9/–/1983 – ‘Mira Velimirovic joins us – and Lisa goes to Warner Bros. to work for Lucy Fischer – instead of going to film school U.K.’

Mira Velimirovic was Jim Henson’s creative assistant from 1983-86. She continued as director of creative development until late 1988, when she moved to Los Angeles. Using what she learned from her time with Jim and the Muppets, often unintentionally, she works to maintain the same sense of creative delight, slapstick, and goofiness in raising her family. She recently shared her memories of working with Jim:

In 1983, I was working at Late Night with David Letterman as a researcher, specializing in finding odd guests, like the worst-selling author, or a hot dog vendor. The show and the staff were a blast, but somehow I yearned for a little more variety. Then Kermit the Frog called. Well, Jim, actually, but as with most people hearing from Jim for the first time, it took me a moment.

Lisa Henson and I had known each other in college. Since she’d been working with her dad and was about to fly off to LA to work at Warner Brothers, she hoped to find someone else to work with her father, particularly someone who had production experience.

So Jim called. He and Lisa and I had lunch, I visited the final filming for The Muppets Take Manhattan on the top of the Empire State building, confirmed that my passport was up to date, and he hired me. Thank you, Lisa! I joined the whirlwind world of Jim Henson. Within a month I’d tried to soak up everything about the NY offices, the London offices, traveled on a press junket to France and Germany, and landed in Toronto where Jim performed in Fraggle Rock.

Maybe the most interesting thing about the role I played in the company was that it was the first time Jim employed an assistant who traveled with him and kept tabs on all of his meetings and ideas–perhaps inspired by his working with Lisa during The Dark Crystal. His goal was to expand the number of projects he could pursue, and it was easier with somebody nearby who could check in on projects and productions while he actively puppeteered or directed.

At that point, Jim was working on a huge number of projects: besides puppeteering on Sesame Street and performing or directing Fraggle Rock, Jim was developing The Creature Shop in London to create special creature effects for other productions. He was working on a new television puppet series, Starboppers, and a series about the art of puppetry around the world, Jim Henson Presents… and a possible segment for 60 Minutes that revolved around a talking Mt. Rushmore. Labyrinth was percolating in Jim’s and Brian Froud’s imaginations, and Jim was envisioning an MTV video for The Muppets Take Manhattan.

So I jumped in. I carried Kermit in a small carry-on sometimes if Jim was going to do a televised interview. As we moved into production on Labyrinth, I lugged around one of the earliest models of a cell phone for Jim to use during breaks. You would not believe the size of it.

Jim’s days were filled with meeting people who created new things, like the people at Oxford Scientific Films who developed new microscopic cameras, and the folks at Digital Productions, and playwrights and composers. I loved the Concept Meetings, where company staff members and invited guests would brainstorm about a new project on a Saturday, from a live-action TV show about a puppeteer (which became Puppetman), to an animated series about the Muppets as babies. Jim heard everyone’s ideas in those meetings, and with remarkable creative generosity, folded together the best into the project.

What’s most amazing to me about that time was how much Jim accomplished each day, and how fluidly he connected people and ideas to projects. He attracted spectacularly talented people, from the puppet designers and builders to the company staff, to the performers and artists who were eager to collaborate on his projects.

Jim could juggle more ideas and keep track of more information than anyone, and he was generally cheerful, in spite of the jet lag. The traveling schedule was crazy, but there was always something exciting to see at the next stop: new creature eyes at the London Creature Shop, or amazing new sculpts from Ron Mueck in New York.

I remember getting the giggles a lot, like on the airplane ride where we couldn’t stop laughing at the idea of a Swedish Chef cereal, and during restaurant dinners when Jim would quietly moo, after non-vegetarians ordered beef. Mostly, I was thrilled to be along for the ride.

It was an incredible time to work with Jim. No wonder we loved to go to work.

Mira Velimirovic and Jim, 1980s.

Mira Velimirovic and Kevin Clash, 1980s.

Read more from Jim Henson’s Red Book in Imagination Illustrated: The Jim Henson Journal available from Chronicle Books.

Topics: 09-September '83, 1983, Fraggle Rock, Muppets Take Manhattan, Sesame Street | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

9/–/1970 – ‘Fran Brill starts with Muppets on Sesame Street.’

