Jim Henson was already quite successful by the early 1960s. He was in a unique position at this time in his career. He had married Jane Nebel, his collaborator on Sam and Friends, who would work on being a wife and mother, and rarely work with him in the future on Muppet endeavors. He had also built the foundation of his creative team by adding Jerry Juhl and Frank Oz to the roster of Henson employees. It was also during this time that Henson moved his family and business to New York. He became fascinated with the idea of film as a medium for art and started to play around with different techniques and equipment. Out of this fascination, he created some of his most raw, entertaining, and personal work in a series of short films that would serve as appetizers to his future works. Snippets of these early experimental films managed to appear later on his Muppet films, shows, and in his fantasy films Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. Fortunately for fans like me, Henson believed in the value and importance of archiving his work. The Jim Henson Company Archives have preserved Henson’s early work so that we can watch him develop and mature as a creator over time. In Drums West, Henson utilized a cut paper animation technique in which he painstakingly arranged multi-colored paper dots and lines against a black background and matched it to the music of Jazz drummer, Chico Hamilton. The cut paper seemed to dance and explode like fireworks according to the drumming. This is a technique Henson will later use in Time Piece and various shorts on Sesame Street. His short films exercise entitled Run, Run is another predecessor to Sesame Street shorts. This film, though, is more touching as it stars his daughters Cheryl and Lisa as well as his wife, Jane. In the short, his daughters are running on a fall day near the Henson family home in Connecticut. The girls run and run continuously through the woods among fallen orange, red, and yellow leaves. Henson uses this film to experiment with color, light, and motion. The recurring idea of motion and movement is present in all of Henson’s experimental films. As the girls run, he plays with different camera angles such as filming the girls from above or directly in front of them as they race through the forest. He visually builds on that memory from childhood that we all share. You know the one I am talking about. When you run and run to the point that your legs and arms move like a well-oiled machine to the point that even if you reach your destination, you feel like you cannot stop them from pumping and spinning. At one point, Henson starts filming from the girls’ point of view. Instead of just watching them run, we are now running and seeing what they see. We are now the ones pushing through the brambles and weeds. In the end, Jane catches and hugs the girls. We have been afforded a rare and personal glimpse into the Henson family. All of this was set to music by Sesame Street composer Joe Raposo. In fact, I am disappointed that this was not used as a short for Sesame Street. It would have fit nicely in between the Muppet segments and the number and alphabet “commercials.” Although Run, Run is nostalgic and personal, my overall favorite of Henson’s experimental films are the Limbo films. Limbo is an abstract character that consisted of two eyes and a mouth that were made out of string. The puppet is performed live in front of a prerecorded film that is projected. The overall effect is a moveable face over top a film. Henson voiced Limbo and it sounded like a weird mixture of Rowlf the Dog and Kermit. Two of the Limbo films are very similar. In The Organized Mind, Limbo takes us on a tour of his mind where he has organized his memories, family members, fears, and happy thoughts. The only problem is, you have to travel through the fears to get to some of the other thoughts. Henson used pictures of family members and stock photographs to simulate the different thoughts popping in Limbo’s mind. The entire time we travel through his mind, these strings dance before us weaving and looping up and down. Eventually, everything gets all out of whack. Fears pop up where happy thoughts are supposed to be stored. After everything goes haywire, we are forced out of Limbo’s brain. In The Idea Man, we are once again in Limbo’s mind. This time, instead of strings weaving in front of us, we see a blue/purple like dark material floating and swimming on the screen which gives way to a black screen. Henson combines the Limbo puppet with a film that uses the cut paper animation method he used in Drums West. Jazz drumming sets the beat for Henson’s narration. Limbo talks about how there are no new ideas. Limbo complains that all of the great ideas have already been thought up like safety pins, television, polyunsaturated fats. As Limbo speaks, multicolored cut paper pops up on the screen with simple sketches of the items he mentions. Kermit the Frog, Alfred E. Newman, and Yurick from Sam and Friends all make an appearance among the ideas. You can almost see Henson sitting upside down like Mork on Mork and Mindy, drumming his fingers, trying to come up with his next new idea as Limbo continues that sometimes one idea leads to another, to another, and another until finally you have a “gloriously marvelous great big beautiful idea.” Of course, self-mocking Henson then says that the world shouts “that’ll never work!” once they hear your big idea. The Limbo films were set against music by Raymond Scott who is known for his musical and electronic noise work spanning from Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies to Ren and Stimpy and The Simpsons. To me, Limbo is not just a character that Henson dreamed up. Instead, he is a part of Henson. He is Henson trying to make sense of all the color and madness that is in his head. He is trying to organize and separate his thoughts in order to make sense of the mayhem and establish a separation between his family life and his work. Although his children are present in much of his work on screen and off screen, his private life was rarely discussed. Even in his infamous journal of one line daily entries made between 1965 and 1988, activities and trips enjoyed with his family are chronicled, but a boundary exists between his personal and work life. For workaholic Henson, that had to be quite a juggling act and a defined decision to protect his private life in that way. Henson’s short film Flapsole Sneakers is also worth a look. Henson parodies different commercial techniques that were popular during the 1960s. Most people do not realize that Henson was very successful in advertising. Wilkins Coffee, Linit Fabric Finish, La Choy, Purina, Esso Oil, and IBM are just a few of the brands that hired Henson to develop company films and commercials for their products. In Flapsole Sneakers, Henson hocks everything from Dandy Diapers that never rot to Cavity Candies. It is a parody worthy of MAD Magazine and Saturday Night Live. If you enjoy the brand of humor that Jim Henson and the Muppets offer through television shows, specials, and movies, then you will thoroughly enjoy the early experimental films of Jim Henson. It is interesting to see him develop as a filmmaker and to spot the techniques he will use later in his films and shows. All of the short films are available on YouTube.com via the Jim Henson Company. Next time you have trouble sleeping and are binging on YouTube, look them up. They are worth a second look and you will be guaranteed some interesting dreams to say the least. I give these short films an overall 4 out of 5 rubber chickens! 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