The man with the improbable name “Faz” was as close to an elf as I’ll ever meet in this lifetime. Franz “Faz” Fazakas was the mechanical genius behind the Muppets for decades, crafting such marvels as the Doozers and numerous other characters that required technical assistance to surpass or extend the limited reach of a human hand.
From the Muppet Wiki:
Fazakas first worked with Jim Henson as a puppeteer in the early 1970s on the Tales from Muppetland specials. However, his primary talents lay in devising mechanical devices to increase the range of movement and expression of the puppets, and for many years he was head of the electro mechanical department of the Muppet Workshop. The eye mechanisms on characters such as Big Bird and Sweetums were his contribution, as were the rods and cable control systems used to control tiny characters such as Rizzo the Rat and the Doozers. The latter, however, benefited most directly from Fazakas’ radio controlled mechanisms, variations of which were also used for the faces of full-bodied characters such as the Gorgs. The rowing scene in Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas and the rat cooking scenes in The Muppets Take Manhattan are perhaps the most direct showcases of Fazakas’ work.
In 1992, Fazakas, along with Brian Henson, Dave Housman, Peter Miller, and John Stephenson, shared the Academy Awards’ Scientific and Engineering Award for developing the Henson Performance Control System. This system, an advancement from the earlier radio controls, was used to create complex facial expressions as well as detailed body movements, such as finger joints, for Dinosaurs and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, amongst others. According to coverage of the event by the Hollywood Reporter, Fazakas drew laughs and applause during the group’s acceptance, quipping, “The Turtles are like many of our politicians. They’re all human except for the heads.”
Faz was 40 years older than me but he always struck me as a delighted child, peering under things, digging into the corners, trying to find out how things worked – or how to make them work better. I first met Faz when I started work with the Muppets on the series Fraggle Rock. Faz and his team were responsible for (in addition to the Doozers) for the electro-mechanical design of the Gorg’s.
The first iterations of the “Gorg Vision” (as it was called proprietarily in that video but never when we worked on the show) were made from re-purposed proctoscopes. Faz assurred us with his grin and scrunched up eyes that they were factory fresh – but that didn’t help them work any better. The flexible tubes contained multiple fibre optic strands, had an eye cup at one end and a small wide angle lens on the other – akin to what you’d find on an apartment door peephole. This meant that the “vision”, such as it was, was a rudimentary honeycomb of coloured light depicting a massively distorted view of the studio we worked in. Not only was the image broken into mega-pixel chunks by the limited number of fibres but when ever we turned our heads the wide angle lens would provide us with a curving sweeping landscape that also showed the floor and the ceiling. The eyepiece for this was attached to a small flap that hung from the helmet inside the large Gorg head, much like a pirate patch, but because of the forward weight of the heads (with all the servo motors for the eyes and mouth) the helmet would invariably shift and push the patch down past our eye socket and render us completely blind. Being blind was often preferable to the nausea inducing spectacle of the proctoscope. After a full season of this Faz came back with a much improved system (incorporating our suggestions for a moulded face mask attached to the helmet to place everything securely) with a small security camera and camcorder eye piece serving as the “Gorg vision”.
It was also Faz who spotted and corrected an odd anomaly specific to the head of Junior Gorg. When ever I wore the head and stood erect, looking straight forward, the face of Junior was always looking off slightly to the right. Despite numerous corrections to the way the helmet and the head were attached – always precisely lining up the centre of the helmet with the centre of the character head – even going so far as to re-skin the head itself – nothing fixed the problem, leaving Jane Gootnick and the others in the shop baffled. That’s when Faz strolled through, busy with some kind of Doozer thing in his hands, glancing at the component parts of Junior’s cranium strewn on the table, and stated: “His head’s crooked.” Jane responded: “We know that , Faz, but how do we fix it?” And Faz replied: “You can’t. It’s his head that’s crooked.” He was pointing at me. Sure enough, re-checking the head mould and templates we found out my skull was a tad oblique in its structure and anything remotely hat-like that was placed on it would always be pointed off to the right. To hell with precision – make it work – and we did.
The most fun was watching Faz play with a little bit of something in the shop – a finished prop, a half-completed device, or even just a bit of debris he spotted on a table – it was always fodder for the imagination: What can we do with this?
Faz was an avid piano player and a bottomless pit of stories. I loved hanging out in the workshop at the studio just to watch him work and listen to him grumble and laugh and provide a constant stream of jokes and memories from work past with Baird and Henson. He shared with me some insights to the craft & art of being a marionettist and took great delight in explaining the mechanical designs he was working on, showing how all the fiddly bits came together, the physics involved, the science behind it and then ultimately handing it over to a performer. Faz nodded to himself as he said this last bit, peering into a small soft green head: “And that’s when the magic happens. Sometimes.” and then he squinted sideways at me with a smile: “If you believe in that sort of thing.” And then the chuckle.
I am so very glad to have had Faz Fazakas in my life for however brief a time it may have been. He was, as they used to say, a tonic to the soul.
Here is the video from Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas, a subtle masterpiece of Faz’s work. It’s the song sequence for When The River Meets The Sea – a song which Jerry Nelson sang with Louise Gold in the show and at Jim’s memorial and which we all sang together for Jerry after his passing. This is for you Faz. Thank you.