Brian Henson, acclaimed director, producer, puppeteer, and chairman of the Jim Henson Company, stopped in Atlanta over Labor Day weekend for two reasons. First, Henson was on hand to celebrate 30 years of the iconic movie Labyrinth with a Masquerade Ball and an exhibit at the Center for Puppetry Arts. Second, Henson attended Dragon Con, where the convention’s expanding puppetry track gets better each year. Mr. Henson graciously invited members of the press to a junket to discuss a variety of topics such as the optioning of Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men, the future of a Farscape movie, hybrid animatronics, and why The Muppet Christmas Carol is the most faithful adaptation of Dickens’ classic, but Muppet Treasure Island is better on repeated viewings.
Since this was a junket, I only had the opportunity to ask one question, so I made sure to make it a geeky one.
GeekDad: “I’m wondering…now that we’re celebrating the 30th anniversary of Labyrinth, looking back on some of those films earlier in your career are there any things that stand out that you wish you could do differently now as far as technology is concerned?”
Brian Henson: “It’s almost more the opposite, I wish there were things I could still do now. That’s actually the more painful… You know when we had a fully-operational creature shop with 80 staff and usually a payroll of 350, when animatronics was really in full swing, and then… boy! You could really just order stuff up. It was like ‘I need a 15-foot octopus tentacle, and it’s gotta move beautifully,’ and I’d have it a week later. A lot of the materials we can’t use anymore, because they [laughs] turn out to be poisonous. There’s a lot of stuff we really learned we shouldn’t be using anymore, so we stopped.
Are there things that I wish I could have done differently? Well, sure. In Labyrinth, Hoggle… we had not really gotten to a point yet where we could work with force feedback through the potentiometers to adjust the quality of movement of a motor, which we then developed after that so that a motor could move in an organic way. Like this [Demonstrates smooth movement compared to stilted, jerky movements with his arm]. You know, with Hoggle any “organic-ness” to the motor had to come from us and the performance, which was really hard and had to be really carefully edited to hope to make it look as good as possible, but later we were able to make motors move in an organic way that helped a lot. If we were doing Labyrinth again today, we would work with hybrid character that would be semi-animatronic.
It’s interesting, Where the Wild Things Are was a very interesting process done in a very labor-intensive way. And if they had gone into it knowing the way they wanted to do it, we could have figured out a much less labor intensive (way). But with that, they were using fully photo-realistic heads, but no movement at all to keep the heads light enough that they could work in 115-degrees, and they were in the jungle, and then more things breaking down…The hybrid sense of that one is they then created 3D faces digitally and animated them, and then, after animating them, they put the skin back on and the way they did it was not by doing a match of skin, but by using the actual photograph from the frame and sticking it back on. And the result is really extraordinary because that really looks good. That really looks like animatronic puppets, even though those faces were not moving when they shot.”
It was a pleasure to meet Mr. Henson and he was just as nice and charming as you would expect. He discussed many interesting topics during the 45-minute press conference (full video below), but I liked his reaction to being asked about his legacy:
Reporter: “I don’t think there’s a generation anywhere that has not known the Muppets since they came to be, and I think that’s got to be a very strange feeling for you having seen this happen. Do you feel a sense of responsibility at all for kindling this imagination..?”
Brian Henson: “Well, I think it’s my dad…That’s a lovely thing to say, and I think it’s wonderful that our work has impact. I think a lot of it is we were lucky and my dad was lucky. Last night, walking around, looking at those costumes, four or five people there deserve it just as much almost. They clearly have it too. They have it. They have that eye and they have that creative ability and I think artists just need to work.
My dad was very ambitious, and my mother would always say he always knew he was going to entertain the world or nothing. He made two pilots of The Muppet Show and all networks passed twice! Who’s ever done that? All networks passed, said Muppets are for kids, it’s never going to work in prime time and my dad, a little bit petulantly, went and signed on to do Saturday Night Live and said ‘Fine, you want me to just do kids? I’m doing Saturday Night Live! It’s already controversially the most adult TV show ever made in history and I’m signing on now before it even goes on air.’ So he did the first season of Saturday Night Live waiting for somebody to give him The Muppet Show. And then The Muppet Show was…there was a lot of ‘Wow, it’s really bringing the world together.'”
Watch the full press conference here: