Otherworldly Meditations, Mystical Puppets & “The Creatures of Yes”

Creator Jacob Graham and some of his creatures. Clockwise from top left: Jacob Graham, Mary Broomfellow, Alphonso, Tad. Image courtesy of Jacob Graham.

After over a year-and-a-half of silence, “The Creatures of Yes” managed to summarize its ethos in the opening line of its most ambitious string of projects yet. “I believe I’ve had some experiences with other dimensions,” says Mary Broomfellow—arguably the lead protagonist of the program as a whole. After watching any installment from this experimental puppet show, you will likely feel the same way.

Created and led by multi-talented Brooklyn artist Jacob Graham, “The Creatures of Yes” feels equal parts familiar and alien. It often seems to be taken not only from a different time, but from a different space entirely. Graham’s commitment to the art of puppetry and technology from the 1970’s most obviously hearkens to that decade’s public access television and educational programming. This show, however, refuses to fit into any neat category you might create based on its influences.

In this latest “season” of episodic, plot-driven videos, a surreal and sad edge cuts through a cozy sense of vague nostalgia. These days, “The Creatures of Yes” deals more plainly with death and grief; the realm of “the unknown” here often feels more intimidating than magical. The titular creatures discover new things about themselves and the abundant world around them, as they always have. Although now they might discover something that’s unpleasant or refuses an easy explanation. Granted, “The Creatures of Yes” is still something you could show to a child without having to worry about traumatizing them or offending their parents. Describing the show as “dark” or “plot-driven” is only accurate relative to its early output. While there is a current ongoing narrative at play—and a somber one at that—the show remains loose, natural, and funny. 

Furthermore—as bizarre as it is to say—these creatures feel more like real people than most television ensembles out there. Yes, they are puppets hand-made from felt, fur, and found objects; and they may not always behave like humans do. Nevertheless, their personalities and behaviors feel so specific that it’s hard to accept them as anything other than “real.”

Graham clearly assembles “The Creatures of Yes” with a great deal of care, and his skill and style as a director have only become more defined. However, it’s also evident that the show isn’t just the product of one mind. Graham’s collaborators do just as much work to flesh out the show’s world. From the deeply personalized performances of the supporting cast to the simply exquisite soundtrack, each piece of the show adds its own distinct flavor. “The Creature of Yes” treats the viewer with a wealth of individual talents packaged into a miraculously coherent gift that’s a real pleasure to unwrap.

I recently sat down with Jacob Graham to talk about the evolution of “The Creatures of Yes” and the processes that produce such a unique show. By the end of our conversation, we had also discussed puppetry as magic, the purpose of art, and much more. Read on below.

The people behind the creatures. Clockwise from center left: Caleb Graham (music, voices), Stoph Scheer (production, writing, voices), Karen Hover (voices), Avemaria Magdalene (character design, voices), Michael Vanderpool (production, voices), Jacob Graham.

(The following conversation has been condensed and slightly edited for clarity).

We Are Mirrors: First of all, how are you? What have you been up to since the last we saw from the Creatures?

Jacob Graham: I’m good. The main thing I’ve been doing is my band Sound of Ceres that I’m in with some friends. Since the last “Creatures of Yes” upload, we were doing a lot of touring before the pandemic hit. We went on tour with Beach House, and we started touring with them just because I think they needed somebody. They kind of asked us last minute, and we ended up going to Europe with them. It was great, but it just took up a lot of time. Then we started a new record, and we’re working on the new live show for that record. Our live shows are really theatrical.

Part of the reason for the break from “Creatures” is that, when I have worked on “Creatures” a lot and done what I consider a really big project, I usually feel really burned out at the end of it. That usually has happened after Christmas specials, which are typically longer than usual, but with what I’m doing now with “Creatures” it’s like I can’t make something shorter than ten minutes any more. It’s really strange, because that used to seem like such a long time to me, and now it doesn’t seem like very much time at all.

I also, about two years ago, started working on a live-action film just by myself kind of in secret. It’s not finished yet, and it probably won’t be finished for another year or two, but I think in the process of doing that, I learned a lot about filmmaking and what I wanted to do as a filmmaker. And I think, even though it’s a totally different project, I think a lot of that has informed what I’m doing now with “Creatures of Yes” and just trying to build it out and make it more of a lush, intricate world with more depth.

