Production of Jen

Development

Prototypes and Build

Jen concept drawing by Brian Froud

In Kathryn Mullen’s efforts to become comfortable in her puppeteering of Kira, she requested remote control functions for Kira, rather than a cable-controlled system. Kathryn Mullen’s request for remote control functions was not totally without precedent, since the Muppets had often used radio control in limited ways. If there were any doubts about applying remote control to Jen and Kira, it was because these puppets were so naturalistic that they might present special problems. Fazakas, however, was sure Jen and Kira would benefit tremendously from remote control. “Actually, it applies well to characters of that sort,” he explained. “The cable-control system is inefficient. Because it’s an engineering system with no fulcrum, it involves a lot of work in order to create very little effect. People tend to be too strong and to use too much force for the effects they’re after. Radio-controlled servomechanisms, on the other hand, can be very expressive and subtle.” He quickly built radio controls into a pair of substitute heads and brought them to London. “They were relatively crude,” he says, “with only partial movement, but Jim and Frank were delighted. They asked me to build two robot heads with full controls for the ears, eyelids, everything. We did the work in three and a half weeks, and it turned out very well – perhaps because we had to keep things simple.”

Performance

What radio control did for Jen and Kira was to allow the performers to concentrate on acting, free of technical encumbrance. While Skeksis were followed about by a swarm of assistant operators, Kathryn Mullen and Jim Henson were unhampered on set. As Henson put Jen through his paces, Wendy Midener would sit a few yards away, with a control box – not much larger than a shoe box – in front of her. While Henson controlled the basic head and body movements, giving the performance its breadth – Midener, with a little gentle pressure on this lever or that, added inflections that brought the hero of The Dark Crystal fully to life.

Jim Henson, Wendy Midener and Brian Froud testing cable controls on a Jen head prototype

One of the most difficult voices to cast was Jen’s. It was agreed that this voice must be light, youthful, and innocent; but to define it beyond that was impossible. There was, to begin with, no consensus as to his exact age. The only solution was to test dozens of actors, ranging from boys in early adolescence to young men in their twenties. Eventually one of the older candidates was judged to have the appropriate voice. Although each voice had been matched as carefully as possible to the character, it was decide that a device known as a harmonizer would be used to electronically change the voices and make them seem stranger and more otherworldly. Among its various unusual functions, the device can make a voice higher or lower without altering its speed of delivery, as well as flip-flop fragments of dialogue so that they run backward.

Performers

Jim HensonJen – Character Performer
Stephen GarlickJen – Character Voice

Production of Kira

Development

Prototype & Build

Kira concept drawing

As the team of craftspeople began to grow, prototypes of various characters started to proliferate. Wendy Midener sculpted head after head, trying to hit on a set of features that was just right for Jen and Kira. Some versions resembled human children; others were animalistic.

The eyes, as Brian Froud recognized, would be crucial to the success of the characters that were being developed. Static taxidermists’ eyes, no matter how realistic, would not suffice for Jen, Kira, Aughra or any of the characters who would inhabit the world of The Dark Crystal. They needed eyes that blinked and swiveled as naturally as those of any human performer. This presented two challenges that no puppet builder had ever faced before. Precisely the right kind of glass (or plastic) eyes had to be found, and mechanisms to control them on cue had to be devised. The search for glass eyes took months. The problem was not in finding a number of skilled manufacturers of artificial eyes willing to help the Henson people; it was simply that these companies were not equipped to produce eyes of the shape that was needed. Sherry Amott reports that every conceivable source, not excluding Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, was canvassed before the appropriate eyes were found. Eventually, the supplier turned out to be an English firm that hand-crafted the eyes to Henson’s specifications.

Getting Kira just right for the screen was challenging. Kathryn Mullen had been working with versions of Kira for months but still did not feel completely comfortable with her. The cable controls passing up through the puppet’s neck hampered her wrist and hand movements, and the hovering cable crew was distinctly inhibiting. With larger characters like the Skeksis, it was easy enough to hide the cable crew; that was not the case with Kira, who was small and had to be capable of quick and natural movements. This was one of the last problems on the film that would be solved.

Just a few weeks before principal photography was about to begin, Mullen requested a radical design change. “Faz” Fazakas, the Muppets’ technical wizard, had told her there was no reason why the functions of Jen and Kira that were now controlled by cable could not be controlled by radio signals. Henson and Oz asked Fazakas to build prototypes and bring them to London for tests.

“Having the remote-control Kira made my performance,” Kathryn Mullen said. “I did a couple of scenes with the cable-controlled version, and the difference was like night and day. Remote control gave me the freedom of movement I needed.”

Ultimately, of course, it was Mullen’s acting ability that made the performance.

Performance

Kathryn Mullen on set

Jim Henson had always been determined that a female puppeteer should perform Kira, and both he and Frank Oz detected something in Mullen that made them feel she could handle the role. “We felt that her puppeteering skills could be developed,” Henson explained. “What was more important was that we sensed that she had the acting ability to take on Kira.” Mullen spent some time working in The Muppet Show’s London shop, helping out on the studio floor when an extra puppeteer was needed. After a while, she graduated to full-time performer, all along receiving special coaching from Frank Oz. Working with Oz on Yoda gave her the final baptism by fire that proved she had the stamina that, along with acting ability, would be crucial to anyone taking on a major role in The Dark Crystal.

