Jim Henson’s legacy throws its weight behind digital puppetry

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The casting of ‘Word Party’ .
Image: jim henson’s beast shop

Very little onscreen kids’ amusement these days escapes computer enhancement. From green-screen set backgrounds to full-blown animated graphics, the technology has reached the phase 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 hold back as the last bastion of the analog fight against digital.

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 marionette 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 style into millions of children’s hearts through the style their characters conveyed themselves on screen.

“To look ‘puppety’ or ‘Hensony’, it’s truly an animation technique , not a digital one. When Lulu Bear kisses the screen, infants do too…they believe she’s real, ” told 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 .

Lisa Henson

Image: The jim henson company

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. Children like the appear 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( portrait) 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 express and voice.

This spontaneous ‘live’ acting devotes the portrait of characters on reveals 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 casting of new puppets has been produced for a new series starring Julie Andrews. The reveal, Julie’s Greenroom , is slated for 2017.

Henson told: “A lot of adults love hand puppets from childhood. Children like the appear of CG animation.”

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