The Force is strong with master puppeteer and filmmaker Frank Oz.
You may not recognize Frank Oz if you passed him on the street, but you’d certainly know his alter-egos. As puppeteer, voice, and personality of Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear and Yoda, among hundreds of other beloved characters, Oz has touched audiences the world over. He’s also a director, having helmed over a dozen films including ‘80s hits Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Little Shop of Horrors.
Now, Oz and some of his colleagues have collaborated to reveal some of the magic behind the magic of perhaps his greatest legacy—the Muppets—in a documentary called Muppet Guys Talking, which was just released online exclusively on their site (A newsletter from the team reported, “We reimagined what a documentary could be and how it could be distributed.”) When the doc premiered at SXSW last year, Oz shared his own stories and Yoda-like wisdom with fans and filmmakers in a conversation led by critic Leonard Maltin. Read on for our top takeaways.
1. Improve your directing by stepping in front of the camera
Oz was a puppet performer himself for many years before he ever directed, so he had a good sense of how to work with his actors. “Performers are just actors,” he shared. “An actor uses his entire body as a tool; we as performers have our arms as tools. It’s not as if I direct the puppets. I talk to human beings, not unlike talking to actors on a set.”
One of the things he had to change up when he transitioned to directing was reliance on monitors. As puppeteers, he shared, “we live by the monitor,” but he thinks that too many directors give all their attention to the “playback village” and just look at monitors. He suggested, “Don’t watch the monitor; watch the actor. I was told, as soon as you say cut—walk right to the actor.”
He knew from experience that actors need support to get their best takes, advising “Every director should get in front of the camera and see how frightening it is.”
“You don’t have to be good at it to do it. You just have to keep doing it.”
2. If you can’t be funny, be loud
It’s hard to imagine now, but Oz admitted that he had very low self-esteem as a child. Wanting to express himself in some way, he took up his parents’ hobby of puppeteering where he could “do so safely by hiding behind a puppet.” Still, when he eventually took it up professionally with Henson, he was afraid to do voices. He didn’t start until four years in when he was forced to do so on a particular take.
“I told myself, ‘If you can’t be funny, be loud’ and that’s how I got through it,” he shared with the audience. Apparently, the tactic worked, as he is now one of the most celebrated voice actors in the world. Who would Grover or Bert be without their voices?
The advice he shared on the matter could apply to any filmmaker or creative: “There may be people here who think they’re not good enough, but you don’t know before you do it. And you don’t have to be good at it to do it. You just have to keep doing it.”
3. Play hard—at work
Oz started working with Jim Henson at age 19 and calls him a personal inspiration. Both his presentation and the documentary are full of anecdotes and extremely fond memories of the director. “He had moral compass and kindness and integrity and incredible work ethic,” Oz said, recalling that, early in the company’ s life, “We all worked 24 hours a day.”
At the beginning, the team was puppeteering for “variety shows plus hundred of commercials for lunchmeat and toilet paper,” but “We wanted the opportunity to work at our craft every day.” That opportunity came to life in the form of Sesame Street.
“Jim always wanted to break new ground,” Oz recalled. “Nothing was impossible. He was originally an experimental filmmaker. He realized Sesame Street had value so he went with it.”
Though the team worked extremely hard, the environment was purposely fun. Oz remembered, “The whole point of performing was totally trying to screw each other over. We would revel when somebody else made a mistake. It was not mean, it was a joyous competition. We had an atmosphere where we had so much fun and that loosened us up.”
That atmosphere likely helped create some of the Muppets’ most memorable scenes. Most of their shows were scripted by Henson and Jerry Juhl, but oz said, “It was never word-fo- word. We would play around with it.”
He added, “When people think of play they think of freewheeling. We had play but there was rigor behind it in the performance. We knew we had schedules and budgets but Jim would always allow us to play. That is the best way to do our work—be open and creative and rely on each other.”
4. It’s hard to make it look easy
Henson kept the same sense of play—and willingness to do the impossible—when the team transitioned to making movies. The Great Muppet Caper (1981) featured a hot air balloon scene, hardly an easy feat for puppeteers used to working from beneath puppets on the ground. Oz described a radio-controlled Fozzie, Kermit, and Gonzo—plus two helicopters. One held the camera op on a sling (“He had to be on a long lens and the helicopter would shudder so he’d lose the shots.”) and the other carried the performers to control puppets and record audio.
The hot air balloon scene was a challenge, but an unsurprising one. What may be less expected what how complex it was for Oz and team to bring Yoda to life for the Star Wars movies. Yes, the tiny guru required a team. “I perform with my right hand,” Oz told the crowd. “I’m his left hand. His right hand and ears are done by someone else, and eyes by someone else.”
It took weeks of rehearsal to figure out some basic moves: “If I pick up a glass of water, no problem. But we had to say: when you go to pick it up, does your eye go first? Your head? Your hand? The eye has to move first. If he turns to the right, then I have to turn to the right….We had to do that for every single move.” This coordination was especially important because, as Oz described it, “Yoda should be transcendent and exceed the physical being he is.”
What it all comes down to is another piece of wisdom that any filmmaker can take to heart: “One works extremely hard to make it look easy.”
“If you always say no right away you might not hear a better idea than yours.”
5. You don’t have to have all the answers
Oz was one of the most critical performers at Henson’s company and yet, he had given himself ten years to become a director. “I didn’t go to film school,” he shared. After about eight years of learning from the grips and DPs on many sets, Henson asked him to co-direct Dark Crystal (1982).
He was a writer on Muppets Take Manhattan (1984) and Henson asked him to direct. At the time, he felt that he had to control everything on set and make all the decisions himself, so he admitted, “Everybody hated me.” However, it was a very valuable learning experience.
Oz recalled, “I felt I had to call every camera shot but my DP told me, ‘Let the camera op do something and present it to you—if you always say no right away you might not hear a better idea than yours.’”
Next up on his directorial slate was Little Shop of Horrors. The crew shot for five months, but Oz said, “Previews were an unmitigated disaster.” The movie was so poorly received, in fact, that Warner Brothers was not going to release it. Even though the movie had essentially the same plot as the stage play, cinema audiences couldn’t handle the fact that characters get, well, eaten by a plant. He explained, “Because a movie is more intimate than a stage. On a stage, you always have the wide view. The power of the closeup is immense. So people were horrified when they got eaten by the plant. We killed our leads and they hated us for it.”
Ultimately, they changed the end and it quadrupled their audience scores. He said that he re-shot the end of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels too, for similar reasons. “People want a happy ending if they love the characters,” he learned.
These combined experiences led to what was probably the most Yoda-like pearl of all: Have all the answers you will not.