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The ASC honors Isidore Mankofsky, ASC with its Presidents Award. […] During this stretch, Mankofsky also shot some features. In 1979, Jim Henson called upon the cinematographer to shoot The Muppet Movie, the Muppets’ first big-screen venture. Henson’s The Muppet Show had a high-key, live-TV look that everyone knew wouldn’t translate to the cinema, and Mankofsky had to devise more film-appropriate visuals. The only caveat Henson had was that the color of the Muppets’ fur, especially green, had to be true. “Green on film, especially at night, can be tough, and Kodak stocks at the time weren’t particularly sensitive to green,” notes Mankofsky. “But it was great working with the Muppets. First of all, no one complained about the light in his eyes or how long he had to stand in — you just stuck them on a pole. And the puppeteers were really nice guys. When I asked Henson to move Kermit to the right a little for a better frame, Henson wouldn’t answer; Kermit would answer. “Henson didn’t want any special effects,” he continues. “He wanted everything live. For example, when Kermit was driving an older Studebaker, four or five puppeteers were working the puppets from the floor of the car, so the car had to be modified so it could be driven from the trunk. A wide-angle lens poked out of the distinctive front of the Studebaker grill so the driver could see. “The question I’m asked most about The Muppet Movie is how Kermit rode the bike. We took a crane with an arm extended out, and monofilament ran from that down to the bike. Kermit’s feet were strapped to the pedals, and the pedals would turn as the bike wheels turned. The voice and mouth movements were remote-controlled; we’d just pull it along. However, the shot I’m most proud of is the one that shows Kermit sitting in the director’s chair in the big soundstage. Where’s Henson? I did that in such a simple way, and no one has figured it out. I put a couple mirrors in, and Henson is behind the mirrors. I lit it so the shadows in the mirrors looked like they continued past the chair legs.”
Mankofsky breathes a sigh of relief as his meter registers the whopping 1,600 footcandles of fill light necessary to film a stagebound exterior of Miss Piggy for MuppetVision 3-D (1991), a special- venue film for Disney theme parks that still plays today.
Mankofsky (far right) observes the 3-D camera rig being lined up for a shot on MuppetVision 3-D. Disney built the 65mm cameras and the two-camera 3-D rig, with the top camera firing down into a mirror. The film stock in this camera was run backwards, takeup to feed, in order to correct the mirror’s flipped image, thus avoiding a quality-degrading optical in post.