The Creatures of Yes resurrect the magic of discovery in “What Is This?” (PREMIERE)

The Creatures of Yes have returned with their trademark warmth and whimsy in their in their latest video, “What Is This?” — premiering today on We Are Mirrors.

creatures press photo
Karen Hover (left) and Jacob Graham (right) with some of the Creatures of Yes. Hover and Graham also perform together in the dream-pop band, Sound of Ceres. Photo courtesy of Jacob Graham.

The Creatures of Yes is an experimental contemporary puppet show helmed by Jacob Graham. While the show hearkens back to the 1970s in mood and technology, it always feels fresh in its representation of timeless, universal messages.

While irony and kitsch evolve into new planes bordering lunacy, the Creatures of Yes maintain a certain purity; the only thing ironic about the show is that its relevance is maintained by its total lack of irony. Graham’s meticulous aesthetic feels sincere, rich, and welcoming — a much-needed breath of gentleness and optimism in a world which seems to grow more hostile and cynical by the day.

Graham collaborates with his brother, Caleb Graham, and his Sound of Ceres bandmate, Karen Hover, in writing and puppeteering the show. John Ringhofer of Half-handed Cloud also contributes sound effects to the show.

In their newest video, “What Is This?” the ever-inquisitive Tad is confronted by unfamiliar objects, ranging from simple items such as a tomato to big concepts such as nuclear disarmament. In a lesson of “critical thinking for young people,” the Creatures teach us the importance of asking questions and discovering new things with a sense of wonder and acceptance.

Watch the new video below, and read on for our conversation with Jacob Graham concerning time travel, magic, and the philosophical core of the show.

EJ: You’ve talked about the Creatures of Yes being a sort of “time travel experiment” to the 1970s. What led you to “travel” to that particular era?

JG: I’m just very drawn to the past. Maybe because it’s easier to look back and see everything at once and understand it … I’m not interested in the ’70s particularly; it’s more this vague idea of a cozy time when everything was lit beautifully. Maybe it’s because it was a time before I was alive and the grass is always greener. 

EJ: It’s been interesting to watch the series develop from videos aware of their existence on the Web to something like a “lost” TV show; and now it’s not quite either of those things. Was this an intentional progression, or did it occur more naturally?

JG: It happened pretty naturally. I had a lot of ideas of what I wanted to do with the show leading up to the beginning, but I didn’t have everything quite worked out. I thought, “I’ve just got to start.” I could spend forever planning but it’s more important to begin. 

EJ: Where do you think the show is going next?

JG: I really have no idea. We’ve been invited to a few film festivals, so I guess we’ll see where that takes us. I’d love to do a more narrative, episodic kind of thing with it someday – I guess we kind of touched on that in the last Christmas special, but now this most recent video is more back to the roots.

EJ: Besides other puppet and educational shows, what are some inspirations for your visual aesthetic?

JG: Old Disney artists like Mary Blair and Eyvind Earle, Sister Corita Kent, old Polish and Dutch stop motion animation, the illustrations of Pauline Baynes, Sarah Records, nature documentaries, old Penguin and Puffin book covers, National Geographic magazines from the 70’s and earlier – actually, any old magazine is pretty exciting to me. I’m inspired by so many things. Sometimes I go to junk stores or antiques stores and window shop for inspiration. Sometimes I’ll see something and it will trigger an idea and a whole video will come together. I’m also obsessed with font types. 

EJ: What’s the most technically difficult part of creating the show?

JG: I can’t think of one specific thing. When I first started it was the cameras. Now it’s all pretty second nature. It’s hard to say what’s difficult about it because I really enjoy the whole process. 

EJ: Are there any particular effects techniques that you’ve been wanting to try in your videos?

JG: Oh yeah! I read a lot of old film and television special effects books, so I’m always wanting to try new things. I’d love to get my hands on an optical printer; that’s how a lot of effects were done in the old days. I think if we ever had a budget I’d try to do that. I have found a way to sort of approximate the way some of that optical printing looked by using lasers in cameras. I haven’t released anything with it yet though. Oh! Except for this music video I did for Don Muro – but that’s not quite the effect. 

EJ: As a blogger who primarily writes about music, I’m naturally drawn to the soundtrack for your videos. Who has been in charge of the music so far, and what has been your overall directorial vision for the music?

JG: I’ve been in charge of the music. Some of it I make myself, some is from old library records (music recorded for television and film), and some is public domain classical music. I’ve never really thought about any sort of directorial vision for the music. I have worked on soundtrack for films … so I guess I am just always naturally thinking about what the music should be even if I’m not thinking about it very consciously. I did realize just the other day how we brought classical music in on the “Near Death Experience” video kind of out of nowhere. I wonder if the music seems cohesive enough through all the videos? I think it does. 

I’ve been talking to Ryan Hover about composing music for Creatures of Yes. I’ve been a big fan of his work since the early days of his first band, Candy Claws, and now I work with him in Sound of Ceres. So I guess I’ll need to start thinking about the music more than before. 

EJ: Which of your characters is most like you, and why do you think that?

JG: I think all the main characters that I play are the most like me, because I think each one is a fragment of my personality. Tom is my melancholy, insecure parts. Mary is my tinkering, mystical, feminine side. Moses is my grumpy old man side. But for whatever reason, Mary has been the easiest for me to perform. So much so that now I kind of feel like it’s being lazy to use her. She’ll probably have a break for a while as I explore some of the other characters a bit more. She’s had the most screen time of any of the characters by far!

EJ: If you boil the Creatures of Yes to its philosophical core, what’s at the heart of the project? 

JG: I think it’s just about understanding things and people. I think a lot of the problems in the world are because of a lack of understanding – I know it’s always more complicated than that … but if you simplify it.

EJ: You’ve been putting out these videos through your studio, Workshop of Experimental Magic and Light (WEML). Why have you embraced the concept and theme of magic in this particular project? 

JG: I’ve always been really into magic. When I was a kid I did magic shows. Then I worked for Disney for ten years. I try to have a little magic in every project I do … I don’t know why. It’s like, I just can’t help but add a little sparkle to everything, even puppets that look like they’re from the garbage.

EJ: What do you think people can do to make their own lives and pursuits more “magical”?

JG: I think knowing what your passions are and chasing them will always make your life more magical. And just being as present as you can be in each moment. Someone told me a while back that your brain takes these snapshots of important and new experiences and that the older you get, the less it takes because less things are new and exciting. So, to counter that I try to keep the new experiences flowing – no easy task for such a creature of habit as me. Keep pushing forward, and things will always be exciting and magical!

The Creatures of Yes can be found at the following links:

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