From the Mouths of Puppets
This children’s show breathed new life into a dying format. Creators Pedro Peirano and Álvaro Díaz talk about the program that has charmed all of Latin America.
TEXT: Alejandro Jofré | PHOTOS: Sebastián Utreras
Near Avenida Matta in the heart of downtown Santiago, surrounded by industrial warehouses and old-fashioned neighborhood homes, the Aplaplac production studio consists of offices, a workshop and a soundstage. More than 2,000 square feet full of cloth puppets and props sticking out of plastic trunks labeled “hats,” “gloves” and “ears.” At this site, all 12 episodes of the fourth and most recent season of 31 Minutos were filmed.
“More than 40 people were involved,” says Pedro Peirano, who created the series with Álvaro Díaz. “And everyone worked in different teams: set design and decoration, puppets, script, production and music.”
Nine years have passed since the previous season, and with the passage of time, some things have changed. “I think that 31 Minutos is still essentially the same as the old show. It has the same narrative structure; we tried to maintain the continuity. Some of the production issues are different – today, everything is in HD,” says Díaz. “There’s also a different way of working, which is more noticeable in the live shows. In the set design and decoration, the art, wardrobe, making the puppets – there’s more production in general. There’s also more camera work.”
But the basic aspects are the same as ten years ago: “Pedro and I always direct, and we write the scripts and make the puppets with Jani Dueñas and Daniel Castro. Pato Díaz and Rodrigo Salinas also pitch in. We’ve added two art directors – Cristián Mayorga and Jorge Miranda – but the music is still done by Kyzón (Pablo Ilabaca).”
Human on the inside
Peirano (Tulio Triviño) and Díaz (Juan Carlos Bodoque) laugh at the same kind of jokes that made them inseparable in journalism school at the Universidad de Chile back in 1991. They started out with shows like Plan Zeta and El Factor Humano, but it wasn’t until later that they realized that the nightly news was the time when parents and kids were together in front of the television. They did some research and came to the conclusion that the show had to be rational and concrete, following the logic of children, but without the information or context that would trigger adult prejudices. They fine-tuned the idea and made a pilot that included a puppet following the journey undergone by human excrement. The rest is history.
“Sesame Street and The Muppet Show were part of our childhood, and this decision revalidated a format that was totally dead”.
Why puppets instead of computer animation?
ÁLVARO DÍAZ: “At a certain point, we chose a path that reflected something from the past. Sesame Street and The Muppet Show were part of our childhood, and this decision revalidated a format that was totally dead or done really poorly. Puppets have a lot of humanity to them, and 31 Minutos is a way of vindicating their value.”
PEDRO PEIRANO: “Also, animation is a very slow process. It would have taken us decades to make all the shows we’ve done!”
What did you have in mind when you made the puppets?
PP: “We didn’t want them to look like Muppets. Matías Iglesis (the first art director of 31 Minutos) was the one who actually made them. He used the concept of “Calcetín con Rombosman” (an orphan sock with goggles) to illustrate a world in which anything could be a character. We also looked at different kinds of stuffed animals and handmade toys.
“For the main characters, each case was different: Tulio was based on handmade rag dolls with button eyes from the United States. For the show’s pilot, we used a frog puppet that I had as a kid. Matías thought that it was too much like Kermit the Frog, so he decided that Bodoque had to be the total opposite: a red rabbit. Juanín was a white stuffed animal with no eyes that didn’t have a role; he was made as an extra. We chose him from a bunch of options and gave him a producer’s headset. That’s how it was with everything.”
How much of the show is planned and how much is improvised?
PP: “Generally speaking, everything is written and thought out in detail. We can’t improvise Tulio getting a giant shoe dropped on his head.
All the little visual bits are ready before we shoot. We read and re-read, revise scripts and all that, but always before shooting. And then we shoot the scenes over and over until we get them just right. It’s quite exhaustive and meticulous. But since puppetry is a form of acting, there’s obviously an element of improvisation and freedom that you explore on the set. And everything we discover while shooting, we end up using afterward.”
Network content is made quickly and for mass consumption under the dictatorship of ratings and the need to fill time, so there’s generally very little in the way of risk-taking. In this context, 31 Minutos is an expensive production made slowly and deliberately, which only got the green light thanks to state funding. “Television is essentially filler, and filler is always mediocre. I don’t think that will ever change. 31 Minutos is always done well, and it doesn’t serve as filler,” says Díaz.
It is and isn’t a program for kids, just like it is and isn’t aimed at adults. There are little jokes aimed to encourage critical awareness: like the “Ranking top top top” segment, with songs about real problems that kids face (like bad haircuts); or the character names, taken from 1980s pop culture and schoolyard nicknames; or when the news has to pander to sponsors like onions, with the puppets forced to drink onion juice as part of their contracts.
“I like television that encourages curiosity, humor and a certain lightness of spirit. Shows that portray the world as huge and strange. It doesn’t have to be simple. It can show all the darkness it wants, but we always have to imply a way out,” says Peirano.
The numbers speak loudly for 31 Minutos: two seasons were broadcast throughout nearly all the Spanish-speaking world via Nickelodeon, and a third season was shown on various local channels. There were three hit albums of original songs and a movie, as well as merchandise, advertising spots and books. There were theater shows, and terrific performances at Lollapalooza in Mexico City and at the Viña del Mar International Song Festival, which hit a peak of 53 points in the online ratings (equivalent to about 3.2 million television viewers). With the exception of El Chavo del 8, there has never been such a successful children’s program in Latin America. Are the creators satisfied? “Being part of the creation of such a coherent world is a unique experience for all of us,” says Peirano.
In a decade dominated by reality shows and programming that targets adolescents, a children’s show lost amid Saturday morning programming turned out to be a spark to television creativity. Díaz had an epiphany one afternoon in 2003 on Paseo Ahumada in downtown Santiago. “That day, we sold 10,000 copies of the first album, and I realized that the show was much bigger than we thought, and that it was going to last a long time.”
In artistic terms, how do you define success?
PP:“Doing in real life what you had dreamed. Or something close to it. Or the version of your dream that’s actually possible. Not getting crushed by life is a success, to be honest.”
What is the worst thing that has been said about 31 Minutos?
AD:“That it’s a copy of something else.”
And what’s the worst thing about 31 Minutos that has yet to be said?
PP:“That it’s over forever.” in