Michelle Zamora, of Viva La Puppet, has worked as a puppeteer on titles including “Garfunkel & Oates,” “Comedy Central’s Adult Swim Fun House” and “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” to name just a few. But stepping into “Waffles + Mochi,” Netflix’s food-based series that starts streaming Tuesday, raised the bar for what puppets could do on-camera — by having them eat.
“I did not think I would be eating soup as a puppet,” Zamora tells Variety. “Puppets usually don’t touch human food because it’s just not practical: you could ruin the puppet, why would you want to do that? Just make a foam cookie or what-not — usually just something that looks like food and they go, ‘Om nom nom nom nom.’ With Waffles, the challenge was that we really wanted to see her experience these foods — and doing it in a way that wasn’t gross.”
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“Waffles + Mochi” follows Waffles (played by Zamora), whose dad is a frozen waffle and mom is a Yeti, and Mochi (puppetereed by Russ Walko and voiced by Piotr Michael), as they leave their frozen tundra behind with dreams of being chefs. Over the 10-episode season the travel around the world and experience new kinds of cuisines alongside celebrities and renowned chefs alike, including former First Lady Michelle Obama, actors Jack Black and Zach Galifianakis, and chefs Samin Nosrat, José Andrés and Massimo Bottura.
At the start of the show, Waffles and Mochi’s personal culinary skills are relegated to preparing different kinds of ice, since that is what is readily available where they live. But as they embark upon their adventures, they are introduced to everything from tomatoes and potatoes to soups and pastas.
“She’s able to actually eat anything you put in her mouth. She had a hidden pocket, and it’s wipeable, so we could wipe it down in between takes. I also created this glove that I could put on in case she had to eat something that was hot,” Zamora says.
One of the biggest lessons Zamora learned from this way of working was that “the experience of tasting is not as connected” if she couldn’t try the food alongside Waffles. So they rigged the set in a way that Zamora could eat, as well, and therefore deliver honest and perfectly timed reactions. “I was able to taste every single thing that Waffles taste and respond in a way that was very true and real. I was getting spoon-fed tortellini from Massimo Bottura — world-renowned chefs!”
Zamora would watch the monitor as Waffles chewed and swallowed to see “how it went down” and communicate with the directors on their needs for the shot, as well as her own as a puppeteer. Sometimes they’d be able to roll right through to the rest of the scene, but sometimes she would need to pause production to empty out the pouch first.
Zamora knew there might be concerns the puppets would be stained over the course of production — and she admits that Mochi was when he — spoiler alert — “dunked his whole self into cumin,” but that is one reason why they make many backups of each puppet. (Another reason is in case of loss or damage while traveling.)
Zamora first heard of “Waffles + Mochi” through director Jeremy Konner, with whom she had worked before and kept up a casual friendship. She recalls him sending her an email telling her he was going to be working on a puppet show and asking, “How do we do this?” Zamora had some early talks with production during the development phase of the show, she continues, but was then cast as Waffles, and brought on as a consultant to work with the fabricators. The fabricators help “pick what things are made of so hands could gesticulate inside and respond so effortlessly,” she explains. The team told her they wanted to ‘basically fit the mouth to your specifications to basically give us more expressions than a puppet ever has.” She also sat in the writers’ room after the episodes were formed in order to provide insight into what was “doable” from a puppeteering aspect.
Often, she says, she wanted to “yes, and” ideas thrown out to ensure the writers and directors were getting their vision accomplished. This included finding ways to have Waffles do a backflip, as well as have the bee character, which she also worked on, “water a plant with a real-size watering can, and to make it seem like it’s effortless.” It also meant improvising with potentially intimidating episode guests, including Obama and Black, who Zamora remembers having such big energy right when he entered the room that she wondered how she would keep up.
“A lot of it was revolutionary because it really was, in the moment, figuring out,” she continues. “This show is a literal dream come true as a puppeteer.”
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