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Toby Philpott Interview

by Habidabad

(urTih the Alchemist, Garthim, Podling Foot Juggler, Crawlie, Jim Henson's Right Hand, etc.)

Toby Philpott's Home Page


Tell me a little about your background.

My parents were in the arts (my mother in the theatre and my father in puppetry).  I grew up backstage and always enjoyed seeing ‘how things were done’.  I look on the media as a job ‘out there’.  Not a glamorous thing,  just a job.  And not even a steady job.

I dropped out of my academic education and eventually found my way around to performing in the streets in the US and Mexico as a comedy juggler, magician and acrobat.  I brought those skills back to the UK and opened up street performing in Europe.  The skills I acquired over those seven years became the ones in demand for the advert job in The Dark Crystal.

I answered the call and got through the audition workshops where they taught everyone basic puppetry skills, as well as the kind of improvising and devising we might need for this brand new project (like nothing that had been done before, and they observed and selected us during that process).  Once in the group, we started pre-production (the devising of creatures and working on those already in development).

Can you tell me more about the audition process for The Dark Crystal?

My mime teacher told me there was an ad for Acrobats/mimes/dancers for a new project.  They picked about 200 from the letter applications.  They did workshops (so I thought, well I am learning something even if I don't get a job).  They called back 50 and workshopped us down to 20.  In that last 20 it got quite competitive.  They finally chose 10 who would all work on the movie and I was in (Phew)!  Then they told us that 4 would start right away and 6 would start in the spring.  I even got into that final 4, but had some back problems and had to drop out and return with the 'second team' in the Spring.  They basically gave us exercises in lip-synch (alphabet is easier, numbers are harder) and gave us assorted types of puppets to play and improvise with.  They also showed us the kinds of positions we might have to work in.

After it was decided that you were going to be a member of the cast, what was the procedure then?

We were taken to the Creature Shop, which (at the time) was an old post office over the road from Jim's house on Downshire Hill.  A lot of development work for the smaller creatures was already under way and the building was a hive of activity.  It was an Aladdin's Cave of fabrics, buttons, masks, photos, feathers, glass eyes, servo-mechanisms, etc.  Each team was working on a different type of character.  Amiel started some initial bodywork training and we got some basic puppeteering workshops.  We ran and swam and did some devising classes.  The bigger creatures were not fully conceived at this point and emerged from this process.  They had started developing them, but it was not possible to fine tune them until we tried to work in them expressively.  The urRu hands, for instance, were long finger extensions which responded to the performer's own fingers.  The Landstriders literally emerged, at this time, from Robbie Barnett's stilt work (he had been a clown like me).

When did you first meet Jim Henson?

I think it must have been at the first audition call, although there were a lot of people there.  By the time it was down to 20 we were getting classes, which he sat in on.  He was a very hands-on person.  The nicest millionaire I ever met.  Completely relaxed and natural.  That's something, coming from me, with my odd attitude to money and capitalism.

What was your first impression of Jim?

As I started to say, he was very quiet and charming, but had definite power to influence people.  He was also very funny, especially when hanging out with Frank Oz!  I got on with him very well, considering he owned the company and was directing and starring in the film.

I was lucky enough to be chosen by him as part of his support crew.  Each of the main Muppet performers were allocated to a crew to work eyes, eyebrows, and the 'other' arm, etc.  He chose me and Robbie Barnett.  I like to think it was because we were talented, but as we had to work very close together I think it was a temperament thing.  Robbie and I are both vegetarians and gentle souls and we often had to work with less rehearsal than others (the other puppet crews could rehearse together while Jim was doing all the other jobs around the set, talking to all the crew about different aspects of the production, as well as the details of the scene being shot, setting lighting, etc. - and running the company!).  We often got just a quick walk-through and a go for it.  I guess there was an element of telepathy and rapport needed, too.

If he was working the head with his right hand and the creature's left hand with his left hand, I would be stuck in his right armpit operating the other hand.  Intimate, inside a costume together.  I shut up and learned.  I talked a minimum because I knew he was juggling a lot of stuff in his head.  He remained patient with my mistakes, or lack of expressiveness or timing in my gestures.  He never raised his voice, even if we had to do another take.

A really great guy.  I was shocked when I heard of his early death, and very upset that I didn't receive my invitation to the Celebration of his Life until too late (I was in Spain).  That must have been something - a funeral with all the Muppets there!

I always hoped people knew I would have wanted to be there - I hoped they knew I just didn't hear in time.  Maybe this interview will tell them.  I never got to work for them again after that, but I wouldn't have missed The Dark Crystal (or Labyrinth) for the world!

