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Jim Henson's Lost Epic: "Tale of Sand"

In his early years, Jim Henson wrote a screenplay called Tale of Sand that was never produced. He and his writing partner Jerry Juhl returned to the project repeatedly over the years, revising it, but it was never filmed, and the screenplay went into a drawer in the mid-1970s. Now the project has been resurrected, adapted by Ramón Pérez into a graphic novel that conveys the sardonic, absurdist humor of early Henson and Juhl. Read on for my review and an exclusive interview with Karen Falk, Archives Director and historian for The Henson Company.

Time Piece

The first thing you have to understand about Jim Henson's creative career is that it wasn't just about the Muppets. In the mid 1960s, Henson created his first landmark film, the live-action Time Piece, which was nominated for an Academy Award. Time Piece shows us an early incarnation of Henson, concerned with issues of alienation, conformity, sexuality, and mechanization. The film is available for two bucks on iTunes. It's well worth a look if you haven't seen it, partly because it helps to put the later work in context and partly because it's a really fun short film.

There's an excellent entry on Time Piece in the Muppet Wiki, including various stills. Here are a few still images from the film shoot; click for much larger versions:

Jim Henson - Time Piece top hat

Jim Henson - Time Piece prisoner

Related to Time Piece is The Cube, a 1969 experimental TV drama created by Henson and Juhl that occurs entirely in an 8-foot cube. The Cube is another important touchstone when we're talking about early Henson, and gives you some idea of what Tale of Sand might have felt like, had it been produced as a film. More on this below, when we get into the interview material.

My Kingdom for a Cigarette

Tale of Sand - Wandering

Tale of Sand is the bizarre story of Mac, a man racing through the desert (specifically, the desert of the American southwest), battling his better-dressed and -equipped doppelgänger, tempted by a seductress, and always, always, trying to smoke a cigarette. The most concrete and explainable part of this story is that Mac's motivation can be distilled into his desire for that cigarette, his desire for the peaceful setting required to smoke that cigarette, and his continual frustration when he can't seem to get a break (or rather, a light).

Tale of Sand - golf ladiesThe graphic novel, like the screenplay it's based on, is heavy on action, visuals, and absurd situations. This is not a talky piece -- which is why it actually makes so much sense as a graphic novel; as you read (or rather, visually parse) this book, you spend a lot of time by yourself, making sense of the beautiful visual madness contained in scattered boxes. Pérez lays out his frames expertly, conveying at once the disjointed mental state of our hero (like the protagonist, sometimes we don't know where to look until it's too late), as well as the gritty, fun, weird loneliness of the piece. It is the kind of work that makes sense if you've spent any time in the desert, and you've heard how the tiniest click or snap is amplified, and made bizarre, by features of the landscape. While it's undeniably a strange story (I would do you no good trying to explain it or give away spoilers), it is one that works in its medium only because Pérez manages to translate pages of action into pages of striking visuals. In lesser hands, this could have been a disaster. The attention to detail here is enormous -- and the nods to the screenplay are everywhere, from a custom-designed font based on Henson's handwriting used in the book, to literal screenplay pages shown scattered throughout the desert, integrated into the artwork.

Throughout the graphic novel, I was reminded of the Pixies song "Ana" (listen if you're not familiar with it). There's a sense of the American desert, and menace, and desolation, and unresolved tension. That may not sound like fun, but we're not here for fun -- we're here for an inexplicable death race through the desert. A death race occasionally interrupted by absurdity, including a cameo from Henson himself as a film director. It's good to see you again, Jim.

Tale of Sand screenplay snippet

Interview with Karen Falk

Karen Falk, historian and archivist for The Henson Company, generously answered a few of my questions. Away we go....

Chris Higgins: Can you tell me a little about your role at the Henson Company, and how you came to be a Henson archivist? I presume you were a fan of Henson's work first?

