How Are Muppets Created? The New ‘Muppet Babies’ Art Director Reveals All
Muppets fans who loved Muppet Babies as a kid: Disney is about to make your dreams come true. This Friday, Disney Channel launches a brand new Muppet Babies series about the adventures of Baby Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Animal, and a new Muppet named Summer. Though directly inspired by the original show, the new Muppet Babies features new voices (including Jenny Slate as Nanny) and a new three-dimensional animation style that looks more like a miniature version of the actual Muppet puppets.
One of the men responsible for the look of the new show is art director Chris Moreno, who spoke with me about the challenges of updating an iconic piece of ’80s pop culture. (In the interest of full disclosure, you should know Chris is one of my oldest friends; not, like, he’s 85 years old, we’ve known each other since we were practically non-Muppet babies.) He shared some of the show’s earliest sketches and storyboards, walked me through the series’ development process, and revealed what his team learned from watching old videos of Jim Henson.
What was your reaction when you first heard about the idea of a new Muppet Babies?
I’ve been part of the show since the early development, so a lot of the talk about it was coming from us in terms of pitching it. Essentially, we were working in close proximity and on the same team as Muppet Studios; a lot of it was generated from our development team. From the jump, we were keying off of [the Muppet baby dream sequence in] Muppets Take Manhattan.
We were fans of the original cartoon, but we really wanted the idea of introducing the Muppet characters to younger kids. Part of that was replicating the feel and texture of the characters. That’s something that 2D can’t really do. That’s what we tried to push: How do we introduce these characters to kids? How do we make them feel more like their adult counterparts? How do we make them feel soft and huggable? Stuff like that.
The old Muppet Babies series had two-dimensional animation. Your show is CGI. What motivated that choice?
Part of it was just an aesthetic decision. We didn’t want to do exactly what was done before. A lot of it came from looking at The Muppets Take Manhattan and going “There’s something really charming about that.” I had the Muppet Babies’ Happy Meal toys, and I think McDonald’s also did plushes around Christmas one time. And those were some of my favorite toys as a kid.
If you ever see any clips of the Muppet characters when they interact with children, the first thing kids want to do is touch the characters. In looking how to do a new Muppet Babies, we wanted that tactile quality. We wanted people to want to reach out to these characters and engage with them. We felt like to do a traditional 2D show would be a level removed from that.
As far as the stylization, it’s a hybrid. We looked at the original animated show and we also looked at the grown-up adult Muppets and tried in our designs to bridge those two in a way that if a kid doesn’t know who these characters are, they can watch this new show and then find the old stuff, the movies and TV shows, and make that connection immediately. When you look at Baby Kermit and then look at adult Kermit, you can see the connection there a little bit more.
That includes the new character we created, Summer Penguin. She’s a new character but at the same time we worked very closely with Muppet Studios to make her an authentic part of the Muppet universe, in terms of the shapes and the textures and the way that she’s constructed.
Speaking of Summer, how challenging is it to create a new character that has to exist alongside characters that are so well-established and so beloved by multiple generations of viewers?
It was a long process. This show came together relatively quickly, but the process of creating that character took a lot of time and care.
Summer took so many different animal forms. We did every possible animal until we finally arrived at a penguin. It was really me and Tom Warburton, the executive producer, sitting in a room sketching all these different things. Tom did this really quick, loose sketch of a penguin character [seen above]. It looked like an ice cream cone and a scoop of ice cream on it.
A lot of times what we were trying to design was not just a cartoon character but trying to imagine a Muppeteer operating it. That’s how realistic we wanted to be with the design. Seeing Tom’s little sketch was like “Okay, I can see that. I can see that working.” I did a tighter drawing of it, and brought it in line with the other characters, but once we saw that one lined up with the other characters, everybody who saw it was like, “Oh that’s the one.”
What other kinds of animals did you try for Summer?
We did everything! At one point we had a sheep. We did giraffes. There was a little deer. That one was a big contender. I had a stack of drawings. It was like American Idol, lining up all these hopefuls, before we finally got to Summer. They were a lot of really great drawings. I remember seeing some we thought were the one.
It is interesting to be a part of a process like this. It takes a long time, but you realize that all that time spent is refining an idea and finding the best version of what something is. It’s the sculptor sculpting out of marble. You’re really digging into something and finding what that best version is.
Besides Summer, you have five of the original Muppet Babies. But the old show had a larger cast with Muppets like Rowlf and Scooter. How did you decide who made the cut?
I wasn’t involved in every decision about who was in and who was out. We had some that we needed, some we wanted. But the idea of the Muppets is kind of cool, because none of these characters ever get retired. If you look around the playroom, we added nods to some of the other characters. And we’ve got some other characters who are going to show up later in the season, like Rowlf and Statler and Waldorf and Bunsen and Beaker. For people who are like, “Where’s my favorite Muppet?” we’ve left the possibility for you to see all those characters, and maybe even more.
In terms of the core group, we wanted our mainstays; Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie. They are sort of the triumvirate of the Muppet clan. Introducing a character like Summer, it’s neat to show that they’re always adding characters. But to fans watching the show: Definitely keep your eyes peeled. We put a lot of really fun Easter eggs into the episodes, especially in the Imagination sequences.
