Beware of SPOILERS for Season Five of Stargate Atlantis in the interview below.
It takes a team of people to bring an Asgard to life. But that team needs a leader to helm the group and channel the performance of five puppeteers into a performance of one. For Stargate that lead is Morris Chapdelaine, who also has acted as numerous alien figures in the franchise, from creepy Priors to newborn Wraith drones.
GateWorld recently took time to chat with this master of multiple arts, to learn what goes on behind the workings of Thor and his Asgard brethren, showing him off at conventions, and occasionally donning Oranian prosthetics!
This interview runs approximately 23 minutes and is available in audio. It’s also transcribed below.
GateWorld: Can you tell me about what you do?
Morris Chapdelaine: Essentially I’ve been puppeteering and performing – acting – as a couple different aliens on Stargate since I think Season Five of SG-1. I think I’ve done a total of 25 or 26 different episodes. And they certainly aren’t all listed [on IMDb]. They sort of sometimes just go by season.
But, yeah, I started in Season Five – working as an apprentice, actually – with the make-up artists and the puppeteers there. And really quickly, because I was an actor, they had me doing a lot of work. I learned, and apprenticed, all of the animatronics stuff.
And then in Season Six I basically took over as lead puppeteer and hired the other puppeteers and started being in charge of all the rehearsals and pre-production meetings and doing all the Asgard characters. And there were several of them. I mean, it started with Thor, but, as you know, there was Loki and Hermiod …
GW: Kvasir. [Laughter]
MC: Yeah. Yeah, exactly.
GW: You know, it’s nice that you’ve got a very nice, mixed bag. You’ve got the puppeteering, yes, but then the Wraith drone that was in “Spoils of War.” You’ve played Priors. There’s always something – and one of my favorites was Tenat – it shows that there’s always something to be done in the Stargate universe.
MC: Well, that’s what’s so exciting for me. And because I was playing different aliens and Robert Cooper and Brad Wright and everyone was comfortable with me and knew I could do the job, it was kind of a given sometimes. If there was some sort of strange creature, they’d say, “Hey! Call Morris!” [Laughter]
So, yeah, because nobody’s really ever seen my face on the show, so I could do multiple, different guys. In a way, it ended up being better for me than going out and doing a one-off over a few episodes. I was able to do multiple.
GW: Yeah. Soldier number five. Right.
MC: Yeah. Exactly.
GW: How’d you first get involved with Stargate?
MC: In Season Five. I can’t remember the exact first episode, but John Lenic had called me and said, “Hey we need somebody who’s good on set,” and I had been doing other shows, “Who could work with the puppeteers.” And I was like, “I don’t really know anything about puppeteering or anything.”
He basically introduced me to the whole art and said, “I think you might really enjoy it.” So, he brought me in. And, like I said, I was working with Todd Masters and the guys at Masters Effects. And I just loved it so much that I learned as much as I could and quickly moved up the ranks.
And I’m also a sci-fi fan so, it was exciting for me. Being in and working as a performer in Vancouver, you can’t help but not be exposed to all kinds of different sci-fi. You know, between Battlestar Galactica and Andromeda back in the old days. I mean, now it’s just so much. It’s either sci-fi or horror.
GW: [Laughter] Because they’re expensive and we can get away with a lot up there.
MC: Yeah. And we’ve got all these sets. They love the fact that you can shoot out in the woods or the swamp or in the mountains or in the dessert all within half an hour of each other.
GW: Exactly. I’m betting the episode in Season Five that you’re referring to is “Red Sky.” O’Neill comes to the Asgard High Council Chamber and there are a bunch of different Asgard on that set. Does that ring any bells?
MC: That’s probably it, yes. Yes, it does.
GW: You call puppeteering an “art.” Tell us about how this all works. Tell us about what you find really rewarding about it.
MC: Well, puppeteering is such an art because it’s always a team working together. It’s probably the most theatrical aspect of television or film performing. Puppeteers all usually come from a very creative background. Not only are they performers or voice actors, they’re also technical people.
And because it’s a team, you have to work together during rehearsals and conceiving ideas and coming up with specific movements and gestures and sounds as a group for one particular entity.
And when a group of people, whether that’s three or five or seven, gel together on one particular character it can be kind of magical because you really have to be all synced up with your fifth eye. All your brain’s working together to make one life happen.
So, that’s why I feel it’s pretty artistic. And we’re all a little over-the-top – theatrical. We’re the ones go in and get to rehearse a couple days beforehand.
And then the crew always loves when we show up on set. They’re like, “Oh, this is going to be a long day. Puppeteers are here.” [Laughter] But yeah, we have a riot. It’s really great.
Some of us are sort of off … I’m one of the guys that uses the animatronic controller. It’s like a remote controller that you use for operating remote control airplanes or cars.