Karen Falk: I was working in the art trade but, being a Muppet fan, I couldn't help but be curious about the people I saw working down the block that wore Kermit the Frog jackets. When I saw a job listing in a museum association publication for something in the Henson Company exhibit department, I immediately sent in my resume. It turns out that they had filled the position already, but they kept my resume and a few months later, I got a call asking if I would meet with Jane Henson (Jim's wife) about the archives. Since the archives were just in their embryonic form at that point, there was a lot of flexibility in what the job would entail. I was hired as part of the PR department but supposed to focus on pulling together the archives and moving it forward. Within a year, the archives became a separate department. Jane Henson was really the catalyst for its growth and has always been a big supporter.

CH: What is the Henson Archive like, as a physical collection? I envision a "Raiders of the Lost Ark" style gigantic warehouse full of crates, but with labels like "Fraggle Concept Art" and stuff.

KF: Well, we have a range of collections stored in various ways. The document and art collections are on-site in my NY office - in standard gray archival boxes and flat files - looking like any academic or municipal archive. There is off-site storage with boxes containing 3-D items including licensed product, awards, etc. That is all bar-coded and in a database for easy retrieval. The media collections (film, video, audio and still photography) are in Los Angeles and we have two media archivists out there who manage those items. They have a library on-site, again in an air conditioned room in archival storage cases, and they have the bulk of the items in a facility specifically set-up for media materials. The historical puppets are managed by the NY-based Jim Henson Legacy foundation (I'm on the board) and share the same storage facility as my 3-D items. We try to aim for professional collections management standards for all of our collections. Of course, the labels can be fun - like the box labeled "Kermit Repair Kit" or "Jim's Sound Effects Card File".

CH: "Tale of Sand" is, to me, a product of an early Jim Henson that most people don't know about. To me, this is "Time Piece" Henson -- an artist coming up in the 60's, concerned with alienation, paranoia, and dabbling in absurdism. Can you help us understand where Jim was in his creative life when he started working on this project?

KF: Jerry Juhl once told me (in a discussion about The Cube) that there were a lot of people writing things with surreal paranoid themes at that time, so it was not surprising that he and Jim took a stab at some projects in the that direction. A lot of the humor that they were attracted to (Rocky and Bullwinkle, Stan Freeberg) was somewhat absurd and was part of a general questioning of authority that was growing in the 1960s. So - they were both aware of these sorts of ideas floating out there. As an artist, Jim saw that others were using film and animation to express themselves abstractly so he embraced the opportunity to try to express his visual sense - but he also saw opportunity in television as a truly expressive medium and took many of his ideas to the small screen, something less common at the time. He was exploring how to show on screen what was going on in his head - often in humorous shorts - and some of these projects reflected that. Jane Henson has described The Cube as being about a man trapped not in a cube but in his thoughts.

CH: Are there other Henson works that explore similar themes? ("The Cube" comes to mind, as does "Labyrinth" to some extent.)

KF: Time Piece and The Cube are the most obvious works along those lines. As I mentioned, Jim did a series of things related to "The Organized Brain" which was a sort of tour of the inside of a man's head. They were shown on The Tonight Show and The Mike Douglas Show and then Jim used the same concept for a Bufferin commercial. Jim's documentary-like "collage" (as he described it) Youth '68 captured a general sense among both the youth generation and the older generation that they felt disconnected and somewhat alienated by the confusion over how to behave in a changing world. Even The Muppet Movie is an existential road trip where the characters, particularly Kermit, have to find themselves.

CH: Are there other unproduced Henson works like this, waiting in the vaults? (I will gladly take a "no comment" if you like.)

KF: There is nothing on this scale, but there is a lot of interesting material that we would like to find ways to share. I've been putting a lot of stuff out there on the blog I write, "Jim's Red Book". We post entries from his journal and then I add background information and post documents and images from the archives. We have been discovering some wonderful footage that we've been posting as well on our YouTube Channel.

