Where Flesh Meets Felt: The Story Of “Crash & Bernstein”
Eric Friedman has straddled the world of offbeat entertainment and young adult content throughout his career. Edgy and often controversial programs such as "The Tom Green Show" and "Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D List" are layered with more innocent fare including "Drake and Josh" and "I’m in the Band." His recent creation, Disney XD’s "Crash & Bernstein," blends a helping of these two sensibilities together.
Trained in child psychology, Friedman enjoys creating content for kids. He’s been dedicated to Disney programs for the past four years, most recently writing for and producing "Austin & Ally." However, the type of comedy he’s gravitated to since boyhood include slapstick comedy and absurd situations.
"Growing up I loved David Letterman. It was on too late for me so I’d tape it every night," said Friedman. "I also loved ‘SNL,’ then Chevy Chase in ‘Fletch’ and ‘Vacation.’ When I got a little older ‘The Simpsons’ became a huge influence. The characters are a little twisted but the family unit is very important."
Friedman’s concept for "Crash & Bernstein" arose through reflections on his boyhood. While he had a loving father, his mother did most of the parenting, and his younger brothers would turn to him for guidance and support. In contemplating the importance a male role model plays in a young boy’s life, he created the Bernstein family, composed of a mother, three daughters and one son. Longing to have a brother to play and commiserate with, Wyatt (Cole Jensen) creates a stuffed "brother" at a "Build-A-Bestie" store who magically comes to life..
Crash has the tendency to get himself into a wide variety of outlandish situations full of physical humor. In upcoming episodes he’ll ride a wrecking ball directly into the Build-A-Bestie store, he’ll break the family sofa in half resulting in one of the Bernstein children desperately trying to cover up for him, and he’ll bring coaching to a new extreme when he steps into the role when the coach leaves in a huff, irritated by Crash’s constant heckling. While Crash has adult sensibilities, he is experiencing the world with the understanding of a newborn, placing 12-year-old Wyatt in the role of a parent. As the two share misadventures together, Wyatt gains self-confidence, composure, and patience and develops a brotherly bond with his felt friend.
In developing the character of Crash, who’s experiences often put him through extreme and physically impossible scenarios, Friedman didn’t want to resort to animation. He felt a completely animated world would be too removed from reality for the viewer, and introducing an animated character into live action was unrealistic both budgetary and time-wise. Instead, he pulled from his experience on "Crank Yankers" which incorporated the use of puppets to perform practical jokes.
"There’s a lot of things you can do with puppets; it’s more fun this way and grounded in reality," said Friedman. "We have a dedicated puppet budget to create multiple Crashes – fat Crash, ripped muscle Crash, We are constantly thinking of what we can do with this puppet: his character can easily be morphed by altering his appearance, his hair and his wardrobe."
Although Friedman had written for puppets in the past, he had never designed one before. Taking cues from "Fraggle Rock" and "The Muppets,’ he kept the focus graphically simple. Slight gestures in the face allow for greater depth of emotion, and the straight lines of the body allow for maximum physicality. The simplicity in design also provides flexibility in creating alternate Crashes, used to illustrate the effects of his misadventures. With the design mapped out, puppeteer Tim Lagasse was called in to bring Crash to life.
Lagasse’s love of magic, puppetry and acting developed at an early age — he even recalls watching the premiere episode of "Sesame Street." Eager to figure out how the puppets worked, he’d tear apart his sister’s dolls then put them back together. In high school he began building puppets, and studied graphic design and theater in college, hoping one day to be "hired by the Muppets." He achieved that goal, as well as working for the show that started it all, "Sesame Street." When he got the call about "Crash & Bernstein," Friedman’s incorporation of the puppet into the human world intrigued him.
"It had appeal because they destroyed the puppet in the first episode," said Lagasse with a laugh. "With such a high level of cartoon violence, you need a puppet that is easy to repair. There were lots that could be done. Lots of ways to be creative."
Receiving the script a few days in advance, Lagasse has a quick turn-around in building the best Crash to fit the scenario. Two puppets commonly used have the nicknames "Crush" (a rag-doll version that gets thrown around) and "Crunch" (a pose-able version.) There are also half-body Crashes that allow for quick costume changes, as well as fourteen different Crash bodies and ten Crash heads that are interchangeable to suit the needs of the scene. Unique versions of Crash are also built: in one recent episode, Lagasse glued chocolate dots onto a Crash face to create the illusion of a five o’clock shadow.
While Lagasse feels that the writing staff and production crew are very aware of his needs as a puppeteer on the show, he does work closely with the DP and editor to ensure the best angles are chosen that will conceal him from the sightlines and hide the puppet’s armature.
“We’re not working with a raised set. I’m on the ground, rolling on a dolly, and it works,” said Lagasse. “When the character moves left the puppeteer goes right on screen. It takes a year at least to get the movements down. I work with the DP to get the camera angles and consult the monitor. The show’s editor worked on ‘Greg the Bunny’ and he’s really helpful in cutting the show together.”
While little has changed in the world of puppet creation in the last thirty-five years, hi-def has complicated matters slightly. Because the camera has such clarity, greater care needs to be made in securing seems, and the wear and tear of material becomes much more apparent.
“No one makes materials only for puppets,” said Lagasse. “I am always on the hunt for new things, new foams, fabrics; I’m always trying to find what will make the puppet better.”
While working with a puppet was a new experience for the actors, adapting to a felt co-star generally takes no more than a day. Lagasse spends his time on set speaking through the puppet, a form of training to get the actors comfortable in relating to the puppet.
”There is a learning curve. For a day it is weird, but Tim talks with the puppet all the time and the kids develop a relationship with Crash,” said Friedman. “It’s surreal, but we’re having a blast.”
"Puppetry is graphic and iconic. It’s a simplified human that everyone can like," said Lagasse.
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