During his time with the Muppets, Michael K. Frith provided a vast number of design sketches that shaped the look of characters, sets, and props in Muppet productions, as well as illustrating licensed merchandise and books. Like Jim Henson, Frith's sketches were often done on notepads, ruled notebook paper, napkins, and other materials, in rough black form, as well as in more detailed colored suggestions and final presentation materials.
Early Character Designs
Frith first worked with the Muppets as an editor and illustrator of the Sesame Street storybooks line while working at Random House. His earliest direct contributions to Henson's work included designs for Muppet Musicians of Bremen. His first full-time job for Henson, in 1975, was designing a series of new Muppets to appear on Saturday Night Live. Frith's designs, as already evident even in abstract characters, often featured a more realistic approach towards characters, caricatures creating an illusion of visceral reality as opposed to more purely cartoon figures.
The Muppet Show
By the time of The Muppet Show, Frith had become a key designer and full-time art director for merchandise as well as characters. Though many pre-existing characters were used on The Muppet Show, and though Jim Henson still contributed designs and ideas, many of the new regulars and a large number of the special one-shot characters were designed by Frith. The sketches were sent to both New York and London workshops, and helped to define a consistent look for the new characters. Though more realistic representations still continued, the designs for this production, especially the color sketches, were brighter and more cartoony, blending anthropomorphic complexity with the whimsical aesthetic and principles previously pioneered by Henson and Don Sahlin, particularly evident in the eyes.
Frith's involvement in Fraggle Rock began early on, concurrent with the general concept development for the series and preceding the actual script-writing, as discussed in the DVD documentary feature Fraggle Rock Season One: Interviews with Fraggle Rock Creators & Puppeteers, and accompanied by the original artwork. Though many of the specifics changed or developed prior to the actual show, the general look and feel of the characters was already set in the illustrations, which were collected into a concept booklet and used for the show pitch. Unlike The Muppet Show, where sets and prop decorations were almost exclusively the domain of the London art directors working outside of the Workshop, Frith's designs for the series included set and prop suggestions as well. Locations such as the rock itself or the Gorgs' castle were designed by Frith, then translated into another set of sketches by set designer William Beeton highlighting the practical dimensions and finally translated into the actual project.
Frith's designs guided the basic look of the Muppet Babies in puppet form, and additional designs were created especially for the animated version.