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How Jim Henson Worked

Henson Beyond The Muppets

Jim Henson was a painter and a commercial artist in college, but he also enjoyed experimenting with other art forms like film. The 1965, nine-minute-long film "Time Piece," which stars Henson, contains surreal imagery as well as animation. "Time Piece" was nominated for an Academy Award. Henson also collaborated with electronica pioneer Raymond Scott on the shorts "Ripples" and "Wheels that Go" (created for Montreal's Expo '67). In 1969, NBC aired an hour-long TV movie directed and produced by Henson, which he co-wrote with Muppet writer Jerry Juhl. "The Cube" is an existential piece about a man stuck in a white room from which other people can come and go.

In the mid-1960s, Henson also appeared on "The Mike Douglas Show" and "The Tonight Show" with a sketch featuring a character known as The Floating Face. He consisted of two eyes and a mouth made of string controlled by invisible wires and was puppeteered over a prerecorded background of images. In some cases, he was animated using an analog animation system called Scanimate. Most of these performances were monologues or songs by Henson.

While "The Muppet Show" was ending, Henson began working on films and TV with darker, more adult themes. The 1982 film "The Dark Crystal" featured puppets that looked nothing like the Muppets and were based on concepts by fantasy artist Brian Froud. The work showed no humans on-screen, used cutting-edge animatronics and was praised by critics. "The Labyrinth," released four years later, also showcased creatures designed by Brian Froud. The film still focused on the basic themes of good and evil but was lighter than "The Dark Crystal." Unfortunately, it was not as successful, although neither did particularly well financially.

Henson launched two different shows at the end of the 1980s: "The Storyteller" in 1988 and "The Jim Henson Hour" in 1989. "The Storyteller" showcased European folktales and mythology with both humans and puppets, while "The Jim Henson Hour" was a mixture of short movies, silly Muppet sketches and darker tales. Both shows won Emmys, yet both were quickly canceled.

At the time of his death, Henson was working on a deal to sell his company to The Walt Disney Company so he could focus solely on creating instead of business. Puppeteer David Stephens states that "Jim felt very strongly that one of Disney's strengths was its devotion to its characters. It was his hope towards the end of his life that Disney would be able to extend that strength to the characters he created."

People who worked with Jim Henson described him as a visionary and an innovator who was constantly looking for something new. In the next section, we'll look at some of the groundbreaking ideas that Henson contributed to the word of puppetry.