Illusion and Innovation with Brian Henson

Photo by Fong Dong

Chairman of The Jim Henson Company and award-winning director, producer, and writer Brian Henson joined reporters for a press conference on Friday to talk the Muppets, puppeteering technology, and the unique challenges of puppeteering.

You’d be hard pressed to find a Dragon Con attendee who hasn’t heard of the Muppets. Henson was asked if he feels a sense of responsibility for kindling the imaginations of so many generations, and his heartfelt response was that it was more of his dad. His dad was not only ambitious, but lucky. His father, Jim Henson, made two pilots of The Muppets and pitched them to all of the networks. The resounding response? Muppets are for kids, and both times the pilot was passed on by all of the networks. Jim Henson then signed onto Saturday Night Live and waited for his opportunity to launch The Muppet Show. After the first season, The Muppet Show was the first television show to be sold in 30 countries and held the top slot for a short while until Dallas toppled it.

The Muppets can be seen in their own twists on a variety of classic works including Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and Henson was asked about making a classic into a Muppets movie. When approached about A Christmas Carol, Henson’s first reaction was that it is the most redone novel ever; why would they want to tackle that one? After sitting down and reading the novel, he realized that the story was uniquely suited to The Muppets, and after a few iterations, including Miss Piggy being the Ghost of Christmas Present, they created the most faithful adaptation ever, “which is weird.” Henson talked about how they had to make sure that the Muppets were the Muppets and Charles Dickens was Dickens, so Gonzo is still Gonzo, but he is directly quoting Dickens’ work.

Henson said that Treasure Island was a more difficult undertaking because the story’s base material is tougher. Treasure Island is a coming of age story where the coming of age moment is when he shoots someone in the face and kills him slowly. Obviously that’s not something that’s going into a Muppets movie. Henson went on to say that the biggest challenge of Muppet Treasure Island is carrying enough characters to the end that would allow them to be sorted into three groups the way Stevenson’s novel ended.

Henson was asked about his preference of working with older versus newer technology. He loves and would choose to return to the older way they used animatronics because he said there’s something wonderful about the imperfect illusion that animatronics provides—the fact that the characters are puppets and aren’t real. The business is starting to move to a more hybrid model of animatronics since it is more cost effective and more realistic. The key is to use animatronics and digital editing to their strengths. Animatronics is ideal for creating the full character and digital animation really brings facial movements and dialogue to life. Henson wishes that he could use the same techniques that they used in the past. Although now they know that many of those materials are actually poisonous.

Usually one of the tricks of puppeteering is to build lightweight, easy to lift puppets, which is what Sesame Street does, but in bigger movies like Dark Crystal and Little Shop of Horrors, the puppets are much bigger and create unique challenges. The Little Shop of Horrors Audrey II was 170 pounds, and Henson had a Manchester United trainer to help work with him for the very physically demanding puppeteering role. Henson was later asked if there were certain hand and shoulder exercises that he performed before working, and he said that, for the hands, he’d roll two Chinese balls—three balls is quite hard—around on his palm and juggle tennis balls full of pennies for arm and shoulder strengthening exercises.

Currently, Henson is working on developing the script based on Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men novel and casting and funding Happy Times Murder that has been hailed as the funniest script ever by multiple sources.

Author of the article

Not everyone can say they watch television for homework, read novels for inspiration, and are paid to follow what’s trending. For Alicia Pack, it is all part of life as a writer and media enthusiast.  When she isn't lost in the world she is trying to create, you can find her with her nose in a book or catching up on her favorite supernatural shows.  She has a Master’s degree in Mass Communications and a Bachelor’s degree in Radio, Television, and Film.  Her nine years of diverse media experience include news writing, copywriting, website content management, social media, promotions, television production, and teaching.

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