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Artist of the Month: John Brooks

In the enchanting world of miniature storytelling, John Brooks, our featured Artist of the Month, invites audiences into a realm where puppetry takes center stage.

Hailing from the picturesque city of Shreveport, Louisiana, Brooks has seamlessly blended his childhood passion for miniatures with over a decade of cinematography expertise. The result is a distinctive cinematic style that comes to life in his latest creation, "Sharon and the Vege Plot."

The film unfolds the tale of Sharon, a gentle lady-rabbit whose idyllic life is disrupted by mounting suspicions of a clandestine plot against her cherished vegetable garden. As Sharon's paranoia intensifies, her once-peaceful existence becomes a thrilling tapestry of drama, mystery, and romance.

"Sharon and the Vege Plot" has recently been honored with the title of Best LGBTQ Film at Top Shorts in January 2024, further solidifying Brooks's prowess in creating compelling and socially resonant narratives through the art of miniature filmmaking.

A screenshot from "Sharon and the Vege Plot"

We had the privilege of delving into the profound creative journey of Brooks. Here's his story.

As a filmmaker, what are your creative goals, especially concerning the intersection of puppetry, miniatures, and storytelling? Are there specific themes or messages you aspire to convey through your films?

Miniatures-in-motion, which is what I call it, is blatant old-school movie magic. It's been around since the very beginning of cinema, and frankly I don't think it ages. However, I still aim for a vintage look in my films much akin to 'Sharon and the Vege Plot' which makes the puppetry gimmick look all the more intentional. Some may find the film "homey", others may find it "unsettling". There's a sort of uncanny valley in vintage puppetry, and if my film falls within said valley, then I think I've done my job in capturing a bygone era of cinema.

What fuels your passion for telling stories through miniatures and puppets? How does this unique approach to filmmaking allow you to express narratives and emotions in ways that traditional methods might not?

There is a big nostalgic factor when it comes to puppetry films, and I think it's safe to say that I'm not the only one who feels nostalgia when viewing things much like it. A lot of it was inspired by the classic 'Thomas and Friends' seasons as well as the earlier 'Thunderbirds' episodes or anything else made by Gerry Anderson. Puppetry and miniatures can bring a lot of film enthusiasts together to bask in the ingenious glory of such minute imagery. It's really a matter of thinking outside the box, which is something I might keep saying throughout this Q&A.

Working with puppets and miniatures presents unique challenges. Can you share some specific challenges you encountered during the filming of "Sharon and the Vege Plot" and how you overcame them?

There are a few things to keep track of when filming with miniatures: "Is my hand in the shot? Is the lens focused? Should I even bother with manual focus? Is the ISO out of whack? It is? I need to reshoot it with a lower ISO then. Now you can barely see the picture. Gotta raise the ISO a bit more. Now you can see the nasty grain. Oh great, now the wind is blowing the whole set over." It's not easy directing while being the lead puppeteer. For most of the shooting, you're behind the camera. My solution was to find a mini pivot mirror and have it reflect the camera's monitor back at me. This was better than simply turning the monitor to face me because the monitor was too small and it also flipped the image. Using the mirror, I was able to see a big, clear view of the shot while keeping everything on set in (almost) perfect order.

What inspired the concept of "Sharon and the Vege Plot," and how did you decide to explore the narrative through puppetry and miniatures?

Shortly prior to the conception of 'Sharon and the Vege Plot' I found myself falling in love with Aardman's 'Wallace and Gromit' films and how they were madcap spoofs of Hitchcockian suspense films from the 60s. The films' whimsical though eerie themes are what ultimately inspired how Vege Plot was written. I studied films like Vertigo and Rear Window and then compared them to 'The Wrong Trousers' and 'A Close Shave' as to incorporate the perfect blend of suspense and fantasy into the narrative. To better enhance this old-fashioned tribute I resorted to puppetry and miniatures to better achieve a vintage feel.

You've mentioned that when you first picked up your mother's 35mm, you started making stop-motion flicks and movies with miniatures. Can you share a memorable experience from those early days that influenced your passion for storytelling with miniatures? How did those initial experiments shape your artistic journey and contribute to your distinctive filmmaking style?

I was inspired to create these collages after watching early YouTube and Newgrounds content creators back in '09. I found myself watching stop-mos of LEGOS and various action figures as well as "plush" videos made by channels like 'The Cute Mario Bros', 'sonictoast', and 'SpinDashpro'. Wanting to follow in those footsteps, I picked up action figures and plushies of my own, and my mother gave me her 35mm and she educated me on what stop-motion was and how it was done. My mother isn't a filmmaker herself, but she still knew a thing or two because she's seen a thing or two.

Looking ahead, what are your hopes and aspirations for the future of your filmmaking career? Are there particular projects, collaborations, or milestones you aim to achieve in the coming years?

Right now, I'm mainly focusing on things I want to make and share. I've been trying to figure out ideas for films that are around 10 minutes long (or less) so that they can be more "festival flexible" and overall more successful. I'm still constructing an idea for my magnum opus that can truly finalize my style and identify my audience. So far, two films are in the works: The Great Mousecre, a feature-length film which follows a town of mice in the middle of the Irish Civil War as a serial killer roams the street, claiming lives; and 'Hilda and the Crowman', a short film about a depressed little girl named Hilda and how a massive flock of crows take her to the fabled "Crowman" so he may console her. Besides these films, I have a big dream project I'm hoping to find funding for: an animated TV series about a "lame" superhero called "Marma-Lad" and how he was able to change the world's perception on what makes a hero a hero.

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