Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Chelly Wood's Epic Stop-Action "Romeo and Juliet" Film--A Guest Interview!

About a month ago I got an email from a lovely fellow blogger, Chelly Wood, who is working on a special project with her two daughters.  Chelly explained that she and her girls are using a collection of dolls to make a stop-action version of Shakespeare's classic, Romeo and Juliet.  How cool is that?

I was immediately in love with this idea--and not just because I like doll-related things.  I also have a special fondness for stop-action movies.  When I was a kid, my friend and I used to make these elaborate stop-action sagas with my Playmobil figures.  And that was way before laptops and stop-action technology--we just turned the Betamax (yes, Betamax...) camera on and off as we captured our shots.  It was so much fun.  The other thing that I like about Chelly's work is the amount of care and research that is going into her production.  Chelly and her daughters give attention to every little detail--from costumes and hair to scenery and props.  My limited experience with making movie clips for the blog has given me a great amount of respect for the time and effort required to complete this kind of project.  I am not the only one who is impressed: Chelly's endeavor is already getting media attention, with a story in the Chicago Tribune and a doll-craft article in Designer Dolls Magazine.

I thought it would be fun to showcase Chelly's project here on the blog while the film itself is still in production.  I am always interested to learn about the details behind a creative venture like this one.  Knowing the backstory often adds to my anticipation for--and enjoyment of--the final work of art.  In the upcoming months, you can find updates and news about Romeo and Juliet on Chelly's own website.  I hope you guys are as enchanted by this special project as I am!

Juliet relaxing on one of the beautiful handmade sets of Romeo and Juliet.
For this post, Chelly will introduce herself and her two daughters, and then I will ask a series of questions in the very first Toy Box Philosopher guest interview.  Take it away, Chelly!

Hi! My name is Chelly Wood. I’m an author and English teacher. I’m working on an exciting project with my two teen/tween-aged daughters, Ardie and Annie. We’re making a stop-motion film of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, using dolls as the movie stars.  Here's a link to the YouTube trailer.

Some of the cast of Romeo and Juliet.
My two daughters are adding their talents to the production. Ardie, age 14, is enrolled in a talented-and-gifted art program. Inspired by the now-famous Tree Change dolls, Ardie stripped our dolls of their glamorous makeup and did a more period-correct Renaissance re-paint of all the dolls’ faces. She has been painting the sets for the stage as well.

Here’s a picture of her painting Capulet’s garden:

Ardie painting the Capulet's garden backdrop for Romeo and Juliet.
Here’s a picture of Friar Lawrence in the finished garden:

At age 12, my youngest daughter, Annie, already has a background in theater. She starred as Mamma Swan in Jump Company’s local production of “The Ugly Duckling” last year, and she’s enrolled in her school’s drama classes. She also attends drama camp at the local junior college in the summer.

Annie is the primary stop-motion photographer in the Romeo and Juliet project, since she really has a good eye for stage design. She has also created the props for this production, including Mardi Gras masks, pottery, swords, and baskets of vegetables.

The “eggplants” shown in this marketplace scene were her invention: Jelly Belly jellybeans topped with green modeling clay:

Here's a close-up:

My daughters and I have been doing our best to make this a well-researched, carefully designed film, representing Shakespeare’s tale of Romeo and Juliet with meticulous attention to historical and literary detail. 

Emily: Hi Chelly!  Welcome, and thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed on the blog!  I am thrilled to showcase a project like this...and also excited to be doing my first online interview. 

Chelly: Thank you, Emily. I’m very flattered to be given this opportunity to work with you.

Here's the actual Chelly Wood.
Emily:  I’d love to know how you came up with the idea for this project, and why you chose Romeo and Juliet to recreate?

Chelly: I had been mulling the idea around in my head for quite a while. I had been teaching middle school English, but I wanted to teach high school because of my love of Shakespeare. I saw this as a way to keep a foot in both worlds. Oddly enough, after we started the project, I got a job at a high school, and this past year I got to teach my favorite Shakespeare play of all, Othello. Perhaps for our next project, we’ll film that play too!