Kathryn Mullen’s own voice was ruled out to be the voice of Kira because it didn’t quite sound young enough, but it soon became evident that there would little problem in finding a voice to match the character.

Jim Henson and Kathy Mullen performing on crane

Performers

Kathryn MullenKira – Character Performer
Lisa MaxwellKira – Character Voice

Production of Aughra

Development

A few characters came together relatively easily. Aughra, for example, existed only as a head when a video test was called for at short notice. A body was quickly assembled from three bean bags and a hastily sewn costume, all mounted on a modified Skeksis harness. So the essence of her body movement was established from the start; modifications were made, however, in her design and assembly. Sculptor Lyle Conway was key in the development of Aughra, as well as the entire Skeksis character group.

Storyboard of Aughra
Concept art of Aughra by Brian Froud

The eyes, as Brian Froud recognized, would be crucial to the success of the characters that were being developed. Static taxidermists’ eyes, no matter how realistic, would not suffice for JenKira, Aughra or any of the characters who would inhabit the world of The Dark Crystal. They needed eyes that blinked and swiveled as naturally as those of any human performer. This presented two challenges that no puppet builder had ever faced before. Precisely the right kind of glass (or plastic) eyes had to be found, and mechanisms to control them on cue had to be devised. The search for glass eyes took months. The problem was not in finding a number of skilled manufacturers of artificial eyes willing to help the Henson people; it was simply that these companies were not equipped to produce eyes of the shape that was needed. Sherry Amott reports that every conceivable source, not excluding Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, was canvassed before the appropriate eyes were found. Eventually, the supplier turned out to be an English firm that handcrafted the eyes to Henson’s specifications.

Performance

Frank Oz, who initially wanted to concentrate on directing, finally relented and took on the performance of Aughra.

After the first voice auditions were recorded, Jim HensonFrank Oz, and Gary Kurtz listened to them and made a short list. From this list, selected performers were invited back to make a second test, this time working in synch with a scene from the film. Almost at once, difficulties arose. It was found, for example, that the Chamberlain, as performed by Frank Oz, spoke so quickly that it was a considerable problem for an actor to stay in synch while remaining in character. It became very important to select actors whose natural voices were close to what was needed. To be avoided at all costs were “forced” voices or voices that sounded too cartoon-like. What was required were actors who were capable of “breathing life” into the puppets that would appear on screen.

For Aughra, three possible candidates quickly emerged, and this selection was narrowed down to two and then one. The final choice was made partly because the actress selected had more dubbing experience. When she came to work on the actual looping, however, it was found that she had to “reach” too far to stay in character and it was decided to replace her with the actress who had been her closest rival.

Performers

Frank OzAughra – Character Performer
Billie Whitelaw Aughra – Character Voice

Production of Skeksis

Development

Concept Design

When it was time to build the Skeksis puppets, the builders had a fairly clear idea how each of the characters should look. Brian Froud had established that, and dozens of maquettes had been built.

Brian Froud artwork of a Skeksis

Prototypes

Much work on the Skeksis had been done by Lyle Conway, a sculptor who had considerable experience as a designer of dolls. He had also done stop-motion work for commercials and for the motion picture Vortex. But even when prototypes had been assembled, many of the questions about how to make the puppets work remained unanswered.

How could a Skeksis – as large as a man but considerably more bulky and awkward – be made to move convincingly? Even using the lightest materials available, each Skeksis would weigh thirty pounds or more. How could the face of a Skeksis be made to be fully expressive? No matter how beautifully the features were sculpted or how carefully they were cast in latex, the matter of giving each Skeksis a sufficient range of smiles, sneers, and facial tics needed to be solved. As for larger motor functions, how could a Skeksis wield a sword? Or snatch the scepter from the dying Emperor?

A Skeksis prototype

Some of the pioneering work on these challenges had been completed in New York. A prototype Skeksis hand mechanism – in effect, a fairly sophisticated artificial limb operated by cable controls – had been built and fully tested by Leigh Donaldson. Flexible rods, inserted through tubes and operated by a remote, hand-held trigger device, regulated the motor functions of each joint and each finger. It had been decided that cable control would be the device by which many of the puppets’ primary and secondary movements could be activated. Each Skeksis, for example, would be in the charge of a principal puppeteer who would control the broader movements of the body and head. The principal puppeteer would be assisted by a cable crew of up to four people, who under his direction would be responsible for eye movements and many other functions.

These cable controls could be concealed by the voluminous robes each Skeksis wore, which would serve, in effect, as a kind of portable puppet theater in which the kneeling puppeteer could hide (one hand and arm thrust above his own head into the neck and head of the puppet). At the same time this “portable theater” had to be attached to the puppeteer’s body in such a way that it would move naturally when he moved (reverting from theater back to puppet). Special lightweight metal harnesses had to be devised so that the weight of the entire assembly could be cantilevered off the puppeteer’s hips – the hips being the most efficient load-bearing area. This harness would have to support the armature for the entire Skeksis assembly, and that assembly would need to float free of the puppeteer’s body so that the movements he transmitted to the puppet would have a character of their own. What was to be avoided at all costs was the impression that a Skeksis was simply a human being in an elaborate costume. Each Skeksis had to be a seamless union of puppet, costume and theater.

