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SBIFF is a 501(c)(3) non-profit arts and education organization dedicated to making a positive impact utilizing the power of film. SBIFF is a year-round organization that is best known for its main film festival that takes place each year in February. Over the past 30 years the Santa Barbara International Film Festival has become one of the leading film festivals in the United States – attracting 90,000 attendees and offering 11days of 200+ films, tributes and symposiums. We bring the best of independent and international cinema to Santa Barbara, and we continue to expand our year-round operation to include a wide range of educational programming, fulfilling our mission to engage, enrich and inspire our community through film.

In June 2016, SBIFF entered a new era with the acquisition of the historic and beloved Riviera Theatre. The theatre is SBIFF’s new home and is the catalyst for our program expansion. This marks the first time that Santa Barbara has had a 24/7 community center focused on the art of film and is an incredible opportunity to expand our mission of educational outreach. Particularly important to SBIFF is making available high quality learning opportunities for underserved and vulnerable populations. Our programs and reach are more robust than ever before.


Interview with director and puppet master Kevin McTurk for The Haunted Swordsman screening at SBIFF





By Emmanuel Itier

Santa Barbara Film Festival 2020.



When a passionate puppet animator meets Lisa Henson, daughter of legendary Jim Henson (The Muppets, Dark Crystal, Sesame Streets) you get a fantastic visionary endeavor: the short film ‘The Haunted Swordsman’ which just played at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. We sat down with director and puppet master Kevin McTurk ( ) in between festival screenings of his Oscar worthy short.


Q: Tell me about the making of this film and your collaboration with the Jim Henson foundation?


Kevin McTurk: It was a 2 ½ year journey to complete this quite complex short. I work in creature effects and I worked at Henson and with Stan Winston and now I work with Spectral Motion who did the hit Netflix series ‘Stranger Things’. I even work on Disney rides! Years ago, I got the support of the youngest of Jim Henson’s daughter, Heather, who gave me $10,000 to make a short movie. This is how, after a proof of concept, that I ended up directing my first short: ‘The Narrative of Victor Karloch’ in 2012. This was based on a Jules Verne story and it played at the Grand Rex theatre in Paris. At the time, my work was a little rough on the edge: you could see the puppeteers and the puppets were gigantic, 3 feet tall! It took 3 people to operate them. Then I got a little more fancy with my puppets and my sense of directing. My second film was a gothic horror short called ‘The Mill at Calder’s End’. Finally, I was all tight and better prepared with my current short: ‘The Haunted Swordsman’. I also was greatly helped by an amazing cinematrographer, Bennett Cerf, who understood what I was trying to do. For me, this was a passion project and a sort of homage to the samurai films I love from Kurosawa! But also I love road movies like ‘Mad Max: The Road Warrior’ or ‘The Revenant’. I like these stories where it’s really all about a single man against the elements. I think my film is a little bit different from the typical films of the Henson universe like ‘Dark Crystal’ because it has a more visceral and grittier feel. It’s also a very dangerous universe I tried to create to give you a real thrill!



Q: Is the next step to finally direct a feature à la ‘Dark Crystal’ since it seems the Henson family is of influence to you?


Kevin: For sure I’m going to attempt turning this short into a feature. Actually, this short is what happens 20 minutes into the feature version of ‘The Haunted Swordsman’. There is an introduction explaining how and why the samurai ends up where he is in the short. And then the story continues after what happens at the end of the short. It could be at the end a feature or maybe a limited mini series of several short episodes, like ‘The Mandalorian’. I wrote this endeavor with an amazing writer, Tab Murphy, who wrote ‘Gorillas in the Mist’, ‘Brother Bear’ and several other pictures from Disney. He loves, like me, samurai movies.



Q: What was the main challenge making this film?


Kevin: The main challenge was to keep going and make sure we would finish this project. We were on and off because my cinematographer has to take other jobs. And it took me some times to build the right sets and the right puppets. Also, I had to go and work on Guillermo Del Toro produced film ‘Scary Stories’ and that took me away for a while. So, the biggest challenge was to keep the momentum going! Aside from that, shooting with puppets is really difficult because you have to keep moving sceneries around the puppets to keep hiding the puppeteers.


Q: How did the “puppet technology” evolve from your first short in 2012 to this one?


Kevin: The technology is highly more sophisticated nowadays, it’s smoother for sure. It was fun and challenging to build myself the puppets with several colleagues and make sure we were getting the result we had in mind. It’s not so simple to make the heads and limbs movements be as natural as possible. We had different puppets who could do different functions. We have a “stunt” puppet who keeps moving his arm, and then there is a “climbing” puppet who keeps climbing. And of course the “talking heads” was a real “tour de force” to put together. It was a full size head in order to fit all the mechanisms inside in order to do various expressions and to be able to talk with the voice over by actor James Hong.  




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The Santa Barbara International Film Festival has star wattage and a wealth of premieres in a Mediterrean-style city by the sea.

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