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The art of building creature features

“I don’t think ‘The Flintstones’ did Henson’s Creature Shop any good at all – and you can quote me on that,” says John Stephenson, the Creature Shop’s Creative Supervisor.

“When you’re basing a film on a pre-existing cartoon, there’s a line you have to find. And I don’t think the people behind that film ever found it.”

It’s not a mistake Henson intends to repeat with the live-action remake of “101 Dalmatians” – starring Glenn Close as Cruella de Vil – that’s currently in production. “That’s going to be totally realistic,” Stephenson stresses. “There’s no cartoon element to it at all.”

The London-based Creature Shop – which also has a base in Los Angeles – dates back to 1976, when despite the huge international success of “Sesame Street,” Jim Henson’s proposal for “The Muppet Show” had been turned down by every U.S. network. The only magnate to see its potential was Lew Grade, at that time a major player in British television.

With Grade’s backing, Henson set up in London where he produced all five Muppet series for Grade’s TV network.

Originally the Muppets were largely worked by traditional puppeteering skills, albeit of a high degree of sophistication. But the Creature Shop was pioneering animatronic technology, and in 1983 Henson released the first all-animatronic film, “The Dark Crystal,” co-directed with his associate Frank Oz. Its 1986 successor, “Labyrinth, ” combined animatronics with human actors. Though technically impressive, both films were commercial disappointments.

Constantly experimenting and refining their techniques, the Creature Shop also provided creatures for other films, such as Gavin Millar’s “Dreamchild” (1985) and Nicolas Roeg’s “The Witches” (1990), as well as creating long-running TV series like “Fraggle Rock” and “Dinosaurs.”

But after Jim Henson’s death in 1990 the Shop, along with the rest of the Henson empire, went through a bad period. Morale suffered, and work on several creatively indifferent films (“The Flintstones,” “Neverending Story III”) didn’t help.

Now it seems the Creature Shop has found its soul again. The current box office triumph of “Babe,” heartening in itself to the Henson team, mirrors the film’s technical achievement: a seamless meshing of animatronics, computer-generated imaging (CGI), puppeteering and real, live animals.

Henson’s latest breakthrough, used on the forthcoming Polygram production “Loch Ness,” is “real-time CGI” – computer-generated creatures that “act” alongside their human co-stars, live on set. This allows the actors to react directly to the creatures, rather than having to emote into a void (as in “Jurassic Park”), with the creatures being matted in later.

Better, the director can direct the creature just as if it were a live actor, getting it to change its performance from take to take in infinitely subtle ways.

Their latest creation is the foam-latex-and-fiberglass actor cast in the title role in the live-action “The Legend of Pinocchio,” which just finished location shooting in the Czech Republic.

Indeed, the puppet is so lifelike that co-star Martin Landau claimed that he’d worked opposite “far more wooden actors.”

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