Labyrinth at 30: Brian Froud conceptual designer interview

30 years after Jim Henson’s much-loved Labyrinth was released, we chat to concept designer Brian Froud...

As Labyrinth celebrates its 30th birthday with a posh new disc release and visual history book, we spoke to the man from whose mind sprang its evocative character and world designs.

Artist Brian Froud, famed for his paintings of folkloric creatures, was first invited to work with Jim Henson on 1982 puppet fantasy The Dark Crystal. That led to live-action-puppet musical Labyrinth, and would have continued to a troll-themed feature film had Henson not sadly passed away before work on their third collaboration could begin.

Read on to hear Froud discuss the proposed sequels to the films he made with Henson, the one scene he really, really dislikes in Labyrinth, and the precise behind-the-scenes moment when he knew that David Bowie was going to make the perfect Goblin King…

When David Bowie died this January, one of the very first public events to take place, just days afterwards, was a screening of Labyrinth that sold out in record time. People wanted to come together and celebrate his life by watching that film. Why do you think it’s held so dear by so many?

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I can’t precisely say what it is. It obviously has its magic. To be honest, when we finished it, we sort of thought ‘well, is that it?’ We’d always wanted to do our best and we’d always wanted to break some boundaries and do something different. When the film was finally finished and there was nothing else we could do to make it any better, we went, well, okay, did we do well? Because it was a different take. The Dark Crystal was definitely seriously out-there strange [laughs] and this was much more whimsical, so what did we have?

Both films were critically rather mauled, [critics] didn’t seem to really like them, but both films have had a similar phenomenon in that once they got onto tape and DVD they had this extraordinary life when people had time to look at them. I think with Labyrinth, it accrues so much more when you keep looking at it again. It’s a mysterious film because you think you get it, you think it’s actually quite a jolly romp and yet there are some very dark places in it. We’re dealing with metaphor here so all the characters had designs in them, shapes and forms and ideas, that give the film a depth that only emerges over the years. I think also the story it tells, because it’s the story of an adolescent girl’s mind really and about her growing up, speaks to new generations of people when they see the film. It’s an odd film [laughs] if I can put it that way. It’s sort of odd.

Also, technically, for its day it was quite extraordinary and then technology just tumbled on beyond it and we’ve all gone digital now and so these puppet films are rare and they have an immediacy about them when you see them because what you’re looking at is not trickery, it’s real. It’s a performance, you’re seeing performances. That sort of shines through it and so, historically, it will always have its place and I think will just keep accruing power.

The power of the babe!

The power of the babe, yes! [Laughs]

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You touch on the difference between digital images and puppetry there. George Lucas, Labyrinth’s producer, famously went back and digitally tinkered with his original Star Wars trilogy. What did you and Wendy [Midener, figure-maker who built the original Yoda puppet, and married to Froud] make of that? Is that a creative instinct you can sympathise with?

Er, no! [laughs] No, I think you should just leave it alone. Obviously his films were degrading, they needed to go back digitally and enhance them but to actually fiddle around with landscapes and all that is I think foolish. What happens is that when they finally did Yoda as a digital thing he wasn’t the same character anymore.

The great thing about puppets is that they do nothing! They actually do very, very little and so the trick is, for me when I was designing things in Labyrinth is to define creatures that whatever they do they do it really well so you imagine it’s doing a lot more than it really is. All the shapes and the forms are telling their own story, they’re giving you information about the character and what it’s doing, what it parses in the world that I designed.

There’s obviously been a lot of talk in recent years about sequels for both Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, you’d favour going back to physical puppets for something like that?

We have been talking about it. If we were going to do a thing like The Dark Crystal 2, how would we approach this? I think the thing that’s really interesting is to do hybrids. A hybrid would be a puppet with some digital enhancements, something around the eyes. Especially if you’re trying to deal with what gives it soul. All the creatures in Labyrinth are made of stuff! [laughs] They’re made of dead things. We make you believe they have life and personality, and that comes from creating shapes and forms that respond to a puppeteer, a person on the inside or at the edge, they are giving it life. So humanity shines through the puppet because it’s coming from a human.

So if it were up to you, you’d rule out entirely CGI sequels to either?

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Well it’s not up to me to be saying that or not! I would prefer it not, only because I don’t know what the point is, if you see what I mean. Our biggest problem for years with the desire to return to The Dark Crystal or do another version of Labyrinth, is that I think you have to be careful is not to throw the baby out with the bath water. Both films have something else going on in there. It isn’t just an adventure, it isn’t just a story, there’s a spirituality going on underneath and that came from Jim [Henson], who was a very spiritual man, and also from the people he surrounded himself with and the people who helped build these creatures. That sort of shines through and I think that’s why people keep responding to the film. If you just do it via a computer and it’s just a story, that’s not there.

Because of the financial issues and critical responses at the time, how much were sequels to the two films a possibility back then?

