Animusings

Thoughts on storytelling and the world of animation. Caution! SPOILERS!

Blog Post #4 – the illusion of motion and The Muppets

Animation does not have to be about drawing sequential images. Anything that appears to be moving can be considered to be animated.  Sometimes it’s a cartoon, sometimes it’s stop motion photography, or possibly even a comic strip.  The point is to tell a story in a medium that allows for possibilities that cannot be done as well in live action filming.

Today, I’d like to discuss the Muppets.  (I will try my best to make this relevant and not go overboard with my Muppet obsession, which is considerable.)  I had not previously considered them to be animated, but now I believe they can fall into that category.  They are made of fake fur, foam, sticks, and cloth, operated by puppeteers in very uncomfortable positions. They are manipulated so carefully that they give the appearance that they are alive, walking, moving, showing emotion, and telling the audience a story, which the audience readily believes.  They are not produced by a team of artists, but are always ‘operated’ by one, maybe two puppeteers at the most, which gives them a distinct, well formed personality, seemingly making each Muppet an individual work of art.

Because the muppets are technically live-action, the ‘artist’ has less control over things that happen.  Mickey’s every move is literally planned out and drawn, but with Muppets, there is no erasing or careful drawing or replacement.  They must either roll with the mistake or reshoot the scene.

John Cleese talks to Kermit, not Jim Henson

The Muppets have a distinct advantage over drawn characters.  They have an actual physical presence.   There are no awkward, heavy theme park costumes that prevent them from talking with visitors.  Muppets can easily interact with people.  There is certainly a distinct weirdness in the fact that the muppet has a person attached to it, but surprisingly, this has proven not to interfere with the believablity of the character.  In fact, when confronted with a puppeteer and Muppet, most people end up talking to the Muppet and ignore the person crouched on the ground. (para. 18)

Muppet executives realized this and continue to take advantage of it, resulting in public appearances of their most beloved characters.  Kermit the Frog gave the commencement address at Southampton College in 1996 and interviewed celebrities at the premiere of On Stranger Tides, and Miss Piggy conducted live red carpet interviews at a film awards ceremony in Britain.  They are able to respond to the unexpected and improvise if needed, rarely breaking character.  Statler and Waldorf have moved from the theater box to the computer desk and post youtube videos and make snarky twitter comments.  In other words, Muppets have moved from behind their movies and TV series and developed lives of their own  that match the modern day technology and trends.  I have not yet been able to find any animated characters doing this.  If you know of any, please post in the comments!

Having personalities that are not limited to a single story but can evolve, the Muppets can readily and gleefully break down the ‘fourth wall’ between themselves and the audience.  My favorite scene showing this is from The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson from 1990.  (Skip ahead to the 2 minute mark and begin watching from there, to about 2:45. )

Animation is not limited to drawn cartoon characters, and the characters do not have to be limited to the original story in which they appear.  The longevity of the Muppets and their ability to adapt gives them the potential to remain relevant and popular long into the future.

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12 thoughts on “Blog Post #4 – the illusion of motion and The Muppets

  1. Awesome argument! And a really unique topic to choose. I entirely agree that animation can mean more than the hand-drawn medium since the word just literally means to “breathe life into” so as long as you give an inanimate thing life it can be considered “animated”–I just never would have thought to apply to that to the ragtag team of amusing puppets! Also, interesting to comment that these characters have a life of their own outside the camera that no other animated medium has. Although I have to wonder if outside the camera how much of their portrayal is based on the characters or just the pupeteer’s/voice actor’s interpretation of the characters? The only thing in America I can think of that even closely relates to the Muppet’s ability to break the fourth wall is when Bugs Bunny (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0FViwZmsGQ) and Daffy Duck (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gdqQat8Jys4) talk to the audience or artists in some episodes of Looney Tunes. Although the closest I can think of is when voice actors on Japanese anime’s are put in concerts or shows that basically allow them to act out their character physically in front of an audience(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9BBAOUuFHcY&feature=related). The first example though is a controlled situation while the second allows for more ad-lib. Although again, nothing compared to the Muppet’s fame outside the movies.

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  3. I also think Elaine made a great argument. The example of Bugs and Daffy talking to the audience is a great correlation! It always freaked me out a little when Daffy did that, but I also loved it!
    As far as the Muppets go, they truly are in a phenomenal category by themselves. I am very curious to see if the Professor agrees that they could be considered animation. I do agree that they are being brought to life. When we are watching them on film, I think that animation per se, could certainly be accurate. But if you’re argument holds true, then for our finally projects, we could just bring in a puppet, hmmm, I’ll be waiting to see if you have convinced Professor Petrik.

  4. cruiz89 on said:

    I never considered The Muppets to be a form of animation only because they were not cartoon. However, you do bring up a good point that they are characters brought to life by a puppeteer and they convey their emotions and behaviors through exaggerated actions. I also found it quite interesting that when actors are given the opportunity to converse with the characters, they focus and pay attention only to the character and no mind to the puppeteer. I find that to be a very hard on the side of the actors, but they are professionals. If the Muppets can be considered animation, then I guess that means Sesame Street is as well.

    Also I think the best example of cartoon characters breaking the 4th wall is this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xFwXDN3sI8g

    Space Jam a whole film dedicated to interaction between Looney Tunes and of course Michael Jordan.

  5. I think shadow puppets are a better puppet/animation example. Muppets, and hand puppets in general, have been a part of live theater since live theater became legal in Europe again.

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  7. I agree with the argument as well. Though i’m sure if they were ever to be given a proper category in some animation award it would be something like Anamupption or Muppetmation. I find myself continuously surprised by the faces and emotions that Kermit or Big Bird can convey by the puppeteer moving his finger one way or another. Sometimes the Muppets can even transcend that of even the most simple of animations because you are feeling a connection for something more than just pencil on a paper or numbers in a computer. When the Gang broke up in Muppets Take Manhattan i found myself more upset than when i watched the opening part of Up.

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