The creators behind the Muppet Babies reboot reveal the inspiration of Jim Henson and how some very clever tech was created using the original puppets.
Los Angeles is known the world over as the ground zero of Hollywood cinema, home place to the stars. Of course, besides the silver screen legends who tread the streets that bear their name, some of the most famous heroes of children's entertainment claim the city as their birthplace, from Mickey Mouse to Kermit the Frog, figures no less starry than their human counterparts.
But beyond the glittering facade of the original Disneyland, and the sprawling lots of the Walt Disney and Jim Henson studios, one can find their heroes brought to life behind the walls of nondescript office blocks. Take a lift, walk through a normal door, and suddenly you're in Muppet Babies HQ - as run by folk paying tribute to the biggest entertainment hero bar Walt himself; of course, we're talking about Muppet master Jim Henson, who sadly passed away almost thirty years ago.
The creator's goofy clan of legendary puppet heroes took over the worlds of TV, cinema and soundtrack releases during the 1970s; by the time the '80s rolled around, 2D animation was next to be conquered, with Muppet Babies debuting the adventures of toddler versions of Kermit, Miss Piggy and gang. The cartoon was of course a small screen hit, and in 2018 the babes have seen a new lease of life thanks to the efforts of a few fanboys, a little experimenting from Disney Interactive - and the iconic finale to a certain Star Wars classic.
"I could do it all as Kermit and just do the whole thing that way?"
Matt Danner is one of those fanboys at Muppet Babies HQ. His official title is supervising director on the show's 3D reboot, but in the end credits you'll also see him down as the voice of Baby Kermit. It's surprising enough to see a production team member also lend his voice talent (and Matt's Kermit really, really sounds like him) but what's more impressive is that Matt's technical skills also lit the spark for the new version of the cartoon. Matt is a man of Muppet magic, and some impressive modelling talent, too.
We're speaking in Matt's office in sunny Glendale; comics are splashed across his desk, and over my shoulder a Kermit onesie is just begging to be worn. Interestingly, having a Kermit in the room was what inspired Matt to work in animation in the first place.
"As a kid, Kermit was in my living room, talking to me on TV, saying 'Hey, everybody, how are you?'", Matt says, adopting the voice of everyone's favourite green frog. "And I'm like, 'Oh my god,' and he was so real. He was not a cartoon, he was not a human, he was like this live creature that was talking to me through my television screen, and I thought he was my friend, you know. Everybody did.
"I think the success of what the Muppets have done, is that everyone feels like they know them," he tells me.
This sense of real-ness is something Matt and the crew have brought to Muppet Babies, not just in making Kermit and gang feel like playtime friends to the watching kids at home, but in making them feel like the original Henson puppets as opposed to simple 3D characters. Getting the Muppet Babies to have the same 'fleece' texture of their original counterparts is no mean feat - and it all relied on something dubbed 'jiggle tech.'
"I try to do something that no one's ever seen before, and that even goes back to the early digital animation era of television; I was on one of the very first Flash animated shows ever," Matt reveals. "So I'm always interested in figuring out what we can do that's new."
"We wanted them to look and feel like the real Muppets, the adult Muppets. So we went to the Jim Henson Studio and we literally were going through fabric, looking at things like Animal's hair. His hair is not fur, it's actually intricate little feathers, which is why his hair has that flow to it."
To replicate that flow, Matt and his team at former workplace Disney Interactive 'groomed' feathers into clumps with 3D modelling, which were then rigged into "almost like tentacles or snakes", to use Matt's parlance.
"So they're fully posable," he explains. "They can flop, they can flip, they can sort of move in any direction. Then what we did is we applied a physics engine to it, which basically made the simulation of bouncing." And thus Jiggle Tech was born - but not without more specifications drawn from the original Henson puppets.
"What we had to do is look at footage of the real puppets, and then figure out how much of that we really need, and then we basically were able to figure out what the number for each character was," Matt says, before reeling off numbers for his babies.
"Fozzie's ears are a 40 out of 100, Animal's hair is like a 65; that's how we got the right amount of balance so that it feels like the real thing that we were mimicking. But it took a long time, because also every character has more than one fabric.
