Brian Henson, Jim Henson’s son and co-chair of The Jim Henson Company, showed up today at Atlanta’s Center for Puppetry Arts to give a fascinating presentation about his company’s use of “digital puppetry” in their new PBS preschool series, Sid the Science Kid. The talk coincided with the Center’s new “Jim Henson: Wonders From His Workshop” exhibition. Yesterday, he gave a similar talk at the American Film Institute Theater in Washington, DC.
Henson explained how the company’s approach to puppetry, which has always been designed with television in mind, has evolved over the years; starting with the hand puppets of shows like Sesame Street to the animatronics in films like Dark Crystal and Labyrinth to the real-time motion capture of Sid the Science Kid. For Henson, the evolution seemed natural, as he and his father have always looked to the latest technology to make their work more effective.
Sid the Science Kid is not the first Henson project to use motion capture, but it was the first to be released. (The first was Frances, another preschool series, based on the Russell Hoban books.) One of the attractions for the company, according to Henson, was the fact that the process enabled them to show their characters from head to toe for the first time, something not really possible with their usual puppetry methods. Both puppeteers and puppets are used as motion capture actors, rather than using actor actors. Henson claims that shooting for each episode takes about two-and-a-half days, which, of course, does not include postproduction process. As the show is being done on a low budget, one can expect that the economics of the process factored into their decision.
To judge from the clips shown (on a big screen), the resulting animation is a mixed bag: while the general look is good, the characters tended to lack weight. I remember this being a problem with such early mocap shows as Nelvana’s Donkey Kong Country; the problem here is not as acute as the earlier show, but it is nevertheless still annoying. It is also interesting since Henson made a point, in demonstrating how he manipulated a Muppet for the TV camera, to give a sense of weight. (There is also a problem with lip synch, though this not really a significant issue.)
The fact that The Jim Henson Company has given its imprimatur to motion capture is certainly important for proponents of this technology. However, those who see mocap as something akin to the bubonic plague, are more likely to feel a growing sense of unease.
By the way, a few days ago, The Jim Henson company announced, “two all-new innovative CGI-animated series, Dinosaur Train and The Skrumps, at MIPCOM Jr.” However, there was no indication whether or not they will be using mocap.
September 30th Update: Alan Louis, the Center for Puppetry Arts’ Director of Museum & Education Programs, sent over the following image of Brian Henson after his presentation when he was signing autographs. (By the way, the top image is from the reception held before the event.)