A Puppeteer's Monsters Bring a Fantasy Nightmare World to North Mississippi

His day job involves work on the likes of Portlandia, Star Trek, and Robocop, but in his free time, Portlander Matthew Hopkins makes monsters—a whole world of them. And they're coming to North Portland this week...

By Brandon Staley October 8, 2015

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From Nightmerriment by Matthew Hopkins

When Portlander Matthew Hopkins creates a new monster, he is, in his own words, altering an ecosystem. That ecosystem is called Nightmerriment, an evolving project four years in the making. And it’s still growing, with the current incarnation on display at Paxton Gate on N Mississippi this week.

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Hopkins, a puppeteer by trade, founded the Nightmerriment world when he was invited to exhibit at the People’s Art of Portland gallery. Not having exhibited a show since college because of an extensive career in film and theater—he’s worked on Portlandia, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Sesame Street Workshop among other projects—Hopkins was unsure of what to display. On a lark, he mounted the head of one of his monster puppets just to see what it would look like. In true mad scientist fashion, Nightmerriment has been growing organically ever since.

“I work from sort of a storytelling perspective,” says Hopkins of his process. “I don’t really know what the creature is going to look like—it kind of tells me what it’s going to be as I’m making it. So it has ears like this because it needs to listen for predators, or it has teeth like this because it eats other animals or it’s a vegetarian. It informs me what kind of creature it is as I’m making it.”

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Nightmerriment has also been expanding in medium. Recently, Hopkins has been experimenting with cast plastic molds, which can be altered and accessorized based on how Hopkins imagines that creature would survive in the Nightmerriment world. “I can play within the confines of what the mold is,” says Hopkins, “but I can make it look very different.”

Despite their Paxton-Gate appearance—the store is known for its taxidermied residents—these monsters are more like faux taxidermy, though Hopkins has used leather in the construction of some.

From conception to monster can take weeks, in part because Hopkins also works as a freelance prop maker for feature films and television. He recently wrapped up production on season six of Portlandia, to which he lent his puppeteering expertise. He has also worked on projects like last year’s Robocop remake. Hopkins, who has a certain affection for the original Robocop film, went into the project expecting to be making guns. Reality was a bit more sobering.

“We just made so many cell phones,” laughs Hopkins. “Just cell phone, after cell phone, after cell phone. I thought the movie was just going to be people talking to each other on these phones.”

The experience was still a valuable one for Hopkins, who had the opportunity to work with legendary prop makers like Rick Gamez and Tim Oakley, whose respective work histories include everything from Twelve Monkeys to 300. Hopkins took away more than just technical expertise though.

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“It was also a work ethic, because I would work with these guys and they would sometimes just work 24 hours a day to get stuff done,” he says. “It was really fascinating and really fun.”

As for Nightmerriment, it’s a world-building exercise—though staying within that world can be taxing.

“Everything finds its own place to live within this world,” says Hopkins. “Sometimes I imagine those things are living in your attic, or they’re under the bed, and sometimes they’re these huge creatures that live out in the woods and you’ll never see them, ever.

“But they’re there. They’re lurking.”

Nightmerriment will be on display this Friday, Oct 9 at Paxton Gate on
N. Mississippi Ave, with Hopkins in store to answer questions.

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