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Zombie puppeteer highlights need for international connections to survive in business

A disembodied hand falls from Matt Ficner's workshop shelf and hits the floor. The family schnoodle, eight-month-old Bailey, runs over and begins poking it with his nose.

"The dog's like, mmm-hmm, another body part, " Mr. Ficner joked. Gore and body parts are a part of Mr. Ficner's life as an Ottawa-based creative artist who specializes in, of all things, zombie puppets.

Just in time for Christmas, he's released his latest short video on YouTube: Frosty Zombies, a spoof of Silent Night where the undead chase their latest victim around a graveyard.

But zombie puppets are a side hobby to his creative business, in which he regularly works on displays and shows at Saunders Farm. He's done work for CBC Ottawa, Jim Henson Productions and the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario.

Mr. Ficner, an OBJ Forty Under 40 winner in 2006, points to diversification among different markets and different countries as a key to his success.

"I've always been a fan of sci-fi and horror films and all that, " Mr. Ficner said. "I was working with my business colleagues in Malaysia. We sat down and watched a couple of action zombie movies and we sort of looked at each other and said, 'You know what's never been done?' "

His first production two years ago, Dusty Zombies, featured half a dozen puppets singing Dust in the Wind in a graveyard. Since then he's uploaded other short productions featuring his handmade creations.

"(But) a lot of the work that I do, it doesn't just pertain to puppets, " Mr. Ficner says, adding he regularly finds himself traveling to Montreal, Toronto and overseas in efforts to spread his business. "As an artist, as a businessperson, you have to diversify. So I do everything. Actually, right now, I'm working on some design work for the BBC for a TV series ... corporate logos, all that kind of stuff.

"Even just creative speaking - I talk with people about unleashing their creativity and not being afraid to do that. "

But diversification can only get a creative artist so far, warns Roch Brunette, general manager of the Ottawa-Gatineau Film and Television Development Corp. Since Ottawa's producer base is "quite limited, " he says Mr. Ficner's connections in other cities and countries would be essential to keep his business going.

"(He) would definitely have to go outside the market. For sure, absolutely, " Mr. Brunette says. "He can work from his home base here, but he definitely has to connect with the Toronto and Montreal crowd, even Los Angeles people. "

That's what Will Inrig - the 17-year-old winner of the Ottawa International Animation Festival this September - ran into despite his critical and popular success for his short animation, The Depose of Bolskivoi Hovhannes.

After graduating from Canterbury High School this year, he moved to Montreal.

His latest project - due for release next fall - is a 90-minute independently produced documentary following the lives of autistic adults in a Montreal health-care facility.

"Before I found myself hopping on a bus and going to Toronto or Montreal because this is where the production companies are, the broadcasters, they are all there. I thought, why am I spending all this money on buses? I have to find myself a permanent location. "

To watch how Matt Ficner creates his unique zombie puppets, click on for OBJ's online video.

Organizations: Saunders Farm, CBC, Jim Henson Productions Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario BBC Gatineau Film and Television Development Corp. Since Canterbury High School

Geographic location: Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto Malaysia Los Angeles

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