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.


Double Speak

Usually, this blog focuses on physical comedy. Occasionally, I will dip into verbal comedy when I think animators might find it interesting.  For example, in another post, I discuss various forms of gibberish.  In this post, I’ll introduce you to a style of verbal comedy known as double talk or double speak.

Double speak is where normal language is blended with confusing elements, possibly with nonsense words.  The idea is to trick the listener into trying to follow the words, even though they are intentionally baffling.  This is a verbal comedy that relies more on the skill of the performer than it does on the writer, so it fits into my emphasis on comedy acting.  In all of these examples, the actor puts a lot of work into body and vocal expressions to support the words. I will start with a recent one from Saturday Night Live.  In this case, it’s not quite nonsense, but mixed up talk that maintains the expression and pace. It’s her impression of a weather-caster that is funny.

This sort of comedy has been around for a while.  This next one feature double speak specialist Cliff Nazarro.  This one definitely uses nonsense words. It’s very important for the actor to speak with absolute confidence.  It helps to not give the listener time to ask questions and keep it moving quickly.

The great Sid Ceasar was also known for his double speak. He had a skill for creating characters who appeared to be speaking in a foreign language, but it was a mix of commonly known foreign words, fake words, and recognizable English. This next example is from his television show.

Back to a recent example, Reggie Watts gives a performance at a TED Talk that features him apparently speaking in the languages of various countries and even sub-cultures.  His mastery of accents is impressive. When he speaks English, it makes no sense.  It’s a great bit of comedic acting.

I unconditionally love Isle of Dogs

Wes Anderson is one of the great auteurs of our time.  He creates his own rules. After seeing just one or two of his films, you can instantly recognize his style. His characters are intense but restrained.  His actors deliver their lines with just enough emphasis to feel they mean what they are saying, but no more than is necessary.  The animators do a first-rate job of capturing the same feeling one gets from his live actors.  It is a blessing to have a talent like this working in the medium of animation.  This is the best dog movie, of any kind, since Lady and the Tramp.

Wes Anderson’s storytelling is not constrained by any one genre.  Isle of Dogs is a stylish art film, a family-friendly story of a boy and his dog, a powerful commentary on current politics, a light-hearted homage to Japanese culture filtered through his peculiar lens. The Japanese city of Megasaki, and the titular island, is a brutal world where canine pets are banished to a wasteland that has suffered multiple disasters.  It features a species ravaged by an epidemic, conspiracies, starvation, cannibalism and dog catchers who have not only the proverbial giant nets but electric cattle prods as well.  It features more characters with teary eyes than any other movie I can recall.

But it is also funny.  To not have humor would make this movie a much harder pill to swallow.  The jokes and gags are subtle and evenly spaced throughout the film.  They aren’t too precious.  Anderson rejects naturalism in his storytelling.  The compositions predominately have actors facing directly into the camera. That creates a connection to the characters that you wouldn’t get with normal staging.  Their reactions are often understated, even when things are going very badly. That invokes a Keatonesque stoicism in confronting the life and death struggles. In the sample below, there is a fight between two packs of dogs. After the symmetrical staging of the dogs, it goes from a mostly natural growling and posturing to a thoughtful attempt at reasoning one might not even find among humans.  When that fails and the fight happens, the visual image of a noisy dust cloud with legs and tails is a cartoony delight.  A dog losing an ear is no big deal.  It’s dramatic, unpredictable and comic all in one scene.


In a world as grim as this, Anderson gives us a boy who risks his life for his dog, a feral dog who learn to love and fetch sticks, and children who stand up to power.   In comedies, characters often get married. In Isle of Dogs, a mate is taken and puppies born. Love overcomes all.  It is a story of great spirit in the face of an apparently hopeless existence.

Critics who dislike the film generally seem to be offended in terms of political correctness.  For example, the young woman who leads the revolt against the Megasaki mayor is an American exchange student. It would have better served the story to have her also be Japanese. Still, I couldn’t refute the value of this movie based on things like that.

Finally, if you hadn’t noticed, the title, Isle of Dogs, sounds exactly like saying “I love dogs”

Go see it in the theater as soon as you can.

The Essential Goofy

Classic Goofy model sheet


Here is a great video about Walt Disney’s Goofy character. Art Babbitt wrote notes about Goofy for the animators to think about when working on him. The notes form the narration over some classic Goofy clips.  It is an invaluable look into how well thought out Disney’s characters are.  They include concepts of both his interior mental operation, and how his body should be posed and moved. Putting these ideas into words helps define how a character is different from others and helps keep them consistent.


The Red Bastard

This is The Red Bastard, and he is generally found at Fringe festivals in the UK and North America.  Eric Davis describes his character as a “dangerous, seductive, comedy monster.”

Here is a good sample of his show, and you should note how he explicitly says he needs to do something interesting every 10 seconds.  That’s great advice for creating an engaging character.  When you enter a stage looking like he does, you had better keep the energy up.  The audience is probably afraid to look away.


The Red Bastard is a great example of bouffon. From wikipedia:

Bouffon (eng. originally from french: “farceur”, “comique”, jester”) is a modern french theater term that was re-coined in the early 1960s by Jacques Lecoq at his L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris to describe a specific style of performance work that has a main focus in the art of mockery.

Vaudevillian and author Trav S.D. has this to say about the Red Bastard:

I would describe Red Bastard as a devilish improvisational clown, who resembles a cross between Lewis Carroll’s pedantic Red Queen and one of the Fruit o’ the Loom guys. To be accurate, the Bastard is not a clown but a Bouffon, a sort of anti-clown whose job may or may not be to amuse, but also to provoke and unsettle.

I have another post that will tell you more about bouffon.  READ IT HERE!

Here is an interview with him about his show.

And if you can’t get enough, here is a video teaser for one of his shows.



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