Thursday, September 20, 2012

[In Flight] Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey

Free Hugs!

I grew up with Sesame Street, and probably watched each episode on television quite religiously until about 12. Not only because I was simply just a kid, but I was more curious about how the muppets come to life, whether there's someone beneath them, for those muppets whose lower bodies are always at the base of the television screen, with a human hand inserted and tackling limbs with a rod, or inside them since they're full sized, such as the likes of Big Bird and Snuffleupagus who are usually seen full-bodied.

But there wasn't any Elmo, who came onto the scene just as I got weaned off Sesame Street. That didn't mean I didn't check in once in a while, and clearly the Elmo character caught on, and exploded into an icon. This documentary goes behind the scenes a little bit further to check in on the man responsible for creating, building and maintaining the Elmo persona, giving him voice, personality and just about managing his every appearance as the character grew a legion of fans who love it for the sole reason that Elmo is really about love regardless.

It didn't start out that way of course, with the character almost slated for relegation, until Kevin Clash came to its rescue. It's a journey of opportunities, chances, timing, just as it's about talent, and the hard work that goes with it to ensure that the talent gets honed to perfection, and not laid to waste. This documentary charts Clash's life as a boy who found his calling, and who had developed his own series of puppet characters before the bigger leagues came calling, and as the adage goes, the rest is history.

It's about a boy who had worked on his dreams, and for life to throw at him some serious chances to work with the legendary Jim Henson and his many close collaborators, from Frank Oz to Kermit Love, in various film and television projects, until he got himself to the Sesame Street gig. And even then, it's a lesson in humility and constant education and improvement, never to be satisfied with one's current level of success, but to constantly work towards another peak in one's profession.

But it's not all technical in the documentary, as the Elmo persona, a persona of heart, has plenty of heart wrenching moments as well, from the sacrifices Clash has to put in, at the expense of family time to bring the joy of Elmo to those who needed it most, and not only in the USA but probably every corner of the globe that has a Sesame Street reach. As Kevin rises into the ranks of peers, teaching others the craft of puppetry, inspiring the young and talented at the same time, so too does the reach of Elmo become what it is today, a recognizable icon amongst the young and old, and the many outreach programmes it actually finds itself in.

The world may miss the creative brilliance of Jim Henson, but so long as there are those, like Clash, who are able to fill the void that's left behind, bringing joy and cheer to millions of children worldwide, and inspiring many with their stories and puppet persona, then the art form is in good hands to find itself new audiences everyday who will also experience the joys and laughter that we grew up with. And who would have thought that Elmo, one that was almost discarded, is at the forefront of leading the charge.

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