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Animateer Karen Prell
An Interview with Puppeteer, Animator and Writer

By Kenneth Plume and Phillip Chapman
September 11, 1998

Although Karen Prell worked on many Henson productions, from The Muppet Show and Sesame Street to Labyrinth and The Animal Show, she is most famous for her performance of the character of Red Fraggle from Fraggle Rock. After living in Britain for nearly a decade and helping to run a puppeteering company there with her husband, fellow Muppeteer Mike Quinn, both she and her husband took jobs at Pixar Animation Studios in California, creators of Toy Story. She worked as an animator on the Academy Award winning short Geri’s Game, about an elderly man’s manic chess game against himself, and has just finished working on Pixar’s upcoming computer-animated feature A Bug’s Life.

Karen Prell and Red

Karen Prell and Red Fraggle on the set of Fraggle Rock.

Tell me a little about your background.

PRELL: I grew up living all over the United States. Born in Florida… Lived on the East Coast a bit and the South a bit, but mainly grew up in Seattle. My father was with Boeing Aerospace so we traveled around a bit with his work. When I was in high school I was interested both in cel animation and Muppet-style puppets from seeing the Muppets on Sesame Street and then The Muppet Show. I did a lot of hand drawn cartooning and also made my own puppets and did puppet shows in school and for neighbors, so I was pursuing both of those things simultaneously. I was on the verge of applying to get into CalArts to take their animation program when I made a connection with someone from Muppets. I’d been writing them and bugging them and sending them photos of my puppets about getting work as a puppeteer. I met with someone and they invited me to send a tape of my puppeteering to their headquarters in New York. This is in 1979 and it just happened to be when they were looking for female puppeteers for Sesame Street. So I did a tape of a show I had written, directed and performed in in community college and Jim Henson saw it when he was looking through all kinds of peoples’ puppet tapes and he flew me out and auditioned me and gave me my first Muppet job on Sesame Street..

You also worked on the last season of The Muppet Show, right?

PRELL: Yes. They sent me out to England for eight weeks for some extended training and to see a bit more of what I could do. So in the middle of my Sesame Street work I went out to London in 1980. It was an amazing adventure seeing all my hero puppeteers on The Muppet Show as well as the guest stars. It was very exciting and a lot of fun.

What was the atmosphere like during that last season, since The Muppet Show was sitting on the top of the ratings, all the bugs had been worked out, but the decision had been made to end it while it was on top?

PRELL: Well, from what I understand yeah, they really had it working well but it still took a lot of work to do for five years and they were all ready for a rest and to try different areas. They were just starting to get geared up for Dark Crystal and getting into feature films… More of their sort of Creature-y type films as well as the Muppet style. It was a good time to take a break from that and start looking around for other directions to explore.

The Muppet Show Cast

The Muppeteers in a manic moment during the production of The Muppet Show in 1980: Jerry Nelson, Karen Prell, Richard Hunt, Jim Henson, Kathy Mullen, and Steve Whitmire. (Photo courtesy of Karen Prell).

How long after the end of The Muppet Show was the transition to Fraggle Rock made?

PRELL: The Muppet Show shot its last episode in 1980. The planning for it started soon after The Muppet Show stopped and we shot the first Fraggle Rock in 1982.

What was the audition process like for the lead characters?

PRELL: They had auditions in New York for various puppeteers they’d worked with on The Muppet Show and Sesame Street. They had some ideas for who they’d like to cast for certain characters and other people they were just calling them in to see what they could do and see what kind of surprises they might come up with as far as helping them decide the final casting. So when they called me they didn't even know if they were going to use me at all. It was just kind of to see what I could do. It was quite tricky when I started out with Muppets and Sesame Street… I had a lot to learn about acting and dealing with the technical part of performing, and also just self-confidence as a performer. By the time they called me in to audition for Fraggle Rock I was feeling a lot more comfortable with it all and I enjoyed the audition very much.

