Revisiting the Gelfling/Skeksis Conflict for Netflix Required a Return to Puppeteering, with Minimal CG Augmentation
Released in 1982, The Dark Crystal, directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz of Muppets fame and produced by Gary Kurtz (American Graffiti, Star Wars), demonstrated that fantasy films didn’t have to rely exclusively on movie stars, spaceship miniatures and blue screen. This enduring favorite for viewers of all ages pitted virtuous Gelflings against evil Skeksis on a distant world circling three suns; the story revolved around segments of a fractured crystal that were brought back together to powerful effect. The film featured cinematography by the legendary Oswald Morris, BSC, who used the then-popular Lightflex system to control contrast and inject subtle colorations during shooting, resulting in a painterly image somewhat evocative of conceptual designer Brian Froud’s original artwork.
Even with the passage of decades, interest in the world of The Dark Crystal remained high; earlier this decade, a Creation Myths graphic novel series explored the age-old origins of the conflict between good and evil. The Henson Company then proposed a new series using CGI to recreate the characters and their world of Thra, but it was not until when Netflix suggested going back to the puppet-based approach of the original film that The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance was actually green-lit for production.
Setting the series centuries earlier allowed creators Jeffrey Addiss and Will Matthews to explore the hinted-at backstory, while still permitting director and executive producer Louis Leterrier (The Transporter, The Incredible Hulk) to exploit the visual lushness seen in the original feature. Froud once again served as creature designer, with his son Toby taking on design supervisor duties. The junior Froud had his own fantasy design pedigree, having sculpted a variety of fantasy characters, first at Weta Workshop and then for several stop-motion features at Laika.
“One of the first parts of getting going on this was remembering how the puppets and sets were put together,” he says. “It was very much a process for us to rediscover all the aspects that went into bringing these creatures to life. While we didn’t always know every detail of what was inside the original puppets, we did know what puppeteers would need today in order to work comfortably while bring these characters to life.”
Some of the original puppets were retrieved from their on-display status in museums across the globe, then brought to the Henson studio in Los Angeles for review. “My father Brian worked up most of the designs,” says Froud, “so everything was really channeled through him. There’d be lots of design drawings, and then maquettes were built well before the actual puppets, because that is key to working things out in three dimensions before beginning to manufacture the characters. In terms of the mechanics for what the puppets had to do, Brian was still on hand, especially when it came to pass that changes needed to take place before we shot.” Once completed, the 20 hero puppets — including duplicates and crash-test versions that could be thrown around without risking the mechanical functions of the hero creations — and nearly 100 others were sent to Langley Studios, just outside of London, for shooting.
One new dynamic in this incarnation of The Dark Crystal was Leterrier’s camera style. “The feature film had done a wonderful job with how it showed the gorgeous scenery in this fantasy tableaux and was shot by a genuine legend in Oswald Morris,” Froud explains, “but they didn’t have Steadicam, so the idea of getting in amongst the puppets wasn’t an option. Back then, the consensus was also that you couldn’t get too close to the puppets, because there was a fear they wouldn’t hold up. We knew that was no longer true, and embarked on an early, extensive series of tests with Gelflings and many other characters to prove we could get the camera lens in as close as needed.”
The series was captured digitally in 16:9 on Red’s 8K Weapon, with nearby On Set Tech providing digital dailies. “We knew that by shooting 4K, the camera would see every detail,” Froud continues. “Film has a softness that takes the edge off in a most beautiful way, but even without being able to hide behind that, we actually found credibility went up with viewers on closer views with the Red.”
Traditionally, puppet-based storytelling has often utilized a proscenium approach, but upon seeing the director and his DP Erik Wilson (Paddington, Masterminds) with their Steadicam rig coming through the set, Froud realized they would be going everywhere in search of the right angle. “So that informed everything we did with the performances and how we built the sets. It was especially important, given that the lead puppeteer and his assistant still needed to be able to do their dance together to perform the character while in hiding from the camera — actually two cameras in most instances. You can paint somebody out fairly easily these days, but if you choose to go that route, that’s an awful lot of extra work for each shot. So we chose to hide the puppeteers.
“Fortunately, advances in puppeteering have made it so we didn’t have to hide eight puppeteers for each character, which is what was required on the feature film,” he adds. “For the series, there’d be a main puppeteer, plus his assistant beside him, who would be taking care of the second hand. These characters have lots of layers of fabric in their clothing, which worked for us in terms of hiding puppeteers inside or behind. It meant you could move around the set freely to operate the body while others would be off the set on radio control to operate the face while watching the monitor. And that freedom is across the board for everybody, owing to developments in the workflow.”
The camera movement also seemed to enhance the characters’ presence. “Louis’ shots had greater life, making the puppets feel livelier within their environment,” notes Froud. “Louis likes to bring an action quality and, in going down that road, we had our breath taken away. It was a way of making the series contemporary without taking away anything from what had been established on the feature. I actually think this series will be a sort of benchmark, with people looking at this and saying, ‘This is how puppets should be photographed going forward.’”
Puppeteers were able to view monitors displaying not just the two camera angles shooting the scene, but also witness cameras that provided them with reference points. The march of technology impacted how puppets were controlled, with cables often giving way to remote operations facilitated via a tweaked Wii controller unit.
Froud describes it as playtime when recalling how he and his collaborators physicalized the world of Thra. “We used bright lights and colors throughout, which helped characters in armor really stand out,” he reports. “Sometimes for a landscape or costume we’d choose a familiar kind of material but use the backside to evoke a different texture. The whole team was always thinking that way, realizing a scrap from the floor might serve better than what was brought and in the bag, just because it looked that much more ‘right’ for the shot or for a particular character.
“The main action areas we puppeteered in were all physically built,” he elaborates. “We tried to take things as far back as possible, art-directing the physical environment, capping that with painted scenic backdrops for the sky and horizon. Digital can modify that, of course, but having so much in camera gave Louis more in terms of what he could see when exploring with the camera on stage. In breaking from the now-standard approach that everything should just be shot against green screen, we could treat all aspects like a regular production shoot. Part of our approach was to use a lot of smoke on set nearly every day. It softens the background ever-so-slightly while conveying a sense of beauty. And we could dial that up when we needed to convey more of a dreamlike or fantasy setting for interiors and exteriors.”
A small percentage of the work did ultimately require CGI from Dneg TV. “There are some characters we couldn’t physically build, either owing to scale or time or some other logistical consideration,” acknowledges Froud. “There are lots of reasons to use a CG version, but here we only went that route when it was absolutely appropriate. Brian and I often worked characters in a hybrid fashion, with puppet characters augmented by a CG tweak or a fully digital counterpart. It wasn’t ever just a matter of amortizing the work level for CG; it was as much the need to create a credible work as a matter of efficiency. [Creature effects supervisor] John Nolan helped make sure the team building each character would keep in mind the particulars of costume texturing as well as creature coloring.”
With the first season of the series having wrapped, Froud is intrigued to see how fans respond – both to the stories told and the look. “Fans need to realize that, while we use some fantastic technology, we will also use what is at hand. A piece of foam, some fabric and a bit of tape can help let you create the most wonderful things — and people at home can duplicate that kind of effort which, with cosplay and the devotion fans have to fantasy projects, probably fuels their imagination even more once they realize they can create in a similar way. It might even drive them to do something original that takes inspiration from what we created. I imagine the fans will be very excited to realize they don’t have to accept [that] doing their own version of one of our The Dark Crystal characters is an unattainable prospect.”
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