My name is Dane Neves and I became a puppeteer so you don't have to.
I was a 90s kid growing up in Hawaiʻi. There was something about taking an inanimate object and breathing discernible life into it that really got me stimulated.
I was always hunting for opportunities to put on a show like during hotel downtime on family vacations. I even had a short stint as a ventriloquist on days when my grandparents came over to visit.
What started as a seemingly innocuous hobby blossomed into a trademark once I got to college.
The Monkeyboy Fever
I studied film at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa from 2004 to 2007. Like film, puppetry is a visual art. It can be used as an alternate method of communication, eliciting unique emotions from your audience. I figured if I could combine the two mediums somehow, I would stand out.
So, I started shooting my own passion projects right away with the intent to develop a somewhat passable reel by the time I graduated; fun little guerilla-style short films, starring my friends and all featuring a puppet of some sort.
By the time I reached my final year in college, I was known to my small community of classmates as that guy who made all those quirky, fantastical comedies. Then I hit them with The Monkeyboy Fever.
This was my film school thesis film, shot on mini-DV tape with a budget of about a thousand dollars, most of which went to special effects makeup, which was totally worth it. And yes, there was a prominently-featured monkey puppet that I performed. It was weird. It was provocative. It was my Mona Lisa. Not only was this the first directed film of mine that screened in a movie theater, like an actual movie theater with an audience, but it was the first time the masses saw my puppetry. That was a big deal for me.
This was the kind of movie I wanted to create as a filmmaker going forward and I ran with it.
Puppet Cinematic Universe
The post-college stage of my life is attributed to what I like to call The Puppet Cinematic Universe. From 2008 to 2012, I was banging out production after production of independently-financed puppet-centric short films with former film school classmates of mine, pretty much the most creative people on the planet.
During these productions, we were all learning the joys and pains of filming puppets because, let's face it, a puppet cannot do everything that we would expect of a living actor.
Additionally, puppeteering is no job for a weakling. In order to give off the illusion that the puppet is naturally living in the same space as the human actors, the puppeteer needs to be completely out of frame, off-camera. That involves crouching, bending, hunching, hiding, and lifting an object above your head in the same position for minutes on end while keeping its eyes locked on a targeted spot. However, these limitations give it its character.
A lot of people ask me, “Do you make your own puppets?” and I tell them “No. I'm a pilot, but I don't build my own airplanes.” In the past, I was repurposing old stuffed animals. Going forward, I was determined to step up my game and collaborate with a professional puppet builder to design and fabricate my original characters.
A custom puppet can cost you anywhere from five hundred to fifteen hundred dollars. The materials may cost a builder up to two hundred dollars for foam, fleece and costuming and they require twenty to one hundred hours of labor. My problem was there were no professionals in Hawaiʻi that specialized in constructing the kind of puppets I wanted.
Thankfully, I stumbled upon Mr. Eddie Horn, an Illinois-based comedian by day and an insightful puppet-builder by night. Eddie blessed me with puppets for The Green Tie Affair, Giant Monsters Attack Hawaii!, and Poison Apple.
With the support from the community and 30 some odd awards later, the success of these films motivated me to take my puppetry to alternative platforms.
Not Another Puppet Show
For three years, I produced Not Another Puppet Show, a web series featuring an avatar puppet of myself (we'll call him Puppet Dane) telling jokes to special guests. The series wasn't necessarily a hit on YouTube, but it was a great excuse for me to work with local celebrities.
This avatar puppet went through a few design changes over the years and eventually became the version he is today, built by Australian artist Jarrod Boutcher.
Pele Awards: The Musical
In 2017, I was invited by entertainer/entrepreneur Jason Lent to develop the libretto for, direct, and perform as Puppet Dane in Pele Awards: The Musical, an awards banquet honoring the best of Hawaiʻi's advertising industry.
With 11 original songs written by myself and Jason, and dramatized by local singers, actors, and dancers, Pele Awards: The Musical proved to the audience that "everyone deserves a shot".
