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In 1977, Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets, took on a fascinating challenge. Its goal was to travel deeper into the realm of the imagination then film had gone before, investing fantasy creatures and dreamlike surroundings with vivid reality.
The effort attracted a deep pool of talent, led by Gary Kurtz, producer of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back; Brian Froud, Britain's foremost fantasy artist; and Henson's long-time associate, Frank Oz.
To spin a tale of myth, mystery, and adventure, this project needed to evolve its own technology, based on arts old and new . . . painting, mime, puppetry, electronics, makeup, acting, costuming, hydraulics, and modelcraft.
The result is The Dark Crystal.
The world of The Dark Crystal began with deceptive innocence. Glancing at a children's book based on a Lewis Carroll poem, Jim Henson saw an illustration of a well-dressed crocodile in an elegantly decorated bathroom.
The idea of the reptilian race assuming control over some splendid past society intrigued him. He found himself thinking about it in terms of story fragments and half-formed images, which he described to his children and close friends like Frank Oz.
Soon, an imaginary landscape, dominated by a castle on a dark craggy peak, took shape. Here, where savants and seers once dwelt, ophidian creatures now roamed the decaying corridors and slept in chambers of musty magnificence.
"I love fairy tales," Henson explains. "And this one fascinated me although I still didn't know what it would be."
Nevertheless, he gathered a task force of artists, designers, puppeteers, and filmmakers in New York to develop the project.
Meanwhile, he was commuting - on an almost weekly basis - between New York and London, where The Muppets TV series was in production. There, he was introduced to Brian Froud, whose books of supernatural paintings, The Land of Froud and Faeries, had inspired comparison with such turn-of-the-century fantacists as Rockham and Dulac. Froud's world was populated by trolls, goblins, spirits, sprites, and wonderfully improbable beasts, rich in detail and character, evoking Druid, Celtic, and Nordic myths.
Henson suggested that Froud turn his mind's eye to the corrupted castle, its reptilian rulers and the forests and fens in its shadow.
"We were reversing the usual procedure," Henson admits. "First, Brian would create the characters and their environment, then we would weave them into a story. In an odd way, though, it made sense."
Froud flew to New York to join the growing task force, arriving on the same day as another newcomer, a young doll-maker from Detroit named Wendy Midener. Not only would she develop his romantic characters, the Gelflings Kira and Jen, but, in storybook style, she would become Wendy Midener Froud.
Reams of drawings, designs, sketches, and renderings flew from Froud's pen: beaked, winged, taloned beasts with volcanic jaws and wickedly intelligent eyes; doughy denizens of some primal forest with young faces creased old with laughter; star maps from an unknown galaxy; mystic hieroglyphs; floor plans of runic chambers; blueprints for whirring, clanging, belching, churning mechanical marvels as yet uninvented; snowscapes reflecting secret symbolic patterns, like frost on glass; moustached spiders with spindly giraffe legs.
"Visually, they were wonderful and ingenious," Henson recalls. "Best of all, they had humor."
There was still no story. Then came an unplanned break in Henson's hectic schedule. He had boarded the Concorde at New York's Kennedy International Airport en route, as usual, to London. As the plane prepared to taxi onto the runway, a swirling snowstorm erupted into a blizzard.
The passengers were returned to the airport, then put up at a nearby motor lodge.
"We were there for three days, cut off from everything, even downtown New York," Henson recalls. "It was the total isolation I needed to write the story."
By the time the weather cleared, the plot had been roughly outlined. Curiously, David Odell's screenplay, drawn from that story, begins with a description of a storm, one in which "a sky such as we have never seen boils with angry clouds and ripples with electrical discharges and unearthly lights."
Henson was now ready to concentrate solely on The Dark Crystal, but his own success intervened. The Muppet Show had become television's most popular syndicated series under the aegis of Lord Grade, who was set to bring the characters to the movies. If Henson turned down the offer, Miss Piggy would never forgive him, and her agent would probably sue.
Since the Muppets were largely based in London, the Dark Crystal unit moved there from New York. Their new headquarters was an abandoned post office substation in Hampstead, which seemed an oddly appropriate point from which to invade an imaginary world.
Initially, there were seven people in the old post office. During the next nine months, the number would swell to sixty, under the supervision of Sherry Amott, the creative supervisor of creature development. Members of this unit included people who had drifted into puppetry and filmmaking from unusual - but useful - backgrounds, including watch repair, ceramics, upholstery, and wood carving.
Among Ms. Amott's first priorities was finding vast quantities of latex foam, to be molded into the heads, faces, hands, and feet of creatures based on Froud's sketches.
