Dixon native creates marionette that give life to China Girl
Phillip Huber's marionettes have taken him all around the world, but his latest has taken him on an adventure to the mythical land of Oz.
And it all started with childhood shows in Dixon.
With the use of a marionette, the puppeteer and Dixon native brought the porcelain 18-inch China Girl to life in Disney's "Oz the Great and Powerful."
The marionette was a stand-in for the computer-generated character to give actors a reference point on the set.
"Typically, a tennis ball on a stick or a similar prop is used as a stand-in, but director Sam Raimi was looking for a more life-like interaction," said Huber, who has been making marionettes for 40 years. "... I think this was a first."
Huber, who runs his own business Huber Marionettes near Nashville, Tenn., created marionettes in the Academy Award-nominated "Being John Malkovich."
He has been working with puppets since he was 3. The more he collected, the more shows he performed with them, he said during a phone interview from Cookeville, Tenn.
After a couple of test runs on the set of "Oz," Raimi was so impressed with Huber's work that he hired him on the spot.
The marionette took 200 hours to create; Huber made two, with 20- and 21-strings, just in case one broke.
Huber, who wore a blue suit, controlled China Girl with his fingers on the crowded set of several hundred extras at a time. The computer image was then used to duplicate her movements, and Huber was digitally removed from scenes when the film was finalized.
The experience put him on top of 25-foot ladders, strapped into a harness 38 feet into the air, and balancing on his toes on a ledge to get the shots the director wanted.
Huber also had to work closely with 11-year-old Joey King, the voice of China Girl. King was in a soundproof box off the set, and Huber wore headphones to make the puppet reflect her expressions.
Whenever King gasped, Huber expressed it with the marionette, and in turn, King added sound effects to the marionette's movement.
"We had to be two minds working as one," he said.
Huber credits dance lessons and art classes in Dixon with having a great influence on his career.
"I continue to use those moves," Huber said of his dance class.
He started putting on professional puppet shows in Dixon at age 15.
He created puppets with his best friend, David Herzog, who also grew up in Dixon and is a well-known puppeteer in Chicago.
Each marionette requires several hours of finger training just to get simple movements perfected, Huber said.
In "Oz," he had little time to prepare, and Raimi wanted some scenes to be improvised.
On Huber's first day, he shot a crucial scene where lead actor James Franco held the character in his hands.
The director wanted China Girl's eyes to focus on the camera, and without a monitor, Huber would have had to do that almost blindly.
With 200 people on set depending on Huber, the girl's eye level was off the first time.
The next time, Huber could feel Franco moving the marionette's head slightly.
"He was helping me get her eye level right," Huber said. "Here was a fellow actor assisting me to get the shot perfect. I felt so grateful."
Huber called his work on "Oz" the most challenging and exciting of his career. He has been all over the world with his puppets, including shows in France, Japan and South Korea.
"It was a fantastic experience," the 60-year-old said. "Like nothing I've done before."
Phillip Huber and his business partner, David Alexander, operate Huber Marionettes in Cookeville, Tenn.
Huber creates marionettes for many projects and performs in several different live-action events across the world.
Go to hubermarionettes.com for more information and a schedule of the company's events.