Emily: It's probably cliché, but Romeo and Juliet is my favorite Shakespeare play--except that the ending is so freaking sad.  As a teenager I read the book over and over again, almost as if I expected the ending to change if I read it enough times.  It didn’t work.  My fascination/obsession with this play certainly drew me to your project, but I was also really interested because of the diversity of dolls that you cast.

I’d love to know more about some of these dolls and why they were chosen for their roles.  Let’s start with the main characters, Romeo and Juliet.  Which doll did you pick for Juliet? 

Chelly: For Juliet, my daughters and I invested in a “So Cute Marine” version of Momoko. In the photo, she looks significantly different than the doll who arrived via USPS because she’s wearing a wig (made by me), and Ardie has re-painted her face:

Repainted and re-wigged "So Cute Marine" Momoko.
Emily: I found a promotional picture of So Cute Marine, if anyone else is curious (here's a link).  Chelly, you have a multi-talented family!  That wig is incredible.  Here's a close-up of the wig and of Ardie's face-up:

Emily: Did you have a specific vision for Juliet before you started the customizations? And if so, where does that vision come from?   I always picture the gorgeous Franco Zeffirelli cast.

Chelly: For Juliet, we wanted a doll who looked young. Women in the 15th century usually got married before they were even sixteen. Neither of my daughters had seen a movie of Romeo and Juliet when we first started this project, and I’m glad they came at it with fresh eyes. They helped me choose Momoko, whom we bought on eBay, based more on cost than on typecasting notions. So I guess you could say our vision came from our pocketbook! LOL!

Emily: Well, that’s certainly a good reason!  And Momoko is a great choice--she has a very youthful face and I think she's quite beautiful.  Did you consider any other dolls for this role?  

Chelly: We tossed around the idea of using Skipper for Juliet, but our Skipper’s face seemed very child-like:

Another doll we considered for the role was a World of Love doll from Hasbro, named Peace. However neither of these dolls is fully articulated, and for a major player in the movie, it’s important to use a well-articulated doll.

Emily: Well, it's no secret around here that I am a huge fan of well-articulated dolls.  And now I have yet another reason to like them: they can star in stop-action movies!   I agree with you about Skipper.  She does look really young.  I like your version of Skipper though.  She has great coloring.

I am not familiar with the World of Love dolls at all.  Peace looks cute!

Chelly: Here's another picture of Peace:

And for some size references, here's Skipper next to a Barbie doll and Peace next to the same doll:

Emily: Peace's polka-dotted dress is adorable.  In fact, I love all of the costumes I've seen so far--especially Juliet’s dress.  Can you tell us more about the costumes for this production?  It looks like you made historically-accurate outfits for every single doll in the cast.  I get tired just thinking about that!

Chelly: Yes, I took the time to carefully research the costumes of the period. I adapted my Ken dolls’ costumes to include more of a swashbuckler-style pair of pants, rather than the traditional tights-with-codpiece that would have been popular in the 15th century because that seems to be what children like to play with most. Tights are hard to get on and off of dolls.  

EmilyI agree that tights can be hard to manage, especially for younger kids.  I like the choice you made.  Also, could Ken really pull off tights and a codpiece??

Chelly: Ha ha ha!  Oh--I should mention that all of my costumes’ sewing patterns are free to the public on my website. Each pattern also comes with a free YouTube video, showing moms (and collectors) how to sew the costume for their own family’s dolls.  Here's the pattern for Romeo's outfit for your readers to use (you can click the images to make them full-sized for printing):

Here's a link to the YouTube tutorial for the jacket.

And here's a link to the YouTube tutorial for the pants.

Emily: That’s awesome!  Thank you!  I wish my sewing skills were good enough to take advantage of your free patterns.  I did not inherit the sewing gene from my talented mother, it seems.  

Chelly: Well, I’ve been sewing historical costumes for dolls since I was sixteen years old. I remember making an Elizabethan collar for one of my doll dresses when I was in high school. I guess my creative mind is capable of going there, but customers who buy doll clothes aren’t always interested in historical accuracy. By the way, I no longer sell my doll clothes; however I have doll clothes giveaways on my website. When we’re done filming Romeo and Juliet, we will eventually give away all of the costumes. For Cinco de Mayo, I gave away a Barbie quinceañera dress.

