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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.

PCW: Were all the Muppet scenes filmed separately on a blue-screen stage? Or did the project also include scenes in which the Muppets and real-life actors were interacting in front of the camera?

Ivins: Most of the shots done on the blue-screen stage were solo shots, kind of hero shots, and the puppeteers would react to the plates of the previous footage. There's a scene where the new Muppet ("Walter") was shot in this sequence on a blue-screen stage: He's climbing up on a cabinet, jumping onto a doorknob, swinging into the kitchen, and flying across the room. Jason Segel is in the scene, watching him fly by and talking to him, but Segel's part was all shot beforehand. Then they just puppeteer to [that action] while looking at it. That was sort of the formula: Give the puppeteers what they're going to have to "fit to" and "match to."

But a lot of times it was shot traditionally. The puppeteers are masters at getting really low and using one of those dollies that mechanics use to roll under cars; they would use those and push themselves really low to the ground for the shots where the Muppets would be walking around. A guy would be pushing himself along with his feet on one of these things underneath. They're really good at that [laughs]. I was really impressed. They're great at getting into these odd angles. They had a lot of driving scenes where they rigged a car so that the puppeteers could get inside of it and do the puppeteering--they took out the bottom of the car, almost.

In some scenes the actors and the puppets were together on a blue screen. In one shot a Rolls Royce comes driving out of the ocean onto Cannes beach in France, which they shot at Lake Castaic near us [in Los Angeles]. They put a Rolls Royce in the water and pulled it out with a cable, onto a beach that they hauled sand in to build. They had a bunch of people in thong bikinis and Speedos. It was about 7 o'clock in the morning, so it was about 56 degrees or something. We put a big matte painting of the Cannes beach hotel behind them, and then they shot the actors and the Muppets on a blue-screen stage with a rig that looked like a Fred Flintstone vehicle--just boxes for seats, and basically a dolly to mimic the movement. So we tracked that all inside the car so it looked as if they were sitting in it coming out of the water.

In a lot of ways, that was a traditional effects job. It just so happened that there were puppets in it.


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