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Art Chooses You: A Conversation with Zack Buchman, Owner / Creative Director of Furry Puppet Studio & Founder / Creative Director of Uncute

An unassuming building entrance. (Photo credit: YG)

Main Office for Furry Puppet Studio & Uncute (Photo credit: YG)

New York City is always full of surprises. With so many offices and entrepreneurs, NYC is a city teeming with possibility and a living embodiment of buzz and opportunity. Tucked away in a nondescript building in Soho is the main office for Furry Puppet Studio and Uncute Inc, a few small rooms directing the magical space of ideas.

As I stepped into the cozy office I was struck by the orderliness and comfortable design of the space. The main room is tastefully adorned with artwork, and floor to ceiling bookshelves are filled with graphic novels and books on art, literature, and history. The space was also inhabited by a handful of stunning plushies and puppets.

Art Chooses You

I visited the main office for the opportunity to interview Zack Buchman, Owner and Creative Director of Furry Puppet Studio, a renowned studio focused on custom puppets and puppetry productions. Furry Puppet Studio has clients all over the world including Casper, Apple and Nintendo.

Zack Buchman (Photo credit: Furry Puppet Studio)
Zack is also the Founder and Creative Director of Uncute, a company "[making] products to celebrate our differences and do good". Uncute is the creator of the web comic "Blobby and Friends" and in addition to web comics makes beautiful plushies, puppets, and clothing. The Uncute Initiative is a charitable organization whose proceeds go in part toward helping homelessness and runaway youth. The org also provides comfort to kids in detention centers.

Blobby & Friends

Zack Buchman is delightfully charming and he can seemingly speak on any subject. He is a self-taught renaissance man. We covered a range of interwoven topics including puppetry, comics, games, technology, and AI. Zack created thumbnails and sketches while we chatted. In addition to being a puppet designer, Zack is also one of the writers for the Uncute comics and a developer of the company's internal tools.

The puppets are soulful. The puppet designs capture your attention and there is a quality about them that keeps hold of your heart. Uncute’s plushies have a similar quality and they are soft and comforting to hold. Colossal Proboscis Monkey (or “Monkey”) sat in a corner chair during our interview. With the muffled sounds of the NYC of traffic below us we dove into Art and Tech.

"Monkey" at the main office of Furry Puppet Studio & Uncute (Photo credit: YG)


I always like to have a puppeteer in mind when I am designing a custom puppet.

AFA: Do you all do puppetry in addition to custom puppet fabrication? I know it's a different art form but they are obviously related.

Zack: We do co-produce things and puppetry is a part of any work we do.

AFA: Like rigs for animation?

Zack: There you go! I always like to have a puppeteer in mind when I am designing a custom puppet. I really love the people I work with. There are some puppeteers that I've known for years and I love what they bring into this. Sometimes the vibe of the person is just so similar to the vibe of the actual puppet you can't separate them.

AFA: Is this a subject you studied?

Zack: I never studied anything formally after high school. I moved to New York City when I was 20. Sometimes people ask what made me choose Art. I mean, what made YOU choose Art?

AFA: It chooses you.

Zack: There you go! It really does, because making a decision to be a prisoner of your own soul and your own artistic drive, you cannot take a break from it. You dream about what you do. It's a part of you. People just know they are Artists. For people who are working Artists, it is so strongly a part of your personality that you can't really be very good at other things. There are many things I love. I am excited by coding. I am very excited by real estate development. In New York there are so many ways you can be creative. Yet, there is something in me that is so strongly moved by an expression, and a face. You know, I usually talk with people and I look at characters and I am excited by the person I meet. Sometimes you meet a character and you are just giddy to be around them and it's kind of a bit awkward. When you are a grown man, especially in America, [people] don't really know how to take the fact you are so excited to be around them or that you like them but, you know, I'm really moved by people.

AFA: Do you think you are picking up on an internal self expression that everyone has and helping to amplify that or are you processing exchanges you have with other people?

Zack: I'm moved by characters. I always try to stick eyes on objects. Whenever I'm tired, I just see faces around me. From an early age I was always putting things together to create faces. I think it's been established there is an area of our brains responsible for seeing faces. I think we all have something in us that is looking for those expressions. I think I just happen to be very excited by them.

AFA: How do you think puppetry can quell the world's ills? Do you think it can? I think documentary and animated short films can bring the world together because you cannot judge a cartoon character the way we judge one another. Do you think there is an element of that with regard to Puppetry?

Puppet Fabrication Process (Photo credit: Furry Puppet Studio)

Zack: Puppets are universal in the sense they are surprisingly relatable across the spectrum. Kermit the Frog is universally loved. Many people see themselves in Elmo. There is universal accessibility. Puppets are just touching. This doesn't just apply to children's reactions, it's grown-ups, too. If you could see the way adults actually react to puppets, you'd be shocked. I have a friend who had a TV show in the early 2000s (You can find it on TikTok now.) called Nanalan. He brought his Grandmother to the show and she sat with him. Her tears are visible and she gives the puppet a kiss. She [is] not acting. People are not looking at the puppeteer. They are looking at the puppet. There is a suspension of disbelief.

