Category Archives: Jim Henson

Origins of The Dark Crystal

With the well-deserved success of the Henson Company’s Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance on Netflix, it’s an exciting time to be a fan of Jim Henson and his work. Fans are watching, and loving, the Netflix series, and the Hensons have also very smartly produced a making of documentary called The Crystal Calls, giving fans the kind of behind-the-scenes footage we crave. Jim Henson loved creating those “How’d they do that?” moments — and The Dark Crystal was not only a favorite project of his, but it was also his first real opportunity to stretch his storytelling beyond the realm of the Muppets.

It took a long time for him to get there–and I thought it might be fun to give you a look behind-the-scenes look at what it took for Jim Henson to bring the original Dark Crystal to the screen in 1982. (Note: this is based on a long Twitter thread I posted the other day. You can follow me on Twitter here, if you’d like.)

I’m going to take you WAY back to the beginning of the creative process, before Jim shot even an inch of film (though I’ll talk a bit about that, too). Meanwhile, for a deep dive on the actual filming of The Dark Crystal, I refer you to my pal Caseen Gaines’s definitive book on it, The Dark Crystal: The Ultimate Visual History, which is chock full of lots of great information and photos.

The roots of The Dark Crystal can be traced back to 1975, when Jim Henson paged through an illustrated edition of Lewis Carroll’s “The Pig-Tale” with lavish drawings by Leonard Lubin. (If you’re one of those completists who collects All Things Dark Crystal, this belongs in your collection. Track this one down and impress your friends!)

Inside that book is a drawing of two crocodiles lounging in a sumptuous, vaguely Victorian setting. Jim was fascinated. “It was the juxtaposition of this reptilian thing in this fine atmosphere that intrigued me,” he said. That’s the moment The Dark Crystal first sparked to life — in its nascent form, at least — in Jim’s imagination.

Inspired, Jim began writing a treatment for a film called Mithra. There are a few plot elements that will look familiar to fans of The Dark Crystal; Jim knew, for example, that he wanted warring factions to have split from a single species, though he wasn’t sure of how that happened. “Perhaps a lodestone,” he wrote in his notes.

Jim Henson with Brian Froud.

But in 1977, Jim met the brilliant artist Brian Froud, whose work enchanted Jim. “I saw Brian Froud’s work in a couple of books, and I loved what he did,” Jim said later. “The thought of being able to take [his] designs and convert them into three dimensions was really exciting.”

And so, Jim scratched Mithra in favor of working with Froud on — as Jim wrote in his diary — what he was sure would be a “GREAT FILM” they would build from the ground up. Typically, Jim wanted to get all the world building in place “before tying things down with a script.” Froud set to work drawing and designing in his usual shimmering style. Jim was immediately excited. “It’s such a wonderful challenge to try to design an entire world . . . like no one has ever seen before.”

Some of Froud’s character designs for The Dark Crystal.

The script would begin to come together in early 1978, when Jim found himself and his 16-year-old daughter Cheryl stranded at a Howard Johnson’s hotel during a snowstorm. It was here the two of them worked together to develop the basic story—a 16-page treatment they called The Crystal. “I had a delightful time working on the concept and talking it over with Cheryl,” Jim wrote, “and it all jelled during that time, so that I’m quite happy with what’s taking shape. . . All kinds of things came together.”

Jim with daughter Cheryl, who helped shape the basic story of Dark Crystal.

In the summer of 1979, riding the success of The Muppet Movie and with The Crystal beginning to take shape, Jim went to see Lord Lew Grade—his UK producer who had seen the potential in The Muppet Show when no American studio had—and pitched The Crystal as his next film. Grade was supportive of a non-Muppet feature, but both Grade and Jim’s right-hand man at Henson Associates, David Lazer, encouraged Jim to strike while the iron was hot by moving right into a Muppet sequel. And so, The Great Muppet Caper went into pre-production — but Grade promised Jim $14M for The Crystal, and agreed that he could begin work on his non-Muppet project immediately after delivering Caper.

Lord Lew Grade negotiating with Fozzie Bear.

Jim was disappointed, but did as Grade and Lazer asked, bumping production on The Crystal until after completing The Great Muppet Caper. But the delay would prove to be a blessing as it gave Jim, Froud, and the Muppet team the time they needed to refine the way they designed and built increasingly complicated creatures for what was already an increasingly complicated film.

