With “Game of Thrones” smashing Emmy and viewership records for its final season this year and a highly-anticipated “Lord of the Rings” series in the works at Amazon, it’s fair to say fantasy worlds and magical kingdoms are in right now.
Enter “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance,” a prequel series to the original 1982 Jim Henson film, which tells the story of a group of young Gelflings who discover that their overlords — the evil, hideous Skeksis — are duplicitous and plan to consume their subjects’ life energy via the dark crystal in order to fuel their own.
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While “Thrones” and “Lord of the Rings” were clearly points of reference for writers and co-executive producers Will Matthews, Jeffrey Addiss and Javier Grillo-Marxuach, “The Dark Crystal” has one key point of difference: the show uses puppets instead of actors.
“The Dark Crystal” hails from the Jim Henson Company, known primarily for its successful children’s’ programming, led by the growing “Muppets” franchise. However, when the trio, who call themselves the “three-headed Hydra,” pitched the show and sat down to write it, top of their list if priorities was tonally distancing themselves from the Henson company’s younger fare.
“People talk about ‘Game of Thrones’ and high fantasy and that parallel, but what people don’t talk about enough is how ‘Game of Thrones’ mainstreamed complex and fractured narrative,” says Matthews. “People think the dragon stuff is revolutionary, but what we were excited for with this is bringing that level of complexity and density to the characters and the show that could be dismissed as a puppet show for children or as high fantasy for nerds. We really liked this idea of the bad guys, the good guys, everyone having an arc and a perspective that was rich and full.”
However, with 37 years of “Dark Crystal” lore, extending beyond the original film to comic books, manga, a YA novel and archival material from the Henson company, as well as legions of passionate fans of the original film to please, the trio had their work cut out to come up with the new story while staying faithful to all that had come before.
“We always thought about the person who hadn’t seen the original movie, didn’t know the lore, because this is going wide all around the world,” Addiss points out. “The pilot in particular was very tricky because there’s so much there, that balancing act was something that we were working on until the last moment, particularly with the prologue.”
Narrated by Sigourney Weaver, who is only one part of a stellar voice cast led by Taron Egerton, Anya Taylor-Joy and Nathalie Emmanuel, among others, the prologue sets the scene and reintroduces viewers to the fantastical world that Henson, who died in 1990, created all those years ago.
Staying true to the Henson film meant exploring some of the same themes woven through the original, such as politics, ecology and “the decline and renewal of our world,” explains Grillo-Marxuach.
“We settled very early on the idea that this show was in defense of the moral high ground and we wanted this show to espouse values that were congruent with the things that Jim Henson was about because that’s a huge part of his legacy. It isn’t just a legacy about cute puppets and interesting creatures, it’s a world view about collaboration and unity and people coming together for the greater good,” he says.
One of the main differences between the original film and the latest iteration is how technology has evolved since the ’80s and how director Louis Leterrier used that new tech. Whereas Henson and Frank Oz’s original film was “painterly, pastoral,” Grillo-Marxuach says Leterrier’s direction is a “180, stylistically.”
“Louis is much more dynamic; he’s moving the camera a lot more than in the original film; he did a lot of different tricks, he steadi-cam operated the entire show,” says Addiss.
Leterrier took the approach of synthesizing the old and the new, putting the intricately crafted puppets at the center of the drama and using newer cameras and CGI to make the world more vivid, more dynamic. Addiss reveals that they shot the entire show first before bringing in the voice cast, who then had to match their lines to the puppets’ “mouth flaps,” while still bringing their own performance and vocal nuances to the roles.
According to Grillo-Marxuach the show’s use of both puppetry and CGI has been mis-cast as a battle between the two, with one fighting against or eclipsing the other.
“People ask is it puppets or is it CGI? Obviously it’s puppets, you don’t go to the Jim Henson creature shop and not use puppets,” he says. “But we looked at the puppets as actors and we treated them like actors in terms of we do have set extensions, green screen work and all of that, because when you have actors in a movie you’re going to have them do stunts and green screen work. You’re seeing a synthesis of modern computer generated world building with this artisanal technology of puppetry.”
For instance, one scene in which Rian (Egerton) leaps from the evil Skeksis’ castle and tumbles into the lake of water below was shot “entirely dry.” A puppeteer, using only his imagination and skill, manipulated the puppet through space, making it hit the water, recreating the impact through physical movements before having it swim away. Then the CGI came in to add the water, bubbles and digital effects, Addiss explains.
The new “Dark Crystal” team recalls that Henson has famously said the original film was the hardest thing he’s ever done, but also his proudest achievement. After slogging for three-and-a-half-years to get their vision for “The Dark Crystal” to the screen, Matthews and Addiss know exactly what Henson meant.
“We used that quote of Jim in the first trailer because he was right,” Addiss says. “I gave a big chunk of my life to this story and it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done and also the thing I’m most proud of. I get what he was saying now.”
“The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance” debuts Aug. 30 on Netflix.