"Animal's hair is one thing," he explains, going back to everyone's favourite drumming maniac, "but then his arms are another. His arms are felt tubes that are weighted by wristbands. When his arm has to move, we need to know exactly how much that wristband weighs, versus how much his arm moves, and everything like that, so we went through all of their fabric, all the clothes."
He becomes even more enthusiastic as he explains even the little details replicated, like the weight of the tear on Animal's jeans.
"We actually figured out how much the ripped strings on his knees are. So if we got really close, you see those move, too. It's nuts. But those things, for our purposes, were as close to real puppets as we could get, in animation, especially on television."
The experiments in Jiggle Tech formed a passion project of sorts for Matt at Disney Interactive, where he put together a never broadcast short to debut the baby Muppets in 3D form. Sitting in another part of the HQ, I was lucky enough to see the sequence, although not without some technical difficulties which Matt waves away with ease. His secret weapon? Another spot-on Kermit impression.
"Are you guys entertained?" he jokes. "I could do it all as Kermit and just do the whole thing that way?"
When the video plays, the short impresses with its technical work - even in 'beta' form. It also has a nice little Star Wars homage as Piggy, Kermit and Gonzo fly around original footage of the end battle sequence from A New Hope, flying into view as the Death Star explodes behind them. It's something that perfectly captures that anarchic spirit which Henson long perfected - and which had great success for Matt and team. The short went on to impress Disney Junior execs so much that the series was commissioned straight away - and key creatives like Matt and Chris Moreno were moved into Glendale's Oddbot Studios to set to work on the show, all under the watchful eye of veteran animation producer Tom Warburton.
Different styles of imagination
In another part of Muppet Babies HQ, art director Chris Moreno sits at his workstation, showering equal praise on Jiggle Tech.
"It's something that I think harkens back to the Muppet Studio innovation," he tells me, stylus in hand. "The idea of that first time that you see Kermit riding a bike in The Muppet Movie - it's such a weird thing to see and there is that 'How did they do that?' kind of quality to it. I think it's very easy with computer generated effects to be less wowed by it because it's so ubiquitous. But for us, we still like the idea of that 'How did they do that?' aspect to it."
But it isn't just the technical innovation that sets Muppets and Muppet Babies from the rest of the pack. On Chris' screen as he talks is a silver age superhero homage, a still from the show that doesn't look 3D, but more like a page torn from classic comic book The Rocketeer instead.
Each episode of Muppet Babies strives to incorporate a 'fantasy sequence' where the gang delve into their imaginations during playtime, providing an opportunity for Chris and his team of concept artists to try a different kind of art style from the rest of the show. Episodes have seen the Babies fly to a Paris made out of 'paper' collage, turned into video game characters, and even explore classic paintings by the likes of Van Gogh. If you've ever wanted to see Gonzo walk around a Cézanne still life, then Muppet Babies is your dream come true.
"We're always wondering what else we want to do," executive producer Tom Warburton tells me - or, Mr. Warburton as he's more affectionately known, a veteran animator from the likes of '90s classic like Doug and Beavis and Butt-head.
"Like 'What if we did that, can we do that?' Budget wise, schedule wise, can we do that? We did a pirate episode that I love where the Babies were all doing papier-mâché, and Kermit wants to go on a pirate adventure and the ship they're on is made out of papier-mâché, folded newspaper stuff. I love that."
It's hard not to share Tom's enthusiasm, and I ask him just how much he feels influenced by the trail blazing nature of the original Muppets shows and movies.
"Jim Henson was always pushing the red line," he says. "We're always wondering if Jim Henson was still alive now, what would he be doing? Because he would do things like put Kermit on a bicycle. He would do giant puppets, computer animation - he was always looking to try new things. And that's what we're trying to do. We're telling stories that make kids happy, that push boundaries, and do different things. I think he'd love it. And I'd love if he could stop in and tell us."
Muppet Babies debuted in early 2018; catch episodes weekdays at 10am on Disney Junior.