Dance your cares away – the Fraggles are back!
Apple TV+’s Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock! pays homage to the original 1980s Jim Henson series, a Canadian/UK/US co-production shot in Toronto and beloved by fans all over the globe. And now, just when the world might need it most, the Fraggles return to spread joy and wonder. Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock! was shot in Alberta and posted in Ontario, with plenty of Canadian creatives getting in on the Fraggle Fun.
Hear from the DGC Members who helped bring this cheerful and colourful production to life as we discuss the whimsy and wonder of Henson productions, magical innovations in puppetry (including swimming Fraggles!), the creative collaborations that spanned two Canadian provinces, and how working as a team on Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock! in the midst of a pandemic was just what their spirits needed.
Read our interview below with Director and Creative Producer J.J. Johnson, Directors Jordan Canning, Zach Lipovsky, and Paul Fox, Post Production Supervisor Paul Ackerley, Picture Editors Marianna Khoury and Paul Winestock, Supervising Sound Editor John D. Smith, Sound Editor Kelly McGahey, Sound Effects Editor Kayla Stewart, as well as Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock! Head Puppeteer, Writer, and Executive Producer John Tartaglia.
On getting the gig…
Director Jordan Canning: My agent got in touch and said, “I don’t really know if this is up your alley, but Henson is doing a Fraggle Rock reboot in Calgary,” and I just lost my shit! Like, I’ve gotta get this job. Give me the interview. When is it? What’s happening? Everything in my body was like, “You must get this job. Be impressive.”
Then I interviewed with Lisa Henson and Halle Stanford and John Tartaglia. I came downstairs after and told my boyfriend, Adam, “That was the best interview I’ve ever done.”
Director Zach Lipovsky: Halle Stanford, one of the Executive Producers, reached out saying, “Hey, are you by any chance a fan of Fraggle Rock?” And my Co-Director [Adam Stein] and I were huge fans of Fraggle Rock growing up and were really excited about the potential of doing it. Halle said they were looking for Directors for the last two episodes and asked if we had time to meet the showrunners. So we met them and we pitched our hearts out with all sorts of different ideas on how to bring the scripts to life. And luckily, they liked our ideas.
Director/Creative Producer J.J. Johnson: I’ve known Halle Stanford, who heads up the creative at Henson, for a number of years now. Jim Henson shows have informed the types of shows that Sinking Ship makes. When I was growing up, seeing Labyrinth for the first time, or Fraggle Rock, it was just unlike anything else that was on TV. It dealt with kind of serious overarching themes but treated in a fun, inviting way, and just total wall-to-wall whimsy and magic. Halle asked if I would be interested in directing the Fraggle Rock reboot, and I honestly lost my mind because I thought it was a joke. It’s so rare that I get to do anything outside of Sinking Ship just because we operate our own little mini studio system and we’re constantly in production. But there was this magical window of time where one of our shows was just wrapping up so the timing worked out. I don’t know if I’m a sucker for punishment, but I really love being there for the first couple of episodes, because it brings this unique pressure, but also a huge opportunity to improvise and play around and develop stuff with a team. I really missed that feeling, particularly during COVID, that camaraderie that comes with approaching something with as many fresh perspectives as you can. So being able to direct the first few episodes and also do the Doc and Sprocket scenes was an opportunity I couldn’t refuse, and couldn’t honestly believe that I was being considered for it. It was an emphatic yes, and then I threw myself into it.
Picture Editor Paul Winestock: I was lucky enough to get a phone call asking if I would like to join the project, and without a moment’s hesitation I said yes. I mean, it is a dream come true for me to work on a Henson production. I don’t know exactly how I got the gig, but as soon as the phone call came, I was thrilled beyond compare. I am very fortunate that two career dreams have come true for me – one dream was to work with former SCTV cast members on Schitt’s Creek, because I grew up with SCTV [Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy]. And now this project fulfills another dream, because I grew up with the Muppets. Next, I have to work on a Mel Brooks movie before he passes away.
Sound Effects Editor Kayla Stewart: Several months before I actually started work on Fraggle Rock, my boss at Sound Dogs, Nelson Ferreira, was setting up future projects for Sound Editors and asked if I might be interested in doing the sound effects on the show. I’d never watched Fraggle Rock before, but as a long-time Sesame Street and Muppets fan, when I saw it was a Jim Henson Company project I jumped at the opportunity! What followed was several weeks of me asking Nelson at every opportunity if the production had approved the crew selections yet, and a great deal of excitement once I got the news that they had.