Are there any scenes from The Dark Crystal that stick out in your head as being favorites?

There were days when I felt proud of what we had managed (the day when the whole crew applauded the Garthim performers for doing one last tired and sweaty take at the end of a long day felt terrific!  "Let's get it in the can!").

There were days of high farce.  The little spider things in the Skeksis halls were a riot.  They were cheap little wind-up toys that some props person had found.  Clockwork - a spring with legs, basically.

On days when violent (life-size, dangerously armed) Garthim actors were sweating down a corridor, some lucky person would be hiding in an alcove with a wind-up toy, wondering why they were earning the hourly rate they were on just to let a wind up toy spider out into an alley, and hope it performed well.  Mine did a beautiful take once and someone else's did something ludicrous like running  into the wall and doing a stunt spider pratfall, upstaging the baddies.  "Cut!"  Funny, but useless.

And if you think that is just the paranoia of a performer doing a trivial background job,  imagine the day when we tried to get the take with all the Skeksis characters in full rig (2,3 or 4 puppeteers each) at the banqueting table, running one of these wind-up toys from one end of the table to the other in one take, with Skeksis arms stabbing and grabbing with surprised reactions.  Insane.  Grown men, highly paid, spending an afternoon trying to run a kid's toy down a table at the exact moment a camera was running and tracking it,  and all the (team) creatures reacting appropriately.

I guess that was a high moment of fine madness.  I was in Jim's  Ritual-Master for that one, stuck in his right armpit, doing his right arm.  I'd have to re-run the movie to see if anything I did remained on film.  If I do, I only hope it is one of the bits I am proud of, not one of the bits that somebody reassured me nobody would notice in all the action.  We used to think that was a joke (people saw a film once or twice back then), but now, with people reading ads and lapel badges in movies; analyzing background characters; blowing up frames; watching the thing a hundred times like a favorite goal in football game - the work is under scrutiny.

I am really pleased to think that it stands up to that sort of look.  We did try hard.  Still, if you work on these things, you don't always get your own best take into the final cut.  With a lot of stuff in the frame they are always choosing the least worst to print, the least worst to tidy up in the edit.  It's never quite perfect, like it was in the imagination of the director, the lighting cameraman, the cinematographer, the writer, the designer, the modeler, the puppeteer.  Even the tea lady has an opinion.

I guess I enjoyed the spiders.  If I thought I had an afternoon of those, I would even (sometimes) join people in a lunchtime drink.  Wind the thing up, wait for "Action!" and then let it go with the finesse of a pitcher, a pinball wizard, and (silently) cheer your wind-up spider's performance, almost oblivious of the overall picture - like a five year old.

The following day you (or rather your spider) might be a (temporary) star when people were watching the rushes.  Jim liked people to see all the stuff he was selecting from and, though it wasn't compulsory (or on company time), we were always encouraged to visit the viewing of the rushes (footage from the previous day).

It was fantastic to be so involved.  It didn't happen again on other movies I worked on.  Everything was new for everyone.  Direct feedback on the performances and what other people were doing was really useful.  It was also an opportunity for a lot of camaraderie and teasing (we were on our own time) and general hilarity.  Watching raw footage of the original Muppet performers trying something new, with them in the room!  Seeing the gags before the clapper board and after the "Cut!", Seeing the out-takes (all the stuff that didn't make it to the final cut for one reason or another).

I had a ball.  You can see why it is hard to pick one day, one scene.

I found one of those spider toys in a bin at a pet shop.  A  few years later I noticed it was the same item and kicked myself for not buying it.

They covered them in fur.  They jumped erratically around on the rough floor.  No two performances the same!

I figured that the banquet scene was hard to shoot with the spiders.

It was funny for the first few hours - then frustrating - with occasional hilarity.  Finally done in cuts - one long take was just about impossible.

What kind of preparation did you put into the development of your characters?

There was the physical preparation and the mental preparation, although you can't completely separate these two completely.

What I mean is that we simply had to be physically fit for the big creatures and had to work out routines to stay comfortable during long days.  For the team puppets we had to practice as much as possible to co-ordinate movements and evolve a performance for the puppet.

When inside the big creatures (who had a lot of character, just from the sculpting) we were alone with our thoughts.  I was a 'natural Mystic' and found a kind of peace being inside them.  I often felt a deep, resigned patience with all the preparations which went on before we could go for a take, which seemed to suit the creature's personality.

