This is an article from the fall 2015 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.
Today is puppet-making day.
Within reach, filmmakers Sharon Shattuck (B.S. ’05) and Flora Lichtman have laid cutting mats, X-ACTO knives, laptops, a camera, paper of various colors and sizes, a hot glue gun, LED lights, and a contraption called a Silhouette machine, which looks like a portable printer. As they spread art supplies across two large tables in the kitchen, they listen to the audio cut they’ve already finished for their project. Shattuck turns up the volume on the speaker, and volleying voices describe how paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey discovered ancient human footprints in the African savanna.
Shattuck gets to work making mammoths and camels. She creates the animal outlines and then feeds a sheet of paper into the Silhouette, which cuts with a precision that would be slow going if done by hand. “We call this the game-changer,” she says. “It completely changes the production flow, but I’m always trying to approximate handmade as much as possible.” Lichtman patiently transforms a long strip of paper into grass, cutting it blade by blade. She likes the meditative Zen aspect of working with her hands.
“We try to keep all of the little animals and plants that we make. We kind of have our own little Jim Henson thing going, where we pull out a drawer and it’s a bunch of ferns!” Shattuck says. “But being in New York, we can’t be very sentimental about space.” Shattuck and Lichtman run Sweet Fern Productions, a multimedia company that uses paper puppets and animation to spread science stories in unexpected ways. They’re a small outfit—“It’s like a microbusiness,” Shattuck says—but they’re committed to doing things differently. “It’s exciting that we have this vision for something weird and different, and we’ve been able to make that into something tangible.”
They’re working on the latest video in their Animated Life series for the New York Times. The fourth installment will feature Leakey’s discovery of ancient human footprints, while prior videos have highlighted a forgotten naturalist, microscopes, and Pangaea—the ancient land mass that broke into the separate continents we know today.
But Shattuck insists that the videos really aren’t about any of those things. “They’re about people who didn’t set out to find what they found,” she says. They’re a celebration of underdogs and moments of discovery that change the way that we see the world.
After five or so hours of work, Lichtman has cut about six sheets of grass for their African savanna, and Shattuck has amassed more than a dozen ice-age animals. Next week, they’ll get together again to continue building their paper set. It’s been a long day, and Lichtman is ready to head home. But even as Lichtman says goodbye near the door, Shattuck keeps talking with oblivious enthusiasm about all of the various tree species they’ll be able to include in their paper savanna: “Sausage trees,” she says, “umbrella trees, acacias, date palms, baobabs…”
Shattuck is a Big Plant Nerd
Shattuck is a big plant nerd. She majored in LSA’s Program in the Environment (PitE) during the first year of the program’s existence. She took an ecology class at the U-M Biological Station (UMBS) the summer after her freshman year and loved it. “It’s a different way of doing school,” she says, “and I really responded to that. It got me to start thinking of myself as a scientist.” Some friends there convinced her to take the woody plants course on campus as a sophomore. “That,” she says, “is when I got hooked on botany.”
She joined Burt Barnes (B.S. ’53, Ph.D. ’59), the late professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, in researching red maple trees, and she returned to UMBS to study invasive cattails with the Research Experience for Undergraduates Program. Even after graduating from U-M, she went back to help teach botany and ecology courses at UMBS for several summers.
Shattuck also spent time on Barro Colorado Island in the Panama Canal, monitoring tree seedlings in an experiment to figure out how the forest developed and how it might look in the future. She parlayed that experience into a botanical research position at the Chicago Field Museum. Working with plants was her favorite thing, and she was on track to get a Ph.D. in botany. But the solitude of her botany work meant that sometimes she didn’t talk to a single soul for days at a time. She began feeling lonely and isolated. That’s when she made a drastic decision.
“I’ve got to go to the biggest city and work with people!” Shattuck vowed. “I’m going to communicate science and make movies and make science interesting.”
With no experience in film, Shattuck ditched the academic life of science and moved to New York. She got a master’s degree in digital journalism at New York University; produced videos for PBS, ProPublica, Slate, and Vice; made commercials for Estée Lauder and Louis Vuitton; and created short animations for live-action films.
Shattuck and Lichtman met in New York, got along right away, and made an experimental mini-documentary called Whale Fall, a meditation on what happens to a whale after it dies. People loved and shared the video, which by now has been viewed more than 500,000 times.