"Latex foam can be made from synthetics," explains Tom McLaughlin, who headed the foam laboratory. "But it doesn't have the flexibility or tear strength of real rubber foam trees."
Letting her fingers do the walking - through the London Yellow Pages - Ms. Amott found a listing for the Malaysian Rubber Producers Research Association. They couldn't recall a comparable request but were used to handling large orders, "for tires, raincoats, that sort of thing."
Soon, truckloads of rubber were en route from the London docks to the post office to be whipped into foam in giant blenders, then molded and baked in massive kilns. "The molds are a lot like cakes," explains McLaughlin, "although the process of creating a single head or set of hands can take up to three weeks."
By the end of production, some nine tons of rubber had been consumed.
Brian Froud was convinced that the key to the lifelike reality of his characters lay in their eyes. Most puppets, even the most beguiling of them like the Muppets, have no real eye movement.
Henson had made a breakthrough on Saturday Night Live, when he introduced characters like Scred and Ploobis, with taxidermists' eyes. This gave them a mordant, watchful presence. But taxidermists' eyes come only in standard shapes and sizes - dog, cat, lizard, bear, fish, etc. And they don't glance, dart, wink, blink, flick, or focus.
The challenge of The Dark Crystal team was to find eyes that both suited Froud's exotic beings and moved in a natural way.
Surprisingly, the first challenge proved more difficult.
Armed with Froud's instructions ("red irises with a defined depth of focus"), Ms. Amott began the search at Madame Tussaud's, in the heart of London. As disturbingly real as the eyes on mannequins of murderers and prime ministers seemed, they were too fragile to contain the micro-mechanisms needed for movement.
The answer, when it finally came after nearly two years, combined the artistry of a designer of artificial eyes (for medical purposes) and a newly developed plastic that was hard and clear, and that had exceptional light-refracting properties.
It was during this period that Henson received an intriguing proposal. Gary Kurtz had produced Star Wars and was now at work on the second film in the saga, The Empire Strikes Back, which would introduce the quixotic Jedi sage, Yoda. Would Henson help bring Yoda to life?
He would . . . and did . . . recommending Frank Oz to play the role, then assigning key members of his staff to the project. The timing was ideal. Two years of character and technological development for The Dark Crystal was employed, for the first time, to bring the wizened, whimsical Jedi to life. Meanwhile, Yoda served as a "living" model for the inhabitants of The Dark Crystal's fantasy world.
There was one further benefit, Kurtz and Henson worked so well together that by the time Yoda was perched on a tree stump in space, Kurtz had agreed to co-produce The Dark Crystal, bringing with him a wealth of experience in large-scale fantasy.
Other creative commitments were quickly set, headed by Frank Oz as co-director with Henson. The aptly named Oz, bested known as the alter ego of the indomitable Miss Piggy, also took on two major roles: the repugnant Skeksis Chamberlain and Aughra, a one-eyed sorceress with prophetic powers.
With David Lazer as executive producer, The Dark Crystal team now included screenwriter David Odell; production designer Harry Lange (who had come to the film industry from NASA to work with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey and stayed for adventures like Star Wars and Superman); cinematographer Oswald Morris, an Oscar winner for Fiddler on the Roof; film editor Ralph Kemplen; visual effects wizards Brian Smithies and Roy Field; and composer Trevor Jones.
The stage was now set for production to begin at the EMI Elstree Studios in Borehamwood, one of Britain's most historic film facilities, which Gary Kurtz had helped revitalize with the production of Star Wars. The cast that gathered there was comprised of Muppets veterans - including Henson, Oz, Dave Goelz, Kathryn Mullen, Steve Whitmire, and Louise Gold - complemented by actors and puppeteers from both sides of the Atlantic.
The challenge to the actors was typified by Oz's role as the sadistic, sneering Skeksis Chamberlain. A creature of fabric, foam, plastic, aluminum, filigree, and twenty-one pneumatic cable controls - operated by four technicians - its core would still be Oz's performance.
"You can never let the technical side take over," he explains. "Before anything else, you have to know your character, how he thinks, behaves, moves, walks, the smallest facial tic."
Oz points to Dave Goelz, whose understanding of the General (Garthim-Master) enriched his performance of the menacing Skeksis warlord.
"As striking as the effects are, it's ultimately Dave's acting that makes the General such a wonderful, militaristic bastard."
There was never any doubt that characters like the Skeksis and Mystics would require tremendous physical stamina. But even Henson himself admits, "There were days I could work 'inside' my Skeksis character, the High Priest (Ritual-Master), without noticing the weight. But if I was feeling the least bit tired or run down, it was as if a building had caved in on me."
