Monday, January 25, 2010

Steve Whitmire Lecture and Workshop at the Center For Puppetry Arts

My wife Liz and I had the great fortune of attending a once-in-a-lifetime event for any Muppet fan. On January 9th and 16th, Steve Whitmire, the Muppet performer behind Kermit the Frog, Rizzo the Rat, Wembley Fraggle, and many others was giving a lecture and holding workshops to teach the Muppet way of puppetry for video. Having this chance to hear Steve's thoughts on the Muppets, and to watch him work his magic with puppetry was tremendous. It was truly an amazing experience that we will remember always.

There was absolutely no photography, videotaping, or recording of any kind allowed, so what follows here is a combination of mine and Liz's notes having attended the lecture twice, and scribbling and doodling as fast as we could. And there's still so much more that will not come across by just reading these notes. Steve is a very funny and engaging speaking, and he is a fantastic teacher. We learned so much in such a short time, and we laughed and had so much fun puppeteering along side the master.

And be sure to listen to Steve Swanson's excellent "Muppetcast" podcast for so much more coverage of Steve's appearance, including a round table discussion of the lecture with special guests... us!

Muppetcast Episode #146

So, without further ado...

Steve Whitmire: Perspectives “The Sentient Puppet”
The Center for Puppetry Arts
Saturday, January 9, 2010
Saturday, January 16, 2010

LECTURE - Facts and Theories of the Muppets

What clues indicate consciousness in people? It’s the way they move. And can be they way they don’t move. Muppets are sentient because they move when they have a reason to move. Movement can be subtle or exaggerated, acting or reacting.

Clues to life (How do you instinctually know someone is alive?):
Motivations behind movements. Respond and comprehend. Individual reactions to surroundings. CONSCIOUSNESS!

When Jim Henson was originally going to sell the Muppets to Disney, one of his main reasons for the deal was that he wanted the Muppets to live on forever and have a legacy, and he felt Disney was best at this. He also was going to be assuming a Creative Head position for Disney (much like John Lasseter) and was thinking that he wouldn’t be able to perform Kermit with all of his new responsibilities. So, unbeknownst to Steve Whitmire, he talked with Frank Oz about Steve taking over Kermit. So after Jim’s death this was how they knew that Jim saw the Muppets continuing on without him.

Kermit was such a strong character that when Steve put on the puppet, it was as if he suddenly was supposed to have all the answers. It was as if he were at the center of a wheel with all of the spokes pointing at him.

Puppetry - Manipulating an inanimate object in order to give it the appearance of having movement not inherent to its own mechanism.

Muppets are not the Energizer Bunny. They have an appearance of actual life, an organic existence. They are a conscious inanimate object.

The Anatomy of a Muppet:
The Muppet’s body is the puppeteer’s forearm.
Elbow – Feet
Lower Forearm – Waist
Upper Forearm – Shoulders
Wrist – Neck
Hand – Skull
Fingers - Mouth

Hierarchy of consciousness:
The Triune Brain (3 part brain)
1. Reptilian Brain (Pre-conventional) – Natural functions, breathing, heart beat, fight or flight reaction. Can be associated with the color red. The character Animal fits in this category. Frank Oz described Animal’s motivations as only 3 things: Drums, Sex and Food.
a. Famous psychiatric test for very young children. A paddle is held up with one yellow side and one red side. The child is shown both sides and made to understand that one side is yellow and the other is red. Then the child is shown the yellow side and is asked what color do you see? The child says yellow. Then without changing the paddle is asked what color do I see? The child will still say yellow, as they cannot yet take the point of view of another.

2. Limbic Brain (Conventional, Mammalian) – Form relationships (Communities, Groups, Towns, Nations). Emotions. Care for their young. Solve problems. Can be associated with the color blue. Sam the Eagle falls into this group. Patriotic to a fault. No weirdos. No Canadians.
a. Children experience the “terrible two’s” when they reach this stage. They suddenly “get it” that they are not the only ones who matter and it upsets them.

3. Neo-Mammalian Brain (Neo Cortex or Post-conventional) – Learn abstract thinking, symbols like numbers and letters, form relationships, reason, empathy. Worldview. Can be associated with the color green. Kermit falls into this group. Humans use this brain 85% of the time.

4. Post, post-conventional brain – Considering all things. A whole universe view.
5. Conflicted brain – Instinctual parts fight with the relationship parts.

Moral development – Your level of morality
Cognitive development – How intellectually smart you are.

