Netflix Re-Ups the Puppetry—and Perturbations—of Dark Crystal

By August 30, 2019 No Comments
Netflix Re-Ups the Puppetry—and Perturbations—of Dark Crystal

Adam Rogers

For sure, Age of Resistance has a dynastic feeling. Designer Brian Froud and his wife Wendy were both back in the Creature Shop creating the basic look of Thra. They were joined by their son Toby (who also played the baby Toby in Labyrinth). Some of the puppet performers worked on the original too.

The technology of what they’re doing, though, has evolved. They’re still working from below, tucked underneath roughly 90 elaborate sets built four feet off the ground to give them room. But the controls have gotten better and more digital. One performer can now do what it sometimes took four to do in the 1980s, operating animatronics not with mechanical linkages but with a Wii controller.

The performers still often work by watching their own performances on a small monitor displaying the camera’s feed, but that’s gotten more complicated. Series director Louis Leterrier wasn’t interested in the way Henson and Oz locked off their frame before a take; he roved the set with his own Steadicam, threading among the puppets along with another camera—and sometimes one or two more to capture wider or overhead views. So the performers learned to watch not one monitor but up to four, confident that Leterrier would cut around any errant puppeteer arms or edges of the set.

The production team wasn’t sure what kind of performances they’d be able to get from the puppets, even with Henson pros inside. “We wanted to do a Skeksis walk-and-talk, Sorkin style,” Addiss says. That was a no-go. So was a scene of another Skeksis making a potion. Close-up dexterity isn’t really a puppet thing.

That’s just blocking, but it implies a bigger question. Can puppets … act? A movie star, goes one cliché, can deliver a long monologue’s worth of concept with a mere glance, or say one thing but clearly mean another. Addiss and Matthews, candidly, worried about whether a puppet could do the same. Anyway, spoiler, they could. The performers could turn body language into stories, and in fact preferred to deliver emotion with movement instead of soliloquies—those puppets are heavy.

The performances can still be a little uncanny, but the show is no less gripping for the absence of humans. In some ways, it’s actually purer. “Whether you’re writing for puppets or the cast of Game of Thrones, what helps actors with their performance is that the character is clear through the actions they take or don’t take,” Grillo-Marxuach says. “You need to be very rigorous … because the performance is mediated by so many layers.”

Alongside all the practical magic that makes those sets—caves, throne rooms, Augra’s orrery, forests, labs, banquet halls, etc.—so remarkable, digital effects build out their remotest reaches. This world feels infinitely bigger than the movie version. It also feels more intimate, since digital work can make the puppets blink, or twitch.

So it’s a bigger story, or set of stories, than the 1982 movie. The episodes I’ve watched have a grandeur that even the movie didn’t, a vastness and a sense of awe owing to the wider locations and serialized pace. They’re also, I think, even scarier. There’s a thing with an eye that’s gonna stick with me every bit as hard as the podling life-sucking.

Age of Resistance feels, in other words, like a Henson show—a vibe that will never not crack my heart a little. “When people would ask Jim Henson about Fraggle Rock, he would say, with a straight face and without fear or guilt, that he wanted the show to bring about world peace,” Grillo-Marxuach says. “I think a little bit of that spirit gets into everybody who is involved in this project. Whether it’s dark, whether it’s light, whether it’s funny, whether it’s terrifying, we are making this because we feel there’s a core principle attached to it that will help people be better.”

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