“I didn’t find it difficult to get a performance out of the Garthim-Master,” Dave Goelz insists. “Each Skeksis had a clearly defined character, a certain gait, a particular set of facial tics. There was a lot to work with.”

Successful prototypes had been made, but variants were needed, each having to be tailored to the specific needs of the puppeteers who would be manipulating them. SkekSil the Chamberlain, performed by Frank Oz, became the most complex of all the Skeksis. As finally built, the chamberlain was equipped with twenty-one cable-controlled functions, requiring up to four people to operate – undoubtedly one of the most elaborate puppets ever constructed. Its eyes, eyelids, eyebrows, beak and hands were all fully articulated. Pneumatic devices hidden within the head gave Oz a considerable repertoire of sneers and sadistic grins with which to work. In his hands, the latex mask became almost as expressive as a human face. SkekZok the Ritual-Master, performed by Jim Henson, and SkekUng the Garthim-Master, performed by Dave Goelz, were almost as complex. Other Skeksis were somewhat simpler, but each required a cable crew or at least two people to complement the primary performer within the character.

Costumes

Costuming on a Skeksis

Like the urRu, each Skeksis had to be differentiated from all others by means of physical attributes and costume. The Skeksis unit, under Sarah Bradpiece, set about translating the evocative notions into reality. Since the Skeksis were to be a ruling caste in the final stages of decadence, their robes were made from costly silks, velvets, laces, damasks, brocades, furs and exotic feathers. After the costumes were sewn together, they were deliberately torn apart, ripped to shreds and tatters, sprayed with paint, and caked with simulated filth. The results were stunningly effective.

Performers

Jim HensonskekZok the Ritual-Master
Frank OzskekSil the Chamberlain
Dave GoelzskekUng the Garthim-Master
Steve WhitmireskekTek the Scientist
Louise GoldskekAyuk the Gourmand
Brian MuehlskekEkt the Ornamentalist
Bob PayneskekOk the Scroll-Keeper
Mike QuinnskekNa the Slave Master
Tim RoseskekShod the Treasurer

Production of urRu

Development

Concept Design

urRu concept drawing by Brian Froud

An endless stream of drawings, sketches, and designs poured from Brian Froud’s drawing board to inform the arcane cosmography of The Dark Crystal. Included were not only studies of all the characters – both major and minor (and including many that would never reach the screen) – but also representations of astrological charts, Mystic hieroglyphs, crystalline rock formations, symbolic weaving and knotwork, priestly garments, sand paintings, elaborately carved walking sticks and totems, alchemical symbols, floor plans, murals, styles of stonework, cave interiors, exotic species of fauna, and countless other details.

Prototypes and Build

urRu prototype rig

Mystics would be operated by performers working in extremely uncomfortable crouched positions. In these instances, mime skills would be called on more than those of puppetry, but many of the considerations remained the same. Harnesses had to be devised so that the weight of the assembly could be properly distributed and so that movement could be transmitted in the most effective and convincing manner. Both Garthim and Mystics were equipped with extra “limbs” (limbs that could not be treated as natural extensions of the performer’s own limbs), and ways had to be devised of rigging them to move believably in concert with other parts of the body. Within these characters the performers were bent over into such awkward positions – backs and legs aching beneath the weight of the costumes – that it would have been impossible for a Mystic to move at anything other than the studied, wearisome gait that was required. For certain scenes, special, two-man Mystic rigs had to be built to enable one person to operate the head while another manipulated the body.

It was one thing, for example, to have a working Mystic prototype, but by the start date, ten Mystics would be needed, each carefully differentiated from the others in keeping with its assigned role. Brian Froud had lavished a deal of time and effort on defining each Mystic down to the smallest detail; now physical substance had to be given to his work. The lines etched by time on each Mystic’s features needed to be realized as a living runic maze.

Brian Froud concept drawing showing detailing on Mystic faces

Costumes

The magic garment worn by each Mystic – half coat, half horse blanket – had to be carefully individualized. Colors, fabrics, decorations – all had symbolic functions. For urSol the Chanter, a coat of padded and ruched velour was decorated with motifs representing musical tones. The garment of urUtt the Weaver, on the other hand, was twisted and knotted from strands of raw fiber, while urNol the Herbalist was provided with a dark leather-like coat embellished with concentric figurations. Then each garment had to be artificially aged so that it would seem as ancient as the Mystics themselves.

Performers

Brian MuehlurSu the Master & urZah the Ritual Guardian
Jean-Pierre AmielurUtt the Weaver
Hugh SpighturAmaj the Cook
Robbie BarnetturYod the Numerologist
Swee LimurNol the Herbalist
Simon WilliamsonurSol the Chanter
Hus LevanturAc the Scribe
Toby PhilpotturTih the Alchemist
Dave Greenaway & Richard SlaughterurIm the Healer