States of Consciousness
1. Waking
2. Dreaming (Meditation, realizing you are dreaming within a dream)
3. Deep Sleep (Nothingness)

Big 3 Perspectives: I, WE, and IT.
I – Subjective
WE – Inter subjective
IT – Objective

Each Muppet is a combination of all 3 perspectives at once.
For example:
- Steve and Kermit is “I”. Steve is Kermit, Kermit is Steve. They are one and the same.
- Steve and Kermit are also a “WE”. Steve and Kermit are 2 separate living perspectives.
- Steve and Kermit are also an “IT”. Together they create Kermit as a tool to play characters that are not he. Kermit as an actor playing roles.

Burr Tilstrom referred to his puppets as “the kids”.

Definition of a Muppet:
Each and every Muppet character consists of two differentiated components; A puppet and a performer.

Muppets are real. They are actual, rather than imaginary or fictitious. Unlike animated characters and most fantasy characters, their particular physicality allows them to exist in the real world in exactly the same form as they appear on screen without any imitations of any kind. There are no needs for alternate versions. They can show up anywhere the same as any celebrity. They are physical, not illusory – original rather than imitation.

Muppets can look you in the eye and have a first person conversation about anything. They are never at a loss for words because they respond consistently with the same tangible subjective mentality as any living, breathing individual you might encounter. They are coherent.

Muppets have a point of view, an opinion. They can discuss current events, politics and each other’s good and bad habits in character, both seriously and humor. They fully and lucidly exist both in and out of their on-screen personas.

Muppets have a consistent recollection and memories of events. They can talk with you about something you did together 1 week ago, 1 month ago or 30 years ago. They have consciousness. Muppets cannot be VHS copies. Kermit cannot have 12 different people performing him, each bringing a subtle difference. That would make him 12 different characters. Kermit must have his own life.

Muppets are real individuals and relate to each other and the world with their own individual perspectives. They can’t be duplicated or doubled. There is no project so small or insignificant that the Muppets would not show up fully and originally intact. Kermit must be Kermit in the movies, and at a grocery store opening. The Muppet character must always be genuine, not counterfeit.

Muppets are motivated by real feelings, memories, thoughts and emotions. The fact that they are puppets does not figure into who they are. Who they are is what the Muppets have always been about, first and foremost.

They are not a “what”, but a “who”.

They have always existed as much more than a brand. That explains their ongoing connection to their audience. Frank Oz said, “Muppets are not puppets, they are characters.”

Interesting facts:
Working on the “Dark Crystal” brought more subtle movements in performance to the Muppets as a whole.

The Muppets in the new Disney Parks parade were built 20% larger than normal in order to be more visible. This caused a specific problem with Kermit, as he has no skull per se, only the performer’s hand is inside his head.

Unlike an actor who plays a role temporarily, individual Muppet performers are permanently cast, virtually for life. This is one major part of the Muppet’s success, as that performer can build and enrich that character throughout his/her lifetime.

The performer is responsible for both the voice and the movement of the character – The soul.

Puppeteers are responsible for much more than the normal actor. Puppeteers are performers, casting directors, puppet builders, writers, producers, directors, musicians and publicists.

Two puppeteers performing one character is the pinnacle of performance (right hands Muppets). The two can lock to each other like SMPTE (time code).

The lecture finished with a short montage of Kermit’s development over the years. We started with some clips from “Sam and Friends”, Jim’s first show in Baltimore he created while in college. Here Kermit was very primitive. He wasn’t named Kermit yet – he was just one of the ensemble characters, and he usually appeared in drag. They almost always pre-recorded the audio tracks and lip-synched, or just lip-synched to popular records, particularly Stan Freberg comedy albums. So sometimes Jim’s wife, Jane would perform Kermit. Next we saw a bit with Kermit and Yorik on the Steve Allen show. This was their second national TV appearance lip-synching to “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Your Face”. Here Kermit was progressing but still without his collar or webbed feet. The inside of his mouth and upper palate was very intricate, possibly because of the lack of color TV. Moving on, we saw Kermit singing “It’s Not Easy Being Green” on Sesame Street. Here Jim was singing live while performing, as the lip sync was spot on. He was looking more like the Kermit of today with his collar and feet, but his eyes still weren’t quite focused properly. Kermit had a double collar in this iteration. Next was Kermit in “The Frog Prince”. Kermit still had “broken”, floppy fingers, but he now had much better eye focus and more subtle movement. Then we came to the Muppet Show with Kermit performing “Happy Feet”. Here Kermit was tap dancing with his performance progressing enough to simulate legs and feet on the ground dancing. Kermit’s fingers though were still just floppy fleece. Next was “The Muppet Movie”, where Kermit needed to be more refined and subtle in movement. His fingers were given more structured, human-like form and more mechanical mechanisms were devised to have him playing the banjo. Moving on, we saw Steve’s first performance as Kermit in “Muppet Treasure Island”. Here Kermit was playing the role of Captain Smollett (Kermit as an actor portraying another character. Steve said he was playing Kermit as if he were Patrick Stewart). Finally we saw the most recent performance of Kermit with Tiffany Thornton, a Disney Channel star, singing a Christmas song called “I Believe”.


