Its hard to relate to people what it was like when the Muppet Show was on TV, the most similar thing I can think of today is Simpson's, but I don't know if that really does it justice. The Simpson's is great of course and was unique and ground breaking when it first appeared, but if it took a big step forward, then the Muppet Show took an intergalactic leap. A prime time sketch show for the whole family with puppets as the main characters, never before or since has there been anything like it. Or some of us might say, anything so wonderful.
You may be thinking this is all “lame” or be wondering what it has to do with animation. We'll if you are, then perhaps you need to take a closer look. The task set before a puppeteer is very similar to that set for an animator, you have to use your knowledge of design, posing, timing and spacing to convince your audience that something not real is alive. No-one did this better than Jim Henson and Frank Oz.any clip from the Muppet Show and you will see a huge range of techniques commonly employed by animators being masterfully applied. Its not by chance, these guys knew exactly what they were doing.
Of course there is one big difference between animation and puppetry, a puppeteer has to create their performance at the same time as we see it, they don't have the luxury of being able to work and rework the performance. They can rehearse, but in the end they have to get everything happening all at once. Yikes!
BUT. This provides us with a brilliant opportunity that can't really be seen when looking at an animator. These photos (featuring Jim Henson, Frank Oz and several other Muppet Show performers) are all scanned from an old book I have called Of Muppets & Men by Christopher Finch, my Mum picked it up for me at a garage sale bless her, its a brilliant book that takes you through the whole process of making the show, if you find it anywhere I would recomend snatching it up. What I love about these pictures is that you can see the end result and the artist at work at the same time (can't do that with animation can ya!). The Muppets themselves are pictures happiness and fun, while down below them you can see the puppeteer working, there faces show concentration, strain, energy and joy.
Lets do a little split screen experiment, look at Miss Piggy in this picture. A beautiful line of action, the effortless looking natural pose of a born performer.
Creating the illusion of life is not easy, it takes blood sweat and tears (well maybe not so much blood). It will take all of your determination, passion and resolve to succeed as an animator, there will be successes and failures, you will have to dedicate huge amounts of time to this difficult mistress, but connecting with people through your animation is exhilarating beyond what I can describe. Who knows, one day your work may even leave an ever lasting positive mark upon the world.
Animation (and probably puppetry too) makes for an amazing rewarding career, but you better turn up wearing your passion pants and hard working boots. For more great information about puppetry and how it relates to animation check out these posts from Eric's Awesome blog.