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Lisa Henson talks Jim Henson Creature Shop, ‘Unstable Fables,’ and ‘Tortoise VS Hare’

By Ben Rhudy Sep 18, 2008, 20:19 GMT

Lisa Henson talks Jim Henson Creature Shop, ‘Unstable Fables,’ and ‘Tortoise VS Hare’

Fifteen years after their famous race, the tortoise and the hare are at it again, bringing their unwilling kids along for the ride on a wild and hilarious adventure race. This time around, they learn a whole new lesson - that some things are more important than competition. ...more

Lisa Henson, the oldest daughter of the late Jim Henson, is carrying on her father’s legacy of children’s entertainment with “Unstable Fables”. The series, which takes classic children’s stories and reinvents them, features colorful CGI worlds inhabited by characters voiced by some of today’s biggest actors.

While Henson spends much of her time managing the legacy of the Henson family with her brothers and sisters, she also takes a very hands-on creative approach with every project the company endorses.

The Jim Henson Company has remained an established leader in family entertainment for over 50 years and is recognized worldwide as an innovator in puppetry, animatronics and computer graphics.

Best known as creators of the world famous Muppets (the rights to which are now owned by The Walt Disney Company), Henson is the recipient of over 50 Emmy Awards and nine Grammy Awards.

Credits include the Saturn Award-winning “Farscape” and the features “MirrorMask,” “Five Children and It” and “Good Boy!”. With additional locations in New York and London, The Jim Henson Company is headquartered in Los Angeles on the historic Charlie Chaplin lot complete with soundstage and post-production facilities.

Independently owned and operated by the five adult children of founder Jim Henson, the Company is also home to Jim Henson’s Creature Shop™, a pre-eminent character-building and visual effects group with international film, television and advertising clients, as well as Henson Recording Studios, one of the music industry’s top recording facilities known for its world-class blend of state of the art and vintage equipment.

The Company is currently in production on “Sid the Science Kid,” a new science readiness animated series for preschoolers scheduled to debut on PBS in September 2008, and recently launched “Puppet Up! - Uncensored,” a live puppet improvisational show that has played to sold out crowds around the world and premiered as a special on TBS.

The Company has also announced the creation of Jim Henson Designs, a merchandise collection inspired by Jim Henson’s earliest sketches.

The company’s latest DVD release, “Tortoise VS Hare,” takes the form of a mock documentary focusing on Aesop’s tale about an overzealous hare who underestimates the power of persistence in the form of his rival Tortoise.

“Tortoise VS Hare” is available in stores nationwide right now. The Jim Henson Company will be releasing the next movie in the series, “Goldilocks and the Three Bears Show”, later this year. For more info about the “Unstable Fables” series, check out www.geniusproducts.com/unstablefables.

Henson took a few minutes to talk to us about her role as CEO in the company, the origins of “Unstable Fables” and the future of The Jim Henson Company.

M&C: How would you describe your role on the company as CEO?

LH: Well my brother, Bryan, and I actually run the company together, so when you’re a CEO all it means is that you “run the company.”  We are in charge of, jointly, everything.  Whether it’s creative, business- you know, strategic direction of the company. 

As well as the fact that we both produce, and in Bryan’s case, he directs. So, you know, we jointly run it, but we have a lot good people in senior positions underneath us that have also ------ full responsibility. So it’s not like we do everything ourselves, personally, but we are in charge of it.

M&C: How much time do you, yourself, spend doing creative stuff with the shows that you guys work on?

LH: I probably spend about half my day doing creative producing, and about half my day doing executive meetings and functions. It’s about half and half.

M&C: The “[Unstable] Fables” are CGI, what was the idea behind the change to CGI?

LH: Well, we actually are interested as a company - we’re branching into animation and into CGI in a couple of different ways. You know we kind of, well the company has never been exclusively puppets. You know, there has always been new technology and in the 90’s it primarily represented animatronics as a new technology and visual effects.

And then more recently, we have been very interested internally as a company in sort of hybrid technologies of combining puppetry and animation. But then we’re also interested just in producing good-quality animation.

