Interview with Louis Henry Mitchell, Part 2
Conducted by Ryan Dosier
Today, The Muppet Mindset welcomes back our very good friend Louis Henry Mitchell. Louis works as Associate Design Director of Special Projects for Sesame Street. This title, as we learned in part one, is really an umbrella for loads of jobs that Louis does around the Street. Read part one of our interview with Louis for more information! In part 2 we took the opportunity to ask Louis more specific questions about his stories and experiences at Sesame Street. Just reading Louis’ incredible stories is a delight for any Sesame Street fan.
RYAN: Louis, The Muppet Mindset is so honored to welcome you back. Your first interview was phenomenal and it’s truly a pleasure to get the chance to interview you.
LOUIS: First of all, thank you for having me back! I got a tremendous response from part one.
RYAN: As did we! You mentioned in part 1 of the interview that you had a hand in designing Kami, the HIV-positive Muppet on the South African co-production of the show. What was this like? What did you think of the large amount of publicity—both good and bad—about her?
LOUIS: Ed Christie, a Master Muppet designer and builder who formerly ran the Muppet Workshop in New York City, sent sketches to us at Sesame Workshop. I was designing the logo for Takelani Sesame, the South African co-production, and needed to have all the Muppets around it. Ed had sent me the ¾ view of Kami, then a hedgehog, and told me he was having trouble figuring out her front view. I asked him if I could take a crack at it because I needed her front view for the logo- he said yes. When I sent him the sketch he said, “That’s it! That will help to build her!” That really is the extent to which I helped design her.
That was a particularly difficult time. The whole concept was misunderstood by the American media and public. But they knew in South Africa that this is what they needed to do and Sesame Workshop respects the partnerships with all co-productions- they know their countries better than us and we are here to support their way of educating with our ability to engage children through the Sesame Street Muppets. Each “co-pro” pretty much has their own Muppets and they incorporate some of the classic Sesame Street Muppets in their cast. They also translate segments from the domestic productions shown here in America for their own use as they are appropriate.
I felt bad when this was so misunderstood by the public and the media- but when new and evolutionary things are introduced to the world, as Sesame Workshop is dedicated to doing, it will cause some serious stirring. We are reaching toward making a major difference in the world and it is still working 40 years later. I am proud of Sesame Workshop and SO very grateful to be part of it. The Kami project is one of the proudest moments I’ve had.
RYAN: Can you describe to us the process of designing the balloons and floats for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade? It sounds like it would be a lot of fun to create massive balloons of such iconic characters.
LOUIS: When I was asked to re-design Big Bird only a few weeks into my fulltime job at the Workshop I was thrilled. I had already designed one balloon for Macy’s based on the 1996 hit toy I helped design called “Skydancers”. So I had an idea of how to proceed. They saw it on my resume and immediately gave me the opportunity.
Step one of the balloon is the concept that comes from Macy’s. They take a first pass at it and then I review it and make my adjustments to the concept- like my last balloon, Super Grover- they did a funny crooked helmet for him while in flight- but the helmet is only crooked after he crash lands. Sometimes it flops around on his head while he is talking but not in flight. So I do my own set of drawings from every significant angle so the Macy’s sculptors have an idea of what to do in clay (plastiline- it doesn’t harden). Once they finish the sculpture in clay they send me photographs of the full rotation in clay in the form of a maquette (small clay figure). I “blueline” that, meaning I take the photographs, print them out, tape tracing paper on them and draw the corrections with a blue pencil- a standard in the graphic industry. After I see what adjustments they’ve made I then go to the Macy’s Studios in Hoboken, New Jersey, and actually sculpt on the maquette they made making minor or major adjustments as necessary. I have the guidance of their director, John Piper, so I don’t neglect the physics that go into making the balloon float. In order to make the shapes that we see on the outside they have a system of cables inside pulling the balloon into shape and the more cables needed to make a shape the more weight is in that area. It’s not so bad in back but a lot of cables in the head will make it heavier and harder to keep afloat.
