The Muppet*Vision 3-D Story

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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It's time to play the music! It's time to light the lights! It's time to meet the Muppets—in 3-D tonight!

Jim Henson’s Muppet*Vision 3-D was one of the very last projects personally supervised by the talented Jim Henson before his untimely death in May 1990. Henson is officially credited as the director of the film and performed several characters, including Kermit the frog. This well-loved attraction opened at Disney-MGM Studios in May 1991 and at Disney’s California Adventure in February 2001.

This attraction was just one of several Muppet-related projects that were in development at that time, including a restaurant, ride, live-action show, and more that were going to fill that area of the Disney-MGM Studios park with a Muppet Studios themed location. With the passing of Henson, negotiations between Henson’s heirs and Disney broke down resulting in the cancellation of most of these elaborate plans.

The density of detail for Jim Henson’s Muppet*Vision 3-D rewards the patient guest with many humorous surprises. Not only in the plaza and the queue, but also the entrance to the pre-show area, there are visual and verbal references that are guaranteed to bring a smile to any Muppet fan. The pre-show area itself is filled with gag-laden crates and show props (that are different at both parks). In Florida, one gag that Disney fans enjoy is a net full of jello hung as a reference Disney Legend Annette Funicello.

Overhead television monitors entertain guests for the 12-minute pre-show with the antics of Rizzo, Gonzo, Fozzie Bear, and others as they prepare for the big show

The 584-seat theater itself is designed to remind guests of the one in the classic Muppet Show television series. The 17-minute show is a mixture of 3-D film, Audio-Animatronic characters (including hecklers Statler and Waldorf, a full penguin orchestra, Bean Bunny and an irate Swedish Chef) and even a full-sized live Muppet performer: the massive Sweetums.

The show is meant to showcase Muppet*Vision, the newest technological advancement from Muppet Labs. During a behind-the-scenes tour of Muppet Labs, Waldo C. Graphic, the very first CGI 3-D Muppet is created and throughout the rest of the show, he tries to find a way to escape. In addition, a dejected Bean Bunny runs away after having his feelings hurt trying to assist Miss Piggy in her big musical number. Some of the other Muppets form a search party to find him and they do just in time for Sam the Eagle’s big grand finale production number "A Salute to All Nations (But Mostly America)." Waldo disrupts the finale and a shooting match develops between the penguins and the Chef who is running the projector. When the smoke clears, the theater itself appears to have holes blown through the walls. Through a huge hole in the back wall of the stage, a firetruck backs in with Kermit riding on the ladder. He informs the audience the theater only suffered minor damage and drives back out. As the curtain close, Waldo reappears once again and turns himself into Mickey Mouse but he is quickly vacuumed out of the show and the lights come up.

Mark Eades is a former Imagineer who worked on Muppet*Vision 3-D and, among other things, currently authors a continuing series of “Around Disney” columns and videos for the Orange County Register in California. (Check out those informative and insightful columns at this link). Mark was gracious enough to share some insight into the development of the attraction since he was closely involved with it.

Wade Sampson: How did the idea of Muppet*Vision 3-D originate?

Mark Eades: Michael Eisner announced the deal to purchase the Muppets and, as part of the announcement, said that Jim Henson would direct a 3-D film for the Disney theme parks specifically for the Disney-MGM Studios. I was called into an office with Tom Fitzgerald and was told I was on the project that very day we heard about it. I probably would have been the show producer but, by then, Theme Park Productions had been established and I was named the media producer.

WS: How did the concept for the production develop?

ME: The first meetings were a series of show-and-tell and brainstorm meetings. I was the lead on explaining the difficulties of making a 3-D show work. During a tour of Imagineering I took Jim Henson on, we talked about how much I had loved The Muppet Show to the point of driving my wife crazy about it when it was on air. One of the themes I always hit on with him while ideas were being floated about was how the Muppets always broke down the fourth wall. This was about the time we had started experimenting with the Pani effects projectors that could change the look of a building and were going to be used in the lagoon show at Epcot. I remember saying to him that now not only could he break down the fourth wall in his 3-D movie, he could blow it up. Little did I know at that time that was what we would end up doing!

The concept itself evolved out of those meetings. Bill Prady, a Henson writer, was tasked with organizing the ideas into a story after several meetings the two had the first storyline came out. It was essentially an introduction to Bean Bunny and all the other Muppets had cameos.

(NOTE: Bean Bunny first appeared in 1986 as the star of the TV special The Tale of the Bunny Picnic. In 1989, Bean joined the cast of The Jim Henson Hour, appearing in both the control room and "televised" portions of the MuppeTelevision segments.)

We all pointed out how theme park attractions based on existing characters usually worked better where there was some familiarity with their universe. Star Tours worked because it still had all those familiar Star Wars universe items in it. We suggested that the same thing was needed for this attraction, in particular because it was a 3-D show and had a stage and a proscenium just like in the Muppet Show—as Henson became more intrigued with breaking down that fourth wall, the ideas of having characters in the theater evolved and the story evolved.

Jim was very involved with the project. He was genuinely interested in doing theme park attractions. His natural curiosity and openness and receptiveness to new ideas made him a perfect fit to work with at Imagineering. He was always a pleasant, fun fellow to be around. The room always lit up when he was around. It was a two year process from concept to finished production.

I think Jim liked that it would be something people could see for a long time in an environment like a Disney theme park. I think he also liked doing something new, unique and groundbreaking.

WS: Who are some of the people who should receive some recognition for making this production a reality?

