"Faz" Fazakas, Animatronics Pioneer with Jim Henson

Creator of The Muppets, SESAME STREET contributor, voice of Kermit the Frog–Jim Henson invented a world which will soon be on display in a new, permanent exhibition at the Museum of the Moving Image. Tickets are on sale to the public. A puppeteer and filmmaker who worked in broadcast television and Hollywood, Henson helped invent the technology to make his ideas come to life. At the age of 22, in 1958, Henson founded Muppets, Inc. Muppet is a combination of marionette and puppet. The original muppets were manipulated by hand. By 1979, Henson’s muppets included electromechanical devices that allowed Big Bird to roll his eyes, Miss Piggy to wiggle her ears, the Gelflings of DARK CRYSTAL to fly, and Hoggle to traverse LABYRINTH's maze.

One of the chief innovators working for Henson was Franz “Faz” Fazakas. He was an engineer and special effects designer, working on Henson's shows from 1974 through '87, who helped create a radio control system to move the muppets. Before animatronics, the muppets were operated by hand.

The producer of Henson’s animated television series FRAGGLE ROCK, Lawrence Mirkin, remembered the series producer Duncan Kenworthy saying “without [Fazakas’s inventions of radio-controlled puppetry], the art of cinema wouldn’t have developed in quite the same way.” With radio controls to move specific parts of the muppet, the character could perform much more complex functions. The four-inch Doozers of FRAGGLE ROCK could drive a vehicle, operate construction machinery, and sing.

Fazakas’ control system was used in Henson’s 1982 feature DARK CRYSTAL (a prequel series is coming soon to Netflix), and also used to move the dancing goblins in the 1986 feature LABYRINTH. Fazakas worked on hundreds of programs; his film credits include “radio control designer”, “muppet mechanical director”, “muppet special effects”, “muppet technical design”, and “special props”. Called the Henson Performance Control System, Fazakas’ design won the 1992 Scientific and Engineering Academy Award.

This Henson Performance Control System allowed a single person to control an entire muppet character. The animatronic muppet was made up of a number of electromechanical devices–primarily servos and actuators. Servos are rotating motors; as compared to a simple motor which is either on or off, a servo is can be set to a specific position. They were often used in muppet joints. A servo also has gears, which allow the controller to alter its speed and power. An actuator is also an electromechanical device, which converts electrical to mechanical energy when voltage is applied.

Featuring many of the muppet characters, “The Jim Henson Exhibition” will open at the Museum of the Moving Image on July 22 of 2017. On view are nearly 300 objects including pieces from the collection, over 100 pieces on loan from institutions including the Jim Henson Company and Sesame Workshop, and a number of new acquisitions. Miss Piggy has a prime locale. David Bowie’s cape from LABYRINTH sparkles blue. An accompanying program of film screenings begins on July 21.

Cover image: courtesy The Jim Henson Company