The Future of The Jim Henson Company Has The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth in Its DNA

Movies Features Jim Henson
The Future of The Jim Henson Company Has The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth in Its DNA

For the Gen X kids who grew up learning their numbers and letters from the Muppets on Sesame Street, or shaped their senses of humor around Kermit and company in The Muppet Show, it’s still hard to process that Jim Henson left this world 34 years ago.

Henson passed away suddenly from a bacterial infection in 1990, and left behind a planet full of shell-shocked kids and parents who looked to Henson’s creations for wells of laughter, shining examples of pure compassion and infinite sources of visual wonder. And many forget that it was only in 1979 that Henson and his collaborators made their first foray into theatrical projects with The Muppet Movie. In the span of just 11 years, Jim Henson would forever change the medium and ambition of modern puppetry on the big screen through his directing of The Great Muppet Caper (1981), The Dark Crystal (1982), Labyrinth (1986), while developing new techniques and innovations for the television series Fraggle Rock, The Storyteller and The Jim Henson Hour

Thankfully, Henson’s vision was carried on by his five children, who have kept his innovative spirit and creativity alive through The Jim Henson Company. Today, Lisa Henson serves as the CEO, while Brian Henson is the Chairman and an active director behind puppetry-forward projects like The Happytime Murders and the talk show Earth to Ned. They both keep their offices at The Jim Henson Studios in Los Angeles, which is chock full of delightful ephemera, books, art and collectibles that honor every era of their family’s creations over the last six decades. 

Their most recent celebration is for their collaboration with Shout! Studios to upgrade some of the Henson library to digital 4K, the most recent being a digital bundle on select platforms for The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. Today, the two films directed by Jim Henson are considered unmitigated classics. However, when they were first released in the ‘80s, both were received by audiences as dark, experimental fantasy titles. While they purely reflected Jim’s ambitions for puppetry, they were simply ahead of their time. It was only via home video releases and cable airings that the populace finally caught up.

However, even the most ardent appreciators of The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth may not understand that both films remain foundationary in shaping where cinematic puppetry is today. The Jim Henson Company and Jim Henson’s Creature Shops around the world remain at the forefront of technological advances in puppetry, pushing the art form forward through their own creative endeavors, and in helping realize the vision of creators like Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson for their Oscar-winning, stop-motion Pinocchio or Emma Tammi’s animatronic monsters in her live-action adaptation of Five Nights at Freddy’s

Present for the making of both films, Lisa and Brian welcomed Paste and some other outlets into their personal offices to discuss the innovations that helped make The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth timeless masterworks, and to reiterate how their creative DNA remains firmly rooted in what they’re still making today.

The Dark Crystal 

Paste Magazine: Today, The Dark Crystal is a crown jewel of The Jim Henson company. But it took a circuitous route to reach that general consensus.

​​Lisa Henson: When The Dark Crystal was first released, people were a little bit confused by it. Jim Henson and the Muppet puppeteers had only been doing Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. They’d been doing many other things, but what the audience knew about was only Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. So the movie was greeted with some confusion, particularly by the critics. But it did actually do fairly well. The funny thing is, some people think The Dark Crystal was a big commercial failure. Actually, Labyrinth was a commercial failure. The Dark Crystal did okay. And it did well enough for George Lucas to help Jim raise the money to do Labyrinth. So it wasn’t so much that it didn’t perform, it’s just that it created a lot of confusion in the minds of the audience. Like, why is Jim Henson trying to scare children? [Laughs.]

In terms of technical innovation, every Henson project was building off of what came before. Was there something that was instituted during the making of The Dark Crystal that took the company’s craft to the next level?

​​When The Dark Crystal was first conceived, they put together a sort of think tank workshop to make creatures—they were calling them creatures instead of puppets. They were using much more naturalistic textures, trying to come up with ways where the puppets would perhaps look more real on camera. They would also take these creatures outside and shoot them outdoors to see how they looked in nature.

There were so many technical innovations in The Dark Crystal, it’s almost countless. Whether it was the materials that went into it, or the [puppetry] controls were all original for that movie. Even the word “animatronics” was [first] applied to the puppets for that movie. I was actually there in a room when somebody was going through the list of titles that they could give people for what they did in making the puppets. They were like, “There’s a union position called animatronics builder. Okay, circle that. We’ll call them that.” So this whole business of animatronics which was in the ’80s and ’90s, all of it came out of The Dark Crystal, E.T. and Yoda [in Star Wars]. There’s nothing that doesn’t descend from those characters in that entire industry.

