Rest assured, Muppet purists: You won't see any computer-generated Kermits, Gonzos, or Fozzies in The Muppets, which opened in theaters last week. Every time the Muppets appear on screen in the movie, they're the real deal: fuzz, felt, and fur creatures given their voices, movements, and expressions by human puppeteers.
But you also won't see any visual evidence of those puppeteers in the film, despite the fact that some scenes required several puppeteers to be in full view of the camera. This is where the film's extensive visual effects make their mark.
For the most part, the Muppets appear as autonomous, stand-alone beings in the film, free of their strings, rods, wires, and puppeteer operators. Unlike most effects-heavy movies, The Muppets uses most of its digital trickery to conceal what's actually there instead of adding things to the scene.
To get a behind-the-scenes look at what was involved in giving the Muppets their on-screen autonomy, I spoke with Max Ivins, visual effects supervisor for Look Effects, whose team worked on hundreds of scenes in the film.
PCWorld: When working on the digital effects for The Muppets, did you feel a lot of pressure to make the effects conform to viewers' expectations and to the legacy of the show and the previous films?
Max Ivins: I didn't feel a lot of added pressure. At the beginning of the project, when we were talking about doing the effects for the movie, I was like, "Really? What are we going to do? Put legs on them? Are we doing CG Muppets? I don't get it." But that's not what they wanted to do.
The biggest factor, in terms of what we were used for, was to give the puppeteers more freedom to do the puppeteering. There were a lot of characters shot on a blue stage with blue props, and puppeteers dressed head-to-toe in blue standing behind the puppets. We removed the puppeteers later, so it gave the puppeteers a lot more freedom in that they didn't have to hide from the camera to do everything.
And the best thing about the movie is that it's about the Muppets--it's not about these spectacular effects. In a way, our job was to make it seem as if we were never present. There was sort of a conscious effort to remove the digital look from things. All of it needed to feel tangible, even if it was obviously not "real." It's a puppet. But they didn't want it to seem as if there was an extraordinary leap in technology, even though we definitely used that.
PCW: Did the digital-effects team have to follow any sort of rules as to what you could and could not do to enhance some of the things the Muppets were doing? For example, adding digital effects to their eye movements or expressions or anything like that?
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