On the Canadian Fraggle connection…
Head Puppeteer, Writer, Executive Producer John Tartaglia: I grew up in New Jersey, and until now I had never been to Canada but I was always fascinated by it. I remember watching the original series, and there was such a Canadian essence to it – everything from Gobo’s Canadian accent to seeing Uncle Matt travel into outer space (i.e. our world) and seeing these very famous Toronto landmarks. When the show came back, and we knew we were going into production, there was this beautiful agreement amongst everybody that it had to be produced in Canada because it’s such a part of the DNA of the show. And my experience was phenomenal. I found the crew in Calgary to be the hardest working, most wonderful crew I’ve ever worked with. They put everything they had into the show. When you hear people who worked on the original series talk about their experience, they always describe how everyone was working at the highest level, whether it was the performers, the lighting, the props, everyone put everything they had into making the show the best it could be. And that’s exactly what happened here with Back to the Rock!. When everyone’s working at that level, and everyone’s contributing at that high of a degree, you get a beautiful product, and it comes across through the screen. So much of that was the Canadian crew that we worked with. Everyone just gave it their all and I was blown away. I really was.
Director/Creative Producer J.J. Johnson: I think Canadian talent continues to evolve and is really becoming world-class. Our original productions are getting better and better, and the influence of American shows with Canadian talent just means we’re learning from absolutely everyone. I do think we offer the best of the best. I was surprised in rewatching the original, how many of the characters had Canadian accents! I love that they didn’t try to strip that away when they first made Fraggle Rock here and that it’s become a beloved part of the show now. It’s just hilarious every time you hear one of the Fraggles say “eh”. I think that the Jim Henson Company understands that you lean into where the magic came from originally. And it came from a great deal of the Canadian talent pool, and they wanted to double down on it this time around, which was great to see.
Director Jordan Canning: The Jim Henson Company had a real connection to Canada. I think they wanted to shoot here to honour the original Fraggle Rock and because they love Canada. It was fantastic that a lot of the puppeteers were Canadian, from Toronto, Ottawa, Kingston, and from Calgary as well.
Sound Editor Kelly McGahey: We’ve been working on a lot more Post projects, out of province and internationally, which has become the norm and is exciting for all of us in the Post world. We’re not just creating content, but we’re also putting our stamp on international projects, and out-of-province projects. It’s very cool to broaden what we work on, especially for the DGC.
On the creative collaborations that made the show REALLY special…
Picture Editor Marianna Khoury: It’s such a big production, and I was so nervous. But I was thrilled when I found out that Jordan Canning was the Director of the first two episodes that I was editing. We started working on a web series together years ago, and she’s a friend. So it was a dream to work with her again and on such a large scale. We had our flow already, which made it really easy to work remotely. It was also an insane feeling because here I am editing Fraggle Rock in my room! Because Jordan and I had worked together, it made the process so easy, and it’s so nice to have that kind of communication with a Director. I would be cutting stuff and sending it to her while she was still shooting episodes so then she could add things and grab more, which was really great.
Director Zach Lipovsky: Part of the excitement was to dive into something that was completely different than what we’ve ever done before, and not knowing what the challenges were going to be. So the first step was to learn what we didn’t know. We did a bunch of things to figure that out. DGC National has something called the Director’s Clubhouse, which happens once a month where we invite Directors from across the country onto a Zoom call and everyone chats and asks each other for advice. So I asked at the Clubhouse, “Has anyone worked with puppets?”, and 10 of them had! So we got a whole bunch of advice from Directors across the country on puppetry and how to tackle some of its challenges.
Post Production Supervisor Paul Ackerley: Honestly, there’s been this wacky little pandemic going on for a while now, and it’s forced our whole industry to first jerry-rig, then streamline, and eventually perfect remote workflows for all aspects of Post. Of course, no one would ever choose not to be together in the same edit room – or colour suite, or mix stage – but Fraggle wasn’t any different from most productions lately. Our whole Post team kept in constant communication in Toronto and managed to collaborate online really well with the Directors as well as with the Producers in Calgary and LA (not to mention the incredible music team in LA).