Inside the Garthim, however, we would be wired up and raring to go (let's get it over with!) and had to be contained.  I would say Hus Levant was the best at those guys - it's him smashing through the wall of the Pod dwelling!  I guess he got frustrated as a Mystic.

We all had to be directed all the time, of course, as there was no room inside those creatures for a video monitor, and it was always hard to know what impression you were making,  although we got to watch playback if we were lucky and were invited to the rushes every evening.  We all helped each other all the time with honest feedback about effective moves and stuff that didn't work.  There was no time to be 'polite', or get offended.

For team puppets, it was very different.  Each of the main Muppet performers had a crew of people complimenting their main performance with grimaces, eyebrows, eye movements, etc.  This was much more of an egoless feeling, as the team would concentrate all their efforts through the puppet to create a coherent set of gestures and an individual performance and personality.  This would involve a lot of experimentation, discussion, and feedback through video playback, all directed by the main puppeteer.  I was lucky enough to be on Jim's team.

Was it hard to work the Garthim after having back problems?

What happened was that in the training period we did a lot of running (I don't like running).  People thought it was the weird position we worked in that hurt me, but I think it was unfamiliar training.  I'm sure the urRu position didn't help either.

Because of the back injury I dropped out of the four man pre-production crew, but I came back strong in the spring and the Garthim and Mystics were okay.  I was fine.  But yes, they were heavy!

What is your fondest memory of working on The Dark Crystal?

My fondest memory is of Frank Oz coming over to me one day to casually sympathize with what a humble and seemingly unrewarding job it was to be stuck in Jim's armpit, doing as little as possible with the character's right hand, trying not to disrupt his performance, and yet sometimes even being able to compliment and enhance it.

I denied that it was dull and insisted on how gratifying and flattering it was to be in that position.  Frank insisted he knew just how difficult (for a performer's ego) it was and even told me that that was how he started out, so he KNEW.  And just for that day I thought "two years later he got his own puppet and is now world famous for Fozzy Bear, Miss Piggy, and Yoda".  Did that mean that in two years I could be . . . where?  Wow, that thought alone got me through the day!  Thanks, Frank.  Not that it turned out that way (talent comes into it, of course, plus a touch of luck).  They were two of the nicest guys I ever met (and that is saying something, because I have met some great folks in my time, and that's the lucky bit for me, where's the talent?)  Hey ho.

And your least fondest memory of working on The Dark Crystal?

Everything is trivial but significant.  My most disappointing moment was on my first day of shooting.  Having done all that training, and rehearsal, we started out shooting in the Mystic Valley.  The first shot had my mystic in the foreground (yeah!) with me completely dependent on outside eyes to let me know how it was working, and not knowing that they had readjusted the jaw.  The first day's shooting was in the can and the following day we went to the rushes (my first time ever).  Up came the shot with me in the foreground and my mystic had it's mouth hanging open, looking (to me) stupid (drop your mouth open to mimic dumb - duh - to see what I mean).  No one had mentioned it, or corrected it.  It's in the movie.  I had been so anxious to get things right.  I had had my thumb jammed up against the top lip, but it wasn't reading the way it felt inside the costume.  After one more practice with outside feedback, the following day, I got it so the mouth was the way I wanted and never made the same mistake again, but it's there forever on screen.

You live with these things.  I got the job of the foot juggler in the Pod party.  Background, but vivid.  I practiced for weeks with marionette strings with the dummy puppet and the jug.  I absolutely nailed it on the rehearsal video.  Gravity was perfect.  Come the day, I find that my puppet is supported on the back of another puppet, now (suddenly) animated by another puppeteer.  He had a nothing job, so he was keen to express something, and on the take he heaved at the point the jug was kicked up, changing all my string tensions, and it looks wrong.  That's the shot they bought.  "Print that one!"  Doh!  They don't retake a busy scene just because one character isn't happy with their performance.  Not so bad, as they reminded me.  I was in the background.  OK, I thought, they're right, I am just a detail.  Until I saw the TV Pan and Scan version where they chose to focus on my less than perfect moment.

This stuff is why it is hard for people who have worked on a film to ever enjoy it as much as people who just see it from the outside.  The gap between the vision in your head and the final cut.

Your character, urTih the Alchemist, is said to have artificial limbs of wood for both his right front arm and right leg.  Was this at all portrayed in the physical make up of the puppet or within the physicalities of your character?

We certainly had artificial arms on the right hand side (as the right hand was operating the head) and we very rarely used two operators to activate all the arms (it was too complicated).  We experimented with activating the 'dead' arm by having the staff attached to the foot, but I don't think we used that much, if at all.

