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Interview: Brian Henson – Host of SyFy’s ‘Jim Henson Creature Workshop Challenge’

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Brian and Jim Henson at work on the set of The Storyteller. Brian was the voice of Dog pictured here.

Brian and Jim Henson at work on the set of The Storyteller. Brian was the voice of Dog pictured here.

The legacy of Jim Henson is alive and well in 2014 in every conceivable medium. A new muppets film is making a caper at the box office. Hulu is debuting a new children’s series based on the beloved Fraggle Rock characters, called the Doozers.

SyFy is bringing Henson’s creature creations to the fore in primetime with, The Jim Henson Creature Workshop Challenge. If that wasn’t enough for fans, the company has continued its partnership with Boom!/Archaia with a new hardcover edition of the Dark Crystal novelization. This time with 20 pages of never-before seen script notes from Jim Henson, and rare sketches collected from artist Brian Froud. The man who has ensured that these incredible creatures still have life and who has invented many of his own is Brian Henson. He is the chairman of the Jim Henson Company, and the host of the creature challenge on SyFy. Brian was kind enough to give a few minutes of his time to me to talk about the new Syfy series.

Skekses, The Dark Crystal.

Skekses, The Dark Crystal.

Can you tell us about the creation of Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop Challenge and what audiences can look forward to watching?

In trying to explore where perhaps our company would work in the reality realm of entertainment, this is someplace we kept coming back to over the years. The people who work in and design in our creature workshop are the most extraordinary artists. Its always fascinating for people to see what goes on and the level of talent and creativity involved.

We sort of talked around it. At some points, it was more a docudrama about these artists, but this one really got us excited. Joe Freed one of the executive producers he came to me and shared that enthusiasm for the artists. He comes from a reality background. He had a really good thought out take on this. We only pitched two places. They were so excited they begged us to stop (pitching it elsewhere), and SyFy was the most excited.

We are quite excited about it as as fans.  Getting that inside look that feels very contemporary in its approach and seems to fit alongside the rest of the programming at SyFY.

Mentor at work. Creature creator John Criswell

Mentor at work. Creature creator John Criswell

Yeah absolutely. The format is pretty comfortable for the audience. It is a close cousin to Face Off; it is a close cousin to Project Runway. Like Face Off it concentrates  on a very specialized type of  artist who are working at such a high standard that its almost like watching magic when you are watching them create.

We always wanted to make sure it felt very credible. With this show, it really is [shot] at the Jim Henson Creature Shop. The winner really does get a job at the Creature Shop. The the creature designers, as we call our contestants, are genuinely being mentored by the masters of the Creature Shop and genuinely being judged by me. Beth Hathaway comes from outside the company but Kirk Thatcher is a top designer from inside our company. We were genuinely excited about hiring the winner of the contest.

After you mentioned Project Runway, I spent the last two minutes imagining Ms. Piggy walking down a runway in the Creature Workshop! Your creations inspire so much love. Is there one thing that you see in terms of the creations that come out of this contest that feel like it would be a fit in that way or are they only going to be working on legacy characters things we have seen on screen before?

Shellrock screentest.

Shellrock screentest.

What happens is, at the beginning of every episode I give them a creature brief. I tell them what kind of a creature I want them to make and basically the approach I want them to take. Then at the end of the episode there is a screen test with the creatures on camera. That is how we work. We build characters to be seen on camera. Basically we judge them on how believable is their creature? How alive is their creature? How capable is it of emoting and performing because that is what makes a great creature. It isn’t so much that we were trying to create unforgettable characters. I have to say, many of the creatures built throughout the season are great creatures. It is not usually the way we would go to then look for a movie or TV show for that character.

How we work in our company is separated into two parts. We do some digital animation. That is CGI, but controlled by performers, like Sid the Science Kid. Then we have the shop. The creatures we build there are two types, they are either the puppets or they are the creatures. With the puppets they are like muppets. You know they are made of fabric and ping pong ball eyes. You know they are hand puppets and are worked by hands inside the puppet. There isn’t a strong illusion of life there except that they seem to act so alive. With the creatures that we make the roots come from The Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, Dinosaurs, The Storyteller, Farscape: the shows where we wanted characters to look more alive. People ask us all the time what is the difference between a puppet or a creature? I always tell them that if you cut a puppet you know and expect that cotton wool stuffing will fall out. If you cut a creature you expect the creature would actually bleed.

Speaking of Creatures and the roots of realistic creations within the company, you recently announced that you would be republishing the Dark Crystal novelization with Archaia/Boom! Do you have any details about this or when it will be coming out? Or can you speak to the partnership with Boom/Archaia in general and the script notes included from you Dad?

You  seem to have a lot of details there already. I do not have any updates as to dates at this time. The Archaia partnership is something that my sister Lisa will be more involved with, though I think all of that work is fantastic. It was great to see A Tale of Sand realized working from my dad’s script notes. What I work in is primarily primetime television and movie development. I can’t give you updates on much there as to dates either at this time.

