Charlie the stop-motion puppeteer

Charlie and I met by chance. She’d just moved to Berlin from Melbourne and was looking to sublet my flat while I was away — she’d seen my ad on Facebook and sent me a message. I liked her immediately. She turned up at my door like an explosion of energy. At first I thought it was nervous energy but after five minutes I realised it isn’t nerves — it’s this sort of radioactive creativity she keeps contained but at any moment could bubble up and boil over. I’d never come across that before.

We chatted at my kitchen table over peppermint tea. I asked for her story — who she is, where she came from, why she’s here. I’m an enthusiastic person with big reactions — but what she told me had my jaw on the floor. So after we became friends I asked if she’d mind me interviewing her for No Filter and taking a few snaps of her work, too. Because Charlie’s story is the best thing I’d ever heard.

We meet at a coffee shop near her studio on a stiflingly hot day in May. It’s that impossibly thick, still heat specific to Berlin summers when the air feels like warm cotton and there’s no way of escaping.

We order iced coffee. Charlie speaks in quick bursts, each sentence condensed into lightning speed segments, somehow all of it totally intelligible. “I’veneverbeeninterviewedbefore,” she says. “SorryifIsoundunnatural.” As usual she’s bursting with colour, her hair red, eyes blue, dress multi-coloured. The thing is though Charlie’s colour doesn’t come from what she wears — it kind of radiates from within.

We begin with how she learnt to knit. “My dad taught me how to knit when I was a small child,” she says. “He isn’t crafty but for some reason he knew how to knit.” At the age of seven Charlie began using her knitting skills to make Friends. “Which sounds pretty tragic.” She laughs. “But I’d go and make like a bear and it would have a personality and it would be a Friend.”

Charlie continued to make these characters throughout her life, knitting her way through school and university making increasingly intricate figurines out of wool. “The Friends were very basic for years — like just rectangles with eyes on them. And then eventually they started to have arms and mouths. It was an evolution over my teenage years.”

She had no outside influence to create these Friends — they came to her totally naturally. “I don’t know why I started doing it. I’ve always done it. I’m a bit of an anxious person. I pick my nails, I used to stammer, I get quite nervous. So it’s very therapeutic because you’re just doing the same action over and over again. It calms me down.”

Charlie has a favourite friend. “My best friend is Jerome. I met Jerome maybe 6 years ago. I’d moved into an apartment by myself. I was single at the time and was worried I was going to be lonely. So I decided to knit myself a boyfriend to live with me. So I made Jerome. He has red hair as well. We’ve been living together for 6 years now. He goes everywhere with me and I make him different outfits.”

Photo by Charlie

Charlie pauses for a moment before she tells me “I actually have a tattoo. You know how some people get tattoos of their boyfriends names on them and they always regret it? I have a love heart with Jerome because I know we’re never going to break up. It’s my only tattoo and it’s the only one I’ll ever get.” She doesn’t specify where it is.

Three years ago a friend suggested to Charlie she try stop-motion animation. “That way I could bring these Friends to life — not just in my imagination. They could actually move on screen. Apart from Wallace and Gromit I’d never really thought about stop-motion, especially with knitting.” She did some research and started putting wire in her toys. She’d get them to pose for photographs and learnt how to put together animations. “And it just spiralled from there.”

Charlie studied Finance, Accounting and Chinese at university. (I ask her if she’s an actual genius and she gives me this modest look which is meant to depict ‘no’ but definitely means ‘yes’.) “When I finished school I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do and my dad was a banker. So it felt like a good option.”

Charlie didn’t want to do an arts degree because she couldn’t see how she could turn her passion into a job. So from her early 20s she worked in corporate strategy. “I had pretty intense hours during the week but it felt like my day started at 8pm when I went home and started working on my characters. I’d spend all day thinking about it and planning it and all weekend would be about that — it was quite consuming. But I loved it so much.”

From Corporate Strategist to Stop-Motion Puppeteer

Charlie turned 30 in summer 2018 and felt that she’d done a good job in corporate strategy — she wanted a break. A year previous she’d started an Instagram account to showcase her work and discovered tons of people in the industry — most of whom lived in America. She took a month off work and travelled to the states to meet them. “I came back from the US and within a week I’d quit my job, sold my car, put my house up for sale,” she says.

She announced to her friends and family she was leaving and then flew to America to begin an internship with an animation studio. But with a post-Trump crackdown on immigration laws, when Charlie got to the States she was held in a room and questioned for 12 hours. They didn’t believe she was there for unpaid work so they sent her straight back to Melbourne.

Traumatised, she decided to spend the next three months in Tokyo reassessing. “I’d been to Berlin eight years earlier for a few months and had really nice memories of the place — so I decided to go to Europe and base myself there. So I did and I had nowhere to live, and then I met you.”

If there’s any place in the world to transition from corporate strategist to stop-motion puppeteer, it’s Berlin. No one has corporate jobs in this city. The U Bahn is just as packed at 8:30am on a Monday as it is at 3pm on a Wednesday. The city is for floaters and freelancers, for people trying to make it in whatever wacky industry they’ve selected, and the low cost of living means steady income is not a necessity.

“There aren’t even skyscrapers here,” Charlie says. “And I think it was easier to move to another country to get this going. Here I’m anonymous, no one knows me or cares about what I’m doing.”

A year since her leap into a puppeteer career

“I get a lot of commissions through Instagram. Either to make toys or very specific puppets. Stop-motion is a niche and knitted puppets are a niche within a niche. They’re very unusual. They’re usually made out of clay or silicone or something like this. If anyone wants a knitted puppet for animation I’m kind of the only option. So I’ve got a few nice commissions through that.”

And then there’s Pot Pals. “I made a show with characters and audio and a storyline. So far I’ve never made anything that long, it’s always been like ten second short clips for Instagram.” Charlie’s dream is to make her own kids show and she plans to use Pot Pals as leverage to get funding for it. “Pot pals is about two little pot plants who are friends. I wanted to make something that’s relatable. Most people own a pot plant. I wanted something educational and silly for children. My inspiration for animation stuff comes from kids shows from when I was little. I used to watch the magic roundabout. These absurd concepts are so funny and clever, that’s the kind of thing I get excited about.”

Photo by James Harvey

A week after our interview Charlie sent me a message on Facebook to tell me that she and Jerome are packing up and moving away from Berlin. After a year away from home she achieved what she came for — to set up a flourishing stop-motion puppeteer career. I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye in person but I know I’ll see her again in the future, or maybe just her characters on kids TV. But for now I’ve written this feature; a little token to commemorate our chance meeting.

Words and snaps by Alice Austin

Check out Charlie’s Instagram.

And here’s the first episode of Pot Pals.

London born, Berlin based club culture & nightlife writer

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