The next step is seeing the fiberglass maquette! There are two—one with the segmentations drawn on it that help them make the enlarged shapes that are attached together to make the final balloon and then there’s the pure white fiberglass maquette that gets the paint treatment that is transferred to the final by hand. I painted the maquette for Super Grover because I had a special fur texture treatment in mind. And… just a little secret between you and me… I painted a little Superman curl on Super Grover’s forehead on the maquette- just for myself. When I saw the final balloon THEY PUT IN THE CURL! I was SO happy. They followed my painting exactly. That particular balloon got more air time than any other because the marching band that was supposed to be behind it was very late so they showed every single angle of that balloon that we worked on so hard! I feel bad for the band but was grateful for the coverage.
The Sesame Street 35th Anniversary Float was a particularly special event. I was approached to design it and we had a big meeting about it- one camp wanted to remember where we came from and the other camp wanted to focus on where we were headed. They were both correct and it was up to me to combine both needs into one design. It took 3 months to finally have a design everyone loved. But when I sent it to Macy’s they said they had never done what I was asking for. There was a chance that we would not have a float that year!! I was really nervous about that! It was such a high profile project!
The day they called me to go to Hoboken to see what they had done I braced myself. I didn’t know what to expect- had they found a way to do what was finally approved or did they do their best to come close?
I walked into the Macy’s Studio and was breath taken! They had done exactly what I asked for- an exploded perspective version of the Brownstone- not one right angle to be found. It was unpainted but SO beautiful! The team came up to me by ones and twos- they were telling me it was the most amazing float they had done! They told me they had to create some tools to make that float! Just so very rewarding.
RYAN: Which DVD covers have you been on the design team of? It seems Sesame Street always knows how to churn out a great looking DVD; can we attribute this success to you?
LOUIS: It’s not really a team but I am not alone in this. My good friend Mark Magner is an astounding artist in graphic design and photography! He took the final work to the level of the finished product you see in the stores. The only two we did not do were the last two releases- The 40th Anniversary and the recent Animal title. My first solo cover was “What Makes You Happy?” I was SO pleased to learn that it was a big seller! We have done SO many- we do the front cover and the 3 inserts on the back. My part is that I design the covers and do a red pencil roughs of the concepts. Then I show Mark my ideas and he gives me some of his and we agree on what we want to present. We show 3 concepts. Mark doesn’t draw so when he has an idea I sketch it out for him. Then I do a cleaned up version in blue to send out to all involved and get the final approval or I may have to take another stab at it if nothing gets completely approved. There may be specific needs that I didn’t know had to be addressed on the cover or back. After we get approval we set up a photo shoot with John Barrett, I mentioned him in part one. He is THE Muppet photographer hand picked by Jim Henson and has been doing it for around 30 years or so. He’s the best! My favorite part is that he brings his beautiful Australian Shepherd, Betsy, to every shoot! Just a beauty!! He used to bring his other dog, Sidney, also and Aussie, who is a legend. He passed away a couple of years ago and we still talk about him constantly! He would have approved of Betsy as the new studio dog!
RYAN: What productions have you storyboarded for? Do you have a personal favorite?
LOUIS: The first one I did was for Abby Cadabby- Kevin Clash had a music video to do about her and asked me to do the storyboards. It worked out SO well for him that it became part of my job permanently! When we worked on “Abby In Wonderland” I had to do over 500 storyboard frames! We do outreach DVDs in support of military families called “Talk, Listen, Connect.” Those are my absolute favorites because they help families to help their children cope with the issues that come as a result of either or both parents going to serve. We also did one on economic insecurity. The most recent one, though, is the one I am most grateful to be a part of. It will be announced soon.
RYAN: Tell us about the Adler Planetarium show. What did you help design here? How involved were you in production?
LOUIS: It’s called “One World, One Sky; Big Bird’s Adventure”. I was the chief art director over the entire project. It was just so wonderful to be asked to take this on. I had to do extensive storyboards and art direct a virtual set of Sesame Street- very realistically created by the Adler Planetarium team. I also had to re-design the Chinese set because they wanted it to be more Chinese. The previous set looked more like it was in Amsterdam, which was accurate to the location at that time. I traveled back and forth to and from Chicago many times to review the work, the music, the animation… it was a great experience. I worked very closely, again, with Kevin Clash who requested I be art director. I had to do animation of the “Cow Who Jumped Over The Moon” as well as the “Rabbit In The Moon” for China. In designing the full Chinese set I had to also do architect sketch drawings of each building from the front, side and above for the digital builders to work from.
