Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Jim Henson

Quote of the Day

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In the early days of the Muppets we had two endings. Either one creature ate the other or both of them blew up…I’ve always been particular to things eating other things.

Jim Henson, quoted by Brian Jay Jones in Jim Henson: The Biography

Written by nevalalee

January 1, 2018 at 7:30 am

The Eye of the Skeksis

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Every now and then, you’re able to date the precise moment when your life incrementally changed. For me, one of those turning points was January 9, 1983, when the documentary The World of the Dark Crystal aired on public television, a few weeks after the movie itself debuted in theaters. (This weekend marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of its initial release.) It seems implausible now that I would have watched it at the time, but fortunately, my dad taped it, and it must have lived in our house for years afterward, like a tiny imaginative bomb waiting for its chance to detonate. As I’ll mention in a second, our copy cut off the first four minutes of the documentary—it must have taken my dad that long to get the videocassette recorder set up—and I didn’t see it in its entirety until decades later. It was preserved for me by chance, and when I look at it today, it feels doubly precious. We’re living in an era when a series like The Lord of the Rings can offer dozens of hours of production footage, much of it beautifully presented, while even the most mediocre blockbusters usually provide a bonus disc packed with special features. The World of the Dark Crystal isn’t even an hour long, but it was enough to fuel my imagination for a lifetime. And it wasn’t just an element of what would eventually come to be known as an electronic press kit, or even an anomaly like Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams, but a labor of love in its own right, a document made by creative artists who were convinced that what they were doing was worth recording because it had the potential to change movies forever.

That isn’t how it worked out, but at least it changed me, and the moment in particular that I never forgot comes near the beginning of the documentary. Our copy of the tape abruptly opened with a shot of the artist Brian Froud, who provided the movie’s conceptual designs, wandering across the moor near his home in Devon. Shortly afterward, it cut to a sequence of Froud seated at his drafting table, working on a sketch of a Skeksis and musing on the soundtrack:

Jim [Henson] had feelings about what the major creatures were, and some of their characteristics, and it was my job to show how they looked. I always start with the eye—the eye is the focal point of all these characters. And for the Skeksis, they needed to have a penetrating stare….They are part reptile, part predatory bird, part dragon.

He drew rapidly for the camera, filling in the details around the eye before extending the illustration—with what struck me at the time as a startling flourish—into the downward curve of the mouth. Watching the movement of the pencil, I experienced what I can only describe as a moment of revelation. If nothing else, it was probably the first time that I’d ever seen an artist actually drawing, and it kindled something in me that has never entirely gone away.

I must have been about six years old when it really took hold, and I reacted much like any other kid when presented with this sort of stimulus: I imitated it. To be specific, I slavishly copied that one drawing, not just in its final shape, but in the process that Froud took to get there. I started with the eye, like he did, and then ritualistically added in the rest. It never would have occurred to me to do otherwise, and I suspect that I drew it hundreds of times, sometimes as a doodle in the margin of a notepad, occasionally more systematically, which doesn’t even include the countless other drawings that I made of creatures that were “part reptile, part predatory bird, part dragon.” It wasn’t so much a reaction to The Dark Crystal itself—which I liked, although not as much as Labyrinth—as to that brief glimpse of a creative mind expressed in the pencil on the page. Combined with a few technical tricks that I picked up from the show The Secret City, which is worth a blog post of its own, it was enough to turn me into a pretty good artist, at least by the standards of the second grade. (It’s worth noting that both The World of the Dark Crystal and The Secret City aired on public television, which is also where Jim Henson made his most lasting impact, and an argument in itself for defending it as a proving ground for the imaginations of the young.) I haven’t done a lot of art in recent years, except when sketching with my daughter, and I knew by the end of college that I didn’t have it in me to be a painter. But I’m grateful to have even a little of it, and I owe it largely to that chance encounter with a Skeksis.

