This Dragon Con event was not so much a panel as it was a true presentation of how the Henson Company’s puppets began and how they have evolved over the decades. As Brian Henson explained, his father’s premise was to turn the household TV into a puppet stage. Rather than acting to a live audience, the puppeteer acts to a camera which then sends a live feed to a monitor below. Nothing outside of the monitor’s frame matters. Not the puppeteer, and not anyone else in the room. The puppet and its acting are the full focus of the monitor, and therefore the audience watching at home.
Brian not only brought video clips that demonstrated the progression in puppeteering and the evolution of techniques and technology involved. He also brought puppets to help us understand the full scope of puppeteering and the Henson Method. He demonstrated the do’s and don’t of entering and exiting the frame, different ways of walking the puppet, and different schools of mouth articulation. There is so much that goes into acting with a puppet that it boggles the mind.
Whenever Brian picked up a puppet it was hard to decide what to watch. As he worked the puppet on the stage with a specially set up camera and monitor, the actions of the puppet were projected on to the large screens at the side of the stage. It didn’t help that the armadillo-like puppet he showed us was adorable!
As the presentation progressed, Brian explained to us how and why some creatures and Muppets utilized radio controls and animatronics to bring them to life. We quickly learned that in some ways this made things much harder. Instead of one or two puppeteers moving the hands and mouth, multiple puppeteers were required to work from the sidelines, one for each aspect of the puppets facial features. They also had to rehearse scenes over and over again so that each aspect of the puppets expression would appear as expected. A prime example of this is Hoggle from Labyrinth. An actress provided Hoggle’s body movements, but the facial expressions and speech were provided by no less than five puppeteers working in concert.
This was a fascinating panel that anyone could truly appreciate. Whether your only experience was watching Sesame Street or the Muppets growing up, or you are a puppeteer with a puppet on your hand as you watched the presentation, there was something for everyone. I came away with a greater appreciation for all the inspiration the Henson Company has provided to generations of fans, myself included.