And because when I’m doing it I often do the face stuff and I do the voice as well, so I work really closely with the actors. I’m able to often times sit right with the director and explain how we’re hoping to do it. So I’m the one who gets directed as the actor and then we work with the whole team to bring whatever notes the director has into play in the different takes.
GW: Well, the Asgard is obviously the big one here, so let’s approach that. So I’m gathering there are some people actually behind the Asgard controlling him and then you’re off with a remote control somewhere, right?
MC: Yes, absolutely.
GW: How many people does it take to run an Asgard fully?
MC: With an Asgard it’s four.
MC: There are two on the body – one that does the head and torso and then one that does the arms and hands. And they’re both usually in black and tiny and on the floor and behind it. They have a real physical, laborious job. It can be a lot of work getting that body to move and articulate its movements properly.
And then it would be myself and another puppeteer working the face. And on the Asgard puppet, I, for example, would do the jaw and the lips and then the head tilts and turns. And the other puppeteer would do all the eye and brow movements. And ear wiggles – things like that.
GW: Ear wiggles. [Laughter]
MC: [Laughter] Well, you know, actually, no. On the Asgard, we haven’t had any “ear wiggles” per se. But what’s funny … as we worked all together over the years we ended up finding … and because we had different … it was the same puppet… really. We had two of them, but we’d want … You know, Thor was very different from Kvasir who was very different from Hermiod, who was very different from Loki. So we needed to come up with – even though there was the same body – different mannerisms.
GW: Different expressions.
MC: Yeah. Different expressions.
GW: Now, I was under the impression that there was a new Asgard puppet kicked out every two or three years. Is that wrong?
MC: No, no. That’s absolutely right, because the latex body would often deteriorate. It’s an expensive thing to take care of and we’d end up dragging him all over the place. So, yeah, they’d need to put a new one up ever couple of years.
And we also did … at one point, Jeny Cassady and I spoke at a convention. And that was the first time people had seen him at a live audience. And that was really, really an amazing experience. The auditorium was sold out. People were just so stoked to see the puppet in person. We’d done photo sessions before, like a year before at another convention and that was fun. But to be able to get him up on stage and to just show them the controllers and how he works, that was great.
And we’d actually been invited to go to conventions in Europe and in New Zealand and in Australia, but the logistics of sending this huge box with the puppet in it and myself … It was really quite funny. It became complicated and expensive. And the idea of sending this puppet all the way to do a convention with the chance that maybe damage could happen to him?
GW: He may break.
MC: Yeah, so they were really scared about doing that. So I never ended up doing any big, over-seas conventions with the puppet because it was just too risky to do. But it was fun. There was, actually, at one point, they had decided, “OK. So, we can’t send him in a big box. We can’t ship him ahead.” They thought maybe we could drive him around in a truck and do like North America and stuff.
And then they said, “But it’s so much faster to fly.” One woman who was representing me for conventions said, “This is what we’re gonna do. We’re going to buy the puppet a first class seat and he’ll sit in the seat beside you. And you can just take care of him that way.” [Laughter] And that was really funny. I kept on envisioning me trying to walk through customs.
GW: With a Roswell Grey. [Laughter]
MC: Yeah, exactly. So, yeah, some funny stories. That all never ended up materializing, but it made for funny stories on our end.
GW: So, it was just like a latex update every couple of years? Because I thought … I mean obviously you guys … compared to the ones that came before you, the sophistication of the puppet has always been improving over the course of the years.
MC: Yeah, that was the goal. I mean, originally, when I first started working on him, he had much different controls. He had a lot more cables attached. He had, sort of, a hand rod action that would turn his head. It was a very slow, laborious kind of thing just to get Thor to turn.
Because of the limitations on the type of controls he had, that helped to impart the mannerisms that Thor had, which was very … I mean, he was very regale and omniscient and powerful anyways, but all of his moves had to be slow. Because that’s the only way that he could move.
And then eventually, with development and our addition of new servos and receivers and additional mechanical elements, we ended up getting a much more flexible … just the kind of movement with Hermiod in Atlantis because he was able to do that.
GW: But when Thor came in, you kept the mannerisms consistent.
MC: Yes. Yeah.
GW: That’s really cool.
MC: Yeah, it’s fun.
GW: I do remember Kvasir just being absolutely – and you voiced Kvasir, I believe – be absolutely off the wall and annoying and buzzing all over the place. I would love that when he was working on a laptop and he would turn and do something else. And then the camera would pan away as he was coming back to the laptop. And then you’d hear keys typing. [Laughter] I love it!
MC: We did some great tricks. It was wonderful to do that. The funny thing — rehearsing all those scenes was the cast – like with Amanda or with RDA and whatnot – often what would happen is I would go in, because I would be doing the lines, and I would get a little pad and sit on my knees. And I’m bald anyway, so they would just play to me before we brought the puppet on. And, yeah, it was funny to do that.
