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Designing SoulPancake’s #KittenTherapy With Set Builder Liam Smith

KittenTherapy is the latest SoulPancake Project. Founded in 2008 by actor Rainn Wilson, SoulPancake develops thought-provoking content that encourages people to explore what it means to be human. (Photo credit: SoulPancake)

By Marjorie Galas

Liam Smith has become adept at building the “the wow factor.” The North Carolina transplant came to California seven years ago as an aspiring actor. Now he finds himself taking everyday objects and rebuilding them in exaggerated, extravagant dimensions for use in SoulPancake’s social/video experiments that fulfill their mantra: Our brain batter of art, culture, science, philosophy, spirituality and humor is designed to open your mind, challenge your friends, and feel damn good.

The currently set builder for SoulPancake fell into the role by happenstance. Smith became friends with Soulpancake creators Golriz Lucina and Devon Gundry after moving to Los Angeles. When Oprah Winfry asked Lucina and Gundry to create some interstitials that could be used for segments in between programs on her network, OWN, Smith found he was able to employ his construction background in helping his friends achieve their creative visions. He started with simple set construction, such as defining a story telling space (brick wall background, chair and carpet forground) for a segment called “Happy Hundred.” Before long he was building objects such as a giant megaphone (roughly the size of an SUV) for a segment called “Shout Out Your Dreams.”

“I had done remolding and building projects in the past. We were building everyday normal objects ridiculously large,” said Smith. “My first purpose was acting and I grew up in the theater, but I was a camera nerd and always interested in the production side. It was fun being on the front end of a project. Sometimes we don’t know where we’re going until we get there.”

SoulPancake’s recent social experiment, “KittenTherapy” involved building a portable glass room where a participant would enter and, after listening to a short, guided meditation, would open their eyes to a barrage of kittens entering the room. With roughly a month to put together the “pop up therapy room” that could be easily reassembled, Smith met with Lucina to understand her vision for the project and collaborate on the best method of achieving it. After reviewing some rough drawings of the room, Smith and Lucina plotted out the room’s dimensions.

“We had a bunch of rope and case of water bottles and made squares until we found the right size,“ said Smith.

With the dimensions in place, the team had to determine the best set up for filming the spontaneous therapy sessions that also allotted for easy kitten access. An early prototype involving a curtained wall was quickly abandoned – the team realized one of the greatest benefits of the experiment was capturing audience reactions the happenings within the room. It was determined the construction of the room would consist of three glass walls with one solid wall containing multiple kitten doorways.

With the creative team on board with the look, Smith had to determine how to build a glass room that could easily be disassembled and reassembled with a minimal budget.

“The first step was not to use glass but a Plexiglas. Plexiglas is harder to break, but is not as rigid as glass,” said Smith. “I had to find a thick enough Plexiglas that was rigid and could support the hinges.”

The Plexiglas is broken down in to 4 x 8 sheets that fasten together with hinges. Smith found the hinges used on frameless shower doors to be the most efficient. The entire room utilizes thirty hinges. After laying the Plexiglas pieces flat, Smith uses individual wooden support pieces to help erect the walls. He’s able to secure the build of the room within sixteen minutes.

To ensure cameras were able to capture the individuals within the room and kitten handlers could constantly observe the kitten’s well-being, Smith also experimented with the placement of two way mirrors. Smith affixed the mirrors low to the ground on the three Plexiglas walls. When the participant enters the room, they sit on a cushion in the middle of the room.

“We had to get just the right look for every element. We didn’t want to detract from the top or the bottom. We wanted it to be about the kittens, not about the room,” said Smith.

Smith admits there were a few late nights during KittenTherapy’s construction. He also has to be prepared for the unexpected. A support video to the KittenTherapy official launch (November 13th on Santa Monica’s Third Street Prominade) was shot in advance in downtown LA.  The locale’s temperature hit 105 degrees, greatly affected comfort levels in the Plexiglas room. Smith quickly acquired three heavy duty air conditioners to ensure the safety of both participants and kittens.

While the goal of the KittenTherapy box is the element of surprise of the appearance of the kittens, the launch event drew an hour long line waiting to enter the room. To save time the kittens weren’t reset after each individual’s use of the room, rather the participants walked into the room filled with frolicking kittens. Smith feels the experiment works equally well with the modification, and found gratification in watching observers and participants alike.

“No one on the crew was able to go in because of the short time limit,” said Smith. “I don’t think I would have enjoyed as much as I did watching other people enjoying it.”

To watch SoulPancake’s KittenTherapy video, please visit:

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