When The Muppet Movie was released in 1979 the Muppet Show Fan Club pointed out the differences between the movie and the puppet’s popular television show.
“If you think it’s a film version of The Muppet Show, you’re in for a surprise.
For one thing, it doesn’t take place in the theatre. The Muppet Movie is set in the real world — it’s like waiting in line at a gas station and looking up to find Fozzie and Kermit driving the next car over.”
In the subsequent seven theatrical Muppet movies that magic has been maintained, but the methods have changed over the years. In 2011’s The Muppet Movie all the puppets were real, but the way they were filmed changed. To give the puppets a full range of movement the puppeteers — or Muppeteers as they prefer to be called — were often in full view of the camera and digitally removed in post production.
“We removed the puppeteers later,” said visual effects artist Max Ivins, “so it gave the puppeteers a lot more freedom in that they didn’t have to hide from the camera to do everything.” It’s a technique used in Muppets Most Wanted, which sees the furry and felt puppets get into trouble on a world tour when it turns out that Kermit’s doppelgänger is the world’s number one criminal. Co-starring with the Muppets is Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell and Tina Fey. In the years before computer generated imagery, however, Muppeteers hidden from view manipulated all the puppets. And it wasn’t always so comfortable.
Everyone remembers Kermit sitting on a log, playing his banjo, in the middle of a swamp in The Muppet Movie, but did you know that Jim Henson, Kermit’s creator and operator until 1990, was under water for the five days it took to shoot the scene?
According to the Muppet Fan Club he was wedged into a metal tube “under the water, under the log, under the Frog” while hooked up with an air hose, a monitor and a rubber sleeve which allowed him to manipulate the puppet.
Frank Oz was also submerged for Miss Piggy’s water ballet scene in The Great Muppet Caper. “I was under the water for a week,” he says. “I had three days of scuba training and then down I went.” Finally, almost every Muppet movie features Kermit riding a bicycle. How did they do it in the early days? Director James Frawley jokes, “I put him on a three-wheeler until he got his balance, and then I put him on the two-wheeler.”
In fact, the effect was achieved by intercutting long shots using a Kermit marionette and close-ups with a hand puppet operated by Henson who rode along with the bike on a low-rolling dolly.