Review by C.J. Bunce
If you had a time machine and your goal was to find someone to give a master class in storytelling–a master class in worldbuilding–and bringing an idea to reality, would there be a better choice than Jim Henson? Henson will be forever known first for his Sesame Street character Ernie and Muppets Kermit the Frog, Rowlf the Dog, Dr. Teeth, Waldorf, The Swedish Chef, and more. The Muppet Movie and The Muppet Show are beloved by generations. He made the unreal seem real, and fantasy as close to reality as we may ever see it. Yet he was perhaps proudest of the creation of the first full-length, live-action motion picture where the stars were all creatures, The Dark Crystal, yet another of the unforgettable films from 1982 we’re celebrating this year here at borg.com. The Henson family and The Jim Henson Company have opened their archive and published the remarkable story of the film from idea to the film’s release in The Dark Crystal: The Ultimate Visual History, available this month from Insight Editions.
Writer Caseen Gaines’ new chronicle of The Dark Crystal is not a typical “visual companion.” The story told in the text provides a most intriguing account of Henson, a behind the scenes look at the man from his family and all those who worked with him, as he talked through the idea for a darker story while delayed on a chance cancelled flight with his daughter, as he cast a team of puppet builders, creative performance artists, artisans, costumers, and concept design artists, as he leveraged the success of The Muppet Movie, and strategically negotiated his way to gain investment dollars to make a film that stands alone in the history of fantasy film. As daughter Cheryl Henson states in the book, “I don’t think my father ever tried to hide how something was done, because how it’s done is often as interesting as the final product”–and that proves true in The Ultimate Visual History. She provides a foreword to the book and an introduction is provided by film creators Brian and Wendy Froud.
Gaines includes tipped-in replica memorabilia from the Jim Henson archives, which he integrates into the narrative to illustrate the five years of Henson’s concept to screen process. Readers gain new appreciation for Henson as we witness his own hand-written notebook pages of ideas for the characters that would transform into the dualism of the Skeksis and Mystics, Brian Froud’s original concept book created to sell the idea to investors, outlines, story treatments, hand-drawn sketches, scene memos, and a concept art pitch book by Froud for a planned sequel. Photographs document a chronological preparation of characters looking at first nothing like their final on-screen personas and the difficult process of creating the mechanics for each type of character, for Gelflings Jen and Kira, the exiled Skeksis Chamberlain, Jen’s dying Mystic master, a room full of potato-headed Podlings, the wise goddess/prophet Aughra, the majestic Landstriders, the giant beetle-like Garthim, and the cute and toothy fuzzy Fizzgig. The new fantasy world had its roots in myths and folklore, yet Henson created something singular with all these magicians that was akin to Tolkien’s fantasy realm.
Creators including concept artist Brian Froud, co-director Frank Oz, production designer Harry Lange, screenwriter David Odell, artist Wendy Midener Froud, cinematographer Ossie Morris, co-producer Gary Kurtz, and Henson’s family of creators provide clues into the mind of Henson, what motivated him, why he wanted to build this new world, how his own spirituality factored into his vision, and the kind of open, creative workspace his philosophy engendered with his fellow creators. Interviews with costume creators share their own process for adding to the look of non-human characters. Physical performers discuss developing their own sort of Zen work ethic allowing them to experience the often grueling work of carrying, operating, and moving arms and legs of the fantasy beings–requiring their bodies to bend in unusual ways.
The pathway for the creation of the film intersected with work by Henson and his team on Saturday Night Live, The Muppet Movie, The Muppet Show, The Great Muppet Caper, and The Empire Strikes Back. Not embraced by some audiences for its dark themes and departure from the lighthearted Muppets, Henson’s ideas intentionally diverged into new territory. As co-director Frank Oz states in the book, “What Jim wanted to do, and it was totally his vision, was to get back to the darkness of the original Grimms’ fairy tales. He thought it was fine to scare children. He didn’t think it was healthy for children to always feel safe.”
Fans of The Dark Crystal familiar with past accounts in books and in online resources will find new photographs of the crew creating and performing the characters and images of Froud’s unique and priceless concept artwork. These include one of Henson’s most fantastical creations, Aughra’s gigantic, full-scale, swirling orrery, the Mystic Valley and Crystal Chamber sets, and the giant Dark Crystal itself. Here are some preview pages from The Dark Crystal: The Ultimate Visual History:
Get to know the late, great Jim Henson and challenge your own imagination and creative process by delving into The Dark Crystal: The Ultimate Visual History, available now here at Amazon. It would also make a good companion book with last year’s Labyrinth: The Ultimate Visual History reviewed here at borg.com, continuing the look at Henson and his work following The Dark Crystal. And look for the new prequel series The Dark Crystal: The Age of Resistance, coming soon to Netflix.