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Capturing a Cultural Icon Behind Big Bird

May 27, 2014

Chad Walker’s documentary I am Big Bird offers viewers an extraordinary glimpse into the life of Caroll Spinney, the man behind the Sesame Street character that influenced generations of children. The feature length film received its world premiere at the Hot Docs Festival in Toronto in April 2014, playing to universally glowing reviews.

The idea for the documentary was sparked by a conversation that Walker’s co-directing partner, Dave LaMattina had with a friend who stated she was “related to Big Bird”- meaning the puppeteer, Carol Spinney. An artist, now over 80, Spinney has been operating Big Bird since 1969. He not only plays Big Bird but also Oscar the Grouch.

Thinking it would be a major hurdle to bring Spinney on board, Walker and LaMattina were grateful when both the puppeteer and his wife Deb proved very enthusiastic about collaborating, providing close to 500 hours of home video footage to the production.

The crew assembled a trailer for the film and found investors who put up some initial funds. The filmmakers then launched a Kickstarter campaign, raising approximately $124,000 toward the film’s creation. But why would a film with such a strong, built-in fan-base and recognizable subject (Big Bird) need to turn to Kickstarter rather than the more traditional funding model? The team wanted to retain complete artistic and storytelling control, Chad explains. To this end, one of the many strengths of I Am Big Bird is the depiction of some of the darker moments of Spinney’s formative years. The documentary eloquently chronicles how the loneliness of Spinney’s childhood formed the basis of characters that would become global cultural icons.

Walker and his team are now fielding distribution offers for I Am Big Bird. The documentary was produced over a five-year period through Copper Pot Pictures which Walker and LaMattina co-founded with executive producer Clay Frost in 2007. Copper Pot’s next project is the documentary We Must Go about American soccer coach Bob Bradley’s efforts to lead the Egyptian national soccer team to the FIFA World Cup, a stage the team hasn’t reached in 24 years. The documentary will be available on major VOD platforms including iTunes, Amazon and Google Play starting June 10th, two days prior to the World Cup opening ceremonies.

Walker entered Sheridan’s Advanced Television and Film program with a degree in Communications from Eastern Connecticut State University. He credits Sheridan’s faculty for guiding his passion for film from a hobby to a serious career possibility. After graduating in 2005, Walker earned his filmmaking chops as an editorial assistant at leading animation house, Blue Sky Studios back in Connecticut. He is credited with multiple animation productions including the hits Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!, Rio and the Ice Age sequels.

by Marc Cohen, Professor, Advanced Television and Film
(Advanced Television and Film, 2001)

Chad WalkerChad Walker (Advanced Television and Film, 2005)