By Alex Wieber
Do you remember watching the Muppet movies? Or playing with a puppet in your childhood? Imagine having a puppet that looks just like you. This is what MCTC student Ezra Bartsch creates. As a co-owner of Brother Puppet, a home-based business launched in May 2014, Bartsch crafts portrait puppets. These are designed to resemble the person making the order or someone they know. Bartsch and his partner, Nick Anderson, aim to put smiles on the faces of their customers and start “a fuzzier family.”
When did you start making puppets?
A few years ago now, I was hanging out with a friend of mine when he said, “You know, you would be a really good Muppet.” For some reason that statement struck a chord with me. Let me rewind for a second. I’ve been doing crafts for most of my life. My aunt Sara started me sewing somewhere around age 7, my dad taught me how to build a birdhouse a bit later, and the joy of creating with my own hands snowballed for the following 15-odd years. I thought to myself, “I bet I could make that [puppet].” The style of puppets I make are either Muppet-style or Moving Mouth puppets. So I started watching every YouTube video I could find on puppet building, and I visited a few good forums and voila! I had built a puppet and stumbled upon on hobby that resonated deep within me.
What do you like about it?
There are two things really. The first, I suppose, is a bit ridiculous. I love cartoons. Pretty much any and all cartoons; as long as the dialog has a bit o’ wit, and the story is something worth knowing, I dig it. The puppets I build are just cartoons in the real world.
The second reason is how happy they make people, myself included. When I perform, or even just show them to people, they usually freak out a bit and smile the whole time. And they should! It’s a bit surreal seeing one up close, and even more so seeing it move and talk. I did a bit of learning about it for a speech I gave last semester and learned that the reason we love puppets like these so much is because we suspend our belief that they aren’t real. In other words, we know that the puppet isn’t real, but for some reason, we’re willing to let ourselves believe that it is. It’s amazing.
How long does it take you?
It takes me between 20 and 30 hours to build each puppet. It’s all the hand-sewing that really kills me. It would take a fraction of the time if I used a sewing machine, but, from what I understand, the quality would suffer. I’m working on stream-lining the process so that I won’t have to charge more, but I won’t have to take such a hit on paying myself hourly.
What is the process like?
It’s slow. I first have to dye the fleece (outer covering), which I do by hand. As that dries I construct the foam body and skull. I also make what we call in the industry “hand sandwiches” which are two foam cutouts, floral wire bones and a cardboard palm. One hand also gets an arm rod glued into the sammy. Then I “skin” the puppet (stretch, cut and sew the fleece onto the body, skull and hands) and then I put on the facial features. The real gold is putting the pupils on. They don’t seem real until they have pupils. People say that the eyes are the windows to the soul, and it feels similar looking into the pupils of a puppet.
Is your workshop in your house?
Yes. It takes up a small area of the one-bedroom apartment my wife, Maddy, and I inhabit, between the couch and the rat’s cage. But seriously, as you might be able to tell from the picture, I don’t have a lot of space. I end up using our living room/dinner table and Maddy’s drafting table as well though.
What tools and materials do you use?
The skin is Antron Fleece, a now-rare nylon fleece that is used almost exclusively for puppets and mascots. The typical fleece you’d find on a jacket is polyester or acrylic. Antron comes white and accepts RIT super well, so I use that as well. I use 1/2 inch upholstery foam for the body, hands and skull, and I make the mouth and tongue from felt. The eyes are actually ping pong balls cut in half, but that’s a material I’m looking to upgrade. The rest is just things I’ve amassed through years of tinkering such as Sculpey Clay, coat hangers, makeup triangles and pieces of wood.
Tools I use are a few different types of scissors and blades depending on what needs to be cut, three different adhesives, and a few sets of pliers. I use rubber cement for foam, Farbri-Tac for gluing fabric and hi-temp hot glue for everything else. I try not to use hot glue too much because it doesn’t set permanently (even though it would take 300-plus degrees to soften it) and the burns, which happen more often than I’d like, are pretty substantial.
What kind of responses have you received from customers so far?
Nothing but laughter and a bit of disbelief. It’s not too often that people get to see puppets like these in person. And as I mentioned earlier, it’s a pretty surreal experience the first time you meet one. Because my customers usually buy a puppet for a friend or family member, I ask them to take a video of when they unveil the puppet. Not to sound too cheesy or anything, but the expressions when someone gets a puppet version of themselves is almost enough of a payment. Money’s nice though too.
How much do they cost?
They are between $300-$400 currently, but I’m constantly improving my practice, so the price is subject to raise with each technique I learn. Ideally I will keep the price as low as it is because it’s about half the industry standard. It wouldn’t be hard to find a moving mouth puppet for $1000, especially when you start adding blinking mechanisms or custom wigs and clothing.
Is this something you would like to do for a while?
We’ll see where this takes me, but I’ve been talking with other dreamers, and we’re pretty certain that this could be how I make my money. Unfortunately that means potentially raising my prices to industry standards, but in an ideal world I’ll just have such a bomb process that I can pay myself well and keep them below $400. I like the price now because it’s reasonable. I feel like individuals would be less inclined to buy two or three puppets for their children for Christmas if they were $700. Bottom line is: I’m at a time in my life where I can afford to be poor and do things because I enjoy doing them. I can take risks and the failures will be manageable, because there will be failures. I believe our 20s are when we set up the foundations for how we will live the rest of our lives. So if I don’t go hard after all the crazy ideas that really make me happy, I might not get another chance at them. And shoot, if Brother Puppet flops, it won’t be because I didn’t bust my a**, and you better believe my next project will be better.
He learned how to build his puppets from YouTube videos like this one.