The cast rehearses for "The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson" in 1990. 

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Introduction to How Muppets Work

In July 2007, an announcement about puppets got significant attention in the international media. Jim Henson's family stated that it planned to donate more than 500 puppets, as well as props and sketches, to the Center of Puppetry Arts in Atlanta. In order to receive the collection, the center must raise the funds to build a wing that will house and exhibit it. The collection will span the more than 50 years of Henson's work in TV and film.

If the name Jim Henson isn't familiar, you probably know one of his most popular creations: a small, bright-green frog with long limbs, round eyes and an endearing way of throwing his arms over his head and yelling "Yaaaay!" when he gets excited. He's been on television for more than 50 years and in movies for nearly 30. Kermit the Frog is one of Jim Henson's puppets, better known as Muppets, and an international ambassador for puppets. Kermit and Jim Henson were on hand for the opening of the Center for Puppetry Arts in 1978. Many people refer to Jim Henson as the most influential American puppeteer ever.

But what exactly is a Muppet? According to some sources, including Jim Henson's wife, Jane, "Muppet" is a combination of the words "marionette" and "puppet." (A marionette is a specific type of puppet with strings attached to a control bar or bars, operated by a puppeteer from overhead.) However, Henson himself always said that he came up with the word "Muppet" because he liked the sound of it.

Muppets come in all sizes, from just a few inches long to more than 8 feet tall. They can be hand puppets, rod puppets or a combination of the two. Some Muppets are even worn by their operators. Muppets are also just about every shape, color and style imaginable -- they can look like an animal, a person or an imaginary creature. But all Muppets have a few things in common: They're made from soft, flexible materials, they're perfectly suited for TV and movies, and they have unique, dynamic personalities.

In this article, we'll learn all about Muppets -- the different types, who operates them, where they come from and what they've been up to lately. First, we'll look at how Muppets are made.

 

Fozzie (a live-hand Muppet) and Kermit (hand-and-rod) in "The Great Muppet Caper"

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Muppet Bodies

The earliest Muppets were created solely by Jim Henson. He drew rough sketches indicating what he thought the Muppet should look like, then set about building it. The first version of Kermit -- a lizardlike creature -- had a cardboard body covered in material cut from a fuzzy green coat that belonged to Henson's mother. Kermit's eyes were two halves of a spherical toy called Wacky Stax.

Some of Henson's other early Muppets were made from hard materials, like papier-mache, but Henson soon settled on soft materials. These give Muppeteers (Muppet puppeteers) the ability to make the Muppet emote. Because Kermit's head is essentially a fabric covering over the Muppeteer's hand, for example, the puppeteer can change his expression by moving his fingers and tilting his hand.

Henson soon realized that designing and building each Muppet on his own was impossible. So he began adding designers and builders to his team, starting with Don Sahlin. Henson continued to sketch most Muppet designs, relying on his team to flesh them out and bring them to life.

New Muppets still begin as sketches and move to detailed concept drawings. After the concept is approved by the workshop's creative supervisor, a builder creates the Muppet's head and body. Most Muppets are made of reticulated polyfoam, which is light, flexible and durable. (Some original Muppets were made of foam rubber, which disintegrates over time.) Depending on the type of Muppet, its head and body may be cut and sculpted from a block of foam or created by gluing together layers and pieces of foam with contact cement.

The builder next creates patterns for the Muppet's "skin" and pins them to the foam. After making adjustments, he cuts the skin material using the patterns, then pins, glues and stitches it to the foam. Many Muppets are covered in antron fleece (often known as "Muppet fleece"), which can be dyed any color. Other "skin" materials include flocking, fake fur and feathers. Both the color and type of material are important decisions, because they make a big difference in the Muppet's personality.

Most Muppets are either hand-and-rod or live-hand Muppets, and a few occasionally switch between the two. The Swedish Chef is a special case -- he is the only Muppet to have actual human hands instead of gloves. His head is operated by one Muppeteer (originally Jim Henson) and his hands by another (originally Frank Oz).

