Thursday, December 08, 2011


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!


Do you know who Martin Robinson is? If not, you should! For the last 30 years, he has been performing some well-loved characters on Sesame Street, including Telly Monster, Snuffleupagus, and Slimey. In addition, Marty teams with his wife and Sesame writer Annie Evans to create the Sesame Family Robinson blog for the Sesame Workshop website. On top of that, Marty hires and trains puppeteers for Sesame Street productions all around the world.

Wait! That’s not all! Check out his website, and you’ll find that the fantastic Mr. Robinson is also a puppet designer and builder for shows like Little Shop of Horrors. Take a look at Martin’s resume, and you’ll see that he “Designed and performed a giant carnivorous plant that rose 22 feet into the air, panned 40 feet, and flew over the fifth row of the Virginia Theatre.” For a Lincoln Center production of Frogs, he “Designed and built a giant frog that ate Nathan Lane.”

The Road to Puppeteering
For Martin, who was a shy kid, there were a couple of pivotal events that led him to his love affair with performing and related forms of artistry. First, there was Halloween. Halloween was performance time, the time where there was permission to look and act differently from everyday life. He designed his costume and thought about the character he would play months in advance of the big day. “It was too much fun to do that kind of thing one day of year,” notes Martin. So theater became a way to extend that opportunity to be something else other than his everyday self.

The other important moment in time came about when Martin’s school held auditions for the school performance of Oliver. Martin’s art teacher saw something in him, believed in him, and actually refused to do the sets for the play unless Martin was offered the part of Fagin. Being Fagin opened up a whole new world for Martin, and from that moment on, he knew that performing was “it” for him.

After high school, Martin left his hometown in Wisconsin to attend acting school at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Next, in 1975, Martin toured as a puppeteer with Nicolo Marionettes, now knows as Puppetworks, Inc. In 1977, Martin performed for six months in Busch Gardens, Virginia, with Baird Marionettes, and from there continued working with Bil Baird in New York City.

The experience with Baird allowed Martin to see puppets as “moving sculptures” and view puppetry as a combination of design, sculpture, and acting. As a puppeteer, Martin experienced a kind of freedom in not being limited by his physical body (think about it: actors are often cast based on their appearance); thus, his dream of getting to play “crazy character roles” was realized.

Highlights and Challenges of being a Puppeteer
According to Martin, the blessing of being a puppeteer lies in the many opportunities to have fun, laugh, and clown around. (Having watched Martin behind the scenes, I got to witness first-hand how he capitalizes on those opportunities: the guy has a wicked sense of humor that keeps Sesame cast and crew cracking up!)

Martin is clear that it’s a difficult profession, as well. First, you have to be able to handle a lot of pressure to keep performing at a certain level, to produce results in such an on-demand way. You have to have a particular level of acting abilities to respond to other characters in the moment. (These folks rehearse the same scene over and over and over to match Sesame’s high production standards.) “To perform a character well,” shares Martin, “you have to be outside the character – outside, looking in”. There is also a technical challenge that puppeteers face: while they are performing, they must track their actions by looking into a monitor!

How does Martin meet these challenges? Long time Sesame puppeteer Fran Brill and co-worker to Martin sheds some light on this question:

“Marty Robinson is one of the most positive people I know. I don't think I've ever heard him say ‘No’ (at least on the set of Sesame Street) or complain. If a director asked Marty to puppeteer upside down inside of Snuffy while blowing up a balloon and singing The Star Spangled Banner in Lithuanian, he'd say ‘I'll try.’

Marty is also a very generous performer- everyone loves to work with him because he gives his all, really listens, and makes you look good. He is kind, loving, and tremendous fun to be around because he is really outrageous with Telly. He makes us all laugh and gives 100% of himself when performing.”

Training and Filming and Writing
Martin’s responsibilities with Sesame transcend national borders as well as artistic medium: he is often sent overseas to train puppeteers for Sesame Street in other countries. In this role, Martin teaches puppeteers to collaborate with the camera as well as with the director. “I teach the puppeteers that we are composing the frame with the director,” he explains.

Martin also brings his skills as a filmmaker to the Sesame operation. With his wife, Annie Evans, whom he married on the set of the show, he shares his behind-the-scene experiences as a parent and as a puppeteer through movies and stories on the Sesame Family Robinson blog. As Martin and Annie explain to their readers, “[…] we’ve created this blog to share our journey as parents trying to raise our daughters with love and playfulness, while also being deeply committed to a television show that seeks to educate and empower children all over the world.”

Martin on Going After Your Dreams
According to Martin, we all have dreams as children. It’s important to look at those dreams, figure out what is at the heart of them, and then pursue whatever that essence is. Martin is well aware that he knew from an early age what made his heart sing. And that whenever confronted with a decision about an opportunity that came his way, he would always base his decision on a commitment to follow his bliss.

“We give up on our dreams way too easily,” says Martin. “There is no reason why you can’t really love what you do. There is nobility in almost anything. Don’t wait until retirement to start your life. The key is doing what you love, and loving what you do. Everyone has the ability to guide their life in a way that makes them happy.”

Tuesday, December 06, 2011


The Big Dream of working for Sesame Street Part 1 from The Spiritstorm School on Vimeo.

When I visit the set of Sesame Street, there's the story or interview I came to get and then there's the unexpected story I walk away with. Take, for example, when I went on set to interview long-time cameraman Frank Biando and ended up also meeting Big Bird's performer Carroll Spinney and Justin, the (then) pre-teen who had met Carroll because of the many letters he had written to Mr. Spinney starting at age 5.

Last week, I was on set to watch in action and interview long-time Sesame puppeteer Marty Robinson (stay tuned for the post about him!). A ways into the shoot, I was invited to come sit at the counter in Mr. Hooper's store to get a better view of the puppeteers. Sitting on the stools beside me were a man and a woman. The man was doing sketches of scenes with Sesame characters. Intrigued, I struck up a conversation.

Turns out the man was Louis Henry Mitchell, Sesame's Associate Design Director of Special Projects. He was sitting next to his wife, Jackie. Turns out they just got married!

Here are some of the interesting and amazing things that Louis does and did for Sesame:

* Create storyboards the for production of Sesame Street
* Design video covers for all new titles
* Designed the Planetarium Project for the Museum of Natural History
* Design Sesame Street Google Doodle
* Design and install Brooklyn Library Sesame Street Muppet Exhibit
* Design Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade float and two of the previous balloons, Big Bird and Super Grover
* Create gift portraits including a special gift for Vice President Joe Biden and wife, Dr. Jill Biden with the Sesame Street Muppets.
* Teach and train artists all over the world how to draw the Sesame Street Muppets through the Muppets' personalities

P.S. - There is a series of wonderful interviews with Louis on The Muppet Mindset: Part I * Part II * Part III * Part IV


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