Was the character of “Red” more a product of the writing, your personality, or a merging of the two?

PRELL: It’s really a combination of the two. I mean, she was conceived as a bossy, hyperactive tomboy into all her sports and wanting to take charge and take action without thinking first. So that was all pretty much there to begin with. The funny thing was I had really wanted to be Mokey, because I saw Mokey as being closer to the way I am personally, just as sort of artistic and a bit quieter and dreaming a lot. So after the audition and they called and said “You’re going to be Red,” I was a bit shocked and said “Oh no! How am I gonna do this!” But I really have to thank Jim for wanting to try me as Red because it was obviously the perfect thing to bring out a lot of crazy “Red” stuff in myself that I guess he could see. I’m so glad that’s how it worked out… I had so much fun with her.

From what I've seen and heard, the Fraggle Rock set seemed like a very fun set to work on.

PRELL: It was. It was still hard work and there was a lot of work to be done in the time and everybody wanting to do it well and not to compromise and cut corners, but there was a wonderful feeling of teamwork. So even though we might be working very intensely and long hours, there was a lot of friendship and support and playing around and having a laugh… But still working hard in the midst of that. It was a wonderful atmosphere. It was a sad thing when the show ended and all of that came to an end. It was an ideal place to work.

In a recent interview, Muppet and Fraggle Rock writer Jerry Juhl was asked about the possibility of new production on Fraggle Rock. He mentioned that Jim originally had spoken with him concerning a TV movie “prequel” chronicling the founding of the Rock by the Fraggles. Had you ever heard anything about this?

PRELL: I hadn't heard anything about that. I know that everybody had a great fondness for the concept and the characters and probably wanted to do something more with them once the series finished, but there were various factors that got in the way of that, and the most they could do was the animated version of Fraggle Rock.

What was your opinion of the animated Fraggle Rock? From what I remember, it was very poorly done and seemed to have been made on the quick.

PRELL: I really wish that the original puppeteers could have been asked to do the voices for it. That was a bit of a shame. I guess it was done to be a kind of abbreviated version of what we had done on Fraggle Rock. I guess audiences just didn't take to it like the original. I think they did just one season of it. Some of the character designs didn't quite look like some of the characters and it looked like it was done quickly to keep the Fraggle thing going, but it didn't have as much behind it as the live action series and it showed. I'm sure the folks involved did what they could, worked hard and cared about it. The voice people they ended up using did well and seemed to have fun doing it. The shame was that the original puppeteers really wanted to do the voices - especially Richard Hunt - but they weren't able to give us the opportunity. The character designs looked alright on promotional artwork and on the show's titles where they must have had a higher budget. But a fair amount of the animation drawings within the actual episodes were extremely off-model. I assume this was because they had to use lower budget overseas animation. But at least they tried and we should appreciate that Henson got a version of Fraggle Rock on network television for people who hadn't been able to see it.

The Fraggle Rock Cast

The Fraggle Rock performers on the set: Steve Whitmire, Dave Goelz, Karen Prell, Kathy Mullen, and Jim Henson. (Photo courtesy of Karen Prell).

I always found it odd that the major wave of merchandising and fast food tie-ins really didn't seem to hit until the series had practically wrapped.

PRELL: Yeah… I guess they were still trying to figure out how to get all that working, and probably the fact that the live action series was on cable in the States prevented them from hitting hard with the merchandising when a large part of the country would never get to see the show.

After Fraggle Rock ended, what work did you go on to?

PRELL: My husband is also a Muppeteer and we met during Labyrinth in 1985, so after then I started living part-time in England. Ghost of Faffner Hall, Mother Goose Stories, and later The Animal Show were all shot in England, so that’s why I ended up working on those shows that were shot over there. I ended up living in England for about nine years, so whenever they ended up doing movies and TV shows over there they’d call me up and try to get me involved.

