When Holly Beth Moncher decided to produce a video series of her popular Time for Manners educational program for young children, she decided to enlist the help of her brother, Tex Ragsdale, and B.K. Taylor, his partner in a number of creative projects, to act as producers. An artist and illustrator, Taylor had designed and run Muppet characters for Jim Henson himself and so proposed a number of new Time for Manners characters that could continue through the entire series. He and Ragsdale had worked together on a Nickleodeon puppet show, “Eureeka’s Castle,” and had written scripts for Disney.
So as the three developed the Time for Manners programs, the structure and characters began to take shape. There would be three major puppet characters, Tara and Tyler, a girl and boy who are twins, and their friend Wesley. Other friends and characters would make appearances, such as their dog, Rudy. But the signature character of the series would be Merlin Manners, a fanciful guy who’s part clock, and introduces each DVD. Merlin also shows up during the shows, emphasizing ideas and important points.
Taylor’s custom puppet designs were sent to MAT Puppets, of Salem, Virginia, where Mary Ann Taylor (no relation to B.K.) created the characters out of foam, fabric, and plastic. These became “rod puppets,” where the puppeteer controls the limbs from beneath by means of a thin metal rod, as is done with many of the Muppets. Additional ready-made puppets were used for some peripheral characters, such as a teacher and bus driver.
Seasoned actors and voice talent, such as Jennifer Kincer, Dennis Moylan, Dane Downer, and Molly Pound, were coached by Taylor according to what he had learned from Henson and his own extensive experience on past shows like Detroit’s Hot Fudge. Taylor also performed several of the characters himself. Steve Karr was chosen as director of photography. With 20 years experience in media and video production, Karr easily switched between roles as DP and director to keep things moving.
The studio was a fairly large, open area, about 600 square feet, with a 12-foot high ceiling, so space to set up equipment and staging was not a problem. The back wall was painted ChromaKey green and everything was shot against that so that backgrounds and effects could be added later. A puppet “stage” was constructed out of cinderblocks and two-by-fours.
The camera had to be raised to about eight feet, to accommodate the working height of the puppets. This was in turn dictated by the length of a puppeteer’s arm raised straight above his/her head with the puppet on the hand. The difficult position itself called for short takes and many rests between shots. Karr’s frequent shout of “Puppets up!” was usually met with groans. Strategically placed monitors under the stage let the puppeteers see what the camera was seeing and play to that.
The puppets’ dialogue was recorded live using headset microphones. All songs and music were recorded separately and then played through a speaker on set, with the puppets miming the words. The songs were written by Ragsdale and Taylor, with recording and arrangements by Lon Winters.
At the end, a stack of digital cassettes was turned over to Alan Bernstein for editing. Since all the puppets’ scenes were shot against the greenscreen wall, Bernstein was able to drop in backgrounds drawn by B.K. Taylor. The scenes were all drawn in a rough, kid-type style, almost as if children had produced them with crayons or colored pencils.
The end result was the new Time for Manners series of videos showing children how to have fun while learning good manners. These videos are now available here on timeformanners.com, which was designed, built and maintained by Jay Ragsdale.
So join Merlin’s Manners Club – and let your family join in the fun!