Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Dark Crystal

The Eye of the Skeksis

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Every now and then, you’re able to date the precise moment when your life incrementally changed. For me, one of those turning points was January 9, 1983, when the documentary The World of the Dark Crystal aired on public television, a few weeks after the movie itself debuted in theaters. (This weekend marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of its initial release.) It seems implausible now that I would have watched it at the time, but fortunately, my dad taped it, and it must have lived in our house for years afterward, like a tiny imaginative bomb waiting for its chance to detonate. As I’ll mention in a second, our copy cut off the first four minutes of the documentary—it must have taken my dad that long to get the videocassette recorder set up—and I didn’t see it in its entirety until decades later. It was preserved for me by chance, and when I look at it today, it feels doubly precious. We’re living in an era when a series like The Lord of the Rings can offer dozens of hours of production footage, much of it beautifully presented, while even the most mediocre blockbusters usually provide a bonus disc packed with special features. The World of the Dark Crystal isn’t even an hour long, but it was enough to fuel my imagination for a lifetime. And it wasn’t just an element of what would eventually come to be known as an electronic press kit, or even an anomaly like Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams, but a labor of love in its own right, a document made by creative artists who were convinced that what they were doing was worth recording because it had the potential to change movies forever.

That isn’t how it worked out, but at least it changed me, and the moment in particular that I never forgot comes near the beginning of the documentary. Our copy of the tape abruptly opened with a shot of the artist Brian Froud, who provided the movie’s conceptual designs, wandering across the moor near his home in Devon. Shortly afterward, it cut to a sequence of Froud seated at his drafting table, working on a sketch of a Skeksis and musing on the soundtrack:

Jim [Henson] had feelings about what the major creatures were, and some of their characteristics, and it was my job to show how they looked. I always start with the eye—the eye is the focal point of all these characters. And for the Skeksis, they needed to have a penetrating stare….They are part reptile, part predatory bird, part dragon.

He drew rapidly for the camera, filling in the details around the eye before extending the illustration—with what struck me at the time as a startling flourish—into the downward curve of the mouth. Watching the movement of the pencil, I experienced what I can only describe as a moment of revelation. If nothing else, it was probably the first time that I’d ever seen an artist actually drawing, and it kindled something in me that has never entirely gone away.

I must have been about six years old when it really took hold, and I reacted much like any other kid when presented with this sort of stimulus: I imitated it. To be specific, I slavishly copied that one drawing, not just in its final shape, but in the process that Froud took to get there. I started with the eye, like he did, and then ritualistically added in the rest. It never would have occurred to me to do otherwise, and I suspect that I drew it hundreds of times, sometimes as a doodle in the margin of a notepad, occasionally more systematically, which doesn’t even include the countless other drawings that I made of creatures that were “part reptile, part predatory bird, part dragon.” It wasn’t so much a reaction to The Dark Crystal itself—which I liked, although not as much as Labyrinth—as to that brief glimpse of a creative mind expressed in the pencil on the page. Combined with a few technical tricks that I picked up from the show The Secret City, which is worth a blog post of its own, it was enough to turn me into a pretty good artist, at least by the standards of the second grade. (It’s worth noting that both The World of the Dark Crystal and The Secret City aired on public television, which is also where Jim Henson made his most lasting impact, and an argument in itself for defending it as a proving ground for the imaginations of the young.) I haven’t done a lot of art in recent years, except when sketching with my daughter, and I knew by the end of college that I didn’t have it in me to be a painter. But I’m grateful to have even a little of it, and I owe it largely to that chance encounter with a Skeksis.

I don’t doubt that there are kids who experienced the same kind of epiphany while watching the lovingly detailed profiles of conceptual designers John Howe and Alan Lee—Froud’s old collaborator—in the special features for The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit provides hours more, and those featurettes, unlike so much else in those bloated box sets, remain fascinating and magical. (The life of a fantasy illustrator must not be a particularly lucrative one under most circumstances, and one of the small pleasures of watching the behind-the-scenes footage from these two trilogies is seeing Howe and Lee growing visibly more prosperous.) But something in the fragmentary nature of The World of the Dark Crystal was stimulating in itself. It wasn’t a textbook, but a series of hints, and it left me to fill in the gaps on my own. You can draw a straight line from that pencil drawing to my interest in science fiction and fantasy, not just as fan, but as someone with an interest in the practicalities of how it all gets done. The forms have changed, but the underlying impulse remains the same. And what really haunts me is the fact that the scene at the drawing table occurs just a minute and a half after our tape started, and my dad could easily have missed it. If it had taken him a few minutes longer to cue up the recorder that night, he might have skipped it entirely, and opened instead with the sequence in which the creatures that Froud designed were coming to life in Jim Henson’s workshop. And maybe I would have become a puppeteer.

Written by nevalalee

December 15, 2017 at 8:28 am

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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