“The most important thing you can do creatively is not wait for permission.”

WAM: It’s been a while since we’ve heard from the Creatures, but it’s been even longer since you guys have been on a weekly release schedule. How’s it been for you getting back into that sort of rhythm?

JG: Behind the scenes, it’s felt so crazy. *laughs* Like, there’s no rhythm. I feel like I’m going out of my mind, you know? It’s like this crazy storm behind the scenes of trying to pull this all together every week, but it’s good. I think giving yourself a deadline really helps when you’re working on something creative—especially during this weird situation we’re in where there kind of aren’t any deadlines. It’s hard to feel like your life has any sort of structure, but I think trying to do these weekly videos has given me a lot of structure, which is good, and it gives me something to aim for. I feel like when I miss hitting that target, it’s okay as long as I keep moving forward.

“The Creatures of Yes” is such a bizarre project because it’s just me deciding to do it. A lot of puppeteers, I feel like, get in this weird headspace where they’re like, “Oh, I’m just waiting for someone to come along and give me the means to do this”—like the funds or the permission, almost. But I think the most important thing you can do creatively is not wait for permission.

WAM: Approaching this latest season, did you have a big-picture game plan going into it, or has it been more improvised?

JG: It’s like a little of both. Pretty much for the whole time that “Creatures” hasn’t been putting videos up, me and my friends who are my collaborators on all of this have been getting together and writing scripts for a proper season. We wrote ten episodes or something, and the more time that went by, the more those scripts felt like they were crushing me or something. *laughs* I don’t know why. But I was just like, “You know what, let’s do this, but let’s also kind of throw away all work we’ve been doing for the past year and a half.” We’d actually recorded a lot of the audio for these scripts and stuff like that, and I was like, “Yeah, I just feel like it’s making it feel too rigid, and I want it to feel really organic and just straight from a dream or something.”

So now, with the current season, we plotted it out. We have the structure of it—the beginning, the middle, the end, and a couple little plot points—but that’s it. We deliberately didn’t write everything else. We didn’t write scripts for every episode. We just wrote what generally needs to happen, so then every week I can feel that spontaneous energy of, “Alright, what does everyone actually say to get us from point A to point B.” It’s made it a lot more frenetic and frantic. Like, two days before the video’s coming out, I’m calling someone and being like, “Hey, I need you to send me these lines real quick. I’m changing the dialogue.” Or I just go through all the old audio we recorded for the season we never made and just grab stuff that will work. I’ve always worked and treated the production of “Creatures” almost like a video collage. I think it’s even more like that now.

In that way, it almost feels like I’m not making it. It feels like I’m actually sort of channeling another dimension where all this is just happening because I let the characters drive the whole thing. And puppetry, however I feel about it—which is sometimes very negative *laughs*—it is this ancient art form that has a lot of mystical connections. I know when I put on a puppet, I start talking in that character’s voice, and I can write things and do things with them that I couldn’t if I didn’t have the puppet on my hand. It is this sort of magic talisman that unlocks this character, and I feel like if I can unlock these characters—wherever they’re coming from—and put them all together, then that’s when you can make an atmosphere and a place. Because of that, sometimes I don’t know what to say about “Creatures of Yes.” I almost don’t even know what the intention is. It’s like, as much I can, I’m trying to just let the characters come through and just drive the whole thing to wherever it goes—only giving them these prompts of the plot points. It’s just kind of a mystical, weird thing that I do in this closet. *laughs*

Watch an introductory video playlist for “The Creatures of Yes.”

WAM: One surprise from this season is that—and maybe my sense of humor has just shifted or I’m just not fully remembering the earlier videos—I’ve found these latest videos to be really funny at times. I’ve laughed out loud a lot more than I remember laughing at the Creatures in the past.

JG: I’m glad to hear that. The weird thing is that literally three days ago or something I said to my husband something like, “‘Creatures of Yes’ is funny, but it’s not laugh-out loud funny. It’s just kind of funny internally.” And he was like, “No, people do laugh out loud,” and I didn’t realize that. I always thought that the sense of humor that I have is very subtle. I think that really subtle things are funny, just like the way someone moves their head or something—weird things like that where I focus in on them and think it’s really funny for some reason. I’ve seen people—especially people who just stumble upon it—who are kind of like, “This is really weird, and I don’t understand it” or whatever. And I think it’s just me trying to be funny and it just doesn’t land right or it hits people weird.

