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Mary Robinette Kowal – The Fantastic Stylings of Frank Oz (Beyond the Muppets)

You’ve no doubt heard of Frank Oz, and depending on when you first became aware of him, you’ll either think of him as the man with his hand up Jim Henson’s Muppets, or as a quirky and inventive fantasy director. Either way, he’s had a strong influence on the genre, having started his career in puppetry when he was eleven years old. How did this background in puppetry shape his career as a director? Read on.

The Muppet Movie (1979)
For those of you who know Oz only as a director, let’s pause for a moment and look at the range of Muppets he played: Miss Piggy, a self-obsessed diva pig; Fozzie Bear, a hapless comedian; Animal, a crazed drummer; Sam the Eagle, a true patriot; Marvin Suggs, who played the Muppaphone. Oz says that he doesn’t do voices, he does characters and that if you start from the heart, the character follows. I suspect that’s why his characters are so enduring.

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Just in case you hadn’t made the connection, the same man who plays Miss Piggy also has his hand in the greatest Jedi Master in the known universe. Whereas the Muppets were broad characters played comedically, Yoda needed to inhabit the same world as real humans — not just physically, but also in terms of acting style — meaning he couldn’t look or move like a puppet. Oz’s ability to exhibit natural and distinct rhythms both in Fozzie Bear and Yoda demonstrate the level of artistry he brings to puppetry, and how far he’s able to go to enhance fantasy’s illusion.

The Dark Crystal (1982)
You can always tell when Oz is pulling the strings, even when someone else is voicing the character. His imprint on the puppets is simply that strong, as is the case with Aughra and the Skeksis Chamberlain from this seminal 1982 fantasy. What makes this movie all the more important to Oz’s career is it began his foray into directing. And who better to guide the Muppet-master into the field than Muppets creator Jim Henson, who co-directed the project with Oz.

Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
By the time this little gem of a musical rolled around, Oz was a full-fledged director, but still working with puppets and with a lot of the same people he knew from the other side of the camera. His familiarity with what it takes to combine puppets and people in a frame certainly served him well here when you look at the giant talking man-eating plant. The largest incarnation of this beast took 40 puppeteers to operate, and Oz had to work at half-speed just to coordinate everyone. For a less-experienced director, that would be all but impossible.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)
I mention this movie, which has not a scrap of fantasy in it, because of one important fact: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is the first flick Oz directed in which there were no puppets. What effect did this have on his work? The project kept running ahead of schedule because he had accidentally budgeted for the amount of time it takes to work with puppets. If you want a puppet to drink a glass of water, for instance, it would involve at least three separate shots of walking across the room, picking up the glass, and drinking from it. Working only with people was a miracle all its own for Oz.

The Indian in the Cupboard (1995)
From a technical perspective, this was an extremely difficult project to shoot because much of the action had to happen in two different places: All of Ory’s scenes were shot in a practical bedroom, and he had to pretend he was looking at tiny people. Conversely, all of Little Bear’s scenes were shot on over-sized sets or against blue-screens. Oz’s job was to make sure they always appeared to be in the same frame. Considering the technology available fifteen years ago, he accomplishes this job beautifully. It’s a great synthesis of the practicalities of thinking for puppetry and the heart of thinking about characters.

The Stepford Wives (2004)
Although the movie was reportedly plagued with problems on-set, you can see clear evidence here of the years that Oz spent honing his comedic timing in the puppetry trenches of dark fantasies like Little Shop. The movie’s inherent darkness gets a farcical spin, which manages to make some really twisted stuff actually kind of amusing. How can setting someone’s hand on fire be both funny and horrifying? Look at where the director came from…


Mary Robinette Kowal is the winner of the 2008 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and a professional puppeteer. Her first novel, Shades of Milk and Honey, is being published by Tor in 2010.

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