I don’t doubt that there are kids who experienced the same kind of epiphany while watching the lovingly detailed profiles of conceptual designers John Howe and Alan Lee—Froud’s old collaborator—in the special features for The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit provides hours more, and those featurettes, unlike so much else in those bloated box sets, remain fascinating and magical. (The life of a fantasy illustrator must not be a particularly lucrative one under most circumstances, and one of the small pleasures of watching the behind-the-scenes footage from these two trilogies is seeing Howe and Lee growing visibly more prosperous.) But something in the fragmentary nature of The World of the Dark Crystal was stimulating in itself. It wasn’t a textbook, but a series of hints, and it left me to fill in the gaps on my own. You can draw a straight line from that pencil drawing to my interest in science fiction and fantasy, not just as fan, but as someone with an interest in the practicalities of how it all gets done. The forms have changed, but the underlying impulse remains the same. And what really haunts me is the fact that the scene at the drawing table occurs just a minute and a half after our tape started, and my dad could easily have missed it. If it had taken him a few minutes longer to cue up the recorder that night, he might have skipped it entirely, and opened instead with the sequence in which the creatures that Froud designed were coming to life in Jim Henson’s workshop. And maybe I would have become a puppeteer.

Written by nevalalee

December 15, 2017 at 8:28 am

Pictures at an exhibition

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Silhouette by Kara Walker

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What piece of art has actually stopped you in your tracks?”

“All art constantly aspires toward the condition of music,” Walter Pater famously said, but these days, it seems more accurate to say that all art aspires toward the condition of advertising. There’s always been a dialogue between the two, of course, and it runs in both directions, with commercials and print ads picking up on advances in the fine arts, even as artists begin to utilize techniques initially developed on Madison Avenue. Advertising is a particularly ruthless medium—you have only a few seconds to grab the viewer’s attention—and the combination of quick turnover, rapid feedback, and intense financial pressure allows innovations to be adapted and refined with blinding speed, at least within a certain narrow range. (There’s a real sense in which the hard lessons that Jim Henson, say, learned while shooting commercials for Wilkins Coffee are what made Sesame Street so successful.) The difference today is that the push for virality—the need to attract eyeballs in brutal competition with countless potential diversions—has superseded all other considerations, including the ability to grow and maintain an audience. When thousands of “content providers” are fighting for our time on equal terms, there’s no particular reason to remain loyal to any one of them. Everything is an ad now, and it’s selling nothing but itself.

This isn’t a new idea, and I’ve written about it here at length before. What really interests me, though, is how even the most successful examples of storytelling are judged by how effectively they point to some undefined future product. The Marvel movies are essentially commercials or trailers for the idea of a superhero film: every installment builds to a big, meaningless battle that serves as a preview for the confrontation in an upcoming sequel, and we know that nothing can ever truly upset the status quo when the studio’s slate of tentpole releases has already been announced well into the next decade. They aren’t bad films, but they’re just ever so slightly better than they have to be, and I don’t have much of an interest in seeing any more. (Man of Steel has plenty of problems, but at least it represents an actual point of view and an attempt to work through its considerable confusions, and I’d sooner watch it again than The Avengers.) Marvel is fortunate enough to possess one of the few brands capable of maintaining an audience, and it’s petrified at the thought of losing it with anything so upsetting as a genuine surprise. And you can’t blame anyone involved. As Christopher McQuarrie aptly puts it, everyone in Hollywood is “terribly lost and desperately in need of help,” and the last thing Marvel or Disney wants is to turn one of the last reliable franchises into anything less than a predictable stream of cash flows. The pop culture pundits who criticize it—many of whom may not have jobs this time next year—should be so lucky.

Untitled Film Still #30 by Cindy Sherman

But it’s unclear where this leaves the rest of us, especially with the question of how to catch the viewer’s eye while inspiring an engagement that lasts. The human brain is wired in such a way that the images or ideas that seize its attention most easily aren’t likely to retain it over the long term: the quicker the impression, the sooner it evaporates, perhaps because it naturally appeals to our most superficial impulses. Which only means that it’s worth taking a close look at works of art that both capture our interest and reward it. It’s like going to an art gallery. You wander from room to room, glancing at most of the exhibits for just a few seconds, but every now and then, you see something that won’t let go. Usually, it only manages to intrigue you for the minute it takes to read the explanatory text beside it, but occasionally, the impression it makes is a lasting one. Speaking from personal experience, I can think of two revelatory moments in which a glimpse of a picture out of the corner of my eye led to a lifelong obsession. One was Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills; the other was the silhouette work of Kara Walker. They could hardly be more different, but both succeed because they evoke something to which we instinctively respond—movie archetypes and clichés in Sherman’s case, classic children’s illustrations in Walker’s—and then force us to question why they appealed to us in the first place.

