CG, or not CG? That was the question faced by the creators of iconic 1982 puppet-based movie The Dark Crystal, at least when sequel offers were regularly pitched to them in the years after the film’s release.
“There’s been various attempts to get this going again,” Brian Froud, conceptual and costume designer tells RadioTimes.com.
“But they would always end up rather being animation rather than having puppetry. That was always disappointing.”
“It took so many years that we’d basically given up and thought that it wouldn’t happen,” adds his wife, puppet-maker Wendy Froud (née Midener).
With the Gelfling civilisation thriving and the Skeksis in a very different spot than when we first saw them, a lot has changed in the Dark Crystal’s world since 1982, but one thing remains the same – despite the increasing dominance of CGI animation and special effects in film and TV, the new series is still relying on the classic puppetry techniques used in the film, as pioneered by the film’s co-director (and Muppets creator) Jim Henson.
“It is the genius of Netflix to actually say ‘we want to do this but we want puppets’ – to go back to the thing that made the original film so extraordinary,” says Brian Froud, who along with Wendy remains the only person to work substantially on both iterations of The Dark Crystal.
“We were pioneering way back then, and we’ve gone beyond pioneering now. We’re really pushing the boundaries of what puppetry is and what it can do, and how it can tell a story.”
Accordingly, Age of Resistance is an astonishing achievement in live-action puppetry and set-building. More than 170 puppets were used during filming, 88 of them specific Gelfling characters (as opposed to the two in the original film), with 75 different sets built featuring 2000 4 foot-by-4 foot wooden rostrums created to raise them up so the puppeteers (83 in total, with a core group of 14) could hide beneath.
One set, the appropriately-named Endless Forest, required 3000 artificial plants to be created alongside 2.5 miles of nylon rope (to simulate vines), while a literal ton of real moss was brought in to cover the ground.
“It’s rich, the whole world, because we built everything,” director Louis Leterrier (Clash of the Titans) says.
“It’s not like CG – CG has a tendency to give you one layer and a background. This is infinite. The eye isn’t tricked by two CG layers, it just keeps going. And also we were very mindful and careful to put creatures and little stories in the background, all puppeteer-ed.”
The finished effect is striking, visually arresting and lush, and is sure to stand the test of time better than most modern CGI blockbusters. In practice, Age of Resistance is the ancient art of puppetry on turbo mode, filled with countless creatures, characters, action scenes and wide vistas bound to make you wonder ‘How did they do that?’.
The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance BTS still of Deet (Nathalie Emmanuel) (Netflix)
“I think it will give it a timeless quality,” Wendy Froud says. “I think it’ll age better.”
“We’ve always believed in it being real, and there’s nothing wrong with CGI, and a lot of CGI is wonderful,” adds Brian.
“But the most important thing is to be able to root CGI, and when you make a physical thing it’s already rooted. Its character comes out of restrictions, I think.”
Brian cites the example of Jedi Master Yoda in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes back, who was a puppet created by Wendy and puppeteer-ed by the original Dark Crystal’s co-director Frank Oz, before being replaced by a CGI version in more recent movies.
“When it went into CGI, when he’s leaping around, you lost contact with it,” he says. “So on this project we’re building everything for real.
“It’s a whole world that’s realised, and you feel like you’re in it. You feel like the characters belong in it, and you’re engaged with it because it’s tactile. The textures are real, and they’re not made up of pixels, which aren’t real.”
Behind-the-scenes still of the Skeksis General (Benedict Wong) puppet and director Louis Leterrier (Netflix)
So there you have it – the new Dark Crystal is a purely hand-crafted fantasy world following on from the 1980s original, eschewing modern CGI techniques in favour of the charming, impressive world of puppetry.
It’s a great story – but it’s not entirely true. Because you see, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance actually does include CGI. Quite a bit of it, in fact. It’s just used in a way that viewers definitely aren’t used to seeing.
“The ratio I think at the end of the day on this one is really 90% puppets, 10% CG,” admits Leterrier. “Maybe more than 90%.
“But for me it was not cheating, because it was still puppetry. It was still puppetry, and then we were erasing stuff.”
Specifically, the “stuff” being erased was often the puppeteers themselves, with advances in technology making it easier than ever for Leterrier and his team to get around the awkward, fourth-wall bursting problem central to all puppetry – how do you hide the man holding the strings?
“A lot of the costuming [in the original film] was to hide people underneath, or big sleeves were to hide people, or arm wires,” Brian Froud says.
“And now, we’re approaching it a different way. We’re less worried about hiding because what we have is green screen, which we never had before. It means that for certain characters, we can puppeteer on the outside rather than the inside. And that’s an ancient technique – Bunraku, Japanese.
“So weirdly it’s gone back to pure puppetry, which is something we couldn’t really do originally. To have modern technology aid us now has been exciting.”
“My idea was to keep it as real as possible,” adds Leterrier.
A group of Skeksis in The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (Netflix)
“So every time we could achieve something in-camera, true puppeteering, people would be hiding – remember the sequence in Austin Powers when they’re naked? That’s my operation. I have to hide puppeteers, and move my camera so we don’t see them.
“But there are some creations that weren’t possible then, where literally the puppeteers cannot be inside and have to be outside the puppets, standing behind them or over them.”
“We used green screen puppeteer removal, which is an actually really old technique, so it’s not futuristic filmmaking,” executive producer Lisa Henson explains.
“But it’s something they didn’t have in their toolbox in the early ’80s. That’s the thing we use the most that was different from the original.”
What Leterrier didn’t want, he insists, was to create fully CG characters and have them interacting with the puppets. While tests were impressive, something just didn’t feel right, so instead he pushed to remain as close to the original film’s techniques as possible.
“There’s something so strange about a puppet,” Leterrier says. “The soul of the performer comes through.
“Even you try, you put a sock over your hand – this thing has a little personality.”
A props and puppetry workshop for The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (Netflix)
The CGI didn’t stop with removal, though. Other CGI additions to the series included particularly difficult action scenes or to enhance certain background shots, and in the end formed a crucial part of the finished series.
“There are some things where if you were making a Marvel movie you would have to replace a character with CG,” Henson argues.
“We use CG about the same amount that it’s used in live-action movies starring people.”
“There’s a small amount of CGI work on the series, yes,” Wendy Froud says.
“It does help, because it just enhances things. It’s never in the way, but it often does just make things that little bit better.”
In the end, the team say, when you’re watching The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, the vast majority of what you’re seeing is an intricately designed, impossibly detailed puppet. And they’re right – somehow, the mind does know when something’s real or not.
Sometimes, the CGI moments do stick out – Ralph Ineson’s Skeksis Hunter, for example, moves a little too fluidly through the trees – and other times, you might be able to spot a puppet who couldn’t possibly exist without an outside puppeteer.
But these moments truly are few and far between. And when it comes to the real, emotional and storytelling beats of the new prequel, the Henson Company, Leterrier and Netflix really are keeping it beautifully old-school and full of wonder.
“We didn’t ever use CG for any dramatic performance or comedic performance or anything,” Henson insists.
“The things that you might have trouble doing with a person, if they jump off a cliff, we might have to do that in CG with puppets as well.”
She pauses for a moment, thinking.
“Actually,” she laughs, “By far our best cliff jump, in episode 10, is puppeteered. So that’s a bad example.”