The composition of the Muppet's arms depend on if it's a rod-in-hand or a live-hand Muppet. If the arms will be operated by rods, they're usually tubes of stuffed fabric. The hands are made of a stiff material like thin plywood, foam and armature wire to give them shape. The thin black metal rods are attached to the hands at one end and to wooden dowels at the other. Live-hand Muppets have hollow arms and four-fingered gloves, which allow Muppeteers to insert their own hands. There is usually some extra fabric between the Muppet's body and the right hand to allow room for a second Muppeteer. Different versions of Muppets -- some with legs and some without -- are often built to allow for uses in different situations.

Because Muppets are filmed in close-up, their seams can't show or the illusion of realism will be spoiled. Muppet designer and builder Don Sahlin perfected a special stitch known as the Henson stitch. The fuzzy pile of antron fleece "skin" also helps to make stitches virtually disappear. Kermit has a seam running down the center of his nose, for example, but it can't be seen on camera.

We'll look at the Muppets' facial features next.

You can tell from Elmo's large pupils that he's a young Muppet.

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Muppet Faces

Once the builder has the head and body completed, the Muppet needs features and accessories. Muppet palates are usually composed of one or more different types of materials: foam, fabric and a stiff material such as gasket rubber or cardboard. If the Muppet has a nose, it can be made from soft foam spheres or ovoids. Some Muppets don't have noses, and others, like Fraggles, have snouts instead.

A Muppet's eyes are considered its most important features. Most Muppet eyes are spheres -- either tacked on to the Muppet or set into sockets -- or flat ovals. The pupils are usually placed slightly toward each other to give the Muppet focus. They can also convey the age of the Muppet. The younger the Muppet, the larger the pupils [Source: Sesame Workshop Newsletter]. Another Don Sahlin invention, the Magic Triangle, refers to the shape formed by the eyes and nose. It's important to get this placement perfect, because it gives the Muppet focus and character. That's why the eyes are often the last thing to be placed.

Some Muppets don't have eyes at all; instead, glasses, lashes or eyebrows function as "eyes." Others have the ability to roll their eyes, blink or move their eyebrows. Builders use a variety of methods to accomplish this, including wires and strings accessible to the Muppeteer, remote controls or a motion-capture device (known in the industry as a Waldo) worn on the hand of another performer.

Muppet accessories vary widely depending on the particular character. Some have clothing, but lots of Muppets, like Kermit, go au naturel. Miss Piggy is known for her vast wardrobe and had her own costume designer during "The Muppet Show," but many clothed Muppets have a set costume that is a part of their character and rarely changes.

We'll look at the basics of Muppeteering next.

Muppeteers

Most Muppets are controlled by one or more Muppeteers. It may appear simple at first -- just put your hand inside the Muppet's head and bring your thumb and the rest of your hand together to make the Muppet "talk." But how do you make a Muppet talk while using his hands? What about when Muppets interact with people?

In reality, operating a Muppet can be very complicated. During the run of "The Muppet Show," Muppeteer Dave Goelz, who had no previous experience in puppetry, admitted that "It takes maybe five years to do everything without thinking about it. In fact, I still find it difficult." Frank Oz stated that "What we are doing is so complicated that you don't really have time to think about how you are doing it [...] First your body understands, and then your mind grasps what you're doing. Sometimes" [source: Finch].

A hand-and-rod Muppet, like Grover of "Sesame Street," is one of the simplest Muppets to operate. The Muppeteer's right hand fits up through Grover's body to his head, and his hands are attached to rods that the Muppeteer can move and lift with his left hand. Most Muppets are left-handed because the Muppeteer's right hand is busy operating the head. The Muppet can clap or hug with both hand rods in the Muppeteer's left hand. Otherwise, an additional Muppeteer can operate the right-hand rod and the leg rods when necessary.

Ernie is a live-hand Muppet that requires two Muppeteers: one to operate his head and left hand and another to operate his right hand (known as right-handing).

Some Muppets are completely operated by rods and cables, like Rizzo the Rat. He has multiple rods to move his head, mouth, arms and legs. Slimey the Worm, at nearly 3 inches long, is so small that he is operated by a single rod. Some small Muppets, like the Doozers on "Fraggle Rock," are operated entirely by remote control.