One of the characters I performed was the Worm from Labyrinth. I performed the front half of the body, mouth and eyes, which apparently was the first time a Henson puppeteer performed their own animatronic eyes for a character. I performed the worm to my own voice, which was dubbed later by Timothy Bateson. I was surprised when they ended up totally changing some of the dialogue and had to try to fit it to my lip-synch! Dave Barclay performed the tail. Dave is a great puppeteer, sculptor and a genius at building animatronics. He was one of the founders of Ultimate Animates Productions. He worked on Crystal, helping sculpt Aughra, Skeksis and UrSkeks, performed Sprocket in the UK and some European productions of Fraggle Rock, was chief puppeteer for the original Jabba the Hutt and was Chief Supervising Puppeteer for puppet effects on Who Framed Roger Rabbit. He recently did CG animation for Henson on Lost in Space and Merlin.

What can you tell me about Ultimate Animates productions? The description of The Great Bong sounds hilarious.

PRELL: Dave Barclay and Mike Quinn are two very talented British puppeteers who met working on Henson projects, starting with The Dark Crystal. They both puppeteered on the European co-productions of Fraggle Rock. Mike and Dave started Ultimate Animates in England in 1988 to build and perform film and television puppets and create puppet productions. I joined later on when I moved to England to be with Mike. We created many characters for European television and the Scope mouthwash puppets that were seen in the US. For a company that mainly consisted of three people we accomplished amazing breakthroughs in puppet technology and performing. Unfortunately, we couldn't keep going on the microscopic budgets and shooting schedules clients offered us and we closed the company in 1997 when Mike and I moved to the States. The Great Bong was a labor of love. It got widespread exposure in England but suffered from an early timeslot and lack of promotion that kept it from getting more audience awareness. The show has been sold in the Egyptian and Nambian markets. We own all the rights to it and still have all the puppets and everything. We had to do it very quickly on a little budget but we had these incredibly funny British celebrities doing the voices for it and we performed the puppets to the voices. It was written to be like The Goon Show meets Wind In The Willows. It was just a lot of crazy, surreal stuff, not just geared down to kids, but with clever wordplay and strange, unexpected things happening. We put a lot of work into it, my husband and I and David Barclay, another British Muppeteer. We ran this company trying to push our puppet-building and performing in a slightly different direction than what we were able to do with Henson. We accomplished a lot but it didn't end up taking off. About the time we were looking in other directions is when the Pixar work came up.

Your first animation work for Pixar was Geri’s Game, right?

PRELL: Yes.

Which shots did you work on?

PRELL: Quite a mixture of them. I was a beginning animator so I didn't do any of the superstar, beautifully acted shots… It was a lot of shorter shots. I did the second half shots of his hands putting the chess pieces down and then quite a few short shots of the aggressive Geri playing his chess pieces, and there’s a couple of shots of where he goes, “Nuh uh uh!” Just quite a mixture of them all throughout there. Some of the stuff the other animators did on it just blew my mind with what incredible acting and animation they were able to do.

It was amazing that, for how short the film is, it really seems to be a long form, fully developed piece that holds up to repeated viewings.

PRELL: The pacing and the direction are such a strong part of it. So many films can have clever ideas but the pacing lets it down and they can end up shooting themselves in the foot. Geri's got story and the character and the acting, plus the directing and the pacing are all tightly tied in together and works so well together. Jan Pinkava, the director, just did a great job of holding all that together and making it come out so wonderfully well.

Do you see computer animation as a natural extension of puppeteering?

PRELL: Well, it seems like it’s worked out that way. I would hate to think it would be a total replacement for puppeteering, as there's such a joy in spontaneous performing and expression in puppeteering that I miss very much and hope I can get a chance to do again sometime. There's such a totally different mindset with animating. You're able to get a lot more detail and flexibility in the movement and able to revise and revise and revise, and really able to get things perfected a lot more than you can with live action. Still, something about the energy and spontaneity of performing live puppets brings its own flavor to characters and storytelling. I'm surprised it worked out that my husband Mike and I were able to take to the computer animation so well, and Pixar is extremely pleased that it worked out. I don't know if other puppeteers would be able to make the transition because it is so very different from the spontaneity of live performing. There's a lot of planning, a lot of working with numbers… I equate it to performing while doing your tax returns.

