Amy Banks – Writer/Director/Actor (triple threat) Kirk R. Thatcher barely needs introduction; He is the furry, exceptionally talented and hilarious guy that has been working with Muppets for close to 40 years. I first met him when I was a graduate student attending classes through the Stephens College Masters of Fine Arts in Television and Screenwriting program housed at the Jim Henson Studios in Hollywood. Mr. Thatcher was kind enough to invite our group to watch the filming of a pre-school tv show with puppets that he was directing; watching him in action was fascinating and educational. His joie de vivre is palpable and contagious.
A truly self-made man, Thatcher got his start in the industry at 19 years old in special effects and creature design for Lucasfilm. His resume is miles long, with credits including creature shop work on Return of the Jedi, odd jobs at Industrial Light and Magic, Star Trek III and IV (including a now cult-famous cameo in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home as the over-the-top “Punk On Bus”, who gets pwned by Spock), E.T., Gremlins, Poltergeist and music videos for Rick Springfield and The Motels.
Jim Henson hired Thatcher to work on the Jim Henson Hour and the two went on to do the seminal favorite television series Dinosaurs. Thatcher became a producer for the show, as well as writing episodes and designing all of the characters. He co-wrote Muppet Treasure Island with Jerry Juhl, and worked on Muppets Tonight as a producer. Since the 1990s he has directed Muppet tv movies and viral videos like the iconic “Kodachrome” performance by Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem and the Muppet’s take on Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.
Thatcher is humble and self-deprecating (as well as inherently charming) while describing his recent forays into acting: a cameo in the new Spiderman Homecoming film in theaters now reprising his Punk on Bus role, and the possibility of starring as Star Trek’s Harry Mudd in a fan fic film. And while Thatcher always pays homage to the past, he embraces innovation and fresh ideas while employing his hard-won experience and incredible talents to create ever more cherished memories for fans of all ages.
For this interview, we discussed aspects of his career not covered in his 2015 The Muppet Mindset interview with Mitchell Stein, and caught up on what he’s up to today.
Amy Banks: Please tell us about your work directing the series Sid The Science Kid.
Kirk Thatcher: The Jim Henson Company did four seasons of Sid; I did episodes in seasons three and four. What’s amazing about it, it’s like doing Avatar but the low res version of it. There are people in motion capture suits in a motion capture stage. What’s interesting about the Henson system as opposed to Avatar where they had cameras tracking people’s facial movement is it’s controlled by a puppet rig, basically an outgrowth of the Waldo rig that they developed back in the 1980s for projects like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. It was first used in Labyrinth and then kind of perfected between Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and then Dinosaurs.
In Dinosaurs they had gotten it down to kind of a science. Just after Dinosaurs, when computers were really starting to take off in the visual effects world they had their tech people come in and say, ‘well what if we took that technology further with a digital control system?’ And that’s what ended up becoming the system for doing Sid. We used puppeteer rigs to control the faces and then performers doing the body motion were matched together. So it was just like Dinosaurs except the performer didn’t wear a suit; they wore a mo-cap outfit with tracking markers. And the person that did the voice and dialogue while manipulating the puppet rig were sitting off stage just like Dinosaurs. So it was really an outgrowth of the performance systems used on Dinosaurs and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
What’s interesting about Sid as a director is that you have your sets and you have your performers in the space, and you can move the camera anywhere – you can do things a physical camera can’t do – you can have impossible shots to the point that you can go inside your character’s head and see his eyeballs from the inside, which once in a while happens by accident. So we had virtual cameras and we had three operators that were flying them around like a three-camera sitcom but they were on joystick controls like a very sophisticated video game. As the director, you could kind of do these amazing shots and track and move and pan and fly; it was like having drones basically. So it was a great directing job, and a great teaching tool to teach directing because basically you could change your lenses, zoom in, move in, move out, dolly, pan, track, tilt – without ever having to deal with the physics of moving the camera or changing lenses on the cameras.
We even had a steadi-cam type of rig, which is essentially a box with a tracking marker on it that became a camera so you could have a virtual camera man running around the space with your mo cap performers and it had that hand-held feel. I used it in a couple of episodes where you were down with the kids playing in the playground and I had a camera guy just running basically in front of the kids or behind them but it looked like a hand-held shot like in Saving Private Ryan or something where you get that ‘you are there’ kind of feeling. It was fun. I really liked directing with it because you could do a lot quickly and kind of play around with stuff that normally you’d have to move that wall or rearrange the furniture and it was just quick and fun..
AB: You worked on Lazy Town (a Nick Jr. show) in what capacity?
KT: Lazy Town is this kind of hybrid between computers and puppets out of Iceland. The man who created it, Magnús Scheving, and I basically made a deal and I said I’d do the first episode. He had done a pilot already about a year and half earlier with these pretty amazing puppets that were very large, foam rubber, kind of Dinosaurs technology, but more cartoony, and the show was them performing with a live action little girl and five or six puppets in a computer generated world. That’s how the series was set up. It was Magnús as Sportacus, the sports elf, and a little girl named Stephanie, with pink hair, but the break out character was the villain, Robbie Rotten, played by a guy named Stefán Karl [Stefánsson] who was hilarious. One of the funniest actors I have ever had the pleasure to work with!