“For some reason, it felt like we had the vision. We were like, ‘We can do this!’ even though we’d never done it before,” Shattuck recalls. “And it worked.” That seminal project incorporated the signature paper-puppet aesthetic that has driven most of their collaborative work since then. What began as a fun side project turned into the founding of Sweet Fern Productions and creating science videos with funding from national educational organizations.
Her Network of Collaborators
Her network of collaborators in New York City is one main reason why Shattuck is based there and not in northern Michigan. Otherwise, she says she would stay local to be with friends and family. She grew up in a small town on Little Traverse Bay, less than 30 miles away from UMBS.
“Do you ever think about when you were a really little kid, and what you liked to do?” Shattuck muses. “I used to put on shows, and I would make everybody in my family, and in my extended family, sit down and watch. I would direct everybody around me, making my cousins dance or sing or whatever.
“I don’t know how that turned into documentary,” she says, “but at some point it turned into a fascination with reality. The truth is stranger than fiction, and you find a lot of crazy stories that are true.”
Earlier this year, Shattuck released a feature-length documentary about how her parents’ marriage—and her family—survived her father coming out as a transgender woman.
In her small hometown, Shattuck had little control over her own personal history. She and her family were just too visible in the community, and everyone knew and noticed that her dad wore women’s clothing. When Shattuck was in third grade, her dad, Michael, legally changed names to Trisha. Trisha presents as relatively gender neutral, but she prefers female pronouns and likes to wear makeup and a dress.
For most of her life, Shattuck wanted nothing more than to escape her family’s open secret. “She would literally walk around singing in the supermarket,” Shattuck says about Trisha, “and that was mortifying. It wasn’t just about having a transgender dad—it was about having a person who was hamming it up for the entire town.
“I think for a lot of kids of LGBT parents, you’re just as much in the closet until you start coming out about your parents,” she says in the film. When she left her hometown and got to U-M, Shattuck could divulge her family’s story on her own terms. The new control over her personal life was liberating. More recently, Shattuck produced From This Day Forward, the documentary about her family, to clarify aspects of her early family life that she’d never understood. She leads the very first scene of the film with Trisha humming a little tune.
“The whole point of my film is to get people to be kinder to one another,” Shattuck says. “It’s about showing people that a family like mine is completely normal, and loving, and just another flavor of what a family can be.
“Everybody’s different,” she continues, “and there are so many different stories out there that need to be told.”
Shattuck Leads the Way to Mud Lake Bog
Shattuck leads the way to Mud Lake Bog and plunges her bare feet into the mossy carpet. The soft substrate gives way with an audible, watery sigh. Shattuck frequently stoops to examine the vegetation near her toes: sphagnum moss, pitcher plants, sundews. Beyond the line of trees, she sways on the floating island of moss that shifts and bounces beneath her feet.
Shattuck has returned to UMBS, and this time she’s brought Lichtman and a different way of thinking about science. Back at the lecture hall, they show some videos to a packed auditorium—the largest, most diverse crowd that a resident researcher says he’s ever seen.
In one video, an intricately crafted polar bear snarls in the foreground as Pangaea theorist Alfred Wegener passes in his dogsled; smoke rises from his pipe in the shape of a continent. In another, microbe puppets swim in synchrony under microbiology pioneer Antonie van Leeuwenhoek’s homemade microscope, while a tiny paper reproduction of a Vermeer painting hangs on his wall, a wink to their shared hometown of Delft in the Netherlands. Although the videos for the New York Times are designed for viewing on small digital screens, the handcrafted paper puppets look incredible as larger-than-life projections in the lecture hall.
Shattuck and Lichtman are here to share tips and tricks for science communication by giving a camp lecture and interactive workshop. “Our philosophy is highbrow-lowbrow,” they say from the stage. “Scientifically accurate, but not high art.”
Shattuck says that crafting these paper-puppet videos allows her eyes to adjust to the world instead of a computer screen. For viewers, too, seeing the fun, creative stories is visually and mentally refreshing—especially because usually, science coverage comes prepackaged with lessons to learn and facts to memorize.
Shattuck will continue with her science series, appealing to broad audiences by releasing work through outlets that have a big reach, to pull viewers into stories they never would have found otherwise. And for most of this year, she’s taking her documentary, From This Day Forward, on tour at national and international film festivals.
Filmmaking and science share roots, in Shattuck’s view. In her case, botany requires intimate observation and detailed drawings of plants, skills that serve her style of visual storytelling. But Shattuck has always considered herself a scientist first, artist second. And in both cases, she knows that gaining a better understanding sometimes just requires a shift in your point of view.