Each class consisted of twelve participants. Steve talked to the class a bit about the camera, the video monitors and the importance of eye focus. Then each group of three had five minutes of on-camera time to practice eye focus exercises with hands-on instruction from Steve. When you are performing in front of the monitor, the image is backwards, unlike performing in front of a mirror. Basically you are seeing the audience’s point of view from your own point of view. It’s very disconcerting when you do this for the first time. The person to your left in front of the camera is on the right side of you in the monitor’s image. What helps you here with eye focus is to have your puppet looking directly at you. If your puppet’s eyes are looking directly at your own eyes, you got it. The puppet is held as straight as possible at a slight forward angle. Bend your elbow slightly – do not lock your elbow. Hold the puppet close to your body so your shoulder muscles are doing most of the work. You will hurt more and tire faster the further away from you the puppet is.

The puppets were numbered 0-12, with Steve using the #0 puppet. They were all identical, made by him and even signed and copyrighted inside. They were covered in pink Antron fleece, and Steve openly joked about their slightly “naughty” appearance.

For the next exercise, each group returned to the camera and monitor for another five minutes to practice lip-synch. Here Steve talked about how to open the puppet’s mouth correctly while still keeping the puppet’s eyes focused at the camera. We just lip-synched to some well-known nursery rhymes. The goal here is to open the puppet’s mouth by holding your top fingers as steady, and relaxed as possible while opening the lower jaw with the thumb. The camera should not be seeing the upper part of the inside of the mouth. Imagining the puppet’s upper jaw on a table and that it must remain level helps a lot. This is how an actual mouth works. The upper jaw is an extension of your skull and it’s the lower jaw that is on a hinge and moves. Moving the mouth this way helps to keep the puppet’s eyes focused on camera while speaking. Another technique used is the “attack”, which involves moving the hand forward, pivoting at the wrist, and dropping the thumb. The puppet’s head will move forward slightly while the mouth opens to help keep the upper jaw level.

Next we were called up in pairs to lip-synch, with Steve, to some well-known song snippets. There were 6 songs: Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall, Part 2”, Sheryl Crow’s “Soak Up the Sun”, Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, Kansas’ “Carry On My Wayward Son”, Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “Takin’ Care of Business”, and “The Time Warp” from the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Here we were taught some more subtleties of lip-synch, such as holding the mouth open during a long note, but having the puppet remain alive with subtle moves, and being conscious of the spots for breathing to either have the puppet’s mouth close during a breath or to actually take a breath if the dialogue is slower.

(I went ahead and made my own versions of the 6 song edits we worked with in the class to continue to practice. The songs were edited in such a way as to make each clip last about 1 minute each. I made my versions from memory and I think I got them pretty darn close. I loved the way each song was designed to add just a little something else to the instruction. First was "Another Brick In The Wall" which was pretty straight forward lip sync. Then "Soak Up The Sun" added some longer held notes. Each subsequent song added a little something more for the puppet to do while singing. Check them out here.)

Finally, we went up in groups of six to have a go at all six song clips in a row! This was true Muppet mayhem, trying to have all seven adults with puppets, all trying to stay in frame.

(Coincidentally, the 1/25/2010 episode of the podcast actually is a short video describing how the Henson Company puppeteers use monitors to help them perform and gives instructions on how you can do the same thing at home with a television and video camera. This is basically what we did in the workshop, only we had Steve Whitmire live and in person performing with us! Podcast for 01/25/2010)

UPDATE - My wife Liz also posted about the workshop on her Puppatoons Blog, and she got quite a comment from none other than veteran Muppeteer Jerry Nelson! I copied the text down below, but go visit Puppatoons to see the real deal.

"What an informative post. All wanna-be puppeteers should see this because Steve has given an encyclopedic amount of information in a succinct and very clear form.
You also deserve credit (and your husband) for being so concise in your reportage.
The only thing I would add to this is that after you have absorbed all this you can properly begin your studies of people and animals.

Good luck to all,

Read More... After the Jump!