Lisa Henson daughter talks about Unstable Fables, growing up with Muppets and the Fraggle Rock movie, in the Babble.com interview.Gwynne Watkins
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
Having said that, I’ve heard that you’re revisiting Fraggle Rock and Dark Crystal with new movies…
Yeah, we are! [Laughs] And we do want to keep that balance where we have certain properties that are important legacy properties for us and at the same time do Sid the Science Kid, which is an equally huge endeavor, or the Unstable Fables, which were three full-length videos. The new things that we’re doing are a lot of work, as will be the Fraggle Rock movie and the Dark Crystal movie, but we want to have a balance between the old things and the classic titles.
Do you have a sense of what they’re going to look like?
Images from Unstable Fables: Tortoise Vs. Hare
We’re going to be using puppetry. Those are properties where we feel like the audience is going to be really disappointed if we just suddenly started doing the Fraggles and Dark Crystal in full CG.
Did living with Jim Henson make the Muppets seem more or less real to you?
Oh, less real, because we were always involved in the behind-the-scenes, and we spent hours and hours in the workshop. When you’re in a workshop, you’re learning how to stitch things and glue things and how things are put together. And then on the production side, I learned from a really early age how shows are put together – you know, the scripting, the directing, and the editing, or in the control rooms – there really were no mysteries for me growing up, and so I would definitely say the puppets were not real. But we were always lucky enough to be at the germinal stage of the character creation, and there’s a bit of magic in that anyway, so we did get to experience the magic, but in a different way, just seeing how the creative process and the spark of originality unfolds.
Was there any particular character or project that you take credit for?
There are certain small puppets in The Muppet Show that my sister and I remember building, and I’m still fond of a particular tomato in the Swedish Chef episodes. And then I see the tomato years later – I think it was in Muppet Christmas Carol, singing in a fruit stand – and I’m like, “There’s my tomato that I made on spring break!” [laughs] I think we also built some of those famous lobsters that did the getaway, but really I was more fond of the tomato, because I believe that was entirely my own creation.