Emily: That is incredibly generous.  I might be lurking around when that giveaway happens....

Emily (again): So, we’ve gotten a peek at Romeo’s costume, but can you tell us more about the doll?  It's a Ken doll, right?

Chelly: We gave it a lot of thought, and we decided to cast Texas A&M Ken as Romeo:

Emily: I can’t say that I have ever seen this version of Ken before.  Did he require a lot of customization to get just the right look?  

Chelly: Romeo has gone through the most changes as the project has progressed. At first we wanted to have one of the Ryan dolls play Romeo. Then we changed our minds because we found Texas A&M Ken online, and he was more articulated. However his hair wasn’t what we had pictured for the role. We made him a hat, which helped a bit, but it still wasn’t exactly what we were looking for. We tried making him a wig which looked really awful on him. So we bought a professional wig from a doll wig company. We’re still not 100% satisfied with his look, so he may go through more changes before we’re through with the production.

If your readers have any ideas they’d like to share, we’d love to hear them!

Ryan trying out for the role of Romeo.
Emily: Ryan is very handsome--I see why you thought of him.  I also think your Texas A&M Ken looks great as Romeo, though.  The wig makes him look very different from most Ken dolls.  I think it's pretty difficult to find a realistic pre-made male doll wig.  They often need trimming beyond my level of comfort.

How many points of articulation does that Texas A&M Ken have?  Does he have bendable knees?  Ken dolls with good joints seem rare.

Chelly:  Texas A&M Ken bends at the knees, ankles, wrists, elbows, and is highly flexible through the hips, neck, and shoulders. He’s the most articulated Ken doll I’ve ever owned.

Emily:  Oooh. Now I want one!  That sounds fantastic for a Ken doll (in my limited experience).  And Momoko is really well-articulated, too, so this pair can probably pose well together.  Let's take a little sneak peek at the two of them (this is before either had a wig change):

Emily: How many of the other characters from the play will appear in your film?  

Chelly: There will be nineteen dolls in the film, all together. We cast a different doll for each of the ten key characters: Romeo, Juliet, Father Capulet, Lady Capulet, Father Montague, Lady Montague, Benvolio, Mercutio, Tybalt, and Friar Laurence. Then there are dolls who play extras. Many of the extras are dolls my daughters played with when they were young, but one of the extras will be played by my vintage Tammy Doll.

Emily: This is really amazing.  I’d love to see a cast list, too, so we can keep track of everybody.

Chelly: here you go!  I've also added names to the cast picture so you can identify the dolls easily.

Romeo = Texas A&M Ken
Juliet = So Cute Marine Momoko
Father Capulet = Twilight’s Jasper
Lady Capulet = Barbie 
Nurse = Barbie (African-American)
Father Montague = “Ryan” Ken doll
Lady Montague = Barbie
Benvolio = “Soul” of the World of Love dolls from Hasbro
Mercutio = Ken (one of my daughters’ older ones)
Tybalt = “Finnick Odair” from the Hunger Games dolls
Friar Laurence = Texas A&M Ken (African-American)
Count Paris & the Prince = “Ryan” Ken dolls

Emily: This is such a fun assortment of dolls!  I am especially intrigued by the Tammy doll and the World of Love dolls--since I know the least about them.

Chelly: My aunt had a Tammy doll that I used to play with when I was little. So when I saw one on eBay, I bought her, thinking I’d give her to my aunt as a gift. But then my aunt moved into a smaller house and got rid of a lot of her collections. So I kept Tammy doll.  She plays an extra in the film:

Here's my other World of Love doll, Soul.  She is playing Benvolio (a male character) in the play:

Emily: I spent quite a while searching the internet for World of Love dolls after you introduced me to Peace and Soul.  They may not have fantastic articulation, but they look appealing--I especially like their outfits and packaging.  Predictably, Flower (the redhead) is my favorite.  I sense a vintage doll quest in my near future...

I have to say again, I think the costumes you've made are incredible. All of those tiny lace-up sleeves and beautiful jewelry accents!  And the mix of fabrics and styles is such eye candy.  Can we look at a few more of the dolls up close?