It was also the first feature-length, puppet only, live-action film?

Yes, my father really wanted to absolutely stretch what puppets could do. He wanted to see a world where every single character was a puppet. It had never been done before, and I don’t think anything as big as that was tried again until we did it for television. And there still hasn’t been another feature film that’s all puppets. Maybe there never will be. CG has come in and kind of replaced most physical effects, so it might be a standalone achievement. It’s sad on the one hand, and on the other hand, it makes it just that much more special. 

Netflix didn’t order a second season of the long-in-the-making prequel series, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. Is the Dark Crystal world still alive?

The Dark Crystal is very alive. It was such a spectacular experience. I would say for almost everybody who was involved with it, it was the best thing we ever worked on. It was the most fun we ever had and the biggest, deepest dive into puppetry in this art form that most of us will ever have. So The Dark Crystal is going to keep going. Whether we ever do 10 hours of puppetry at premium television quality, we may not get to do that again. But we’ll definitely get to do more The Dark Crystal. I mean, one of the wonderful things about The Dark Crystal world is, for the Henson Company, it’s like our mini version of a Star Wars universe, because it’s a really expansive world. It’s got a past, a present and a future. You have things, and even other dimensions, that are happening at the same time. We have a whole story in our publishing that takes place in the center of the Earth, but it is still the same world. So you know, it’s really fun for us that we can revisit The Dark Crystal, whether it’s in publishing, or gaming, graphic novels or the YA books, we’re able to tell all kinds of stories that didn’t even make it into the productions.

Is there a passion project that The Jim Henson Company hopes to get made in a similar vein to these two films? Maybe something completely original, or something that Jim developed?

It’s a bit of a balancing act. I think more of what we do is new because we have a small library. We’re not The Walt Disney Company where they can go into a random vault and find 100 new things. We have a smallish library, so we don’t have as many legacy titles. I think we take more risks with the new things. And then when it comes to doing a legacy property, we go for perfection. We don’t want anything less than a perfect product, if it’s The Dark Crystal television series, or if it will be a Labyrinth sequel. A good example of that is the Fraggle Rock series on Apple TV+. The production value is so good. I think it’s everything anybody would have hoped for a new Fraggle Rock series. So when we’re doing the legacy titles, we shoot as high as we possibly can. And then we are a little more experimental and try new things, or maybe try something we’re not sure if it’s going to work, in the new things. 

And we do want to make a feature film with our puppeteer digital animation. That’s something that we see in the future for us. Brian is our primary user/developer of that system. It always helps if you’re trying to do new things technologically, to have an artist, or a working professional who needs the tools. Brian plays a role for us when we’re developing our digital puppetry. He’s the one who’s like, “I wanted to do this. I want live lighting, or like years ago, I need a prop station.” He lays out what he wants as a filmmaker, then the tech development [team] can supply him with what he needs. And that shapes the tech development. We created this whole digital puppetry system which we do mostly in kids television. So one day, a feature film.

You mentioned the Labyrinth sequel. Where does that stand right now as a project?

It is set up at Tristar which is one of the Sony Studios. Tristar was the original distributor of Labyrinth. They have wanted for many, many years to do a sequel. We just haven’t been able to get the script right. We’ve had a couple of scripts written, and we’re gonna start over again. We’re gonna start with a new script and a new director so it won’t be anytime soon. In fact, because we’re in that starting over process, I just don’t even want to talk about dates or when it could be because I don’t want to get anybody excited.


Both of these films mean so much to generations. How was it for you personally, going back in and revisiting these films for the 4K releases?

Brian Henson: Well, one thing that’s fantastic about fantasy, in general, is it doesn’t date itself. But having said that, I guess to a degree Labyrinth has David Bowie, and he is captured at a specific time in his career, so maybe that has a slight dating effect. But not really because they’re fantasies. It’s really cool and very rewarding that a fantasy movie would keep being credible to a modern audience. The messages and the themes and all that work over time and cross cultural lines and all that stuff. It’s fantastic. And then part of what’s fun is, at the time, we thought of ourselves doing cutting edge technology with the characters. And now it’s a retro style of creating characters, which is really interesting. Both movies enjoyed great popularity, mostly on video after their theatrical releases, and then probably leveled off a little bit. And then when they became retro ’80s titles, they became more popular now than ever, which is really wonderful. 