And when I saw my credit on the full huge dome… wow!
RYAN: Can you describe your favorite piece of art that you’ve done as a gift for a Sesame Street employee? Just reading your descriptions is enough to make me crave one of your beautiful pieces of work for myself!
LOUIS: Thank you, Ryan! Well… I would have to say it is still the very first one I have done. It was of our now Chief Operating Officer, Mr. Melvin Ming. A good friend at Sesame, Alex Brown, asked me to do a drawing of him to just say thank you for all he has done (and is still doing) in order that we can do the best work we are able to. It is a huge caricature of Mel with 6 arms, holding a phone to his ear, writing a note, counting money… he loved it! We presented it to him at what we call our All Staff meetings where we review our company every 6 months and anticipate our next 6 months. He was choked up about it and he gave a short speech in gratitude. It was not from me but from the whole company as Alex Brown intended.
I have to say something here. Mel Ming is a giant in my heart… and I know to many other people. I had been trying to start a creative meeting called The Tribe Sessions and I wanted to hold them at Sesame Workshop. Everyone told me they would never approve use of the building on a Saturday. I asked Mel and told him what it was for- to support up and coming artists and give established ones a chance to connect with the young ones- it was just part of the tradition of artists throughout the centuries; to connect and talk with others of our peculiar nature. He approved it on the spot!
On the morning of September 11th, 2001, I was writing him a “Thank You” note for approving the sessions when the first plane hit. I thought to myself what a horrible accident. As I kept writing the second plane hit- and then I thought this was no accident. Many people huddled into my office to watch and learn all we could. We cried and were just in shock! After we were released to go home I decided to write an email to Mel- switching my thanks for his approval to thanks for his consideration but I knew that we could not still do the sessions under these conditions.
I received an immediate reply from Mel telling me that I not dare stop the sessions and that we would probably need them more now than ever.
I was beyond impressed and even more grateful! So when Alex asked me to do that caricature… I was honored and MORE than eager. Mel had it framed and it is his most prominently displayed piece of art in his office.
RYAN: Tell us about your first visit to the Sesame Street set. What was it like to see the stoop of 123? See the Muppets? See all the sights and hear all the sounds of the street that lies at the core of almost everyone’s childhood?
LOUIS: Well… Before I tell you about that I must say that I would have felt TERRIBLE if I went there without my son, Michaelanthony, who was 9 years old at the time- the age I was when Sesame Street first went on the air! So I asked and they hesitantly approved. They didn’t really allow children on set that were not actors- at least that is what it seemed like to me at the time.
When we walked onto the set… there it was!!!! Oscar the Grouch’s Sloppy Jalopy!!! And Oscar was in it complaining about something!!! I didn’t care!! I WAS IN HEAVEN!!! It felt like a DREAM!! The Brownstone!!! Mr. Hooper’s Store!!! And I was there TO WORK??? We had to take pictures of some of the changes. This is when Sesame Street had gone “Around The Corner”. We had the playground, the Furry Arms Hotel… just a bunch of things they decided to expand the street with.
The first Muppeteer I met was Carroll Spinney and he was just as wonderful as you could imagine… even more! He put Oscar The Grouch on my son’s hand and my son started puppeteering him like he knew what he was doing!!! Carroll was SO impressed he took my son behind Oscar’s can and let him do a little performance. My son has given me SO many years of special moments to be proud of. That certainly was one of them!!! He asked me if he could ask Jon Stone, the original head writer and producer of Sesame Street, a question. What did he ask? “Why don’t you reverse the signals of your video monitors so the puppeteers don’t have to reverse their performance for the monitors? It would be more like a mirror.” Jon Stone was awestruck! “Where did you get this kid???” He was only 9 at that time.
I lived vicariously through my son at that time because I had not gotten the chance to touch a Muppet yet!
RYAN: You mentioned in our first interview that, along with presenting Kevin Clash with a special piece of art you did for him, your first trip to the set provided an entirely different set of challenges. How so?
