Monster of the Sky is an upcoming sci-fi film by award-winning director Sam Koji Hale. The movie about forbidden love, betrayal, and revenge, is something truly unique for audiences, as Hale is taking a new approach to using puppets.
“I’ve had a love for stories since I was a kid, then went to art school and got my training in book illustration,” Hale says. Once he finished school, Hale went to Los Angeles to try to get into animation, but the job market was flooded then, as Disney had just finished laying off several hundred animators.
As a struggling young artist, Hale went to work where he could find it, and found his inspiration in the process. “I got a gig making puppets and realized I could tell stories with puppets as well,” he says. “Looking back, I always loved films like Dark Crystal and Star Wars, worlds filled with characters and creatures that weren’t real, but lived on the screen in THAT world that was almost real. So I got in to puppet storytelling.”
For puppeteers and fans of movies like Dark Crystal, there are few names that rival the prestige of Henson, and Hale was able to merge his talents with those of the famed entertainment family. Heather B. Henson, the youngest of the Henson children, founded IBEX Puppetry, and Hale went to work for her.
Hale and Henson combined their skills and vision to produce Yamasong, a brilliant and stunning fantasy short. Yamasong tells the magical story of a girl who discovers a new world as she chases after a fallen star. Yamasong was a great success, and it won several awards. In 2010, it showed remarkably well at the Dragon*Con Independent Film Festival, winning both the Best Animated Film and Best Fantasy Short awards.
Hale is now working on his newest project, Monster of the Sky. The on-screen actors are still puppets, but these are not the loveable cloth animal puppets some audiences might be familiar with. Just as in Yamasong, the puppets for Monster of the Sky are individually sculpted masterpieces, each with custom designed outfits. To give the puppets even more life and personality, eye blinks and facial expressions are motion-captured from actors and added on using computer effects. The end result is amazing, and audiences can easily forget they are viewing mere puppets.
Hale attempts to describe Monster of the Sky by saying, “think Dark Crystal and Spirited Away meet Count of Monte Cristo.” While that combination might seem ambitious, Hale is confident this movie will appeal to a wide range of viewers. “I like to think of my films as having appeal to the same people who love Hayao Miyazaki films,” he says. “There’s adventure, there’s a strong heroine, there’s high fantasy or sci-fi and questions of our place in a technology-inundated world… The difference is this is puppets in digital environments, sometimes fighting, dynamic puppets—the dynamism of classic Jack Kirby Marvel comics!” Hale thinks his movies appeal to those who love animation, anime, comics, or video games, and his success with Yamasong at Dragon*Con supports that idea.
While much work has already been done on Monster of the Sky, Hale has launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to finish the movie. Hale has been hard at work promoting the project, but he is looking forward to finishing the campaign and returning to what he does best: making movies. “[Fundraising] has been very consuming. I dream of the day the funding comes through and I can really get back to the creative process,” he says.
Hale reminds potential backers that a project like Monster of the Sky is quite unique, particularly by blending puppets and computer generated effects to produce a science fiction movie. “Is there anything else out there like this—probably not,” Hale said. “You’re paying for the artistry, and this special something that doesn’t exist elsewhere.”
Crafting new stories and creating experiences that don’t exist anywhere else is a passion for Hale. “You could also say I’m trying to prove it can simply be done,” he says. “It’s a challenge—an intellectual, spiritual and creative challenge, but it can be done. And I’m trying to show that puppets can be a powerful force for storytelling on the big screen.”
Hale isn’t afraid of difficult tasks, and Monster of the Sky is an opportunity to exercise his creative and artistic muscles. “This love-story-turned-horribly-wrong seemed like a tough challenge, and I like a challenge. I try not to do anything halfway—make it and make it well; make it for the love of it.”
While Hale’s creativity and dedication have led him to accomplish so many artistic achievements already, he also possesses the humility to know that he is just one person working as part of something bigger. “I love working with artists, building a team around an exciting project. When I get that right balance of personalities and creativity together, there’s nothing like it! It’s as satisfying as the finished film itself. And it’s like building a family—when I get together with other artists, it’s like a therapy session.”
At the end of the day, Sam Koji Hale is still just another artist trying to find a way to realize his vision. “Life can be tough for struggling artists,” he says. “I want to create that space where we can thrive and grow, because, you know, artists are a vital part of society—we are the modern shaman who bring new ideas to the tribe. Without artists, culture stagnates. So I feel there’s a mission in there somewhere, and I hope people agree by supporting my film and so many of the others creative projects out there!”