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'Dark Crystal' Prequel Expands Jim Henson's Vision Of 'Incredible Handmade Artistry'


This is FRESH AIR. In 1982, Jim Henson produced and directed "The Dark Crystal," a movie that was a big departure from his work with his lovable Muppets. Sure, it was made with puppets, but "The Dark Crystal," as its name suggests, was a dark fantasy adventure tale. The movie was popular at the time and went on to achieve cult status. And now there's more of its world to explore onscreen.

Netflix has released a 10-episode prequel called "The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance." And like the movie, it's enacted entirely with puppets. "The Dark Crystal" is a beautifully rendered and compelling show that rivals the depth of storytelling of that other recent fantasy show "Game Of Thrones." And it's done with very little CGI.

Our producer Sam Briger spoke to two people involved in bringing it to life who both have family ties to the original movie. Lisa Henson is one of the show's executive producers. She's also the eldest daughter of Jim Henson and CEO of the Jim Henson Company. Our other guest is the show's design supervisor Toby Froud. Toby's father Brian is an artist whose fantasy paintings inspired Jim Henson in making the original movie. Toby's mother Wendy is a designer and puppetmaker. Both of Toby's parents worked on the original movie and the new series.

Let's start with a clip from the new show. In this scene, the evil creatures, the Skeksis, that rule the world of Thra are complaining because the crystal that provides them with life energy is no longer strengthening them. The voice actors you'll hear include Benedict Wong, Awkwafina, Harvey Fierstein, Simon Pegg, Keegan-Michael Key, Jason Isaacs and Mark Hamill.


BENEDICT WONG: (As skekVar) The crystal fails us once again.

AWKWAFINA: (As skekLach) What did you expect? Nothing yesterday, nothing the day before.

NEIL STERENBERG: (As skekOk) Why? Why does this happen?

HARVEY FIERSTEIN: (As skekAyuk) Just look at the crystal. We've taken too much. It's gluttony - pure gluttony.

JASON ISAACS: (As skekSo) You sound like frightened Podlings.

KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY: (As skekZok) But Emperor, if the crystal will not give, we will die.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Die?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Never.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: That's a scene from the Netflix series "The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance." And I'm speaking with Lisa Henson, the executive producer, and Toby Froud, the design supervisor.

Lisa Henson and Toby Froud, welcome to FRESH AIR.

LISA HENSON: We're happy to be here.

TOBY FROUD: Thank you very much.

BRIGER: Can you talk about the scope of this project? I mean, pretty much everything that you see onscreen has to be made by hand, isn't that right?

HENSON: Let's just say it's one of the things that people find so marvelous about "The Dark Crystal" world is that there's a sense of incredible handmade artistry to it because you can see the puppets are made. And they're sculpted and painted. And the creatures have hairs hand-punched into them. You know, it's just every plant is sculpted or - and built and installed in the landscape. And it is just, like, a remarkable amount of artistry.

And I think you really treasure that in times when so much is done in CG - because CG can do everything and it's so much easier in CG at this point. So it's so special to see a world where artists made what you're looking at.

BRIGER: So the bad guys of your show, the Skeksis, are - they're just, like, deliciously evil. They're sort of, like, this - the embodiment of the seven deadly sins. And you could throw in a couple extra sins in there. Could you describe what they look like?

FROUD: The Skeksis are a - vulture, bird-like creatures that are sort of flamboyant and magnificent in their own rights and in their own ways of the frivolry (ph) of costumery that go around them. But underneath they are just sort of strange maleficent birds that want power and rule and fight amongst themselves. They are predators. They are birds of prey. They are strange beings. And yet they - you know, they love. They love to toy and play with their food, no matter what it might be.


HENSON: It's funny that you call them birds. Some people think they're reptilian. But since birds are...

FROUD: That's true, actually (laughter).

HENSON: But birds are dinosaurs, right? So...

FROUD: Yeah. Yeah.

