At New York Comic Con, Jim Henson was remembered by some of his long time collaborators and friends on a panel to promote the book Jim Henson: The Biography. Panelists Brian Jay Jones, Bonnie Erickson, Karen Falk, Fran Brill, and Michael K. Frith discuss the book and take a walk down the memory lane of their professional and personal experiences with the muppet master.
And to continue remembering one of our heroes, we previously spoke with Lisa Henson on what would have been Jim’s 75th birthday for Nerdist News. We’re rerunning that interview on Nerdist.com for the first time.
Nerdist: We’ve seen Archaia come out with A Tale of Sand, based on an unsold screenplay more similar to your dad’s earlier work like “Time Piece.” Do you think he would have come back around to that more experimental style later in life?
Lisa Henson: Well, he was interested in all kinds of filmmaking. He wasn’t just working for kids: The Dark Crystal was considered creepy, scary for small children at the time. He did want to continue to do different sorts of projects. I think he would always have had a component of visual effects or characters, but he was doing some live-action projects that were sophisticated, and I think he wanted to be able to cut loose and do more of that kind of experimental, more personal filmmaking later on.
N: You see a running theme in stuff like “Time Piece,” about the importance of taking time out from the hectic pace of life. Now we’ve gotten even more frantic with Blackberries, instant messaging and social media. Do you think he would have found all of that difficult and annoying, or adapted and embraced it?
LH: He was a very technically proficient person who was always embracing the latest technology. Like a lot of men, he was a gadget guy: he would be the first person to buy the Handycam, or the personal tape-recording devices before they were called Walkmen. He was really proficient with – and really liked – everything gadgety. I don’t think that he would have rejected any type of new technology. However, personally he was a very focused individual and would be able to shut out the social and distraction noises. A lot of people have a hard time being creative because there are a lot of distractions, and he was really good at clearing his mind, putting a blank piece of paper in front of him and just starting a new project. With all of the new technology he still would have been very focused.
N: In hindsight when we look at some of that stuff, it’s easy to think maybe he realized he wasn’t going to live as long as he should have, or have the time he needed. Was there any sense of that when he was alive?
LH: Oh, definitely not. He was always planning what he’d be doing ten years from then, twenty years away. He always had a lot of plans and I think his death was a big surprise to everybody, perhaps him most of all. On the other hand, he did have a philosophical consciousness of the preciousness of our lives, and using the time that you have on this earth to do good. Which I think he had since he was a young man. He was affected by the deaths of family members and people that were close to him, so he did have a consciousness of the fragility and specialness of our lives.
N: It’s been said that he predicted the advent of reality television. What do you think about that, and what would he think about where it’s at now?
LH: There’s a really great clip where he did a little pitch tape for a reality show that he did in the ’80s. He filmed it on the Handycam and said look, this is all you need to do to make a television show these days, and the old way is over. So he was a predictor for sure.
N: With Fraggle Rock, there were different live-action wraparound segments shot for different countries. How important was it to have the show be a distinct thing for each different country?
LH: He’d been working on Sesame Street for a long time, and it was one of the first shows to do these international coproductions. At least one particular person from that, Duncan Kenworthy, had a thinking at that time – which was really ambitious – that you could make a show that would feel local and personal for different cultures. In France, you would just see that French version and it would feel like a French show. It was really an effort to have the characters – who were Fraggles, they were not Americans, but a different breed – feel local for each country. And the content of the show was all about conflict resolution and raising dialogue to a higher level.
N: When you look at the behind-the-scenes stuff on the Muppet movies, it seems like there’s this real joy in coming up with complicated scenes like the Muppets riding bikes and figuring out how to do it practically. Nowadays, most directors would just use CG. Do you think he would have been relieved to be able to just do it in digital, or would that have taken away the joy of figuring those things out?
LH: He did enjoy solving a technical problem, and with the Muppet productions, he also wanted to up the ante each time and create a better illusion or something you didn’t think the Muppets could ever do based on your previous viewings. So now in The Great Muppet Caper, Miss Piggy can swim underwater, or they can tap-dance. So in a fun and showy way, he was creating more and more capabilities for the Muppets with each of those productions. At the same time, he was a very early adapter of computer animation, and trying to create digital puppets from the beginning. The last thing that he directed – the Muppet show at Disneyland – actually had a 3-D digital puppet in it named Waldo.
N: With the rise of Youtube, you see a lot of people co-opting images, and you had that video a few years back of “Sad Kermit” singing Nine Inch Nails. Would he have been offended by that or appreciated it?
LH: Well, we also have a lot of adult stuff nowadays, including a mostly R-rated puppet show called Stuffed and Unstrung that’s hysterically funny and adult, but to me, I don’t think Sad Kermit was particularly artistic. It’s just a gag.
N: What other modern innovations would have resonated with him, do you think?
LH: Gaming, in a certain way. He didn’t really play video games, but he liked the immersive quality. He was really interested in the idea of how you could enter into a piece of entertainment more than with a movie – something like the process that went into creating the movie Avatar, where you use 3-D for the reason of making it more immersive. That type of entertainment is where he wanted to go. He was very interested in 3-D, and at the time, in 1989, I thought he was going down a dead end with it, to be honest. It was fascinating to have that 3-D attraction at Disneyland. The Muppet-Vision 3-D interacts with the theater in a great way, but it was hard to predict that 3-D was where we’d be going in the movie industry.
N: Aside from 3-D, did he think of any other cinematic innovations that were maybe ahead of their time and hadn’t caught on yet?
LH: Not so much in terms of a specific invention, but he did imagine that we would be walking around in the show, making our own choices, walking through doors, meeting more characters…a fully real experience.
N: Are we talking like virtual reality, or something like a Halloween maze?
LH: More like a virtual reality, but I don’t think it’s happened yet. He was interested in that kind of evolution. And he was extremely interested in computer animation, which is why when people ask if the puppets should just stay as practical effects, he was not headed in that direction.
N: So if Jim Henson were around today, do you think he’d be working in TV, making movies, or maybe just relaxing in retirement at 75?
LH: He was very good at relaxing! At 75, I don’t know. I wouldn’t say that your guess is as good as mine, because mine probably would be better…but it would still be a guess.
Additional Reporting by Luke Thompson