But your love of art and animation must have helped to facilitate that transition.

PRELL: It did, and in fact my puppet experience gave me a sort of performer's eye when something was or wasn't working in a performance. As far as technically, I have my interest in animation and cartooning to be able to break things down into beats or into poses and how to deal with full body poses and movement that sometimes you wouldn't be able to do with puppets without being able to see the legs so much of the time. I was able to draw on all of that to bring to the animation.

Is it difficult to work day in and day out in the same company as your husband? Are there any strains?

PRELL: It's different all the time. When we were running the company in England then yeah, sometimes you'd bring the work home, but running a small company like that just ended up taking a lot of energy and time 24 hours a day just to make it work at all. At Pixar we're working on two different projects…

Mike Quinn and Karen Prell

Mike Quinn and Karen Prell at their graduation from Pixar University's in-house animator training program in 1997. They asked them to make silly hats for the ceremony. (Photo courtesy of Karen Prell).

He’s working on Toy Story 2 right now, right?

PRELL: That's right. He's working on that at the moment and that's going to be a theatrical release for next Christmas.

It was originally planned as a straight-to-video release, wasn't it?

PRELL: That was the original plan. In fact, if they had stuck to that plan they would have finished the animation by now, but what they were doing ended up looking so impressive to Disney they ended up saying, “Hey, this will work as a theatrical movie,” so they put it into the Christmas slot for next year and gave the animation and story people more time to add more to the movie. So it will be A Bug’s Life out for this Thanksgiving and the Toy Story Sequel next year.

Not only is Mike the cute and wonderful love of my life, he is an incredibly funny puppeteer and an excellent puppet builder and director. He had his eye on me from the time I apprenticed on The Muppet Show in 1980 and we started dating during the filming of Labyrinth in England in 1985 - our puppets flirted mercilessly with each other! At 16 Mike puppeteered on The Great Muppet Caper, then performed the Slavemaster Skeksis and Podlings (which he helped build) on Dark Crystal. He was on the team that puppeteered Sprocket, Gobo and Uncle Matt for European co-productions of Fraggle Rock. He also puppeteered Lando Calrissian's alien co-pilot Nein Nunb in Return of the Jedi and assisted puppeteering Yoda, Jabba the Hutt and Sy Snootles. He performed puppet effects in Who Framed Roger Rabbit and was puppet coordinator for Muppet Christmas Carol.

It's a great advantage being married to someone in the same business who understands the work and all the joys and stresses that come with it, whether we're puppeteering or animating. Anybody else would think we're nuts!

What is your current status with the Henson Company as far as projects go?

PRELL: Except for when I started out on Sesame Street, I was always a freelance performer, so I wasn't constantly on staff or anything. There was getting to be less and less of the sort of hand puppet type Muppet jobs I preferred doing so when Pixar expressed an interest I told Henson I've got a long-term job in the states. There really wasn't much work for me at the moment with them. Right now, I’m a full time employee with Pixar, but they know I miss puppeteering very much and they seem to be all right with people sometimes doing bits of other work as long as it doesn't clash with their Pixar requirements, so I’m hoping if there are little bits of puppet performing I can get a chance to do that again.

Your last Henson work was on Muppet Treasure Island, right?

PRELL: Yeah, I just did a few days of work on that.

Are there any plans for you to work on the upcoming Muppets From Space film?

PRELL: No. I'm on break right now but I will be back full time at Pixar taking training to possibly get into their story department, so I'll be taking that training for three months and then after that either get into doing story or return to animating… Wherever they need me next. I'll just have to see how that works out.

Are there any episodes of Fraggle Rock that stick out in your head as being favorites?

The main "Fraggle five."

