It’s not easy being computer animated, especially if you want to look more like the puppets on which you’re based. The team behind Disney Junior’s “Muppet Babies” worked countless hours to create a technique that makes today’s animated versions of Kermit, Piggy, Animal and the rest of the gang appear like the puppets used in 1984’s “The Muppets Take Manhattan,” where they were first featured.
“One of the things that we wanted to solve was tying the animated Muppet Babies to the adult puppets in a way that a kid could see baby Kermit and then see adult Kermit and go, ‘Oh, it’s the same.’” explains Matt Danner, co-producer, supervising director and the voice of Kermit on the series. “We got to work with all the puppet makers at the Muppet Studio and the real Muppets, and we spent a lot of time developing CG characters that feel as close to the real thing as possible.”
The team visited a storage facility in New York that houses the puppets and was able to examine how they were made. Team members also took high-resolution photos to help them re-create the textures on the computer, and they paid attention to every detail. “Animal’s fur is made out of feathers — these fine feathers — so we actually textured them like that. We even got the little bit of dust that’s on the felt pupils,” Danner says.
The “Muppet Babies” crew didn’t stop there. The team realized that it’s not just about how the characters look but also about how they move. And puppets move in a particular way. “They’re made of felt and fabric, and they flop and they flip and everything,” Danner says. To get that specific movement just right, team members worked with Snowball Studios in Israel to develop what they call Jiggle Tech, a simulation that can be applied to all of the characters.
As an example, Danner points to the character of Fozzie and the way his ears move when his propeller hat turns. “The CG character without any fabric or clothes or fur on it moves quite stiffly,” he says. “But once we apply fur and jiggle to it, you can see Fozzie’s ears start to move.”
Tom Warburton, exec producer of “Muppet Babies,” says that getting ears to move is normally animated by hand. But here, the Jiggle Tech builds that motion into the characters. “So if the person animating just moves the character,” Warburton explains, “those ears move automatically.”
The most complicated character to process is Animal. “His hair probably has the most amount of jiggle on it,” Danner says. “Just in a simple walk cycle, it does a lot of moving. We actually get to move Animal around as if it was a puppet and everything falls into place, which is very cutting edge. Nobody does this in TV yet, and it’s something that gives the show uniqueness.”