If you mean the character was supposed to have wooden limbs (like the scientist), then I have no recall of that.  I certainly didn't add a limp or anything!  Although we did do quite a lot of background development, the Mystics were never as fully rounded as the Skeksis (but this seemed appropriate in a way).  The chief reason, of course, was that the main Muppet performers were having all the fun of being the baddies and a lot more work went into evolving the different Skeksis egos.

Do you have any thoughts or feelings about the death of your character in the film?

Not really.  Being a Mystic meant that we had evolved a patient and resigned attitude, waiting for the cosmic moment when we would be re-integrated with our alter egos.  The Skeksis (egos) didn't want to merge back, but the Mystics embraced the reunion.  Although there was much ribaldry on the day that the Mystics slowly mounted helpless Skeksis (how can we do this without looking rude?).

If there were ever a reunion special or sequel/prequel for The Dark Crystal, would you be willing to take part in it?

Well, a reunion would be fun, I think.  It was a very happy and engaged crew.  As to a sequel, I thought Jim specified it shouldn't happen.  And for the big creatures, I doubt they would hire a man approaching 60.  If it happened, and they thought I could do the job, and they could convince me that Jim would approve, then I would do it, sure.

How did you get involved in Return of the Jedi?

It was a bit mysterious at the time.  We were all working for months at Elstree, on The Dark Crystal, and people started spreading rumors about characters in development for ROTJ in the same studio.  Several people were trying for another job, but I had no idea how to go about it.  I was amazed to be called in and told I had the job.  Just like that.  I was also asked if there was anyone I would like to share the job with.  I'll cut a long story short.  John Coppinger was on the building team and David Barclay had been chosen to operate Jabba, but I wasn't told that right away.  David had asked for me and I was very happy when I found out who my partner was to be.  There was some strange, secretive politicking going on (that's movies for you), but I was completely unaware of it.  I just said, 'Yes, please.'

What can you tell me about puppeteering Jabba the Hutt?

The intensive work on The Dark Crystal had been a good training ground, so I wasn't as overawed as I might have been.  We just got on with the practical work of fittings and rehearsal, learning to coordinate the team.  The monitor we had inside only showed a general shot of Jabba, (not the through-the-lens shot we had on The Dark Crystal) but we had to work with it, although we weren't always exactly sure where the frame of the shot was.

David planned it all and guided us.  He was also the 'live' voice of Jabba, as well as the right hand, and some of the body moves.  I had the left hand, the head and tongue, and some body moves.  Mike Edmonds was behind us, operating the tail to express moods.  The rest of the team (the builders) operated facial expressions and eyes by radio control.  They could see from behind the camera and gave us some feedback and also added breathing (with bellows from below) and smoke for the hookah, etc.

We would go inside early in the day and be there almost all the time.  People often didn't know who we were at the tea breaks!  We used Jim Henson's approach, which was to take direction in character and talk back to the director (as well as the actors, of course) like a live performer, so we were always practicing.  Only occasionally would we come out to discuss things directly.

It was great fun and, of course, we were the star of the set, which was full of other puppet characters and live actors.  It was physically hard work, but the sculpt was so wonderful that animating Jabba was a joy.  We ended our days tired but happy.  We didn't see rushes, of course, and Mr. Lucas edits a lot, rather than getting the shots strictly to pre-arranged storyboards as we had done on The Dark Crystal, so we didn't really know what we had achieved until we saw the completed film quite some time later.

What was your involvement with Labyrinth?

I had been out of work and was living in Cardiff for the first time.  On impulse I rang the Henson Organization and they called me in on the spot (I didn't even know they had a movie in the audition stage, I had missed the audition, but had called at exactly the right time).  I operated a doggy goblin creature at the foot of Bowie's throne, Firey No. 1 with Dave and Kevin, one of the Helping Hands in the tower, and a background character in Goblin village.  I also got called back to work the eyes on the junk woman (Karen Prell).

What is your fondest memory of working on Labyrinth?

I was allowed to show my son around Goblin Village and bring him onto the set.   Jim smiled benignly at the thought.  I've got pictures.

And your least fondest memory of working on Labyrinth?

Bizarrely, I was in pain again (like during the beginning of my Dark Crystal contract).  This time it was from playing football.  I suspect I put my sacroiliac out playing in the goal in Somerset (forgetting I was 40 years old).  It took the fun away.  I needed the work and the money and I gritted my teeth and did the job, but it was rarely fun.  Puppeteering is hard on the back at the best of times (try holding your arm above your head for five minutes and doing something expressive and sensitive with the hand still up there).  I had the money to go to therapists (my own osteopath, a friend's Yoga osteopath, and another friend's acupuncture osteopath couldn't fix it).