Chelly: Here are Lady Montague (Barbie) and Father Montague (Jasper from Twilight) in their costumes but before their hair and makeup:

And here they are again after their transformation:

Emily: I think the face paint on Father Montague is especially nice.  What a difference!

Chelly: Here's a closer look at another Texas A&M Ken doll playing Friar Laurence:

And Ryan (wearing Tybalt's costume) with the nurse (another Barbie):

Emily: Do you or your daughters collect a lot of dolls? Any other sizes and styles of doll from what we see in the Romeo and Juliet cast? 

Chelly: Ardie collects Breyer horses and dolls, but like her mother, making stuff for these toys is where the fun lies. Her home-made saddles and tack are extremely detailed and colorful, and she’s learning to sew for her Breyer dolls as well. She recently made a polka dot dress (a more modern style than the Romeo and Juliet costumes), and she designs and makes her own blankets for her horses:

She’s hoping to start an Etsy account this summer so she can sell her creations, like I did with my doll clothes when I was in high school. People can follow her on Pinterest under the pseudonym “Emily Teapot,” and her Instagram account is emily_teapot23.

Emily: Oh yes!  I watched the saddle-making tutorial she made for YouTube.  Ardie sounds like a girl after my own heart--but more talented!  I had a huge collection of Breyer horses when I was a kid, but I only had one good (pre-made) saddle.  I used to knit little stuffed horses to play with, too, and I could knit tack sets for them to wear, but I never discovered a way to make realistic tack sets for my plastic models.

I love these pictures of Ardie's horse ("Snowman") with Juliet and some fantastic handmade tack.  They are a gorgeous pair!  Here's one more picture:

Emily: Ardie’s creative talents are responsible for the sets of Romeo and Juliet, too, I believe.  The sets look fantastic--and it seems like there are a lot of scenes.  How did Ardie come up with the designs for each room or scene?

Chelly: Ardie took the time to research each background scene meticulously. She did some online research, studying the types of trees that would have been common in Italy in the 15th Century. Columbus didn’t discover America until 1492, so some trees found in Italy today would have been native to North or South America back then. Europeans imported American plants after Columbus discovered the Americas, so modern Italian scenes may include plants that wouldn’t have been around back then. The background we call “Capulet’s Garden” shows a number of typically European plants, including climbing ivy and shrubs that were native to 15th century Italy:

In this Capulet's Garden scene, the plastic trees were purchased at Michaels' craft store, but the girls had a hand in choosing which props would suit our stage. Ardie did a lot of research before painting the trees that surround the fountain. She wanted to make sure the trees were period-correct.

The pillar used in Capulet's Garden is a wrapping paper tube hot glued to a round piece of wood.

Ardie used a classical painting of Capulet's Tomb to inspire her Capulet's Tomb set. She used a Converse shoe box for the dias or sepulchre where Juliet's body will lie when Romeo finds her in Act 5.

Through online research, we discovered "Capuletti" is the real Italian name of the Capulet family, so we added some clipart with the word "Capuletti" to the shoe box sepulchre:

Ardie also painted the church, where Romeo and Juliet's wedding will take place:

And the city of Verona backdrop:

Emily: the way you incorporate education into this project is genius.  I've learned quite a bit from just our short interview!  Making this movie seems like an amazing teaching tool.  Do you share anything about the project with your students?

Chelly: Absolutely. One day this year (while teaching Othello), I took all my dolls to school and set them up in costumes. It’s funny: the boys were the first ones to run over and grab up the dolls to look them over closely. They thought the swords and sheaths were really neat! And these are high school boys -- football players and basketball players! Ha ha! Next year, before we begin our Othello unit, I hope to show them the Romeo and Juliet video as a review from their Freshman English class.

Emily: That’s wonderful.  I think it says a lot about the kids you teach and the trust in your classroom.  I’m not sure my students would have responded as positively to me using dolls to teach biology..?  Maybe I underestimate them, though.  They do like it when I mention unicorns….

In almost all of the pictures you sent, I notice intricate little props and details everywhere.  Like in this picture (that I've already shown...) with Ryan and the nurse:

The dolls, costumes and backdrop look amazing, but my eye also wanders around to take in the chair with it's fringed pillows, an earthenware pot, a wine bottle, a wooden crate, and several decorated boxes.  It's so fun!  Does Annie make a lot of these items herself?