Picture Editor Paul Winestock: The collaboration on Fraggle Rock is really the ensemble of the entire production. The performances and the creativity in the dailies we received were phenomenal. Sometimes we’d email the Directors and say, “Okay, I’ve got this green screen here and Gobo in the midst of a garbage pile, what am I supposed to be doing?” The collaboration continues when you get into the Director’s cut, and they give a clearer idea of those more complex scenarios. The scenes that are happening within the Fraggle world are free, pretty much. You’re cutting for performance, you’re cutting for pacing. But then you have these considerably more complex moments, and those are where the Director’s cut, and then the Producer’s cut, really come into play. How are you going to work through this dream sequence, or this pseudo-dream sequence, or this fantastic diving scene? We all worked with the Directors and the Producers to create these large scenes. The whole team was always fantastic.
Supervising Sound Editor John D. Smith: At this point, I’ve become quite used to working virtually. I found that any day I could be working with Actors, Producers and Directors in studios in all parts of the world. Sound Dogs has excellent workflow solutions for working remotely, and it was very seamless. Our communication with the Producers turned out to be very effective, and the whole team was able to bring their best to the show.
Picture Editor Marianna Khoury: You really see the collaboration on set and that sense of togetherness comes through on the footage. But when you’re editing at home it can be quite lonely. Something Paul Ackerley and [Post Production Coordinator] Jodie Moore and the Post team set up was a weekly meet up on Zoom called “Fraggle Tales Friday”, where we would chat about the week and get to know each other. It was such a nice thing to bring the team together! On one of my last Fraggle Tales Fridays, Paul ran over to everyone’s houses and gave each of us a kit so that everyone could individually make their own radish martinis, and then we all had radish martinis together on Zoom. It really brought the togetherness to Post even though we were remote. I had never worked with anyone on that team, and it was one of the best teams I’ve ever been a part of.
Head Puppeteer, Writer, Executive Producer John Tartaglia: We did all of our post production from Toronto, which I loved secretly because I was like, “oh, there’s that part of the DNA again!” Toronto is still part of the Fraggle magic. The Post team were wizards. There was nothing that they couldn’t do, and we were asking a lot of them. Fraggle Rock is a huge show, and there are a lot of effects. When you’re doing a show that stars puppet characters that move in a very specific way and have a very specific texture and organic feel to them, it was a big risk to say, “how do we make that work as a CG element when we want them to do tricks or stunts?” And again, the Post Production team just nailed it beautifully. I have never worked with a more can-do, spirited team. There’s this love for the original series, especially by Canadians. There’s pride, and rightly so, behind it, and I think that it made everyone go, “We’re doing this for the Fraggles.” I remember the first time I brought the Sprocket puppet out on set and watching the crew suddenly melt. You saw all these people in their 30s and 40s and 50s become like kids again. The Post team, everybody felt this duty to deliver.
On directing and editing puppets vs. people…
Director Zach Lipovsky: One of the things I didn’t realize until working on this project was that puppeteers can’t do their job unless they can see the puppet. So even when the camera’s not rolling, they’re still looking at the monitor and watching themselves on this puppet show. They’re in character, playing around any time that the cameras are on them. We would do rolling takes because the shots were so complicated, and the dailies are filled with puppeteers staying in character, talking back to the Directors, talking back to each other, fighting and kissing and slapping each other and speaking in French accents, as if they’re the most unruly group of kids. Often you end up talking directly to the puppet, which at first you think is just some cute thing they do, because they’re “method”, but that’s not actually the reason. The reason is that a lot of the time you can’t actually see the puppeteer, because they’re behind a wall, or a table or the floor… So you’re giving direction like, “Hey, Gobo, your eyeline was a bit off. Can you look a little to the right?” and the puppeteer will go [in Gobo’s voice], “Oh, yeah, sure. No problem.” So that was one of the most fun things! When you watch an entire season’s worth of dailies, which is hundreds of hours, you learn so much about puppetry. It’s hilarious because they’re completely improvised and they’re some of the best improvisers in the world.
