By Richard Termine
In the spring of 1987 I was working as a designer and builder on Sesame Street and other TV productions for Jim Henson’s Muppet workshops (then called Henson Associates). I had come to the company from an academic background, having studied puppetry at the University of Connecticut.This was looked on with raised eyebrows by many of the talented artisans and puppeteers with whom I worked.For some my nickname on the set became “Professor”.However, I suspect this distinction proved decisive when Jim Henson accepted an invitation to teach a summer workshop at the Institut International de la Marionnette in Charleville-Mezieres, France and asked me to be his teaching assistant!
This was truly a memorable experience in a myriad of ways.From time to time, you have an experience that you are aware from the onset will leave a lasting imprint on your life… and this was one of those times.The workshop was an intensive, three-week master class dedicated to studying the techniques of creating and performing with puppets in television and film.The director of the institute, Margareta Niculecsu, had the vision and tenacity to ask Jim Henson at the height of his amazing career to take on the duties of teacher and director, requiring him to take a three-week break from his company’s extensive production and business activities. For him, this meant changing gears, slowing down his hectic pace, reflecting on his work and organizing his approach for a classroom situation.He would be sharing some of his vast knowledge and experience with a group of talented and aspiring puppeteers from all over the world.Beyond his practical knowledge, it was hoped that the inspiration of his vision and the spirit of this artist and man would be what the students would carry with them, long after the completion of the workshop.
The workshop was publicized and applications were received from all over the world.They were reviewed by staffs at both the institute and at Henson Associates in New York.A total of 21 talented students were chosen, and from the first meeting with the students there was anticipation and electricity in the air.It was evident that this was to be a United Nations of puppetry!There were puppeteers from 8 different nations; puppeteers of every size, discipline and language.Jim and I taught in English, and to navigate the language barrier Steve Ritz-Barr, an American puppeteer living and working in France acted as our French interpreter as well as a participating puppeteer.Each lesson had to be translated, not just from English to French, but then the bilingual French-Spanish speakers would translate it for the 3 students from Spain, and then again as a bilingual Spanish student would translate it once more for the one student from Portugal!
“I had traveled to France with my wife Valerie and our then 2 ½ year old son, Benjie. He of course, knew who the Muppets and Jim Henson were and had picked up on the reverence with which we held the Muppet master. When the workshop participants broke for lunch the first day, Valerie brought Benjie to meet Jim and the workshop students. When they entered the room, Benjie had wandered over to where Kermit was lying on the floor in a plastic bag. Jim smiled at the group of us gathered around him and almost apologetically excused himself by saying that they normally didn't like children to see Kermit in a plastic bag. As flashes popped, Jim put on the frog Muppet, squatted down on the floor, and Kermit began to converse with the 2 1/2 year old. It was one of those "awww" moments until Benjie leaned in and confidentially asked Kermit, "Kermit, did you know that Jim Henson was working you?" All of a sudden the "awww" moment turned into an "awe" moment as all of us in the room realized we had just seen the magic of puppetry clearly demonstrated before our eyes. This was the kind of inspiration that we had come for, and it continued to manifest itself many times over the weeks of the workshop.”
Michael Nelson, United States
Each day was divided into lessons exploring various aspects of the puppet. We began with manipulation exercises, working with bare hands in front of mirrors, and then a set of Muppet-style eyes fashioned from ping pong balls were placed on the puppeteers’ bare hands to provide focus as we learned the technique of lip-synching (moving the hand in an open and closed position to give the sense that the hand is a talking puppet).The French song “Frere Jacques” became an anthem for the class. It was a song everyone knew, so everyday it was sung in repetition as the students perfected their lip-synching technique. These lessons were supplemented by the fabrication of Muppet-style puppets from foam and with miscellaneous materials to make practice puppets with which the students would exercise (and later perform). This fabrication workshop was one of my essential responsibilities.An important distinction that Jim made right from the beginning was that the particular visual “Muppet” look and performance style was only one solution in a world of possibilities.He encouraged the students to learn from his techniques but to make them their own and to ultimately explore and develop their own approach and style.When their practice puppets were completed it was time to work with them on camera.Here Jim began teaching the technique he had originated years earlier -- where the puppeteer would be aided by TV monitors as he performed.By using monitors, puppeteers are able to check the puppet’s focus, placement and overall performance as it is being recorded.The challenge is that the TV image is shown in reverse to the actual puppet so that the puppeteer must learn to work in opposition to what he sees on the TV screen.This can take years to master, but the three intensive weeks of the workshop provided an amazing start for many.
