dinsdag 4 maart 2008

The Dark Crystal Special


Over the last few years I have interviewed some people that were in the Jim Henson movie the Dark Crystal. All of these interviews have been published seperately on this website, but I thought it was a good idea to combine the Dark Crystal parts of all these interviews to form one big Dark Crystal special.
All the full interviews (with non-Dark Crystal questions) can be read elsewhere on this site.
So, here it is: the Dark Crystal special!

For The Dark Crystal you designed puppets. Can you tell us exactly which puppets you designed and how the process went?

I was in charge of the Environment Puppets. This covered anything that moved in the swamp set and a few creatures, like crystal spiders, on Aughra's mountain. For the swamp we made moving flowers, flying seeds, a giant swamp creature and a forty foot walking tree. Plus a lot of static plants to dress the set, and some 'rotten' versions for the Skeksis banquet scene.

You have worked with the legendary Jim Henson on various occasions. What is in your opinion the one thing that really defined him and has made him the pioneer regarding puppeteering?

As my dad worked simple puppets (he may have done the first ever television broadcast of primitive puppets, in 1932) the sophistication of Muppet design and operation seemed innovative and flexible for the performers. Unlike puppets done in badly designed sets in tv studios, Jim had whole sets designed so that the puppeteers could work in as much comfort as possible. The family orientation of the Muppets’ humour (with some wicked jokes aimed at the adults) gave them mass appeal. Jim always said that Frank was the funny one. The two of them combined to generate and encourage that madcap energy. The Henson creature shop had already created Yoda, and I think that Jim wanted to do The Dark Crystal both as an experiment to get away from the Muppet-look, and as a showcase of what animatronics could do.

In The Dark Crystal you played the Alchemist, one of the mystics. How long (and how hard) did you have to practice the movements and were the movements based on something like an animal for instance?

I only get a credit for the Alchemist, because to explain what each of us did would take forever. I guess I contribute to almost every shot in the film. As well as my Mystic (and occasionally doubling for other mystics) I played Garthim, background characters like Pod People, even swamp creatures, etc.

Each of us also got attached to a senior Muppet puppeteer, as part of a team, because these complex creatures sometimes needed three or four people to work them. I felt very flattered to get picked for Jim Henson’s team (along with Robbie Barnett). This means that when Jim’s characters (mainly Jen and the Ritual Master) appear in a scene, I may well be working the right arm, or the eyes, etc.

We did a lot of work on the back stories for the Mystics, but the Skeksis get more screen time – you see the Scientist’s lab, for instance, but not the Alchemist’s experiments. The movement and the creature designs evolved together. I don’t think we specifically imagined an animal – although old and slow did lead me to think of a tortoise, for instance.

Which character you have puppeteered is your favorite?

I actually greatly loved the Alchemist in The Dark Crystal, even though his back story did not get introduced to the film. The position we worked in was extremely uncomfortable, and we could not get out for a rest very often, so I developed a very yogic approach to the pain, discomfort and boredom – and fell into a kind of resigned and patient trance that felt very suitable to the character.

You have worked with Frank Oz; who used to puppeteer a lot but is now a director of non-puppet movies. Now that Jim Henson is no longer with us, do you think he should go back to puppeteering since no-one has filled the gap that Jim Henson has left?

Tough question! If you mean, would I enjoy seeing Frank doing puppets, well yes…

Do I think he should do it to ‘fill the gap’? No, not really, as he always was a comedy performer, writer and director, so he just adapts to different kinds of material. I last worked with him when he was directing not performing (Little Shop of Horrors) so I have already got used to the idea that he had moved on.

There will be a sequel to The Dark Crystal. Any chance we will be seeing you back in one or both of them?

No, I don’t think I will get involved with this as they use CGI for the stuff I used to work on. The Dark Crystal sequel may well use CGI as well as animatronic figures, but for those big creatures you hire younger, fitter people (I hit sixty this year!)

On The Dark Crystal I used to hang out a lot with the little people. I remember a "tying shoelaces together" episode getting out of control at one point! Maybe there was even something about some of 'em tying up Kiran Shah and shoving him in a closet or something, but you'll have to ask him about that.

You have worked together with the legendary Jim Henson; probably the best puppeteer ever. In which way has he influenced your career and way of puppeteering?

In every way. He will always be missed. I owe so much to him. As a young teenager I was shy and lacked self confidence. When TheMuppet Show came along in the mid to late '70's it gave me something healthy to obsess about. I tried to learn that style of puppetry and puppet making techniques. At home things were not good due to parents divorcing and all sorts of turmoil. It was great to be able to hide away and learn some of my craft. Jim gave me a chance as a kid fresh from school at barely 16 years old. He had the ability to see people's potential and treated everyone equally, no matter what their age, class or background. He was somewhat of a father figure too. I had the perfect environment to learn from the best! It jump started my career and I never looked back! I feel like I grew up during that time, from the Great Muppet Caper through The Dark Crystal to Return of the Jedi all at Elstree Studios. It was a very special time for me.

