Lisa Henson Shares How to Create Lasting Characters

While Lisa Henson’s siblings have all visited Dragon Con in the past, this is her first appearance. At her opening panel on Friday at 10AM, like her brother and sister before her, she spoke knowledgeably and lovingly of how she, as the CEO of The Jim Henson Company and a producer, has tried to maintain her father’s legacy—the many puppets that he made into household names—through new, enduring characters.

She noted that Dragon Con is the only con that has a Puppetry Track, which is poignant since Atlanta is home to the Center for Puppetry Arts where many of Henson’s worn-out puppets now reside. Also, she pointed out that “something that makes it into a museum” is pretty much the definition of lasting. It also takes “care and craftsmanship and love,” which her father, the late Jim Henson, displayed every day, enabling him to leave a robust body of work despite dying relatively young at 53.

“He didn’t actually make work look like work,” she said, saying also that all of his creations came “from a place of joy.” Also, puppets, inherently, are more alive than animated characters, in large part, because of the unity of the performance—the same body and voice are controlling it. It is one performance (mostly) instead of several stitched together.

Henson then focused on three characters, looking at how Kermit the Frog, Big Bird, and Bailey the baby elephant from the Netflix series Word Party came into being.

Kermit started, as many people know, as Jim Henson’s alter ego. The original Kermit puppet was a much simpler design, stitched together from his mother’s old coat during a time of sadness, as he was taking care of an ailing grandfather. Unlike many Henson characters, Kermit did not materialize from a fantasy or lengthy design process: his was a “very unique situation of character creation,” Henson said, that likely won’t be repeated. However, the simplicity and originality used in crafting Kermit, she said, is something that should be replicated.

Big Bird, on the other hand, followed a more typical development timeline. Writers came up with a concept—in this case they wanted a big toddler embodied in a puppet. Then, artwork was drawn up (in this instance by Jim Henson himself). Then, the legendary Carroll Spinney was cast, who, she said, actually roller skated when in costume. “That’s it,” she said. “There is no magic.”

Concept, design, and casting: When all three line up, then “you have the chance for something to be really great,” she said. All are essential in creating lasting characters, but characters also need a vehicle. “Sometimes you make great characters, and then the show disappears,” she said. However, good characters can be recycled for new a project, which is what happened to a set of funny hotdog puppets  fashioned in the 1990s for CityKids. The show failed to take off, but Brian Henson, Lisa’s brother, recently pulled them for use in his Henson Alternative Productions, such as Puppet Up!, which focus on adult humor.

There, they’ve been a hit. “They were better than the show they were in,” she said, showing how the quality of the character can sometimes outshine the quality of the show.

Bailey—and Bubbles from the kids show Splash and Bubbles that Henson also discussed—is a more modern CG character brought to life by blending the best of puppetry with animation, allowing for improvisation and for the performer to drive the character, rather than the character dictating the performance. In this way, Henson said that every new show starts not just with the characters, but with who can bring them to life. It is a way to “try to stay faithful to puppetry roots when doing animation,” she said. This is a practice that The Jim Henson Company has followed since developing Sid the Science Kid, their first digital puppetry show.

Henson also discussed that no matter the medium, or process, a beautifully designed and conceived puppet may not always work in reality. Henson said that moving 2D sketches to a 3D model quickly is essential to ensuring that the movement works—that it doesn’t distort the look of the character from any angle.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, as was the case with Miss Piggy, who was just a plain pig puppet designed for a chorus line that, when picked up by legendary puppeteer Frank Oz, became something altogether different. Henson said that, unlike most others, Miss Piggy’s development was led by the performer, who imbued the puppet with such passion and aggression that it led to a redesign. In this case, the concept sprang up after the design and casting.

In stressing the importance of the performer—and the link between voice and physicality—to the character, Henson talked about the show Dinosaurs, which ran on ABC in the early 1990s. Henson recalled how ABC wanted mainstream, known voices (such as Sally Struthers and Sherman Hensley) dubbed over the voices of the puppeteers for the main characters. Yet, in the end, it was the character of Baby—a voice not dubbed—that became the breakout star. Henson stressed that there are exceptions, such as in The Dark Crystal, where the voices were post-synched with younger voices, which is what Jim Henson wanted from the beginning.

When asked about Julia, a new puppet on Sesame Street with autism, and if there would be more characters developed like her, Henson said, “You can go back and say Gonzo has Asperger’s.” While puppets have not been explicitly designed this way, they often embody elements of such things. Henson mused that this could be because there is a connection between kids with autism and puppets that has been seen anecdotally over and over. This has led her to connect with Yale University to study the connection.

Towards the end of the panel, the audience questions moved away from character development to how Henson runs the company—balancing cost and creativity—and what is next for the Muppets, which are now in the hands of Disney. Henson said that The Jim Henson Company is not driven by profit; it is driven by making great stuff and working with creative people. She also assured the audience that “Disney is very dedicated to making it work.” They have the resources to ensure the Muppets will live long after we are gone.

And, if not, they will always be cemented in American culture. That’s what happens when something makes it into a museum—and the Muppets, and other Jim Henson puppets too threadbare and worn to be used anymore, are not only in the Center for Puppetry Arts but also museums in New York, Mississippi, and Washington, D.C. in the Smithsonian, to be exact, where the best of America goes to be celebrated.

Author of the article

Kelly McCorkendale is a dog-lover, avid quilter, and occasional creative writer who loves the color orange and boycotts cable (except Game of Thrones because, well, what if winter is coming!?). After college, she realized poets weren’t in demand, so she shipped off to Madagascar with Peace Corps. Since then, she’s found a niche working on health systems in Africa but has a long-list of life tasks yet to be fulfilled--such as perform blackmail, learn a trade, and become a competitive eater. She has an MA in International Education, believes rice is the elixir of life, and, in high school, won the best supporting actress honor for the state of Missouri. She may also recite poetry (her first love) when imbibing in alcohol.