‘Frank & Zed’: Old School Puppet Horror Premieres at Nightstream Film Festival

“Frank & Zed,” a seven-year passion project from Portland, Oregon-based filmmaker Jesse Blanchard, is an old-school horror throwback made with puppets, practical sets, and miniatures shot on the RED camera with Stanley Kubrick’s favorite Cooke lens. It’s like Jim Henson on acid (watch the exclusive video below). The gory, Gothic delight premieres October 10 at the virtual Nightstream Film Festival (through October 11), a compendium of five festivals — Boston Underground, Brooklyn Horror, North Bend, Overlook, and Popcorn Frights — where screening access can be purchased online.

Riffing on “Frankenstein,” “Frank & Zed” concerns two former servants to a wizard — Frank, the monster, and Zed, the zombie — who tend to themselves in a rundown castle in a forest. But their peaceful existence is shattered when the villagers come for blood to avoid a demon curse that turns everyone into undead servants.

“They were the lowly servants to make the master’s life easier, but then the master dies and somehow they survive by sticking together,” said Blanchard, who ran two successful Kickstarter campaigns in 2015 and 2016 that enabled him to build a small studio behind his house to make the miniatures. The 25 set builds (including a leaning rock castle) and puppet fabrications (an army of 40) were done out of his garage. They averaged 11 shots a day when they were in full production with a modest crew. The DIY production relied on such retro effects as forced perspective and hanging miniatures, and all the lights were tungsten and lit from the side to provide a retro richness and consistency.

“Frank & Zed”

Jov Luke

The puppets for Frank and Zed were more than two feet high from the torsos to the heads (the feet were shot separately) and were sculpted by Erin DeBray and fabricated and operated by Jason Ropp. “My main thing was that Zed was going to be very thin and worn down and Frank was going to have everything layered and globbed on,” added Blanchard. “And then beyond that, the other mandate was that their design had to be so outlandish that we were nervous about using them. An example of that was Zed’s teeth had to be huge. They cover nearly half of his face. How can we make these two guys as grotesque as possible?”

For centuries, the daily routine consists of Frank feeding Zed squirrel brains and Zed charging the monster at night with jumper cables attached to his head. “There’s a Rube Goldberg-like gear mechanism for charging Frank every night, and I went down a rabbit hole [of research] and found something out of the ordinary,” added Blanchard. “Gears that were an organic escapement, where they oscillate like a pendulum.”

The thunderclouds, meanwhile, were filmed in a saltwater tank, fitted with a plastic cover so that you could pour fresh water and then liquid creamer on top, which briefly forms a cloud. The electricity that ran from the clouds to Frank, though, was one of the few CG elements. They tried CG clouds but it just didn’t fit with the vintage vibe.

“Frank & Zed”

Jesse Blanchard

However, the most imaginative puppet was the green God of Death in the opening. He was placed in a tank with LEDs in his eyes and with tubes pumped with Fluorescein, a UV reactive liquid used by car mechanics. “And then I lit the whole thing with intensive black light, wearing welder-style glasses to protect my eyes,” Blanchard said. “To get it to work, we filmed it upside down in the water and the mouth had to move and the liquid in the tank was good for a few seconds of footage before you had to refill the tank and shoot it again.”

The complicated orgy of blood finale in the castle was a nightmare to pull off. The battle was 30 minutes and 1,500 shots, meticulously storyboarded. They were going at a breakneck pace but it still took years to complete. “I remember when I first brought the battle up to my crew,” Blanchard said. “They couldn’t believe it and I thought they were going to quit on the spot. But there were a minimum number of beats that needed to be there for it to work.

“You had to see all the weapons used, and Frank had to fight all the main characters,” he added. “The villagers get bit, they have to die as humans, and they have to come back as zombies and they have to die as zombies. It was a horrors of war checklist. Everything that’s important to Frank and Zed had to get destroyed, and every shot is a practical effect, and you couldn’t shoot coverage. It all had to be rebuilt and redone from another angle without destroying the puppets.”

In the end, it wasn’t about heroes and villains in this power grab folktale. “I was happy not to have the villagers be pure evil and Frank & Zed aren’t pure misunderstood monsters,” added Blanchard.” There was blood on both sides, but I wanted you to care about them.”

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