Most importantly, it also gave Jim a unique opportunity to do a little “tech transfer” with a fellow gadget-loving filmmaker who had been working across the street from him at Elstree Studios in London, where Jim was filming The Muppet Show.

That filmmaker’s name?

George Lucas.

Come on, you know who this is.

Lucas had asked for Jim’s help developing a new character for the Star Wars sequel he had in development — a small but wizened Jedi master. After considering and scrapping numerous approaches–including a monkey in a costume — Lucas had decided his Jedi master should be an expressive puppet. Lucas and Lucasfilm called on Jim and Henson Associates for help–and so the two companies began working together to design and develop the technology needed to bring such a character to life.

Yup. Yoda is a dry run for The Dark Crystal.

Lucasfilm builder Stuart Freeborn consults with Frank Oz and Jim Henson on a model for Yoda.

Yoda was a lot of work; it took three puppeteers to operate him–in addition to Oz, Yoda was operated by Kathy Mullen and Wendy Midener. “I could see that it would take an awful lot of technical know-how to make it work,” Jim said. The work paid off — just look at Mark Hamill, who believed in the character absolutely.

Yoda taught the Henson crew what did and didn’t work. “It was just the sort of thing that needed a lot of research, a lot of time, and experimentation,” said Jim. As the Henson team continued building creatures for Dark Crystal, it was clear more money was needed. Jim and David Lazer went to Cannes, where Lazer managed to sweet-talk Lew Grade, eventually prying away $25M—“the money that saved the film,” said Frank Oz.

The hard-working David Lazer, who saved The Dark Crystal.

Jim would regularly remind his designers that it was the puppeteer, not the puppet, that made the performance. “You have all these techniques, but at the heart of all the mechanics is an actor performing a role, trying to get the subtlety of movement. That’s the key thing.”

Jim’s ideal process, then, was to build the puppets around the puppeteer, using light-weight materials — Oz often complained that Yoda had been “really fuckin’ heavy” — and carefully hiding operating cables in a way that they didn’t tangle up the performer. Jim would watch the performances over and over again, and would “rip the whole thing apart, re-sculpt it, rebuild all the parts, and build it again” until he was happy with it.

Jim — along with Brian Froud (far left) and creative director Mike Frith (center) — carefully watches a puppeteer performing a still-unfinished Mystic interacting with a Gelfling.

Jim and his co-director Frank Oz began shooting The Dark Crystal on April 15, 1981. It was Oz’s first experience behind the camera for a major film. “Jim, God bless him, just supported me,” said Oz. “He was always patient. I’m sure I drove him crazy during that time, but we loved each other.”

Jim had also tapped Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz for the film, who served as lead director for the 2nd unit. In the days before CGI, everything was hand built precisely to Jim’s specifications. “He saw the movie in his head,” said Oz, still amazed three decades later. “He had that all in his head.”

Gary Kurtz, Jim Henson, and Frank Oz on one of The Dark Crystal’s sprawling sets.

And the rumors are true: Jim DID envision creating a new language for both the Mystics and the Skeksis, which they would speak the entire film without subtitles (“like an opera,” explained Lisa Henson). Here’s a cut of the film with the foreign dialogue still intact, to give you some idea of how it sounded in first cut:

Creative director Mike Frith watched as the Skekses growled and hissed at each other — and told Jim he thought he had a problem. “I have no idea what that scene was about,” Frith told him flatly.

After the March 19, 1982 sneak preview in Washington, DC, Jim knew Frith was right. The ‘foreign language’ approach wasn’t going to work. “Not great,” he wrote glumly in his journal after the preview, and dispatched screenwriter David Odell to go back and write English dialogue corresponding to mouth movements of the characters, to be dubbed in before the next showing of the film in Detroit. “A bit better,” Jim wrote afterwards, only slightly relieved.

Robert Holmes-a-Court, a rare nemesis for Jim Henson.

Adding to his agitation, he had to deal with Australian jillionaire businessman Robert Holmes-a-Court, who had recently acquired Lew Grade’s company. That meant that Holmes-a-Court—who disliked Jim, and the feeling was mutual—now owned The Dark Crystal (and The Muppet Show, but that’s another story…). And Holmes-a-Court didn’t much like what he’d seen of Crystal, either.