And they manage to have it both ways to an extent that most artists would have reason to envy. Sherman’s film stills both parody and exploit the attitudes that they meticulously reconstruct: they wouldn’t be nearly as effective if they didn’t also serve as pin-ups for readers of Art in America. Similarly, Walker’s cutouts fill us with a kind of uneasy nostalgia for the picture books we read growing up, even as they investigate the darkest subjects imaginable. (They also raise fascinating questions about intentionality. Sherman, like David Lynch, can come across as a naif in interviews, while Walker is closer to Michael Haneke, an artist who is nothing if not completely aware of how each effect was achieved.) That strange combination of surface appeal and paradoxical depth may be the most promising angle of attack that artists currently have. You could say much the same about Vijith Assar’s recent piece for McSweeney’s about ambiguous grammar, which starts out as the kind of viral article that we all love to pass around—the animated graphics, the prepackaged nuggets of insight—only to end on a sweet sucker punch. The future of art may lie in forms that seize on the tools of virality while making us think twice about why we’re tempted to click the share button. And it requires artists of unbelievable virtuosity, who are able to exactly replicate the conditions of viral success while infusing them with a white-hot irony. It isn’t easy, but nothing worth doing ever is. This is the game we’re all playing, like it or not, and the artists who are most likely to survive are the ones who can catch the eye while also burrowing into the brain.

Quote of the Day

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Frank Oz as Grover

There’s something very charming and pure about the way the audience believes in the characters so much, but as a performer I have to be able to separate myself from them, and that’s something I learned from Jim [Henson]…I love Muppets with all my heart, but I don’t think about them when I get home. And Jim was the same way.

Frank Oz

Written by nevalalee

July 13, 2015 at 7:30 am

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What I learned on the Street

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Prairie Dawn

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What do you remember learning from Sesame Street?”

When you’re a parent, one of the first things you discover is how difficult—or impossible—it can be to keep a small child on point. Saying that children are easily distracted is just another way of stating that they find everything equally interesting, or of equal importance, and that they haven’t yet developed the filters that allow adults to prioritize a particular issue at the expense of everything else. (Much of being an artist consists of restoring that kind of sensory omnivorousness, in which nothing, as Sherlock Holmes says, is so important as trifles.) Whenever my daughter opens a book, I never know where her eye will go first, and a big part of the pleasure of reading to her lies in trying to follow her train of thought. In Goodnight Moon, for instance, when we get to the picture of the doll’s house, she’ll point to it and say “Okay now.” I don’t know what she means by this, but it’s clear that I’m only getting a glimpse of a secondary narrative that she’s happily working through as we read the story itself, which consists both of the words on the page and her own tiny, private associations.

This is why I’ve started choosing picture books less for whatever they claim to be about than for the topics of conversation that they evoke. Richard Scarry, for instance, presents a miniature world on each double spread, which seems designed to simultaneously teach new words and suggest networks between ideas. (I’ll never forget how my niece pointed to a picture of a pig next to a bin of corncobs and said: “Maybe the pig wants to eat one corn.”) Scarry, like many of the greatest children’s artists, has a style that takes as much delight in incidentals as in the main line of the story, or whatever educational purpose the book allegedly has, and the more tactile the illustrations, the better. Beatrix is already curious about drawing, and the fact that she can make the connection between the pictures in the books she has and her crayons can only pay off later on. There’s been a lot of debate about whether reading a book on a tablet has the same benefits as traditional storytime, but I’m a little wary of it, if only because interposing a screen between you and the story makes its human origins less obvious.

Bert and Ernie

And when it comes time for Beatrix to watch Sesame Street, I’ll probably get her one of the Old School compilations on DVD, which collect classic scenes and sketches from the show’s early seasons. Old School comes with a disclaimer that states: “These early Sesame Street episodes are intended for grownups and may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child.” Well, maybe: I don’t want to discount the ongoing, and highly valuable, research on how children learn, and I can’t entirely separate my feelings from nostalgia for what I watched growing up. Yet I still believe that the show’s overt educational value—the letters, the numbers, the shapes—was only part of the story, and not even the most important part. When we think of Sesame Street, we think first of the Muppets, whose physicality is a huge part of their appeal, but everything in the show’s initial period had an appealingly funky quality about it. The animations were made on a shoestring; the shorts might have been shot in somebody’s backyard; and even the set was designed to evoke the kind of grungy, everyday neighborhood that many children in the audience knew best, elevated by the magic of imagination and performance.