HENSON: They are - they have a little dinosaur, a little bird in them. But the costumes are so extraordinary. And you know, I do hope when people see the series, that they can see how incredible the costumes are that the Skeksis are wearing.

BRIGER: Well, let's talk about making a Gelfling, which is the hero race of your show. And they're sort of elephant-like creatures. They kind of look like a '70s Margaret Keane painting with pointy ears, maybe, with the really big eyes. And the Gelflings - when you actually made the puppets that you were going to use for the show, the - they seemed to have skulls - right? - that you put the skin on. And there's - you have eyes in there, and then there's motorized parts within the skull. But then there's a space for a puppeteer to put their hand to manipulate the mouth. Is that right?

FROUD: Yes, that's right. Yeah, you do a sculpt and then mold it, and you create the skull, and you put - have the foam latex skin over the top of that. And inside - and especially now as - with my - you know, the advance of technology, we have, you know, mechanics and motors inside of the top of the head. But you still have to have enough room for the hand, for a puppeteer's hand, to be in the mouth and be able to move it around and then come down into the body. And it sort of - it sits on your arm.

It is - you know, the Gelfling is probably about 3 feet tall from head to toe. And that's just - you know, from waist height up, it's about your forearm to hand, from the head to waist. So that's the sort of scale we're working with. But it's - and then those are the mechanics. And then you've got to dress them and make them feel natural on top, even with all the mechanics underneath.

BRIGER: So how many people does it take to work a Gelfling puppet? Like, you have the person with their hand in the head of the puppet, but then you also have other people - right? - that are helping create that performance.

FROUD: Yes. So you'd have - you have one main performer in the head, and then you have an assist who would be on the other hand and moving with them and helping them move the body, depending on what they're doing. And then you would also potentially have another person on a radio control, looking at a screen or a monitor, working facial features, depending on the character.

HENSON: But it is - it's interesting that there are so many more controls in the Gelfling heads now that we've challenged the Creature Shop to make them more expressive. And one puppet in particular, one of the lead characters, Brea, that character has incredible mobility, and the way she...

BRIGER: Yeah, I was going to say that. She has these great side eye glances that she sort of, like, tilts her head down and looks sideways, and it was very expressive.

HENSON: The puppet of Brea is such an extraordinary puppet. And the puppeteer Alice Dinnean is also extraordinarily talented so she was able to perform all of the facial movement herself. And it comes to life in an amazing, believable way. And when I look at the performance that she achieved as a puppeteer, I feel like - you know, she's an extraordinary actress and was able to make Brea so expressive. And then of course, Anya Taylor-Joy put her voice to it, and it was a perfect marriage. But that puppet is an extraordinary puppet and has so much expressiveness built in.

BRIGER: Can you talk about just the physical rigor of working these puppets? I mean, like, the people that are working the smaller puppets, they're hunched down, and it seems like that would require a lot of stamina. They're - then the larger puppets, they're in this really, maybe claustrophobic puppet they have to spend hours in. I mean, it must take a lot of exertion.

FROUD: It does, certainly. The puppeteers go through so much to achieve a performance and for hours at a time, you know, throughout the days. The - they are - you know, they're holding, you know, four - 5 to 10 pound above their heads, or they've got backpacks on, holding the weight of a puppet. They're hunched down on their haunches, you know, with arms out for a Mystic, say - something like that. They're in awkward, hard positions at all times, but they do it.

They sort of train to be able to get themselves into those positions, and they rehearse to make sure that it feels right and looks right on the screen. But it is an amazing ballet underneath the camera to make these puppets move around the space and the set that you see.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Lisa Henson and Toby Froud about their Netflix series "The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance." After a break, Lisa Henson will talk about growing up in the world of "Sesame Street" and her father Jim Henson's Muppets. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Lisa Henson, an executive producer of the Netflix series "The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance," and Toby Froud, the show's design supervisor. It's a prequel to the 1982 film "The Dark Crystal," and like the movie, the show is a fantasy adventure entirely performed by puppets. The film was directed by Lisa's father Jim Henson. Toby's parents worked on the film, too. Lisa Henson is now CEO and president of The Jim Henson Company.

