Ron Howard on Jim Henson: “You could see there was nothing to hide” | Ron Howard

BBefore he became the world’s most famous puppeteer – the man responsible for The Muppets and Big Bird; and turning David Bowie into the Goblin King in Labyrinth – Jim Henson was an experimental filmmaker.

In his Academy Award-nominated 1965 short Time Piece, Henson plays a man transcending time and space, the percussive beats of clocks, heartbeats, and other machines creating the rhythms of the film’s montage. In a film inspired by Georges Méliès and Dziga Vertov, Henson goes from playing a hospital patient to Tarzan to George Washington. He was a man who could seemingly be anyone and do anything, much like Henson himself.

Short films like Time Piece and Idea Man — animation in which a small idea multiplies exponentially into something larger — cast a long shadow over Henson’s career and Ron Howard’s affectionate biography of the late creator television for children. Howard chronicles their playful rhythms and aesthetic in his documentary Jim Henson Idea Man, which digs into archival footage, features new talking head interviews with family and collaborators like Frank Oz and Jennifer Connelly, and shines a nostalgic spotlight those moments that bring out the child in everything. We. These shorts also play a key role in the subject matter of Howard’s film: Henson was always experimenting, in film and television, pushing form and formats to see what ideas stuck.

“All of these experiments, for the most part, didn’t really work commercially at the time,” Howard said on a Zoom call. “A lot of it has never been seen. (But) it all influenced what became the huge hits and iconic characters and scenes that we all remember.

“He understood that we needed both worlds. That creativity and experimentation were vital to him. This is where his heart and soul were. But he also knew he had to apply it in a place that would not only pay the bills, but also get people’s attention.

Howard points out the influence that Henson’s experimental shorts, like Time Piece, would have on his work for Sesame Street. The same playful editing and animation styles are present in these counting and alphabet videos that have become foundational for millions of children. “It’s a creative life,” says Howard, “you have to constantly explore and discover, then apply what you’ve learned over time.”

Howard, in his trademark hat and frames aesthetic, is at Cannes, where Jim Henson Idea Man is premiering. Henson himself attended the festival in the south of France in 1980, flying for two days on a private jet chartered by the office of Muppets producer Sir Lew Grade. Henson wrote in his diary, known as “The Red Book”, that he was at the festival to talk with “Lew” about a higher budget and to party on a yacht with “Liza M” (presumably Minnelli, who made a spectacular appearance as a showgirl). in a film noir-inspired episode of The Muppet Show the previous year).

Howard, the former child star of The Andy Griffith Show turned Oscar-winning director behind Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind, is in good spirits and in complete control of the conversation. He has a delicate but masterful way of relating any wayward question I ask to the task at hand: promoting Jim Henson Idea Man. So it’s hard for me to believe the veteran filmmaker when he talks about feeling the same nervous anxiety today that he felt his first time in Cannes 36 years ago, when the fantasy film produced by George Lucas, Willow.

Looking back on that moment, Howard also warmly remembers Willow introducing the first believable morphing shot during a scene where a witch morphs, comparing Lucas’ innovations to the experimentation and pioneering that Henson was known for. There’s a line to be drawn from Henson cutting fabric from his mother’s coat to make a puppet — eventually named Kermit — to the digital sorcery in Willow and beyond.

“When (Henson) got into television…the rules hadn’t really been determined,” Howard says, recalling a time even before his live television debut as a child on the series Playhouse 90 “He helped create some of these rules in the way people have used technology over the last 15 years to create a new cinematic language.

Jim Henson poses with Kermit the Frog. Photography: AP

Today, the fear is that the new language will be built using AI and threaten artists’ jobs. Howard, in the spirit of Henson and all his experimentation, is slightly more welcoming of this technology, while recognizing that it needs to be mastered. “AI is not going away,” he says. “It’s a reality. We have to make it a tool.”

Howard also adds that he doesn’t believe AI can effectively replace artistry and ingenuity. “AI is about taking inspiration from the world around it,” he says, “especially the Internet. When we insert a prompt, it provides us with the average response. You can follow up on other prompts, etc., but it requires interpretation to move from an average pedestrian (or) to an area that human beings are going to find fresh and interesting… It’s almost like you want to insert a prompt and then don’t do what he suggests. Run the other way.

Howard has spent the last decade alternating between scripted projects like Hillbilly Elegy and Thirteen Lives and documentaries like Pavarotti and We Feed People. The Henson documentary is the first in which he profiles a fellow film and television director, whom Howard speaks about with obvious enthusiasm and empathy.

Howard said he was drawn to the idea of ​​telling Henson’s story after the family spoke about his story. “Their conversation about their father – but also about their mother, family, their love and affection for both of them, their recognition of the weaknesses and difficulties encountered along the way – was music to my ears as a storyteller,” Howard explains.

His film traces Henson’s ups and downs, and how he deeply felt failures and setbacks, like an unmade Broadway show or The Dark Crystal, which has since been reframed as a cult classic. The documentary is respectful, bordering on hagiography, which is not undeserved but is also pretty much the norm, as far as biopics and documentaries are allowed these days.

“When you see an authorized documentary, you have to take it for what it is and recognize it,” Howard says. “Unauthorized, it’s its own business.” It probably won’t have the intimate access that an authorized documentary will have. But it can offer other perspectives. Then you need to decide whether you think they are valid or not.

“The only thing we can ask is for people to be honest with us. Let us, the viewer, know in what context a documentary was made; the same goes for literary biographies, autobiographies and memoirs.

This is not to say that an unauthorized documentary would have been much more revealing regarding Henson. I don’t think anyone expected Howard and his team to go out of their way looking for dirt on the guy behind the Muppets; and even if they had tried, it’s unlikely they would have discovered that he had mistreated a sock or something.

“You could see there was nothing to hide,” Howard says. “He was a really noble guy. He was a very good example of a human being walking on Earth.

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