California dreamin’

By University Communications
November 27, 2013

Digital puppetry class to work with The Jim Henson Company

Winterm art class at The Jim Henson Company, creators of “Fraggle Rock”.

Photo: Winterm art class at The Jim Henson Company, creators of “Fraggle Rock”.

Twenty-two art majors at University of Wisconsin-Stout are looking forward to a new and exciting course in January, one that not only will take them to California in midwinter but give them a chance to work with one of the biggest names in the entertainment industry, The Jim Henson Company.

The class, “Digital Puppetry Workshop and Studio Experience in LA,” is being offered for the first time as part of UW-Stout’s Winterm session.

Students will work on 3D characters, animation, digital environments and games at UW-Stout. Then, during a week in Hollywood, they will present their ideas to The Jim Henson Company to receive feedback and critiques.

The course is for students majoring in entertainment design and in game design and development-art.

“For a few weeks in January, students will experience what it is like to work with an award-winning entertainment company through a mock customer and client relationship,” said Dave Beck, assistant professor in the School of Art and Design.

The eponymous company was founded more than 50 years ago. The late Henson created the world-famous Muppets and the Sesame Street characters, such as Big Bird and Elmo. His company has gone on to win more than 50 Emmy and nine Grammy awards.

Now owned and operated by his five adult children, The Jim Henson Company produces animated films and TV shows in addition to traditional puppetry projects. Its ground-breaking preschool series “Sid the Science Kid” has been nominated for several Emmy awards, and the revolutionary technology used to create the series, the Henson Digital Puppetry Studio, received a primetime Emmy in engineering.

In addition to tuition for the course, students will pay an extra fee for the trip and be responsible for their meals while traveling. Registration for the course filled up quickly, Beck said.

The collaboration came about when Beck met Anna Jordan-Douglass, Interactive Producer at The Jim Henson Company, at the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco. In June he visited The Jim Henson Company while in Los Angeles for the E3 video game conference, where the UW-Stout game Flash Frozen was named national collegiate co-champion.

Beck proposed the idea for the class to Jordan-Douglass while discussing animated digital puppet videos and games that his students previously created.

“Jim Henson has always been one of my heroes, due to the balanced focus of creativity, education and entertainment in his work. Developing this relationship with The Jim Henson Company has been literally a dream come true for me,” Beck said.

“I'm hoping this opportunity will strike a similar chord in the students, while also allowing The Jim Henson Company to see some of the great things that are coming out of UW-Stout's School of Art and Design,” Beck said.

“We’re excited to have the opportunity to work with UW-Stout students and see what creative projects they develop as a result of this collaboration,” Jordan-Douglass said.

In addition to working with professionals from The Jim Henson Company, students will visit several other game and film companies in the Los Angeles area, as arranged by Beck.

UW-Stout’s game design and development major prepares students to design video and computer games, with concentrations in art or computer science. The entertainment design program prepares students for careers in digital media, including animation; comics and sequential art; and digital cinema. 

Beck said support from the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences and from Professional Development Grants through Research Services helped him attend the conferences and make the class possible. The School of Art and Design is part of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.

The UW-Stout Office of International Education is coordinating the trip, one of the first times it has offered a domestic program.

For more information on UW-Stout’s art programs, go to the School of Art and Design.