Back in September, I had the chance to head out to Los Angeles for a Disney Dreamworks Event. While there, I had the amazing opportunity to visit Jim Henson Studios for a tour and also interview the people who are behind the The Muppets, which will be released into theaters on November 23rd.
In the next 10 days, I’ll be bring you exclusive interviews and more about The Muppets!
Steve Saklad is the Production Designer for The Muppets, and he is also known for his work in Up in the Air and Juno.
When we walked into the room, there were several board on easels and they were full of pictures. Steve explained to us what they were:
You’ll see a bunch of these — what we call mood boards, which are these collages that get us to an idea of what each set will look like before we have locations, before we have finished designs. You’ll see a bunch of sketches. You’ll see a bunch of these models, which is really the working way to arrive at the final design that we can show the director, and we can show the crew, in order to solve problems, and scattered amongst, you’ll see a bunch of photos of the final sets.
He then told us a little about Small Town USA, which is where The Muppets starts.
Our story starts, not in Hollywood, but in Small Town, USA, which is where Jason Segel’s character, Gary, and Amy Adams’ character, Mary, and their friend, Walter, who’s this super tall muppet-shaped person live.
It’s kind of a parallel universe. This is the looks board we put together early on, which — which has a bit of Norman Rockwell, a bit of classic, Small Town, USA, look to it. We actually shot a large sequence in the — in the movie on the Warner’s back lot, which we turned into our classic, Small Town, USA Main Street. Here are some photos of Gary and Walter’s house and their interior, their exterior, and then some of the shots of Amy Adams’ classroom. She’s a third-grade teacher.
The actual main street, and there’s a big circus that came to town when we shot there. We opened the movie with this extensive, five-minute musical number; grand old tradition of Broadway or Hollywood musicals. And off Mary and Gary and Walter go in a bus to arrive at Hollywood, USA. Walter is this fanatic muppet fan, and his dream has always been to see the Muppet studios, meet Kermit. They arrive in Hollywood, and their first stop is the Muppet studio, which is something we shot here at the Henson studios.
Steve then told us a little history of Jim Henson Studios.
What we loved about this place was the history. Charlie Chaplain originally had his studios here and the architecture of the entryway and a few of the other buildings have this great, old Charlie Chaplain-era Tudor architecture; sort of 1915-style building. We wanted to make our Muppet Studio feel like that, so here are some of the looks that we put together from studios of the 20’s and 30’s.
Then, as we learned that we were gonna shoot here, we added some of the features of the actual location, and here are some of the photos of the final sets, some of which are shot here, some of which are shot at a shopping center down the way that was built in the 30’s. “Crossroads of the World”.
Here’s a little bit more information about the amazing sets you will see in The Muppets movie!
About Kermit’s office and mansion:
So his office — this is the sketch I did for the office — filled with the accumulation of all of these — of this amazingly rich life back in the day, and there are megaphones from the 20’s, and little clip-toy theaters, and his awards, news clippings from the Muppets, you know, Buffo Box Office headlines, and all of it now is covered in dust and cobwebs and mold and so forth…
We go inside the mansion, and it’s a — it’s total 1981 bachelor pad. Hugh Hefner was sort of our inspiration and you see paint–photos of Kermit on the cover of Esquire and GQ, and Ebony magazine, and all these magazines, sort of, that had their glory days in 1981.
Kermit has this butler, who’s a — a 40-inch high, 80’s robot, who sort of serves him as a valet. So you get to learn that Kermit’s winnings all ended in 1981-82. He doesn’t even live in the mansion anymore. He just comes in and answers the mail and waters the — the plants from time to time. They say, you’ve gotta get the gang together, and we see Kermit take a long walk down this portrait gallery in his — in his mansion.
And lining the walls are these paintings of Fozzy, Swedish Chef, Gonzo, Ms. Piggy, Electric Mayhem. As he passes each painting, he’s singing, why? What — what terrible rift separate them? And they never, you know, be together again. And as he passes the paintings, each painting comes to life, and Fozzy Bear sings a duet with Kermit, and they — they have this wonderful, sort of, extended musical sequence, at the end of which the paintings all revert to oil paintings again.
About the transformation of the Muppets theater:
They go into the theater, and really the heart of our movie is the transformation of the theater from the way they first find it, which is completely desolate, condemned by the board of health, pigeons are flying around in the open holes in the ceiling.
Eventually they transform this — this nasty looking place into the sort of glory days of the Muppet Theater. Now I should explain, the — the theater was very important to us to get right. In the old TV show, there’s a simplified version of a kind of Muppet Theater. It’s kind of sweet and quaint; not very real looking. Our story is this: Once, there was a real Muppet Theater; great old, 100-year-old, Vaudeville Theater with ghosts and history, and these great acts that had always played there.
We’ll show you the full front of the audience, all the on-stage workings with the pin rails and the dimmer boards, and all the backstage areas and the dressing rooms all in one great space, so that you can go anywhere within that theater. You can go from the front of the audience up onto the stage, over to Kermit’s table, and then up the stairs and go right into Piggy’s dressing room, and it will all — always all be right there. So this was the sketch I did to transform a standing set that exists at Universal Studios for the Phantom of the Opera. This set was built in 1925. It’s still there. It’s a — it’s a relic that we — that — it’s historical, you know, sort of, it’s a space that no one can touch.
So we went in, transformed it into a classic, Broadway-style theater, front of house. We built a proscenium, we built everything behind the proscenium, which this model shows to encompass our backstage. And here are some of the shots of the very decrepit first look at the theater, and then how it gets transformed into the shiny, sparkly, ready-for-opening-night look.
Steve then told us a little about the magic of putting together a show featuring the Muppets:
I had never done a Muppets Show before. I’d never worked with Muppets. There’s a learning curve everyone goes through. But once the technical sort of adjustments are made to, you know, accommodate what they can and can’t do, it’s just like working with actors. I’ve found that you go — you have — there’s a scene that you rehearse at the beginning of the day with Steve, who plays Kermit, and each of the players playing their characters with Kermit moving his mouth in the rehearsal.
Little by little, it becomes more and more precise. And then, you shoot, where all you see is the — are Kermit and Fozzy and Piggy. It’s sort of a magical alchemy that happens. But it’s just like working with other actors.
It was so great to hear Steve and see the magic of the The Muppets being put together! We loved looking at the story boards! I can’t wait for you to see the movie and see how bright, colorful and detailed it is! Now, you’ll remember all the work that Steve and his team put into creating The Muppets for us!
Make sure to like The Muppets on Facebook! The Muppets will be in theaters on November 23rd, the day before Thanksgiving!
Disney/DreamWorks is providing me with an all expenses paid trip to Los Angeles for an advance screening of Real Steel and select footage from The Muppets. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
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