One day a clown friend I hadn't seen for years (he was last heard of running off to be a Sufi in Spain) rang me out of the blue and said 'how are you?'  I said I was filming, but to be honest, I was in agony.  'Describe the symptoms,' he said.  He had something very similar and had gone to the Bluestone Clinic in Harley Street, so I made an appointment.  On my first visit they assessed it and massaged me.  The second visit I met 'the man with the move' who pinged my hip back into place.  The third visit was just to show them how well it had gone.  A week later I was walking up a mountain in Spain with a rucksack, ready to organize a juggling convention.  Weird stuff, you know.  I have never spoken to that friend again. 

What was your involvement with Little Shop of Horrors?

I got called in when the animatronic plant changed from small to medium.  We all lived in a pit under Mushnik's shop and most people were doing tentacles, but I got to be the right-hand leaf.  The plant limbs were operated with gimbals and it was quite heavy work, miming to a slowed down soundtrack.  The main puppeteers were operating lips, of course.  Eventually, as it grew, there was a puppeteer inside the head.  I was kind of understudying the lips guys, but I never had to step in.  By the time the plant was huge I got a tentacle, although that sequence was cut from the released movie and they settled for a less grim ending.  It's a shame about that because I wasn't in the country to do the re-shoots.

What was your involvement with Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

I was up a mountain in Spain when I got a telegram from David Barclay who was putting together a team of puppeteers.  There were six of us.  A marionette specialist, hand puppet people, etc.  I was in there with my mixture of puppeteering, mime, juggling and magic.  The reason I mention those skills is that we were a troubleshooting team, covering stuff that the SFX crew couldn't manage, or didn't want to deal with.  Some was true puppeteering.  We did all the real objects that the Octopus barman is handling with strings from above.  A lot of the stuff was simple improvisation (invisible threads to move things that the cartoon characters would be appearing to move).  A classic example would be the mechanical weasel arm that SFX had made, which was too slow and clumsy in its movements for the Graphic artists to disguise (they were on set observing all the time).  Mike Quinn was called in, grabbed a coat hanger, straightened the wire, wrapped it around the gun, and laid on the floor to poke Bob Hoskins in the chest.  After a couple of takes it was in the can.  We had fun, but I don't know how seriously people took us.  I knew then that it was the end of my career in movies when I was cast as a puppeteer in a movie with no puppets.

Now even Jabba is virtual!

Do you have any advice for performers who want to start a movie career as a

Well, I would divide this up a little.  Do you want to be a puppeteer or do you want to be in movies?  If you aren't a puppeteer already, then it is going to be hard.  Learning dance and mime might get you body-mask work.

The best way, I would think, is to be into making puppets and operating them.  Not only does this mean you understand many aspects of the craft, but you have more than one channel open to you.  Several puppeteers I know began as makers.  It is only in the movies that there is such a separation of the different aspects of puppeteering, but the people who build the creature need to be on call to repair and maintain the creatures, so the jobs get separated out (and there are unions, of course).

Films break most jobs into lots of tiny specialized areas.  If you are versatile then you are more likely to get a foot in the door.  In spite of unions, people often do crossover, because if you have devised and built the puppet, you can probably operate it, too.  Fewer performers move the other way (into building), although they sometimes move into devising and directing movement for others to perform.  My narrow skill base is part of the reason why I am not still in movies.

Nowadays, of course, puppeteering might involve computers.  Either for sophisticated controls (on The Dark Crystal we were mostly using cable controls, although some radio controls were used) or for combining puppet concepts with CGI.  All skills might be relevant.  I think Fred Nihda (who made the Garthim) had been making stage armor and John Coppinger sculpted for the Natural History Museum.  The radio control people may have been into model aircrafts and gizmos.

As for getting through the door, a lot of it is who you know, so cultivating contacts is a good idea.  There may be the occasional open audition call in trade papers.  You could also be bold, like George Lucas, and just move into an office!  I think Mike Quinn was a young fan who was welcomed into the Henson Organization and quickly made himself indispensable.  Of course, to go that route you have to have confidence and talent.  Mike had been 'doing' puppets for a long time before he approached them.

And then you can always use my way.  Be fit, be available, be brave and, most of all, be lucky!

Thank you, Toby!


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