For years, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop has given life to the iconic puppets and creatures in your favorite children’s shows (Sesame Street), sci-fi/fantasy movies (Labyrinth), and other endlessly-rewound projects (basically, anything with the Muppets).
As Chairman of the Henson Company, Brian Henson (son of Jim and Jane Henson) has worked on his share of famous creatures — and as the head judge on Syfy’s new reality series Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge (Tuesdays at 10 pm), Henson is hoping that fans will relish a weekly peek behind the curtain of one of Hollywood’s most fascinating processes.
If Creature Shop Challenge has you busting out old VHS tapes and thinking of Henson memories past, know that you’re not alone. EW asked the puppet master to share some personal stories from behind the scenes of his greatest TV and film hits at the Creature Shop.
The project people ask me about the most: The Muppet Christmas Carol
BRIAN HENSON: “Muppet Christmas Carol came at, obviously, a really sensitive time for me, because my dad had just died, and it was the first thing we were doing with the Muppets. I needed to do something quite different with the Muppets, because three movies with the Muppets playing themselves in the real world felt like a lot. And my dad was even thinking, “I’m not really sure what to do next.” So that’s why we thought, let’s take them in a whole new direction. I’d been working in London, and I wanted to do something that was richer and more fantastic than the traditional Muppet movies.
And so [we had this idea of] Muppet Christmas Carol, wherein we could design the whole world and it was Dickensian and yet it was still Muppets. I liked the idea of the two layers of character, that you know the Muppets so well it’s almost like you know them as actors — Kermit can still be Kermit the Frog, but he can be playing Bob Cratchit. I really enjoyed that new way of approaching the Muppets, and it was a way that I wouldn’t draw too much of a direct comparison to my dad. I knew I was going to fall woefully short if people were comparing me directly with him. So that was what I did, and then Treasure Island was in that same vein. Those are the two I directed and produced.”
The summer job: The Doozers (Fraggle Rock)
“I was 19, and I was going to University of Colorado, didn’t like it, dropped out, and I was transferring to Wesleyan and had to wait for the school year to come back around. So my dad said, ‘Well why don’t you go up and work on Fraggle Rock?’ I had, before that, done some work with the special effects part of the puppet shop, so that summer I was working on the Doozers. We were using lots of strings and magnet controls and radio controlled motors and things like that. And then I went to London instead of going to Wesleyan, where I was meant to go, and I did a movie, and then another and another, and never went to Wesleyan!”
The character I immediately fell in love with: Hoggle (Labyrinth)
“The way that you can mess up is when you design a creature, and it’s got clean lines, and the teeth you thought you wanted, and the eyes you thought you wanted, but you didn’t think about its life and its likes and dislikes — and it came out looking all weird and clean, like it belongs in a toy store. Then the performers don’t really know what to do with it, so they just make it roar. A lot of creatures suffer from that incomplete process. It’s important to make it live convincingly. I think we did a very good job with Hoggle in Labyrinth. The moment you see him, you really get a sense of him and his story and his personality. They all seem to go together very neatly. I hope that’s true with most of the characters we’ve done.”
The character with surprising popularity: The Baby (Dinosaurs)
“The Baby’s popularity was really in the writing and coming up with the catchphrases. Michael Jacobs was our head writer, and he was the one that came up with these real gems that felt so honest and fun—every time the baby dinosaur looked at his dad and said, ‘Not the mama.’ It’s every father situation; they can’t get the baby to do anything because everything a baby is doing is just basically subtextually saying, ‘You’re not the mama.’ Or ‘I’m the baby, gotta love me,’ and that whole thing where babies can diffuse any moment by smiling and giggling and you forgive them everything. But also, the Baby always had a self-serving agenda underneath that was actually scheming and far more mature than the character should be, which was deliciously funny.
“With Dinosaurs, trying to figure out the design style of the universe was tricky. Our instinct was to err on the side of credibility and make sure they felt alive, but then we were worried it wouldn’t be funny enough, so we ended up in a slightly cartoonized reality. That was reflected in the dinosaurs all having kind of a little bit of a goofy expression. The neutral of that world is a comedic neutral, and we tried to reflect it in the set design and everything. We didn’t often do a boldly and purely comedic show like Dinosaurs.”
The most challenging character to create: Pilot (Farscape)
“Pilot, oddly, is one of the most successful characters we’ve ever made. And I can say that he was also the most confounding when we were trying to design him. We designed so many iterations of Pilot before we found a design that worked with the story and the personality and everything that we wanted. To bring him to life took a lot of work, but then we were really, really happy with the result. When we develop characters for our creatures, we try to make them feel just as real and have just as vibrant and incredible a story as the actors. We started doing that on Labyrinth, and that was certainly what we were trying to do with Farscape, which really just found its place as one of the most influential science fiction productions ever.”
The obscure show I’m really proud of: The Storyteller
“What I’m most proud of is Farscape, but I’m really proud of The Storyteller. It was a fantastic series, not terribly well-known in America, but a very big show in Europe. We had John Hurt in make-up [as the Storyteller], telling stories that are all based on European folklore, all written by Anthony Minghella in one of his early writing credits. I played the Storyteller’s dog, and it was a really wonderful puppet. Every half hour we made was like a half-hour movie with its own creatures, its own story. It was a really ambitious show, but really fun.”
The show I’m currently working on: Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge
“For a few years now we’ve been thinking, what can we do with this ever-expanding area of TV programming that is reality when we are the fantasy company? One area that’s always intrigued me is the creature designers, our builders. Not so much the puppets — felt and ping pong ball eyes and fur fabric — but the creatures, who are meant to look alive. There are very few people who can conceive these creatures and then sketch it, sculpt it, build it, fabricate it, mechanize it, paint it. We came up with this idea of doing this competition series, but it’s also, I dare say, kind of [a] relative of a game show and even more [a] relative of a documentary series. This is a real process, and we tried to capture that and point this spotlight at this most extraordinary type of artist at the center of the creature shop.”
An uncategorized note on versatility:
“My dad wouldn’t do the Hollywood thing, where people do something successfully and then just stay there, doing something almost the same, doubling your fee, and then you’ll be a gazillionaire. We’ve never been interested in that. Our development slate is always wide-ranging, and that keeps it exciting for everybody that works with us. We came up with Puppet Up! Uncensored, an R-rated improv puppet theatre show, and it’s the same puppeteers that are doing Sid the Science Kid. We push in different directions for different audiences, but always at the heart of it is a very strong creative idea.”
Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge airs Tuesdays at 10 PM on Syfy.