The main five Fraggles are Red, Wembley, Mokey, Gobo, and Boober.

PRELL: One episode that I really enjoy is called “Playing Till It Hurts.” This was, I believe, in the 3rd season. It was a show that came about rather suddenly. We were supposed to shoot a Wembley show that week, but Steve Whitmire, who performed Wembley, broke a bone in his hand, so they suddenly needed an idea for a show. Jerry Juhl asked me if I had any ideas for a Red show. This was a show where Red's rock hockey idol was coming to Fraggle Rock and Red was all excited to show off for her but then hurts herself and can't play, or isn't supposed to play, but she tries to sneak into the game and show off to her idol but just keeps hurting herself worse and worse and worse and worse. I came up with some of the ideas and gags and drew a few idea drawings, and then Jerry Juhl and Jocelyn Stevenson helped shape it up into a proper story and then Jerry Juhl wrote the script for it, but a lot of the little gag ideas were mine. Red got to do this whole kind of fantasy, “Glam Rock” hockey musical sequence and go through all kinds of emotional highs and lows and disasters and stunts, and for a show that was created very quickly it had quite a lot of action and costumes and complicated setups. The whole crew worked really hard to get the show working. There's also a bit of trivia connected with that episode: Covering for Steve with this show was a way to make up for Steve covering for me on "Red's Club." The week before working on that show, I was found to need emergency surgery, so Steve actually performed Red. I dubbed her voice afterwards. It's ironic that they show a clip from that episode as an example of my performing in the Down At Fraggle Rock documentary! While I was recovering from surgery, Jim called me at home to see how I was doing, which was really kind of him. Except for "Red's Club" and "Mokey Then and Now," I performed in every episode of Fraggle Rock.

Of all the Fraggle performers, you seem the most adept at some amazing vocal acrobatics during songs, especially “There’s A Lot I Want To Know.”

PRELL: The one from “Inspector Red?”

Yes! That’s the one. How difficult was the recording of that?

PRELL: Umm… It wasn't really that bad. Red did a few sort of tongue-tying songs and I don't think it was that tricky getting all the fast talking. Her voice seems to work well with doing that kind of rapid-patter talking and singing. I remember enjoying recording the song and also shooting it in the studio with all the popping up and down and zipping around. I enjoyed doing that one a lot.

It does seem you got a lot of the tongue-tying songs… The “Rumble Bug” song comes to mind…

PRELL: Yeah!

I was wondering if you could give me some information on The Encyclopedia Fragglia?

PRELL: I'm so amazed that it has gone on to have this whole life on the internet. When I originally wrote it, it was during Fraggle Rock and so much was being established about the show, but not being officially recorded, so I just started writing up all the details. I had this little 2k portable typewriter that I was writing it up on where I would write a page and then erase the memory so I could write another page, so I really couldn't properly edit it, but I just wanted to get all the information written down because I enjoyed being involved in a lot of the story meetings for Fraggle Rock and being involved with the writers trying to come up with ideas of all the history and characters of Fraggle Rock. This was a way of recording all the Fraggle history that we were creating every week. Then the writers and various people appreciated having the Encyclopedia just to remember what characters and concepts had been created right at their fingertips to have all the information there. They'd look through it and go, “Oh yes! We created that character a while ago. Let's bring that character back. That will work good in this show.” It also kept track of all the songs and the various Uncle Matt adventures. I just wanted to capture all this information. The last season, the people in the administrative office filled in the information. Since then, Jerry Juhl has passed it on to folks that got it on the internet and at least all the information is there for people to refer to now. I'm amazed, thrilled and glad it's been so useful.

If there were ever a reunion special for Fraggle Rock, would you be willing to take part in it?

