According to “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance” making-of documentary, Netflix’s prequel series first tested a version using computer graphics to create the characters, but ultimately decided that puppets were the best choice. And thank goodness for that. The use of puppetry creates a visual continuity with the original 1982 Jim Henson film and makes the performances far more compelling and immediate than CGI would. Plus, puppets are just goddamn funny.
Co-creators Jeffrey Addiss and Will Matthews wanted to make a TV show for everybody, and that meant offsetting the grimmer aspects of “Dark Crystal” with some levity. In the series, the creepy Skeksis reign over the Gelfling and are extending their own life by sucking the essence from their subjects. As a backdrop to the story of the Gelfling uprising is the entire planet of Thra, a world teeming with imaginative creatures and plants, all realized through puppetry. Of all the puppets in the series, the Podlings provided the most opportunities for laughs.
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“One of the things about the Podlings is that whenever I go to my daughter’s school you see that kids between 2 and 4 have an extraordinary amount of bandwidth,” said co-executive producer Javier Grillo-Marxuach. “Some are extremely sophisticated and ahead of the curve, others are right in the middle, others are wallowing in the mud and have to be bathed. They mirror the Gelfling civilization in a lot of ways, but because they don’t have the intellectual and emotional sophistication of the Gelfling, they really give you a lot of avenues to explore a lot different points of view in this world. Podlings give you that flexibility.”
“Because Podlings are the most ‘puppety,’ you can go the farthest, you can do the most, you can have the most fun with them,” said Addiss. “We would just spend a day coming up with weird things for Podlings to be doing, like at the Deterg, eating mud, jumping out of things playing the games. And then this huge list of things they could be doing at the bar, like … the Podling lady who blows Rian a kiss, who sends the drink over. They are just a great engine for comedy.”
Check out the Podling bar scene:
Ain't no party like a podling party! pic.twitter.com/HJCagRevFf
— The Dark Crystal (@darkcrystal) September 6, 2019
Putting the “Fling” in Gelfling
Despite their tangible nature, puppets still look slightly removed from reality, which helps contribute to the series’ otherworldly atmosphere. That also makes it easier to put the puppets in mortal danger. The concept of the violence is still communicated without the weight and gore of using human actors. And yes, that little bit of distance can also make certain dramatic situations simultaneously feel ridiculous. The producers deliberately leaned into this duality to create darkly comic scenes.
“It’s fun to put the characters into extreme conditions,” said Addiss. “You learn that it’s fun to throw puppets, so we started adding more things of puppets being thrown, puppets being thrown off things. We had a great time doing that.”
There are plenty of scenes to choose from. The series begins with the Gelfling Deet being flung around by an angry Nurloc, crazed by the Darkening that is infecting Thra. Rian also endures his share of being thrown around, first on a runaway Skeksis carriage and by an intimidating Skeksis known as The Hunter. One of the funniest scenes, however, occurs in the Crystal Desert when the Hunter tosses a mouthy Gelfling off of a cliff.
Deet’s little brother Bobbin, a cherub-faced lad with pools of blackness for eyes, created moments of humor just because of his appearance. When he gets possessed by the spider-like Arathim and starts to speak as if he were assimilated by the Borg, creepiness and hilarity ensue. In one particular scene, Bobbin is sharing the hive mind when the Nurlocs have attacked the Arathim, aka Threaders, in the Caves of Grot, and croaks out, “It feels like dying!”
“We had some whole other actions planned in the Caves of Grot and part of the reason it became what it was, was because I thought the Bobbin puppet was creepy,” said Addiss. “So we decided to lean in heavily on it and leave it a lot more to Bobbin. That was not the original plan, that was something that came out of shooting and because that little puppet just creeped me out. ‘It feels like dying’ came from a later rewrite when we were trying to find a way to quickly bring together the Gelflings and the Arathim.”
Putting on a Show
Arguably the funniest moment in the entire series incorporates puppetry explicitly into the humor and storytelling. When the Gelfling heroes have arrived at the Circle of the Sun and encounter the kind Skeksis known as the Heretic and the Mystic known as the Wanderer, they are ready to learn the secret to ending Skeksis rule.
In the most bizarre comedy duo act ever, the Heretic announces, “We’ve come to the reason we’re all here, the key you seek is the solution to all of our travails, brought to life by that most ancient and sacred of arts…”
“…Puppetry! Yay!” finishes the Wanderer.
And so, the audience must watch as the the hero puppets sit there and watch the Skeksis and Mystic puppets put on a puppet show. It’s weird and yet brilliant, poking at the entire process of creating the “Age of Resistance” puppet show but also utilizing different styles of puppets to reveal the history of Thra, the secret of the Skeksis, and how to defeat them. Take a look:
An enormous shout out to Bill Hader and Andy Samberg for bringing their all to the puppet show within the puppet show. pic.twitter.com/ImTLhA3gJD
— The Dark Crystal (@darkcrystal) September 5, 2019
Beccy Henderson, the puppeteer for Deet, had a front row seat of sorts to the action. “We got the seats to the best show ever,” she said. “My life is so weird! It’s so bonkers, and then they put on this little puppet show for us, and it was wild. It was really wild. But that set in particular the mood was so playful.
“It’s just this refreshing idea because you’ve been watching puppets for however many episodes at this point,” she added. “It gives us these other forms, like shadow puppetry and then this other completely unique kind of puppetry that Barnaby Dixon kind of invented, this hand puppetry that looks kind of like stop motion. Beautiful little sequence like nothing else and a nice break from the normal puppetry that you’ve seen up until that point.”
“That scene may be the greatest accomplishment of my entire career. I credit Jeff and Will for a lot of the final shape and also that wonderful introduction where he says ‘puppetry’ and everybody rolls their eyes,” said Grillo-Marxuach. “The quest has worked, they’ve gotten to where they need it to be, and now they have to have everything explained to them. That could have [been] the most tedious thing ever.”
“The world of Thra is so complicated, and some might even say convoluted, and then the mythology has been added to by all of these different people over several years,” he continued. “It literally just began as a solution to a problem of, ‘How do we make three minutes of exposition interesting?’ That scene is one of the thing in the show that we spent a lot of time looking at each other going, ‘Can you believe they’re letting us do this?'”
Addiss added, “And [senior costume and creature supervisor] Toby Froud actually directed lot of the pieces of that scene in that puppet show, along with [the show’s director] Louis Leterrier. But that was very much a collaborative scene, because it had a lot of information, a lot of story, a lot of specific visuals, a lot of very detailed puppets. And so it was cool. And Barnaby Dixon came in. But there’s a lot of different people’s vision in there starting with Javi.”
“This is how difficult it is to do exposition in genre,” said Grillo-Marxuach. “It literally took a team of about 150 people to make three minutes of exposition palatable.”
“The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance” is currently available on Netflix.