“The Dark Crystal,” the family-oriented fantasy drama directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz, was groundbreaking when Universal released it in 1982. Now a cult classic, it offered an original blend of Brothers Grimm-style fairy-tale magic and state-of-the-art animatronic puppetry.
Now, 37 years later, Netflix and the Jim Henson Co. revive the world dreamed up by Oz and Henson with “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance,” a 10-episode prequel series directed by Louis Leterrier (“Now You See Me”) that revisits planet Thra and its mysterious inhabitants via tactile design, puppetry and hand-crafted effects.
“We wanted to make sure what we were doing felt right,” says Toby Froud, design supervisor on “Age of Resistance,” which drops Aug. 30. Froud has a long history with “Dark Crystal”: His father, Brian Froud, was the acclaimed concept artist on the original film, and Froud himself starred as the baby kidnapped by David Bowie in Oz and Henson’s follow-up project, “Labyrinth.” Froud was brought on to preserve his father’s vision. “I helped keep the style of his designs and the feeling of the original film,” he says.
In pre-production, Froud worked with the costume department and helped sculpt the look and feel of the sets. On set during the shoot, he was joined by his father, and together they oversaw the many puppets used on the show. “We would look at all the puppets before they went on set, going over them and adding little bits, painting here and there,” he says, “really making sure they felt alive and as if they had been living for a long time in this world.”
It was a priority to do the original “Dark Crystal” justice and not change too much. Gavin Bocquet, production designer on “Age of Resistance,” had crewed on George Lucas’ “Star Wars” prequels, and he likens working on “Age of Resistance” to being on “The Phantom Menace.” “We had almost the same feeling, where you were trying to come into a world that was already well established,” he says. “You were trying to honor what had come before while at the same time wanting to create something grander and broader.”
Much of that historical connection fell on the puppeteers, many of them brought back from the original production.
“The whole thing has become so much more sophisticated,” says Louise Gold, an actor and a puppeteer who joined Henson’s “The Muppet Show” in the late 1970s and worked on “The Dark Crystal” back in ’82. The art form has evolved over the decades, and now, Gold says, the puppets can be incredibly complicated and the coordination required to work them artfully can be daunting.
Puppeteering “is a bit like playing an instrument,” with elements of both the emotional and the physical, Gold says. “You have to emotionally connect with what you’re doing, but there’s a physical element too. You might be thinking, ‘How do I sit down?’ As an actor, you just sit. With a puppet, you have to work out how that movement works physically, with your hands controlling different parts.”
Some of these technical challenges are typical of high-level puppeteering, but “The Dark Crystal” is somewhat unusual in that it falls outside the genres that typically use puppets.
“There are kids’ shows, like ‘Sesame Street,’ and then there’s more adult stuff, like [Melissa McCarthy comedy] ‘The Happytime Murders,’” says Victor Yerrid, another puppeteer on the Netflix prequel. “‘Age of Resistance’ falls into a unique category — dramatic puppetry. There’s a lot of that in the theater world, artful stuff that’s more dramatic. But this is one of the few properties on TV or film with dramatic context.”
The demands on the puppeteers are significant. Not only are they operating big, often unwieldy puppets, with one hand over their head working a mouth and the other hand in a sleeve working an arm, but they also have to act — and with real gravitas.
“In the kids’ shows, you’re mostly being sweet or dopey,” Yerrid says. “The comic stuff — it’s about being biting or sarcastic. But drama really calls on your acting chops to make these emotional moments real.”
“This is serious acting,” says Gold, who explains that for her, delivering a subtle or even Shakespearean performance is key to the appeal. “You’re talking about love, fear, death, hate, sex. It’s all in there,” she says. “We’re just channeling it through puppets.”