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A star is built in Athabasca

Locally built puppets featured in U.S. commercials

ATHABASCA — Sutherland, Carrey, McAdams, Reynolds, Gosling, O'Hara, Rogen, Oh, Reeves, and Myers — some of the biggest names in Canadian entertainment to ever break through south of the border — and now, perhaps, Hawkey.

Athabasca's Hawkey Studios was recently commissioned to create two sets of identical puppets for Wheaton, Illinois-based Gilbert's Craft Sausages, to use in a series of commercials and the first three 15-second teasers are now being broadcast in the U.S. and on the Internet. 

“So, this one is one that they approached us based on our website," said co-owner and creator Jonathan Hawkey. “This one was between us and five other puppet companies from all over all over the place. They were looking for a specific style, and I always talk about that a lot because there's a lot of wonderful, wonderful builders out in the world and you know at the end of the day it's very similar to music; it kind of comes down to style, and our style kind of fits the criteria they were looking for.” 

Each puppet is hand-crafted by Hawkey and his wife Dusty, and they had to make twins of each, so four puppets in all. 

“Each puppet takes 40 to 50 hours to produce for these ones,” Hawkey said. “Because they’re fleece style so they’re mostly hand stitched.” 

It takes so long because fleece puppets are hand-stitched to hide the seams – fur puppets can be machine sewn – and the hair is carefully crafted by Dusty. 

“This one was punched hair. So yeah, that's Dusty taking a type of fur and then making a skullcap for the puppet and then using a long needle to punch it through just kind of like if you're getting your hair streaked,” explained Hawkey. "The cap basically stays with the puppet that it goes on and that way it moulds really nice to the head (and) gives it good sympathetic motion.” 

The Hawkeys had two weeks to build and send the puppets to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where the production company filming the commercials is based. 

“These are just the teasers that they’ve produced so far,” he said. “So, there's definitely more video production in the works for the bigger commercials and potentially more builds and more things working with all sorts of people that they partner with.” 

And a piece of Athabasca goes with every puppet as the Hawkeys source over 80 per cent of the materials from area stores. From paint, to fleece to doweling joint rods and ping pong balls, they support local first. 

“Other than some of our specialty furs, where we have to order in and some of our specialty fleece … I think pretty much almost everything else is sourced right in Athabasca,” he said. 

Gilbert and Tasty are not the only puppets they've been working on either — a Bigfoot puppet for a resort in British Columbia that offers Sasquatch hunts is next on the agenda.

“Another one that we're doing is a puppet called Lilly the Lash and that's for a novelist out in Florida,” he said. 

That would be Julie Woik who has a series of children's books based on Lilly the Lash, an eyelash that goes on adventures and teaches children about honesty, sharing, self-worth and more. Currently there are six of a projected 15 books available. The popular character also has board games and a podcast. 

“Instead of having the podcast generated by me, the author, I thought it was best to have Lilly the Lash herself, as the host,” Woik explained in an e-mail May 21. “The concept is as follows: children about 6-10 years of age write Lilly the Lash a letter in which they can relay an issue they're having or a good deed that they've done. Lilly reads the letter, and then talks about the issue or the good deed - in her very compassionate, animated way. Children super relate to her, so they trust her.” 

But, Woik found out, children weren’t listening to all eight minutes of each podcast so she decided to make them visual and the idea for a puppet was born. 

“How do you go about finding someone to make you a quality puppet when you have no idea what direction to go? You go to Facebook and see if there are any sites regarding puppetry,” Woik said. 

She had about 40 responses to her post and one of them was Hawkey Studios. 

“They were quick to reach out and they immediately arranged a Skype meeting,” she said. “I explained what I needed, they explained what they do, and then we spent the rest of the time laughing and sharing the love!” 

The meeting went so well, she cancelled meetings with other companies and hired the little studio in Athabasca. 

“Their pricing is affordable, they make quality puppets, they took time to understand my specific needs regarding the movements of Lilly's facial expressions – she isn't always happy, as life can sometimes be hard – they fully understood that Lilly must look like Lilly,” said Woik. 

Hawkey’s keep her up-to-date on Lilly’s progress and she shares it on her own Facebook page. She’s looking forward to the end of May when Lilly is finished so her fans can see Lilly the Lash come to life. 

“I can't just have a cute puppet that ‘sort of looks like’ my character. Lilly the Lash is a loved eyelash fairy, who helps children see the importance of making good choices and having strong self-esteem,” she said. “I needed this puppet to be recognizable.” 

Hawkey also dropped a hint that one, or more, of their creations may be featured in an upcoming pilot on CTV, but couldn’t say much more. 

“I can't really talk too much about that one yet but, you'll see that one soon,” he said. “I say about a month.” 

[email protected] 


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