Chelly: Annie has designed quite a few tiny props. There will be a scene with a pretty China hutch, and Annie is responsible for designing some of the China pictured in that scene. When she's not working on the Romeo and Juliet project, she loves to make her own jewelry, so she made a teapot out of beads that was very cleverly designed.

Annie made the prince's crown, Friar Laurence's rosary, books for the China hutch, and the paper "candles" on the candelabra. She made all the candles in the China hutch as well.

Photo: Steven Deelstra of Ellenis Productions Photography.
This scene also captures many little props in the background:

Annie also designed the jewelry worn by Father Capulet and Lady Capulet. I found some images of historical jewelry online, showed the pictures to her, and she designed those dolls' jewelry to suit the jewelry of the era.

Emily: So, once you have your beautifully-dressed cast, historically accurate sets and detailed little props and jewelry, you still have to script the play and do the filming!  Did you use only Shakespeare’s original words and dialogue?

Chelly: So far, yes. We read from my college Complete Works of Shakespeare text book, highlighting the dialogue we want to include.

Photo: Steven Deelstra of Ellenis Productions Photography.
Emily: When I think about filming a complex play like this, I can’t help but wonder about how you manage all of the dolls.  When I’m posing dolls for photographs, I try not to use dolls stands.  This gets really hard for certain dolls because they don’t balance very well on their own.  Barbie is one of these troublemakers (unless she has the right shoes).  I imagine that getting a large cast of dolls--with lots of Barbies--to stand up throughout the painstaking process of stop-action photography is a challenge.  

Chelly: We’ve experimented with camouflaging some of our stands, using sand-textured paint to cover the stands so they match the sandy stage beneath them. However we don’t use the sandy stage floor for the indoor scenes. In those scenes, the female characters’ full skirts often hide the stands well, but we sometimes struggle to get the male characters’ legs to hide their stands.

Emily: Oh right!  I see the sandy stands in some of the pictures now that you mention them.  Here's a clip:

Chelly: One bad thing about the highly articulated dolls is that they're a little slippery when we use stands with them. This applies to a lot of the dolls we use. The more articulated they are, the more problems we have with them collapsing into their stands.

Emily: Yeah, I have to reluctantly agree with you on that.  As much as I adore articulated dolls, they can be pesky on stands.

Is there any particular doll-managing challenge or accomplishment that stands out in your mind from the scenes you have shot so far?

Chelly: There’s a fencing scene in Act 1, and for that scene we used fishing wire to create a sort of puppeting effect with the dolls. It worked pretty well to make the fencers’ movements look natural as they lunged and parried. It also helps to have my two daughters involved in the stop-motion filming. One of us will act as photographer while the other two move the dolls. On Sunday we were able to shoot 50 frames in an hour, which is really good time, but we were only able to do that because all three of us cooperated, taking different roles in the process of filming.

Emily: I used a similar technique for my highly-acclaimed (cough!) talking Disney Store doll film.  My boys moved the dolls while I filmed.  They loved that job (cough, cough!!).  Even doing that very short, amateur-ish clip makes me appreciate the effort involved in this kind of venture. 

How long has it taken you so far to make your film?

Chelly: Creating the costumes and sets has taken the most time. We have literally spent the past year doing just that prep work. Filming will speed up once the kids are out for summer vacation, so we hope to finish the entire production over the summer. What a fun way to spend our summer months, right?  We’re really looking forward to it!

Emily: Well, I am really looking forward to seeing the completed film.  After all of your work, what do you estimate for the final length of the movie?  

Chelly: We’re currently wrapping up Act I, and it is a little over three minutes long.  So, based on that, I guess the whole film will take about 15 minutes to watch altogether. I was hoping to keep it under 10 minutes, but we don’t want to miss any important scenes.

Emily: From what I have seen in these pictures and in your trailer, I think 15 minutes will fly by...and leave us wanting more!

You know, as a kid (and even now) I was fascinated by the idea of backstage.  I always wanted to go backstage and see that secret world, and maybe catch a glimpse of the actors after the show had ended--get some clues to the inner workings of the productions that I found magical.  I wonder if you would be willing to share any pictures of the "backstage" to your film?  Some glimpses of you, Ardie and Annie making the magic happen?

