Live Puppetry

Polar Bears on the streets of London

By January 28, 2015 August 7th, 2017 No Comments

It seems that London might have a bit of polar bear problem.

A lifelike polar bear was spotted roaming the city’s streets yesterday, riding the subway and going for a stroll through Hampstead Heath and along London’s Southbank. It was a publicity stunt to promote the new arctic-set British TV drama Fortitude orchestrated by Taylor Herring, a British PR firm that’s well known for large scale publicity stunts like putting a 40 foot long dragon skull on a beach to promote Game of Thrones.

The bear was performed by puppeteers Derek Arnold and Tom Wilton, both of whom were formerly members of the cast of War Horse. The polar bear itself – which really is quite impressive – was built in just five weeks by a team of nineteen artists and technicians at Millennium FX, one of Europe’s leading special effects shops.

Of course this isn’t exactly the first time something like this has been done. In fact, based solely on YouTube videos you could almost be forgiven for thinking this is a regular occurrence in Central London. Greenpeace has been using lifelike polar bears in London and elsewhere to promote their “Save The Arctic” campaign for a couple years now, both in public protests and on social media.

In fact, the Fortitude stunt is remarkably similar to A Homeless Polar Bear in London, a video that Greenpeace did with several War Horse puppeteers, Jude Law and Radiohead:

You can watch a “making of” feature about the Homeless Polar Bear ad here.

Probably the mother of all “have a polar bear walk around London” stunts was Aurora, the double decker bus sized polar bear that was the centrepiece of a massive London protest against oil drilling in the arctic (incidentally, it too was performed in part by some of the cast of War Horse):

Going back even further, there is Los Kaos’ Bjorn the Polar Bear, who has been doing appearances around London and the rest of the UK for years (interestingly enough, Los Kaos donates a portion of their fees from each Bjorn gig to Greenpeace):

My point here isn’t to accuse anyone of plagiarism or find fault with anyone doing any of this work. I think Derek, Tom and the team from Millennium FX did an outstanding job on the polar bear for Fortitude and it was a brilliant PR stunt (I’m actually a huge fan of Taylor Herring’s work). I think what really bothers me is the lazy reporting that goes on with campaigns like this.

Not to pick on AdWeek’s Tim Nudd, but he hailed both the Homeless Polar Bear campaign and Fortitude’s without recognizing or acknowledging the similarities between them (he also misrepresented the polar bear in the Greenpeace video as CG and not a physical puppet, but that’s another issue). Should the media not provide at least a little bit of history or context when it reports on something? Or at least do a quick, fact checking Google search?

Here’s another recent example of this: awhile ago the media made a fuss about singers Lady Gaga and Katy Perry supposedly feuding over who came up with the idea of having a horse puppet on tour first. If that story is in fact true, it was a stupid argument. Neither artist’s concept was original and both of the puppets involved were clearly derived from – or at least partially inspired by – War Horse, a fact which wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the coverage that I read.

Greenpeace did not invent the idea of someone walking around in a bear costume any more than Handspring invented the idea of life-size horse puppet, but they did those things a lot better and slightly different than most of the people who came before them. Given the media coverage Greenpeace’s campaigns and War Horse have received in the last few years, it’s almost unfathomable that a London-based PR agency or an American prop building shop wouldn’t be aware of them and – perhaps even subconsciously – take some cues from them. I don’t really understand the reluctance to just admit “we saw something really neat and wanted to do something similar.” This isn’t the first time something like this has happened after all.

I don’t think that acknowledging the source or inspiration behind a piece of work necessarily diminishes its value. The more you delve in to the history of puppetry, the more you realize that not only has everything been done before, but in most cases its been done decades before (at least). Perhaps we should make more of an effort to stop pretending otherwise?

Via ITV.

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