LOS ANGELES (Circa) -- When Aran de la Peña was 12 years old, he started tearing apart his parents' couches.
"I wanted to learn how to build a Fraggle, so I started ripping apart my parents sofa cushions—like brand new sofas—to get the foam, which is the core material. They were horrified," said Peña sitting in his garage-turned-workshop. He was doing all this because he wanted to be a professional puppet maker. Now, 34, he is a professional puppet maker.
Like most children, de la Peña was really into The Muppet Show. But he also wanted to learn how to make Jim Benson's creations. So he went to the library, checked out books and started experimenting. One Pikachu in his workshop holds particular value.
"The Pikachu was made for a YouTube series, and that’s what actually got me the job with Dreamworks," he says. "Celebrity puppets is really where I kept going with it. I did Howard Stern for America’s got Talent. Then there's a puppet I made of Justin Bieber, but he actually is a beaver, and that's for '2 Broke Girls.'"
De la Peña, who worked for Disney for a few years, now runs his own company, Pro Puppet Makers Inc. He makes all types of puppets, even animated ones as big as a 5'10" elephant. But every puppet starts the same way.
"We’ll take like a computer-generated sketch, like it’s on Photoshop or it’s on Illustrator," he says, "and I’ll figure out how to make a flat pattern to make it an actual puppet."
De la Peña estimates he's made around 300 puppets in his lifetime.
"The puppet industry in itself, builders and puppeteers—it's a really small world," said de la Peña. "And it’s a good thing, too, for the most part, because we’re all really supportive of each other and we want to see the art form continue. It seems like right now that because of online content, we’re getting more work in L.A. It’s still not what it used to be in the 80s."
Right now, he's working on a show you may have seen on YouTube called "Awkward Puppets," and it's because it reminds him the audience and the medium for puppeteering is changing.
"I do this show for social media, and there’s these little tiny puppets that are all pre-recorded audio," said de la Peña. "That’s probably my favorite project right now. It’s young. I see little kids watching this on YouTube, and I get so happy seeing that because it’s younger kids than seeing it on a commercial or something like that. And I’ve done so many commercials, too, I’d rather see a little kid being excited about something."