LOUIS: Well… Kevin was nice enough to invite me to watch him perform Elmo for the first time. After an hour and a half of talking with him and hearing his amazing baritone voice I was not prepared to hear that little Elmo voice come out of him! When I saw it for the first time I was stunned. The problem was after I got over being stunned they were about to do a real take after the rehearsal. Right in the middle of Kevin doing the line for Elmo I couldn’t help myself but to giggle! That voice coming from that “football player”!
I didn’t realize that there was a microphone on back where I was for some reason. When I heard Jon Stone yell out, “WHO’S BACK THERE GIGGLING DURING THE TAPING??? DO YOU KNOW HOW MUCH THIS SHOW COSTS TO PRODUCE???”
I was mortified!!!! But I had to confess in all good conscience. I thought I would get kicked off the set and never be allowed back. Jon simply said, “Don’t let it happen again!” seventeen years later it has NEVER happened again!
RYAN: I’d love to hear your favorite stories about working with Kevin. There must be tons and tons. These close, personal stories of the Muppeteers are like candy to us obsessed fans.
LOUIS: During one of our storyboard sessions (which usually take place in his apartment) there was music playing- Louis Armstrong, my first childhood hero (before Jim Henson… I identified with his name being Louis!). I don’t remember the song because as I was listening… all of a sudden… I was hearing Hoots the Owl from Sesame Street harmonizing with Louis Armstrong! Kevin just broke out in song singing along as Hoots!!! It was just MAGIC!!! Kevin is an accomplished singer and often sings to music we are listening to as we work or eat. It made me realized where I was and whom I was in the presence of!!! The GEEK in me OOZED out… and Kevin in his generous and loving way humored me (and I know he enjoyed doing this) by letting me ask, “What was it like to be baby Sinclair?”
He answered as Baby Sinclair!
“What was it like to be Splinter in the TMNT movies?” Kevin went on with this beautiful soliloquy as Splinter. I was just mesmerized! All I could think was, “WOW!”
RYAN: What about Frank Oz? You mentioned a story about him as well. You must have some great stories about him too.
LOUIS: A few years ago Kevin asked me to do a gift portrait of Frank to thank him for all his wonderful work on Sesame Street. When I presented it to him he was taken aback in a really beautiful way. No one had ever reacted to a portrait I did of them as he did. I asked how he liked it. He said he really liked it and, “I never got anything like this before!” Boy was I grateful to Kevin for asking me to do that! I would never just do something like that without being asked. I do not ever want to over-step my invitation to the set- whether working or just visiting as I was that day. After a session of him doing Cookie Monster in Mr. Hooper’s Store the stage director called for a 5 minute break. Frank didn’t even wait for the wrangler to take Cookie Monster from him- he placed Cookie on the counter in the store and ran out to look at the portrait again. It was a rare moment while he was alone. I took the opportunity to tell him about the Tribe Sessions and how great it would be to have him speak at one. He asked me to tell him more. By the time I was done and asked if he could make time in his busy schedule he said, “Louis I not only want to be there, I HAVE to be there!” He ripped a corner off his script and said, “Here is my email address- please contact me about setting this up and if you have any problem reaching me by email here is my home phone number.”
I couldn’t believe what was happening!
I set up a special Tribe Session just for him. And it was amazing. He told SO many incredible stories… but then one of the Tribe asked him, “Do you do your voices at parties?” Frank asked him, “Do you take out an easel and start painting at parties? This is my work so I leave that out of parties. I’ll do the voices for you guys but I don’t do them at parties.”
After a few more questions I reminded Frank that he said he would do some of the voices for us. It was ASTOUNDING! First he did Bert and explained how he hated Bert at the beginning, wanting to do Ernie. Jim Henson won out as boss so Frank was stuck with Bert. But he said he had to find a way to like this character so he wrote his own back story about Bert contemplating the stillness of lakes, etc., and fell in love with him. Then, Just for ME, he did Cookie Monster!! He also did Miss Piggy… but then…
… then… he did YODA!
It was as silent as if Frank was in that room alone!
Frank had asked me to get hold of a Grover Muppet for him but not to say a word… he had an idea. After Yoda, Frank started speaking about the art of puppetry and what he found worked and didn’t work on TV and why. Then he asked me for Grover! First he called for a volunteer and chose one of my ex-students, Marie, who is the BIGGEST Grover fan I know, and Grover called her up to speak. Frank did not know how much she loved Grover and she was just star struck! Frank riffed off of this and ended it with Grover saying, “You do not have much of a vocabulary, do you?” at which point Grover asked her to sit back down please.
