Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Enter through the Creature Shop

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Jim Henson's Creature Shop Challenge

It isn’t often that I’ll feel compelled to check out a television show based solely on its description, but I found Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge impossible to resist. Having finally seen it, I’m still not sure whether it’s a real series or the result of some Top Chef-inspired fever dream that I had after watching The World of the Dark Crystal one too many times, but I know that I love it. It’s a reality show airing on the SyFy network in which ten contestants vie for a position at the titular Creature Shop by constructing their own walking, moving assemblages of foam rubber, glue, paint, and imagination, and although it might seem like a headscratcher to some, I find it absurdly watchable. It’s a vivid illustration of the fact that given the multitude of channels and viewing options we have these days, eventually, you’ll find a show that seems to have been made for you alone. As much as I’m enjoying it now, I would have been even more obsessed by it twenty years ago, and I have the feeling that it’s going to change more than a few lives, and not just on the show itself. Aside from a handful of reservations caused by the reality format itself, which I’ll get to in a moment, it’s a series I’d want my daughter to watch one day.

I’ve noted before that one of the reasons I’m fascinated by puppeteering is the multitude of integrated skills it requires. Jim Henson himself was a jack of all trades, equally at home in animation, design, visual effects, and practical construction, not to mention an inspired performer, and much the true is same of anyone who ends up in puppetry as a profession. Not only are you up there in front of the audience, but you’ve designed and built your own creature, sewed your own costumes, worked on set design, written the material and maybe even the music, and figured out how best to stage or videotape the finished result. It’s a field that rewards improvisation and ingenuity—and it’s no accident that the winner of the first episode of Creature Shop stood out because he used aluminum foil in an unexpected way. The show offers a stylized, highly compressed version of the process, giving the contestants a couple of days to conceive and build a creature from scratch, and so it indirectly becomes an essay on constraints. You never have quite as much time or money as you want, and if the tail of your creature breaks off a few minutes before the screen test, you’ve got no choice but to stick it back in place, rearrange the scales a bit, and hope for the best.

Jim Henson

From the start, it’s clear that the contestants are an unusually resourceful bunch, and they arrive at the studio with an enviable set of skills. (If there’s one thing that distinguishes Creature Shop from similar competitions, it’s that the majority of the contestants—who are mostly working in puppetry, visual effects, or allied fields—already seem to have some of the coolest jobs in the world.) And although puppetry can seem like a solitary activity, it’s really intensely collaborative, and stressing the importance of these factors is both the show’s strength and its Achilles heel. It isn’t enough to design a great creature if the puppeteer can’t move inside it, and the fact that the competitors aren’t operating their own creations adds another level of complexity. When the first contestant is sent home, it’s because the performer wasn’t able to breathe comfortably when lying down inside the costume, a kind of Kermit-like sea slug that forced you to crawl across the stage on your belly. Puppetry, for all its apparent uselessness, is actually one of the most pragmatic of all art forms in terms of its adherence to its own rules, second only to sleight of hand. If the gorgeous creature you’ve put together can’t sustain an extended performance, or if the puppeteer fails to disappear behind the creation, that failure is evident at a glance.

The other half of collaboration involves working alongside your fellow creature designers, which goes about as well as you’d expect for a field that tends to draw some very peculiar people. In The World of the Dark Crystal, the wonderful documentary feature that I watched over and over again in grade school, Henson refers casually to the jealousy and competition that arose between groups focusing on different sets of creatures, and it’s on full display here. (It also reminds us that Henson, like Walt Disney, was a genius both in regard to his own talents and in his ability to inspire and organize those around him.) Occasionally, the infighting and rivalry, as with the unfortunate pairing of Russ and Tina, grows bitter enough to undermine the creative fertility on display here, which is too bad. Indeed, the most problematic thing about Creature Shop is its determination to fit a series about imagination and unconventional thinking into the squarest of reality show templates. It’s all here—the talking heads, the cutaway reaction shots, the bleeped confrontations, and the conferences at the judges’ table, all straight from the Top Chef cookbook. In fact, it makes me fantasize about the next great series: Reality Editors Challenge, in which contestants compete over who can cut together raw footage from their own show in the most manipulative way possible. Now that’s a series I’d love to see.

Written by nevalalee

March 31, 2014 at 9:46 am

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