Learning from the masters: Jim Henson
Many careers in movies have been cut short too soon, but the death of Jim Henson sometimes feels like the greatest loss of all. It’s especially tragic because Henson died in 1990, just as advances in digital effects—in The Abyss, in Terminator 2, and above all in Jurassic Park—were threatening to make his life’s work seem obsolete, when in fact he was more urgently needed than ever. Despite the occasional gesture in the direction of practical effects by the likes of Guillermo Del Toro, Henson still feels like the last of the great handmade magicians. As David Thomson points out:
Jim Henson’s early death was all the harder to take in that he worked with the odd, the personal, the wild, and the homemade, and flourished in the last age before the computer. It’s therefore very important that Henson was not just the entrepreneur and the visionary, but often the hand in the glove, the voice, and the tall man bent double, putting on a show.
As you can tell from the cake topper at my wedding, I’ve always been a Henson fan (although I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I appreciate the Muppets on a much deeper level than you), but his achievement was recently underlined for me by the museum exhibition Jim Henson’s Fantastic World, which I’ve seen twice. The first time was at the Smithsonian in the fall of 2008. It was a stressful time for me—I’d just parted ways with my first agent, had to scrap an entire novel, and was working on a second without a lot to show for it—but the Henson exhibition was a vivid reminder of why I’d taken these risks in the first place. Seeing it again at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry a few months ago, when I was in a much better place professionally, only served to reassure me that I’m still on the right track.
Aside from Henson’s commitment to character and storytelling, which I already knew, I was left with two big takeaways from the exhibition. The first was the breadth of Henson’s talent and experience. He wasn’t just a puppeteer, but a gifted graphic artist, animator, cartoonist, experimental filmmaker, and jack of all arts and crafts, which is exactly what a good puppeteer needs to be. Looking at his sketches, drawings, and scripts leaves you stunned by his curiosity and enthusiasm regarding every element of the creative process. Long before his death, he was already exploring computer animation, and if he had lived, it’s likely that he would have brought about the fusion of CGI with practical effects promised by Jurassic Park and sadly neglected ever since.
The second remarkable thing about Henson was his perseverance. It’s startling to realize that by the time The Muppet Show premiered in 1976, Henson had already been working hard as a puppeteer for more than twenty years. Even the ephemera of his early career—like the series of short commercials he did for Wilkins Coffee, or his turn as the La Choy Dragon—have incredible humor and charm. And it was that extended apprenticeship, the years of dedication to building characters and figuring out how to make them live, that made Sesame Street possible when the time came. Jim Henson did what few artists in any medium have ever done: he willed an entire art form into existence, or at least into the mainstream. And of his example, as David Thomson concludes, “we are in urgent need of young artists taking it up all over the world.”