|James Frawley, |
Director of 1979's
"The Muppet Movie"
It's a memorable movie scene: Behind the wheel of an old Studebaker, a fuzzy brown bear is chauffeuring a frog. They talk about life, swap bad jokes and turn left at a fork in the road.
But what's less known about the scene is that puppeteers had to sit underneath the dashboard of the car to make them move and talk.
Without the use of computer effects, and going into uncharted movie-making territory,
Now, 35 years after the Muppets made their movie debut, they're still a box-office draw for children and adults alike, with their catchy songs, clever storylines and heartfelt humor.
"The Muppets are so innocent and positive in a world that is pretty cynical and at times pretty negative and bitter," said
The Muppet Movie was the first of its nature; taking puppets outside of the studio and into everyday situations, paving the way for films like "
Frawley, who lives in Indian Wells, Calif., with his wife, Cynthia, was selected by Henson for the project because of his experience with quirky material, like directing the 1976 comedy The Big Bus and episodes of The Monkees.
Frawley, 77, loved the writing and the humor of The Muppet Show and felt an immediate attraction to the project and the characters.
"'The Muppet Movie was about bringing a family together, creating a group expressing love and hope, and very positive values," Frawley said. "We supported that in the making of the movie."
Frawley flew to
"The question was, since the Muppets had only been photographed on tape inside the studio, would they be accepted in a real location?" he said. "Could you believe a frog and a pig in the real world?"
Henson, Frawley, puppeteer
"We shot them in and among cows — real locations though — trees, farmland and cars to see if you accepted their reality mixed in with real reality," said Frawley.
"It was also way for Jim to see how I worked with them and if I understood the process, which I didn't at the beginning."
The trickiest part of working with the Muppet performers was ensuring that they remained out of the frame. Attached to their chests were monitors so they could see what the camera was photographing and they could make corrections.
"The audience doesn't ask themselves, 'Where's the rest of the frog?' " he said. "They kind of accept it," Frawley said.
Frawley dove head-first into the project, where they made up the process as they went along, and completed filming in 90 days.
"When five or six Muppets crossed the stage in a group to approach
So what you have to do is frame things in the foreground, sofas and chairs, so you didn't see below the frame."
In another scene, while Kermit stood underneath a desert night sky and had a "spiritual revelation," Frawley wanted to punctuate that moment with a shooting star. The crew assembled a Christmas-tree light to a wire on the sound stage. Frawley signaled and the light shot across the stars.
When Animal digested some chemicals from the lab of Bunsen and Beaker and grew through the roof of their previously abandoned laboratory, the movie crew had to create a 60-foot Animal.
Aside from Sweetums, a large ragtag ogre with thick eyebrows and an orange nose, no one ever dressed up as a Muppet. When Kermit walked across the sand in a ghost town, the camera was ground level and someone above was operating his two skinny green legs.
"Every shot was a special effect," said Frawley, whose TV credits include
"Every scene was a special kind of challenge. How do we shoot this? Where do we put the Muppet performers? Where do I put my camera? We had to choreograph it to make it seamless."
And his favorite Muppet? Frawley has a soft spot for Fozzie Bear with his near-vaudevillian humor.
"His need for approval and for love so endearing, I found him very touching," he said.