Jim Henson, the creator of The Muppets and puppet master extraordinaire, quite literally changed the dimensions of how puppetry appeared onscreen. Since his earliest days in television, his passion for the medium translated into an honest desire to advance the form and saw him develop an important camera technique that influenced the framing of his work for years to come.
Before Henson emerged in the television field, puppet performers working in the medium would set up their characters on a conventional puppet stage and place the camera head-on to shoot the action. The stage was a clear on-screen boundary and presented audiences and performers alike with a fairly limited result: a static, diorama-style narrative that could only move as far as the wings allowed.
But while working on his first show, a proto-Muppet Show sketch series called Sam and Friends, Henson used the camera frame itself as his puppet stage, allowing his characters to instead move freely about a constructed television set. By removing indications of an onscreen boundary, he made the experience of watching his series more immersive for both performers and audience members alike; after all, actors were not limited to operating on a 2D plane, and audiences could more easily imagine these characters operating in a larger world.
Flash forward some decades later to 1979, when Henson’s creatures ruled television airwaves and also made the frog’s leap over to the silver screen. The Muppet Movie, which follows Kermit, Fozzie, and the rest of the Muppet gang all traveling road-trip style across the country to Hollywood, marks the first time that these characters saw their hilarity, hijinks, and litany of pop culture references translate to film.
While Henson did not direct The Muppet Movie, the production still saw his influence by using the camera-as-stage technique on an even grander scale. The filmmakers took care to immerse performers and audience members alike into a larger world — our world — making this classic cast of characters feel all the more real.
The film sets a standard from its opening scene, in which Kermit sings the Academy Award-nominated song “Rainbow Connection” in a flowering swamp. As a crane shot lowers into the elaborate set, a one-take zoom pushes in on Kermit sitting on a log strumming his banjo. Throughout, the camera continues to move freely around him, establishing a strong sense of place, much more so than a single head-on shot could do. This is a fully constructed environment, and the camera makes us privy to it.
This sequence marked the first time a hand puppet’s full body appeared onscreen – Henson was submerged in an underwater drum to achieve the shot. His commitment to the scene does wonders to establish the bog as Kermit’s personal paradise; indeed, the bog becomes so expansive that it feels tangible, a lived-in environment that, while isolated, also seems visitable. And someone ultimately does, of course: comedian Dom DeLuise, in the film’s first of many star cameos, plays a big-shot Hollywood talent scout who recognizes Kermit’s star power at first glance.
This sense of immersion continues from there, as Kermit sets off to achieve stardom alongside a certain bear moonlighting as a standup comedian. Moving along on their road trip, the natural world serves as the film’s set; driving sequences are shot along actual roads (“a Frog and a Bear, seeing America!”) and make use of a real, full-size 1951 Studebaker, with the Muppet characters positioned right at the wheel.
The camera often puts us right inside the Studebaker with Kermit and Fozzie and does not limit the audience to watching their antics with a static head-on shot. What’s more, these sequences are engineered in such a way that the performers are incorporated into the natural boundaries of their environment. The car’s bench seat is now a puppet stage, or it’s the driver’s side door. This immersion was no easy task — the driver had to operate the car from the inside of its hollowed-out trunk, and Frank Oz had to crouch beneath the wheel — but the result is seamless. While the Muppets may exist on a stage, we’re on that stage right with them.
It’s only fitting, then, that the movie closes on some classic Muppet self-awareness. Indeed, after bringing us across the nation to county fairs and roadside chapels, used-car dealerships and family restaurants, The Muppet Movie turns in on itself in its final moments by setting its climax on a Hollywood backlot, and its finale number on a crumbling soundstage.
The soundstage becomes the site of the film’s largest scale world-building exercise, as a crowd of more than 250 Muppet characters sing in a practically constructed, 6-foot deep, 17-foot wide pit. The camera starts on Kermit, then slowly pushes outward to reveal the crowd and the dilapidated set around them, all once more in one take. This movement hammers home the film’s sense of place one last time, and makes The Muppets’ final message all the apter: “Life’s like a movie, write your own ending!”
Overall, Henson knew that the television camera — and later, the film camera — was a practical tool that could serve to immerse audiences in his artistic vision. By taking his characters out of a 2D plane and placing them into a three-dimensional, cinematic world, the filmmakers behind The Muppet Movie make their stars inhabit a space that we, too, can see ourselves in. If all the world’s a stage, then the Muppets make the performance that much more joyful.