CH: What level of involvement did Jerry Juhl have in the writing of the "Tale of Sand" screenplay? (Assuming that's known.)

KF: Jerry was probably close to an equal partner on this and certainly would have been the one to translate Jim's descriptions of his visual ideas into words on the page that were specific and clear. They had already written two long-form scripts together: The Great Santa Claus Switch and The Cube - so they probably had something of a rhythm going in how they shared ideas. I am guessing that Jerry may have had a stronger impact on The Cube and Jim on Tale of Sand just because of the visuals, but I think it was a pretty equal collaboration. All of their projects - and pretty much anything Jim did - had to include some humor.

CH: What's the "Tale of Sand" screenplay like, in its text form? Specifically, the graphic novel has a lot of action and relatively little dialogue. Is the screenplay itself also light on dialogue?

KF: The screen play is almost all description - in fact, Ramón has pretty much included every word of dialogue from the script in the graphic novel. I just compared them and he's pretty much got it all.

CH: There were apparently multiple versions of the "Tale of Sand" screenplay written over the years, as discussed in the preface. Do those different versions survive, or was Ramón Pérez working from one version?

KF: We provided all of the drafts and script versions to Stephen Christy at Archaia (some of which are reproduced in the book), but I believe Ramón was working from the last revision for the book. The first draft is from 1967 and then there was a finished 1968 version that got sent out. In 1974, Jim and Jerry made some additional revisions before trying to sell it again, and that is the version Ramón focused on.

CH: In the larger culture, it looks like we're seeing a resurgence of Henson's work, not least the recent Muppet movie -- I gather we'll see Dark Crystal and Labyrinth projects coming soon. What can we look forward to in coming years from the Henson Company?

KF: The Company certainly values its history and wants to celebrate Jim's legacy, but in the 21 years since Jim's passing, we have also produced an array of extraordinary and innovative projects, like Dinosaurs, Farscape, and Sid the Science Kid. We will continue to pursue projects that both build on Jim's work (like our efforts in the direction of a Fraggle Rock movie) and to reach out into the whole array of new areas that we've pursued in recent years. More family and educational programming like Dinosaur Train and Pajanimals, more live stage appearances like Stuffed and Unstrung, and more film and television projects that take advantage of our technical and creative strengths.

Where to Find the Graphic Novel

Tale of Sand is available today from major bookstores. Try Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or IndieBound. Because the book is a large-format hardbound graphic novel, and so well-designed (it features an integrated elastic bookmark strap, and a surprisingly nice binding), I don't think you would really want to get this on an e-reader, even if it becomes available digitally (it doesn't appear to be available currently on the digital stores I checked). Maybe if your e-reader did color. And had a super high-resolution screen. Maybe.

Blogger Disclosure: I wasn't specially compensated for this review.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
Michael Campanella/Getty Images
Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.

1. ON SCIENCE

"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.

2. ON NASA FUNDING

"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles

3. ON GOD AND HURRICANES

"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole

4. ON THE BENEFITS OF TECHNOLOGY INVENTED FOR USE IN SPACE

"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles

5. ON THE DEMOTION OF PLUTO FROM PLANET STATUS 


PBS

"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

6. ON JAMES CAMERON'S TITANIC

"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole

7. ON DEATH BY ASTEROID

"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles

8. ON THE MOTIVATIONS BEHIND AMERICA'S MOONSHOT

"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

9. ON INTELLIGENT LIFE (OR THE LACK THEREOF)

Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."

10. PRACTICAL ADVICE IN THE EVENT OF ALIEN CONTACT 

A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios

"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.

THE AD

If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).

SKINHEADS, A DISCUS THROWER, AND A SCI-FI DIRECTOR

Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.

WHAT EXECUTIVES AT APPLE THOUGHT

Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother

WHAT EVERYBODY ELSE THOUGHT

When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."

THE AWFUL 1985 FOLLOW-UP

A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:

20-YEAR ANNIVERSARY

In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:

FURTHER READING

Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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