Q&A: The Jim Henson Company’s Brian Henson


Whether it’s puppets, animatronic creatures or real-time animation, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop brings characters to life that are full of personality and expression. The shop continues to innovate its groundbreaking technology, the Henson Digital Puppetry Studio, which allows performers to puppeteer and voice beautifully rendered CG characters in real time. Brian Henson, producer, director, writer, puppeteer and chairman of the board at The Jim Henson Company, takes TV Kids inside the pioneering studio.

TV KIDS: Tell us about the ethos at the heart of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop.
HENSON: We’re entertainers at heart, and we’re performers, so it is part of the soul of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to create characters—not special effects—that have personality and can deliver nuanced performances for our own shows and also for our third-party clients’ productions.

TV KIDS: What role does innovation play in the work at Jim Henson’s Creature Shop?
HENSON: We often begin a production with a challenge that we have no idea exactly how we’re going to deliver, but we’re confident we can figure it out. And that’s where innovation comes into play. We are always solving problems that no one’s ever solved, and we’re searching for the innovation that’s going to allow us to solve that problem in a way that is better than falling back on old techniques.

Our performance control system is a good example. It allows one puppeteer to do what had required six to eight performers. In the ’80s and ’90s, we wanted to bring animatronics into a very high-speed production schedule for projects like The Storyteller, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Dinosaurs, which all had much shorter, high-pressure shooting schedules. We had to be able to control very sophisticated animatronics with fewer performers and without much rehearsing. The resulting Henson Performance Control System—which won an Oscar—delivered on all of that and allowed performers to improvise and do surprising things that were impossible to coordinate with eight performers.

Dinosaurs was one of the most expensive half-hour sitcoms ever made because of the animatronics and long shooting hours for the performers who wore heavy suits during the day that would then need to be cleaned and repaired at night. It was so complicated. We realized if we could build a digital character and perform it like an animatronic character, it would be much easier on the performers and would allow us to create our unique approach to animation. This was the beginning of the Henson Digital Puppetry Studio.

TV KIDS: The Henson Digital Puppetry Studio pushes boundaries creatively and technologically. What have been some of the milestones since founding?
HENSON: The Henson Digital Puppetry Studio is performed real-time captured animation. Our puppeteers are watching the 3D digital character that they’re manipulating and then performing and voicing that character in real time. This is exactly the same way we perform animatronics and even soft puppets.

We started investing in digital puppetry in the mid-’90s, and as we progressed in its development, the first real milestone came about six years later, when computers became faster and more cost-effective. We were ready to jump in, so we started developing digital puppetry in a meaningful way. Then, we quickly saw the fun of integrating motion capture to control the bodies of our characters. So, we started using performer pairs to include one performer for the motion capture of the character’s body and the other puppeteer for performing the voice and face of the character.

Now, we’ve gotten to a point where the Henson Digital Puppetry Studio is a full working studio where the result is 3D animation. We can do a multi-camera shoot in real time. All the performers, the director, the crew or the client can see what the animation looks like as we’re producing it. Nobody else has done that.

TV KIDS: What does the art of digital puppetry deliver for a program that’s unique to its form?
HENSON: Basically, animation that is performer driven is a live performance, but it’s being rendered as a 3D animated program, and that creates its own unique type of performance because accidents happen, unexpected things happen, much like when you work on the live-action set. In live action, actors will do something unexpected, and the other performers will integrate that into what they are doing, and surprises happen. Those surprises can be delightful, and that’s what we are able to capture with our approach to 3D animation. It is performance-driven. There’s a feeling of spontaneity that gives a realness to the characters. It doesn’t have the precision of keyframe animation. Instead, it has a looseness that feels much more organic, and in our minds, it’s a more delightful way to create and perform a character.

TV KIDS: How does it differ from other approaches to performed animation or motion capture?
HENSON: We are producing the final television show or feature film much more efficiently. We develop characters in their environments in advance, and then we’re in production, doing everything in that one production step just like you would in live action and jumping over all of the intermediate steps and extra work of traditional keyframe animation.

We try as much as possible to capture the wholly finished scene. We are able to make adjustments in post-production if we want to, but while other motion capture animation systems are creating characters in a scene and then later deciding how to shoot it, we remove all that extra work and capture it all in real time—the movement, the lighting, the props—everything. There’s just a great efficiency in that.

TV KIDS: What are some of the latest innovations at the Creature Shop?
HENSON: Most recently, we’ve been able to work with Epic Games to integrate their Unreal Engine into the real-time rendering of our whole system. Now, when we’re in production, we are using imagery that is at full resolution so we can incorporate real-time lighting; we can have the director of photography adjust the lighting in real time, and a finished (or nearly finished) animated product is coming off the floor. And the great news is it’s still a 3D animation program, so you can still tweak things or fix things, which is terrific. And that’s something we can’t do with animatronics or puppetry, so we’re getting the best of both worlds: the spontaneous, organic performance of puppetry with the cutting-edge, endless possibilities of CG animation.

TV KIDS: What’s next for the Creature Shop?
HENSON: Well, I think probably the most fun next step is to do actual live television performances using the Henson Digital Puppetry Studio. It would be really fun and really possible now. To make some sort of daily animated program that is completely topical—where something can happen on Monday, we talk about it on the show on Tuesday, and people can watch it on Wednesday—that’s just really fun—and something that no other animation technique would ever consider.