Becoming Eric

Becoming Eric

By Michael Pickard
June 28, 2024

Job Description

The unusual title star of a dark, gritty Netflix period drama set in 1980s New York just happens to be a giant puppet. DQ speaks to creature creation firm Stitches & Glue and puppeteer Olly Taylor about bringing Eric to life.

In Netflix series Eric, there’s a scene where Benedict Cumberbatch’s character Vincent is dancing in a New York nightclub to iconic dance anthem Gloria. During rehearsals, the supporting artists who filled the 1980s set in Budapest would have seen Cumberbatch practicing his moves alongside a man dressed in black sportswear, seemingly out of step with their own period styling.

But when director Lucy Forbes prepared to call action, the mysterious man disappeared, only to be replaced by a giant furry monster, the eponymous Eric.

“It’s always fun with a big character because when we rehearsed and I’m sat there like some ninja, everybody’s like, ‘Well, I don’t know what that guy’s doing,’” puppeteer Olly Taylor tells DQ. “Then, of course, you come back with everything on [as Eric] and it’s very arresting for all of those supporting artists who haven’t been privy to what they’re a part of, and then they’re trying not to look at the most distracting thing in the room.”

From writer Abi Morgan (The Split), director Forbes (This is Going to Hurt) and production company Sister (Chernobyl), Eric follows a father’s desperate search for his nine-year-old son, who goes missing one morning on his way to school. Vincent is one of New York’s leading puppeteers and the creator of children’s television show Good Day Sunshine, and as he struggles to cope with the loss of his son Edgar, he becomes convinced that if he can get Edgar’s own puppet creation Eric on TV, Edgar will come home.

Eric doesn’t just exist in Edgar’s drawings, however. He also becomes a “delusion of necessity” for Vincent, a towering, hairy representation of his state of mind, who begins to see and talk to the figure as he embarks on his quest to find his son.

Olly Taylor inside the Eric suit

Responsible for bringing Eric to life were Taylor and London-based puppet and creative costumes company Stiches & Glue (The Last of Us, Stranger Things), with creative directors Becky Johnson and Paul Vincett part of early meetings between Morgan, Forbes and producer Holly Pullinger as ideas for how exactly Eric would be created – and what he would look like – began to formulate. Illustrator Poppy Kay then brought those ideas together.

Johnson and Vincett describe the script for episode one as a “real page-turner,” but their first call with Pullinger only gave them a “gentle” outline for the series as a whole, focusing on their role in helping to create Eric and also pulling together the world of Good Day Sunshine, in front of and behind the camera.

“I thought, it sounds very much like our day to day, and I was amazed that someone’s actually turning this into a drama, because it can be very dramatic being backstage on a TV puppet show,” Johnson says. “There are a lot of characters and there’s a lot of drama.”

The show’s 1980s setting meant Good Day Sunshine and the puppets that populate that world had to look of that era – think Sesame Street – yet be completely original creations. To start with, “we went down a giraffe and crocodile look. But then Lucy was very passionate about the team photograph, the line-up, because you see the poster of the show quite a lot,” Johnson says.

Morgan began with two main characters, butterfly Butters and spider Lula, but with no arms to lift items or to gesture with, the team quickly veered away from them. Instead, they created Bug (operated by Cumberbatch’s Vincent) and Mush (controlled by Roberta Collindrez’s Ronnie), and then designed other characters you might see in New York’s Central Park – a police officer, dogs, and hot dog vendor Mr José and his hot dogs.

“Then the designs for Eric started off quite dark,” Johnson notes. “He reads as quite a dark character in the script, but he was actually visually quite menacing looking. In some of the early work, he became quite a creature, with silicon skin and very naturalistic.”

Paul Vincett and Becky Johnson of Stitches & Glue

“It was really fast paced,” Vincett says. “The look of Eric changed quite dramatically from the start to where we ended up, and there are lots of dog characters. There was a giraffe as a police officer at one point.”

“Lucy and Abi had so many ideas in their heads,” Johnson says, “and it was just great because Poppy could do all these beautiful, quick sketches, just getting loose ideas across so she’s translating what they’re saying into a visual thing, which everyone can then look at so everyone’s talking about the same thing. When you’re talking about imaginary things, everyone can be visualising it differently.”

Eric also started life with more animatronic elements, before Morgan reminded everyone: “He needs to be a puppet.”

“This was the point,” Vincett says. “It needs to be a puppet, not a creature. He’s a living thing. But the level of detail in some of the designs would have been quite the contrast. Actually, the Eric you see on screen really feels like he’s embedded into that world. It was such a great decision to go down the more puppety look. It just works.”

Early sketches of Eric and Good Day Sunshine puppets by illustrator Poppy Kay

Stitches & Glue got the green light to begin work in July 2022, when the design process began. By mid-October, the puppets were starting to take shape, and work began on constructing Eric at the end of November. By mid-January 2023, he was on set in Budapest ready for shooting.

But as Johnson and Vincett point out, it was a very short turnaround for creating such a large puppet – one that proved to be more challenging when it came to sourcing Eric’s blue and white shaggy fur.

“You really need to have fur that stretches on a creature suit like that, and also the length of fur on a suit that big [is important] because if you put off-the-shelf, three-inch fur on it, it will just look so flat,” Johnson says. “So we used fur from a company in America who make a specific stretch fur. But we couldn’t work with their lead time.”

