DVDanger: I Am Big Bird
Life inside the feather suit
By Richard Whittaker,
6:00PM, Sat. Jan. 30, 2016
There are documentaries about cultural icons. Then there are documentaries about the forces that created those icons. Then there are those that examine the people behind the icon. And then there is I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story, which reveals the man inside the icon.
Strange as it may sound, but since the giant yellow friend to children everywhere first appeared on Sesame Street in 1969, it's been the same man inside the suit: Caroll Spinney, the voice and heart of the innocent eyes through which kids have been introduced to the world. For 46 years, he has been a voice of wonder, and this documentary finally looks inside the suit to find a man as sweet and in love with the world as the character he created.
I am Big Bird charts both his extraordinary career and his personal life. After all, a lot of performers might find the toll of being the unseen face behind a universally recognized character unbearable, but Spinney is shown to be as devoted to Big Bird as he is to his wife Debra.
The film was originally scheduled to be shown at the Long Center this weekend, but the event was cancelled, and the slot filled with an anniversary showing of Hook. However, the film is still available to see on home release, and co-directors Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker talked to the Chronicle about the time they spent with this extraordinary performer.
Austin Chronicle: Everyone knows Big Bird, but how did you even become aware of Caroll?
Dave LaMattina: In 2005, I was interning at Sesame Workshop, because I wanted to go into family entertainment, and it was the pinnacle of places you could be for that. Great internship, and then a year or two later I was telling a friend about the various internships I'd had, and I said something about Sesame Street, and she said, 'Oh, I'm actually family friends with Caroll Spinney.' I didn't know who that was, and thought Caroll was a woman, and she proceeded to tell me that he's a man, and he's been Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch since 1969.
So Chad and I were emailing, as we are want to do, and we were kicking around some doc ideas, and that came up and we couldn't really let go of of it. We reached out to Sesame, thinking this would be a lot of red tape. and I think within a week we had a meeting set up with Caroll.
Chad N. Walker: It was probably the best meeting you could possibly have. [Caroll and Debra] were two of the sweetest people you could imagine. You could tell immediately that they were in love like none other. Halfway through the meeting, Deb says, 'I'm not a professional or anything, but I've pretty much video taped everything we've ever done. Would you guys like to use that?' 'Yes. Yes, we would.'
AC: So how much material did she have? Because, between that, the Children's Television Workshop archives and the Jim Henson Company material, you must have been winnowing through a lot of footage before you started shooting your original material or adding your animated sequences.
CNW: It was probably close to 400 hours of stuff that Caroll and Deb shot, not even talking about all the old episodes of Sesame Street we went through. It was an amazing amount, box after box. The first box Deb dropped off had behindthe scenes that no one had ever seen of A Muppet Family Christmas, so it was really amazing.
But there were definitely some dark signs, where as soon as VHS hit, they would just stick the camera in the windshield. It would be four hours of them just driving through New Zealand, and you're holding your eyes open, just trying to get through it because you knew, even if in that case, it would be cute and you have this amazing, adorable moment.
Like that New Zealand example, it was literally extended play VHS, and five hours into that tape it randomly cuts and they're having a picnic. It's the moment in the film when Caroll jumps up and runs down the hill and rolls. That's why we sat here for five hours, because that moment is really magical and amazing.
AC: Puppeteering is such an individual skill, but on something like Sesame Street, it's so collaborative. so how hard was it for you as documentarians to not wander off-topic and make this a history of the entire show?
DLaM: There are a lot of people who have done a lot of Sesame Street retrospectives, and there are a lot of fans that we relied on for facts and background stuff and details, so everything we deal with in the film, we deal with as Caroll experienced it. That was our lens, whether it was Jim [Henson]'s death which obviously countless other news stories and artistic pieces have covered in their own way, how did that affect Caroll personally? That was our filter for every scene.
CNW: It gave us a unique perspective through one person's eyes. How they felt, what they did.
AC: You talk a lot about the puppeteering techniques and how Caroll performs, but there's one thing you never mention in the film. Caroll is both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, so how did they shoot the scenes when the pair are talking and interacting?
DLaM: It's a fascinating dance. What they do is that Caroll will pre-record the dialogue, typically for whichever puppet has the least amount of dialogue, and then another puppeteer will jump in either the Oscar or the Big Bird puppet that Caroll pre-recorded, and they will then essentially catch Caroll's voice. It's like a coordinated dance, and it's totally insane.
If you've seen the film, there's a moment when Jerry Nelson, who's no longer with us, he was doing the Count's voice, but he was no longer doing the puppet. so Matt Vogel, who does a ton of characters, not only is he Caroll's understudy for Big Bird, and he's all these characters on The Muppet Show, and he directs episodes of Sesame Street, Matt Vogel is actually catching Jerry Nelson's voice live. It's an incredible skill that these men and women have.
I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story (Cinedigm) is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD now.