Well, they were, but Jim was always looking to new horizons. All the time he was always looking at new technologies, he was always trying to figure out how to do things better. He always had plans for something else, he never sat still. That’s the genius of him.

Do you think he’d be okay with the idea of a modern sequel to Labyrinth or The Dark Crystal?

Yes, yeah. But I think he’d probably say ‘Why don’t we do something else?’ [laughs] Really, I don’t know. One of the problems of course has been that the Hensons have sold everything off to Disney except for these two films. For various reasons, they got left off, so these are properties that Henson own and can do something with.

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Of course now after all these years, the films have become really quite dear to people’s hearts. I think there is a problem because there’s a desire to make more but unfortunately my experience of that is that all people want to do is an adventure story. I’ve touched on this because I think they weren’t just an adventure story, they had a spiritual aspect and I think that’s the bit that’s missing in this approach for the future. If we’re going to return, I want to know why. I think something really interesting has to happen in the new ones. We’ll wait and see. It’s been many years. I’ve done, over the years, many designs for things.

Could you take us back to your first meetings with Jim Henson when you started to develop The Dark Crystal in the late seventies. What was it he saw in you and your paintings that drew him to you?

I’m not quite sure, because I was very quiet, very shy and I probably only said a couple of words to him! We had this nice dinner in Hampstead and he said ‘Do you want to come to America? I’ve got this idea for a film, could you design it?’ so I went to America!

But I think it was the spiritual aspect. It was only really once I’d started I realised that. It shows up when the film was finished and we put The Dark Crystal book together with all the geometry in it. Jim was really fascinated by the English landscape. He was interested in ley lines, he was interested in ancient stones and the myths of King Arthur, all those things that were inherent in the landscape that I exist in. He came to visit me down where I live on the edge of Dartmoor and he said ‘I want that in the film’. We did the little jungles and we did desert-y, rock-y things… but it’s that fundamental idea that everything is linked and we’re all linked together one way or another and we’re linked to our land that shows up in both films.

Were there any projects in between The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth you and Jim planned to collaborate on but rejected?

No, no. Oddly enough, it was when we’d finished Labyrinth, there was a break and I’d left and I phoned him up and he said ‘Shall we do another one?’ [laughs] We weren’t going to do another one of the same, we were going to do one about trolls. We had a couple of conversations, then unfortunately he died. He had planned to do it. He didn’t blame me for the financial disasters that the other films were! [laughing]

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How did the collaborative process work with Jim?

On Labyrinth I just did lots of drawings and then we started development ideas for the script. That changed a lot, it was more medieval at one stage, then gradually we started to make prototype work and other people came on to work on the scripts and it all snowballed from there.

The early days of The Dark Crystal it was just about nine of us sat in the workshop in New York and I just doodled in sketchbooks. Frank [Oz] was there having meetings and we’d talk about it all. He knew that the Skeksis were going to be these reptilian creatures so I was doing drawings and making maquettes. With The Mystics we knew what we were doing because Jim wanted them to look like the trolls I was drawing.

The character stuff was pretty loose at the beginning, then we’d make prototype work to try and figure out how to manipulate these things and that’s when suddenly the proportions might change. It was only much later on that I started to refine the way it was finally going to look. It needed to be organic.

It sounds like it was a real collaboration between you, the model makers, the performers…

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I knew it had to be collaborative. Jim was looking for me to give the overall look but he valued everybody’s input, he valued the creativity of everybody, so you want that to be part of it and they need to put that in, but the cast aren’t allowed to have free rein if you know what I mean, because otherwise it would just be too many different things. I had to shape it so we understand that all the creatures are part of the same world.

What sort of problems came up for the model makers in translating your paintings and drawings from 2D to 3D? Were there things that looked and read well on the page but didn’t necessarily scan as physical objects?  

Some of the stuff was not much of a problem because I was thinking about the possibilities of puppets when designing, about how a puppet is manipulated where there’d be extensions and arms and things like that. Some of it was already built in.

The biggest problem though was sometimes in my sketches, in one little sketch there would be sometimes three points of view so when you look at it you understand it, and you get a sense of the character but actually to define it and rationalise it, that’s where the problems come. There can be a lot of to-ing and fro-ing when we’re doing the sculpt and then there have to be some compromises sometimes because you have to straighten things up, like eyes for instance, because of the mechanisms. That’s the dangerous moment because you can lose life when that happens. My trick is to try and get the sculptors to try and put some quirkiness back in. It is a struggle.

That was why it was five years for The Dark Crystal and three and a bit for Labyrinth, every day. We realised I couldn’t just design it and walk away and expect it to get on the screen, you’ve got to be there.

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Something like Ludo must have presented real challenge for the creature makers, you draw something on a piece of paper and then it’s their job to turn that into a 75lb costume…

With that costume, they had a lot of experience of big, walk-around creatures, big hairy creatures, and we really refined it. We had all the fur woven… but at the same time we were having to explore much more about safety issues on the inside, the comfort of it. Jim was always really solicitous of the comfort of his performers so we had to figure out ways of making it lighter, keep its expressiveness, get air in if we needed to or get them out if it was on fire! All these sorts of things. Jim spent a lot of money trying to get that right and there it is, it shows up on the screen.

Worth every penny! The behind the scenes documentary Inside The Labyrinth is great at providing a glimpse into the various processes. My favourite moment though probably has to be the candid shot of Bowie in full Jareth make-up, full wig, standing the MC Escher set, wearing a dressing gown and smoking a fag. I love the weird ingredients of that image. I expect the set was full of strange combinations like that?

Well, all my memories of the set are when it was empty! [laughs] I was always there getting the ageing done and all that so I never saw the hurly burly of it. I have done a voiceover commentary on both films and I frightened the sound man because I said ‘I was never there!’ and he said ‘What are you going to talk about?!’ I managed to go through the films and have some insights into what was going on, but I was just always too busy!

When you did go back through the films for those DVD commentaries, the creator’s eye is always more critical than the fan’s, so while I wouldn’t want a single thing changed about Labyrinth, is there something that you, given the chance, would tweak or wish had been done differently?

Yes, I don’t really watch the films very often, but absolutely. When I did the voiceover for one of the last DVDs they brought out I read a review and it said ‘Don’t buy the DVD if you think technically it’s going to be any better than the previous ones, because it’s just as good as ever, but buy it because of Brian Froud’s tart comments’! And I thought, oh gosh, what have I said? Because I just did it live, I went through it without rehearsing. But I think it’s the end. The end of Labyrinth I really, really dislike. It’s the dancing. The idea where the characters say if she needs them they will come back is great, but I really hate the dancing in that party scene.

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Why that, specifically?

Because we’d spent so much care in setting these up as real creatures in real landscapes to do what they did and be expressive and suddenly they’re leaping about [laughing] oh I hated it! I did say so on the voiceover.

You must have been asked this hundreds of times but I can’t not mention David Bowie. He agreed to the part of Jareth because of your artwork and The Dark Crystal. Could you tell us about working with him?

I didn’t really see him a lot because I was either on the next set getting things ready or I was in the workshop getting the creatures ready. Also, he had a personal assistant who was very protective of him, so getting to him was very, very hard. Wendy saw him more often because Wendy was wrangling Toby [Midener and Froud’s son, who played the infant Toby in the film] and was on the set with him all the time. He was a very nice man, he was also very funny and he laughed a lot.

My major experience with him was a few days before we were filming when I met him in his dressing room and we were about to fit him with the wig. We’d made a gift for him, which was a flute made of an animal bone and we gave it to him and he immediately just sort of grabbed it and leaped up onto his dressing room bench, in front of the mirror with the bulbs all around it, hunkered down like this little Pan figure and played a sort of haunting tune on the flute. It was really spooky, you felt you wanted to move to the edges of the room because this sort of creature appeared! And I thought, oh, we’re going to be alright now. He’s going to be brilliant in this part.

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You mention your son Toby playing the baby. A lot of adults who’ve been in big films as children tend to see them as something of a burden once they’ve grown up, it’s an association they perhaps want to get away from but that doesn’t seem to be at all the case with your son. He’s a filmmaker and on the set of his short film Lessons Learned he recreated the Magic Dance scene using his own puppets

Oh, from the beginning, he was fascinated by the goblins. He was always coming into the workshop, he knew what these strange things were, he was not frightened of them, he loved it. Wendy’s a doll-maker, a figure-maker—she did the original Yoda—and so he’s been surrounded by creativity and making things so he loves all that. He’s also a great fan of those old-fashioned physical puppets and of the qualities that they can bring. So when he made his first film that’s the way he did it and indeed, had some of the puppeteers that worked on Labyrinth working on it.

The same ones? That’s a lovely connection.

His job is working for [animation studio] Laika, he is a model maker and helps design the characters.

If I can ask, how much is yours and Wendy’s house a shrine to Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal?

No! We didn’t really… I mean, with both films we just got out of there, sort of happy to get home! [Laughing] So we don’t have a lot of things.

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Didn’t I read somewhere that you have a goblin door knocker?

We don’t even have that! A lot of things were made of foam rubber so they just disintegrated. Jim asked me ‘is there anything you want?’ and I said I’d like a Mystic coat from The Dark Crystal, a particular one, and he said ‘you can’t have that one, I’ve got that one’ so I [laughing] got the second best Mystic coat! But when Labyrinth was finished a truck did turn up and on the back of it was the big pot where Hoggle and Sarah climb out from out of the pot [after facing ‘The Cleaners’]. He’d got them to put a base in it so it would actually work in the garden as a garden ornament, so we do have that!

Brian Froud, thank you very much!

The Labyrinth 30th anniversary steelbook is now available on Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD, along with an all-new DVD and Amazon Exclusive Digibook. Jim Henson’s ‘Labyrinth The Ultimate Visual History’ is out on 21st October and available to buy here.

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