Full-Bodied Muppets

Full-bodied Muppets require the performer to literally step inside them. Big Bird is probably the most recognizable of this type of Muppet. To attain Big Bird's height, the Muppeteer inside wears shoes with 5-inch heels. He raises his right hand as high as he can above his head to control Big Bird's head and mouth. His left hand fits into Big Bird's left glove. Most of the time, Big Bird's right hand is controlled by a wire that runs underneath the costume and attaches to his left hand. That means that when the Muppeteer raises his (and Big Bird's) left hand, Big Bird's right hand goes down, and vice versa. In performances in front of a chroma key screen (a blue screen or green screen), a second Muppeteer operates Big Bird's left hand.

Originally, Muppeteers saw out of full-bodied Muppets through a scrim in the Muppet's neck, with a small monitor strapped to their chests to watch the Muppet's actions. Advances in technology allow two Muppeteers to operate some large Muppets, like the Gorgs from "Fraggle Rock." One Muppeteer wears the costume and watches movements through tiny monitors embedded inside the head at the Muppet's eye level. The other provides the voice and controls facial expressions remotely.

These are the basic mechanics of Muppeteering, but actually performing in front of the cameras is even more complex. Muppets are especially unique because they don't perform in a traditional "puppet theater" with a curtain or backdrop to conceal the Muppeteer. They walk around like human actors and often interact with the actors. Next, we'll look at how this is accomplished.­

Actor Matt Robinson (as Gordon) chats with Cookie Monster on "Sesame Street."

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Muppeteering

Muppeteering on TV shows and in movies requires special measures because the Muppeteer must be hidden to keep up the illusion. When "Sesame Street" began, Henson came up with the idea of "platforming up" sets whenever possible. This means that the sets are actually 8 to 10 feet in the air so that the Muppeteers stand at their full height with their hands over their heads to operate their Muppets. (Some Muppeteers wear built-up shoes so they're at the same height as their taller colleagues.) The camera is set up to frame only the action of the Muppets, which makes it appear as though they're walking around on the set by themselves.

Keeping everything in perspective can be tricky. Sets that will show only Muppet performers are usually "Muppet-size," while sets that include human actors might be just human-size or a combination of the two. For example, the "backstage" set on "The Muppet Show" has a staircase that is human-size, but the dressing room doors at the top are seven-eighths the size of normal doors [source: Finch]. Sometimes the human actor simply stands on a platform roughly the height of the Muppeteer, so that the human and the Muppet are at the right height to interact. But this isn't always practical, so sometimes sets are built with trenches for the Muppeteers to stand in as they perform, which aren't visible on camera.

In order to see what their Muppets are doing, the Muppeteers have monitors in front of them (or strapped to them). They must always remember that when they move left, the Muppet will move right, and vice versa. If the audio is live (songs are usually prerecorded and lip-synched), the Muppeteer wears a microphone on a headband. Scripts are often taped to the monitor.

Muppets don't always act on raised sets, though. When they venture outside, Muppeteering takes on an entirely new dimension. Often, the Muppeteer has to crouch or lie down to keep out of the camera shot while performing. On the street set of "Sesame Street," Muppeteers sit on small rolling stools. Sometimes a special apparatus is built to accommodate the Muppeteer or the Muppet.

When "The Muppet Movie" hit theaters in 1979, many people were amazed by some of the ways that the Muppets interacted with the real world. In the opening sequence, Kermit sits on a log in his swamp, plays the banjo and sings. The water in the swamp is real, and the camera moves 360 degrees around Kermit, so where's the Muppeteer? Jim Henson operated Kermit through a rubber sleeve while squeezed into a small, cramped chamber built underneath the water. A tube to the surface allowed Henson to breathe.

Other Muppet movies have showed Muppets riding bicycles, driving cars, flying airplanes -- in other words, acting just like people. For the bicycle rides, builders created marionette versions of the Muppets, which were operated from a rigging device suspended above them. (Subsequent bicycle-riding scenes have been accomplished by remote control.) In car-driving scenes, the Muppeteers crouched in the backseat of the car and a little person actually drove the car from the trunk while watching a monitor.

Diving into swimming pools and flying airplanes require a technique known as puppet switching. This means that some Muppets are created as both hand puppets and full-body Muppets, and they can switch between the two depending on the requirements of the scene. When Miss Piggy roller-skated in "The Muppets Take Manhattan" or when Oscar walks around in his trash can on the set of "Sesame Street," they are full-body Muppets performed by little people instead of hand puppets.

Many of the Muppet characters were developed over decades by a core group of Muppeteers. In the next section, we'll take a closer look at Jim Henson and Frank Oz.

