As you drive onto the the Jim Henson Company’s cozy lot in Hollywood, you steer right through a gate topped by a giant Kermit the Frog in a top hat. But the company has gone far beyond the reach of The Muppets, which it sold to Disney in 2004.
Under the leadership of CEO Lisa Henson — one of Jim Henson’s five children — the company has a number of projects in production on various platforms, and it shows no sign of slowing. While they still make content using traditional puppets, they have expanded to use motion capture and three-dimensional technologies. Lisa Henson even revealed to The Frame that she's planning a "secret" virtual reality project using an old script by her father from the late 1960s.
But that's not the only way Henson is expanding on the legacy of her creative father. Last year she mounted the Diversity Puppeteer Training Initiative to expand the ranks of people who perform their characters. They put out a call for auditions specifically looking for people of color and women.
The company's efforts to diversify was one of the topics of discussion when The Frame's John Horn visited Lisa Henson on the small studio lot that once belonged to Charlie Chaplin, and later housed A&M Records. Below are some highlights of that conversation.
Can you tell us about this screening room where we're sitting?
These are reproduction antique theater seats, but this really is Charlie Chaplin's little screening room. We, the Jim Henson Company, are now located at the studio that used to be Charlie Chaplin's studio, so we have his soundstage. My brother is in his office. We have the Charlie Chaplin vault where he was shown storing his famous shoes and the Little Tramp outfit in the vault. This is a lot that was, after Charlie Chaplin, also A&M Records for many, many years with Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss. So we're the third biggest historical incarnation of this lot. Although there were other owners in between with Red Skelton and I guess a few others. But so many historical things happened here on this lot.
On a given day what's happening around you? Are there shows being shot or in development?
Our studio just looks like a miniature movie studio. Like the studio in "The Muppets," the Disney movie that came out recently, it has a little gate that opens and you feel like you're driving onto a little movie lot, but it's very tiny. We're smaller than one square block. It's a very creative atmosphere here. We have everything from motion capture performers walking around with the little mo-cap spots on their suits, to people who are artists, designers and puppet builders. We also still run a recording studio here. In the evening at about six or seven, those people come to work. The rock stars arrive for the night shift on our lot.
You mean "rock stars" figuratively?
I mean real rock stars. They arrive at night and make their records in the recording studio, so we have a day life and a night life.
You've been around the movie business and television business pretty much your entire life. As we sit here today, there are a lot of changes happening in both. As you're figuring out what this company is doing to remain topical and current, what are the things you are thinking about, or implementing, to be relevant?
Our company celebrates creativity. I think that my father has become an icon of personal creativity over the years. People admire him as much for his abstract high level of creativity as for any individual Muppet character. Right now we are not only making traditional television shows and movies, but we are making Netflix shows, we've done pilots for Amazon, we've done webisodes and viral content. We try to stay current because we are so independent. We are not beholden to cable or broadcast networks or any one distribution platform. So as independent content producers we just want our material to be seen by as many people as possible.
I want to ask you a little more about the people who are operating the puppets. Last year you mounted what you called a “Diversity puppeteer training initiative" that was focused on changing the makeup of the people who were operating and controlling the puppets. What was the need and why did you feel like it was important to do?
Years ago, when my father was puppeteering, there were this core group of puppeteers — five white men, and they performed every kind of character. Miss Piggy was performed by a man as was every other character. Over time, "Sesame Street" in particular, influenced "The Muppets" to train women and to train a couple of puppeteers of color, because "Sesame Street" as a production really wanted to have more diversity behind the camera as well as in front of the camera. Over all, we really didn't have enough diversity on our bench of puppeteers, so in recent years we actually had to turn down a couple of good production opportunities because there were African-American show runners that wanted to do a production — let's say an all-black puppet production — and we just didn't have the bench for that. We didn't have enough puppeteers of color, or even any female or Hispanic puppeteers, to represent a diverse cast. So we had a very practical need, but we also think it's the right thing to do to have diversity behind the camera.
Was the issue that you weren't seeing applicants who were diverse and you felt you needed to expand the applicant pool that way? What were the issues in changing who you were able to hire and who you were hiring?
Well, we just have to do outreach when we want more puppeteers. It's not a talent pool that's constantly replenishing itself from hundreds of improv schools. If you want to be a comedian there are hundreds of places you could go for training. In order to get the word out that we wanted to hire more people, we had to specifically hold a workshop and do outreach and solicit auditions. There aren't that many places to be trained as a puppeteer.
How does the gender and race of the person performing a puppet reveal itself to the audience?
We like to have puppeteers do the voices of the characters, so it was often suggested we could puppeteer a show either to a soundtrack that was recorded by African-American comedians or that they could post-sync the show after it's been performed. That is technically possible, but it's not the very best and highest use of the form of puppetry.
