Puppets, Pixels, and Portals

Photo by Donnie Cochran

What do Fraggle Rock, Toy Story 2, and Portal have in common? Puppeteer and animator Karen Prell, who shared her varied career on the panel “Puppets, Pixels, and Portals: The Work of Karen Prell” on Sunday at 11:30AM in Marriot A704. Prell told her story with the help of a slideshow, beginning with a picture of her doing career research in 1960–as a baby watching Captain Kangaroo. Shows such as Sesame Street and Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color inspired her love of puppets and animation, while The Beatles got her excited about “fun, smart music.” She also loved the original Star Trek series, and used Mr. Spock as inspiration for Red Fraggle, one of her most famous roles. Years later, she read in an interview that Zachary Quinto, who plays Mr. Spock in the current movies, had been inspired by Red Fraggle. “It’s the whole circle of life thing,” she noted with a smile.

Prell was soon busy making her own puppets and writing her own scripts. She even bought a Grover puppet, tore him apart to see how he had been made, and put him back together with a few changes that turned him into a cat. Soon she was putting on her own shows. Eventually she stuffed a huge bag full of her puppets and took them to a presentation given by members of The Muppets. They encouraged her to submit a videotape of her performing with her puppets. She did, and months later got a call that said Jim Henson had looked at it and wanted to fly her to New York for an audition.

It was almost Christmas, and most of the staff had gone home for the holidays. Henson answered the door himself and gave her a welcoming hug. “It was like going to Mt. Olympus,” Prell said, “and the gods hug you.” At the end of the audition, Henson offered her a job on Sesame Street. From there she moved to The Muppet Show, where she animated hands, items of food—any extra thing that needed to be done. But she needed more life experience.

After a stint as a commercial artist, doing various projects such as illustrating coloring books, she auditioned for Fraggle Rock and got the part of Red Fraggle. She also did the tail of Sprocket. But she didn’t stop there. In the summer of 1985, Prell went to England and worked on Labyrinth, where she moved the eyes of a puppet for the first time. She said it was five long, hard months because everything “had to happen for real, live, on set.” Everyone had to be on the top of their game. She animated The Worm, The Junk Lady, and Firey 2. Prell had to huddle inside The Junk Lady, looking out through the chair and reaching down with her hand to work the puppet’s mouth.

Later in her career, Prell moved into computer animation because puppet work was slowing down with the advent of CGI. She pitched her skills to Pixar, since not many people had CGI skills at the time.  They agreed to put her through a computer-animation training course. Prell then worked for Pixar on Jerry’s Game, A Bug’s Life, For the Birds, Monsters, Inc., and Toy Story 2.

After a break, Prell worked for Tippet Studio, doing CGI on Son of the Mask, Enchanted, and The Stepford Wives. Eventually she found herself at Valve, where she worked on Portal and Portal 2, animating the artificial intelligence known as Wheatley and contributing some scenes of GLaDOS. Her puppetry skills came in handy when animating characters without heads or mouths. She used such things as timing and head tilts to show expression, just like she would with a puppet. The scenes in the elevator were the most fun for her to animate. Prell also contributed to the Team Fortress 2 “Meet the Team” shorts.

When asked to predict what might come next in CGI, she said it’s difficult to say because, “Anything is possible now.” Animation is constantly changing and progressing. We’ll have to wait and see.

Author of the article

Debbie Yutko lives near Atlanta with her husband and two cats. When she isn’t gardening, rescuing homeless kittens, or cramming math formulas into teenagers’ brains, she can be found stringing words together at her computer and dreaming of adventures in far-off lands. She is a lifelong reader of Science Fiction and Fantasy and a veteran of Dragon Con, where she enjoys attending panels and working with the talented staff of the Daily Dragon.