Puppeteer Loved to 'Rock'20 Aug, 2006 By: Brendan Howard
The DVD world has recently reawakened to the joys of “Fraggle Rock.” The popular HBO show created by Jim Henson ran from 1982 to 1986, but didn't score many reruns in the following years. Now, best-of DVDs have paved the way for a season-one set and the upcoming Fraggle Rock: Complete Second Season, streeting Sept. 5 at $49.98.
Karen Prell never forgot “Fraggle Rock,” though. Doing the voice and puppetry of the sports-loving tomboy Red Fraggle was Prell's best experience in 16 years of working on Henson-produced shows and movies.
“I've been handing [season-one sets] out to friends and people who enjoyed the show who now have kids,” she said. “Parents report back and tell me the kid had never seen it, and now they're so delighted, so entranced, running around during the show and doing the clapping from the theme song.”
Prell loved puppetry since childhood, when she practiced skits from Muppet shows with store-bought puppets in front of the mirror. When she grew up, however, she worried that her fear of public performance would kill that career.
“I'd always seen myself as quiet and artistic. Drawing was safer,” she said. “I thought you had to be outgoing and all these things for puppets, so I thought I'd have to do artwork stuff.”
An experience with hand-drawing an animated sequenced changed her mind.
“I was just doing a bouncing ball, and I thought, ‘This is going to drive me nuts,’ she said.
Prell eventually scored a gig as the hyperactive Deena Monster on “Sesame Street,” but her portrayal was too over-the-top and the character was cut. When Henson called her in for an audition for “Fraggle Rock,” she knew she wanted to play the quieter, more artistic Mokey.
Henson called back in a few days and told her she scored the part of Red.
“I thanked him, hung up and called my parents in Seattle,” she said. “I said, ‘I got the part of Red, and I don't know how to be Red!' I was pretty freaked out.”
For the first seven episodes, Prell struggled to figure out her character. Salvation came in an episode in which Red had to pretend to be Mokey.
“I had to define the part of Red that was definitely not Mokey,” she said. “From there on, it was clear sailing.”
The half-hour episodes gave Prell a better chance to get into the character, and she didn't lose this gig —even stretching her creative muscles in writer's meetings. She contributed gags and the initial idea for her favorite episode, the third season's “Playing Till It Hurts,” which asked a lot of the writers, costume designers and production people. Prell's idea that Red's favorite Rock Hockey player would come to Fraggle Rock was fleshed out by the writers — including head writer Jerry Juhl, who's eulogized by cast and crew in new interviews on the season-two seat — into a story about Red pushing herself too hard and getting hurt to impress her idol.
“The show was very technically complicated, with hockey uniforms, new songs and even a fantasy sequence with sparkling uniforms,” she said. “But that was a wonderful part of being on the show. We knew we'd be working late to finish it, but they loved jumping in there, being challenged to do things far beyond other TV productions.”
When the show was unexpectedly canceled in 1987 — “A lot of us were under the impression there was another year of good stories,” Prell said — she kept on for years working with Henson until the jobs dried up. Her transition to computer animation has led her to work on A Bug's Life, Toy Story 2, Blockbuster's rabbit and guinea-pig commercials. and the recently released The Ant Bully.
“Using a computer was the only way I could be an animator,” she said. “I do the movement and acting of a character. The character's already built, with movement controls and backgrounds and voices already recorded.”
It means a lot of work and oversight, though, which scares off her fellow puppeteers from the work.
“I tell them it's like performing while doing your tax return — I get audited half-a-dozen times a week,” she said, referring to the daily checks of her work by supervisors. It's work that's a million miles from the spontaneity of live or filmed puppeteering. Prell hopes the shine on computer animation will wear off, and a CG-hybrid form of puppeteering will arrive.
“Some things are too difficult to do with live-action puppets — hiding the rods, the controls and the puppeteers,” she said. “I'm hoping a lot of people who love the Muppets and ‘Fraggle Rock' will not get swept away by the computer animation stuff. Maybe the puppets' eyes couldn't blink, but there was something magic and alive there.”
Prell said that magic is what appeals to new fans even now.
“The technical shortcomings, the flaws in a way a prop was rigged, are not as meticulous as computer animation,” she said. “But kids don't notice that. The energy keeps flowing; the quality in the acting and the story, that's the most important thing.”