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Q&A: How digital effects gave 'The Muppets' new freedom

Tim Moynihan | Nov. 30, 2011
Rest assured, Muppet purists: You won't see any computer-generated Kermits, Gonzos, or Fozzies in The Muppets, which opened in theaters last week. Every time the Muppets appear on screen in the movie, they're the real deal: fuzz, felt, and fur creatures given their voices, movements, and expressions by human puppeteers.

Ivins: We didn't do any expressions or change any of the puppeteering. There was one shot involving a reflection in a mirror, and they shot the action from a camera that was just off to the side of the mirror. In that scene, the mirror wasn't as distorted as they wanted--it was like a fun-house mirror. So we took the reverse angle and put [the character] into that and ended up changing the eye line to make it work as a reflection. That was the sole thing we ever did to any Muppet's face.

Otherwise, it was pretty much just rod removal--the only times we ever retouched any of the Muppets was to take out a rod that was in front of them. We didn't add any limbs or arms. If we did use something to repair where a rod had been or anything, we just took the actual photography of that limb or whatever, and cloned it over into the right place.

We didn't really go back and reference any of the movies--we referenced more the television shows, following what the director gave us as a reference. That was mostly about reproducing the "arches" shot, which was the opening for the TV show.

There's a scene with a wall about five arches tall, with a Muppet in every arch--about 46 different Muppets in it, all on blue screen. It was one of those shots where it's like, "Oh my gosh, it's endless."

PCW: So you had to digitally remove 40-something puppeteers from that shot for the movie?

Ivins: Oh, no--that was shot all on blue screen and composited into the final shot. For that scene, the puppeteers did it traditionally. Most of the Muppets are waist-down in the original, so it was more of a "traditional puppeteering" thing where the puppeteers are all below the frame we were going to show. So the only thing we had to do for that was rod removal on almost every single one of them [laughs].

That's one thing we did for the whole movie: Remove all the rods for the hands. We didn't leave any rods in on purpose--I'm sure there are rods that are visible, but you probably can't tell if they're rods or not.

I think two weeks before we were done, we were still finding puppeteers' heads in shots. "Wait a minute, what's that thing over here? That's somebody's head!" [laughs] "Oh no, not another one." Some of the shots, you've got like 15, 20 puppeteers crouching down, kneeling, lying on their backs, operating a big crowd of puppets ... this giant crowd under the crowd. A big crowd of Muppets, and underneath that, a big crowd of puppeteers, all looking at a monitor to see how their Muppets are positioned. So they might set up and think, "That's good, no one sees my head," but then another puppet moves during the shot, and boom, there's their head. It was amazing how long into the process we got before we found the last puppeteer head in the shot.


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