MC: Yes, we did do the Furlings, as well. That was pretty cool.
GW: Was that a whole different ballgame? Tell us about that experience. “200” had a lot of stuff in it.
MC: It definitely had a lot of stuff in it. I mean, I wasn’t personally responsible for the Furlings. We all worked together on getting to be what they had to be. But it was fun, A, to have the Asgard playing different characters in the different scenarios, as well. Sometimes in different little outfits. The one where he had that Fu Manchu mustache.
MC: And we also did some fun stuff with SyFy, as well, where – and I think there are clips of it on YouTube still – where we just improvised, sort of, behind the scenes interviews where the actor Asgard was sort of complaining about not getting enough screen time and all of that. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that, but it played before commercial breaks and whatnot when the 200th was playing. That was so funny. People really loved that.
GW: Wow. Now did you also take care of the puppeteer sequence that was a rip-off of Team America?
MC: I didn’t care of that. That was all shot in Los Angeles.
GW: Oh, that’s right! OK.
MC: Yeah. But we did spend some time with those marionettes when they came up here, making sure they were strung properly and using them a little bit. And then we had … there was a huge party up here [in Vancouver]. We have an amazing marionette artist up here. And so I had brought him in. He had worked with Thor in the past as well, but his big strength was marionette work.
And so he had to make sure that they arrived. And we pulled them out of the boxes and had them all restrung and put them on display. The Richard Dean Anderson one I think is in John Lenic’s office. It’s a cool little puppet.
GW: So, Tenat was a recurring character for you. Heavy … was that just a whole mask, or was that like a bunch of different pieces of prosthetic?
MC: It’s actually two pieces, if I remember correctly. It’s a cowl, which is like a hooded piece with a big neck on it that would get glued onto my chest and back. And then the entire face piece would be put on and then there were teeth, as well. It was a heavy, hefty, hot thing to wear.
The very first time I played Tenat we were shooting in the sand dunes South of Vancouver. And it was about – I don’t know – 90 degrees outside. And, yeah, it was crazy, crazy hot. But he was so much fun to do. Because he’s kind of a dork really, you know? A real strong guy with exciting ideas, but he …
GW: He doesn’t have a clue.
MC: No, didn’t seem to have a clue. The Lucian Alliance could’ve poked fun at him. And I think he thought he was a lot more than he was. He was a great character to play.
GW: Was it easy to see out of that headpiece?
MC: No. Very difficult to see. There were maybe three small holes underneath where his plastic eyeballs were that I could see out of. And in order to get my eye-lines correctly – so that the eyes were looking at the actors I was working with – I actually had to look at the ground. So, I’d look at people’s feet so that my eyes lined were up with theirs.
Whenever I was on set … it’s the same playing a Prior. When you have those lenses in you can’t seen anything. It’s like these smoky-white lenses. You need somebody, whether it’s make-up or costumes or a [production assistant]., wandering with you the whole time.
GW: Oh, really? The priors were blind?
MC: Oh, yeah. Playing a prior, you’re basically blind.
MC: Yeah. You could barely see anything. I remember the very first time I did a Prior, too. I was doing a scene where I was walking on this ledge way up on a hill. And Peter DeLuise was directing and he had a megaphone and he was down below. And he was like, “Just keep walking. Keep walking.” And the sun was shining. They were wanting to get this shot. It was a perfect time of day. But, yeah, I almost fell off this precipice. [Laughter]
GW: [Laughter] Oh, jeez!
MC: Yeah, it was funny. Yeah. The perils of playing an alien – there are many.
GW: [Laughter] I bet. What are you doing with Stargate Universe? What’s going on there?
MC: You know what? I’ve not even worked on Stargate Universe at all yet.
I don’t know that I will. I know all the producers and directors and the cast quite well. A lot of them are good friends. But because it’s such a real character-driven drama … I just saw the pilot – I don’t know if I mentioned that to you – on the flight to … I can’t remember where it was … one of the flights I took with John. And it’s so spectacular.
But it’s very different from the other Stargate stuff. I mean, it’s still got all those exciting elements that are going on. And it’s got some alien elements in it. But right now it’s really about this group of people that are trapped on this Ancient ship billions of light years from Earth. So it’s a real character-driven drama. Really a departure from anything they’ve done in the past.
I would imagine that as things progress that there’s certainly potential for me to do other aliens on the show. I don’t know. I said to John on this last trip. I said what I’d love to do is play a human being.
It’s been great fun and I, sort of, fell into this niche. I play aliens on several other shows, as well. Or, because of the puppeteering background, lots of crazy, fun, little characters. But, yeah. It’s always fresh to play a human being.
