The Muppet Movie: Behind the Effects

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James Atchley – Just about everyone loves the Muppets, and not just for Henson and company’s off beat humor and lovable characters. A key thing that sets these anthropomorphic creations apart from the rest of the “family entertainment” rabble is the technical mastery that is required to bring them to life. In their first feature film, the Muppets dance, drive cars and do all sorts of incredible things that many people might have said couldn’t be done with puppetry. This stuff blew audience’s minds back in the 70s and it still blows minds today. One effect in particular, a sequence were Kermit the Frog rides a bicycle, created a bit of a phenomenon. You can watch a small snippet of said scene below.

Despite the collectively blown minds of 70s audiences, the technology used to create this particular effect is actually remarkably simple. The Kermit in the above scene is a marionette being performed from above; that’s it. When they needed a close up of Kermit they simply used the normal hand operated version. It’s one of those special effects that only seem complicated until you know how it was done. Another effect that blew peoples minds was the one that allowed Fozzie Bear to drive his Studebaker across America. This happens throughout the movie, but is most notable in the toe tapping musical sequence below.

One thing to take note of here is that not all of the shots are close-ups of the main characters, so this sequence could not have simply been shot on a soundstage. it is clear that the car was really driving on a real road and that Fozzie was at the helm while it was doing so. So how did Frank Oz (Fozzie’s puppeteer at the time) accomplish this daring feat? Well… He didn’t. The illusion was accomplished by retrofitting the car with a second steering wheel and a monitor, both of which were placed in the trunk of the car. Another puppeteer operated the vehicle from within the trunk while watching what was happening on the monitor which was connected to a camera hidden on the front of the car. Kermit and Fozzie’s puppeteers sat in the gutted out car and made it look as if they were driving, while in reality they had no control of the vehicle whatsoever.

This monitor technique is similar to the one that is used for basic Muppet performances in both movies and television. Unlike traditional puppetry, Muppetry requires the puppeteer to have a monitor that is connected to a camera feed that is secondary to the one that is filming for the actual production. This way the puppeteer can always see how his or her performance is going in real time and adjust accordingly. You can see Jim Henson himself showing off the technique in the below photo.

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What I’ve explained here Is only a skimming over of some of the incredibly technical tricks used to bring The Muppets to life. Next time you watch a Muppet production, especially the movies, I recommend you look at them with a critical eye, and ask yourself the question, “just how did they do that?” Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this post, check out the other “Behind the Effects” posts on my blog!

The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier, muppetmindset@gmail.com

2 thoughts on “The Muppet Movie: Behind the Effects

  1. Unfortunately, in this day and age, all of these effects would be accomplished with chromakey and CGI, which makes the puppetry itself look all the more artificial.

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