What was the result of that initiative in terms of hiring?
We have a show for PBS called "Splash and Bubbles" that we're in the middle of producing. That was a show where we cast both the experienced puppeteers and the assistant puppeteers that were newer from the diversity training. So we have a very evenly-balanced cast and I'm very happy and proud of that.
The people who are performing look a little bit more diverse and the voices that we hear sound a little bit more diverse. Would the puppets that we're seeing look a little bit more diverse? Does one begat the other in terms of the way in which the puppets are designed?
It's not a one-to-one ratio because, for instance, "Splash and Bubbles" is a show about fish, so they all look like fish. They don't look like any form of ethnicity of humans. That is one program where we're more interested just in having a good representation behind the camera, but ultimately the characters look like fish. Then we have another show, "Julie's Greenroom," where the diversity is more evident in the cast, because the puppets are humans and they have skin color. So it's a little bit different from one show to the next.
When people think of Jim Henson and Jim Henson's puppets, they imagine somebody manually manipulating that creature, but you're also doing things that are much more technologically advanced that involve motion capture, that involve real time animation in 3D. Can you talk a little bit more about technology that way?
One of the mediums that we work in most frequently now is digital puppetry. We have combined the art forms of puppetry and animation, where the performers who are traditionally trained puppeteers actually manipulate a digital character instead of a puppet. They put their hands physically into a computer interface and they operate the digital character live. They will do the voice and perform the face at the same time, and then we will have another puppeteer or body performer doing the body. We do this whole thing live. So the end result of that is you get what looks like CG animation, but it didn't go through even remotely the same production process. Because with traditional animation, you go record the voices, then you create a storyboard and then you do the animation last. We do all of that at the same time.
You also don't have to frame it the way that traditional puppets are framed where you're cutting off the bottom image because you have people who are performing.
That's right. So we have a new show called "Word Party" where, with each character, the face and voice is done by one puppeteer and the body is done by a body performer. They think and perform very synergistically. They get on the same wavelength and they are doing everything together without even planning it. They just start to inhabit a character together.
What is "Word Party" about?
"Word Party" is our new show for Netflix [release date 7/8/16] — kind of the "Sesame Street" age. It's four adorable baby animals and they are learning words. The show is very simple. The baby animals have little story lines and they can't think of the word so they go to the Word Wally, who's a living word wall, and they learn various words. It's based on the research that, the more vocabulary that kids are exposed to and the more words they have going into preschool, [that's] the most predictive of their success in school. Just the idea of having a greater vocabulary and being exposed to more words and facility with more words is really important for the very young set. Then also the research that kids know how to work an iPad before they can speak.
And in words and not emojis.
Yeah! But babies are working iPads and, whether you like it or not, it's a truth. So one of the things we like to do is function within the realities of technologies. If the reality is that babies are using iPads, something good can come of that in the same way that my father — in 1968, when people were complaining that kids were watching too much TV — [thought] something could come of that, and so that's how "Sesame Street" came about.
You never had a chance to work with your father at this company. He died before you joined the company and he probably couldn't have foreseen a lot of changes in computer animation or digital streaming. What are the things that you think the company is doing today that he might have understood and that he would be proud of and really excited to see that you are fulfilling?
Well, my father was very interested in new technology and he was known for his simple hand puppetry. That's such an eloquent medium and an age-old medium, but his personal interest was always in new technologies. So the very last things he was involved with were things like the 3-D movie, "The Muppets at Walt Disney World," which was way before the revival of stereoscopic film that we're now in. He was interested in doing a 3-D movie and people were like, Why do you want to do that? It's because it was more immersive. He was very interested in immersive entertainment of all kinds, was exploring interactive branching movies, the kinds of things that we're talking about now a lot. I think he'd be extremely excited for us to be working in virtual reality, which we are planning to do. The project that I want to do in virtual reality is something that he wrote, because I feel like it would be just perfect.
How long ago did he write it?
In the late '60s. That's a secret project.
We've talked a lot about your dad. I'd like to hear more about your mom and how she influenced you and what her legacy is in the company today.
My mom and dad started "The Muppets" together and they actually were performing together. They were partners on "Sam and Friends" before they got married, and even before they were romantically involved. So she was very much a partner for him and a creative sounding board. She was really smart about everything from storytelling [to] performance and creativity. She was a great person to get notes from. Even after my father died, we sought her advice on whether or not she liked the way something had come out. She was a really amazing talent scout as well. Back in the '70s she discovered several of the top puppeteers because she had such an eye for talent. We like to think that her first discovery was my father.