AFA: It's like theater.

Zack: There you go.

AFA: Would you say with puppets this suspension of disbelief is even more personal?

Zack: It's just different. I mean, you can expand the boundaries of puppetry into animation. You can expand the boundaries of dance into puppetry. At what point does theater start and puppetry end?

(Photo credit: Furry Puppet Studio)


We are doing many things at the studio that are technologically advanced but I decided early on that there are certain things that are traditional that we should invest in. We are very creator driven, very artist centered.

AFA: How about real-time animation?

Zack: When I see a new technology I think, what can I do with this? This is exciting. Real Time animation has been around for a really long time. It's been around in many different forms. You can say that servo puppeteering (animatronics) is a form of real-time animation. There is value there. Star Wars used motion capture, robotics, puppetry and CGI. It's fascinating to see how materials and technology influence a final piece. I'm a big fan of using the constraints of a medium. At the same time, whatever you do is also a product of the time in which it's made. [Nothing] really stands by itself. It's wonderful to see innovation.

AFA: Does AI fit into any part of the process of puppet design and development?

Zack: In the last year or two we've started getting concepts from clients created in AI. I remember the first time this happened and this was a milestone event in my life. It's happened a lot more since.

It's important to define AI. What is AI? There is AI that is made to be generative, then there is AI that is being used and has been used in more subtle ways. For example, Photoshop. Autoselect, if you work in photography & retouching, has been a game changer. It saves hours and days of work.

I think whenever you have a new technology, there is not much you can do in terms of avoiding the progress. It's here to stay.

There is a moral question of who owns the data these models were trained on. I think there should be accountability. Consent is really important. You can talk about copyright law and at what point it's being violated but I think morally we all know, as a society, that people should have the right to either give their art, if it's requested, to be used and harvested by a huge multi-million dollar company, and they should also be able to choose not too. I think every violation is very meaningful.

AFA: Yes, and it's happening all the time. I wonder how this might impact design. Fabrication is one thing, you can only replicate it with sweat equity, with labor, but the designs themselves are something else.

(Photo credit: Furry Puppet Studio)

Zack: AI is great for doing things that no human can do. AI is great for Autoselect. AI is great for retouching an image. It's great for formatting things, it's wonderful for filling forms, it's great for CRM, great if you have a huge database.... 

AFA: For search. Right! I'm with you. 

Zack: It's great for generating images in certain contexts. It's great for assisting with grammar. We are doing many things at the studio that are technologically advanced but I decided early on that there are certain things that are traditional that we should invest in. We are very creator driven, very artist centered. Each puppet we make is started as a foam sculpture that is done by hand. We found it has a different quality. You solve many problems. At the very least, for development, there is a lot of value in having a person using their hands, and creating something, and playing with it, with you. So many subtle decisions are being made in that process. You are always going to have the soul of the person that carved that original sculpture in the puppet; it's always going to be a part of that person. I cannot say that every AI design necessarily has a soul.   

AFA: It feels like Emotional Uncanny Valley.  

Zack: Yes.

AFA: It makes me feel physically queasy when I see generative AI videos. I don't know why but it makes me feel nauseous.  

Zack: It's going to get better.  

AFA: Yes. 

Zack: Even if it's perfect, I think there is much more to art. Thinking that art is just a representation of a physical substance... 

AFA: Or an Idea 

Zack: Yeah, I think Art is much more than that. I think as humans we would be doing ourselves a disservice not realizing that our perception is pretty deep. Our brain gets alot from something even if we are not aware of it, from something that was created by another person.  

AFA: Did you see the clip of Miazaki's response to AI generated characters from back in 2016? It's been making the rounds again. He was horrified by it, saying it made him lose faith in humanity.  

Zack: It makes you feel like that, right?   

AFA: For exactly the reasons you are saying.  

Zack: Some [results of AI are] really remarkable and convincing and innovative. It's almost science fiction. This new peak by generative AI is unbelievable. It's something we've always wanted to do as human beings. But, we just want to make sure we remain fair. I don't think, given the choice, any of us would want to be part of a society where AI is creating the media and art we are consuming as people. I think it has its place. I think we should know our moral stand as a society. We should not use people's art without their consent, we should label things clearly when we can, to the extent we can. I think it's also a good time to question our choices about our consumption of media, about our relationship to media, about what we expose children to, about our values. If AI is being so convincing at generating movies maybe our movies are too polished? Maybe going 6k, 7k, is not as important as the lighting.  