Chelly: Sure!  Here are some pictures that Steven Deelstra took of us for the Chicago Tribune article.

Photo: Steven Deelstra of Ellenis Productions Photography.
Photo: Steven Deelstra of Ellenis Productions Photography.
Photo: Steven Deelstra of Ellenis Productions Photography.
Photo: Steven Deelstra of Ellenis Productions Photography.
Photo: Steven Deelstra of Ellenis Productions Photography.
Photo: Steven Deelstra of Ellenis Productions Photography.
Emily: That is exactly what I was hoping for, Chelly!  Thank you. I especially love that last picture.  You all look like you are having the best time.  I wish you had been my English teacher in high school. :)

I think I already know the answer to this next question, but do you have plans to make more stop-action movies after this?  

Chelly: I would like to film Othello and perhaps Treasure Island. Currently there aren’t a lot of film versions of these two literary works that are easily accessible for teachers to show in their classrooms. The Laurence Fishburne version of Othello is fantastic, but it’s rated R. And the best version of Treasure Island is the one starring Charlton Heston and Christian Bale, but it’s only available in VCR format. I’d love to provide these stories in a Rated “G” version for educators, doll lovers, and children.

Emily: Would Ardie and Annie be eager to do it again, too?

Chelly: Definitely! Because of her love for Breyer horses, Ardie wants to film The Legend of Falling Rock, with a twist on the Buffalo Bill Cody Wild West Show. Annie’s a big fan of Shakespeare and wants to do A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Emily: And last, do you have tips for anyone who might feel inspired by your epic project and want to try something similar?

Chelly: Yes. My advice is this: have FUN with it. During our first attempt at filming, our camera got moved somehow, and most of the shots ended up cutting off the heads of all the dolls. At first Annie was really upset. She didn’t cry, but she was very frustrated. So I said, “Now listen. Did you have fun while you were filming?” She said, “Yes.” I responded with, “Well then, today was a success!” And we’ve tried to maintain that attitude ever since.

It’s not about the final product; it’s about the fun you have along the way.


  1. Othello is my favorite Shakespeare play too! I can't wait to see your stop-motion version (and, of course, your completed Romeo and Juliet film). The level of detail and effort that you and your daughters have put in is incredible, and I adore the trailer.

  2. I am following Chelly's blog. I am excited about the stop-action production of Romeo and Juliet coming up. Can't wait to see the finished product.

  3. Wow, that really is an epic undertaking. I'm excited to see the final result!

  4. As a person who has taught Shakespeare and a miniaturist to boot, I find this fascinating! The artwork and costuming is fabulous! I can't imagine the added stop motion aspect of it! Too AWESOME!

    1. p.s. The multicultural addition just sweetens the whole project!

  5. How fun! I would die to see someone do a full stop-motion doll picture of Peter Pan, however finding the dolls for it would be a nightmare. :P Not to mention tiny little Tinkerbell!
    Juliet's hair makes me giggle. So many curls! This looks really lovely, and I'm happy to see Shakespeare's work being turned into something fun for kids to enjoy, whilst still being accurate.
    Also, Emily, I really do encourage you to work backstage on a real show. Perhaps not right now with your foot still healing, but check around with local theater groups, especially youth theater. Backstage is a lot harder than it looks, but so much fun. Depending on the curtains you might be able to see most of the show, and you'll certainly know all of the magic! I can spoil a lot of secrets if you want, just ask. ;)

  6. As a huge Shakespeare (and doll) fan I absolutely love this. All the tiny details are magnificent. Thank you for bring this to my attention. I can't wait to see the finished movie.

  7. Great work as usual. I've been stalking your blog anticipating your next build.

  8. My spouse and i also think your Texas A&M Ken seems to be great as Romeo, though. The wig makes him look unique from most Ken dolls. I think it's pretty nearly impossible to find a realistic pre-made male girl doll wig. They often need trimming beyond my comfortableness.

  9. I'd always go back to the classic - especially since these novels are taught or discussed at school, too! Trying to bring it back to "life" using medium that kids these days can relate to is a good thing.

  10. what a nice memory it is.. amazingly depicted.