Kermit, Miss Piggy, Abby Cadabby, Lew Zealand and other members of the Muppet menagerie have all been put through their paces by a person with their hand inside the characters. Movements of the hands make the faces, mouths and other parts move. It’s a process that’s been used by the Jim Henson Company for more than 60 years.
There are similar hand motions used to create all of the movements for the characters in the company’s latest project, “Splash and Bubbles,” set to debut on PBS Kids on Wednesday. It’s a creation of the Henson Company in connection with Herschend Enterprises.
The big difference is that instead of the puppeteers putting their hands inside the character, all of that movement is done through a computer setup that immediately translates the movements to computer-generated images on the screen.
Series creator and executive producer John Tartaglia, a Tony nominee for “Avenue Q,” is also the man behind “Splash.” He’s worked for the Henson Company for 22 years, working with foam and fabric puppets he has held over his head. The new computer system allows him to watch the characters on a screen while creating a much larger number of expressions through the electronic attachments to his hands.
“The Henson Digital Puppetry Studio allows us to bring characters to life in a way that has never been done before,” Tartaglia says. “I know for me as a puppeteer, it’s incredibly liberating, because you get to take the characters to new dimensions and make them as expressive and full of character and heart as you want to.”
Just like many of the traditional Muppets, the computer-generated characters need two people handling the controls. That’s because there is both facial movement to be done by one person plus getting the characters to swim through the ocean world controlled by another.
“Splash and Bubbles” follows the adventures of Splash, a yellow fusilier fish who has migrated all over the oceans before settling down with his family in Reeftown. There he befriends three inquisitive fellow sea creatures: Bubbles, Dunk and Ripple.
Splash arrives with a great curiosity about the big watery world. He convinces his new friends to explore the world’s oceans, where they meet a diverse crew of marine animals and discover otherworldly undersea habitats. The series helps children learn marine biology and ocean science concepts while building social-emotional skills.
Each story has had the input of a board of curriculum that makes sure the episodes are both scientifically correct and have educational value.
“We also found some of the advisers and the scientists were really funny,” Lisa Henson, executive producer and CEO of the Jim Henson Company, says. “It was surprising when you sat around talking to them that their ideas were just really fresh because there’s so many things in the ocean that are unique and strange and totally original.
“So we were getting not just curriculum ideas, but comedy ideas from the scientists.”
No matter how informative or entertaining the stories, the key to making “Splash and Bubbles” work fell into (or on) the hands of the artists using the new equipment. Despite their work being instantly transformed to the computer screen, the team has the option to change dialogue at the last minute and even improvise, an extreme rarity in traditional or CGI animation.
Tartaglia describes the process as similar to playing a video game. Leslie Carrara-Rudolph, the person behind the “Sesame Street” character of Abby Cadabby, sees giving movement to Bubbles as being like playing an organ.
“Every rig is customized to the performer. The cool thing, the thing I love most about it is – because the computer stuff is kind of overwhelming – is that I think of it from a cartoonist and an artist’s point of view,” Carrara-Rudolph says.
Splash and Bubbles
- 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, ValleyPBS