That man behind the curtain
In the 1970s student politicians at UNR were so disgruntled by the coverage they were getting in the student government-owned Sagebrush that they concocted grounds for firing the editor, Gary Jesch. He went on to successful careers in other fields, including the latest—digital puppetry. His Carson City-based company’s website is www.chops.com.
The last I knew you were a photographer. How did you get into puppeteering?
I went to a virtual reality trade show in about 1992 and saw that I wanted to work in virtual reality but with characters. And so I started looking into this company that I had seen at this trade show and asking them about what they did. One thing led to another. … I had already been learning to do computer graphics as an offshoot of the typesetting machines that we were running [at Sagebrush] in those days. I had a couple of different jobs after getting out of school and was just trying to figure out how I could program a typesetting machine [for other uses]. So I found a niche for making slides for slide shows for the mining companies.
What are digital puppets?
It’s a technology where the animated cartoon character’s generated on our computers, and we’re hooked up by microphones, and we have control, and we sit backstage kind of like the Wizard of Oz and animate the character in real time while we can see and hear our audience. So we can interact with the audience out there and bring the character to life so that they think that they’re talking to the cartoon character, and it’s talking back.
And you use it at trade shows.
Companies liked the idea of having a character to attract attention over to their booth, because it was something that people just hadn’t seen at trade shows before. People are walking by, and they’re wondering, ‘Oh, what’s this booth about?’ And this character shows up and starts chatting with them. Instead of the salesman standing there in the booth with his arms folded or eating his lunch or whatever, there’s this character on video display that’s interesting and relevant and engaging. … It wasn’t long after that I found myself doing corporate meetings. … And they would have my character appear up on the screen and interact with one of the main presenters. So it would be like the CEO’s talking, boring speech, and he’s talking about how great the company’s going to be in the coming year, and then all of a sudden this cartoon character wise guy’d pop up and go, “Yeah, boss, but what about those raises you promised us last year?” … That lets the boss transition into answering him—"Yeah, Chops, I was just about to get to that.” So it’s kind of a little comic relief, and it pops people out of this mental state you get in when you’re at one of these boring meetings.
The thing that’s most exciting to me is that I just opened my first installation of a live animation character in the United States—it’s a permanent installation.
You have to train someone to do it?
Yes, I actually build a system, create a character, take it down and install it, train their people how to use it, and then I get to leave. And the system stays there and runs. And I say the United States because my first one went into a science center, one of these kids’ science centers in a big mall in the Philippines last October.