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25 October 2014 06:00 (South Africa)
Life, etc

ZA News: Return of the puppets

  • Rebecca Davis
  • Life, etc
C:\fakepath\rebecca za news MAIN

Cheeky satirical puppet show ZA News is about to return for a fifth season, with some new latex faces joining the cast. REBECCA DAVIS got a behind-the-scenes peek at what the team has been up to.

Deborah Patta, Tim Modise and the president’s infamously rotund nephew Khulubuse Zuma sit together in a room, watched from the corner by Lindiwe Mazibuko. No, this isn’t a description of the world’s most awkward house party. It’s Friday morning at Both Worlds studios, the makers of ZA News, and the freakishly lifelike puppets are ready for action.

For five seasons, ZA News has been using its puppet cast as mouthpieces for satirical commentary on South Africa’s public space. It’s a device with an established pedigree elsewhere – between 1984 and 1996 the UK’s Spitting Image puppet show was an enormous TV hit, and a French version, Les Guignols, has been going strong since 1988. The appeal of the medium for satirists is obvious: you get to make puppets say and do the things that everyone suspects their real-life counterparts are thinking and doing in private. You also get to put them in absurd situations which no high-profile figures would risk in real life.

As with political cartoons, the puppets are caricatures – they exaggerate certain aspects of a public figure’s appearance or behaviour for humorous effect, and downplay or ignore others. On ZA News, for instance, Lindiwe Mazibuko is often presented as the archetypal Head Girl, desperate to win the approval of hectoring headmistress Helen Zille. It’s fair to say that if the real individuals on whom the puppets are based were totally happy with their portrayal in puppet form, part of the mission would have failed. While the primary intention is to make people laugh, there are also quite serious political points to be made.

Journalist, author and comedian Marianne Thamm has just joined ZA News as the show’s head writer. She points out that there is a growing trend internationally for audiences to seek meaningful political insights and information from comedy. “People in the States are finding it more and more difficult to find reliable news sources, so they turn to comedians,” she says, citing the popularity of figures like Jon Stewart.

To blur the distinction between comedy and reality, the upcoming season of ZA News features the show’s news anchors – a Tim Modise puppet, now joined by a Deborah Patta puppet – seated in a digitally-created 3D newsroom that would be the envy of most broadcasters. Show creator Thierry Cassuto explains: “By bringing the show into a really hi-tech environment, we aim to heighten the suspension of disbelief for the audience, to the point where they no longer see the puppets as puppets.”

In addition to this change to the puppets’ environment, upgrades have been made to other aspects of the show’s production. The show is now entirely shot on green screen – meaning that digitally, the puppets can be made to appear against any background – and shooting has been expedited via the investment in a Tricaster studio production system, which allows for input from up to four cameras with other video, sounds and graphics. In other words, expect everything to look a lot sharper and slicker.

While digital technology can speed up the shooting process, however, the actual puppets still have to be made in the same way, largely by hand. In the room which Cassuto calls “Gepetto’s workshop”, two “senior manipulators” (puppet-makers, to you and me) are busy painting hands for unfinished puppets. They can take anything from three weeks to two months to make. The process starts with sketches made from Zapiro’s cartoons, from which maquettes – little models – are initially produced. On a shelf in the corner of the room, a creepy collection of small disembodied heads sits, with Justin Bieber rubbing up against an aggressive-looking Steve Hofmeyr. “It can be pretty weird being in here by yourself,” confesses one of the manipulators.

The maquettes form the basis for the big puppets, whose heads have to be 10 to 20% bigger than an average human head in order for the hand of the puppeteer to fit inside and manipulate them fluidly. When scenes are shot, the puppeteers are shrouded in green against the green screen background in order to allow their presence to be smoothly digitally erased.

Photo: A ZA News manipulator prepares a puppet for its moment in the spotlight (Jeanine Cameron)

Thamm takes me into a room featuring shelves stacked with what look like large shoe-boxes. Each one has a label with a name on them: the puppet heads of the likes of Sepp Blatter, Desmond Tutu and Bheki Cele sleep peacefully within them. “This is our new Mitt Romney puppet,” she says, taking Mitt out of his box. He’s very handsome – the real Mitt (if such a person can be said to exist) would not be displeased with his appearance.

The team constantly has to keep producing puppets who look likely to feature prominently in the news over the next few months. That’s why they need a Romney puppet, as the US presidential race heats up. It’s also why another new addition to the cast is South Africa’s own presidential hopeful, Kgalema Motlanthe. It wouldn’t do to be caught on the backfoot after Mangaung – the show will be shooting now for 26 weeks, with a break for Christmas, so all bases need to be covered. Inevitably, this means that some puppets have a built-in obsolescence. The Muammar Gaddafi puppet is unlikely to be brought out of his box very often, and the dwindling profile of Sarah Palin means that her latex counterpart also doesn’t get as much camera time as she used to.

Certain aspects of the show haven’t changed, though, including one of its most winning features – the puppets’ voices. Comedian Nik Rabinowitz continues to voice an impressive range of puppets, from Desmond Tutu to Pieter de Villiers; actor Aggrey Lonake takes on Jacob Zuma and most of the rest of the ANC’s NEC; Adam Behr handles the Americans, and Nikki Jackman does the females, with a particularly impressive Helen Zille impersonation.

The show will be broadcast weekly on TopTV’s channel Top One and daily on their own website, which is being relaunched on Tuesday as a “one-stop portal for satire in South Africa”, including offering members of the public the opportunity to submit their own humorous offerings. “In South Africa we have a lot of good satire, good columnists and so on, but it’s all scattered all over the web,” Cassuto explains. “We’re hoping to bring it all together, to curate content as well as publishing some original work.”

Watching some of the upcoming videos, it’s clear that the show won’t be shying away from pushing the envelope – there’s a skit featuring Helen Zille supplying Lindiwe Mazibuko with a bar of soap to “wash away blackness” which is sure to cause some ripples. Another sees Khulubuse Zuma attempt to buy an entire KFC branch, while Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille’s recent rapping exploits are parodied in a skit where ‘Lil de Lille’ – her rapping nom de plume, of course – is caught in a compromising situation after trying to persuade two tik addicts to give up their gear. 

It’s a pity that none of the terrestrial broadcasters appear to have the balls to give a show like ZA News a wider airing. On the other hand, being beholden to a local commissioning broadcaster might well result in the political commentary having to be watered down, which would mean losing much of the point of the show. After all, we have enough puppets parroting the official line as it is. DM

The new ZA News Network website, www.zanews.co.za, will launch on Tuesday 7th August. 

Disclosure: Rebecca Davis worked as a writer for ZA News on a previous season.

Main photo: This season ZA News will be co-anchored by the puppet versions of Tim Modise and Deborah Patta (ZA News image) 

  • Rebecca Davis
  • Life, etc


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