Why do you think Labyrinth stands out in the company’s output of films?

I think it’s just very, very unique. The fact that it has choreographed musical numbers and dark, scary fantasy scenes, as well as weird, cool little creatures and characters. I think the big difference between that sort of fantasy filmmaking—what we now call retro animatronics—is that everyone knows it’s artistry when they’re watching it. With modern, fully CG films, at the end there’s thousands of people credited. But when you’re watching those films, you’re not aware, so much, of the artistry. In these older films, you can see that somebody sculpted that, or that somebody painted that, and that somebody figured out how to make that character do that thing. And that makes it very inspirational, particularly to teenagers. It’s teenagers who have seen Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal who then step into our Creature Shop, and then that’s what they do for the rest of their lives.

From an innovation standpoint, you worked on Labyrinth and performed Hoggle. What was your father and the creative team pushing forward at the time?

There were a lot of challenges. It was very, very ambitious for its time. Animatronics were still relatively new. It was only The Dark Crystal and Star Wars that were using animatronics at the time. And so training the puppeteers, I remember we trained 40 puppeteers, Kevin Clash and I, and that was a lot of work. 

We were mixing every kind of technique. Something I’ve always believed in when you’re trying to realize any sort of illusion is…nowadays you can go fully digital and you can do anything if you just keep throwing money at it until it looks perfect. In my day, starting in the ’80s through the early 2000s, you would just mix up techniques. Like you’d use a marionette technique for one moment of a movement and switch to a rod technique and then switch to a different technique. Then, when you cut it together, people go, “Whoa, how did they do that?” But really, what you had was a series of techniques that could only do a little bit of the action, which is a bit more like stop-action. 

In terms of the animatronics on Labyrinth, we were trying to transition away from cable control mechanisms where The Dark Crystal was almost entirely cable controls. You had cable controls for everything, so you had a lever and it might just work an upper eyelid. And then another lever that works a lower eyelid. Labyrinth was the beginning of trying to use motors more, and figuring out controls where one performer could work several motors. I was working two hand controls that worked all the motors in the mouth and jaw. Hoggle was fully wireless, which was a big deal to have an animatronic character that could walk around. On The Dark Crystal, Aughra would be walking around with a bundle of cables dragged behind and people on little rolling chairs. So the fully radio-controlled Hoggle was definitely an innovation and the toughest thing to pull off. What started there, probably culminated in Dinosaurs where I eventually did a series where I had 12 full-sized dinosaurs, shooting a half-hour series each week. 

Is there something in how you performed characters for the film that is in what you’re still doing today?

In terms of the techniques for performing a character, Labyrinth was the beginning of reducing the number of puppeteers required for a character. Let’s take Little Shop of Horrors. That was all cable controlled and I performed one of the characters, “Feed Me,” where I was inside. “Feed Me” weighed 150 pounds in front of me and then tons of cables coming out. To do that song, I mean, Little Shop of Horrors has probably the most impeccably performed animatronics. But the reason why is because we would rehearse that two-and-a-half-minute song for two-and-a-half months. We’d go to work and just do it every day. And, that’s just really, really hard work. So we were realizing that the fewer performers required to do a character, the less rehearsal it would require.

Ultimately, where I wanted to get to was such a small team that they can even improvise. They can even just go off without any preparation, and I only really did that on Earth to Ned, which is a very recent production. I had a very complex animatronic character that was doing a live, comedic interview with a guest and it’s not scripted. We’re trying to get to a place where an animatronic character is almost as flexible as an actor.

Is there a project outside of these two films that you feel best reflects the innovation intentions of what your father and the company wanted to do?

The Storyteller is one of the most fantastic things our company did, and my dad was so proud of it. And I’m getting excited about going back into that style of production. I feel like we’re just coming off of a run of bigger, bigger, bigger, that’s been going on for 20 years, and is culminating in $200 million movies and $300 million movies. Television that’s $20 million an hour. I think it’s collapsing the business. I think the business is in a transition right now where it’s gonna be back to the way it was in the old days, which was to create something that’s really cool and beautiful, but spend one-tenth that amount of money. I’m really looking forward to doing modern things using those sorts of storytelling techniques, where you’re mixing illustrations and miniatures and all sorts of techniques rather than just throwing a gazillion dollars at gigantic sets and enormous visual effects budgets.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, NBC Insider, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written official books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe, The Story of Marvel Studios and Avatar: The Way of Water. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett or Instagram @TaraDBen

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