Director Jordan Canning: When you’re directing, a lot of the shots, you think, “Oh, I’m gonna do like a wide shot”, and then you realize, “Oh, I can’t do a wide shot, because of the puppeteers.” You have to be creative with layering and filling up the frame in different ways. The sets have a lot to do with that, because they’re hiding behind a rock or something. A lot of the time, we were like, “we need more little random rocks”, so they’d bring out a piece of styrofoam and build these layers to hide people behind so that they could be layered distance-wise from the camera.
Sound Effects Editor Kayla Stewart: A big consideration for sound effects was the size of the puppets in relation to the real world, in particular how things like Doozer vehicles and tools should sound. The Producers wanted the sound of their technology to convey that they are tiny in comparison to our real-world equivalents, but that they’re still very sturdy and well-made. To achieve this I selected real-world sounds of small items, then altered and layered them together to create something new. For example, to create a Doozer-sized jackhammer I blended the sounds of a dentist drill with a ratcheting screwdriver. Their bulldozer engine sounds come from altering recordings of toy instruments like kazoos, and the squeak of the brakes is the sound of a semi-inflated balloon being rubbed along a surface. Using a base of familiar sounds helped keep things grounded while still providing interesting and unique textures.
Supervising Sound Editor John D. Smith: What surprised me the most was the detail in facial expressions and mouth movements. We re-recorded thousands of lines in ADR with the original Fraggle Rock cast and had to make sure we could get the sync and performances working. It was much more challenging than anticipated, as we were basically re-voicing entire Fraggles.
Director/Creative Producer J.J. Johnson: I came in fairly late in that set design and everything was already moving. I saw right away that the scale at which they were envisioning this was probably what Jim Henson would have wanted to achieve if he had the resources and the talent that is here today. Every environment is so originally imagined, the number of secondary characters and background characters has been upgraded. The technology that’s gone into it has been carefully thought out to maximize every possible puppet innovation that’s available to us now. It felt like joining in that chorus and trying to figure out how we balance this well-earned nostalgia and affection for the show and bring in modern-day filmmaking without losing the magic. We all knew from the beginning that we wanted this to be the best puppet show that’s ever been made, and try not to overuse some of the technology available to us now, because, in a way, that takes away from the kind of simple wonderment that comes when a great performer is puppeteering a character.
Director Jordan Canning: I put on a puppet a few times. Your arm gets so tired and I only had a puppet on for like 10 minutes. But the puppeteers just want to make it as amazing as possible. They’re always trying to come up with new things. That’s something the show does so incredibly. There are things that you’re seeing puppets do that you never have never seen before, like all the water stuff. It didn’t occur to me just how rarely you’d see puppets in water, because puppets getting wet and puppets swimming is a bit of a rigmarole, but they really wanted that to be real in the show. So the puppets are in the water, there’s puppeteers in the pool with suction gloves. They really wanted to push the envelope with what they could do with this show.
Director Paul Fox: The musical numbers were my favourite part of directing this show. I love all film genres, and have been fortunate enough to try my hand at most of them – Western, Comedy, Horror, etc. – but there’s not much call for musical numbers these days, so this was a real treat. I particularly enjoyed creating the number that kicks off the pilot episode, as it needed to introduce the world and the characters in a colourful, exciting way that would draw viewers in and hold them. I planned it very thoroughly on paper first, mapping out what imagery I wanted to correspond with which lyrics. Most of the cutting points were pre-determined, as each shot was designed to coincide with a specific section of the song. I was essentially cutting this sequence in camera.
Post Production Supervisor Paul Ackerley: Puppetry of this calibre becomes very real very quickly, and we in Post are dealing with the same magical images everyone ultimately sees at home. These characters may be made of colourful fleece and foam, but they’re very much alive. And at the end of the day, we need to support their wonderful stories with great sound and beautiful visuals just as we do with live-action.
On joyful moments…
Head Puppeteer, Writer, Executive Producer John Tartaglia: Working on a show that is based in hope is so unique. It’s so rare to find something that is optimistic and joyful and hopeful about the world. We shot this a year ago, when it still felt like the pandemic was going to go on forever and ever and ever, and it felt hopeless, and like everything was falling apart around you in the real world. But we had six months of this encapsulated, optimistic joy bubble, literally down in Fraggle Rock where we were living for six months on set. Any time we’d see scary headlines or things were blowing up around the world, we’d think, “Okay, well, the difference we can make is we can go to set today and show the Fraggles and the Doozers and the Gorgs and Doc and Sprocket getting along, and if they get along, then maybe there’s hope for the rest of the world.”
