The Marriott Imperial Ballroom faded slowly into darkness Saturday afternoon as screens flanking either side of the stage lit up with color and sound for a good old-fashioned trailer. Not for a feature film, but a ten-episode TV series that had been released the day before on Netflix—The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. The trailer was truly spectacular, showing glimpses of a world introduced to so many of us as children expanded beyond our wildest dreams.
In 1982, acclaimed puppeteer and director Jim Henson released the film The Dark Crystal—a dark fantasy notably different from the lighthearted Muppet fare and Sesame Street for which he was mostly known. Back then, the movie received a mixed response. But time treated it well, as it joined the pantheon of cult classics. Yet, Dark Crystal’s world was too big to stay contained in one film, something Brian Henson confirmed as the moderator Saturday.
Joined by Peter Brooke—Creative Supervisor for Jim Henson’s Creature Shop—and puppeteers Dave Chapman (who performs in the new Star Wars franchise), Alice Dinnean (who passed through Atlanta’s Center for Puppetry Arts), and Barnaby Dixon (who developed an original style, which he displays in YouTube videos), they discussed how Netflix, new technology, dedicated direction, Jim Henson’s original vision, and fantasy illustrator Brian Froud’s design all converged to breathe life into Age of Resistance.
Brooke was a part of early tests with Netflix to see if the project was feasible—specifically looking at if a digital character could work alongside a practical character. He said that as good as the tests were, they all felt that they should do it all with practical puppets, even Netflix, which he—and Henson—called a bold, fantastic, and gutsy choice. Eventually, the production went forward that way, with puppets at the forefront. Brooke tallied 80 Gelfling puppets alone and said that they easily had more than 100 people working in the Creature Shop, not counting the team in the UK.
Chapman called Age of Resistance Shakespearean, saying that, “Most Muppet projects are comedy-based or they are little fluffy things, sweet, nice things.” But, Age of Resistance is epic, with high-drama, and it is long-form, which is also very different. Being a big fan of the original film, he jumped at the chance to work on it.
Brooke spoke about working with Froud on Age of Resistance. Froud was the concept artist for the original film, and this time brought his son Toby, an artist and sculptor, into the design and build process (fun fact: Toby played Toby in Labyrinth). To prepare, Brooke and Froud toured the same British national park that inspired Jim Henson’s vision of the Mystic Valley landscape in the 1980s.
When talking about technology’s role in the new series, the panel said that while it was a mix of CGI and puppetry, it was 95% puppetry. CGI was used to assist in sequences that couldn’t have been done in the 1980s. Brooke said that the new technique they use the most is blue or green screen, as this allows a puppeteer to stay close to the puppet, which makes for a better performance. Then they can digitally remove the performer.
Chapman called director Louis Leterrier a “madman” in the best sense of the word, saying he challenged them to do crazy, exciting, and complicated things. “So, Louis had this vision. And Louis had the ambition and drive, and he rarely slept,” he said. “Complete immersion in the project.”
Dixon was brought in for a short, but very fun sequence, which he described as “meta,” as it is similar to a story-within-a-story. Except, in this case, it is puppetry-within-puppetry. For Dixon, the experience was incredibly refreshing, as he does his videos solo. He even builds his puppets alone. He also enjoyed seeing all the technology at work on the set.
For Dinnean, she liked the challenge of making her character run—using her hands because, as she told the audience to laughter, puppets don’t have feet. They built a track and feet for her hands and then made her do it again for another character. Chapman was excited to be a Skekis, which he liked for about three minutes.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “This is gonna be crazy. It’s very, very hot.” He then went on to describe the complexity of the puppet, which involves coordination with several people, multiple controls, and the need to follow movements in real-time onscreen. He called it something akin to an Olympic challenge. If there are 10 Skekis in a shot, 30 people are directly making that happen. Fortunately, the Skekis design has improved since the original film. The original puppet had cables hanging out the back, which have been removed, making the overall vessel easier to maneuver, and they now 3D-print the whole thing using a lightweight plastic.
At the end of the panel, as well as giving a nod to the TV series’ music, which tries to capture the intent of Trevor Jones’s score from the film, the panelist emphasized the desire for Age of Resistance to honor The Dark Crystal. Overall, said Brooke, the goal was to reach the same standard, and raise the bar, while showing the love they all had for the original film. Henson echoed that: “Dive all the way in and you try to accomplish the impossible.”
Time has been on the side of puppetry, allowing technology to advance it in big and small ways. What once seemed impossible in 1982 became possible. The world Jim Henson—and so many of us—imagined is a place we can finally, fully, completely dive into. Mission accomplished.