GW: Are you looking forward to the advancements in robotics that are … I mean, the things that they come out with every couple of years … do you find that improving your job and freeing you up in terms of puppeteer work? Or do you find that it’s taking away from the art?
MC: That’s a good question. The improvements – mechanically and whatnot – are brilliant. In some of the features that I’ve worked on in the last year I’ve really seen where things are going and the ability to do even more with puppets.
There was a phase for a while where people were really moving strictly to CG – computer generated stuff. And it was a lot of money. And there was a lot of stuff they could do with it, but in the end I think a lot of old-Hollywood / new-Hollywood started to agree that it wasn’t the same.
You can’t get the same quality from just strictly CG or just strictly puppets. It’s a combination of the two that really brings – and the balance of the formula and that recipe – that really brings the magic. So I’m happy about that.
There was a while where we, as puppeteers, were, thinking, “I’m going be out of a job entirely.” But, yeah, it’s really three months ago [I] finished a feature called “The Hole,” which was super, super exciting. And that comes out, I think, in October. But the puppet in there had some really, really amazing things that he could do.
But, again, it’s a 3-D feature, so they’re going to be doing a lot of stuff with CG, as well. But they also realize that it’s just … there’s such a magic to having a three-dimensional figure there working with the actors as opposed to just a silver ball on the end of a stick in front of a green screen.
GW: Exactly. Well, I won’t lie to you. I was mesmerized by Heimdall at the end of Season Five — Teryl Rothery’s performance. And to see that creature on film with its arms slightly swaying and its head loose. It was pretty obvious that they were taking advantage of not having a mechanical puppet on set and loosening the character up a little bit.
I’m with you. I think that there’s a lot of advances still to be made in robotics. And fine-tuning maybe even the Asgard puppet once again to make him come to life even more.
MC: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. We just gotta keep moving forward, I think. The audience is sophisticated and demands that. And they can tell when it’s something CG or something that’s just a puppet. That’s why when things are able to work together, that’s where the real fun happens.
I’m hoping that, because on Universe they’re on this Ancient ship, I keep thinking, “Oh, you know, they’ve gotta … even though the Asgard are deceased as a race, there’s gotta be some sort of Asgard something on this ship.”
I have a feeling that something might come along at some point. So, who knows? I know they haven’t built a new guy yet. I don’t know if that’s in the plans or the works, but I’m certain there’s going to be something. Not a season’s gone by where I haven’t been able to do something on the show.
GW: Exactly. There you go. Yeah. I was pretty disheartened to hear when they decided they were going to kill the entire Asgard race.
GW: Did you share a similar feeling?
MC: Oh, of course. Of course. That was that very last episode of that season.
GW: Of the series.
MC: Of the series, yeah. And Robert [Cooper] directed it. And he’s so marvelous, as usual, to work with. But our very last scene that we did with Amanda [Tapping] where we hugged, it was really, really emotional for all of us.
It was moving on set and then I noticed that translated in the episode as well. Yeah, it was sad. It was like we were saying goodbye to this character. And knowing that he might appear sometime in the future as a computer generated holograph because he passed on all that Asgard knowledge to them, but, yeah, it was kind of like saying goodbye to a friend.
GW: Sure was. And then, out of the blue, they come back in Season Five of Atlantis. I got a heads-up about this several months before the episode aired. I was like, “Yes!” Were you brought in to man that puppet?
MC: I was asked to do that, but I wasn’t able to work on that episode because I was working on a project in Russia, actually. So I actually did work with Andy [Mikita] for a few days beforehand just determining how we were going to have the puppet appear and how he was going to work in that scene with Michael [Shanks]. But, then, yeah, then I was gone. I was working overseas. Which isn’t a bad thing.
GW: [Laughter] Hey! You’re working, you know?
GW: It’s too bad, Stargate. You’re already employed. Just looking to the future, hoping for an opportunity on Universe. Anything else on the horizon? Besides “Holes?”
MC: Right now, yeah, there’s not. I mean, I’ve been doing some producing and doing a lot of directing. I do a lot of corporate directing – commercial stuff. But it’s going be a really busy Fall here in Vancouver. So, I sort of have to wait and see what pans out. As soon as things get quiet for too long, then I get nervous. But something always seems to come up. I don’t know. It’s like there’s so much sci-fi stuff here … I don’t know what it’ll be next. I don’t know if it’ll be another Alien Vs. Predator movie or what. I’ll just keep my fingers crossed and see what goes on. But, yeah, always hoping to work for those guys at Stargate again. I mean, they’re like family, really.
The more fans that write in and say, “We wanna see more aliens!” it’s always the better for me.
GW: There you go. [Laughter]
Interview by David Read. Transcript by Ungoaulded Unas.