So no update on Dark Crystal or the Fraggle Rock movies we are hoping to see?

What I will tell you  is that we are excited about both and that we are working on both.

Brian on the set of Farscape

Brian with Rigel from Farscape

You mentioned Farscape in regards to the creatures. There was excitement centered around a new Farscape script being put forward. Is that something that you would be excited to bring back primetime television? Especially having directed The Peacekeeper Wars and having been such a big part of bringing Farscape to audiences, are you happy there is still in such high demand?

Farscape is one of the projects very close to my heart. It took me five years to get it on air when we first started developing it. I could not be happier about the 88 hours we got on television, having made the mini series to finish. I am very enthusiastic about that universe. I do want to do more with it. Actually Farscape is more popular today than when it first aired. When I go to science fiction conventions and talk about Farscape we can pack a huge room. Today those huge rooms are filled with fans almost none of whom watched it when it first aired. They have the giant Blu-ray releases or they downloaded it off the internet. Farscape has an ever renewing fanbase.

Labyrinth is one of the properties where you were a performer and had to blend live actors with creatures while you were portraying Hoggle. What was it like working with David Bowie? Was he pretty good in terms of working with creatures and how difficult is it generally for actors to work alongside creatures?

Jim and Brian on the set of Labyrinth

Jim and Brian on the set of Labyrinth

David was great. He was really fun to work with. Actually when you are working with the creatures it is probably a little easier for the actors than it is when you are working with the Muppets. All of those performers can very quickly get into that rhythm of believing in the creature that they are interacting with on set. David was a really good actor pairing for working with our creatures. He totally understood that we are creating a unique fantasy world that he was the King of. He was very quick in embracing that.

David Bowie as the Goblin King.

“A unique fantasy world that he was the king of. He was very quick in embracing that.”

It was a mixed production of live actors and creatures. Even in Dark Crystal some of those creatures were as big as a person. It isn’t as if the sets did not have floors. Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal had similar complexities to them. It is true that in Labyrinth we had David and Jennifer but we could have just as easily had actors walking around the world of the Dark Crystal as well.

I think that is part of what excited so many people about this new program. We are getting to see something that we rarely get to see anymore. Creatures like those on the Dark Crystal or Labyrinth. We don’t see creatures alongside actors or as in Dark Crystal carrying a film entirely on their own? Do you see multiple seasons or the potential of growing creature productions as a genre? You are promoting an entire culture of interest in terms of people wanting to pursue careers in creature production in what has become a visual effects laden world.

Our company celebrates the performing of a creature or a puppet. The bringing to life for real so that it can be in the moment and can improvise and can do whatever you can not really do with a visual effect creature. At least not easily. We do some digital puppetry. We have 3D cgi characters that can still perform. But I hope we are seeing a resurgence in what we do.

In the old days movies used to have six months of pre production. Sometimes even longer. Now you rarely see any movie that goes into pre production for longer than six weeks. They push a lot of what we used to figure out in pre production into post production. Even though you may say to them it is so much more expensive to create a creature in post production they still feel as though they have a better handle on what they have got. When we would go into pre production before you could feel the nervousness from studios. They had no idea what we were doing with pre production but they do know in post. In the last couple of  years I think there has been a movement towards trusting the filmmakers to make something original. I think you have seen more of the studios allowing some freedom to create something innovative.

One of the roles you originated outside of the Henson company was Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors. I can admit to being eaten by a replica of your creature in a high school production and then getting to puppeteer it myself at the end of the production. Forgive the anecdote there but what is it like as a creature creator to know that other people will perform them as they take on lives of their own?

Oh well I just think it is a lot of fun. I think that it is particularly fun if you are further exploring or deepening the universe of the character that you originally started. Expanding or deepening creative fantasy realities is a fun and wonderful thing to do. So I feel good about it.

What should fans be looking forward to for the Jim Henson Company at large? 

Oh just keep your eyes open! We are always doing all sorts of stuff. Obviously we have a vibrant kids television business. We continue to create new shows for kids all the time and its become a core of our business. We have a new production over at Hulu, Doozers. That will be starting shortly. I was over at Hulu and they  had promos running on their screens.

I have a live puppet show for adults, Puppet Up Uncensored. It is hard to find. I only put it out every now and then but it really is the funniest thing I have ever done with puppets and I love it. We call that part of the business Henson Alternative where we try and do more adult targeted comedy with puppets. We have done some productions already with the Nerdist online. I am trying to do more ambitious things in that vein. I have a movie that I am working on in this vein called the Happytime Murders. It is a whodunit crime thriller with people and puppets. It is a thriller but its mostly a balls out comedy that I am working on at the moment.

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About Gabe_Canada

Gabrial is a native Hoosier. He is a blogger for the grassroots media literacy organization Racebending.com and a member of the team at Kind of Epic Show. A weekly pop culture news podcast http://www.podomatic.com/kindofepicshow whose hosts may or may not form a giant fighting robot.