It’s Not Easy Being Stuffed

A look at the process of bringing a puppet to life.
  • Transcript


Question: How are your characters created?

Brian Henson: Where does a character come from?  Because a character, at the end of the day, a character will be the combination of the writing of the character, the voicing of the character, the personality of the character, and what the character looks like.  And characters in our company can develop from basically three different directions.  They can develop as a scripted character first, it could be a writer that came up with the idea of a character, described it in a script, and then wrote some dialogue.  And that’s where it starts from, and then you add a performer, who puts a whole additional layer on top of that, and you add a puppet design, and the puppet that the puppet builder has built, and that adds a whole layer.  And in the end, that gives you the complete character.

But sometimes the characters start in the script, sometimes the characters start by a puppet designer drawing a sketch and saying, “How does that look?”  Sometimes, many of the best, best puppets actually didn’t start with anything that specific, it starts with saying to puppet builders: “I need some weird looking monsters for this scene,” and you kind of describe it.  And then the puppet builders actually just fabricate it on their table, just start putting it together.  And some very good characters start that way, where it’s a puppet first and somebody comes in with a puppet and says, “How do you like this?”  And we all go, “That’s great!  Okay, now let’s put a character and voice to it, and let’s put a script to it.”

And sometimes it can be the puppeteer.  Often a puppeteer will come and say, you know, “I’ve got this crazy aunt and she always talks like this,” and then you start working it up and working it up and then you end up making, you know, a puppet that embodies that personality.

So it comes from, I said three directions; it can be four.  It can be a character designer doing an illustration, it can be a puppet builder fabricating a puppet on their desk, on their bench, it can be a puppeteer coming in with a personality in their mind, or it can come from the writer writing a character.

Question: Have you ever based a puppet on someone you know?

Brian Henson:  Always.  But it’s usually, by the time you finish it, it never is that anymore—well, no, I guess sometimes we have built puppets of specific celebrities, occasionally.  Often the initial idea behind a character will be somebody that somebody knows, but by the time you add all of the creating of the puppet to the scripting and everything, by the time it’s finished, even if you showed that character to the person that you had started with, they would have no idea.

Question: What is the most difficult emotion to get across with a puppet?

Brian Henson:  Puppets are interesting because they appear to be very, very restrictive, because they appear to be non-emotional, because they don’t have much facial features, not much movement in their facial features.  Some puppets have a little bit more, some have almost none.  And initially that looks restrictive, because it looks like that’s going to be impossible for that character to emote.

The truth is, what happens in the end, is it allows the audience to feel the emotion and put it together in their head.  So, for instance, a character like Kermit the Frog, is a very, very, very simple puppet, but he’s a very emotional character and that comes in the rhythms of the movement of the character, the way that the character’s moving, the way the character’s voicing, and then the audience doing a lot of the work of really feeling like they’re seeing something that they’re not seeing.  Often when we write puppet scripts, it’ll say, “And they all smiled great, big smiles,” well, of course, a puppet never smiles a great, big smiles, but boy, you can write that scene, you can shoot that scene, and you can show it to people and they’ll say, “I love that scene where they all ended with great big smiles.”  It’s like, yeah, but it never really happened, you just sort of imagined it.

And so the good puppeteers... as long as you believe that that character is emoting, the puppeteer, usually the audience gets it, and it’s a weird and wonderful connection that happens, because I can’t even really tell you how it works, but that it really does work.  I mean, really, it says something about the human eye and our ability to read people and then be able to read puppets the way we read people.

Recorded on April 8, 2010