So, as it happens, “Unstable Fables” doesn’t use our puppeteer animation system. It’s just a good property that we did the creative direction of it, and it is animated conventionally, not with our puppeteered animation. I guess as a company, (something about rambling) we want to do entertaining projects and good entertainment for the family. We’re not really limited and never really been completely limited to the familiar hand puppetry medium.

M&C: Is there any cross-over between the technologies? When you are doing an animated feature do use any techniques that you use with physical things?

LH: In some of our other shows yes, but not with “Unstable Fables.”  For instance, the show we just premiered on PBS this week, on Monday actually, “Sid the Science Kid” was done completely with puppeteered animation.

We have a spectrum where some of our projects are more puppetry and other projects are more just done the normal way.

M&C: Was your father able to see some of the changes happening in children’s entertainment as it was going more toward – edutainment, as you could say, and what did he think about it?

LH: Well, I guess it’s debatable whether it’s moving more toward edutainment than it was in his day, because he was part of the launch of “Sesame Street” one of the most meaningful educational programs probably ever made. And so, you know, I think he was involved some really cutting-edge, amazing thinking on television as an educational medium.

And probably no show has ever been as original as “Sesame Street” at education. But, you know, over time I think kid’s programming has kind of become a little too split.  You know, there are shows that are very educational and there are shows that are almost completely entertainment, and usually don’t cross-over that much.  And we, as a company, still like to try to see a little more of both in all of our programs.

M&C: Outside of the main features that the company produces, what other things does the group do in the entertainment industry?

LH: We also have some live programs that not everybody knows about; because when you do a live show you’re essentially local. So you have to be in the city where the show is on otherwise you don’t know about it. But we are developing some really interesting musical theater, which hasn’t been announced yet. [talking to co-worker] Has it been announced yet? Oh, it was announced.

Ok, so we actually have a live show going up through Christmas season. Which is a live version of “Emmet Otter” with puppets and costumes; it is going to be amazing. And then we have locally here in L.A. a hilarious puppetry improv show which is for adults only, and that - we do that like once a month and it’s really a theater experience.

So we do theater, we do TV, we do home videos, and we have been working on the production on many features, but we have some big ones in development.

M&C: Going back a little bit into the history of the company and your history with the company, what were some of the reasons you decided not to stay with your job at Columbia?

LH: Well, when I left Columbia I became a film producer, so I went from being a film executive to a film producer. And then I was film producer for about three years with a producing partner named Janet Yang before I came back to the Henson company, so I sort of made a gradual return to the family business; first moving into producing, then moving into the family entertainment area.

And I will say, it always felt like once I came to the company that my work has become much more rewarding and focused, because, you know, when you’re at a studio you’re just like desperately looking for the new, hot project, script, movie whatever. And it’s very scattered, like my head was in like a million places all the time, not very focused. And, you know, working here we’re very, very focused on our projects. 

We have a clear company mission, and we only do a couple of genres and you know we know what we’re doing. It’s been very rewarding to be so, not only close to the family legacy and heritage, but also really just working on very specific type of thing- you what you’re doing.

M&C: How many employees do you have for the Jim Henson company?

LH: I don’t know, Nicole, what do we have? 

Nicole: Around 60.

M&C: Wow, so it’s a pretty small, very focused thing.

LH: Yeah, it is, although when we have productions we have more people here. So when we’re producing something right here on the lot, we have a lot of freelance talent. So usually there are well over 100 people around us, working with us, but most of them will leave at the end of whatever project their on.

M&C: Where did the concept for “Unstable Fables” come from? Is there an interesting story behind that?

LH: Well, I can’t say it’s that interesting, but I will tell you what it was. It could be interesting to you, but I don’t know. We have actually, speaking of where we were, we had this really wonderful little studio, which was Charlie Chaplin’s studio on La Brea, and it’s very historic, very funky.  And we also rent out space to other tenants when we are not filling the whole place. 

So two of our tenants were Flame Productions [Flame Ventures], which is Tony Krantsz’s company and we had the US office of Indian Animation company called Prana also were our tenants. So, you know, it just happens that this is probably like the one project we’ve produced that emerged from simply the synergy of having a kind of campus-like atmosphere where people just bump into each other and start talking about corroborating.