Historical information provided by The Jim Henson Company Archivist:

Fran Brill, Emmy Award winning puppeteer, actor, and voice-over artist, was the first female performer hired by Jim for Sesame Street. Since 1970, she has created many memorable characters, including Prairie Dawn and Zoe. Fran has also acted in films, on television, and on the New York stage, and has appeared in commercials and provided voices for several cartoon series. She recently shared her memories of meeting Jim:

I met Jim Henson in the spring of 1970. I had come to New York with a Broadway show the year before. Unfortunately, the show got mixed reviews, opened in a blizzard and closed after 41 ignominious performances. I then did some off-off Broadway showcases, performed in a few industrial shows and made a foray into the voice-over field. My daily routine was to hit the pavement and drop off my 8X10 glossy pictures at agents’ offices, hoping they would call some day and offer to represent me. It was pretty depressing. The highlight of my day was in the afternoon when I would return home and watch two television shows that would lift my spirits. One was Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood (which made me feel special), and the second was a brand new children’s television show called Sesame Street (which made me laugh).

One day I picked up Backstage (every actor’s favorite periodical) and there was an ad saying that Jim Henson was looking to train puppeteers for an upcoming Ed Sullivan Christmas special….and they were paying $75 a week to the attendees! On a whim, I called the Jim Henson Company explaining that I had no experience whatsoever with puppeteering but a meeting was scheduled soon after. I came to the company’s offices and there was Jim Henson, Frank Oz and a trunk full of puppets. I was struck by how tall and thin Jim was and that he spoke in an almost inaudible voice. His face was covered by a heavy beard and his demeanor was rather reserved and serious.

I was oddly calmed by his presence. I felt little anxiety auditioning for he was anything but intimidating. In fact, he made this “audition” feel relaxed and low-key and that we were collaborators already. We chatted for a few minutes, there were some scripts, I tried on a few puppets and miraculously came up with some characters. The three of us went off script and I remember that we laughed a lot. The event was very low-key and relaxed.

Of course, this was the way Jim operated. He was gentle, empathetic, worked with praise and encouraged you to the best of your ability. He created an atmosphere of fun and foolishness intuiting that in order to create and feel free one had to feel “safe.”

Fran Brill and Zoe from Sesame Street.

Jim’s little girl character from the 1960s, inspiration for Prairie Dawn.

Jim’s idea of a little girl getting the best of a big monster, 1960s.

Read more from Jim Henson’s Red Book in Imagination Illustrated: The Jim Henson Journal available from Chronicle Books.

Topics: 09-September '70, 1970, Sesame Street | Tagged , ,

9/22/1970 – ‘Shoot Doll House film (#2).’

Historical information provided by The Jim Henson Company Archivist:

After completing a series of ten counting films featuring a clumsy baker for Sesame Street’s first season, Jim was ready to try making films in other styles. For season two, he contracted with Children’s Television Workshop to make an additional eleven films (numbers 2 – 12) using an array of techniques. He used stop-motion, computer animation, traditional animation, painted under the camera and moved cut paper to music, and he made two live-action shorts for the numbers two and three.

Number Two is a charming film depicting two little girls, Sumiko Kimura and Alison von Brock, as they play with two dolls and a doll house. The dolls, made by the Madame Alexander Company and purchased as props, fit in a house built by Jim for his daughter Cheryl. The action, accompanied by a song written by Alan Scott, Marilyn Scott and Keith Textor and sung by Juli Christman, centers on the two dolls as they have a tea party and then go to bed. After lights out, they are visited by two cats, Henson family pets, who wreck havoc in the house. Jane Henson explained that to lure the cats into the house, the tea cups were filled with the liquid from canned tuna fish.

While Number Two is something of a departure from the more manic style of Jim’s other counting films, it captures a gentle mood that is evident in some of his lesser known projects. In the descriptions of his nightclub project Cyclia, Jim hoped to match quieter music with filmed depictions of nature – light coming through trees, reflected off water, and changing over time. His 1974 pitch for a television special called Reflections suggested, “…an hour of visual poetry. It is an affirmation of our sense of wonder.” Perhaps the feel of Number Two is most evident in Jim’s short Run, which ponders the simple joys of childhood through footage of his daughters running in a wooded landscape.

Watch Number Two here.

The Two Dolls and Two Girls from the Number Two film, 1970.

The Two Girls with Cheryl Henson’s dollhouse in Number Two, 1970.

The Hensons’ cat makes his television debut, 1970.

