Tag Archives: Frank Oz

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.


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.

A Today Show Update

UnknownOkay, I have it on good authority that the Today show segment will air tomorrow — Tuesday, October 15 — during the eight o’clock hour.

And while I haven’t seen the segment — and won’t until everyone else does — I can tell you that you’ll see Frank Oz in it.  So that should be enough, really, for you to wanna tune in.

Set  your DVRs now. Or not. I’m not the boss of you.

 

Willie, Washington, and Jon

So, remember that Today show appearance that was on the schedule, then off, then on, then off again? Well, it’s back on — but I won’t be live in studio.  Instead, I spent most of the day yesterday working with a crew from NBC, being interviewed on camera by Willie Geist for a longer feature they’ll be doing on Jim — and his biography — for Today. I was also very fortunate to have Frank Oz with me — and while we won’t be sitting on the couch together, he very graciously sat for a 40 minute interview, and said lots of wonderful things.

Afterwards, we spent the rest of the afternoon over at The Jim Henson Company workshop and archives, where Karen Falk and I talked about some of the countless terrific items Jim kept and filed away, which were invaluable for my research.

It should be a fun piece — Willie Geist is a big fan of Jim’s — and I’ll let you know when it’s going to run.  Right not, they’re aiming for October 15, but that could change, depending on how fast they can edit everything together.

That was yesterday. Then this morning I was up early to head over to a nearby studio to chat remotely with an NPR station in Boston to talk  about . . . (wait for it) . . . Washington Irving. The new Sleepy Hollow TV series (which I dig) has sparked something of an Irving revival — and is apparently driving lots of gawkers toward the little town on New York’s Highway 9 — so we spent the morning comparing Irving’s tale with the the TV show, and speculating on whether Irving would enjoy it (as a great nicker of other people’s tales, I think Irving would get a kick out of it, actually).

The real question, however, is this: is the Sleepy Hollow TV series taking place in some alternate universe where Irving never existed or even wrote the original tale? I mean really, when Crane introduces himself to someone in the show, no one ever goes, “Ichabod Crane? Yeah, right.” (On another tangent, I keep hoping we’ll find out Irving himself is part of the underground movement to protect the world from the forces of evil, and wrote “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” either as a way of debunking one of the four horsemen, or perhaps sending some sort of coded message to future generations of protectors on how to fight the horsemen . . . Fox producers: Call me!)

I’m not at all surprised by the revived interest.  One of the leading search terms driving people to my website — after “Jim Henson,” of course — is “Is Legend of Sleepy Hollow real?” (which keeps sending people here).

Finally, in just a few hours I leave for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Holy cow.

Okay, NOW You Should Adjust Your Sets…

UnknownIf you’ve got your DVR set for Tuesday, September 24, to catch me with Frank Oz on the Today show . . . well, it’s time to adjust your settings. NBC told us last week that this might happen, but now it’s been confirmed:

The Today Show appearance with Frank Oz has been moved from Tuesday, September 24 to Thursday, September 26. 

Not to worry, nothing’s gone wrong — apparently, these things happen all the time when scheduling live television.  While it’s a bit of a bummer that we won’t be there on Jim’s birthday (and official launch date for the biography), my bigger concern was whether Frank Oz’s schedule would still be open.  Thankfully, it was.

So, once again, set — or reset — those DVRs, because we’re gonna be on the Today show. Yes, really. I swear.

Do Not Adjust Your Set…

Here’s the announcement I’ve been waiting to make for a while, but I wanted to wait until it officially showed up in my own TV listings.  Which it finally did last night on my snazzy Verizon FiOs DVR:

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On the same morning Jim Henson is published, I’ll be on The Today Show to talk all about Jim, some time (so I’m told) between 7 and 9 a.m. That’s pretty freaking cool in itself — and I’m both excited and a bit nervous about it — but what this listing doesn’t tell you is who’ll also be sitting with me to talk about Jim Henson . . . someone who knows quite a lot about Jim and the Muppets.

It’s this guy, right here. MV5BMTI1NTM4ODA0OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwODMxMjQ0._V1._SY314_CR6,0,214,314_

Yup. It’s FRANK OZ.

If you’re writing it down, it’s The Today Show on NBC on September 24.  Check your local listings for the right time. You won’t want to miss this one because, come on, IT’S FRANK OZ.

Photo Opportunity

See that big blank square at the top of the chapter? Yeah, a photo goes there.

See that big blank square at the top of the chapter in this advance copy? Yeah, a photo goes there.

Several readers of advance copies of Jim Henson have asked why the book doesn’t have any photos in it.  Good question.  The ARCs for Jim Henson didn’t include photos because (1) typically, advance copies of books don’t include the photo inserts, and (2) in the case of Jim Henson, it took a long time to clear some of the photos, so we couldn’t have included an insert even if we’d wanted to. In fact, the last of the photos didn’t clear until about three weeks ago, which is actually cutting it pretty close.

