Summer of '86: How 'Labyrinth' Achieved Peak Practical Effects

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·Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
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David Bowie as the Goblin King in ‘Labyrinth’ (Everett)

All this week, we’re celebrating the great movies that hit screens 30 years ago in 1986. Go here to read more.

It all begins with David Bowie’s right hand. When the rock star makes his dramatic entrance in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, playing the villainous goblin king Jareth, he comes bearing a gift for petulant teenager Sarah (Jennifer Connelly): a crystal ball that hovers and dances across his hand as if by magic. But it’s not magic — it’s juggling. And it’s not Bowie’s hand at all, but the arm of master juggler Michael Moschen, crouching behind Bowie in every scene that involves Jareth’s gravity-defying crystals.

Related: The Magic of the Goblin King: An Appreciation for David Bowie in ‘Labyrinth’

Labyrinth premiered in theaters in June 1986; I first saw the film, in which Sarah must find her way through a perilous maze to rescue her kidnapped-by-goblins baby brother, when I was 8 years old. Ten years later, during my first week of college, my heart skipped a beat when I saw a student practicing Jareth-style ball manipulation outside the dining hall. It was called, I learned, “contact juggling.” And the most remarkable thing about it was that it looked just as magical in person as it did on film.

Watch behind-the-scenes footage of juggler Michael Moschen juggling crystals for David Bowie on the set of ‘Labyrinth’ (from the documentary ‘Inside the Labyrinth’).

That’s the thing about the effects in Labyrinth: They’re real. As the film’s puppeteer coordinator Brian Henson explains it to Yahoo Movies, “In those days, all the movie magic happened in the camera… the effect was really happening.” That robot goblin as tall as a building? Actually a hydraulic puppet as tall as a building. The hole Connelly falls through, where she’s caught by “helping hands”? The actress plummeted off a moving platform down a 40-foot shaft, lined with hundreds of rubber and actual hands. In the years after Star Wars created the modern special effects industry, but before computer-generated imagery began taking over, all the effects in fantasy, sci-fi, and horror films were created by makeup artists, puppeteers, and other filmmaking wizards. And Labyrinth, fueled by the boundless imagination and ingenuity of director Jim Henson, represents the peak of practical effects.

An oddball coming-of-age narrative that combined dark fantasy elements, absurdist Monty Python humor, Bowie pop songs, and Muppets, Labyrinth wasn’t a hit when it premiered in the summer of 1986. Reviews were extremely mixed, with some critics finding Labyrinth too dark or grotesque; while Time magazine praised Henson for out-Disneying Disney, the San Francisco Chronicle mocked his “overbearing showcase of bizarre rubber duckies.” The film did, however, develop a devoted following on VHS by 1980s kids like me, who have gone on to show it to our own children. Despite the current nostalgia for practical effects (see: the marketing of Star Wars: The Force Awakens), the virtues of Labyrinth’s special effects have gone largely unsung. I find this oversight baffling, especially because evidence of the Henson crew’s extraordinary work is so easy to find.

It’s all documented in the 1986 behind-the-scenes TV special Inside the Labyrinth, included on the Labyrinth DVD and Blu-ray (and easily viewable online: watch excerpts here). The hour-long documentary shows exactly how the crew constructed, among other marvels, an army of goblins riding dragon-like creatures and an MC Escher-inspired room of impossible staircases. When actors are on set, they appear immersed in the film’s world: Details that would now be added digitally, like dewdrops on a forest floor or a backdrop of the Labyrinth sprawling into the distance, were right there in living color. It’s a child’s wildest dream of what walking onto a movie set would be like.

The creation and filming of the ‘helping hands,’ from ‘Inside the Labyrinth:’

Creating this rich visual world required a massive amount of pre-production work, as Brian Henson tells Yahoo Movies. “In those days we would rehearse a long time,” he explains. “I don’t even know what our rehearsal schedule was; probably 20 weeks.” (That’s unthinkable in contemporary filmmaking, when special effects are largely accomplished after the actors finish shooting.) During those rehearsals, Henson worked with both his director father and Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to ensure that the film’s dozens of puppet characters would perform on camera in exactly the way that they should. “Every time we went into a set, we had to cut it to bits and ask, ‘Where are the puppeteers going to be? Where are the wires going to be? How are we going to disguise the wires? How do we disguise the holes?’” he recalls. For big group scenes like Jareth’s chamber, where Bowie sings the song “Dance Magic,” Henson would spend over a week placing and drilling puppeteers, so that “every five feet had action that was locked and rehearsed before the main camera crew came in.”

Further invisible work was required to control the puppet characters, most notably Hoggle, the grumpy goblin sidekick for whom Brian Henson provided a voice. The most complex animatronic puppet ever created at the time, Hoggle required one puppeteer inside his costume and four more (including Henson) to move his expressive face: two performing the mouth and jaw, and another two working the eyes and eyebrows, all using radio controls. After weeks of rehearsal, the Hoggle team worked in perfect harmony, and character’s performance seems effortless. You’d never guess at all the heavy lifting going on behind the scenes.

Though Labyrinth was a paragon of practical effects, it was also a pioneer of computer effects: The owl that swoops through the opening credits is one of the earliest examples of a CGI character on film. Jim Henson was a visionary who saw the potential of that technology before most filmmakers even dreamed of it. But much as I appreciate great digital effects, I’ll never see a CG magic trick come to life before my eyes like those crystal balls did. If I’d been on the set of Labyrinth, I could have chatted in real time with Hoggle or the worm who invites Sarah to tea. I think that’s one reason I continue to find the film so bewitching: It’s the record of a living, breathing world of creatures and magical effects, a one-of-a-kind artistic creation the likes of which we may never see again.

Watch the ‘Labyrinth’ trailer:

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