Don Sahlin
b.Jun 19, 1928
d. February 19, 1978

Don Sahlin (June 19, 1928 - February 19, 1978) was Jim Henson's main designer and puppet builder in the 1960s and '70s, and a key influence on the overall aesthetic of the Muppets. Don Sahlin's work in puppetry spanned the worlds of television, film, stage, and even stop-motion animation.

Born in Stratford, Connecticut, his interest in puppetry led to a brief tutelage under Rufus Rose, puppeteer and builder for The Howdy Doody Show. Drafted into the army but released in 1953, Sahlin put his puppet experience to work on Michael Myerberg's stop-motion animated version of the operetta Hansel and Gretel. This led to other assignments in Hollywood as a stop-motion or effects animator, notably working with the company Project Unlimited on several of George Pal's films. (Pal was the creator of the Puppetoons, whose influence can be seen in many similar Sesame Street vignettes, like "King of 8"). Sahlin's work with Pal included scenes for tom thumb (animating various playroom toys) and The Time Machine, for which Sahlin provided effects shots and even appeared on-camera, as the clothing store's window dresser in a pixillation sequence.

He met and worked along side with Sky Highchief in New York on the Hansel & Gretel film. By 1960, Sahlin had moved to New York and was working with puppeteer Burr Tillstrom of Kukla, Fran and Ollie fame, building and re-building Kukla, Colonel Crackie, and Tillstrom's other characters for a Broadway show. It was around this time that Sahlin first met Jim Henson, at a Detroit puppetry convention. In 1962, Henson contacted Sahlin to build a dog character he had sketched for use in commercials, Rowlf. Don Sahlin soon became Henson's primary designer and builder, beginning with commercials and early projects such as Tales of the Tinkerdee. He also provided special effects for Time Piece, and assisted on stop-motion projects, such as the animated ham used in the second Wilson's Meats Meeting Film (in which Sahlin has a cameo).

In The Muppets on Puppets, Jim introduced Don to the viewers as "doing some of our backstage effects and working some of the puppets" in the 1968 special. In a story-telling skit, he alternated between puppeteering Rowlf's right hand and operating effects like an "explosion". Don Sahlin went on to create and build Muppets for Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas, The Muppet Movie, amongst many others.

Interview conducted by Paul Mandell and David Prestone.
This issue of Close Up Magazine was published in1976

Don Sahlin and friend

CU: What did you do on THE TIME MACHINE?

Sahlin: I worked on virtually all the special effects.There really wasn't much animation, other than the decaying Morlock. That was done by Tom Holland.You know, I was in that film! I made my "screen debut." Remember the guy in the window changing the clothes on the mannequin? That was me! I didn't want the job because there was an actor there who worked with us, Dave Worrick. I asked them to give the job to Dave because I had no real desire to be in films. But they said, "No, we want you to do it." So they got me a costume and animated me for the scenes.

CU: You mean you were actually pixellated as opposed to just speeding up the camera?

Don Sahlin as the window dresser

Don Sahlin: Yes, I literally went in and they animated me per frame. The really neat thing about changing all of those costumes dealt with the fact that they were brought in from MGM. Somehow, in my subconscious mind, I recognized them. I remember saying to myself, "I'll bet that's a Lucille Ball dress." Sure enough, it was, as their ames are all sewn in them. But I loved the Morlock scenes. Some of the things I wish I'd taken were a pair of Morlock feet and a Morlock head. They were great works of art; really spooky to look at! I animated the airplanes and the dirigibles in the World War II scenes, but I never thought they were very realistic.

For more on this shot see
our page on Project Unlimited

CU: In the earlier part of the film, there was a split-screen shot where the boiling lava came oozing down the street...

Don Sahlin: That was a great big fiasco, you know, because it really didn't work. They had built these two bins full of colored oatmeal for the lava. One day, they decided to do a take. They coverd all of the set with polyethylene. Now, they had prepared the oatmeal the night before, and nobody got up to look at it. Then they pulled the traps, with all these high-speed cameras going, and all the oatmeal had fermented and become watery. And the sight of all that! If I could have had a picture of the faces on those people! This foul-smelling, fermented mess came rushing down over all the cameras. I just went home. When they did the take again, they had put too much stuff together and it was too thick. I believe that's how it appeared in the film. We were busy throwing burning cork and silvery material into the oatmeal, but it really didn't work too well. It was fun, though.

CU: There was some inconsistency with the shot of you changing the mannequin. If the sun had been rising and setting at the speed depicted in the film, you shouldn't have been able to see a man changing the mannequin at all...

Don Sahlin: Right. There are a lot of inconsistencies in the picture, but they're very minor. It's such a charming thing to watch. I never get tired of seeing it; it has such a haunting quality to it.

CU: Even the music and the actors seemed perfect.

Don Sahlin: It did have a good musical score. Rod Taylor certainly seemed to be suited for the role. I had never been much of an Alan Young fan, but he played that triple role beautifully. And Yvette Mimieux was just out of high school at the time. The sound effects were great. I especially loved the off-camera sound of the kettles underneath the ground.

Morlock wells during destruction sequence

CU: Did you work on the explosion scene towards the end?

Don Sahlin: We had an incredible effect for that. We built a huge miniature set, about the size of a good-sized living room. It was all done on different levels of tables. We had legs underneath; and it was like a big puzzle. The legs were pulled at different times so the set would collapse. Then there would be explosions and flash-pots going off. It was really effective. There were many other scenes in "The Time Machine" that I worked on. There was the opening scene of the candles melting, and the ones of the flowers blooming. I remember we animated a snail; I also animated the Sphinx. You might recall the raising and lowering of those siren towers...

Matte painting by Bill Brace

CU: Where they cardboard cutouts or was it a full dimensional miniature?

Don Sahlin: It was dimensional. But there was very little animation involved in that. There was another scene, a blue-backing shot, where layers of lava were made to appear rising behind Rod Taylor in his Time Machine. That was all painted. They had a guy in another room, Bill Brace, an artist, and he was doing all these matte paintings where the trees were blooming and the apples were growing. And he painted the future scenes, too, where you saw the topography of the land changing, and the Eloi temple being built. The whole dome of that was a painting matted in, and the stairway leading up to it was part of MGM's old QUO VADIS set. Do you know what I loved about working on TIME MACHINE? We literally did the sets ourselves. I loved doing the sets and dressing them. We were all very involved in the project instead of just one aspect of it. I remember working on the huge hole that Rod Taylor climbed into to get to the Morlock world. I loved getting down there, touching it up with a spray can and adding little details to it. I feel really proud to say I worked on THE TIME MACHINE; I think it was a classic. I never received screen credit due to the politics of the organization, but it never bothered me. We were working on a very small budget. I think I remember Gene (Warren Sr.) telling me that we did the effects for under $60,000, which was really a small sum, yet it reaped an Academy Award. Have you met George Pal?

CU: We've never had the pleasure.

Don Sahlin: When you think about him, he was such an unusual producer when you realize the courage he had to have to do the kinds of offbeat things he did.



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