The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth were the two serious puppet movies of the 80’s. Regarding The Dark Crystal: Why do you think it has got a huge cult-status, but wasn’t the blockbuster back in 1982 when it was released?

The original film Jim Henson wanted to make was a lot longer. I remember seeing the preview at Pinewood Studios. At least two hours I think. Also the Skeksis all spoke their own language, the way we had shot it, which was awesome!!! The studio probably chickened out, shortened the cut and made 'em all speak English. That's a pity as I think Jim was ahead of his time and perhaps Universal felt audiences weren't ready for this kind of art film? Therefore they didn't push it that much with marketing and all. So financially it was not so much a success. Creatively it really was. Very rarely since then have I seen such beautiful puppets. They were designed and mechanized so well and we all even had to figure out how to move these things. Just crazy stuff you take for granted like when to blink, how to blink and why. I'm quite amused and actually somewhat surprised when people tell me that movie scared the pants off them when they were little kids. I never thought of it as a scary movie - ha ha! It was unique though and very visionary! We all worked so hard on that film and it makes me very happy that people remember it after all these years. Their eyes light up when they see my Dark Crystal picture at conventions. It's also great that the newer DVD's had a great vibrant remixed print along with the original documentary. The movie never looked so good. Some of the reasons it has cult status must be that it was unique and real. Almost everything was shot in front of a camera on film and the audience responds to that. It was truly magical at that time. Even to this day I don't know how we pulled it off.

You have worked together with the legendary Jim Henson on the Muppet movies and The Dark Crystal. Did you look up to him back then? How was it to work with him?

Of course, and still do. Through The Dark Crystal I got Return of the Jedi, so Jim started it all for me. And he was a friendly, warm and generous man, dedicated to running a big organization like a family. In preproduction for The Dark Crystal, he gave us puppetry workshops once a week, because there were a group of us who weren’t hired solely as puppeteers, we were a combination of actors, dancers, circus performers and mime artists.

It’s strange to think that he died so long ago, now - and maybe this proposed The Dark Crystal sequel will remind everyone just how groundbreaking the original was.

Left to right: Simon J. Williamson, me, Tim Rose (Star Wars' Admiral Ackbar) @ Collectors Fair Utrecht, the Netherlands, november 21st 2009.

The Dark Crystal was a very serious puppet movie; almost an arthouse one. What was the general feeling on the set since it was a unique project in every way (puppets in a dark movie that wasn’t meant as a comedy).

I think we knew that this was a movie that would be difficult to describe and define. It was also shot and rehearsed in a totally different way, and we were uniquely privileged to have had such an extensive and experimental pre-production period. The puppet builders would ask us what we needed in order to achieve certain things, then go off and build it, or modify the mechanics and proportions, and ultimately make them all work. This would be considered too expensive and time-consuming by today’s movie financing world, and its a great tribute to Jim Henson that he was able to insist on this approach.

After an intense series of workshop auditions with Swiss mime Jean Pierre Amiel, I was chosen to be one the ten mime artists. I was in the first group of four, who worked all the way through the film; the other 6 joined us a few months later. We were a separate group from the regular Muppet performers, who did most of their performing upright, (i.e. The Skeksis) whereas we were usually bent over in excrucutiatingly uncomfortable positions as the Mystics (UrRu). The Dark Crystal was one of the most exciting and unusual projects I have ever been involved with, and physically very demanding. We had to train like athletes and have special diets to minimize any circulation problems from being in painful and crouched positions for hours at a time.

You have also worked with Frank Oz a couple of times; the Muppets and The Dark Crystal, and he even directed you in Little Shop of Horrors. Did you learn a lot of him regarding puppeteering?

On the set of The Dark Crystal I saw a unique bit of performing by Frank that literally made my skin stand up - the moment when his Skeksis was cowering against a wall, being mobbed and stripped by the other Skeksis. It showed just how good puppetry can be. I regarded myself as more of an actor with movement skills than a top puppeteer, but on that day on set, we were all in the presence of something incredible. Now that I’ve started directing, I’d look to Frank as an inspiration for directing, too - one of my favorite comedy films is his Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

In The Dark Crystal, you played the role of Jen. There were only a few actors in this movie, as it was a puppet-movie; almost everyone was a puppeteer, like Jim Henson and Frank Oz.
Was it weird to act in this movie next to all these puppets?

They were all puppet characters. We were training for six months and filmed for six months. In the beginning it was funny to see people talking to puppets. Yet, there was a puppeteer who was covered up with his puppet. You can only see the puppet and it was always moving in a way just like a human and one soon forgets that it is a puppet; you end up talking to a puppet and it would answer back.

Kiran Shah & me in 2006

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