UnNews:Henson's Creature Shop recieves special effects accolade for Bush
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27 October 2006
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HOLLYWOOD, California -- Special Effects masters the Jim Henson Creature Shop were honored by their peers in an industry-wide awards ceremony on Thursday night. They picked up awards for Best Humanoid Puppet and Innovation in Effects Technology for their long-running project, Republican party mascot George W. Bush. The Jim Henson Creature Shop is best known for its work on The Muppet Show and Yoda from Star Wars.
"I'm proud to accept these awards on behalf of the team, its been a tough few years but the result was worth it." said Project Lead Manny Kinn.
In an interview after the ceremony, Manny describes the highs and lows of an ambitious tour-de-force in special effects that has won international acclaim.
"The Republicans came to us in the early-1990s with a bare-bones outline of the mascot they wanted, which they called "Project W". They'd seen our work in the mid-1980s with Yoda and they thought we could pull that off with a humanoid puppet. The first versions were really crude, just rough latex models built over an old "Kermit the Frog" armature. Imagine our surprise when the mascot was elected Governor of Texas! We had totally underestimated the appeal of this character."
Over the next few years the technology involved in bringing Bush to life evolved at a phenomenal rate. By the time of Bush's declaration that he was going to run for President, the old "Kermit" skeleton was superseded in favour of a complex animatronic system that could even mimic a limited pallette of human facial expressions in real time. Frank Oz was contacted to bring his unique vocal talent to the table.
"It was quite eerie to watch at first. When Frank (Oz) started to read the lines while the model's lips moved it sent shivers down my spine. It was easy to forget that he was just plastic, rubber and mechanisms."
Seven Bush models were built as the Creature Shop's way of overcoming the inherent shortcomings of the facial animation system and as fallbacks in case of failure. Scriptwriters had to be constantly reminded that the hardware could only handle one set of emotions at once.
"This really hit us hard when an inexperienced operator tried to push the emotion setting from proud and paternal to grief stricken without time to reset and recondition. The entire face locked up in front of the camera for nearly seven minutes before the animatronics experts could bring him back online."
Since that day, Bush's public appearances have been carefully stage-managed to minimise the risk of technical hitches.
"For the last few years we've been using a digital Bush that we can add to the scene in post-production. When the Lord of the Rings came out and we saw the quality of their "Gollum" character, we knew the technology was finally mature enough to use on Project W. We'd used CGI stand-ins for years for distance shots such as walking, which are fantastically difficult to animate with traditional puppetry, but we were never really convinced by the look."
With Project W's Presidency drawing to a close, were there any missed opportunities the team recognises now that the end is in sight?
"In hindsight, it is always easy to be over-critical. If we were starting again from scratch, I'd definitely change the entire art direction. Given the recent global mood I think the face is a little too cartoony, but you can't change something as fundamental as that in the middle of a project. But apart from that, the last few years have been a blast and we're looking forward to new challenges once Bush has been put back into storage. And no, I can't tell you what we're working on at the moment. All I can say is watch November's elections very carefully indeed!"
- Marcello "Zappatista" Waka/Jawaka "From Sesame Street to the White House: a bold journey". Outhouse Edification Press, October 27, 2006