In 1977, London-based art director, illustrator, storyboard artist and character designer Bruce McNally answered an ad placed by David Lazer, The Muppet Show’s executive producer. The show had premiered just a few months earlier and manufacturers of all kinds were knocking down the doors at Henson Associates, eager to create Muppet products; Lazer needed an art director in the UK right away. McNally wasn’t interested in a staff job, but the idea of freelancing for the Muppets was intriguing and after much back and forth, an interview was arranged. When Lazer reviewed McNally’s portfolio, a crop of animated vegetables designed for a Jolly Green Giant frozen food campaign caught his attention, and McNally’s quick, spot-on sketches of Muppets sealed the deal. McNally started freelancing and quickly moved to full-time status, working on a range of projects and contributing character designs from time to time.
McNally and his team, collaborating with the licensing and publishing departments in New York, worked on myriad Muppet products and books, adding Fraggles to their repertoire in the early 1980s. As Jim Henson began production on Labyrinth in 1985, he put McNally in charge of the film’s licensing program. This was to be a joint venture with Lucasfilm handling the business arrangements and McNally overseeing all of the art and product design. Drawings and photography, followed by a flurry of telexes, made their way back and forth across the Atlantic. Everyone involved had comments which McNally digested and responded to, giving particular attention to Jim’s astute input.
Everything from logos to packaging design fell under McNally’s direction, and he provided guidance, examples, and assurance that Jim’s characters would be properly represented in all manner of products. In one telex to his Lucasfilm counterpart, McNally commented on designs for T-shirts, Magic Slates, puzzles, lunchboxes, a Sir Didymus Halloween mask, pajamas and various publishing concepts. Getting each personality right was as important as their look. In one telex relating to an image of Hoggle, McNally wrote, “The art has missed his expressions and personality. He is not a happy guy, however, with careful work he can look wistful or contemplative to avoid his naturally surly look.”
Perhaps the most meaningful project for McNally was creating the illustrations for the Labryinth storybook to accompany text written by Louise Gikow, a Henson staff writer. Commissioned by Henson publishing head Jane Leventhal, work on the book began while the film was in production. McNally visited the set and reported on story changes to Gikow in New York. The opportunity for the illustrator to work directly with the writer to translate the film into a book was, according to McNally, “…a rare and most enjoyable luxury.” It took nearly nine months to illustrate, mostly at night and on weekends, and waiting for Jim’s ultimate approval was nerve wracking. The careful effort, elaborate double page spreads, use of silhouettes, and choice of marbled Italian endpapers paid off – Jim was delighted with the beautiful book.
Labyrinth was McNally’s last project as a regular Henson employee, but in the ensuing years, he continued doing design work, sketching out most of the characters for the 1989 Dog City television film and later designing sets for Jim Henson’s Animal Show. In 1993, in a tour de force, McNally devised the format and created the inspiring illustrations for the Henson/United Nations collaboration, For Every Child, A Better World.
-Karen Falk, The Jim Henson Company Archives, 2016