I think with the current season, though, I’ve been trying to let it be more of a collaborative thing. I definitely am still super specific when I make films, but I’m starting to realize that, as a director, there’s a million little things I can be super specific about. But I can still bring people in who are super talented and have them work on this project and understand what their talents are and where they fit into the whole big picture of it.

So I’ve had friends come in and help more with it, and I’m allowing people to write their own characters’ voices and lines. Usually when I send someone a script, I’ll say, “Here’s a script, but change any of your characters’ lines to whatever you want—like, however that character would say it, whatever you think is funny—just as long as we get from point A to point B, I don’t care.” It’s going to be more interesting if it feels like these characters totally have their own agency within this world. It’s going to feel more like almost a reality show where you’re just watching it happen. Opening it up like that to have more people’s senses of humor has amped up the humor, and I love it. It feels a lot more fun to watch, I think.

WAM: Yeah, and it definitely is still subtle a lot of the time. Maybe I just find subtle things funnier these days, too. I rewatched the whole season last night in preparation for this interview, and one joke that I didn’t notice the first time around is that the “most evil” being within Tad’s mind makes a police siren sound.

JG: Yeah, well we shot that around September, and it was so recently coming off these protests and stuff that we were going to, and it was just like “eff the police,” you know? *laughs*

I guess that’s another thing that I think that I’m learning in some ways with the current season. In the past, I would do these very political videos about climate change or racism or LGBT rights, and it always felt a little too heavy-handed for what “Creatures” is. So I’m trying to find ways to work that stuff in without trying to bend what the whole project is around it.

“A lot of people just get so stuck in this ‘computer box,’ but the more you can get out of that box, the more special the effects seem.”

WAM: On the technical side of things, what are the most satisfying visual tricks for you to pull off?

JG: One of my favorite things I did was with a crystal ball getting these light flare kind of things happening, and that was just from holding a flashlight behind the crystal ball and shining it into the camera and getting these kinds of effects. Most of the effects I do are super simple. It’s like stuff I get out of the kitchen or a flashlight or whatever. To me, that’s part of the fun of it, because I think anything that you do for real, in camera and not as a computer effect, will always look more magical. The weird thing is that it’s probably easier to do things that way, too. I think a lot of people just get so stuck in this “computer box,” but the more you can get out of that box, the more special the effects seem.

“The Creatures of Yes” is very cheaply made. I kind of have this joke with myself where I say that “The Creatures of Yes” has the budget of a million dollars, but that basically just means to me, “Don’t think about how much money you’re spending on it.” Because I don’t really spend money on it. I’m sure I do and have over the years, but it’s all made out of mostly found stuff—like cardboard that I find on the street, like paint that I find on the street. I’ve definitely bought fabric to build puppets, like at the beginning, but the camera I use is a tube camera from the 70’s that’s like a home video camera, really. I got this on eBay for like twenty bucks. And this is what I’ve used from the beginning. I think people think I’m kind of crazy for using this old technology, but it’s actually the cheapest way you could do it.

I shoot in analog, but I layer everything and edit everything in a computer just as you would—just like everyone does these days. But it makes sense, because if I were to try to shoot this in analog and then record it onto film, I’d be waiting like a month for it to process. Then when you get it back, you wouldn’t be sure if you got what you were hoping for. Basically, I feel like the way I’m working is pretty authentic to the way people actually would have shot things in the 70’s, but because I’m able to compose things in a computer the same way they would have composed these shots with chemicals when they’re processing the film and putting things together that way, I feel like I can do these things that, in the 70’s, would have cost a lot more money because of the processing time. So there’s like this weird joy I get from knowing that I can do any effect I want at any time basically for free, whereas in the 70’s there would have been things in the script where some editor would have been like, “That’s going to be too much, that’s going to be too much.” But I can just do it, and it’s really exciting. I somehow feel like I owe it to people in the 70’s who had a lot more restrictions and it was harder to just do this.

WAM: What excites you the most about “The Creatures of Yes” at this point in its lifetime?