Then Frank started turning Grover into other things- a dog, a boy… he was no longer Grover! Frank’s point? It’s not so much about the puppet- the beautiful work of art on the performer’s hand, but about the subtle performance all of which had to exist in no more than that hand!
It was amazing!
RYAN: Last time you also mentioned how much fun it is to watch celebrities marvel at the Street of their childhood. Which celebrity sticks out in your mind as the most memorable?
LOUIS:There were so many… I’d have to say that second was Sarah Jessica Parker… she was just SO happy to be there. But I was MOST impressed with one individual!!! I was asked to art direct a special photo shoot on the set of Sesame Street for Harper’s Bazaar Magazine. All the big fashion designers were to be there! I saw Oscar De La Renta walk in and he looked like a KING! I was directing him next to Oscar The Grouch and it was great….
… but when he saw Elmo!! HE FLIPPED!!! He was all giggly and animated and just like a 6 year old boy!! Even then he still had grace and elegance but he was just THRILLED to meet THE Elmo!!! He looked around the set and was just in awe!!!
RYAN: Can you describe what it’s like doing a photo-shoot with the Muppets? Do you personally move the poser puppets to make them appear the way you want, or do others pose them for you? How often are the actual puppets used for photo-shoots?
LOUIS: It is my pleasure to be the one who poses the Photo Muppets myself. It comes right from the same place where I draw from and play music from on the piano. Bill Waterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, said in his 10th Anniversary Book on the comic strip that what he grew to do was think of a situation and waited for Calvin to “tell” him how he wanted to get through it. This is very much how I work with posing the Sesame Street Muppets. I am given a list of things that the marketing department needs and I “wait” for them to tell me what they want to do. I know them all so well that any scenario I am given will be inspired by their personalities. It helps so much that I still watch the show on a regular basis- even when I am on vacation! I just really love the show. One special thing that happens when I am doing a photo shoot is when Jane Henson visits the set!! I love her BIG hugs and just having her there… she will give me guidance on some shots if she sees me thinking about what to do. I WELCOME her input!! She’s JANE HENSON!!! It’s just wonderful!
There are occasions when I have to order performance Muppets for photo shoots- we don’t have a photo version of them all. Of course we have Elmo, Cookie Monster, both full and half body, Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, Abby Cadabby, Zoe… several. But if I need Count Von Count or Telly Monster or Baby Bear I have to order the ones they use on the show. They are specially armatured and fully poseable. One time I had to order an additional Elmo for the Country Songs DVD. His cousin, Elmer, was visiting and was wearing a full cowboy outfit. It came out great.
I know this will be long but I have to share it. I had a moment while doing my most recent generic photo shoot that was the most profound moment I had at Sesame Workshop. I had neglected one of the poses I was supposed to do of Ernie by himself. My wonderful stylist and friend Lara MacLean set him up on the table top and I went in to pose him. The Photo Muppets of all the major Sesame Street Muppets live at the building Jim Henson purchased for photos and small video shoots- I’m even working with the photographer Mr. Henson hand picked to be THE Muppet photographer, John E. Barrett. He is the master! The photo Muppets are very much like the replicas of Kermit and Animal and Gonzo you can now buy- except they are not replicas. These are the REAL Muppets made of all the actual materials used on the performance Muppets and built the same way for the most part. Master armaturist and stylist, (among other tremendous talents) Danielle Obinger, builds armature wire infrastructures in them so I can pose them in any way I can imagine! She is just astounding! ANYTHING I can imagine doing with them I just twist and turn and bend them and like magic it just HAPPENS!!!