Director Paul Fox: It would be hard to work with the Fraggle team and not have a joyful and gratifying experience. The work was challenging, but the level of creativity in all departments – from the creation of those amazing sets and creatures to the inspired performers who bring them to life, to the technical crew who figured out the logistics of shooting them – was truly staggering. There was also a sense of wonder and nostalgia that we were bringing a much-loved Jim Henson Company ‘legacy’ series back to life. That certainly wasn’t lost on the puppeteers, many of whom had chosen their life’s work after having watched and loved the original series as children.
Director Jordan Canning: On set, there is always the stress of the pandemic looming over you. But as soon as those puppets go on, and they’re doing a dance number, or you’re calling out directions and they’re answering as a puppet, it’s just like…you’re saving my life! John Tartaglia, who plays Gobo and is the head EP/showrunner and a head puppeteer, is just the most wonderful, collaborative, supportive, loving human in the world. It enabled everyone to do their best work and to rise to the occasion. I think everybody felt like this is a family, we are all contributing to something really special, and so coming to work was a joy even when you’re so sick of masks.
Post Production Supervisor Paul Ackerley: As a lifelong Muppet fan, the whole thing was a bit surreal from start to finish. One of my favourite moments was probably the first remote ADR voiceover session with Dave Goelz, who voices Boober (one of the main Fraggle Five characters). He did the original series too. And he’s always been Gonzo from the Muppets, among other legendary roles. At the start of the session he was reflecting back with wonder on his career, and it really brought home the kind of legacy we were tapping into. Special stuff.
Sound Effects Editor Kayla Stewart: The entire experience of working on Fraggle Rock was a dream, but the moment that stands out the most for me has to be the playback of our final episode. Our Post Supervisor, Paul Ackerley, and Post Coordinator, Jodie Moore, arranged to hold the final playback in a much larger mixing stage so that the entire Post-Sound team could safely attend in person while still adhering to COVID protocols. It was wonderful getting to hear the results of our hard work in a proper mix stage and see everything up on the big screen, and for several of us, it was our first time getting to meet face-to-face. It was the perfect way to end our time working on the project, and I am so grateful to Paul and Jodie for taking the time to organize it. They went above and beyond to make the day special and celebratory.
Sound Editor Kelly McGahey: They had The Foo Fighters come on one of the episodes, so it was cool that I got to cut Dave Grohl’s dialogue. I was starstruck during the audio recordings. I was like, Oh, my God, I love the Foo Fighters! I get to cut their dialogue!
Director Zach Lipovsky: We were doing this massive scene with 35-40 puppeteers dancing in a giant circle, like a Jewish wedding, and this techno crane doing a 360 and all this crazy stuff. It took three and a half hours to get this one shot. It was the climactic moment of this big number and there were so many different elements, so we spent hours and hours getting the shot. We finally got it at the end. And then one of the Jim Henson Producers walked onto set, and it was the first time she’d walked onto set. Usually when that happens, you get really nervous as a Director, because if the Producer’s never talked to you before, and now they’re walking in, something’s wrong. And she’d been working with Jim Henson for 30 years, in all those movies that we admired. She walked up to us at our monitors in this back cave, basically huddled, high fiving each other. She just looked at us. And there’s this moment of silence, and she just said, that was an amazing shot.
We came aboard this project with the idea to raise the bar as high as we could. This might be our only chance to work with some of the best puppeteers in the world, so let’s try and bring some of that Henson magic we’ve always loved. That was one of the shots where we were really trying to do that. And then for her to walk right up to us and compliment that shot was pretty special.
Director/Creative Producer J.J. Johnson: The show comes with a well-deserved fan base. And you want to treat that with respect – there’s a reason it’s coming back, and it’s because of these fans, and especially older fans that are going to introduce this to their kids. So you want to meet them with their expectations, and surpass them, but not in any way that looks like you’re dismissive of the original. When the characters were coming out for the first time, some people in the crew were crying, it was wonderfully intense. But I think we all needed it. We didn’t know how far into the pandemic we were, but it was dragging on. Everyone needed that jolt of positivity, and that’s what this show delivers in spades. It was like a two-month creative reprieve for me. It was nice to be surrounded by people that just wanted to create something beautiful.