Jim Henson and Kermit

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Jim Henson and Frank Oz

Because the Muppets have been around for more than 50 years, many people have "Muppeteer" on their resumes -- more than 100 of them, in fact. Jim Henson was their leader, but Frank Oz, his right-hand man, is also an integral part of Muppet history.

Jim Henson

Simply put, without Jim Henson, the Muppets wouldn't exist. Henson began experimenting with puppetry as a high school student. Until his death in 1990, he performed and voiced numerous Muppets, including Kermit the Frog, Rowlf, Waldorf, Dr. Teeth, Link Hogthrob and Ernie. Henson oversaw and took part in the creation of everything Muppet-related, including performing, writing, designing, building, directing and producing. After his death, longtime Muppeteer Steve Whitmire took over the performance of many of Henson's Muppets, including Kermit (contrary to popular assumption, Henson's son Brian never voiced Kermit). His children run the Jim Henson Company today.

Henson had no illusions about puppets -- according to Frank Oz, they were a "means to an end." "When Jim took Kermit off his arm, he had no difficulty leaving him behind and going somewhere else" [source: Finch].

Frank OzOz began working with Jim Henson when he was 19 years old -- he was hired initially to replace Henson's wife, Jane, when the Hensons started a family. His first job was right-handing Rowlf the Dog. Oz originally performed and voiced several Muppets, including Bert, Grover, Cookie Monster, Animal, Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear. Eventually, Oz branched into writing and directing various Henson productions. He will always be identified as the puppeteer and voice of Yoda in the "Star Wars" series. After 30 years, Oz began to focus more on his non-Henson directing work. He still occasionally performs and voices major Muppet characters.

Oz and Henson had a unique performing relationship because their major characters usually interacted. "Watching Jim's Ernie teasing Frank Oz's Bert and driving him to distraction was to witness unadulterated glee," said Caroly Wilcox, a longtime Muppeteer, designer and builder [source: Finch]. Henson said that Oz was "probably the person most responsible for the Muppets being funny" [source: Finch].

Rowlf duets with Liberace in 1978.

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Muppet Origins

Given their status today, it's hard to imagine that the Muppets didn't begin as children's characters, or that initially Jim Henson balked at the idea of creating them for "Sesame Street." But "Sam and Friends," Henson's first TV show, was for adults. He started it in 1955 as a college freshman with a classmate, Jane Nebel (whom he later married). "Sam and Friends" Muppets included the lizardlike Kermit as well as Sam, Yorick, Harry the Hipster, Professor Madcliff, Mushmellon and Chicken Liver.

The Muppets on "Sam and Friends" mostly lip-synched to popular songs and comedy routines and parodied other TV shows. It ran for six years on a local Washington, D.C., station, and its popularity got Henson invited to perform on shows like "The Tonight Show."

During its run, Muppets began to appear in commercials for everything from coffee to dog food. Rowlf the Dog was created specifically for Purina Dog Chow commercials and was a regular character on "The Jimmy Dean Show" from 1963 to 1966. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Henson shot several pilots and TV specials featuring the Muppets, but had not yet gotten a series.

In 1968, Joan Cooney established the Children's Television Workshop and was strongly encouraged to bring on the Muppets for "Sesame Street," the new children's education show she was developing. Henson didn't immediately accept, but according to Jane Henson, he agreed in part "because he had begun to realize that children could be a very sophisticated audience" [source: The Works]. The Muppets that Henson and his team created continue to appear on "Sesame Street" and in numerous TV specials.

Henson shot "The Muppet Show" pilot, "Sex and Violence," in 1975. In the same year, a new NBC show called "Saturday Night Live" began airing sketches from the "Land of Gorch," featuring new Muppet characters. "Saturday Night Live" writers didn't like writing for the Muppets, however, and the Muppets were "fired" halfway through the first season.

ABC passed on the "Muppet Show" pilot, but Henson struck a deal with ITC, a division of the Associated Communications Company. The show was shot in London and syndicated to CBS stations across the United States. Initially, producers had difficulty finding actors and musicians to be "special guest stars," but by the fifth season, they had to pick through a huge list of talent. "The Muppet Show" was unlike anything that had been on TV before -- a variety show with skits, a storyline and musical numbers, mostly acted out by puppets. By the end of its run, people all over the world had seen it.