Holmes-a-Court even had his lawyers and bankers telling Jim how to “fix” his film, recommending he spend less time on the Mystics and more of the Skeksis. “I can’t work like this,” Jim finally said, “I’ve got to get these guys out of here.”

Bernie Brillstein and client.

Jim’s solution? Buy The Dark Crystal from Holmes-a-Court outright. “I don’t like what they’re doing with it,” Jim told agent Bernie Brillstein, and reminded his long-time friend that he had encouraged him to invest in his own independence. “He nailed me,” laughed Brillstein.

Jim risked nearly all his capital to buy back The Dark Crystal from Holmes a Court. “When he made up his mind,” Lazer said later, “there was no deterring him. And most of the time, he was right.” In less than a month, Jim owned his movie. “It was a huge gamble,” remembered Cheryl Henson. But Jim was unflappable. “It was a good deal,” he told Oz matter-of-factly.

The Dark Crystal premiered in New York on December 13, 1982. “It was a huge undertaking–a vision I had,” Jim explained later, “and one which ultimately has helped to carry our art form to a more sophisticated and technically advanced state. The most important thing, however, is to love what you’re doing and to go after those visions, no matter where they lead.”

Frank Oz and Jim Henson at the New York premiere of The Dark Crystal, December 1982.


Remembering Dot Turk, My Charming Guide to Leland, Mississippi


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91gmc-pdU2LI was sad to learn of the passing of Dorothy Love Turk, who died earlier this month at the age of 88.  Dorothy — or “Dot” as she insisted I and everyone else call her — was one of the very first people I contacted when I began my research on Jim Henson back in 2010.  As a guide at the Jim Henson Boyhood Museum in Leland, she was great at helping me track down All Things Jim Henson in their little town–and as a lifelong resident of Leland, she was also the expert on the history of Leland. Heck, she even wrote a terrific history of the place, charmingly called Leland, Mississippi: From Hell Hole to Beauty Spot.  That was her kind of title.

IMG_6089.jpgHer book on the history of Leland, in fact, was also one of the first I bought when I started researching–I had to grab it from a used book store–and she was genuinely touched that I had purchased it, read it, and even brought it with me for her to sign. When I handed the book over for her sign, she turned to the blank front page, and wrote simply, “to Brian, Dorothy Love Turk.”  When I returned to Leland a year or so later for a Henson-related event, she ran up to me somewhat flustered and apologized for “signing [my] book so badly!”  She said she was so rattled by the idea that anyone would ask her to sign her book that she didn’t know what to write.  That sort of adorable humility was very much part of her charm.

Dot served as my eager tour guide during my time in Leland, introducing me around–having her vouch for me went a long way with the locals–helping me get in touch with some of Jim’s childhood friends, and regaling me with the gossip and town legends that made Leland such a magical place for Jim Henson to spend his early years. They take pretty good care of Jim Henson down there, and it’s thanks in no small part to people like Dot.  She took good care of me, too, and I’ll miss her.

Go Watch Muppet Guys Talking

Muppet-Guys-Talking-the-Muppet-GuysIf you’re a Muppet fan, chances are you’re already anxiously awaiting the release of Muppet Guys Talking, Frank Oz’s documentary of . . . well, Muppet guys talking about life, art, and working with Jim Henson.  And who are the Muppet Guys? They’re Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Fran Brill, Dave Goelz, and Bill Barretta. More information — including how you can watch the documentary when it’s released later this week — is available over on muppetguystalking.com.  Go.

While you wait, you might also wanna check out this really wonderful interview with Frank Oz, conducted by those savvy fellas over at Tough Pigs. And I’ve gotta admit: I’m thrilled to be on the receiving end of some first-rate Frank Oz ballbreaking:

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NOTE: I actually love Paul McCartney.

Always Watching

8688 K Pearlman Photography_previewThis is me lecturing on Jim Henson last week — I had to step in when a regularly-scheduled lecturer was taken ill.

One is truly never really out from under the gaze of Ernie and Bert.

It’s Jim Henson Day!