In short, the classic seasons of Sesame Street are as much about the process of their own making as whatever else they were designed to teach, and the lesson I took away from it most vividly was less about counting to twelve than what it might take to make a show like this myself. In its current incarnation, it probably does a better job of teaching kids the fundamentals, but watching Big Bird explore a digital background detaches us from the weird, incredibly appealing process that brings such stories to life. As David Thomson notes on Jim Henson: “He worked with the odd, the personal, the wild, and the homemade, and flourished in the last age before the computer…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 the show.” Sesame Street is still wonderful, but it seems less likely to turn kids into puppeteers, which is as good a word as any for what I want Beatrix to be—if we take “puppeteer” simply as a curious character who sees a potential friend in a length of felt, or how a woman’s green coat might one day be a frog.

Written by nevalalee

November 14, 2014 at 10:31 am

Enter through the Creature Shop

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Jim Henson's Creature Shop Challenge

It isn’t often that I’ll feel compelled to check out a television show based solely on its description, but I found Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge impossible to resist. Having finally seen it, I’m still not sure whether it’s a real series or the result of some Top Chef-inspired fever dream that I had after watching The World of the Dark Crystal one too many times, but I know that I love it. It’s a reality show airing on the SyFy network in which ten contestants vie for a position at the titular Creature Shop by constructing their own walking, moving assemblages of foam rubber, glue, paint, and imagination, and although it might seem like a headscratcher to some, I find it absurdly watchable. It’s a vivid illustration of the fact that given the multitude of channels and viewing options we have these days, eventually, you’ll find a show that seems to have been made for you alone. As much as I’m enjoying it now, I would have been even more obsessed by it twenty years ago, and I have the feeling that it’s going to change more than a few lives, and not just on the show itself. Aside from a handful of reservations caused by the reality format itself, which I’ll get to in a moment, it’s a series I’d want my daughter to watch one day.

I’ve noted before that one of the reasons I’m fascinated by puppeteering is the multitude of integrated skills it requires. Jim Henson himself was a jack of all trades, equally at home in animation, design, visual effects, and practical construction, not to mention an inspired performer, and much the true is same of anyone who ends up in puppetry as a profession. Not only are you up there in front of the audience, but you’ve designed and built your own creature, sewed your own costumes, worked on set design, written the material and maybe even the music, and figured out how best to stage or videotape the finished result. It’s a field that rewards improvisation and ingenuity—and it’s no accident that the winner of the first episode of Creature Shop stood out because he used aluminum foil in an unexpected way. The show offers a stylized, highly compressed version of the process, giving the contestants a couple of days to conceive and build a creature from scratch, and so it indirectly becomes an essay on constraints. You never have quite as much time or money as you want, and if the tail of your creature breaks off a few minutes before the screen test, you’ve got no choice but to stick it back in place, rearrange the scales a bit, and hope for the best.

Jim Henson

From the start, it’s clear that the contestants are an unusually resourceful bunch, and they arrive at the studio with an enviable set of skills. (If there’s one thing that distinguishes Creature Shop from similar competitions, it’s that the majority of the contestants—who are mostly working in puppetry, visual effects, or allied fields—already seem to have some of the coolest jobs in the world.) And although puppetry can seem like a solitary activity, it’s really intensely collaborative, and stressing the importance of these factors is both the show’s strength and its Achilles heel. It isn’t enough to design a great creature if the puppeteer can’t move inside it, and the fact that the competitors aren’t operating their own creations adds another level of complexity. When the first contestant is sent home, it’s because the performer wasn’t able to breathe comfortably when lying down inside the costume, a kind of Kermit-like sea slug that forced you to crawl across the stage on your belly. Puppetry, for all its apparent uselessness, is actually one of the most pragmatic of all art forms in terms of its adherence to its own rules, second only to sleight of hand. If the gorgeous creature you’ve put together can’t sustain an extended performance, or if the puppeteer fails to disappear behind the creation, that failure is evident at a glance.

