The legends are true: There be monsters at Treefort Music Fest.
In 2017, concertgoers spoke of a 20-foot-tall gorilla ambling up the streets and through the main stage crowd. This year, rumors spread of an electric peacock, with its frock 29 feet wide and 19 feet tall, glowing in the night as the pointy head at the end of its long neck darted about, looking patrons in the eye and leaning down to give the occasional kiss. Other years, stories circulated of a giant squid, mutant dragonflies, a 60-foot-long dinosaur and a gigantic, seemingly radioactive spider.
The tales are all true, thanks to Boise’s own giant puppet-making outfit, The Colossal Collective.
The puppets, most of which involve elaborate lighting work and take a small team to operate, have become stars of the festival, according to Treefort spokeswoman Izze Rumpp. The thousands of festivalgoers delight at entering the main stage or turning a corner while heading to any of the other Treefort venues and running into a monster. “Colossal Collective literally brings the party wherever they are,” Rumpp said.
Sam Johnson, Colossal’s ringleader, was inspired to make puppets by the larger-than-life artwork at Burning Man and other festivals in the West. His first giant puppet was a giant squid standing 20 feet tall with two rope-light tentacles, each 20 feet long. He showed up to a festival, recruited some helpers and danced the creature into
The squid was crude compared to Johnson’s later efforts. But he had fun, and the festival patrons loved dancing along with a funky horror of the deep.
“It looked like a pile of garbage,” Johnson said. “It was made with a bunch of empty beer boxes, plastic Danish covers and a bunch of fencing I found on the side of the road.”
That was 2012. Johnson’s team has since grown to eight or nine regulars who chip in on the work and the event circuit for most of the year, as well as another 10 or 15 folks who sporadically drop by to help.
The Collective has also leveled up its sophistication, learning how to work with strong, lightweight materials, software, and circuitry. The six-foot-tall face of Jungo, the gorilla, was sculpted from stiff foam, giving sharpness to its features while holding up to the bumps and rustling that come with transportation and performance. The large peacock—the team made a smaller version as well—includes about 2,500 LED lights, each capable of firing on its own, enabling operators to program a near infinite number of colored patterns to erupt across the frock.
Each puppet takes hundreds or thousands of hours, Johnson said. He’s fried plenty of controllers while soldering circuits. The team makes mistakes, costing time and materials. Trial and error comes with the territory. He’s thrilled when people are willing to help, even if they are using tools or materials for the first time.
“People don’t volunteer to get yelled at,” Johnson noted. “There’s nearly $1,000 worth of white faux fur that went into Jungo. Sometimes you cut a panel wrong. That’s ok. There can be an extra seam somewhere.”
Johnson knows his way around a workshop, thanks to his job at Trademark Designs and Fabrication. The Boise company specializes in designing logos and other commercial materials, then manufacturing them as signs or other permanent, outdoor structures. With the company’s blessing—Johnson counts Trademark as an important supporter of The Collective—he uses its laser cutter to make prototypes to test his puppet designs. He settles on a design during winter, when the work starts. The sessions become more frequent until the weeks leading up to Treefort, when it’s all-hands-on-deck to make the final push.
After Treefort, the year’s puppets make appearances at Boise events and at festivals in the region, including Burning Man.
Johnson says he’s got napkin sketches to keep the Collective busy for years. He used to get his juice for the work by watching people light up when they bumped into the puppets, but now he delights more in watching Collective members experience that interaction with the crowd while they operate the beasts.
Well, that and the fact that building giant creatures is still pretty fun.
“The puppets trigger some pretty cool reactions, helping people reconnect with that childlike wonder,” Johnson said. “They turn a corner, and, whoa! It’s a 20-foot-tall gorilla, and he just gave me a fist bump and did a little dance with me. The world is so drenched in cynicism. We need more of that.”
WHAT FUNDS THE COLOSSAL COLLECTIVE?
Technically, The Colossal Collective is a for-profit business owned by Sam Johnson, the mastermind behind the larger-than-life puppets that parade around Treefort Music Fest and other festivals in the West. But, as is often the case with passion projects, “for-profit” is more like “try to break even” most years. Johnson takes contracts to perform at Treefort and several other large festivals each year. The Collective accepts donations at its website, and this year, Johnson landed $5,000 grants from both Burning Man and the City of Boise, providing upfront money for supplies needed to build the peacock puppets.
Johnson winds up paying out-of-pocket for materials and took a loss one year. He’s not too concerned about the financial side of things. He likes to build big puppets, and as the budgets grew to support the group’s ambition, he learned how to deal with
“It’s now complicated enough with the grants and the funding that we have to behave like a business,” Johnson explained. “It’s not like I love keeping the books or buying insurance policies, but it gives us a way to exist.”