AFA: Right, right. That's the thing, look at some of the smart TVs that exist in homes and the soap opera effect. If I go to my friend's house I don't want to watch movies there. No one changes the [motion interpolation] settings and everything looks like a poor production. 

Zack: I recommend that everyone has a desktop computer, a non-connected alarm clock next to their bed, [they] put their phone away when they are home, if they can, when they are done working, and start there. You need to really allow your brain...you have to embrace technology, but you have to give your brain time and space.  

AFA: Time and space to process.   

Zack: Exactly. Some of my best ideas come when I go on walks by myself. I take long walks in the evening. 

Puppet Testing (Video credit: Furry Puppet Studio)


I think we are heavily influenced by what we see early in our lives.

AFA: So you've always had a connection to technology. You talked about how video games were an early influence for you.  

Zack: I think we are heavily influenced by what we see early in our lives. I've noticed that people who were raised in certain places, for example, people who were raised on soviet era animation, have a different way of drawing expressions. It was very different from the style that was going on in the rest of the world. It's just one example. Recently I watched a movie I was raised on. Have you seen the European version of Pipi Long Stockings? I was obsessed with so many of the objects in that film. I was also influenced by stop motion. There was a stop motion movie called Bertha about a toy machine with lots of flashing lights. I'm still obsessed with images from these early films. 

AFA: It sounds like you rediscovered early reference points. 

Zack: Still, as an adult, I think about these things. I also think about early computer games, specifically early LucasArts games. 

AFA: Grim Fandango! That was a great game.

Zack: Yes, but that was later. Do you remember Day of the Tentacle and Sam & Max? Steve Percel and I worked together on the Uncute Sam & Max plushies. We have more plushies coming soon, and a surprise one. It's kind of a nice full circle. I think if I wasn't exposed to those early games I think I may have seen things differently today. I remember the moment I first saw Day of the Tentacle. I remember the exact second.

AFA: I'll have to take a look at that game. 

Zack: I was also raised on Sesame Street and they had some really remarkable character designs. I mean, some characters had no eyes. Some of the character designs had such a strong look. It was unbelievable. Grover? Who would have designed Grover?

AFA: That's true!

Zack: He's basically a character with a colossal underbite. The head is two spheres and has lips that aren't even connected to one another. Arms like noodles. Who would approve this now? There was just so much magic there. Maybe the stakes weren't as high. 

AFA: You think there was a freedom there?

Zack: Yes. I think things were not as controlled. 

AFA: Streamlined and controlled.

Zack: Yes. You know, I remember hearing from Tim Schafer, who was one of the forces behind those LucasArts adventure games, that an intern created the entire opening sequence for Day of the Tentacle. 

AFA: Wow.

Zack: He was just driven by passion and he had the freedom to do it. I suppose the stakes were lower. It was more of a pet project for George Lucas. You still have pockets of that kind of stuff but that kind of freedom, it's difficult. We all streamline things in order to create a process because we must deliver a product. I think we have pockets of brilliance when we can create these moments of freedom. 

AFA: Do you think part of the goal is to create those pockets. 

Zack: Yes.

Puppet Fabrication Process (Video credit: Furry Puppet Studio)


I've always wanted to tell stories. I've always wanted to affect people. I've always wanted to make a difference.

AFA: When you are coming up with a puppet design does it all sort of hit you at once as a visualization or is there a process you use? What is the puppet design process?  

 Zack: Sometimes we do research. Sometimes I just start sketching. Sometimes I don't know where it's going to end up. We have designers working on the process and trying different directions. Sometimes, like recently, for Jack Dorsey's Bitcoin mascot, my first sketch was the design we went with. It's difficult to predict what is going to work at the end.

AFA: Right.

Zack: I'm very driven by character. Sometimes you work on a character and you feel like people are going to love it, and then it doesn't work. Sometimes, like with  Monkey here, you think it's too crazy. Then, somebody takes it from a box and says "are you crazy you have to put it out into the world!". Then you release it and people like it. You just never know. 

AFA: That's right.

Zack: I think puppets are their best when human interaction is there. Do you remember those Sesame Street episodes of puppets talking to kids? 

AFA: Yes.

Zack: That was amazing. I think it's like music. You can just do music for yourself but if other people don't listen to it, it's mostly therapeutic. I want to make a difference and make people feel things. I always like to say that the Mona Lisa could be in an empty room with no one accessing it but a great piece of art accessible to people has power. 

Puppet Testing (Video credit: Furry Puppet Studio)

AFA: Do you ever use focus groups? I'm just curious.

Zack: No, but we might use focus groups in the future to a limited extent. Sometimes we have limited releases to see how something is doing.

AFA: Right

Zack: But, we are not engineering food. 

AFA: Right, right, right.

Zack: Some clients who we work with use focus groups. They might improve your changes or they might not. There are pros and cons to everything. I try to make the process fun and human. 

