It’s unusual for a large production company to be co-chaired by two siblings – but entertainment pioneer Jim Henson always intended for his company to be a family business. “Not only that, we produce family entertainment,” says Lisa Henson, eldest daughter of Jim and co-CEO along with her brother Brian, “so it’s a big overflowing of family.”
From a young age, Lisa worked behind the scenes, building puppets in the Creature Shop and learning production in the Muppet Show control room. Henson eventually became a high-ranking Hollywood production executive with Warner Brothers and Columbia before returning full-time to the Jim Henson Company. A mother of two, Henson is dedicated to creating smart, innovative family entertainment, with projects like Unstable Fables (see our exclusive video clips below!) and Sid the Science Kid.
Babble spoke to Lisa about growing up on set, the rumored Dark Crystal and Fraggle Rock movies, and whether Muppets have a future in an era of digital animation. – Gwynne Watkins
So tell me about this new Unstable Fables series – how is it different from what we’ve seen before?
Well, what we basically wanted to do is take some of the most well-known fairly tales – the shortest ones, that you can tell in ten sentences – and do a completely original re-imagination of the story. These stories – The Three Bears, The Three Pigs, The Tortoise and the Hare – they’re really, really simple. And so we thought, “We’ll just use those as premises or departure points to tell a modern, funny, family-oriented story.” And audiences won’t be able to predict what we’re going to do because we depart quite seriously from the original fairy tales.
Watching these computer-animated fairy tales, I was thinking about how CG has, for example, replaced a lot of the Jim Henson Creature Shop’s work on those new Star Wars movies. Do you think CG is replacing puppets in children’s entertainment? Or can they exist simultaneously?
Well, as a company, we still love puppets, and we even love animatronics, which are not as timeless as hand puppets. But we’re really interested in working in the whole spectrum of media, where you can use the technology in all different ways. And we’re interested in hybrid technologies, like puppeteered animation and CG-enhanced animatronics. So we’re very interested in the blend of everything. The visual and design aesthetics of puppets and the sort of Henson-y character look is easy to achieve in CGI when we want to, and I even notice that some Pixar characters look very much like Henson puppet creations.
Puppets are never going to be completely kicked out of the entertainment world. They can’t be, because a puppet is physically there in front of you and, particularly when they interact with children or performers, you get the sense that there’s something wonderful about that character. It exists in the real world.
One thing that I really respect about your father is what a risk taker he was. And I don’t think he gets enough credit for that.
I’m glad you said that! I think that’s true.
How do you feel you’re carrying on that particular part of his legacy with your role at the company?
Sometimes people expect – particularly as we’re the second generation running the company – that we would be exclusively working on the original Jim Henson properties. We’re constantly, restlessly looking for the new thing, both in technology as well as the creative side. And I always feel that that’s following very much in his footsteps, because he was changing up what he was doing so rapidly when he was at the height of his success. He stopped doing The Muppet Show and started focusing on Dark Crystal, something drastically different.
Scene from Unstable Fables: Tortoise Vs. Hare