After serving as director of photography on a series of large-scale, effects-laden action films (The Matrix trilogy and Spider-Man 2), Bill Pope, ASC instructed his agents to look for something “completely different.” Little did the cinematographer know that he’d get what he asked for in spades. “I certainly never saw a puppet movie coming up on my horizon,” Pope says with a chuckle. “However, when [directors] Matt Stone and Trey Parker sent me the script, I literally laughed out loud as I read it. At the time, I didn’t know they wanted to make the film entirely with puppets. When I finally met with Matt and Trey and they told me they wanted to do the whole film with marionettes all in camera, with no CGI I told them I was their man. CG allows you to do things onscreen that you shouldn’t be able to, but many times those kinds of effects can take you out of the story. For me, the organic quality of doing things in camera is usually much more charming.”
Stone and Parker have earned considerable notoriety for their raw and controversial animated television series South Park. In 1999, the eccentric duo released an even racier feature-film installment: South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. Their other collaborations include the features BASEketball and Orgazmo, as well as the TV series That’s My Bush! “Bill was suggested to us by our producer, Scott Rudin, who had worked with him on Clueless,” says Stone. “From the outset, we felt we should find a cinematographer who had shot these kinds of action movies. In fact, the entire precept of Team America is based on the idea of doing a huge, overwrought, Bruckheimer-esque action/event movie, only with puppets. When we wrote the script, however, we didn’t write it with puppets in mind. We just wrote it like any big action film a guy jumps his motorcycle over 16 cars and there’s a big explosion and handled the script without any thoughts about how we would actually do it!”
In true South Park fashion, no individual, religion or political affiliation is safe from being roasted in this election-season satire. To focus their gibes, the filmmakers dreamed up “Team America,” an elite group of world freedom fighters who battle to save democracy against tyrannical oppression and terrorist intimidation. “They’re sort of like the A-Team and James Bond fused together,” notes Pope. “We don’t know if they’re government-sponsored or whatever, but they basically go around solving various problems and fighting terrorism. Of course, they manage to screw things up in as many ways as possible. Along the way, Matt and Trey send up everything and everyone; as in the South Park movie, nobody is safe, and anybody can be made fun of. If you’re going to have satire, you might as well make it all-encompassing.
“The conflict of the film,” he continues, “is that [North Korean dictator] Kim Jong Il is trying to take over the world with weapons of mass destruction, and he’s using the Chechens and Al-Qaeda as his pawns. His other ‘lackeys’ are liberal film actors who don’t believe in ever fighting battles and in keeping peace at any cost. So on one hand, Matt and Trey are mocking all of the high-profile, left-wing liberals; on the other hand, they simultaneously make fun of the right-wing American convention of going in and saving the day. In the end, we hope to come down someplace in the middle.”
Stone and Parker took inspiration for the film from the 1960s British marionette series Thunderbirds, created by Gerry Anderson and photographed by John Read. “Team America was certainly inspired by the work that Gerry Anderson did,” Stone explains. “He created an entire niche with all of his different marionette shows, the most popular of which was Thunderbirds. But while those shows gave us some ideas, we were not fans of them at all. In fact, we thought they were pretty boring, which inspired us to parody the shows as well.”
Pope admits he wasn’t a follower of the original puppet series either. “In fact, I had never even seen Thunderbirds,” he confesses. “My generation sort of missed it, and when I did come across it, I was at an age where camp didn’t appeal to me. However, what we learned from those shows was to treat the genre seriously and not make fun of the puppets. We’d just design a scene as you would with any action ‘actor’ and then let the puppets do it. The problem is that marionettes can never quite stand up straight or move gracefully they’re inherently stupid things, so we didn’t need to enhance that factor. In fact, we tried to downplay it as much as possible.”
Devising a plan of attack for the low-budgeted shoot demanded considerable R&D. Since the puppets were being created at 1⁄3 scale, all sorts of issues had to be addressed, including set design, dressing and construction, miniature props, the scaling-down of lighting instruments and the use of camera-moving platforms. “Matt and Trey had been working on this in their heads for quite a while before I was hired; they even took some Barbie dolls and a crew out last October to shoot a day of tests, just to find out how hard it was going to be. Of course, they quickly discovered it was quite difficult. Then, after I was hired, the original plan was to shoot for three weeks in the spring and then shut down while they went back to work on South Park; after that, we would start up again for another four weeks in the summer to finish the movie. They figured it would take about seven weeks to shoot the entire film.
“In preparing the film, we started with a small three-day test shoot in February of this year. As we got ready for the tests, we started to realize just how long things were going to take. The variables became more and more solid, and we realized that to control the marionettes, we were going to have to fly eight to 10 puppeteers around the set all the time. To do that, we would have to build bridges above the sets and fly Condors overhead. We also realized we would have to use some rod puppets from underneath; in those instances, holes would have to be drilled and grooves made in the floors on a per-shot basis. Still, even with storyboards, it was difficult to anticipate everything that was needed to execute a particular shot. After just three days of prep, we realized it was going to be even harder and more time-consuming than we thought. Seven weeks was a ridiculously short amount of time in which to do this type of film.”