The final version of Jim Henson will include a photo insert that contains more than 40 photos, plus sixteen more that will appear at the top of each chapter. And even the most rabid Muppet fan will spot a few that have never been seen any time, any where. While this is a biography and not a photo book , I think you’ll find the photos helpful as a kind of score card: they’ll help you keep track of the players (always useful in a biography with lots of names in it), guide you through a number of projects, and, yes, you’ll see a few behind-the-scenes photos of Jim and the Muppet performers at work.*

It was genuinely tough deciding which photos to use.  I spent weeks sitting with, talking with, and e-mailing archivists, scrolling through digital files, turning over page after page in black photo binders, and squinting through an eyepiece at tiny photos on contact sheets. There were just too many great photos to count, and in my first pass, I selected more than a hundred I wanted to use. From there, my editor Ryan Doherty and  I set to work paring them down. With space limited, we wanted to get the most from any picture we might select–and if there were several people in one photo, all the better. Jim directing David Bowie and Jennifer Connolly in Labyrinth? Perfect. Jim performing with Kathy Mullen in The Dark Crystal? You bet. Jim standing by himself in the middle of a sound stage during the making of The Dark Crystal? Alas, not so much — but a tough call.

A no-brainer.

Jim Henson soars in 1965’s Time Piece. A no-brainer.

Some photos, of course, have been seen and used before–but they’re just so good, so iconic, it’s impossible not to use them. The photo still of Jim soaring on his DaVinci wings from Time Piece, for example, is a no-brainer, as is the 1960s-era photo of Jim and nineteen-year-old Frank Oz with Rowlf the Dog. There’s a reason these photos have been used before, and will probably be used again and again: they’re great.

Still, sometimes we ran into problems. There were a few photos, for example, where it was unclear exactly who owned them and how they might be legally cleared for use. Other times, there were photos I loved and wanted to use, but their owner wouldn’t clear them. Those things happen, but it likely means that someone’s favorite photo is bound to be missing.

Ultimately, we tried to pick photos that were not only visually interesting, but by merely flipping though the photo insert, you could get a fairly good idea of the arc of Jim’s life. I’m thrilled with the photos we’re using in this book–and while it wasn’t always easy, I appreciate that we were permitted to use each and every one of them.

* Meanwhile, if you’re looking for books with lots of color photos, you couldn’t do much better than Christopher Finch’s classic Jim Henson: The Works or Karen Falk’s magnificent Imagination Illustrated: The Jim Henson Journal. If you’re a Muppet fan, you’ve already got both of them.

Oz

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Frank Oz

One of the really great thrills of working on this project over the past five years has been meeting, interviewing, and, in many cases, getting to know Jim Henson’s family, friends, collaborators, and colleagues. To a person, they’ve all been generous with their time, warm in their welcomes, and interesting and engaging. I’ve spoken with people in living rooms and kitchens, offices and workshops, on studio sets, on Skype, and yes, even over the old-fashioned telephone.

It became immediately apparent that with a topic like Jim Henson, getting people to talk — and talk excitedly — would never be a problem. As a result, most of my conversations — which I usually tried to keep to an hour  — often sprawled out to two, three, sometimes beyond four hours. And even then, we still found it hard to wrap things up and stop talking.  Jim had, and still has, that effect on people.

There was one person, however, I was incredibly nervous about meeting in person: Frank Oz. My concern was never about him;  instead, I was worried that I would completely geek out and be unable to have a meaningful conversation with him. Not only am I a fan from way back, and not only is he pivotal to Jim’s story, but . . . well, heck, it’s Frank Oz. 

As it turns out, we had a great time and conversation together — so much so, in fact, that we had several more afterward. Oz is an incredibly private guy, so I won’t go into any detail except to say that he’s extremely thoughtful, forthright, introspective, brilliant, and — as you can surely imagine — genuinely entertaining and laugh out loud funny. Jim’s story wouldn’t have been complete without his participation, and I’m grateful — and thrilled — for his involvement and enthusiasm.

It is my great pleasure, then, to have the following blurb appear on Jim Henson’s biography:

I worked with Jim for over thirty years.  He was one of my closest friends. And yet I found out things about him in Jim Henson that were new to me.  Brian Jay Jones has captured the layers of Jim’s genius and humanity as well as the flaws that made Jim, like all of us, so delightfully imperfect. Jim needed this book to be written. I thank Brian for giving Jim life again. This book has captured the spirit of Jim Henson.

— Frank Oz

All I can say is: Thank you, Frank Oz. For everything.

Jim, Frank, and Merv

On June 26, 1984, Jim Henson and Frank Oz were out promoting The Muppets Take Manhattan and made a memorable appearance as guests on the Merv Griffin Show  (“Frank and I do entire Merv Griffin Show,” Jim wrote in his journal). Jim and Oz performed Kermit, Miss Piggy, Animal and Fozzie before finally heading for the guest sofa.

I love the way Jim looks in this footage. He’s smartly dressed, and while relaxed, he’s still not quite comfortable appearing on camera. But don’t take my word for it; let Jim explain it himself.

Here are a little more than eleven minutes of fun from The Merv Griffin Show (sorry about the aggressive on-screen sales pitch — this is a promo for a Merv Griffin collection). Enjoy.

Complete and Otter Hilarity

What’s that? You’d like to see outtakes from Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas? Here you go: