It’s Not Easy Being Stuffed

Question: How are your characters created?


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


But\r\n sometimes\r\nthe characters start in the script, sometimes the characters start by a \r\npuppet\r\ndesigner drawing a sketch and saying, “How does that look?”  Sometimes, many of the best, best\r\npuppets actually didn’t start with anything that specific, it starts \r\nwith\r\nsaying to puppet builders: “I need some weird looking monsters for this \r\nscene,”\r\nand you kind of describe it.  And\r\nthen the puppet builders actually just fabricate it on their table, just\r\n start\r\nputting it together.  And some very\r\ngood characters start that way, where it’s a puppet first and somebody \r\ncomes in\r\nwith a puppet and says, “How do you like this?”  And\r\n we all go, “That’s great!  Okay, now let’s put a \r\ncharacter and voice to it, and let’s\r\nput a script to it.”


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


So\r\n it comes\r\nfrom, I said three directions; it can be four.  It\r\n can be a character designer doing an illustration, it can\r\nbe a puppet builder fabricating a puppet on their desk, on their bench, \r\nit can\r\nbe a puppeteer coming in with a personality in their mind, or it can \r\ncome from\r\nthe writer writing a character.


Question:\r\nHave you ever based a puppet on someone you know?


Brian Henson:  Always.  But\r\n it’s usually, by the time you\r\nfinish it, it never is that anymore—well, no, I \r\nguess sometimes we have built puppets of specific\r\ncelebrities, occasionally.  Often\r\nthe initial idea behind a character will be somebody that somebody \r\nknows, but\r\nby the time you add all of the creating of the puppet to the scripting \r\nand\r\neverything, by the time it’s finished, even if you showed that character\r\n to the\r\nperson that you had started with, they would have no idea.


Question:\r\nWhat is the most difficult emotion to get across with a puppet?


Brian Henson:  Puppets are\r\ninteresting because they appear to be very, very restrictive, because \r\nthey\r\nappear to be non-emotional, because they don’t have much facial \r\nfeatures, not\r\nmuch movement in their facial features. \r\nSome puppets have a little bit more, some have almost none.  And initially that looks restrictive,\r\nbecause it looks like that’s going to be impossible for that character \r\nto\r\nemote.


The\r\n truth is,\r\nwhat happens in the end, is it allows the audience to feel the emotion \r\nand put\r\nit together in their head.  So, for\r\ninstance, a character like Kermit the Frog, is a very, very, very simple\r\npuppet, but he’s a very emotional character and that comes in the \r\nrhythms of\r\nthe movement of the character, the way that the character’s moving, the \r\nway the\r\ncharacter’s voicing, and then the audience doing a lot of the work of \r\nreally\r\nfeeling like they’re seeing something that they’re not seeing.  Often when we write puppet scripts,\r\nit’ll say, “And they all smiled great, big smiles,” well, of course, a \r\npuppet\r\nnever smiles a great, big smiles, but boy, you can write that scene, you\r\n can\r\nshoot that scene, and you can show it to people and they’ll say, “I love\r\n that\r\nscene where they all ended with great big smiles.”  It’s\r\n like, yeah, but it never really happened, you just sort\r\nof imagined it.


And\r\n so the good\r\npuppeteers... as long as you believe that that character is emoting, the\r\npuppeteer, usually the audience gets it, and it’s a weird and wonderful\r\nconnection that happens, because I can’t even really tell you how it \r\nworks, but\r\nthat it really does work.  I mean,\r\nreally, it says something about the human eye and our ability to read \r\npeople\r\nand then be able to read puppets the way we read people.

Recorded on April 8, 2010

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

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