M&C: So there was a lot of cross-talk between the different groups.

LH: Exactly. And those people were not our employees, they were - we just all basically, you know, worked right next to each other.

M&C: Do your kids still provide useful input for you? How old are your kids now?

LH: My kids are eight and ten. Yeah, they do. With the “Unstable Fables” we did what most producers of animation do - is we put the show up in front of a group of kids, not just mine, but we borrowed our screening room. We had a very small screening room, but it’s like enough to get a feel for how something plays. 

And we would put it up at different junctures in the production process. Like we first we showed children just the storyboard stung together with the soundtrack and that’s the animatic. So they look at that. We actually are able to judge a little bit from, you know, if they absolutely don’t get a joke or if they all just want to get up and leave at some point- maybe that might mean that’s a boring section.

We do do - we actually show things to kids at different stages, particularly the “Unstable Fables,” we used that technique quite a bit. And my kids always do enjoy joining those groups or they like to- if it’s something we are shooting live, they really have a lot of fun visiting the set.

M&C: Are the Fables going to become a regular thing?

LH: Well, I feel like it’s already a little bit of a book-shelf item in that there are three of them. And we enjoy making more, so we just have to see how it unfolds. There is a lot of fairy tales where you can sort of do the fun treatment to it. And they are all different enough, like, if there were just three chapters of the same thing I would say, “Why do ten?” you know. But they are really pretty different from each other already.

So you know if we had ten totally different movies that are kind of related to each other, because they take place- they take place basically in the same world. It’s like a fairy-tale, animal-populated version of our own world. So, it’s got modern technology the kids - they drive cars, they go to school and it should be recognizable to most families, you know, the world that it takes place in.

And so if we do ten movies set in that arena it would be really fun, but mainly you have to keep them fresh, and each of them is quire different from the other. Did you watch “Tortoise vs. Hare”?

M&C: No, I didn’t get the DVD but I did watch the trailer for it.

LH: But, that’s what you’re covering, right?

M&C: Yeah, that is what I am covering.

LH: Well, I hope you watch it; it’s good.

M&C: I’ll do that. Can you talk at all about the “Fraggle Rock” movie?

LH: There’s not that much to say. We’ve got into the --- we have a great director, we’ve got supportive financiers. And you know it’s just basically in development. 

M&C: Is it going to be more of a re-vamped version of Fraggle Rock or is it going to be more of a nostalgic sort of thing?

LH: I don’t know what you mean- can you tell me more about what you mean by those two different things?

M&C: Is it just going to be a feature-length version of Fraggle Rock episodes or is it going to be something new and different - a different take on it?

LH: Like, it’s going to be absolutely perfect and modern and fulfill all of your dreams of what Fraggle Rock would be. [laughter] I mean, I can’t answer that question, I think we will have to see if it’s as relevant and fantastic for modern life as we think it will be.

M&C: Where is the Jim Henson Company headed? What is the future of the company?

LH: Well, we want to continue to be making film, television. We are definitely going to be expanding our web presence and we have- I think the most important thing is that we have a legacy to uphold that is also a- something that people connect to personally.

So when we make something and we put the Jim Henson name on it, we really want to feel that we are genuinely recommending that show or that product to families and for parents to show their kids. We are not necessarily interested in rehashing the past, you know. There are certain things that are legacy-rated projects, like the “Fraggle Rock” feature film but we are extremely interested in the ‘new.’

We have a restlessness that is inherent in the genetics of the company where always want to be doing something new, something new, something new. So we will always be doing something new and perhaps faster than the public expects. At the same time, you know, we know people are- feel very fond towards the past so we need to make sure that that translates into a quality level.

Unstable Fables: Tortoise vs. Hare is now available at Amazon. As of yet, there is not a release date for the UK. Visit the DVD database for more information.



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Unstable Fables: Tortoise vs. Hare

Fifteen years after their famous race, the tortoise and the hare are at it again, bringing their unwilling kids along for the ride on a wild and hilarious adventure race. ...more

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