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.
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.