“I was fortunate to be hired by the Institute in Charleville to be the official translator for the Henson workshop, as well as participate as puppeteer…What I learned, most importantly, during those three weeks was that Henson was personally supportive of our ‘personal visions’ getting developed and onto the screen. He was not interested in developing Henson-Clones. The workshop gave me hands-on experience with TV Puppetry (monitor-based), lip-synch, and directorial techniques for the first time and it became the bridge into the world of filmed images for me. I continued to do some theatre creations after the workshop but I had become ‘hooked’ with the possibilities contained in filming puppets. In 1989, I came to LA and worked on the Henson Disney 3-D project with Jim that turned out to be his last shoot before he died. From that LA beginning I worked on many films large and small and lots of television shows for children in the LA area…The Henson workshop taught me that unique, sensitive, artistic people could work in the film/TV business. This was no small truth and I now know from 25 years experience that there are few like Henson. I was fortunate to be a part of this group. It was life-changing.”
Steven Ritz-Barr, France & United States
Another key aspect of the workshop was Jim’s lectures on television production techniques, such as story boarding, camera techniques and editing, as they related to capturing the puppet’s performance on camera. He used discussions of his own work as a basis of examining various video and film techniques.It soon became clear that these three weeks were becoming a mini-seminar on the life and career of Jim Henson.Up to this point in my relationship with Jim's company, my work had been focused in the workshop.My only contact with Jim was at company meetings or in the TV studio during the taping of Sesame Street and other projects.This workshop gave me an incredible opportunity to get to know the man as he talked about his work and sharing his personal journey and knowledge.I saw the pioneer and visionary taking the verbal, visual and animated qualities of the puppet and exploiting it in up-to-then unimaginable ways through the new technologies of the TV and film media.
“The Master, Jim Henson gave me the taste for excellence and curiosity for new advanced mediums. Jim was the very first puppeteer to explore the world of new-technologies: TV medium in the 50's, 3D at its birth, blue-screen, mat-painting technical’s for background scenery, remote-control devices for puppet's eyes etc. He gave me this opportunity: I was one of the very first virtual-puppeteers to be hired for the new 3D virtual-reality characters, performing (in real time to screen) with data-gloves in 1991 for TV shows, movies and video-games. I changed my world of theater puppeteer for the new field of "TV electronics" and their applicability to the puppet world! But I still remember the Master's words: "Every time you use mechanics, try to keep them very 'unmechanical'. So, that's what I've been trying to do since, putting my soul into puppets orchestrated through computer...”
Pascal Mesnier, France
It also became evident that the same patience, care and joy he consistently exhibited on set during Sesame Street, he carried over into the classroom.He was passionate about the art of the puppet, regardless of the medium. He was extremely caring and nurturing as he worked with a group of puppeteers who had widely varying skills and experience.
“What stood out for me was Jim's great knowledge and authority in his work and yet his inner peace and calmness always shone through, a trait rarely experienced. After the course, I began my career in television puppetry that has lasted for all these years, and now I also teach it in Australia.”
Gary Friedman, South Africa & Australia
I remember Jim wasn’t able to leave all of his work behind for the full three weeks.One weekend he was required to return to his London office for business meetings.When he returned I remember him sharing with me his plans to mount a new one TV series.The then-untitled series (later to be called The Jim Henson Hour) would be produced by an American network and would include segments from a variety of projects he currently had in production.It would be a culmination of his career to date.Ironically [TO ME?], it seemed as if this workshop was providing a pause in his career and a chance for him to reflect on what he had accomplished and where he was going next (allowing him to put in all together in this new TV series).I don’t think this was a conscious thought, but I do think it helped to precipitate this next incarnation of his astounding career.
