Jim Henson’s kids explain why Dark Crystal and Labyrinth would never be made today

Jim Henson’s kids explain why Dark Crystal and Labyrinth would never be made today

“They don’t make ’em like they used to” is a phrase you’ve heard a thousand times. But for famous, dark fantasy films like Jim Henson’s Labyrinth And The dark crystalthe reasons seem clear, from the Game of Thrones-ification of fantasy to the decline of the musical.

Still, Lisa Henson, producer and CEO of The Jim Henson Company and daughter of Jim Henson, says there’s one reason she’s involved with the company that may never have the cult success of Labyrinth or The dark crystal. “Technically, these films would be very difficult to make (today) because there is so much pressure to do things with CG.”


Polygon spoke with Lisa and director, performer, company chairman Jim Henson (and her brother) Brian Henson, in conjunction with this month’s reissue The dark crystal And Labyrinth on digital platforms such as iTunes, AmazonAnd YouTube. The films are available separately, or in a bundle featuring an impressive collection of material usually left out of digital purchases, including commentary tracks and behind-the-scenes features.

For Lisa, the reissue, in collaboration with Shout! Studios partly reflected the changing way people watch films, but also that the special features were just as important as the films themselves.

“We never want these films to be unavailable or not fully explored to see the behind-the-scenes,” she told Polygon. “The more you know about these films, the more you appreciate them. (…) For years we’ve had those box sets or those Blu-ray releases that have so many ways to interact with the film – you watch the film, then you watch the extras and you see the interviews, and you see how Things are done and you go back and watch the movie again. And if you don’t have the additional materials, you might miss an entire layer.”

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The making of The dark crystal 1981 marked a turning point for special effects in Hollywood, as a group of prop makers, puppeteers, artists and designers came together to build the world of Thra and all its characters and creatures. Later organized under the name “Jim Henson’s Creature Shop,” the group moved into the production of Labyrinthand from there to work on a whole host of Henson and third-party productions, at the forefront of a revolution in physical special effects.

“At the height of the animatronics era and the visual effects known as animatronics, the late 80s and 90s, almost all of these techniques were developed in The dark crystal. I remember being in a meeting,” Lisa recalled, “where they were trying to figure out what titles to put in the credits of people who did that kind of work. The dark crystaland they found a union category of animatronics and they said: Oh, okay, we’ll just call it animatronics. I was actually in that room (laughs). The whole idea of ​​feature film animatronics – before that, animatronics was what happened at Disney World.”

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“That was the fun of living in London at that time,” says Brian. “I was so young, I was in my early 20s when I arrived in London, I think I was 20 when I did Return to Oz, and it was so fun because we were in an industry where teams of people could go from one movie to another and do these incredible creature effects. And everyone was a little different. The reason we kept making strange fantasy films is because everyone was there: in London. If you want to make a fantasy, you go to London to make it. Nowhere else in the world will you find the people who could do this.”

Among the ‘people who could’ were artist Brian Froud and puppeteer Wendy Froud, whose son Toby made his film debut as Labyrinth‘s baby Toby. Froud has made a career in all aspects of puppetry and creature design, and told Polygon that he remains optimistic about bringing his parents’ famous folklore-inspired designs back to screens. “Something to do with trolls would be great, and honestly, fairies – to actually bring fairies to the screen. What we’re constantly trying to do. That’s where our hearts are, in bringing these kinds of creatures and characters to the world.”

Image: The Jim Henson Company

In the years since the 1980s, animatronics and physical creature effects have given way to computer-generated imagery as Hollywood’s first option. With the pressure to use CG, Lisa says, comes temptation. Both Labyrinth And The dark crystal had fully realized fantasy worlds, but the limitations of their technology encouraged a narrower focus. “At CG you can do anything. Now every movie has a third act that’s so action-packed, and the world is ending, and catastrophic events are happening every five minutes. We just couldn’t do that in the ’80s. So (those films) have a little more intimacy.

But the Henson Company’s modern techniques are a far cry from those of the Luddites. The store’s most recent credits include Five nights at Freddy’s and Guillermo del Toro Pinocchioand it has its own ways of working with computer animation without sacrificing intimacy or spontaneity – and not just adding digital effects to puppets, like Skeksis tongues in Netflix’s The Dark Crystal: An Age of Resistance.

“Our 3D animation system enables all the interaction of live performers working together to find a tone and energy that is virtually impossible with keyframe animation,” said Brian. “There’s one artist doing the body and another artist doing the face, but it’s all done in real time, with monitors on stage for everyone to see. So it’s different than most people talk about motion capture. Typically with motion capture you capture an actor, take that data and later turn it into a character. But while the actor is doing it, they don’t see what it is in real time. (…) When we do it, everyone can see exactly what it looks like because we render it in real time.”

Muppets fans may be shocked to hear Jim Henson’s children advocate for puppets made in Unreal Engine instead of felt and foam, but Lisa points out that digital puppetry has a long history at The Jim Henson Company.

“From the time of Tron(my father) started to cooperate John Whitney about CG animation. So he was very pro-CG animation. So when the fans think: Well, he wouldn’t have done CG, they are not correct. But what drives our CG – whether it’s a fully animated show, or just an effect – we always have the puppeteer in it. (…) The puppeteer brings the CG character to life, which is something my father created. That first CG puppeteer character appeared on The Jim Henson Hour and then inside Muppet vision 3D, who was in the parks. He was already manipulating CG using a puppeteer controller.

When Polygon asked Brian if he could express the creative arc of the Henson Company, he mentioned a lot of creative themes – imagination, celebrating each other’s differences, the importance of curiosity and creativity – and ultimately decided to put the artist at the center.

“We are a performance-based company,” he said, noting that the company started with a bunch of puppeteers, rather than, say, writers, directors or designers. “And when we do that, I feel like we are most on track.”