FELT Something Beautiful
I have always composed music for my own film projects because, honestly, I did not want to spend money on that department and I felt that I had an adequate music background. Knowing that the songs I composed for my musicals just kind of got buried inside the films they were featured in made me yearn for a chance to re-record them professionally as full-length, standalone tracks.
So, I set out to immortalize those songs with a concept music album called Felt Something Beautiful, told through the point of view of Puppet Dane. In addition to releasing the album on all major digital music platforms, I shot 10 music videos, one for each song.
This was the point in my life where I felt I had really made it as Hawaiʻi's premier multi-media puppeteer.
Parental Guidance Suggested
When the global pandemic hit in 2020, I had two puppet projects simultaneously in the works.
The first was a documentary called Parental Guidance Suggested featuring two parents, represented as puppets, seeking advice from local LGBT leaders in the community on how to better understand their gay son. The final shot of Parental Guidance Suggested was recorded on the day that the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Hawaiʻi. I was fortunate to complete the film in a timely manner, but I felt somewhat cursed to exhibit it on a completely virtual film festival run. In the end, the film ended up screening in 19 film festivals and won 7 awards.
Next was a YouTube series called Lonesome featuring a ghost puppet virtually interviewing a bunch of creatives on how they were keeping up in the new (para)normal. Like Not Another Puppet Show, Lonesome was an excuse for me to connect with celebrities and influencers (the ones that responded to my invitation emails at least) while staying creatively active during quarantine. Lonesome lasted for 4 seasons (10 episodes per season).
With the pandemic's uncertain longevity, these two projects kept me at ease knowing that I could still share my puppetry to the world, albeit a world not necessarily focused on the art form at the time.
That’s when this came into my purview...
Jim Henson Audition
This was a Facebook post by the Jim Henson Company seeking top talent and new creative voices from diverse communities and backgrounds to train as puppeteers in the Jim Henson technique. To qualify for this workshop, you had to be a member of the LGBT community, a person of color, or a woman of all cultural backgrounds. I definitely passed for at least two of those. So, of course, I sent in an application.
A few weeks later, I got an invitation to audition. I felt like I had won the lottery.
The actual audition was held virtually via Zoom. It was just me and two great personalities - Kevin Clash, who was the original performer of Elmo and Baby from Dinosaurs, as well as Patrick Bristow, who hosted the puppet improv sketch show Puppet Up. I used my Puppet Dane to carry an improvised conversation with Patrick.
Having had next to no formal training on puppetry, a few of my insecurities were addressed. Kevin informed me that my eyeline focus was good. However, I was told that my energy was too manic, like I downed a hundred cups of coffee before joining the meeting. They were right. My act needed more evident intimacy sprinkled in there.
In any case, their last words to me were something like, “We'll let you know in about a week!”.
The next week felt like an eternity. I had connected with another puppeteer who auditioned for the workshop who exchanged speculations with me about the whole process.
Thank you for applying for The Jim Henson Company's Puppeteer Training Workshop. With limited space and an overwhelming amount of interest, the highly selective workshop required us to make some very difficult decisions, and unfortunately you were not chosen to be a participant.
Just to have been invited to audition was an honor.
I have to pinch myself sometimes when other members of the community, sometimes people I've never met before, approach me knowing that I do puppetry. After all, continually active puppeteers are few and far between in Hawaiʻi. When a project develops that is in need of a puppet, I'll be the first to volunteer as tribute.
In October 2021, Hawaiʻi's LGBT Legacy Foundation invited me to perform puppetry (Lonesome and Puppet Dane) for the annual Honolulu Pride celebration. My puppets were featured in the Virtual After Party show that streamed online. During the recording of this program, helmed by the brilliant Sandy Livingston and sprinkled with the infectious humor of drag queen Miss Candi Shell, I felt truly at home - giving these inanimate characters a vivacious soul while supporting a noble cause. I was reminded of why I became a puppeteer in the first place.