Another important part of the workshop was the inclusion of his family.This respite from his usual production work would allow him to spend some vacation time with his children. Jim loved to include his children in his work, and this was a perfect
Opportunity.Three of his five children would visit in the course of the workshop, one each week.Brian was just beginning to puppeteer professionally, and so this gave him the opportunity to teach and demonstrate on-camera the puppet techniques with his father. Brian proved a wonderful teaching partner. When Jim’s youngest daughter Heather came, he made time take her horseback riding in the countryside.He invited several of us join them this outing, and this was my first time on a horse!
Jim Henson was one of those rare individuals who, when he was talking to you was totally present and attentive. He was generous with his knowledge and encouraged fellow puppeteers.
It was an incredible beginning on the eve of the summer school to see the original version of “The Dark Crystal”, Jim wrote the story during a blizzard with his daughter and we were lucky to have Heather with us for some of the time in France.
We experienced Jim the teacher, the filmmaker, the puppeteer, the friend and the father.
Even though my colleague and I often felt our company, Skylark, seemed so small in the light of Jim’s achievements he reminded us that we had total control over our creation and the joy of performing to a live audience. Although the workshop was Puppets for film and T.V. we continued to perform to a live audience over the years to come.
Shelley Mosses, Australia
The final week of the workshop was devoted shooting 10-minute videos with the puppets that had been created.The students were divided into four production groups, and each wrote a short script.They then created a shot list and storyboard approach to the actual shooting of their work using all the techniques and skills they had learned during the workshop.Jim was not only the teacher and mentor, but performed as himself and withKermit.(I was written into one of the scripts as well!)
The Jim Henson's workshop was the highlight of our career, to be with the man that brought life and laughter in so many homes around the world... the Master who gave us all permission to play and tell passionate stories with a Muppet on our hand! The most wonderful thing was to see Jim always so playful and lending himself to all the crazy ideas that we came up with.
Marie-Martine Ferrari, Australia
We all had a marvelous time creating our productions, videotaping at locations at the school and all around the town itself – even at the railroad station and on the trains!Early in the workshop Jim had come in one day and told us that he had gone out to his rental car that morning, opened the car door and discovered that the steering wheel was missing!One group’s film was a send-up of puppets making puppets. As the puppets are digging through a materials box, one of them one of them pulls out a steering wheel -- an inside joke for Jim!One of the productions required a puppet to go into a box and then to emerge transformed into Jim.Jim excitedly talked through each shot, edit, and change of angle in order to make this transformation seamless and magical!I vividly remember him explaining in one of his lectures that when he worked in a TV studio he may not know how to operate every particular piece of equipment, but he knew what every piece of equipment was capable of doing – a fine distinction that allowed him to be the master of the worlds he created!
The workshop culminated with an evening presentation to the public.A terrific turnout of town officials and supporters of the Institut International de la Marionnette showed up to see our puppets and a screening of our final video projects.The response from everyone was wonderful, and the evening ended with a night of joy and dancing!
I wrote at the beginning of this article about the lasting imprint of important events on one’s life.This opportunity to work with Jim, to observe him as a teacher, mentor and visionary in the setting of an international puppetry center would prove to be more important to my future work than I could have ever imagined.That opportunity was presented to others and me just four short years later.Following Jim’s untimely death in 1990, Jane Henson gathered a group of American puppeteers together to create an ongoing puppet conference inspired by the work of Jim and many others pioneers in the field.Jim’s work as teacher and educator in Charleville had always stayed with me.It was my guide and inspiration as we created the National Puppetry Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut.Now going into its 19th year, it stands as a living legacy to the vision and humanity of an extraordinary man and puppeteer -- who gave so much of himself one summer to a lucky group of young puppeteers.