Jim Henson: The Biography

If you are a student and want to create good animation, you are probably studying the fundamentals of the art, learning software, and developing your aesthetic judgment.  If you want to have a career in the industry, it would be wise to also learn about how other people have found success.  Reading biographies can provide some valuable insight into potential routes to take, or mistakes to avoid.  There are some good biographies of great animation directors out there, but I would like to recommend Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones as being every bit as relevant and interesting.

When Jim Henson died in 1990, I remember thinking of him as the Walt Disney of my generation. He had a seemingly endless imagination and the energy to bring his characters and stories to life. It’s hard for most of us to understand just how big an impact he had on puppetry in America and the world.  So I was surprised to learn that he did not grow up with a burning desire to be a puppeteer. What he did have a passion for was television.  TV blossomed when he was an adolescent, and he made it his goal to work at one of the local stations in Maryland.  He was an artist and had a creative drive.   At 17, an opportunity arose when one of those stations was looking for a puppet act for one of its programs.  He managed to get some of that work just before entering college.  He didn’t expect it to be his career.  But he was so good at it, and television was a medium hungry for talented people.  He kept up the work and made respectable money, and also went to college at the University of Maryland.

While puppetry has a long and intricate history, it had become stuck in old ways of doing things.  It was underdeveloped.  When Henson took it up, he wasn’t indoctrinated in those old ways, so he created his own direction.  Audiences and producers really enjoyed his sense of humor.  Small jobs led to bigger jobs, and soon he was able to not only support himself but also buy an old Rolls Royce.  He got into advertising and created commercials for the booming world of television.  Advertising has long been a way for creative people to build portfolios and bank accounts.

A good lesson came from his handling of dog food commercials that featured the puppet dog Rowlf.  The dog food company offered to buy the character for $150,000.  but Jim had held onto creative ownership of the character.  Puppets, like animated characters, can develop over time, and good ones can be even more valuable down the road.  Many of the Muppets you know now, had earlier incarnations before becoming stars.

And here is another good reason for not selling off Rowlf.  The puppet would have performed by someone else. It was likely the next puppeteer would not be as good.  Puppeteering is an art with standards as high as animation.  Muppets, of course, have a distinctive look, and if there was a badly performed muppet out there, it would have influenced how the public perceived them.  In time, the Muppet look would become the norm for puppets, but it was wise of Henson to try to control it as long as he could.

In my own book, Comedy for Animators, I point out that the history of comedy is the history of a business as much as an art. It is valuable for artists to learn from the experiences of others. This Jim Henson biography delivers a good portion of that to its readers.  You will learn of the struggles and mistakes as well the many famous successes of Henson’s career.  There is good information about his dealing with the Walt Disney company.

You will also learn a great deal about his personal life, including his many friends. This was a great introduction to the earliest days of Frank Oz’s career.  Henson also had artistic side projects he could afford to pursue.  Like many animators, he also didn’t want his puppets to be considered exclusively a children’s entertainment.

On only one topic did I think Henson took the wrong direction.  While working long hours on a project, his son Brian asked his father if he could ask for overtime pay.  Henson’s response was to not do that.  That he should put in as many hours as he needed to produce the best product, and bosses would appreciate it.  Jim Henson was a kind and fair man, and he naively imagined other bosses are also kind and fair.  (he, of course, had pretty much always been his own boss.)  What he should have said was, “Brian, I own the company and whatever value we build in it now will pass onto my children. You will get it back in the end.”

Of course, it was sad to know the ultimate ending for Henson’s life, and the details are not pleasant.  But I did appreciate the description of the complete memorial ceremony, as I remember seeing video clips of it on television. I was a celebration of a beloved man.  I was fortunate to speak to Jim Henson while I was in college.  He was a guest at an ASIFA east meeting and was very gracious to everyone.

The book has some good photographs, mostly at the end.  But I found myself hungry for more photos of his productions, so I pulled out my copy of Jim Henson: The Works to complement the excellent text in this biography.

Currently, this book is available in kindle format for $8.  I was lucky enough to get it for $2.  It’s a bargain either way.


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