Very little onscreen kids’ entertainment these days escapes computer enhancement. From green-screen set backgrounds to full-blown animated graphics, the technology has reached the point where we can often no longer tell the difference between real life and CGI.
Except where the Muppets are concerned, right?
The iconic puppets created by the late, legendary puppeteer Jim Henson have been around for more than six decades and are often held up as the last bastion of the analog fight against digital.
I wish Hollywood relied less on CGI and more on muppets to do creatures/monsters 😛
Julio Carrettoni () (@dev_jac) April 18, 2016
Sci-fi movies today need more Muppets and less CGI.
matthew matheny (@matthew_matheny) January 13, 2016
But the Jim Henson Company, with Henson’s daughter Lisa Henson at the helm as CEO, is also throwing its weight behind digital animation. At its Henson Digital Puppetry Studio, actors fitted with motion-graphics trackers act out their puppet characters, which are later rendered by a computer.
Henson told Mashable that it is good storytelling, not realism, that’s needed to breathe life into a character.
After all, the Muppets themselves were a gangly, cartoony bunch that charmed their way into millions of children’s hearts through the way their characters expressed themselves on screen.
“To look ‘puppety’ or ‘Hensony’, it’s really an animation technique, not a digital one. When Lulu Bear kisses the screen, children do too…they believe she’s real,” said Henson, referring to one of the main characters on the company’s Netflix exclusive, Word Party.
The Jim Henson Company sold the rights to the Muppets to the Walt Disney Company 12 years ago. Non-profit organisation Sesame Workshop owns the Muppet characters that appear on Sesame Street.
Still, Jim Henson’s company, and his children, are still recognised as the guardians of his puppetry legacy. Despite what the analog purists say, Lisa Henson insists that digital technology doesn’t detract from the traditional craft.
“A lot of adults love hand puppets from childhood. Kids like the look of CG animation.”
“The (motion capture) puppeteers are trained in traditional hand puppetry. They’re very closely connected to their characters and that’s what makes their (portrayal) very ‘Hensony’,” she said.
Behind the scenes, the demands on the actors are just as high as for traditional puppeteers, she added. Bodily motions are captured at the same time as the actor’s expressions and voice.
This spontaneous ‘live’ acting gives the portrayal of characters on shows such as Word Play a more TV-like feel, she believes.
Capturing an actor in one take also offers one pragmatic advantage: it’s cheaper. Simply put, motion-capture puppetry allows the company to produce sufficiently high-quality, life-like characters “on the budget of kids’ animation.”
For bigger-budget stuff, the Jim Henson Company’s traditional craft remains its trademark. A cast of new puppets has been produced for a new series starring Julie Andrews. The show, Julie’s Greenroom, is slated for 2017.
Henson said: “A lot of adults love hand puppets from childhood. Kids like the look of CG animation.”
The Muppets. Looking back, thinking back, we thought they’d live and love forever. We were right.
She Shell (@HydraHybrid) September 2, 2016