5 reasons I love Jim Henson
Jim Henson has been my creative hero for a long time. This tall bearded puppeteer has sparked my imagination and created movies, shows and characters that have been a huge source of inspiration to a lot of my own work. I have his books, dvd’s a kermit toy and there was even that time I dressed up as him for my work Christmas party (safe to say I make horrifying man!)
I can’t really remember when I first realised that I had a little creative crush. I loved sesame street and the muppet movies when I was little. I had also seen the Labyrinth and Dark Crystal as a kid and remember we had some picture books from the movies in our bookshelf.
But I think the real love affair and appreciation of this creative genius come about in University. I studied Animation and Visual effects and in my second year we did some modules on special effects and all of a sudden I was delving into the world of puppets and model makers. I was introduced to some of the greats in the industry like legendary Ray Harryhausen, Phil Tippett and Stan Winston. But there was always something about Jim Hensons work that really grabbed me.
What was it about his stuff that I couldn’t stop thinking about? Why did I tear up and have a goofy grin whenever I looked through my ‘No strings attached’ book about the creature shop?
Well, I think it's because the body of work Jim Henson left behind shows just how hard work, imagination and a quirkiness can help you achieve great things.
Here are 5 reasons I love Jim Henson:
1) He was just an average guy who followed his passions.
In his introduction to ‘Jim Henson, the Works’ (By the way, the book has three seperate introductions from 3 different people! Which just goes to show how much of an impact this man had on people.) Harry Belafonte discusses how Jim had a pretty average American upbringing. There was nothing overly special or interesting about him or his childhood. He was just an average kid doing average kid stuff in 1940’s Mississippi. This might not sound very inspirational, but I think it actually says a lot. I think most of us can relate to being pretty ordinary. My childhood was very normal and I was a typical kid who did typical kid stuff. Nothing crazy happened and I didn’t have any big event that made me into the person I am today.
By accepting the average in all of us- I think we can see that you don’t have to be ‘special’ or have some major life event to help you achieve great things. Instead- find what you like and what interests you, and follow it!
For Jim Henson this was TV. He was so intrigued and fascinated by tv that he did whatever he could to get himself in the door. He even admitted that at first he wasn’t that interested in puppets, it was just a means to an end to get himself into TV. Find your passions- and follow them!
2) He revolutionised puppets in film
We have been using puppets to help tell stories for millennia. The first known use of puppetry was in Ancient Greece, sometime around the 5th century BC. As technology advances, so do the techniques used to help tell our stories.
In his early days of making ‘Sam and friends’ Jim’s constant experimentation made him realise that with the help of camera’s, puppets could become actors!
Puppet productions had previously placed the camera in front of a little puppet stage to hide the puppeteers and shoot the action from the viewpoint of someone sitting in the audience. However Jim saw that the tv set could be considered the ‘stage’. Utilising the magic of cameras, you could achieve illusions and spatial perceptions with the puppets instead of just having them restricted to a pre-made set.
He also started watching his live performance on a tv monitor which showed him what was happening in camera. This allowed for a much richer and animated performance.
And can we all just appreciate the brilliance that is ‘The Dark Crystal’ for a second? I don’t care if it didn’t do that well in the box office at the time- that movie is a cinematic marvel! It was the first live-action film without any human beings on screen and the animatronics and puppets were just groundbreaking!
Also if you haven’t seen the prequel: The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, do yourself a favour and go watch it!! It's stunning and such a beautiful homage to the original movie and puppeteering techniques.
3) He was a great character performer and storyteller
When you watch one of the characters puppeteer by Jim, its easy to forget that its an actual person controlling them! There are so many subtle movements and beats in his performance that really bring life to these inanimate objects.
Jim believed that television puppets needed to have "life and sensitivity”. Most puppets at the time were carved out of wood or made of inflexible materials so Jim began making his characters from flexible, fabric-covered foam rubber, allowing them to express a wider array of emotions. He also wanted his characters to "speak" more creatively than was possible for previous puppets, which just had random mouth movements, so he used precise mouth movements to match the dialogue.
All of this adds to a really creative and convincing performance by his puppets and characters.
4) He experimented and tried new things
Let's be honest, creative people tend to be a bit weird. I know I sure am! Jim was no exception. I mean, have you seen his experimental film Time Piece?
( This film was actually nominated for an Academy Award in 1966! )
I think one of the best and most admirable things about Jim Henson was his ability to experiment and try new things. He seemed to always be willing to learn something new. Jane Henson says in “Jim Henson the works”-
“In his spare time he’d be in the control room, trying to understand what was going on. And the technicians loved teaching him because he really learned his lessons well. He couldn’t wait to try out the things he was learning on Sam and Friends. He would tell the technicians that he’d like to try this or that, and then it would become a team thing.” - Jane Henson
This beginner mindset is something that I think everyone can benefit from. Try something new and learn as much as you can. If it works- fantastic! If it doesn’t, well- you can learn and grow from it.
5) He was a nice gentle guy
Probably one of the things I like the most about Jim Henson was that he was just a damn nice guy. People always had good things to say about him, mentioning that he was shy, softly spoken and really loved being creative with other creative people. Here are some quotes that I think sum this up perfectly:
“Jim had a special gift for appreciating and nurturing the talent of other, was never threatened or intimidated by it and liked nothing better than to be around other creative dreamers.” - Anthony Minghella
“I’ve never known anyone like Jim. He had a strength and a sweetness, a stillness and a savvy. He was the most giving man I’ve ever known.. He had a great generosity of spirit, of time, of money for other people. He valued quality work, but being a good human being was just as important to him.” - Frank Oz
You can be the most successful person in the world, but if you suck as a human being, what’s the point?
Thats why I love Jim Henson!
Do you have a creative hero? Let me know who it is and why they are your creative hero in the comments :) Thanks for reading!