Missy Elliot and Pharrell's "WTF" Puppeteers Talk Pulling the Strings
We spoke to the puppet masters who made Misdemeanor's new music video come to life.
Everyone is clamoring about Missy’s return to the spotlight with her latest music video "WTF (Where They From)," featuring Pharrell Williams. The video contains all of the antics that Missy as a performer is known for, right down to theatrics, choreography, and special effects. But what we're most captivated by are the dancing marionettes. Yes, the puppets.
“Initially, Missy wanted to do a whole video with puppets but the event of Missy is a celebration of the unexpected,” "WTF" director Dave Meyers tells The Creators Project over the phone from South Africa. He and Missy have a long working relationship together, having successfully made videos for the iconic "Work It," "Lose Control," and "We Run This," touching on the tenants of effects, dancing, and stage design.
Shot over two-days time, the music video looks like the celebratory dance procession Missy is so good at orchestrating but at 1:30 it becomes otherworldly with the intro of Missy and Pharell as marionettes gyrating precisely on beat. The puppets twerking take what is humanly possible to the next level of choreography, making commanded movement masterful.
The six puppets featured in the video are the creations of Mountain-View based Furry Puppet Studios, led by designer Zack Buchman. A team of five people over the course of three months sculpted the figures to the exact likeness of Missy, Pharell, and the backup dancers, out of epoxy. Each puppet was made from scratch, right down to the clothes, whose ensembles were made by a stylist and then handmade by the puppet team. “We made traditional marionettes who move by the pulling of stings. There were no special effects or computers in the puppets,” explains Buchman.
Missy and Meyers wanted the puppets to be as authentic to their personas as possible, meaning not cartoon-like, and they still needed to be able to dance. Says Meyers, “Our puppets needed to dance like crazy. In the puppet world, the puppeteer to make that happen is pretty important.” The team spent months researching both professional puppeteers and street performers they found on YouTube, from New York to as far as South Africa, to bring the marionettes to hip-hop life.
But at first, the puppets didn’t move. “They danced too stiff. It’s death to that idea if those puppets don’t jam,” recalls Meyers. So they brought on master puppeteer the Chapel Hill-based Tarish Pipkins, otherwise known as Jeghetto. He's the one who made the torsos and legs do the twerking, and is the puppeteer behind Pharell’s character. “I had to loosen them up. It took us 10 days modifying and practicing with them [for the video shoot],” says Pipkins.
Meyers calls Missy the “connoisseur of movement,” so obviously every second of dancing in "WTF," right down to the marionettes' popping, had to be out of this world. “[Missy's] image is evocative and next. She is not derivative. She carves out her own space,” he says. This time around it’s as a puppet in hoop earrings and Jordans breaking it down in front of a boombox, with Pharell in a leather jacket backed up by a posse of dancers in the NYC streets.