BRIGER: So do you guys remember watching the original movie when it came out? I mean, Lisa, you would have seen it then, but Toby, you would have come to it a little bit later since you weren't even born then.

FROUD: I remember growing up with the movie, certainly. It was certainly years later, obviously, when I was growing up. I watched both "The Dark Crystal" and "Labyrinth." I mean, they were major pieces of my childhood. But yeah, I always remember watching that movie and being astounded by it and fascinated by the idea of this thing because it really didn't feel like puppets. It never has. And that's the beauty that, I think, stood the test of time for so many.

HENSON: Well, I worked on the on the movie as a P.A. during preproduction and while the creatures were being built at the Creature Shop in London, and then I went back to college and didn't see anything for a long time. And when my father showed me his early cut of it, his director's cut, there was something really wrong with it. And it's - I'm not saying that it was my observation there was something wrong with it. It was everybody's observation. He had a couple of really scary bad previews because people couldn't follow the movie at all, and he had several of the characters just not speak English, so the Skeksis were babbling in a fake language. But the film was incredibly difficult to understand.

So that's how I first saw it. And, you know, they were already scrambling to write a script for it to match the lip flaps of the Skeksis, and poor David Odell and my dad had to, like, write a script to match the cut and...


HENSON: ...Would match the lip flaps. So, you know, in some ways, we were still wrangling with this problem when we came to do the series because, you know, we had always imagined that the Skeksis were - had, like, you know, rich and important things to say. But when you watch the original film, like, they hardly say anything at all, and they're kind of squawking and blurting out short sentences. So we've actually changed the the style of the Skeksis a little bit in the series. They are quite articulate, and they have lengthier, you know, remarks because we weren't struggling with this technical problem that they had in the film.

BRIGER: Lisa, I just had a few questions for you about growing up with your dad, Jim Henson. So you've said that when you were young and told kids that your dad was a puppeteer, they felt sorry for you.

HENSON: That is true. We were growing up in Greenwich, Conn., which was, at the time, a pretty conservative place where a lot of people's parents were bankers. And I got the strong feeling that people thought my father did birthday parties when I said he was a puppeteer.

BRIGER: What's, like, your first memory of having puppets or Muppets be a larger part of your life than, say, other kids?

HENSON: Well, I kind of grew up on sets. When I was very young, my father did a lot of variety shows that were exciting to watch. You know, he did "The Ed Sullivan Show" many times. Then came "Sesame Street." So when "Sesame Street" went on the air, I was already 10 years old, and so I didn't learn to - people have asked me if I've learned to read and write from "Sesame Street." I was like, no, but I was reading the scripts.

So I kind of was on the set all the time as a kid, and we had an interesting point of view, you know, growing up on the sets. I remember a lot of the puppetry from down below, you know, from seeing - I kind of parked myself near - underneath the stage and watch a monitor, like, in the corner underneath, watching people's feet and the puppeteering from below.

But we also spent a lot time in the workshop, where it was like a - just the most charming, crazy atmosphere. His main puppet builder, Don Sahlin, was just a genius of practical jokes and charming mouse mazes around the shop. And, you know, it was a wonderful place to go and make your own things and just be around creativity.

BRIGER: Well, Lisa Henson, Toby Froud, thanks so much for coming on FRESH AIR.

HENSON: Thank you for having us.

FROUD: Thank you very much for having us.

FROUD: FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger spoke with Lisa Henson, an executive producer of the Netflix series "The Dark Crystal," and Toby Froud, the show's design supervisor.


GROSS: If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews with actor Robert Pattinson, who's best known for his role as a teen vampire in the "Twilight" films, or with Marielle Heller, director of the new film "A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood" starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. I'm Terry Gross.


Sam Briger
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