Jim’s cats from the Number Six Baker counting film storyboard, 1969.

Read more from Jim Henson’s Red Book in Imagination Illustrated: The Jim Henson Journal available from Chronicle Books.

Topics: 09-September '70, 1970, Sesame Street | Tagged ,

9/18/1966 – ’1st Ed Sullivan Show – “Rock + Roll Monsters”.’

Historical information provided by The Jim Henson Company Archivist:

In the mid-1960s, the Muppets were an act rather than a brand, much like Senor Wences or Joan Rivers, and were not connected with a particular network or program. As popular visitors to an array of variety shows, it was inevitable that Ed Sullivan would tap the Muppets as guests on his highly visible program. From 1966 until 1971, Jim’s characters appeared twenty-five times, and Sullivan also produced Jim’s television special The Great Santa Claus Switch in 1970.

For the very first Sullivan Show appearance, Jim and his team created a three-headed monster that played rock ‘n’ roll. With three heads and multiple arms, performing this monster would have required three puppeteers – in this case, Jim, Frank Oz, and Jerry Nelson. That evening, he rounded out a diverse program that included an opera duet, the comedy of both Red Buttons and Jackie Mason, Polynesian dancing, and popular music performed by Herman’s Hermits and Nancy Ames, singing in both English and Spanish. When Jim came on the show in the ensuing years, this eclectic mix of guest inspired him to present both classic bits from his Sam and Friends days and to try out new characters like the abstract Java made from dryer hoses or the hipster Mahna Mahna.

Jim’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Monster design for The Ed Sullivan Show, 1966

Jim and Kermit with Ed Sullivan, late 1960s.

Jim’s design for the Snowths, the back-up singers for Mahna Mahna, 1969.

Jim’s image of the Java puppets created for a Broadway Show proposal, c. 1972.

Read more from Jim Henson’s Red Book in Imagination Illustrated: The Jim Henson Journal available from Chronicle Books.

Topics: 09-September '66, 1966, Appearances | Tagged , , , ,

9/10-12/1970 – ‘In Denver doing Computer Animation for Sesame #’s 10 and 4 – Second season of Sesame Street.’

Historical information provided by The Jim Henson Company Archivist:

Jim was always interested in the next technological advancement to further express his creative vision, so it’s not surprising that he would seek out the earliest innovations in computer animation. For the second season of Sesame Street, Jim was contracted to make a series of counting films using a range of techniques. Some were live action, some were made using stop-motion animation, Jim painted under the camera to bring other numbers to life, and he worked with Maurice Sendak to produce two traditionally animated films. For numbers 4 and 10, however, Jim was eager to try a new analog computer system called Scanimate. Invented by Lee Harrison III in the late 1960s and built by the Computer Image Corporation in Denver, the Scanimate process involved back-lit high-contrast artwork that was mounted on animation pegs and scanned by a progressive scan monochrome camera. According to Scanimate chronicler Dave Sieg, those working on this technology were, “…an interesting mix of technicians and creative geniuses that understood the subtleties of color and motion that gave the work its real value.”

It’s unclear how Jim learned about Scanimate, but he had been interested in electronics in general and had used his Moog synthesizer to great effect on numerous projects. His colleague, Jerry Juhl, was an early adapter of computers and would have been intrigued with the process as well. Jerry wrote the scripts for “Number 4” and “Number 10” which Jim recorded the week before going out to Denver. The system allowed for the animation to be created in real time which made for an efficient production process. Jim arrived with the audio tracks and detailed storyboards in hand, and was able to complete the visuals for the film in just three days. While visually unimpressive in the context of today’s digital graphics, Jim’s Scanimate work was cutting edge in 1970 and an example of how he was always leading the way in the world of visual media.

For more information about the Scanimate computer animation system, go to: http://scanimate.zfx.com/

Jerry Juhl’s script with Jim’s directions and annotations for “Number 10”, 1970.

Jim’s planning pages for “Number 4”, 1970.

Jim’s planning pages for “Number 4”, 1970.

Jim’s planning pages for “Number 4”, 1970.

Jim’s storyboard for “Number 4”, 1970.

Jim’s storyboard for “Number 4”, 1970.

Read more from Jim Henson’s Red Book in Imagination Illustrated: The Jim Henson Journal available from Chronicle Books.

Topics: 09-September '70, 1970, Sesame Street | Tagged , , ,