Jim Henson, The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth

a DEVON TODAY article by Guy Cracknell


Devon TodayBrian Froud collaborated with the late Jim Henson on a number of projects, the most famous being The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth and the TV series The Story Teller. I asked Brian to tell me about their incredible partnership.

"Someone had given Jim Henson a copy of The Land of Froud and he really liked what he saw. In the back of his mind he had an idea for a film which was to become The Dark Crystal, which itself is inspired by a childrenís book Jim had seen which was about crocodiles living in a palace and he liked the idea of reptiles living in luxury. He had been snowed in at an airport and he and his daughter spent about two or three days developing the idea while staying in a motel.

"I got a phone call from someone not long after Faeries had come out asking me if I was interested in working with The Muppets. I jumped at the chance because The Muppets were the funniest thing I'd ever seen; I was always on the floor with laughter. Somebody from The Muppets came down to Dartmoor to see me and reported back to Jim about all these little figures of gnomes and things that I had made and from that I went up to London to meet him, and from there I flew out to New York. Very soon I was working on the film."

This was before the days of Jim Henson's famous Creature Workshop. Brian was there at the beginning and helped develop it. He also created some of the initial designs for the very popular Channel 4 series The Story Teller, starring John Hurt, which featured characters made by the Creature Workshop.

"The irony of working on The Dark Crystal was that I had moved to the country to allow my work to blossom, and here I was in New York. And I thought there's something wrong with this picture!" But Brian threw himself into the project, and at the initial creative meetings he and others working on the film discussed creatures and how they might act, what their personalities would be and so on. It was during this time that Brian met Wendy, who had been hired for her skills as a doll maker. Together they refined the initial prototypes of the puppets before flying back to London to be near Jim Henson.

The crew for The Dark Crystal grew from just a few to 360 as Brian realised his involvement with the film was going to be much more than just a conceptual designer.

"I knew that my designs weren't going to make it on to screen unless I was there for every process from original sketch to finished puppet. Because puppets don't actually do much, but give the illusion of doing everything, I was always designing around technical problems." Once the film was completed the enormity of it all made Jim Henson and Brian say they would never do it again. The Dark Crystal was released in 1981 to a lukewarm reaction.

"The problem was," Brian explains, "ET had been released around the same time, and The Dark Crystal was touted as a special effects film which it wasn't - it was all live action, shot in real time, with the creatures performing, which is how I designed them."

And now The Dark Crystal has become a classic, with people referring back to its amazing artistry and technical brilliance, which Brian believes has never been bettered.

"I've sat and watched the showreels of digital special effects guys and they're asked if they can do this or do that, and they say not yet, then they turn to me and say you should see The Dark Crystal, and I have to laugh and say well it's my movie, actually!"

It was at a screening of The Dark Crystal in San Francisco that Brian and Jim Henson's vow never to make another film was forgotten. "We were sitting in the back of a limo, having drunk a bit too much wine, and he said "shall we do another one?"and I said "oh, why not." He asked if I had any ideas and I said not really so he suggested Native American Indians but I didn't really know anything about them so I said what about goblins? He liked the idea, but I said I want to put live people in it this time. Immediately I had this flash of an image of a baby surrounded by goblins."

Jim asked Brian what the story was, but he didn't know. All he could think of was of a labyrinth, which is not only a physical conundrum but also a metaphor for many things. After this, Brian went away and painted a picture of a baby in the midst of a mass of goblins. He then made more sketches and painted more characters and a script was developed. The baby had always been envisaged as being about a year old, and at the time Brian's son Toby was about that age. The extraordinary thing was, the baby Brian had painted two years earlier was almost exactly as Toby looked now. And he went on to star as the baby in the film. Labyrinth was a more commercial film than The Dark Crystal, produced by George Lucas and starring David Bowie as the Goblin King. Brian talks about David Bowie fondly, remembering how amazing he was in the dressing room; almost Puck-like as he crouched down to play a special flute Brian had carved for him out of a deer bone.

"But," Brian reflects, "in front of the cameras David was never quite as magical as when we first saw him in his dressing room."

Labyrinth was difficult to work on at first as Brian had trouble articulating his ideas without actually getting "hands-on"and sculpting himself. Jim Henson wanted the film to look like Brian's work and as all the creative elements came together Brian found it a wonderful experience.

"The exciting thing was," he says, "is that we ended up with something that was larger than all of us. And what we've found is that the film is being constantly rediscovered and becoming meaningful for new generations, despite being made in 1985. It seems that we achieved what we wanted with Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal - to create a myth."