The other half of collaboration involves working alongside your fellow creature designers, which goes about as well as you’d expect for a field that tends to draw some very peculiar people. In The World of the Dark Crystal, the wonderful documentary feature that I watched over and over again in grade school, Henson refers casually to the jealousy and competition that arose between groups focusing on different sets of creatures, and it’s on full display here. (It also reminds us that Henson, like Walt Disney, was a genius both in regard to his own talents and in his ability to inspire and organize those around him.) Occasionally, the infighting and rivalry, as with the unfortunate pairing of Russ and Tina, grows bitter enough to undermine the creative fertility on display here, which is too bad. Indeed, the most problematic thing about Creature Shop is its determination to fit a series about imagination and unconventional thinking into the squarest of reality show templates. It’s all here—the talking heads, the cutaway reaction shots, the bleeped confrontations, and the conferences at the judges’ table, all straight from the Top Chef cookbook. In fact, it makes me fantasize about the next great series: Reality Editors Challenge, in which contestants compete over who can cut together raw footage from their own show in the most manipulative way possible. Now that’s a series I’d love to see.

Written by nevalalee

March 31, 2014 at 9:46 am

Reflections in a googly eye

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Last night, my wife and I caught a performance of Stuffed and Unstrung, the decidedly R-rated improv comedy show featuring puppets from the Jim Henson workshop. The evening was fun but uneven, like all improv, and I’d say that the cast was significantly better at puppeteering than at improvisation—but I still had a blast, and I left the theater full of admiration and envy for the performers involved. I’ve always had a certain fascination with puppeteers, especially of the Henson variety, but it’s only recently that I’ve begun to understand why. As the wonderful documentary Being Elmo makes abundantly clear, not only is this a challenging art form in its own right, but it’s an emblem of what all the other arts should aspire to be—a medium where all you need for creative expression is a few dollars’ worth of fabric, some googly eyes, and the willingness to work at it for the rest of your life.

A novelist, as I’ve said before, needs to know something about everything, but that’s nothing compared to the skill set that a puppeteer has to master. A few minutes at the touring exhibition of Jim Henson’s Fantastic World is enough to fill you with awe at the range of Henson’s abilities—in addition to his more famous talents, he was also a gifted animator, illustrator, graphic designer, and experimental filmmaker—but he’s only the most illustrious exemplar of a vocation that encourages every performer to be a jack-of-all-trades. Even on the professional level, a puppeteer can be expected to write his own material, build his own puppets, sew his own costumes, design sets, handle camera and sound equipment, and draw alternately on the various skills of the actor, clown, acrobat, voiceover artist, singer, comedian, and mime. And it’s a job that continuously challenges the performer’s inventiveness: many great routines or characters begin as solutions to technical problems, only to evolve into something singularly beautiful and weird.

It’s no surprise, then, that even the earliest surviving performances by Henson, Frank Oz and others are bursting with ingenuity—this is a medium where you need to try everything once, often under considerable constraints. These can be constraints of money, space, or even time: Henson’s big breakthrough came with his commercials for Wilkins Coffee, which had precisely ten seconds each to tell a joke and deliver a pitch. And such limited resources can lead to surprising solutions. Henson made the first version of Kermit out of one of his mother’s old coats, and there’s a long tradition of creating puppets from whatever happens to be lying around. In short, it’s the most economical form of theater there is, and as a result, it often flies under the radar, as in the former Soviet Union, where, according to the director Peter Sellars, the most subversive and experimental drama was being performed in the puppet theater.

We’re left with something close to art in its purest form, at least when it comes to the reactions it inspires. When I was a child, I don’t think I ever made a distinction between the Muppets on Sesame Street and the human performers around them: they were all just members of the same cast. Even today, it takes a special mental effort for me to picture the puppeteers standing just below camera range. (At Stuffed and Unstrung, much of the action unfolds on two video monitors to either side of the stage, so even with the performers right in front of you, it’s easy to forget that they’re there.) A bit of felt and foam rubber, in the hands of a skilled performer, turns into real person, with its own personality and emotions. The more I think about it, the more amazing this seems, even though it’s not so different from what all art hopes to do. In the end, we’re all puppeteers. It’s just the lucky ones who get to do it for real.

Written by nevalalee

June 15, 2012 at 10:13 am

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