Designing Imagination Illustrated: The Jim Henson Journal

The Saturday, November 24 issue of The Times of London ran an article by Frank Oz praising the new Chronicle Books release Imagination Illustrated, The Jim Henson Journal. Frank wrote

“The pieces of paper in the book are often overlapped: photos overlapping scripts; character ideas overlapping storyboards, ideas overlapping ideas. That’s how Jim’s mind worked. It wasn’t linear. He didn’t do one project and then do another and afterwards do another and another. His ideas were constant and overlapping. Ideas and projects overlapping each other like the pieces of paper overlap in this book. His was not an imagination that he would turn on and off. There was no handle on the tap. It kept flowing. No idea was impossible. He never gave a glance towards limitations. He went forward and made the impossible happen. … It’s now, so many years later, I can see how unique they were. I can appreciate something now that I didn’t then; that everything Jim touched had an originality and aliveness . . . and a genius. And it’s very gratifying to see that those pieces of paper were kept and how they and Jim’s spirit are captured in this wonderful new book.”

Associate Design Manager for Chronicle Books, Michael Morris, was fortunate enough to design Imagination Illustrated, The Jim Henson Journal. As a young boy growing up in Maryland, Michael was inspired by The Muppet Show to create his own puppet shows while in elementary school. He was thrilled to work on creating Jim’s journal in book form and shared his thoughts with Puppeteers Unite on his puppet past and his creative passion.

What was your inspiration as a young puppeteer? What kinds of things do you recall specifically with Muppets or Sesame Street?

“When I was a kid, I was extremely shy and had a tremendous amount of creative energy but, growing up in rural Maryland, our TV only got a few channels. To this day I’ve never seen “Sesame Street,” but I devoured the Muppets because I could get that channel clearly. Muppet fascination led to someone giving me a Koala Bear puppet, which led to me taking it to school, which led to other kids bringing in their puppets until we had a bit of a puppet gang. To keep us out of trouble, and because we were the “advanced” group, our 1st grade teacher gave us the project to build a puppet theatre out of washing machine boxes and write a play. I have no idea what that play was about, but it was called ‘Horror in the Wild Woods’, and my puppet’s role was some kind of vampire. We performed this puppet show every so often for 2 years, I think, and even did it for the public library. We were consciously creating our own spin on The Muppet Show.

As I worked on this book, what struck me about what we did as kids is how similar our sketches and ideas were to what Henson did. Not that we had the same ideas, but that we approached set design and humorous situations in a straightforward way. When you’re a kid, you write lots of notes around your sketches, and you don’t even care that you aren’t a master illustrator. Its pretty pure. That’s the vibe I got from the material from Jim Henson’s journal. Clearly, he was a more developed talent, but his work had a very familiar childlike pureness to it. Loose and sketchy and often written on legal pads. After Art School I’ve always felt pressure to draw in sketchbooks or Moleskines, but when I was a kid I drew on manila folders or envelopes. Jim’s notes and sketches (The ones that I worked from) were unbound by that pretension.”

How did you end up in design at Chronicle?

“I had decided by the end of High School that I wanted to have a creative career, like Commercial Art, but back then Graphic Design involved graph paper and chart tape, and I was not interested in that. I started going to various schools to get a very broad fine arts education until I decided to focus on learning all the design software. I worked in small design shops doing prepress work until my partner David and I decided to move to San Francisco, where I settled in and finished my Graphic Design BFA. I had a strong knack for storytelling, and that gelled with the way that Chronicle approaches book design. I came on staff in 2005 and have been here turning awesomely weird ideas into books ever since.”

How does Chronicle come to do a project like this?

“There are usually agents who are shopping a book concept for their client, or sometimes we will approach someone who “has a book in them” because we love what they do, but its all on the editorial side. They usually bring these projects in and my role is more about shaping a proposal or a manuscript into its final form.”

Are you aware of any communications with Henson Co, etc?

“I know that Lisa Henson certainly saw and commented on the book in its various stages, as did other family members, and the author, Karen Falk, the Archives Director at The Jim Henson Company. It was a project that came right from the folks who are closest to the source. I’ve only met Karen in person once, and she is incredibly knowledgeable about Jim Henson and his career. The book is based on the blog that she produces on about Jim Henson’s Red Book, the main source for Imagination Illustrated.”

Was there more source material given to choose from or are you given exactly what goes into the book?

“The book came in extremely organized. The manuscript is, of course, the text of the book. The art came in and there was more than we could have ever fit on the page; and I tried, believe me! Karen was gracious enough to rank each piece of art and help me determine what was critical, what was good to have, and what I could leave out if I couldn’t make room on the spread. The end result is a very, very full book, and I’m glad to say that we left very few images out as a result.”

What were your thoughts, having been a puppeteer, when you first got the job to design Jim Henson’s journal in book format?

“I work as part of a pop-culture focused team of three designers, and we each pick the projects that we want to work on. More specifically, we pick what we personally want to design, as opposed to what we want to hire another designer to do. I immediately felt a kinship to this project, and for some reason hadn’t realized that Henson grew up in Maryland too, so it felt like it was meant for me. Loving this from the first time I saw it, I jumped at the chance to get it onto my work list, and to keep it on my list to design personally. In the end it took me a few months, including weekends and nights, to get it into final shape, but it was a labor of love.”

Was it similar to other projects you worked on? Just a job? or does a project like this become a labor of love?

“I would say that this book was unlike anything I’ve ever worked on. It’s hard to find a visual language for someone’s notes and sketches. They can be chaotic and overwhelming when you see them outside of the framework of a book or a blog. I worked with the editor and the author to develop a few different approaches for how to make the book tell it’s story, and over that time, it becomes personal. You learn to love the material and know it in great detail. You can get sick of it too, which happens after a few lost weekends, but then it goes away to get printed and a few months later you get the real thing in your hands and you forget about all those late nights and stress nightmares. Almost everything that Jim wrote or sketched seems to radiate happiness and creativity, and that energy kept me wanting to make the book the best it could be.”

Was there anything in the process that surprised you / impressed you about Jim’s work and process?

“Like I mentioned before, I was most surprised that he seemed relatable. I made sketches like that when I was a kid designing puppet sets. I STILL make rough sketches every time I’m trying to work out a problem or design a complicated Halloween costume. He kept sketches for projects that never took off, like the Cyclia nightclub or the Wizard of Id puppets. I’ve thrown away a lot of old artwork out of sheer embarrassment at my lack of refinement, but seeing his rough work made me appreciate that he was documenting ideas.”

Thank you Michael! I hope every puppeteer and Henson fan is as excited about Imagination Illustrated, The Jim Henson Journal as I am.

Author: David Manley -Up In Arms Puppets

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