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We Spoke To The Puppet Master Behind The Dark Crystal And Labyrinth

Brian Froud talks to The Creators Project about The Dark Crystal, Jim Henson, and your childhood nightmares.

by Justin Morrow
Oct 23 2014, 8:30pm

Photo courtesy of The Jim Henson Company.

If you were a child in the '80s, chances are Jim Henson played a pivotal role in your upbringing. And chances are you saw/were disturbed by/had nightmares after your parents let you watch The Dark Crystal, Henson’s 1982, Tolkien-esque dark fantasy. That film, and its spiritual sequel, 1986’s Labyrinth, are both classics of live-action animatronics, as well as showcases for the work of Hugo-award-winning, British fantasy artist, Brian Froud. With his wife, Wendy (who fabricated Yoda (!) for The Empire Strikes Back), Froud supervised the creation of the incredibly complex animatronic puppets in both films.

The Dark Crystal has had a long life as a cult favorite, and this Friday, the fourth annual Puppets on Film festival, sponsored by BAMcinématek and the Jim Henson Foundation at BAM in New York, will be opening with The Dark Crystal Fan Fest, which will feature a screening of the film, appearances by Brian and Wendy Froud, and the premiere of their son Toby’s short film, Lessons Learned. In anticipation, The Creators Project talked to Brian Froud about puppetry, Jim Henson, and the enduring legacy of The Dark Crystal. 

Photo courtesy of The Jim Henson Company.

The Creators Project: How did you first become involved with The Dark Crystal? 

Brian Froud: At the time, I was a visual artist, and Jim [Henson] had seen the cover of one of my books and he approached me about working with him on the film. 

Did you have much experience with puppetry? 

I’d had an interest in puppets, but I was always much more of a visual artist. We met in New York, and got along, and so I started working with him. Luckily, I found I had a talent for it, for those Muppet techniques. And because I’m an artist, I often found that the best way to communicate my ideas to the team was visually. I’d make a model of an idea, and we’d work off that. 

What was Henson like as a collaborator? 

He was great, really, just fantastically creative. The only problem was, we never felt we saw him enough. There was a sort of anxiety, everyone wanting more “Jim time,” because he was just so busy. When we started he was still doing The Muppet Show, so he would either be in production on that, or, you know, I’d be flying to England from New York, and he would be on the Concorde, headed back to New York! But Jim was very much a leader. He was full of ideas, very excited, and, being a performer himself, one of his biggest concerns was for the performer, for their comfort, to make it easier for them. He would always challenge you to ‘make it lighter, make it better.’

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What was the process of fabricating one of those puppets?

Well, Dark Crystal took five years to make, if that gives you any indication! Labyrinth took three. We were really working at the forefront, I think, we were pushing what was possible as far as radio controlled puppetry. We used to call them “super puppets” because that’s what they are, really. But at the end of the day, a puppet is just a stick and some gaff [gaffer’s] tape! One of the great things about how we worked at the Creature Shop [Henson’s famous puppet factory, which has produced Muppets and puppets for countless movies and TV shows] though, was that if something broke, it wasn’t a matter of bringing the production to a halt, because the film cost about $3 per second! But if something snapped, it was just a matter of finding an old bike cable or whatever we needed. Another challenge of course, was hiding the performer, because you’re shooting at all different angles. And, of course, giving the illusion of movement, because a puppet can do anything, except run or walk [laughs].

How did your wife [Wendy] end up working on Yoda?

Well, when George Lucas was getting ready to make The Empire Strikes Back, he approached Jim because he knew he wanted to have some sort of puppet, and Jim loaned him Wendy, who went to work with Frank Oz. It was basically a matter of building a puppet around Frank’s hand, snipping foam, trying things out. They showed the prototype to Jim, who approved the final design, and, during shooting, Wendy actually operated the ears! 

That’s amazing. What do you think of the legacy of The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, and events like the fan fest? 

It’s very gratifying. We opened against E.T., and even though the film did end up doing well, to see that it’s had a real sort of second life has just been great. People respond to the complexity of it—we were never making a film for children, we were making it for ourselves, and there’s a lot more than just ‘good vs. evil’ going on. Jim was a very spiritual person, and there are deeply spiritual themes embedded in Dark Crystal. It’s a seriously weird film, too! 

The Dark Crystal is screening on Friday, October 24, as part of Dark Crystal Fan Fest at BAMcinématik in Brooklyn, part of the Puppets on Film festival, sponsored by BAMcinématek and the Jim Henson Foundation. Fan Fest will also feature appearances by Brian and Wendy Froud, who will be signing copies of their new book, Brian Froud’s Faeries’ Tales, as well as the New York premiere of their son Toby’s short film, Lessons Learned. For more information, go to darkcrystal.com.

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