PRELL: I would love to be a part of that and if that ever happens I would hope that they would ask me and not assume I’m permanently at Pixar and the door is closed. I think, as far as doing a new version of Fraggle Rock, I think it would be so difficult with the industry these days to get the sort of budgets and shooting schedules that they had back then, and even getting broadcasters to show it since it seems like now everyone wants to gear things way, way, way down to preschoolers and may just think that Fraggle Rock doesn't fit in anywhere. I don’t agree with that. A lot of the people at Pixar were kids when Fraggle Rock was on and are just huge fans of the show, and some of them have kids now and they want their kids to see the show and it's not around anywhere.

I know I've made an effort to get the discontinued tapes that were released in 1993. One of the things that strikes me about Fraggle Rock is that the show holds up very well and hasn't seemed to age a bit.

PRELL: Oh yeah, I've been buying those up wherever I see them and then if someone at work says “Oh, I'd love to show my kids the show,” I give them the tape and go “Here! Show them! Show them!” And then they come back and say their kids love it! They absolutely love it. One guy said that they show the tape at his daughter's school and all the kids ran around the playground pretending to be Doozers. They snapped it up and there wasn't this stuff about “Oh, if preschoolers view it, it has to be geared way, way down.” This seems to be an excuse that some people in the industry have come up with. In fact I wrote a letter to a lot of the executives at Henson last year saying, “Listen, this show is still magic. Don’t hide it away. Get it out there, get it seen again… Please. Don’t listen to people that say there's no market for it anymore. Jim believed in it and it's worth giving it another chance.”

What are some of your memories of Richard Hunt?

PRELL: Richard cared so much about getting the best out of people. He'd come on strong but he loved the Muppets and being a Muppeteer and helping other people be good Muppeteers. He could really get people to do their best in his very own way.

Why do you think there was little coverage of Richard’s death, or acknowledgement by the Henson company?

PRELL: I guess they figured, as far as being well known to the public, his characters would be known, but not him, unlike Jim who, as an individual, was well known to the public. I think there were a few articles out. Also, I think they were still recovering from Jim's death as well and trying to sort out who was going to be in charge of what.

I do want you to know that the character of Red is sill loved by many…

red.gif (10333 bytes)PRELL: I'm so proud to have helped create a good character, who is a good character and not just a female character. Female characters always seem to be put in their own category. She was always meant to be a good character, and she just happened to be female, but it wasn't this big deal. She had her own flaws and triumphs and was well rounded and a lot of fun to perform. I'm so glad that people have hooked into her, boys as well as girls. Boys like the character as well and I think a lot of boys like Cotterpin Doozer as well, which is great.

There are a few people that I would like to mention. Bob McCormack was my initial contact at Muppets. He was one of the Muppet workshop supervisors. I met him and showed him puppets I built when he gave a lecture at the University of Washington in 1979. He's the one that made sure my audition tape got to Jim. He left the company not long after I joined, but I owe my Muppet career to him.

Also, I'd really like to acknowledge some of the other people behind Red. Rollie Krewson built her and made Michael Frith's design into one of the most comfortable, expressive puppets I have ever had the joy to perform. A Stradivarious of puppets! Red-haired Fraggle writer Jocelyn Stevenson really identified with Red and was a real champion as far as getting Red, Mokey, Cotterpin and Fraggle Rock's other female characters coming together as well-rounded characters. Thank-you Rollie and Jocelyn!

There are so many other Muppet folks whose praises should be sung. The main Fraggle performers Jerry Nelson, Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Kathy Mullen and Richard Hunt were a great support and inspiration to me, as was the whole incredible crew of Canadian puppeteers, writers, builders, and production folks. The amazing writer Jerry Juhl, who cares about the Muppets and Fraggles so very, very much, has always encouraged my own writing ventures. And I'll always be grateful to Jim Henson. He believed in me even when I had a lot to learn and not only did he bring me into a wonderful group of people at Muppets, he gave me experiences that led to my work with the equally wonderful people at Pixar.

I think Jim would have loved what Pixar is doing. The exciting, creative atmosphere there is very similar to that at Muppets when they were doing Fraggle Rock. Maybe that's why I've been able to fit in so well at Pixar and feel at home.

 
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