Brian Henson on the Evolution of Puppetry and ‘Earth to Ned’

Brian Henson on the Evolution of Puppetry and ‘Earth to Ned’

September 18, 2020

Brian Henson has been head of the Jim Henson Company for nearly 30 years now, following in his father Jim Henson’s footsteps. His latest project, “Earth To Ned” (streaming on Disney Plus) features new puppet creatures, such as the titular alien commander Ned (Paul Rugg) and his sidekick Cornelius (Michael Oosterom), who host a late-night talk show.

Ned is sent to destroy Earth, but instead, he falls in love with mankind, beaming human celebrity guests, such as RuPaul and Rachel Bloom, to his spaceship. The idea to play with a combination of late-night TV, improve and science fiction had been brewing in Henson’s mind for more than six years before becoming a reality.

Here, Henson talks with Variety about the craft of puppetry and creature effects, and how materials have changed in the crafts work.

From where did the idea for “Earth to Ned” stem?

We did a show called “Creature Shop Challenge” for Syfy and that was our first foray into reality TV, and we loved it. We did one season of the show before it ended. Our producing partners Joseph Freed and Allison Berkley from Marwar Junction Productions and I talked about the idea of aliens ignorant to all mankind on earth and we wanted to find a way to introduce them to the internet and see how much the misunderstand and understand Earth. So, it was born out of that.

We started riffing on Ned’s personality, which brought us to a celebrity talk show because we were enjoying that idea. He is meant to destroy it [but] instead, he falls in love with Earth and everything is delightful to him. We thought it would be a refreshing energy to bring into a talk show on an adult level and [on a] family level. We wanted the show to be a celebration of everything absurd about us.

If the rapport between Ned and his wingman Cornelius went wrong, it could be disastrous. How does that “chemistry” manifest in the world of puppetry?

We started training puppeteers in improv comedy back in 2007. I wanted our puppeteers to not just be good, but to be fast on their feet and good at character work — largely because puppet characters are often asked to do appearances, which is a lot more than just being able to do a well-scripted performance. We’ve been working in improv with puppeteers for over 10 years now and that has become the way we train puppeteers in the company. It’s the only way we do it.

I look for opportunities where I can use improvising puppets. We improvise with the celebrities for about an hour, and we find our best six or seven minutes to put in the show.

We did five castings with the puppeteers and we got down to our five favorite Neds and five Cornelius players before we got to Michael and Paul as the best character combination. And that was the most important thing for the chemistry of the show.

What’s great about this is it’s family-friendly and not as scary for kids as, say, “The Dark Crystal.” How did the design of the alien world evolve?

There’s a retro feel to the show. We wanted to approach it like it was a science-fiction show. We have these aliens and a spaceship, they’re beaming guests in and there’s an Earth couch for celebrities to sit on. We wanted to give this credibility to the interaction with the guests. The guests are then absolutely the fish out of water, and the aliens are the ones that look comfortable in that space.

Peter Brook, creative supervisor of the Creature Shop, supervised the designs of the creatures. Again, we wanted things to have a realistic finish to them. The CLODS have a basic, simple and old -fashioned rod puppet approach similar to what my dad was doing in the late 1950s. He had little characters like that. But then we added realistic teeth and eyes. And that’s how it all came together.

I think what gives the show this immersive viewing experience is that it’s not VFX and green screen; you can see the puppetry, but it doesn’t take you out of the show.

There are trade-offs with CG animation versus puppetry and animatronics. With CG animation, you can keep working and working at it so much that you can’t see any flaws to it. But you can sense that it didn’t happen. With animatronics and puppetry, you can see flaws and you can see that it’s not alive, but your unconscious tells that this happened. When you’re using puppets and animatronics, the audience is less likely to fully believe that the creatures are alive and know that they’re puppets. All the moments that you’re seeing happened at some point and were captured by a camera and that is exciting. It means the audience can more appreciate the artistry. You appreciate the sculptor and the puppeteers.

How has the world of puppetry changed from when you were working with your father to now in terms of the material progression?

Puppetry is one of the oldest art forms in the world. We use different materials. We used cables for “The Dark Crystal” and “Little Shop of Horrors,” but it’s still puppetry. The biggest change is in “Happytime Murders”: we could have puppeteers in the shot, but they’re dressed in green, and you remove them later in post. That’s allowed us to do more things. Latex was always very pure and good, but the quality of the latex started dropping off when condoms became popular — coinciding with the AIDS epidemic – and the quality of rubber has never gotten back up to that high level. Elsewhere, we use more silicon because it looks and feels more like skin.

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