Last Sunday night, I had the pleasure of hearing Brian Henson, award-winning director, producer, and puppeteer, talk at the Museum of the Moving Image about the evolution of puppetry. The talk was part of the current exhibit entitled Jim Henson’s Fanstastic World. This exhibit, which includes special Henson-created screenings, will be at MOMI until January 16.

Brian’s presentation to a packed audience included an inside look at the history of the revolutionary Henson technique and style of puppetry; examples of the company’s work throughout the years, including behind-the-scenes clips from Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal; recent work on the TV series Sid the Science Kid; a live demonstration of puppetry for the screen; and Q and A from the audience.

The Muppet Technique

Since 1955, Jim Henson always performed puppetry for a camera. (This makes sense since Jim used puppetry as a vehicle to enter the worlds of film and television.) In doing so, Jim and his colleagues turned the television itself into the puppet’s stage. “The performance was always to the camera; the Muppets were always looking to the fourth wall,” Brian explained. He showed a clip of In the Navy as an example. The old television sets were rounded, so the old Muppets, with their rounded heads, complimented that tv shape nicely.

In the Muppet technique, puppeteers are taught to forget that the puppet is on their arm; they are instructed to be on the outside looking in. (See my interview with Sesame performer Martin Robinson, who emphasizes this point.) “You forget yourself completely, ” shared Brian on puppeteering in the Henson style, “and what the character does surprises you [the performer].”

With the introduction of the Emmet Otter characters into the repertoire came Jim Henson’s use of radio-controlled puppets. Jim went on to utilize animatronix when making The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth films. Animatronix, explained Brian, were first used with puppets at Disney theme parks, where you could find robotic characters with sound tracks. Brian showed film clips to demonstrate how animatronix were applied to the character of Hoggle and also the Henson show Dinosaurs.

From animatronix, Jim Henson moved on to also use 3-D digital characters as well as 2-D manipulation of images. Blowing everyone’s mind (well at least my own!), Brian showed a video which explained the technology behind one his newest projects geared toward the pre-school age child, Sid the Science Kid. Sid is produced by motion capture, which “[…]refers to recording actions of human actors, and using that information to animate digital character models in 2D or 3D computer animation.” (Source: Wikipedia)

The highlight of the evening for me came when Brian inhabited an armadillo puppet, demonstrating the different puppetry styles of some of his colleagues, including that of his father, Jim. “My dad was the bounciest!” exclaimed Brian. (Watch Kermit the Frog and you’ll see what Brian means.) The audience was laughing hard, and there was so much magic and fun in the way Brian brought that puppet to life and made us believe it was real.

A Little Q and A With the Audience
(Here, I paraphrase Brian’s answers.)

Q: How were Miss Piggy and Kermit able to ride bicycles?
A: We are riding bikes from above (the shot) and controlling their motions with strings.

Q: Animate means to bring life to something, to give it soul. How do you give soul to your characters?
A: The idea behind Muppet characters is to take an outrageous concept and turn it into a character that people feel they know.

Q: Do puppeteers train in theater and physical comedy?
A: We teach lip-syncing. The early performers were amazing ad-libbers and improvisers. Muppeteers currently go through a training in Los Angeles.

Q:What’s the word on Dark Crystal II?
A: Lisa Henson [Brian’s sister) is driving this project.

Q: What’s the scoop on a Fraggle Rock movie?
A: It will probably start shooting at the end of 2012.

Q: How did you make Miss Piggy?
A: We wanted a bunch of pigs, and someone put a wig on one of them. She was unplanned. She is now molded from soft foam with a layer of flocking over it to make her look slightly furry.

[Editor’s Note: This is not entirely true. Although Miss Piggy was not drawn first, she was not unplanned.]

Q: What is your earliest memory of working with your dad?”
A: One of my memories is of playing with the Chicken Liver Muppet from Sam and Friends in the sandbox!

Q: What makes up the essence of the Muppets?
A: Characters with a bold, confident, devil-may-care lunacy. They do crazy stuff, which takes confidence, it goes wrong, they feel bad, and they do it again!

Contributed by Eleanor Traubman,