JG: I’m excited that, to me, it finally really feels like it’s in the place now where I always hoped it would get to—and I was always nervous that I’d never be able to get it there. A few years ago, there was this sudden moment where we were getting invited to a lot of film festivals, and people in the film festival side of things seemed to be pretty excited about “Creatures of Yes.” We went to a lot of film festivals and talked to a lot of people, and at that time there were a few people that came to us that were like, “Hey, we want to help you take this to the next level, we want to do a pilot, we want to pitch this to streaming services,” and that kind of thing. And I was like, “Awesome, let’s do this,” and all of the contracts were so bad. It was basically signing over the rights to this. What that effectively would have done is, if we had made a pilot, shopped it around, and no one bought it, I would never be able to make a “Creatures of Yes” video again. It was always completely signing away the intellectual property, and I just thought, “I don’t want to do that.” This is a project that I kind of want to do for the rest of my life. And I’ve been through the industry. I used to be in a band that was signed to Universal/Island. I’ve been there. I’ve been through the “hype machine” or whatever, and I know that it’s extremely fickle. People’s tastes change, you know. I definitely was not going to take a chance and potentially give it up forever.

I also kind of thought that I didn’t need their money. If anything, the best thing would have been those companies being able to shop it around, because I do want people to see it. I’m not trying to be “indie schmindie”—like indie for the sake of indie. I want it to have the audience that it can, but I think that maybe the best way to go about it is to just keep doing it on my own—to keep the purity of it, too. I think the whole thing is extremely fragile. I think if I were to get a deal with a streaming service, you’re definitely going to have those people saying, “Well, maybe you should tweak this and this and this or change this and this and this,” and the more you change, the more it just becomes not what it actually is.

I just think if I do this for another—I don’t know—ten years, I think it’ll feel like a super special thing, and I think it will get a larger audience. Even though we don’t have a massive audience now—we haven’t gone viral—I’m very grateful for our subscribers. I always think, gosh, we have almost 3,000 subscribers, and when Jim Henson was doing “Sam and Friends” on local cable access in D.C. in the 1950’s, he didn’t have 3,000 people watching every night. I’m still excited by the people that do watch, and they seem to be really engaged in it, which is what really is exciting to me.

“I try with any art that I work on to entertain myself first, because if I’m bored making it, someone’s probably going to be bored watching it.”

WAM: Especially with how crazy 2020 has been, there’s been a noticeable increase in “wholesome” and “mindful” content. Where do you think “Creatures” fits on that spectrum of things?

JG: I think there’s something kind of meditative about “Creatures of Yes.” I don’t quite know how to describe it, but I think it has to do with the process of how it all comes together that, when you watch it, it feels like … I don’t know what it feels like exactly. *laughs* But I know I’ve seen people say things like, “This brings me peace,” or, “This has a calming effect on me.”

I’m a Quaker, so I do meditate quite a lot, and I think when you do that, it calms you down a lot. It makes you feel like things aren’t crushing you as much. I feel like meditating gives you a lot of perspective and takes you out of your own perspective a little bit. It’s weird to say all of that while I think that “Creatures” is in the process of being the most plot-driven and high-stakes that it ever has, but I think there’s still something meditative about it—something that feels wholesome.

There is a way that I’ve always wanted these creatures to treat each other—that is respectful of each other but also like they’re close friends that can say certain things to one another. There’s never the sort of conflict where somebody in “Creatures of Yes” feels really hurt by someone else. There’s something, I think, utopian about it in the way that they all just treat each other. I think anything that people can make to help people feel less crazy is good.

I mean, it’s like the question of ‘What is the purpose of art?’ or something: the more you think about that, the more you just actually don’t know. You’re just kind of compelled to do it. I know for me, at least, the more I make art, the more I realize that if I make something I know I would enjoy and try not to think about the audience, I think it always turns out better. Then you’re making something a lot more specific and a lot more special that way, and it’s its own thing. A lot of things feel very homogenous days, I feel like. So I try with any art that I work on to entertain myself first, because if I’m bored making it, someone’s probably going to be bored watching it.

I am glad and I like when people see what I’m working on. It’s almost like, what’s the point in doing all the work if no one can see it? That’s how I feel. If I didn’t care about people seeing it, I could just sit there all day and imagine these stories happening in my head to entertain myself and be like, “Yeah, I came up with a great story” or whatever. I do all the work to translate what’s going on in my head so that other people can see it and enjoy it. I think that’s the purpose of art: for people to feel a connection to something in a way.

Watch the full “season” of “The Creatures of Yes” in this playlist.

“The Creatures of Yes” will return in January with a “season finale” short film.
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