AN '80S DREAM COME TRUE: HOW JIM HENSON'S DIGITAL PUPPETEERS ARE BOOSTING THEIR CREATIVE OUTPUT
JIM HENSON HAD A VISION OF DIGITAL PUPPETRY IN THE 1980S THAT IS FINALLY COMING TO FRUITION.
BY JOHN PAUL TITLOW
When you sit your kids down in front of Netflix to watch Word Party, an animated series debuting in 2017, the last thing they're going be thinking about is the intricacies of how it was made. And that's good: That means that the team of puppeteers, artists, and producers behind the scenes are doing their jobs. In fact, even the most perceptive of grown-ups wouldn't guess that many of the characters are actually digital puppets controlled by real live people—or just how dramatically this unique approach to animation has changed in recent years.
To get a clearer picture of how these characters came to be, you would have to venture to the Jim Henson Company's headquarters in Los Angeles. It's in this building, on the site of the historic Charlie Chaplin Studios, that shows like Word Party are shot and edited. And what you'd find here isn't just rows of animators sitting at computer workstations (although there's plenty of that going on), you see people wearing proprietary gloves and body sensors, acting out scenes as their motions are mapped to the movements of animated characters on a large screen.
This is what's known as the Digital Creature Shop, a modern complement to the cloth-and-fur puppetry that made the late Jim Henson a household name.
"What we've created over the past decade is a toolset that's a combination of hardware and software," says Steffen Wild, the visual effects supervisor at Jim Henson's Creature Shop. The conceptual underpinnings of digital puppetry go back to the late 1980s, when Henson himself experimented on the clunky, expensive machines available at the time. But 25 years ago, the technology just wasn't up to the task of executing Henson's vision for digital puppets, so the company put its efforts on hold for while.
Continued at Fast Company.