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September 7th, 2005 Johanna Droubay | Featured Stories
 

KING LEADER

Oregon-born theater designer survives computer-generated jungle by reinventing an age-old art form.

     
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In the futuristic world that is the 21st century's special-effects industry, Michael Curry, co-designer alongside artistic visionary Julie Taymor of Disney's smash-hit Broadway musical The Lion King (which hits the Keller this Friday), honors an ancient form of optical illusion: puppetry.

A trained sculptor, Curry moved to Brooklyn at the age of 25 and started toying with a performance-art piece that made heads roll. "I was doing a series of sculptures that floated-mostly heads," says the native Oregonian. "I was experimenting with putting them in different waterways and documenting their [voyage]." But it wasn't until almost a decade later-The Lion King debuted on Broadway in '97-that Curry's own unorthodox brand of puppeteering gained household recognition.

Today, Curry's still tinkering with puppets-all crafted at the 60,000-square-foot Michael Curry Design Studio in Scappoose, where he spoke with WW prior to the arrival of The Lion King, the show that made him, and his work, synonymous with the House that Mickey Built. Since Lion, Curry and his work have gained in stature. He's at work on a 25-foot-wide, computer-controlled inflatable tree frog. And he recently finished larger-than-life puppets for Cirque du Soleil's upcoming Las Vegas tribute to those four lads from Liverpool.

The puppetmaker's success would seem at odds with the staggering demand for spectacular computer animation. After all, anything Curry can conceive can be re-created in the virtual landscape of computer-generated imagery and then made to morph, explode or speak with Eddie Murphy's voice. Yet there's still a call-a roar if you count the millions of people still clamoring to see Lion King's animal masks and costumes in action-for Curry's "analog, real-time objects," as he puts it.

"[People] retain this need for the magic of the object." That's why filmmakers working with state-of-the-art technology recently turned to Curry to make puppets and costumes for a project whose title he can't yet reveal. "They're going to CG all the movement in the characters' faces throughout the whole film." Cutting-edge computer animation meets the art of puppetry.

Granted, Curry's main building material-vacuum-bag carbon fiber-is hardly old-fashioned. "It's super-lightweight, aerospace quality material," he says. Curry's design is just as sophisticated. When he began researching Lion King, he didn't set out to copy tribal art. "I knew that I was never going to get inside of the mind of the African, so I did a survey of what all non-African artists have done to translate African art." For Curry, that meant returning to his roots as a sculptor and a student of art history. "I was looking at Dalí and Giacometti and Picasso." Much to the surprise of everyone who thought Disney couldn't make the move from theme parks to theater, Curry's work on The Lion King gave Broadway a much-needed facelift. Or rather, an African-inspired, made-in-Oregon mask.


See Stage listings for Lion King details.
 
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