Okay, maybe it’s really not Jim Henson Day — but it’s Jim’s 81st birthday, so over on Twitter I suggested we make #JimHensonDay a thing.  And really, when the President of the United States is tweeting like a lunatic, all but taunting another country into nuclear war, I figure now is as good a day as any to remind ourselves that there are still a lot of good people and good things going on in the universe — and that Jim, his life, and work remain an inspiration for fun, creativity, and basic decency.

Here’s the string of Twitter posts I put up this morning.  Feel free to comment on what Jim and his work mean to you in the comments — or join the conversation on Twitter on the hashtag #JimHensonDay.

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Go out and do something silly today.  Jim would approve.  Heck, he’d encourage it.

Eighty.

“When I was young, my ambition was to be one of the people who makes a difference in this world. My hope still is to leave this world a little bit better for my being here.” — Jim Henson

Happy Birthday to Jim Henson, who would have been 80 years old today. Celebrate his life by doing something silly, just because you can. Jim would approve.

Here’s one of my very favorite images of Jim, taken in the late 1980s. This one actually hung in the National Portrait Gallery for a while.

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Have fun today, and think of Jim for a little bit while you do it.

Happy Birthday, Jim. We still miss you.

Out Today: Jim Henson (Finally!) In Paperback

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After nearly three years in hardcover, Jim Henson is finally available in a nifty paperback format. Just for fun, I’ve posted the entire wraparound book jacket, so you can see what a nice job the folks at Ballantine have done with it. There was a bit of discussion about the best color to use as a background to give the paperback a different look and feel than the hardcover, and I think the light blue is a nice touch. You can click here to get it on Amazon, here for Barnes and Noble, and here to find it on Indiebound.

CiGzhBZXAAA7fdzIt was also neat this morning to see Random House tweet out a photo of the five books they launched today.  There’s Jim, in the photo at right, leaning casually up against the Rolling Stones.

I’ve been asked if there’s any material in the paperback that wasn’t in the hardcover, and the answer to that is: yes, but you probably won’t really notice. There were a couple of corrections to be made (somehow, I put Featherstone in the cast of Tales of the Tinkerdee, when, doggone it, I knew better than that), and a reference to the TV reboot of The Muppets, but for the most part, there are no real major additions. I got pretty much everything in the first time.

Oh, and in case you’re still without one, the hardcover will stay around for just a bit longer, too, before it’s finally taken out of print.

Jim Henson in Paperback

51yntBdmPAL.jpgAt long last, there’s an official release date — and official cover — for the paperback of Jim Henson: The Biography.  It’ll be coming your way on May 10, 2016.

You can pre-order it on Amazon right here, at Barnes & Noble here, or from IndieBound here. And, of course, you can also order it from your favorite bookstore near you.

Live! From (Upstate) New York!

DSC_0320-280x270While I’ve been trying to keep appearances to a minimum as I finish up work on George Lucas, here’s one I couldn’t resist:

I’ll be giving an hour-long presentation on Jim Henson at the Guilderland Public Library in Guilderland, New York, on Friday, February 19, at 2:00 p.m.  As an added bonus, the library will have several Muppets on display, on loan courtesy of The Jim Henson Legacy.

Which Muppets, you ask? Ah, that’ll be a surprise for me as well.

The Guilderland Public Library is located at 2228 Western Avenue, just northwest of Albany. And did I mention it’s free? Of course it is — so if you’re in the area, come on by.

A New Jim Henson Documentary Debuts in September

Months and months and MONTHS ago, I was interviewed on camera by a crack team of documentarians for a new PBS series called In Their Own Words  —  the first three episodes of which would feature Queen Elizabeth, Muhammad Ali, and (ta dah!) Jim Henson.  Back then, they weren’t quite sure when the series would premiere, but now here it is, all queued up and ready to go on a PBS station near you this September — with the Jim Henson episode slotted for September 15. (Looking over the schedule, it appears there’s also one part of a two-part documentary on Walt Disney airing that evening, so it’s a good night to get your fill of creative geniuses.)

Will I be on camera? I don’t really know; looking at the preview, they got tons of terrific people to talk with them — Frank Oz, Brian and Cheryl Henson, Michael Frith, Neil Patrick Harris — so what are ya looking for ME for anyway? Click on the photo of Jim below and have a look:

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In Their Own Words: Jim Henson, airs on September 15 at 8:00 pm — but check your local listings, as they say. Or don’t. I’m not the boss of you.