When Sesame Workshop announced it had produced Sesame Street: Elmo’s Playdate, a special episode where Elmo and his Sesame Street friends “find new ways to play and learn together” through video conferencing, I had one immediate question: Wait, how do you make a Sesame Street show when everyone’s working from home?
The teleconferencing and filming aspects aren’t that mysterious. If SNL can do it, and Disney animators can do it, Sesame Workshop can do it. Just setting up cameras and planning a show is a basic part of remote entertainment now. But working with Muppets raises a lot of specific challenges. How did the performers get the puppets out of the Workshop archives? Rig up the monitors and mics that lets them see what the camera’s seeing? Find properly sized props? And how do you maintain social distancing when it takes two people to operate both of Cookie Monster’s arms?
Just like it did when I was a kid, Sesame Workshop had answers for all of my questions. I spoke with Ashmou Younge, a producer on the nonprofit’s special projects production team. One of the first things she emphasized was that the shelter-at-home method of filming wasn’t the team’s only new challenge.
The special-projects production team normally produces episodes around especially difficult and timely subjects for preschool-age viewers, things like divorce, having an incarcerated parent, or dealing with anxiety after a terrorist attack. Younge says these special episodes generally spend seven to nine months in pre-production alone, as her team researches and writes. Sesame Street’s divorce special took more than two decades to come to fruition, and while that’s an outlier, it demonstrates how much value Sesame Workshop places in getting these things right.
But Sesame Workshop also felt it was really important to help families overwhelmed by all the changes that come with social-distancing measures. And so Sesame Street: Elmo’s Playdate was conceived, shot, and produced in less than three weeks.
“This was really, really tight and it was crazy,” Younge says, “but everyone rose to the occasion.”
Sesame Workshop had already made preparations for its performers to be able to produce Sesame Street while sheltering at home, and now that prep was put to the test. Puppets, tripods, lav mics, and both green and blue screens (process effects using green Muppets require blue-screen backgrounds, and vice versa) were already in performers’ homes. Some actors had stashes of bright, in-character wardrobe items in their homes simply as a matter of course.
Younge’s team cut down on the number of props performers would normally employ during an episode, because it was difficult to manufacture them without the studio open, and hard to ship to performers on deadline. Performers handling the characters who share living space — like Elmo and Elmo’s dad — performed their scenes together via teleconferencing meetings. Then their performances were composited into the same shot, even though the puppeteers were miles away from each other.
But for some puppets, one performer isn’t enough. Have you ever noticed that the vast majority of Muppets are left-handed? That’s because the vast majority of performers are right-handed. In the case of characters like Kermit the Frog or Elmo, the performer’s right hand works the puppet’s head, while their left controls the character’s arms with a pair of rods. But for Muppets with articulated hands, like the Swedish Chef, Fozzie Bear, or Rosita, Big Bird, and Cookie Monster, the main performer controls their character’s head and left hand only.
It takes two performers to give a Muppet two articulated hands. That’s why you’ll mostly see Big Bird’s right hand resting against his side, or cuddling his teddy bear, Radar — there’s usually no place to hide a second performer on the set. But for Muppets like Cookie Monster, a second performer joins the first under the puppet, to handle the extra hand. That’s easy enough to accomplish in the Sesame Street studios, but less so while socially distancing.
“Some puppeteers did pin the arm to their side,” Younge tells me, “and there’s also a special hand-stuffer that they use, that some of the puppeteers employed also.”
But in other cases, more communal methods were employed.
“The great thing about working from home was that everyone pretty much helped and chipped in,” Younge says. “Husbands, wives, children. For David Rudman, who plays Cookie Monster, his daughter Phoebe, she was his right hand that day, and his son Noah helped film the whole scene.”
And what about Sesame Street’s biggest star? What about a muppet who’s essentially an 8-foot-tall costume?
“Big Bird was actually being kept in two separate places,” Younge says. “His head was one place, his neck was one place — you had to ship them separately because the neck is so big. But Matt Vogel, who performs Big Bird, he was able to perform him as soon as he got the puppet, he put it together. He had a space in his basement where he had enough space to do that. He could actually puppeteer Big Bird [while] sitting down, without the legs.”
Wait, so Big Bird is just like everyone taking Zoom calls right now while fully dressed from the waist up, but with pajama pants below camera level?
“Exactly,” Younge laughs.
Ultimately, Younge says, the biggest hurdles for the Sesame Street team weren’t physical logistics, but telecommunications. They had to contend with issues like transferring large movie files from subpar connections, dealing with WiFi outages, and teaching the less tech-savvy how to produce 4K video from an iPhone. But it sounds like there was still a lot of joy in the process.
“We’re blessed to have a great staff of people and puppeteers, and we work together really, really well,” Younge says. “[…] We pretty much stayed in constant communication throughout the whole process, which was amazing. It was also just great to see each other, you know, in between waiting for people to come on and get ready to shoot, it was nice to just be like ‘Hey, how are you doing, how’s everything?’ It was nice to see everyone’s home. To see their cats! There were a lot of frisky cats.”
Polygon was unable to confirm if any of the frisky cats disrupted filming.
Sesame Street: Elmo’s Playdate aired simultaneously on HBO, HBO Latino, TBS, TNT, truTV, Cartoon Network and Boomerang on April 14, and is now available to stream on HBO Now, HBO Go, HBO On Demand and the PBS Kids app.
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