People and Places
28/08/2019
Peninsula boy brings puppets to world stage

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Sonny Tilders makes puppets. Giant, emotive, moving and grooving puppets. The kind that take your breath away and leave you rocking on the edge of your seat with your heart in your throat. The kind that make you believe, grieve and feel euphoric. Puppets that, put simply, have a life of their own. 

Sonny explains: “I’ve always liked things that move, and I’ve spent the last 13 years creating stupidly large and complex puppets. I started my career as a graphic designer, which back in the ‘80s was a broad course and included model and print-making. I made props for television and did special effects and animatronics for film until I got called up about doing a live arena show and that was it. Humans have the innate desire to see life in things. That’s why we can pick up a sock and turn it into an animal, you know? I’m inherently interested in puppeteering and performance. How dancers use their bodies to move the puppets. A puppet like Kong can’t be operated without a team of people. There’s the obvious motors, hydraulics and mechanics, but they mean nothing without the performers.”

Yes, you read it right, people. Sonny Tilders, who grew up in Frankston, then Arthurs Seat and Mount Martha, is the creator of the magnificent Kong. King Kong. The live show world-wide touring sensation puppet. The one that snagged a coveted Tony Award. Sonny continues: “Yeah, the Tony Award was pretty special. I’m not a particularly good engineer but I’m driven by performance and how things work. I’m also pragmatic and like getting results. One thing I know is that the audience doesn’t fall in love with the machine. They connect with the emotion of the exterior and you’ve got to provide something tactile.”

For a small boy who went bird watching with his stepfather in Arthurs Seat and had a natural flair for 3D spatial design, Sonny has worked hard through the lean years to become an internationally acclaimed creator of puppets that absolutely rock. Think Walking With Dinosaurs, Jurassic World The Exhibition and Skull Island The Reign of Kong, just to mention a few. He’s also got 110 creatives now working with him in his Creature Technology company in Port Melbourne. 

He concludes: “I went to Mount Eliza Secondary and love bringing my two boys back to the Peninsula to visit Mum. There’s nothing like the smell of sea salt, banksias and tea-tree. I don’t know what else I’d do now. Puppets have become my life. We are working on an exciting international theme park project at the moment. Sometimes a new job may be a little daunting but it’s exhilarating work. If you’re not a little scared then I suppose it’s not very interesting, is it? I still pinch myself. I’m often the last one to leave work and as I walk through this huge studio with these insane creatures I still can’t believe it.”

You’d better believe it, Sonny. I’ve seen Kong in the flesh. Bravo! 

LIZ ROGERS

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