AFA: Right.

Zack: When I came to New York, this is where I started and it taught me so much. I met so many wonderful people. What other job can introduce you to clients from the music industry like Missy Elliot and Pharrell, to actors like Jon Hamm, and first ladies like Michelle Obama, and entrepreneurs like Jack Dorsey, a Silicon Valley legend! I'm just so thankful for the relationships I've built over the years. It makes me happy to think about. I've been able to work with the most incredible people in such a diverse group of industries and have had the opportunity to collaborate with them.

AFA: That's amazing.

Zack: I've always wanted to do my own thing. I've always wanted to tell stories. I've always wanted to affect people. I've always wanted to make a difference. I don't think that anybody really wants "I once made a commercial" or "I designed a character for a campaign" on their tombstone. I want to leave a legacy that makes a difference and I want to make people feel better about themselves. Many of the advertising campaigns we work on break the mould and I am very happy I worked on them but I also wanted to find a more personal form of expression so we started the comic Blobby & Friends, which has been amazing. The response from people has been incredible. People tell us often that we make them feel good about themselves, which I think is, at the end of the day, is what people will remember. I think people remember how you make them feel. 

AFA: Yes.

Zack: People feel bad on social media. No one spends two hours on social media feeling good about themselves or about anything. So, the positive reactions we have received from people have been very meaningful. Since then, we started a company, which has been amazing.

AFA: And it's a charity.

Zack: Yes. Whenever we work with another non-profit we make sure the money actually goes to the cause it supports. We want to maximize our impact and we find partners to help us maximize the impact we have. 

Puppet Testing (Video credit: Furry Puppet Studio)

AFA: That's wonderful. I noticed your collection of books. How influenced are you by literature? Do you want to speak to that? 

Zack: Yes, and Comics! I think Comics are incredible. They really liberate you from many constraints if you compare the process to short film. 

AFA: Favorite animation?

Zack: One of my favorite animations is the early Fleischer Brothers Popeye.

AFA: That's an interesting pick.

Zack: The Fleischer Brothers were so innovative. They did 3d Animation with models. The animation was wam. It was very emotional and loving. They used rotoscoping and the parallax effect. So much of it was very meta, very self-aware. It was remarkable. 

AFA: Do you have any book recommendations from your library?

We spent some time at one of the large full bookcases and Zack pointed out a few recommendations for me. The shelves were filled with books on history, art, and literature, as well as poignant graphic graphic novels. (It was nice to meet someone so excited by books!)

Zack: So, I think Moomin, Roz Chast, Maus, Persepolis, Michael DeForge, Maurice SendickAl Hirschfeld, David Sedaris, and Hostage are a few recommendations. I admire people who cannot escape [their Art].

(Photo credit: Furry Puppet Studio)

AFA: What is your dream project?

Zack: I want to make a long form Blobby the Blobfish series. The reception has been amazing. We've had multiple inquiries about it already. We are working right now with one company, I'm trying to explore that direction. I want to make sure it's done right. There are stories to be told. [The project] will be long form in either comics, which are very intimate, or animation. We are [also] in a golden era for animation, and breaking the traditional boundaries of what a target audience is.  

AFA: Any upcoming projects you want to highlight? 

Zack: We are creating custom puppets for an American National Campaign for a major brand I feel is doing a lot of good work and has lots of brilliant people behind it. We are also working on new toys for this holiday season. We have some really interesting collaborations. Later this year, we will have many big releases. 

AFA: It's been a real pleasure. Thank you so much!

Zack. Thank you!

Rice Cake Butt Dumplings by Uncute (Photo credit: YG)


Furry Puppet Studio: Custom puppets and character designs based in NYC. 

Website: https://www.furrypuppet.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/furrypuppet 

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/custom.puppets 

Instagram: https://instagram.com/furrypuppet 

Uncute: We make products to celebrate our differences and do good. 

About: "We started Uncute after being absolutely overwhelmed with the reactions to our webcomic Blobby and Friends. Living in New York, and stuck at home due to the pandemic, we decided that it’s time to build a company that reflects what we believe in." 

"The Uncute Initiative was recently granted 501(c)(3) status as a charitable organization so we can put your money where our mouth is. A portion of all proceeds will go toward helping homeless and runaway youth. Some resources will also go towards whatever is most urgent - such as providing comfort to kids in detention centers. Thank you for being a friend!" 

Website: https://www.uncute.com/ 

Twitter: https://twitter.com/uncute 

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/uncuteofficial 

Rice Cake Butt Dumplings by Uncute (Photo credit: YG)

Yvonne Grzenkowicz is the Founder of Animation Nights New York & ANNY Exchange. She is a contributor for and a co-owner of AFA: Animation for Adults. She is also the director of eyesnare inc, a boutique production studio based in NYC.