Due to its wild popularity, "The Muppet Show" spawned three movies while Henson was alive: "The Muppet Movie," "The Great Muppet Caper" and "The Muppets Take Manhattan" and six direct-to-video and made-for-TV movies. In 1977, Henson created a TV special for HBO, "Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas," based on a children's book. Its realistic characters were both traditional hand Muppets and marionettes, and much of the technology created for "Emmet Otter" was built upon in the other Muppet movies.

Henson's next children's TV series, "Fraggle Rock," aired from 1983 to 1986 on HBO. Very different from "Sesame Street," "Fraggle Rock" depicted the interactions between three "races" of Muppets: Fraggles, Doozers and Gorgs. The shows also contained segments with Doc and his dog Sprocket, inhabitants of Outer Space (the human world). "Fraggle Rock" was also a huge success and appeared in a dozen countries and languages

­ Next, we'll look at Muppet productions from the 1990s to the present.

The cast of "Puppet Up! Uncensored" in Sydney, Australia

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Jim Henson Company Productions

More recent prime-time Muppet TV series include "The Jim Henson Hour" (1989), "Dog City" (1992-95) and "Muppets Tonight" (1996-97). The latter was an updated version of "The Muppet Show," hosted by a human-type Muppet named Clifford instead of Kermit and with a mix of classic Muppets and new characters. The same year that "Muppets Tonight" went off the air, the Disney Channel began airing "Bear in the Big Blue House," a children's TV series starring a full-body Muppet character named Bear. It lasted four seasons.

In 2001, the Jim Henson Company created a children's TV series aired in Great Britain called "The Hoobs." It ran for five seasons in Great Britain and began airing in the United States last year.

2006 marked a return to Henson puppetry for adults. Brian Henson debuted a live improv puppetry comedy show, "Jim Henson's Puppet Up! Uncensored," at the U.S. Comedy Festival. The show was also performed live in Hollywood, Scotland and Las Vegas. TBS aired the Las Vegas performance as a one-hour special in 2006 and began showing Web episodes in 2007 on TBS.com. "Puppet Up!" continues to perform in various locations, including Sydney, Australia, and at the 2007 San Diego ComicCon.

Classic Muppet characters like Kermit and Miss Piggy continue to make appearances on TV shows like "America's Got Talent" and "The Today Show" and in commercials. The Henson Company is developing a show for the Logo Network called "Tinseltown," which centers around the lives of a homosexual puppet couple. A "Fraggle Rock" movie is tentatively scheduled for release in late 2008 or early 2009.

For lots more information on the Muppets and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Sources

  • Bumgartner, Alice. Sesame Family Newsletter, February 22, 2006http://www.sesameworkshop.org/aboutus/newsletter_article.php?contentId=15860086
  • Carroll, Larry. “Ahmet Zappa says 'Fraggle' flick will rock.” MTV News.http://www.mtv.com/movies/news/articles/1547428/20061206/story.jhtml
  • Durrett, Deanne. “The Importance of Jim Henson.” Lucent Books, 1994.
  • Goodman, Brenda. “Retired Muppets will move to Atlanta.” New York Times, July 25, 2007.http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/25/arts/design/25pupp.html?ex=1343016000&en=909c882bd4b7470d&ei=5088&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss
  • Gordemer, Berry. “Happy 50th Birthday, Kermit!” Morning Edition, NPR, May 9, 2005.http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4635468
  • Finch, Christopher. “Jim Henson: The Works.” Random House, 1993.
  • ­Finch, Christopher. “Of Muppets and Men.” Alfred A. Knopf, 1981.
  • Halfway Down the Stairshttp://e.domaindlx.com/jerrynelson/index2.html
  • Hanford, Robert Ten Eyck. “Puppets & Puppeteering.” Sterling Publishing, 1981.
  • Harris, Judy. “Jim Henson Interview.” Cinefastique, September 21, 1982.http://users.bestweb.net/~foosie/henson.htm
  • Henson.com
  • Muppets.comhttp://muppets.go.com
  • Muppet Centralhttp://www.muppetcentral.com
  • Puppet Planethttp://www.puppet-planet.com/buildyourown.html
  • Sesame Workshophttp://www.sesameworkshop.org

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