On Tuesday night, Syfy premieres “Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge,” a reality series akin to “Project Runway” with 10 designers scrambling to make the next Yoda instead of an overflowing dress. The first episode features a sea animal assignment that ends with a screen test (and tears). The contestants battle over hand-glue and sliced foam for a prize worth $100,000, which includes a job at Henson’s old shop.
The star of the series is Brian Henson, the company chairman, Jim’s oldest son and one of the judges. Brian started his career on the special effects team of 1984’s “Muppets Take Manhattan,” and his credits include 1986’s “Labyrinth,” 1990’s “The Witches” and the first “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” big-screen movie, where he acted as second-unit director. In the ’90s, he directed two chestnut Muppets classics, “The Muppet Christmas Carol” and “Muppet Treasure Island,” before Kermit and his Muppet pals were sold to Disney in 2004.
Brian spoke to Variety about his new show, some of his old jobs, and the latest on the “Dark Crystal,” “Fraggle Rock” and “Farscape” movies in development.
How did you come up with the idea for your show?
There’s a special kind of artist we like to call “the all-rounder,” who can design and build creatures. They are quite rare and hard to find. And an idea we had for a while was some sort of a reality show where we scour the earth for people who have these talents. We decided to do it with Syfy because they wanted to go quickly.
What materials are they working with?
Oh, all sorts. We give them latex skins that come out of the mold. They work with aluminum, some steel, a lot of acrylic, lots of fabrics, fur and hair.
Do viewers witness a lot of contestant fights?
For the most part, we’re not trying to create contestant friction, which a lot of shows do. They do that when the essence of the challenge isn’t interesting for the audience. With this, what they’re doing is so riveting.
How did the Creature Shop get its start?
My dad pulled all these creatures artists to make “Dark Crystal,” and then when the movie was done, he wrapped and all these people wanted to keep working together. And George Lucas called my dad and said, “Can I borrow those people?” They basically went over and did “Return of the Jedi.” Then my dad thought, what if I make a shop that works on other people’s movies too—I can keep these artists working year-round.
What’s the difference between a puppet and a creature?
In general, when we talked about puppets versus creatures, puppets are inanimate. Kermit the Frog is made of felt and ping pong balls, and that’s why he’s fun to watch—it’s an illusion. When it’s a creature, you’re trying to make something that is more life-like. You would believe that it would bleed if you’d cut it, as opposed to Kermit, where you know there’d be stuffing if you pulled his arm off. In our company, the creatures are “Farscape,” “Labyrinth,” “Dark Crystal,” “The Storyteller” and “Dinosaurs.”
Is the Jim Henson Co. making a “Dark Crystal” sequel?
We have one written. It’s really good. We don’t have a production schedule or anything. It’s a big movie to put all the pieces together.
What about the “Fraggle Rock” movie?
“Fraggle Rock” is still in development, but the development is looking very strong, where “Dark Crystal” is mostly developed. “Fraggle Rock” might go faster because it’s not as big an undertaking.
What’s going on with the “Farscape” movie?
I can’t tell you anything. That one is pretty secret.
Okay, fair enough! Some of your earlier jobs was working on Muppets movies and “Labyrinth” for your dad.
As a kid, I liked all the radio-controlled stuff that my dad was doing and I liked the string puppets. I did the marionette bicycle sequences, like when you saw the Muppets riding around on bicycles in the “Great Muppet Caper.” I was 17 at the time, and I performed all those.
You’ve worked on many of my favorite childhood movies, like “The Witches.”
The mice were the trickiest part. We had several scales of puppet mice. There was no digital animation. Every time the mice were talking, they were animatronic. Sometimes they were three times scales, so the mouse would stand 10 inches tall. We’d have to build sections of the set that were three or four times bigger for those puppets.
And you worked on the original live-action “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”?
I was 24. We brought in the Creature Shop to London.
What were the turtles made of?
There were a whole bunch of versions of the turtles. There had to be several different versions of Splinter too. They were made of latex and some of the shells were fiber-glass. Sometimes they had to be soft for the stuntmen. For the fully talking ones, they had 30 movements in their faces and the motors were all inside their shell, and then there were stunt versions that could do the flips and fights.
What was it like directing your own Muppets movies?
Well, “Muppet Christmas Carol” was really the first meaningful Muppet production done after my dad died. There was a lot of pressure around it, and in some ways, it felt like we exhausted continuing into the lives of the Muppets. We thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to put them in classic literature?”
Even though “Muppet Christmas Carol” wasn’t a hug box office hit, it did very well on VHS.
It’s interesting, people quote the box office as an example of it not doing well. Those films have done so extremely well in home video and Disney couldn’t have been happier. They weren’t expensive, and we made them efficiently. The whole idea of those movies was that we were going to make smaller movies.
What is the Creature Shop working on now?
The Creature Shop services third-party clients all the time. They do theater work, they work with Lady Gaga.
What kind of creatures have you made for Gaga?
We’ve done lots of things for Lady Gaga. We did a big horse for her that she rides around on. We also did a dragon for Kanye West.