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What It’s Like To Visit Jim Henson’s Creature Shop (Partly Like a Muppet Morgue)

As part of Fast Company‘s Innovation Festival, we visited Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. It was an illuminating, somewhat disturbing experience

Imagine if your open office replaced its desktop computers with scissors, yarn, and needles, and you spent the day positioning eyeballs on felt faces while jamming out to 70s rock. This is the reality for many employees at Jim Henson’s Creature Shop.

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The entrance foyer to the workshop in Astoria, Queens is an Instagrammer’s paradise. Among the many splendors positioned around the room is Oscar the Grouch within the turtle shell confines of a trash can, Uncle Traveling Matt from Fraggle Rock situated between some shrubbery, and a throne from The Dark Crystal that one need not slay any skeksis to sit upon. The rest of the place is less Insta-friendly, however; not for lack of visual panache, but because some things simply should not be seen by the greater muppet-loving community.

Oscar the Grouch and Joe Berkowitz

Walking through the Jim Henson Creature Shop is a bittersweet experience because, as illuminating and cathartic as it is to anyone who grew up in America over the last 50 years, it’s also partly like walking through a muppet morgue. Everywhere you look, familiar friends from childhood hang lifeless from slanted pegs, their heads drooping morbidly. Other muppets are in the fascinating gestation stage, which is still just about as disturbing as when children see a walking mascot at Disneyland remove its own head to reveal a smaller, sweaty human head beneath. Actually, children never see that happen, because it’s forbidden inside the park for the same reason photography is forbidden beyond the foyer here. Sneaky iPhone snapshots are not necessary, though, because touring this place is a nostalgia trip that will burn into any visitors’ brains without the need for muppet memento mori.

The Jim Henson Creature Workshop in New York is one of three throughout the world, including the headquarters in Hollywood, and another branch in London. It’s where the character creation company steadily provides those felt friends we remember fondly while generating new ones for clients in the worlds of TV, film, and advertising. (Every fuzzy thing from the Coca-Cola polar bears to, well, the Snuggle bear began its shilling career right here.) Seeing the origins of these characters alongside a life-size Snuffaluffagus helps convey the breadth and historicity of this place. And if that doesn’t do the trick, seeing Henson’s archives–including the original storyboards for his earliest ads, and the stained glass window of Bert and Ernie that used to hang in his first office–just might.

Photo: Joe Berkowitz

In relaying the complicated history of the rights to Sesame Street, our guides to the Fast Company Innovation Festival event, production manager Melissa Creighton and creative supervisor Jason Weber, shed light on the Henson operation’s globalization. There are versions of Sesame Street running everywhere from Afghanistan to Russia, each with individual sets of anchoring characters, like the Kremlin’s own Zeliboba, an enormous, blue, floppy-eared creature with a Fozzie Bear tie. (Occasionally, beloved domestic characters like Big Bird make appearances overseas.) Most of these characters start life the same way, though.

The most disturbing part of touring the workshop is also its most fascinating: Meeting the AMs. An AM, or Anything Muppet, is a Mr. Potato Head-style template used for designing new creations. These colorful lifeless things are blank canvasses that come in different sizes, colors, and head-shapes. (This last category ranges from a gentle slope to a Bert-like pointiness.) There are drawers filled with eyes and noses, which look like the aftermath of a muppet Eli Roth film, and the designers draw from these items to figure out how each new character will look. It’s a reverse taxidermy process, in which a stuffed creature is brought to life. Seeing how this is done makes it clear how much impact little decisions about the tilting of eyeballs can have on the eventual character’s personality.

If the AM-form isn’t an “in utero” enough way to see these characters, the tour continues through the fur, fleece, and foam storage area. Although the foam comes is many different shades on the orange-yellow scale, it’s all a reticulated kind called ScottFoam that holds its shape once forming, say, Elmo’s head. The accompanying fur is kept in sheets that are rolled up and put in rows like rugs at Bed, Bath, and Beyond–or perhaps a secret stash of pelts from the hunting and gathering of vividly colored animals. These are the raw materials by which the Henson alchemy is achieved.

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After seeing the many steps involved in creating a muppet, all that’s left is to do is control one. The three elements of puppeteering are Breath, Eye Focus, and Movement. If the puppets are breathing, the theory goes, then they must be alive, and if they can look at objects around them, they must have brains. Rod-puppets are controlled with one hand lodged inside Kermit or whoever’s brains and the other manipulating his arms with twin wands; while walkabout puppets require two handlers. Given the chance to operate a rod-puppet myself, it turns out I am very bad at operating rod-puppets. Each of us on the tour is given the opportunity to walk into frame with a muppet–keeping our big heads out of frame–having the muppet turn to face a camera and say something, and then exiting, stage right. The most common phrase these muppets end up uttering, even after its been said so many times before, is “Where’s the camera?”

This is shockingly difficult work, and the core demo of Sesame Street has no idea how impressed they should be with what goes into creating and maneuvering what they’re seeing. Nobody who visits the workshop could possibly have that problem, though.