

Sample illustration


Spring into new projects

Girl and Rabbit painting

I haven’t written on this blog for a few months, so here is a little update on what I’ve been up to lately.

I’ve been taking a break from writing to work on some theater projects. I took a workshop in shadow puppets, something I’ve been interested in for a long time, and developed a short performance based on one of my original fables. It was a great experience to take one of my stories and present it in a totally different way, and I hope to do more such projects in the future.

Here is a photo of my shadow puppet show:

Shadow Puppets by John Lechner

* * *

I also painted an illustrated scroll for a theater piece called The Great Red Ball Rescue by the multi-talented Faye Dupras. It’s the story of a boy who goes on an amazing journey to rescue his beloved red ball. The production uses multiple styles of puppetry and also utilizes a “crankie” or panoramic scroll to tell one part of the story, where the boy Jasper goes to the beach.

The scene is not very long, but requires a scroll nearly 30 feet long and 26 inches high. I started with small storyboards, based on the puppet characters that Faye created, then drew the final illustrations on a large scroll of drawing paper, and painted it with watercolors.

Here are a few pictures of the drawings in process, and one of how it appeared in the final puppet stage. The scroll was wound around two wooden dowels, and turned with a crank.

Great Red Ball Rescue storyboard
Storyboard – click for a larger view

Great Red Ball Rescue - in progress

Great Red Ball Rescue - in progress

Great Red Ball Rescue

The show premiered at Puppet Showplace Theatre in January, and was a great success. It was fun to illustrate a story for such a unique production, and I was glad to be a part of it.

Looking forward to the coming year, I plan to do more writing, though I’m not sure which of my back-burner projects to tackle yet. I also plan to explore interactive storytelling, something I’ve experimented with over the years. I’m also working on an animated film, which I’ll write about later. And if you haven’t seen my webcomic in a while, I’ve been adding a new page each week.

That’s all the news for now!

* * *

Comics and crankies – what I’ve been up to

The Garden Monster - process

I haven’t posted here in a while, so I’ve got a few projects to talk about.

This summer, I wrote a short comic for an anthology of monster comics for kids, curated by Bob Flynn and Dan Moynihan, published by Roho of River Bird Comics, in partnership with the Boston Comics Roundtable.  The comic features stories by eleven artists, on the theme of creatures and monsters, and is called “Gulp!”

My story is called “The Garden Monster” and is about a boy who goes out in the garden to trim some vines, but the vines turn out to be more than he bargained for. The story is six pages long, and somewhat inspired by my own gardening adventures.

I drew the comic on paper, first with pencil then ink and brush.  Then I scanned and colored the art in Photoshop. The book was printed in two colors, and I had to do the color separations myself, choosing which pieces of art to render in which colors. Below is more process art with the final product.

The Garden Monster - process

The Garden Monster - process

Below is the cover, illustrated by Bob Flynn:

Gulp! cover

You can learn more about the official comic here and see more photos here. It is currently being sold in some Boston area comic stores.

* * *

Also this year I’ve been experimenting with various kinds of storytelling, and one of these is the scrolling story. This is often called a “crankie” because there is usually a crank to turn the scroll, and you unveil the story as you tell it to a live audience. It’s a very simple, old-fashioned way of storytelling, but it has a unique charm about it, especially in this digital age where everything is electronic.

My first scrolling stage was made out of paper in about an hour. I wanted to create something quick and spontaneous to experiment with the form, and the result can be seen below.

After that, I made a larger crankie out of a shoebox, then a larger one out of foam core. Last month, my sister Nancy and I built one out of wood, for larger audiences. I used it to perform an original story in our local Puppet Slam, an evening of short puppetry-related works. The theme of the slam was Fairy Tales, and I decided to write a new story in the style of a traditional folk tale.

The story is called The Brave Fiddler, about a young girl who sets off on a journey to seek her fortune, carrying only her violin, and who overcomes many dangers before the happy ending. Below is one of the final images, which were painted on 18″ x 24″ paper and taped together into one giant scroll.

Crankie stage

I’m going to write a separate post about this show in more detail, talking about how it was made. For now, I will say that it was an inspiring experience to create a story in this format, and to perform it for a live audience. A scrolling story is a unique combination of art, storytelling and theater, and it really makes you think about your story in a different way.

* * *

I have one more bit of news, I am currently redesigning the Sticky Burr website, and I plan to start writing new comics for the web this fall. Watch for an announcement soon!

* * *


Spiderman the musical: why superheroes have a tough time on Broadway

Spiderman comic 100The new musical Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark has been all over the news lately, more for its production budget and offstage drama than its story or music.  As it makes its official debut this week, I’ve been thinking a lot about why this whole concept has never appealed to me, from a creative standpoint.  I love musicals, and I love superheroes — so wouldn’t a combination of the two be completely awesome?  Or is there something about these two ingredients that just doesn’t fit together, like oil and water?

I’m not saying it could never be done, I’m just saying that the superhero genre has unique characteristics that make it less easily suited to musical theater. Hence the lack of hit musicals based on superheroes.

Spiderman comic 121Musicals can really be based on almost anything, from Tales of the South Pacific to Romeo and Juliet. So what do all successful musicals have in common? Besides good songs, which is a given, they all have a central human conflict. They can all be boiled down to a core struggle between two (or more) characters — Anna and the king, Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, the Sharks and the Jets, Galinda and Elphaba.

Superhero stories do have human conflict, but it is played out on a colossal stage, filled with larger-than-life villains and monsters, fireballs and explosions; at least, it is in the new age of Hollywood superheroes, who have become blockbuster techno-stars, leaping digitally from building to building. The longer, more complex stories of the original comics have been condensed and flattened into epic battles that leave little room for characters or ideas. (Who wants those during the summer?)

Spiderman comic 145Not that superhero movies can’t be serious or artistic, but they have all morphed together into a new mutant beast that is redefining superheroes in the public eye, pulverizing the memory of their comic book ancestors.

But this post isn’t about movies, it’s about Broadway musicals.

Yes, Virginia, it is hypothetically possible to make a musical out of a comic book. But here is the trick – it must be written in such a way that it would work without costumes, without flying, without any special effects. In other words, the story and characters must stand on their own. Despite all those chorus lines, musical theater is really about character and emotion more than spectacle, and upsetting that balance has destroyed many a producer’s dreams.

To work on stage, the story must be stripped down to its bare essence. Ironically, costumes and epic battles are such an integrated part of the superhero genre, it’s nearly impossible to extract them without losing the essence of the genre, and there’s the rub. The things we love about superheroes are what make them an awkward fit for the stage.

Would the movie version of Spiderman work on an emotional level without costumes or special effects? Maybe the first half, probably not the second half. Would the new Broadway production of Spiderman work without costumes or special effects? That is the seventy-million dollar question, and that is what will determine whether this super-musical soars or plummets to the streets of Manhattan.

‘Nuff said!