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Henson Creature Shop Innovator David Barrington Holt Passes at 79

The long-time leader of The Jim Henson Company’s first Creature Shop in Los Angeles, whose pioneering work included development of the ground-breaking Henson Performance Control System that revolutionized computer-driven puppetry, died of cancer on March 13.

David Barrington Holt, whose innovative work at the Jim Henson Company lead to the creation of the Henson Performance Control System, which enabled operation of sophisticated, computer-driven puppets by a single person, passed away from cancer at age 79. David’s son Chris Holt shared with following obituary:

David Barrington Holt died on March 13, 2024, of complications arising from cancer. Born in England in June of 1945, David was a man of many talents and experiences. He was an expert in practical and creative matters, and his professional life spanned multiple careers: restoration of English country homes, making of museum-quality models and miniatures, production management, fashion, and psychotherapy.

David received his BA in Industrial Design with honors from London’s University of the Arts in 1963.  Even in the early stages of his career, his talents were recognized; he was courted by both London’s Royal College of Art and British Rail, among others. 

Over the next 20 years he built a reputation as a designer, photographer, modelmaker, and restorer of mechanical antiquities. His clients included the London Science Museum, the Greater London Council, the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, and numerous other businesses and private individuals both in England and abroad. In 1984 he founded Hero Models, which supplied models, miniatures, and hero effects for the TV, film, and commercial industries; one such project including re-creating the fly-past of the spacecraft GIOTTO and Halley's comet for the film Children of the Dust.  

Among many other careers, David owned and operated his own clothing boutique in London during the ‘60s; at the time he worked alongside noted fashionista Thea Porter.  In the late ‘80s, he returned to school to become certified as a psychological therapist and ran a successful practice until he was scouted by the Jim Henson Company.  Even while devoting considerable time to his psychotherapy education, he never stopped making; he was even commissioned by the London Science Museum to construct an operating model of a Thames Flood Barrier pier, which remains on display to this day.  It was during this time he met and married his wife.

In 1986 he began a 23-year collaboration with the Jim Henson Company, first in the UK as Deputy Supervisor of the Creature Shop before moving up to Creative Supervisor. In 1993 he made the move to Los Angeles to establish and operate the Henson company’s first west-coast Creature Shop for the purpose of producing Disney’s television show Dinosaurs. David had creative oversight of shop operations including puppetry; animatronics; effects for feature films, television, and commercials; performers; administrative matters; and R&D, with developments in the field of real-time 3DCG animation. He was instrumental in development of the ground-breaking Henson Performance Control System, which allowed a single performer to operate complex, computer-driven puppets in the same manner as though they were physical. His credits include George of the Jungle, The Phantom, Indian in the Cupboard, Dr. Dolittle, Jack Frost, Scooby-Doo, Snow Dogs, Stuart Little II, Cats and Dogs, and The Country Bears.

Following his decades with the Henson Company, David spent three years consulting for Walt Disney Imagineering R&D, where he assisted in the technical transfer of innovative animatronic characters into public exhibits.

David spent the remainder of his extensive and varied career working and consulting for companies, including the Chiodo Brothers, Insudung Media, 11:11 Creative, and Reisman Models.

Although David was deeply conversant in computer technology and its applications for design, creation, and production, he was, at heart, a maker. He could design and build an animatronic rabbit that you would swear would take a carrot right out of your hand or a model train that, if you were much smaller, you could board and ride to the adventure of a lifetime.

David was an intelligent, talented, generous, creative, and charming person who was wickedly funny and always kind. He genuinely cared about how you were doing and never failed to stop and listen. A true Renaissance man, he will be greatly missed by all who knew him. He is survived by his wife and son.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.