ME: Kathy Rogers was the show producer. Paul Osterhaut was the production designer for the theater. David Jones did a lot of hard work on the pre-show video. Jim Mulder, Bob Joslin, Ray Spencer and more for all the in-theater effects work. Marianne Ray was the post-production supervisor. Tom Smith was the executive producer for the Disney Studios. Peter Anderson was the 3-D director of photography. (We had a director of photography for the lighting, too, Isidore Mankowsky, but Peter really made the 3-D work.) Darrell at the studios Machine Shop for keeping the 3-D cameras, which were real cantankerous, working. Pacific Data Images (PDI) for the Waldo CG. Yes, it is the same company that is now part of Dreamworks and helped bring about Shrek. The Chandler Group that did all the optical work on the film. The opticals were all done on a 65 millimeter optical printer to keep everything as close to pristine as we could.

WS: How much of the work was done in California?

ME: The entire project was done in California, except for the actual installation. The film was shot almost entirely on Stage 3 at the Disney Studios, the same stage that 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) was filmed on. (We needed the water tank for Miss Piggy’s musical number.) The Miss Piggy number was the first sequence filmed. It took several days. Then we moved over to the other side of the stage for the Muppet Labs sequences, both the hallway and the Honeydew set. Then we went outside to the old Town Square from Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) for the brick wall blowing up shot and the last shot when Kermit comes in on the fire truck ladder. Then we moved back to the other side of stage 3 where the Miss Piggy set was which was now black for the entire patriotic finale which was done against a black backdrop.

WS: How did things change when Jim Henson died?

ME: I think it was fine while Jim was alive. I know there were some contractual issues that some had, but my understanding was those issues had been resolved and he was days away from signing the final deal when he died.

The film had been completed way under budget, and after a test showing with everyone we knew we needed to tweak a few things. The middle of the film kind of fell flat. So the plan was that everyone would come back after a few weeks off and we would get together to figure it out. I actually went on vacation, as did several others on the team. I was on vacation as a tourist in Washington D.C. with my pregnant wife and two kids (we now have five children) when the word came that Jim had died.

We came home the next day. About a month later we got together to figure things out with the Henson creative team including Frank Oz, Bill Prady and others. We storyboarded some new scenes, including a slightly different bit about Bean Bunny running away, and scheduled a re-shoot. Frank Oz directed the new scenes and we did a temp mix up at Skywalker Ranch. Another test showing and the film was signed off. Then, the Henson family asked that everyone involved from their side walk away and we had to finish the film, including all the Waldo CGI, much of which was added as a result of the new stuff, without them, including all the performers. We had all ready done the looping so we had the all the dialog.

So, the film and the project were finished without the involvement of any of the Henson folks. After we got the attraction done and showed it to a couple days of test audiences, the theater was shut down while the contract talks dragged on. Finally, Brian came down and watched the attraction with Michael Eisner and that broke the logjam.

WS: Did Disney ever express concern about Waldo transforming into a 3-D Mickey Mouse?

ME: No, we all thought it was hilarious. The only concern we had was the look of Mickey Mouse in the ending so we employed an animator from Disney Animation to help with that. It was Andreas Deja we worked with to achieve that final scene in the film.

(Note: Wayne Allwine, then the official voice for Mickey Mouse, did the voice when Waldo transformed into Mickey.)

WS: What was the premiere of the attraction like?

ME: That’s a hard one. Because of all the contractual issues with the Henson family after Jim’s death, we had to finish the project without them. Finally a deal was ironed out to let us open the attraction, and it just sort of opened. No real fanfare. It was too bad. We actually opened it for a couple of days after everything was done, then it had to close for a while due to the contract issues.

There were some real contractual hang-ups. To Brian Henson’s credit, he realized it would be tragic to not let the attraction open as it was the last film that his father had directed. He got the rest of the family to sign off on a deal and the attraction finally opened for good.

WS: What are some interesting anecdotes that Disney fans might not know?

ME: Dr. Bunsen Honeydew’s Muppet*Vision 3-D machine has a conveyor with actual Magic Eye Theater 3-D glasses on it. Also watch out for some of the lesser Muppet characters when in the hallway of the Muppet labs.

Statler and Waldorf have an extra set of arms to wave the white flags. There were also supposed to be arrows in the walls around them, but they were never very visible and I believe they were turned off eventually.

During the production of the patriotic finale the scene with the cannon shots, one of the patriotic characters was in front of the cannon blast during a take. The blast blew the character’s arm off. Steve Whitmire, the performer, had the character stage this way over-acted death scene before Jim Henson finally yelled cut. The entire crew was in stitches. Jim walked up, laughing so hard he could hardly talk, and told Steve it was an excellent performance and that if he ever lost his arm again not to die like that ever again. We were laughing so hard that it took almost 45 minutes to get everyone settled down so we could shoot the scene again.

Also, when we were shooting the shot when the cannon blows up the bricks in the back of the theater, the special effects guys did such a good job that a brick came right at the 3-D camera and broke the special 3-D glass mirror that allows the two cameras to see the same action from slightly different views and make the 3-D work.

We only had three of these mirrors and could not afford to lose any. Now we were down to two and had two weeks of shooting left to go. That shot is the one we used in the show. We dissolve through before you can see the brick hit the mirror. It had some great 3-D.

WS: What was the reaction of Disney to the final production?

ME: I think they all loved it as an example of the kinds of attractions Disney could and should be doing. We at Imagineering and Theme Park Productions were extremely proud of it.