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Joseph Scarbrough launched what he called "The Scarblog" as a way of cataloging his work over the years, as well as going into greater detail of things on his mind (known as "Unfinished Thoughts").

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Advances in Puppet Building: Are They TOO Perfect Now?

Trust me, these are not good puppets . . . and they're available at a Christian bookstore near you!
To be perfectly honest, I know that when it comes to puppetry, the actual building process is really one of my biggest weaknesses: I can perform a puppet, and I can certainly design a puppet, but to actually build one just isn't quite forte. However, I know good and bad puppets when I see them; we've certainly come a long way in the last sixty years or so in terms of puppet building: techniques and methods have improved and advanced, and in doing so, puppets can be built in ways that are absolutely pristine and flawless . . . perfect, even! But. . . . are puppets, perhaps, built a little too perfect now?
Showing how the Henson Stitch minimizes the appearance of seams on a puppet.
Before we get into that, we need to go over a little history lesson. When Jim Henson was bringing his Muppets into the world back in the 1950s, he wasn't just creating a bunch of wacky and goofy characters that we would come to love and adore, but rather, he was completely transforming the art of puppetry as we knew it: the true innovator that he was, Jim was pioneering a completely new style of puppetry that drew on earlier inspiriation from other styles of puppetry, combining them in ways to make puppets work better in many ways, especially the way they could be seen on film and television (the latter of which was also relatively new at the time). When being seen on television, a key to the Muppets' belief is that they appear as lifelike as possible; but they're puppets, so how is that possible? Remember, Jim was an innovator and pioneer: he developed methods of constructing and building puppets that minimized visible flaws and imperfections to help hide the fact they're puppets. One of the most talked about method of puppet construction that Jim developed is what's called "the Henson Stitch," this is a sewing technique that involves sewing into the edges of the fleece covering - it's a very painstaking method, but by sewing like this, you minimize the appearance of the seams. Of course, it also helps to have the right fabric as well: most professional puppet builders prefer to use a special kind of fleece known as Antron: Antron is a particularly fuzzy and frizzy fleece, so even after sewing, the fuzz of the fleece can be brushed over the seams to further minimize their appearance. In short: the fuzzier the fleece, the less likely you'll see seams.
Puppet builder extraordinare, Don Sahlin, gluing a foam pattern to create a puppet skull.
But building puppets is more than just sewing pieces of fleece together, you have to create an inner shell before you do anything else: this is what gives the puppet its shape, it's essentially the skeleton of the puppet, and the fleece is the skin. There are many different methods and techniques to putting together a foam skeleton, whether you cut patterns from half-inch to inch-thick pieces of foam and glue them together for simpler puppets, to carving and sculpting from giant blocks of foam for puppets that have more distinct shape to them. Much like sewing fleece, putting together the foam skeleton can also be a painstaking process that requires a keen eye and attention to detail, otherwise, you could end up with a lopsided, misshapen mass of foam rubber.
Aah! Visible arm rods! My face is melting!
As the old saying goes, "practice makes perfect." Puppets have been built in these ways for the better part of the past sixty years, so it's only natural that over that span of time, not only would these techniques improve, but others would be developed to help further make building puppets even better. Jim Henson didn't just create a new way of building puppets alone, his apprentices carried on and in time also developed and introduced additional techniques since the inception of the Muppets, and as they spread, even more people can find ways to improve on these techniques. Nowhere is that more evident than the Muppets themselves, the true modern pioneers of an ancient artform, and with the Muppets now back in mainstream media after a lengthy bout of somehow obscurity, more than a few people are taking notice: the Muppets certainly look different than they did before. Obviously, the main reason is because since Disney now owns the characters, the Jim Henson Company no longer builds the puppets, but rather, a company known as Puppet Heap does; the Henson Company does still build the SESAME STREET Muppets. As mentioned above, a key to building puppets it to make them seem as lifelike as possible, but even though it's always been a painstaking process, it seems to have become even moreso in recent years; it's not just advancements made in building techniques, but advancements in production technology is also playing a factor. One of the first things you may notice about newer Muppet productions is a serious lack of rods. How can this be? Puppet hands and arms are operated by rods, so how can they disappear? Digitally. As opposed to the older days of 35mm film and videotape, in this day of high definiton, more and more details are being picked up by cameras, and as a result, rods that were once barely visible on screen are now so much so that they need to be digitally erased in post. And again, because HD gets so much detail, one has to go to great lengths in building puppets to ensure seams are invisible. While this certainly shows what a long way we've come since the days of Jim Henson and Don Sahlin, somehow, something seems off about the entire process.