So I go to Iceland and I see their setup and I’m told a few things. First of all, it’s being shot in 2k, which was the height of high resolution in 2004 and literally the production had two of the three red cameras that existed at that time. It was amazing the money they’d spent. They had this computer generated world that was supposed to move real-time with the cameras. But in the first two episodes, which I did, we couldn’t move the camera. In other words it had to be a locked-off shot. They didn’t get the system down enough to track movement. So everything had to be a locked-off shot in a show that’s supposed to be all action oriented. So that was one of the problems. The other problem was that the DP just felt that the puppeteer’s arms weren’t long enough. He kept saying, ‘you have to get your head out of shot,’ and I was like no, no, you re-frame. You can’t change the distance from the top of their hand to the top of their head. That’s not happening. You have to adjust for them. And he thought they were just being difficult which was the furthest thing from the truth. Those puppeteers were killing themselves with these huge, heavy puppets, trying to get a decent performance out of them!
Someone not directly involved with the show had told them they could shoot it in three days, and their budget really reflected that. The way Magnus wanted to shoot it was like a feature film with all these grand camera moves, low angles and reverses and specialty shots and I told them that with their budget and schedule you can’t do that kind of show but Magnús, who was very confident – he was actually a world champion aerobics dancer, and with that confidence of winning the world’s aerobics championship he thought he knew how to do everything in film. And he was very talented. I mean he made a great pilot, it looked amazing, there was nothing wrong with what he’d done, it’s just that someone had told him you can shoot that show in three days and have it look like a Jim Cameron movie and I tried to convince him that it wasn’t possible.
So for the first episode they knew that it would take longer, and it ended up taking eight days. He wanted all these special shots and I was like fine, we can do it, but there’s no way you’re getting it in three days. So after the first episode, the way he kind of treated it, was like, if you’re good enough, you can do this amazing looking show in that short of time. You know, like to challenge me, like it was gonna hurt my pride if I couldn’t, and I was like yeah, I’m not that good. Trust me. You’re not paying for that good. And also, I don’t think Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg could shoot it in three days. You’re not offending me by saying if I was good enough I could do it, because if I was good enough, I could jump high enough to touch the moon. So I did two episodes and it was funny because he was very, not belligerent, but his way of management was challenging you. Like if you were a man, you’d step up and do it. And I’m like dude, I’m a man, I’m not worried about it my masculinity. Trust me. It’s not about my manliness. We’re doing a show with brightly colored puppets and a little girl with pink hair who dances and sings happy little songs…Not really a macho endeavor in the first place. It’s just not possible to get what you want in the time you want to get it. I’m shooting it, trying to get it in three days, which is not in the epic cinematic style you want. Which I loved; I mean the pilot was amazing, but that’s a seven to eight day shoot.
After two episodes I thought he was going to fire me and instead he offered for me to stay and do 22 episodes and I decided no, this is crazy. It was just so crazy. So many great people were just killing themselves to make that show, but I didn’t want to be his whipping boy, so I went home and three weeks later The Muppets Wizard of Oz started up in development. I started working on that and so I had a good reason to not go back.
But I made some really good friends in Iceland like Stefán Karl, his wife Steinna and some other people there and it was an amazing show to be a part of because everyone that’s seen it remembers it. Especially with the Icelandic accents; to Americans it sounds very Eastern European or something, it’s kind of like watching a drug addict’s version of a kid’s show from Russia. The plots are really crazy. I admired his [Magnús’] spirit. He’s just one of those people that’s mono-maniacal, very focused and intense, but look at what he did: he made an amazing high-def, high-tech show with puppets and computers and amazing makeup in Iceland. In Reykjavik, Iceland, just by sheer force of will. It was fun, it was crazy. It was a good life experience but I was glad I wasn’t there for two years!!
AB: You wrote a couple of episodes of Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends; can you tell us about that?
KT: Craig McCracken and Lauren Faust talked to me about it, I think they were expanding to do more shows, and they wanted people to help work on Foster’s. Foster’s was pretty much like the Muppets in terms of a large group of weird characters and one central, normal person. They asked if I’d be interested in being their in-house freelance writer for like half a dozen episodes or something. So I met with them and we developed two stories back to back over about four months and I wrote them and they didn’t change them that much. Craig and Lauren would re-write them or punch them up, but they didn’t change them a whole lot and I started working on episode three but due to budget cuts it just became an in-house show; there was no money for free-lancers anymore. I loved them. They were awesome and fun to work with and it was a fun show to write for because Bloo is such an a-hole. I called him their Daffy Duck character, the selfish jerk, and it was really fun to write for those character types because they get to do or say the things we wish we could do or say, but we can’t, because most of us are trying to be decent citizens. The bad guys are always fun to write because they misbehave and act selfishly, which provides a certain amount of catharsis, especially for kids because they are always being controlled when it comes to their behavior. But, morally, the jerks always get their comeuppance and hopefully it’s funny as hell, in both aspects. As a writer, you get to play through that.
I wrote two crazy episodes. One was my favorite, it’s when Goo’s crazy imaginations started becoming real. So I got to write all these insane characters and things; she was just completely nuts. So her imaginations actually become manifest and they start to take over and that was just pure imaginative joy. The other one was Bloo goes to a retirement home and he sees how awesome it can be to be pampered as an enfeebled elderly person and so Bloo disguises himself as an old man, Mr. Oldman I think it was, and he just soaks up the pampering and thinks it’s the best thing ever; you don’t have to do anything and they feed you and you can yell at ‘em. So that was great and really fun to work with Craig and Lauren and so fun to write for that show. I wished I could’ve done more.
Check back soon for Part 2 as Kirk talks similarities between Dinosaurs and Trump, Lew Zealand’s home life, and a little info about September’s Hollywood Bowl show!