But back to my moment- Lara set Ernie up on the table top, I was adjusting his legs and sneakers to make them look natural. I reached up and took his head, which was pointing downward, and I lifted it up. As soon as I did that our eyes met- he was looking RIGHT into my eyes and EVERYTHING STOPPED!! John Barrett was working on digital retouching, Lara was prepping another Muppet for later in the shoot, John’s great assistant Jeffrey Price was doing one of the very many tasks he does to keep things running smoothly- at the table it was just Ernie and me! There were photography umbrellas hiding us from view. I was instantly transported back to when I was 9 years old- when I first heard “Rubber Duckie” and realized just what Jim Henson was doing back there with His Muppets. It hit me like nothing else since I have been at Sesame Workshop! And for 15 minutes time stood still for me and my eyes welled up! I started thinking, “I’m really here! This is REALLY Ernie!!! I REALLY work at Sesame Street!!!! I REALLY am part of the Sesame Street legacy!!!!” That little boy from Brooklyn, New York, who practically WORSHIPED The Muppets is now directing photo shoots with the REAL Muppets!! Eating dinner and working closely with Kevin Clash and the other Muppeteers!!!” I felt tremendous emotion but didn’t realize how deep this hit me until a large tear drop ran down my cheek!
I was really here!
This is 17 years after I had started working on the show. You know something? It means more now than when I first started!! I enjoy it more now than the magical moment when I actually got the job as a freelancer and then was requested by Sesame Workshop to come on full time! 17 years later and it means more than EVER!! Even now as I write this I am a little choked up. With all my heart I recommend that people hold on to their dreams.
RYAN: That is honestly one of the most moving and profound stories I have ever heard. I am just so humbled by that. But, back to being semi-professional… Who are the major influences in your life? Who has had the biggest impact on you?
LOUIS: On my office wall at Sesame I have my “Mentors”; the main people who have influenced me the most and who I study deeply to get their “advice” on what I may be doing- in work and in life- which I don’t really separate. In order they are Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Norman Rockwell, Jim Henson, Leonard Bernstein and Leonardo DaVinci. There are SO many others like Steve Irwin, Keith Jarrett… but the greatest of all is Jesus Christ.
RYAN: Where do you draw your inspiration from?
LOUIS: As a Christian I draw my most important inspiration from the Bible. I read SO many books and watch SO many DVD behind-the-scenes footage, go to museums, movies, theater—through it all I find SO many Bible stories inspiring them all. I, myself, am developing several stories based upon scripture- one really fun one is based upon the story of King David. You just can’t beat the Bible in my opinion- for work AND life and everything else!
RYAN: What advice do you have for anyone who has dreams of working with Sesame Street or the Muppets?
LOUIS: When I am asked to be on panels or to do an appearance to lecture or answer questions I am asked that very question regularly. The answer shocks most people. I have absolutely no advice! The reason? I have to speak with the person and find out what it is they want to offer specifically- what skills they have and need to build up their creativity and execution. Advice is a very, very personal thing!! When someone is giving advice without having earned that position through developing a relationship with them it isn’t very valid in my opinion. Advice has to be in context with the individual’s dreams and desires and talent and skill set.
However, I will say that one must trust and follow their heart and not give up or get too discouraged. Your heart will reveal to you the things that you were made to do on earth- the reason you were created! There will be MANY discouragers- ignore them- but do not hold a grudge. They simply just don’t understand. If everyone were paying attention to the greatness they were created for they wouldn’t have time to discourage anyone else- they would be busy teaming up with their friends or spouses or siblings or neighbors… it would be the flow of creativity doing what it is meant to do; bring us together to figure things out for ourselves and each other. This is how I see it.
So follow your heart and don’t allow discouragement to seep in. Sometimes the things your heart is drawing you to isn’t really the big dream but part of the path TOWARD it. There are things you will need to learn along the way and as an artist there is nothing that will not teach you how to be more creative if you look at it with your art spirit! I never knew that starting in comics would lead to advertising which lead to toy and character design which led to MTV which led to Sesame Street… which led to my BIG dream!! And, only God knows the next thing that my new dream will bring me to. I just make myself available and keep on believing!! My head has been confused and mistaken at times but my heart has never steered me wrong.
As I said in part one of this- I will be announcing the BIG dream shortly and I will come back to the Muppet Mindset as part of the launch!
RYAN: And, finally, can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street?
LOUIS: Sure… follow your child-heart- the one you had when you believed all things are possible! You will always end up there!
A huge thanks to the fantastic Louis Henry Mitchell! This has been my favorite interview on The Muppet Mindset so far! His stories are incredible and enough to fill countless interviews! We hope to welcome him back to The Muppet Mindset again soon!