It would have taken 16 weeks for the full amount of fur they needed to be shipped to the UK, by which time Eric was needed in front of the cameras. Instead, they bought up the company’s entire stock of white, seven-inch stretch fur, which would be painted the correct colours, and also set out to create their own fur supply.

The suit taking shape

“We hand-knotted panels that were then pieced together, in a very unique, special way just to allow the outer skin to stretch as Olly would move in the suit,” Vincett reveals. “It just allowed him to do all those dextrous moves. That was quite a long-winded, drawn-out process but it was great. Coming through from the start of the shoot to the end, those skins looked incredible. They really held up.”

“The limitation on just getting that one stretch fur meant we had to use other processes and techniques, which actually created a much more interesting visual thing,” Johnson adds. “So he doesn’t look like one big thing. There are lots of different textures.”

Inside the Eric suit, Taylor (The Dark Crystal) would stand with his left arm in the left arm sleeve, while his right arm operated Eric’s mouth. He also wore goggles to which four camera feeds were streamed so he could move and interact with Vincent and his surroundings.

“In the past you might have a puppet that’s got a vision panel, but the performer is very limited,” Vincett says. “Working on Star Wars productions, you’d have performers inside creature suits and they couldn’t see anything. All they’re depending on is someone telling them where to move, so having the performer inside the suit being able to see outside is incredible. Hats off to Olly, because it’s a very specific performer that can interpret everything that they’re seeing and actually play it out and look good on screen.”

“Because Olly’s got one hand in the back of the head and he’s only got like one live hand, we also made it so that an additional puppeteer could hide behind him and get his hand into that right hand so Eric’s got both hands going,” Johnson says. “Laurence Moran would do that, and then in terms of the other puppeteers we had, Phil Woodfine would be doing the radio control on the eyebrows and eye blinks and the eye movement. When Laurence wasn’t playing a hand, he’d do the ears.”

That Eric is a puppet at all, rather than a CG creation inserted by a visual effects team in post-production, is perhaps why his appearance feels so embedded in the series. Because Eric was actually there on set, Cumberbatch could directly interact with the besuited Taylor during their numerous scenes together.

Taylor also joined the project in its early stages after a call with Pullinger, and was drawn to the opportunity to perform a character that he likens in practical terms to Sesame Street’s Big Bird. Before the Eric suit was built, he was scanned and had several fittings. Then on set, he would rehearse scenes with Cumberbatch, Forbes and DOP Benedict Spence (This is Going to Hurt).

“Eric was treated as any other character, so it’s all about the right kind of delivery, what Lucy wants from the scene,” Taylor says, “and then there’s this added layer because we know Benedict is playing Vincent and also that Eric is a part of Vincent’s brain.”

Taylor had to work closely with series star Benedict Cumberbatch

During takes, Taylor would deliver Eric’s lines, which were then rerecorded by Cumberbatch during ADR sessions in post-production. But it meant the two performers had to work together in rehearsals to determine exactly how Eric would speak, so Taylor could work the puppet’s mouth to match how Cumberbatch would say the lines later on.

“We’ve got different voices,” Taylor says, “however, the intent and feel of the scene has to be correct because if you go to a close-up and the physicality is wrong, it will jar. It was a really interesting process and it’s a really detailed way of working.”

He also worked with Forbes to develop the way Eric would walk and move – less monster, more human. “So there’s all this kind of collaboration that I’m taking on board, but eventually we arrived at a place where Benedict was super happy.

“Eric is a monster, but ultimately what we’re trying to recognise is some expression of humanity, because people like looking at themselves. When you make something like Alien or other monsters, they always lean into faceless, insect-based things because we’re naturally wired to find those things dangerous because we don’t recognise ourselves in them. Whereas this monster has got the same eye colour as Benedict. It’s supposed to be an expression of his humanity.”

During the course of the series, Taylor, as Eric, got into a fight with Cumberbatch’s Vincent and also joined him on the dancefloor as he and Forbes also sought to push the limits of the suit as much as possible.

Taylor had video feeds from four cameras streamed to his goggles inside the suit

“Those scenes stand out for a lot of viewers that watch the show, and they stand out from a performance point of view as well,” he says. Choreographer Timea Papp pulled together the Gloria routine.

“To be doing full-on drama with puppets of that kind, and the characters to be written in that way by Abi and the whole setup, and also to get to play with Benedict, it was just one of those lucky things. We would play a whole scene in the rehearsal and then the suit would go on and Benedict would say hello to Eric as if he’d just arrived. So would other cast members, because it engages their imagination. So from my point of view, under the fur, you’re very privileged to actually be a witness to people’s imagination and their willingness to play. That was always a joy.”

It’s that point of blending puppets with drama that makes Eric standout from the crowded television landscape, and one that really fascinated Taylor as he was drawn into a story that is much more complex than the appearance of Eric and the primary-colour puppet cast of Good Day Sunshine might suggest.

“It was a real joy and a real privilege, as dark and gritty as the material is,” the puppeteer adds. “The joy of doing puppets with drama is just something that really appeals to me, but it’s also the care, the character and the whole premise that make it a special piece.”

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