Kathryn Mullen's problem had nothing to do with weight. Instead, as the Gelfling girl, Kira, she found that the cable controls - so successful for the massive Skeksis and metal-plated Garthim - inhibited the character's delicate expressions.
The answer was to refine the use of radio signals - employed by the Muppets in a limited way - to the sophisticated demands of The Dark Crystal. Robot "heads" were created for certain characters, including Kira, with remote-controlled servo-mechanisms implanted in the ears, eyelids, lips, and elsewhere, articulated from a nearby control panel. Lifelike fingers and toes were also radio-activated. A new element had thereby been added to the naturalism Henson first sought, an alchemy of acting, puppetry, and electronics.
As the cast grew, a need for highly specialized performers with talents in non-speaking roles was recognized. Sherry Amott had attended the London Mime Festival, where she was fascinated by the work of an acclaimed young Swiss, Jean-Pierre Amiel.
He joined The Dark Crystal troupe and, in turn, sent out a call for trained mimes, acrobats, and dancers. One hundred and fifty were interviewed, ninety auditioned, and ten were finally chosen to portray supporting Skeksis, Mystics, Garthim, and Landstriders.
("There is no 'central casting' for creatures from an imaginary world," Ms. Amott explains.)
Realized from Froud's sketches by sculptor and designer Fred Nihda, the Garthim were described as "evolutionary robots."
"A Garthim does not eat nor drink, so he has no heart, liver, kidneys or internal organs," Nihda says. "He is not man-created, nor is he human. He has no emotion save to kill and destroy. His eyes are fragments of the Crystal and serve as television monitors."
Physically, the Garthim were composed of 590 interlocking parts, mostly Styrofoam and fiberglass, which nonetheless weighed in at seventy pounds. Much of that weight was in their long, lethal tails, which tended to slow down even the most agile acrobat.
The tail unit was redesigned by Nihda so that it no longer dragged the ground, and the Garthim now became as dextrous as they were deadly.
"Here we were, almost ready to begin filming, and these 'evolutionary robots' were still evolving," Nihda points out.
An equally dramatic change was made - at the eleventh hour - in the Landstriders. Genial beasts of burden with walrus moustaches, floppy ears, and giraffe legs, the Landstriders transport Jen and Kira on their quest - and risk their lives to fight the dreaded Garthim.
There was some uncertainty how (or if) they would work until Jean-Pierre Amiel discovered that one of his mimes was an expert stiltwalker. Soon, an Elstree rehearsal hall became the scene of odd gymnastic exercises in which acrobats walked doubled at the waist (as if to touch their toes) with four-foot stilts protruding from their arms and legs.
These artificial limbs were, in turn, covered with a smooth, yet textured tan skin, made from the stomach linings of cows. "Very messy," admits Valerie Charlton, who designed the creatures, "but the effect was terrific." Now, in addition to truckloads of Malaysian rubber, the production company was receiving regular shipments from a nearby slaughterhouse.
Not the least of the hazards for the Landstriders was the danger of stumbling or tripping, on four-foot stilts, and crashing to the floor. Invisible wires connected the performers to the ceiling so that in case of accident, they simply dangled in midair until a technician could rush to their rescue.
There was still, however, the problem of enabling the actors to relax between "takes" without removing the complex paraphernalia. That was solved with the invention of a singular "stool," a bicycle saddle perched atop a six-foot pylon, on which a performer could rest his weight.
Completing the technical wizardry was the use of a dual-camera system that simultaneously filmed the action and transmitted it to television monitors scattered throughout the studio. Performers, engulfed in fiberglass, latex foam, and other materials, could thus observe themselves on camera and make the necessary adjustments.
In the case of Frank Oz (and certain other actors), the technique became more personal. Hidden within Oz's elaborate rigging - as the Skeksis Chamberlain - was a miniature video screen on which he focused his real eyes while the character's artificial orbs, gleamed above, glowed with remote-controlled evil.
"I was like a pilot, flying on instruments," he explains.
Whether the blend of performing skills and technology would coalesce into a motion picture was still conjectural.
"Since nobody had ever made a movie this way, nothing was certain," explains Henson. "At least not until the end of the first day's shooting, set in the Valley of the Mystics."
In a break with tradition, the first week's rushes were screened at the Leicester Square Theatre, one of London's largest movie palaces. There, key members of the production unit assembled to watch the Mystics circle gather on a spectral Brian Froud plain.
The suspension of time and space that had begun five years before with a picture in a children's storybook ceased.
The world of The Dark Crystal had become a reality.
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This is an unofficial DARK CRYSTAL website. THE DARK CRYSTAL, characters, names and related indicia are trademarks of The Jim Henson Company. © 2001. Artwork by Brian Froud. Visit the official website at www.henson.com.