Director Louis Leterrier makes some final adjustments to The General (voiced by Benedict Wong).
Netflix brings ‘Dark crystal’ back to life
THE X-PAT FILES - Scott Garceau (The Philippine Star) - August 18, 2019 - 12:00am

Growing up in the 1980s, pre-millennials definitely remember a dark fantasy by Jim Henson that was leagues away from Sesame Street and the Muppets. The Dark Crystal came out in 1982, set in the world of Thra, where three Gelflings try to recover The Crystal of Truth from the evil Skeksis. Impressionable minds will recall scary scenes of the Skeksis using the Crystal to drain the “vital essence” from hapless (and helpless) Podlings — then watching the Emperor chug it down like it’s Mountain Dew. With its elaborate mix of puppetry and voice talent, The Dark Crystal drew from classic fantasies like Lord of the Rings and modern sci-fi epics like Star Wars to create an entirely new world.

And an entirely new look. While Hollywood was moving towards digital effects and computer animation, Henson was taking the human feel of puppetry to new levels — terraforming new worlds where evil characters occupied our imaginations, and heroes were born.

Now Netflix brings that world back to life with The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance this Aug. 30, featuring a stellar cast that includes the voices of Taron Egarton, Sigourney Weaver, Caitriona Balfe, Mark Hamill, Helena Bonham-Carter, Jason Isaacs, Alicia Vikander, Lena Headey, Natalie Dormer, Awkwafina, Benedict Wong and Mark Strong. Helmed by Louis Leterrier (Clash of the Titans, Now You See Me, The Transporter) and executive produced by Henson’s daughter Lisa, the series is set years before the events of the original Frank Oz-Jim Henson film. We spoke with Henson and Leterrier by phone on making the series.

Philippine STAR: Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance looks stunning — a mix of modern CGI, graphics, and human motion art. What could you do with the series that wasn’t technically possible in the original movie?

Lisa Henson: In most ways, 90 percent of the puppetry is the same as it was done originally — all the acting and drama, the key character scenes are all performed by puppets. There is one technique we used a lot, which is puppeteer removal (shot against green screens). My father, in the ’80s, was not able to shoot full-figure puppets, or remove puppeteers from the shot. The new technique allowed Louis (Leterrier) to shoot a lot of action — and puppets had never done action like this, never attempted the kind of big physicality that they do on our series. That’s thanks to Louis’ natural way of shooting — and also a little help from technology.

Louis Leterrier: Everything was at the service of puppetry. The idea was to never go above and beyond what a puppet could do, it was just to enhance the sublime art that the puppeteers bring. We knew what the best of our puppets could do, then we brought everything up to that level — multiply the puppets, add different settings. To have a puppet walking with legs moving — you obviously know there’s a trick there, compositing or puppeteer removal — it was just on a different scale.

I have a tendency to chase after things with my camera, so sometimes we would use digital technology to remove rods and things like that — but actually, 85-95 percent of the show is captured in camera.

Lisa Henson on the set of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.

Age of Resistance could conceivably work strictly with CGI these days. What’s the advantage of using puppets?

LISA: First of all, it makes it so unique, because there’s a lot of CG out there. There is nothing else like Dark Crystal, nothing like what it’s accomplished. We figure we are, by far, the biggest puppet production, most ambitious, epic production ever done. So on the one hand, it’s just special and unique, so it’s worth checking out because it’s different. On the other hand, puppetry has a kind of intimacy, and the tactile quality that’s really hard to extract from CG. It’s sort of the Henson House style, to have a puppeteer perform at the center of every major performance.

There’s a lot of fluid camerawork here. How challenging was that, with a large assortment of puppets? What’s the hardest thing about directing puppets?

LOUIS: My challenge as the camera operator, I have to frame the puppeteers, the top of the set. I’m like Luke Skywalker at the end of Star Wars, aiming for the ship, but I’m using the Force for every shot all the time. They use monitors on the floor to see what I’m seeing in the frame, and I have to jump over this forest of monitors and all that; but my challenge is nothing compared to the challenges the puppeteers had with me chasing after them. On other puppet shows, it’s one steady camera, two cameras, they can move faster, tweak what I’m shooting — it was a challenge. Their biggest challenge was me — I’d never done that. I was put through puppet school, but they were put through Louis school.

This is an amazing cast — you seemed to attract the best modern British and American actors. Were the actors drawn by love and nostalgia for the original?

LISA: many of them were enthralled by the original movie and Jim Henson’s legacy, and being a part of something with this kind of nostalgic resonance. We also were fortunate enough to cast Taron (Egarton) really early on, and he became a magnet for all the other British cast. It’s true the Gelflings are voiced by British actors ­ — the best of the best, I would say — but we also cast American and international character actors for the Skeksis. We didn’t feel they had to be British, they just had to be incredibly…

LOUIS: Evil!

LISA: (Laughs) Yeah, evil. And we also wanted to differentiate their voices. Sometimes, if you’re not entirely familiar with the original movie, you want to differentiate the voices of the Skeksis.

LOUIS: The actors also attracted each other. Taron attracted a couple of people, who attracted others. It was like, ‘Dear Sigourney Weaver, do you want to be part of…?’ ‘Yes, of course!’ And that was one of their biggest frustrations — they had never met before that. It’s like Luke Skywalker and Ellen Ripley working together, but they’d never met back during Star Wars and Alien.

LISA: So it became like the biggest, best party in the world.

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Catch the first season of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance on Netflix, streaming this Aug. 30.

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