Morning Coffee Blog: Influences – Don Sahlin

8 Mar

I know there are some folks in the puppet space that wish we could move past the whole Henson thing, and who feel the paradigm and role of puppetry stuck in the Muppet model. I absolutely agree that puppetry is and should be more than just The Muppets, but I also acknowledge the enormous debt puppetry owes to the Henson legacy. Everyone working professionally in this field is standing on the shoulders of Jim Henson and the amazing group of artists and performers he gathered around him.

I don’t even attempt to hide their influence on my work, and one of the biggest influences is early Muppet designer and builder Don Sahlin. Don is widely known as one of the main architects of the Muppet “look”, and moreover likely origin of the myth of the “Henson Stitch”. Don was also a notorious trickster. Those previous two facts are not coincidental.

One of Don’s main jobs was taking a little doodle of Jim’s and iterating on it to turn it into a practical design. Many of the most iconic characters were down to Don. Bert and Ernie, Grover, Oscar, Cookie Monster, etc, all Don’s work. Don was a master at two things: minimalism and keeping it weird.

Often when I start working on a new design or features on a new build, I get tempted to spin off into ever increasingly elaborate ideas – and every time I circle back to ‘keep it simple’ and every time it’s the right answer. There’s a real power and intensity in something that can convey a ton of character and personality, and do it with a few simple shapes. It’s what I love about minimalist design – there an almost meditative quality to it, a de-cluttering of the mind.

As I said before, many puppets represent abstractions or caricatures, and this is why a minimalist design works so well with them. It’s also why children respond so enthusiastically to puppet characters. They are simple, direct, uncomplicated and concentrated. You get all the information you need with a few simple forms of input – shape, sound and motion. Combine those things in the right proportion and you have a character that works.

This is what Don excelled at, and what I try to bring to the work that comes out of O:P.

And now that simplest of all decisions: coffee.

Puppets: Serious Business
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