Fozzie's evolution from Muppet to . . . plush toy?
The benefit of the doubt could be that we haven't seen too many Muppet projects between the time of the Disney purchase in 2004 to THE MUPPETS smashing through the silver screen in 2011, but since then, many people have been talking about how "different" the characters look now. A combination in the evolution of puppet building and the advancements of production technology is resulting in pristine, flawless-looking puppets . . . but as much as they've gained in building techniques, something else in being lost at the same time. In a sense, the more they try to make puppets look as lifelike as possible, the more artificial they appear to be looking in this day and age. One common complaint I've been seeing lately is that Fozzie Bear no longer looks like a Muppet, and looks more like a teddy bear, or a plush toy - part of the problem is because certain furs and fabrics are hard to come by, and in many cases are no longer being made or are no longer available.
An older Anything Muppet with visible seams.
Hey there, handsome stranger!
In going to great lengths to improve the appearances of puppets on film and television, much of the puppets' charm is being lost at the same time. Building puppets to look good on film and television has always been a major facet of the entire artform, but what really makes or breaks the character is the performance: whether you have a beautifully crafted puppet, or an ugly mess put together with tape and chewing gum, it's all about the personality, and the life that's breathed into the character from the puppeteer performing it. Nowhere is that more evident than the number one frog himself, Kermit: as most people know, Kermit was not a frog when he was first created in 1955, he was simply an abstract character; he wasn't built using professional materials or high-quality fabrics - he was built from an old spring coat, and his eyes were made from a ping pong ball that was cut in half. In spite of the simplistic materials used to create the original Kermit, the personality was still intact, whether sitting on a wall and eating worms that turn out to be the noses of large monsters, or donning a little wig and lip-syncing to popular novelty records, this little vaguely lizard-like character was oozing with personality, which is what a puppet really needs in order to engage and appeal to audiences. Back in the 60s and 70s when the Muppets were really starting to find their footing, obviously they weren't perfect: sometimes heads were lopsided, sometimes fleece wasn't smooth, sometimes features were crooked or misshapen . . . but again, these characters had such wonderful and great personalities that you still loved them irregardless - it's similar to how Rocky and Bullwinkle had such incredibly smart and witty writing that the humor was enough to win you over the incredibly limited and lackluster animation. So what if you could see a rod here and there? So what if maybe a certain puppet was built in a hurry and you saw seams? There was still a warmth and realness to these characters just the same. In this day and age with puppets looking so pristine and flawless, while their endearing personalities are still intact, they're still losing that warmth and edge that they once had, making them seem a little cold and impersonal. I've said it before that sometimes advances in technology aren't necessarily so advance . . . could the same be said for puppets? Could the advances in puppet building actually be doing more harm than good? I think it's up for debate, from speaking for myself (from two perspectives: as a puppeteer and a puppetry afficianado in general) and other fans out there, I think perhaps the good is a little less.
Fleecy, pilly Bert, or silky smooth Bert? You be the judge.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Joe....I've loved the Muppets since '76, but have to admit, I'm a purist. I can't get into Muppets post Jim Henson. My mom made me a huge Sweetums mask 36 years ago, and I still wear it on Halloween. Nice to see your love of puppetry. And, as I read, anybody who like laugh tracks and the movie Fatso (one of my favorites) has to be a nice guy. Joe, I wouldn't normally be so bold, but since you and I were in a great deal of agreement on Ken's blog, I wanted to pass something along to you. Posting it may not be the best way...as I'm truly not trying to self-promote. But I can't find a way to email you. If you are a fan of MASH (and you may just be a casual one), I co-authored and did the cover for a big, fat 800 page book on the show. I won't type the name of it, here (so as to de emphasize the self-plug angle), but just type my name and MASH on Amazon and it'll pop up. Anyway, you may or may not be interested. I receive no more profits from the sale of it, so I'm just passing along the info to you, in case you're a fan.
    By the way, as you mentioned on Ken's blog, yes...that laugh track from the 60's and 70's was used on many shows. There's one particular laugh or guffaw that I always recognize. I like that The Muppet Show utilized a laugh track, as well (or maybe the Muppets in the audience really were laughing!).
    Anyway, I enjoyed reading your posts, today. See you around.