Behind The Scenes Of The Dark Crystal, Netflix's Retro Puppet Extravaganza
In the cavernous warehouses of Langley Studios in Slough, Berkshire, a fantastical world takes root. Luscious forests sprout from wooden stages, inhabited by mysterious creatures large and small. The planet Thra is back.
Thirty-seven years after Jim Henson and Frank Oz’s cult puppet film The Dark Crystal was first released, the world they created is returning to screens, this time in the form of a 10-episode Netflix Originals series launching on August 30. The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance acts as a prequel to the 1982 feature film, following three peaceful Gelfling creatures as they come up against the evil, vulture-like Skeksis, with the fate of Thra hanging in the balance.
As in the original, all the characters are played by puppets. “We're bringing back an old technique and an in-camera, physical effect that you haven't seen in a long time,” says executive producer Lisa Henson, who is also president and CEO of the Jim Henson Company. (Jim Henson died in 2000; Lisa is his daughter.) “For the past many years, you'd expect this type of story to be told in CG.”
That’s not to say the creators are shying away from new techniques. Advances in visual effects mean they can more easily remove hands and rods in post-production, leaving the puppeteers free to make their characters run, jump and fly like never before. And while the whole series is shot on physical sets, digital painting techniques will help add depth to the backgrounds. “We'll be using CG to bring scope and extend our world beyond what we have here on stage,” Henson says.
Another major update is in the filming techniques. Director Louis Leterrier favours a dynamic approach, chasing the characters across the set with a constantly moving steadycam, and incorporating sweeping shots and closeups that would once have been considered impossible for puppetry. “The camerawork is alive, and it implies and it imbues life in all the creatures,” says Brian Froud, who was the designer on the original Dark Crystal and has returned for Age of Resistance along with his wife, puppet-maker Wendy Froud, and their son, Toby Froud. When they originally heard of Leterrier’s plans, says Toby Froud, they were sure it wouldn’t work. “The way he’s moving the camera fundamentally changes what a puppet show is.”
The puppets themselves start life in the on-site creature shop, where they are modelled and built. Features are sculpted, faces are painted, and strands of hair are punched into foam. Creations range from stone giant Lore, a new character for the series attached to a puppeteer by means of a harness, like a heavy duty backpack, down to whole communities of tiny, gnome-like Podlings. Many of the puppets contain animatronics, composing their features into different facial expressions, and others are operated entirely by remote control. Dozens of smaller creatures peep around the sets, giving the impression of a truly living planet.
All of the characters are incredibly detailed – look at Gelfling protagonist Rian close up and you can see the pores in his skin and the creases in his costume – though Toby Froud says that the trick to making a puppet seem alive is not in the paint job, but in capturing a sense of personality. “It's not about the best detailed paws or wrinkles on the skin,” he says. “It's about finding the inner character.” Even with new technology, there are limits to what a puppet can do (directing a character to pick up a sword, for instance, is harder than you might think), but the trick, says Brian Froud, is to capitalise on the range of movement you do have: “You make whatever it can do be the most expressive can-dos, and then you create the illusion of it doing everything.”
On set, the puppets often require more than one puppeteer to move different limbs and features. The main Gelfling characters are small – the puppets come to about hip height – and so the whole stage is raised on stilts, with a trench for the puppeteers to walk in so that they are at the right level, with their legs hidden out of shot.
Alice Dinnean is the puppeteer behind Gelfling princess Brea, the female lead. She supports Brea’s body and controls the puppet’s facial movements with a modified Nintendo Wii controller. One joystick changes the direction Brea’s eyes are looking in, while another raises or lowers her brow; a clicker makes her blink. She can also move her ears and mouth, and it’s by combining these that Dinnean creates complex and realistic facial expressions.
While playing the characters, the puppeteers have to constantly watch what they’re doing on a monitor. Take a simple action such as having two characters look at each other – this is a natural movement for human actors, but getting the right eye line between two puppets can take a lot of trial and error, so the puppeteers need to be able to see the output in real time. “I can't think of any other type of performance where you're watching the final product as you do it,” says Dinnean. The characters’ voices, provided by a cast including Taron Egerton as Rian and Anya Taylor-Joy as Brea, are added later.
The creators hope that the end result will mix the wonder and craftsmanship of the original Dark Crystal with an increased sense of action and adventure made possible by new tools and techniques. As for the plot, much is still under wraps, although Javier Grillo-Marxuach, a writer on the series alongside Jeffrey Addiss and Will Matthews, says it will be no less scary than the original film. “This is a dark fairytale,” he says. “It's not called The Happy Crystal.”