Let’s talk about designing some of the actual characters. Some of them look a lot like they’re wearing something very close to their original Muppet Babies costumes, and some are pretty significantly different.
The overall philosophy was “If the original Muppet Babies was them at a certain age, this show is them a year later.” In the original Muppet Babies they’re in little pajamas and diapers and things like that. This new show they’re sort of toddler age; they’ve moved up a little bit from where they were.
The whole time I was trying to keep a lot of color and feeling of the clothes and original outfits. If you look at Kermit, he’s not in the sailor suit anymore, but the color scheme is still there. The proportions of the outfit are still the same. Fozzie used to wear a yellow onesie with the snaps in the back. We kept the color of that shirt and the propeller beanie but we gave him a pair of shorts.
With Animal, the original outfit was just a bonnet and little shorts. We wanted to use the idea of bridging the baby version and the adult version a little bit more. Especially with the bonnet, losing that, it was about embracing his hair. The adult Animal’s hair is completely insane and wild. A lot of people were excited about trying to incorporate that back into the character. Again, a lot of the decisions were about seeing if we could get more texture into the outfits. So giving Animal ripped jeans with the little threads was about increasing that tactile quality of the characters.
We worked with the Muppet Studio a lot to get patterns. If you look at Animal’s hoodie and Gonzo’s shirt under his overalls, we’re using patterns that you might see on the adult Muppets’ clothing as well. Again, just to give it that little edge closer to the adult versions while still keeping the feeling of the original babies’ outfits.
Watching the show, I was wondering if you have any of the voice actors in mind when you’re designing.
We designed the characters without the voices. It was a long process and a lot of auditioning to get the voices. But we were thinking about the voices of the actual Muppets. Working with Muppet Studio was really great because they could give us all kinds of great reference that might be hard to find in Google searches or going to a research library.
A lot of the talks we had in terms of how we animate the characters and their personalities was about the puppet itself. How does Kermit’s head bounce when he walks? How do we get that into the character as opposed to doing a full, fluid character animation? Little aesthetic details like being able to see the felt in their eyes, being able to see the little stitching inside their mouths. For characters like these, so much of the personality is in the materials that make them. That’s more of the “voice” that we were thinking of when we were designing them, as opposed to an actual voice you can hear.
I definitely picked up on the way the characters move more like puppets. How hard is it to get CGI to move like felt?
[laughs] It’s challenging! There’s this thing we call “Jiggle Tech” that Snowball developed for our characters. It’s the idea that when Kermit moves his arm, there’s still a little bit of overshoot wiggle that’s built into the characters. It isn’t something that has to be animated. What’s nice is it creates that random movement that you see in the adult Muppets flopping around. All the Muppets have those jiggly parts where, say, the fabric on a character’s arm is loose.
Now we have these sort of “before and after” pieces. What can you tell me about these?
The “before” pieces are storyboards from “Sir Kermit, the Brave” and a good example of one of our “Rainbow Transitions,” a fun visual signifier that our characters are traveling from the real world into their imaginations. The storyboard panels are cut into an animatic with temp music and sound, which is then sent to Snowball, the animation studio, who takes them and does a Layout pass (rough placement of the characters in the scenes with no motion). From there, notes are given and each stage of animation is fleshed out and refined. 2D backgrounds — in this case our Closet Cave interior — are painted on our end at Oddbot and given to Snowball to put into their compositing process (where the 2D backgrounds are married to the CG character animation). The final pass is where textures and FX are added.
You’ve mentioned working with the Muppet Studios a few times. Did they lay down any rules about things you could or couldn’t do?
I wouldn’t say there were necessarily guidelines or rules, it was more encouragement. Debbie McClellan, who is the executive in charge of Muppet Studios, she was our Muppets guru. She would pass us the good Muppets knowledge.
The thing she kept imparting on us is the quality of the Muppets. The fact that they’re a family. The fact that all of them embrace each other’s faults. Things like that. She was great at passing Jim Henson videos and quotes and stuff to help inspire the look of things. There wasn’t anything like “Don’t do this or don’t do that.” And everybody working on this is such a Muppet fan that we innately felt the guardrails. It’s the unique thing about working on something that exists instead of creating it from scratch. There’s already a road there you can see.
Can you give me an example of something Muppet Studios shared that was particularly helpful?
There was a great video of Jim Henson and a couple of the other puppeteers talking about how they bring life into the characters. There’s a lot of talk of “active listening.” The characters are never inert. Their heads are moving or nodding, something that makes you realize they are paying attention. And he’s doing it while Kermit is sitting on his lap. You really do ignore Jim Henson at that point and look at Kermit.
They also have a very specific aesthetic in terms of the way the pupils are spaced on the eyes, where they focus around the nose. It creates this little triangle that really is the difference between a character looking alive and looking like an inanimate object. That kind of thing, as the process of working on designing the show continued, that sticks out to me as invaluable. The idea of keeping it living, keeping it alive was a cool bit of knowledge.
Muppet Babies premieres on Disney Channel on March 23.