There’s something about The Dark Crystal’s artistry in presenting characters and creatures that are designed and fabricated as fantastical figures controlled by human hands rather than by computer that transcends whatever motion capture or sophisticated visual effects can accomplish. With The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, Jim Henson’s darkest tale will return to a more vibrant time in the planet of Thra’s history, and the marriage of puppetry, practical effects, and CGI will be a wonder to behold when the series arrives on Netflix on August 30, 2019. Creators Will Matthews and Jeffrey Addiss along with executive producer Javier Grillo-Marxuach told us all about how the 1982 film made the journey to the small screen.
The original movie was anything but the end of The Dark Crystal story with many comic books, young adult novels, and even a creation myth series preceding this television adaptation, which was originally envisioned as an animated series. “And it’s not just one animated project; there’s been a couple different animated iterations of it, the last one of which was at Netflix,” notes Grillo-Marxuach. “And Netflix, seeing that material, came to the conclusion that one of the big things about The Dark Crystal, probably the biggest thing, is that it is done with creatures from the Jim Henson Creature Shop, so why not make the series with creatures from the Jim Henson Creature Shop? And that was the moment that changed everything for this project.”
Addiss and Matthews took their own circuitous route to this project as well, but they knew they wanted to work with the Jim Henson Company. Grillo-Marxuach, whose television expertise helped the writers achieve their goal, says, “They had actually called the Jim Henson Company hoping to pitch Labyrinth 2 and instead were asked, ‘Why don’t you come in and pitch Dark Crystal?’ which they did. And they were the guys who put together all of these elements that were out there before into the show that you’re seeing now. And then my involvement came after they had written the script and Netflix actually paid some money for [director] Louis Leterrier and the guys to put together a test reel, and the show got green lit. Then I came in because I have some expertise running writers rooms and doing some world building and so forth, so the three of us became partners in the writing of this thing.”
Fortunately, Addiss was already a staunch devotee of The Dark Crystal and was anxious to explore the world of the proud gelfling and the evil Skeksis with Matthews. “I was very deep,” he admits. “I was the kid who burned through several VHS [tapes]… I used to draw Mystics and Skeksis in all of the margins; I fancied myself an artist. I still ‘start with the eyes’ because that’s what [creature creator] Brian Froud said to do in the first documentary. And so I was a huge, huge fan. Will certainly loved it, and it had scared him quite a bit as a child, but he picked up a lot of that information along the way. So it’s nice that we had two points of view on it.”
Grillo-Marxuach, whose genre cred is already quite solid having worked on Charmed, Lost, The 100, and more, also brought quite a bit of fan enthusiasm to the writers room. “I saw The Dark Crystal when it came out in 1982. It was a seminal part of my becoming a fan of genre and of me wanting to become a filmmaker,” he says. “The Jim Henson Company put a framed picture of Jim Henson and Frank Oz and Gary Kurtz on the set of the original in the writers room, and every day I would come in and I would look at these three men who are gods to me and think about how fortunate and grateful I was to be able to tread on the same ground. So honestly, when you look at The Dark Crystal, you’re looking at a show made by true believers.”
Those true believers include many crew members from the original movie, including the aforementioned creature creator Brian Froud and his designer wife, Wendy, who brought their son Toby into their craft. “Brian was creating artwork for the show and designing things; his son Toby was the head creature designers, and then [his wife] Wendy was also on set and building things. So it was a family affair!” says Addiss. “It was actually really amazing to get to watch Toby work with his father and work with his mother and to see the affection that they have, to see them working together to create these things… it was really incredible.”
Together, the writers and designers populated the world of Thra with its native gelfling clans, represented by the three characters who lead the story in The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. “The reason we have three leads is because three is a big number in Thra,” explains Matthews. “We realized early on we had three mysteries that needed solving, and so we thought give them each a character to follow that storyline. So you see at the beginning three very different gelfling in very different places worried about three very different things. And then one of the themes of the show is that the many become one, and so you’ll see those storylines come together, those characters come together, and those problems to come together for one solution.”
Addiss elaborated, saying that the three protagonists act as a way to ease the audience into the world they were about to walk into. One of the things we all talked about was each of our leads would represent a different place within the structure of the gelfling and their relationship to the Skeksis,” he says. “So we have Brea, who’s a princess; she’s at the top. We have Rian, who works as a guard at the Castle of the Crystal; he’s a company man. He is a believer in the structure in this system. And then you have Deet, who’s from a clan that lives deep under the ground that’s almost forgotten. And so she’s coming into Thra and coming up into the light and becoming the audience’s eyes, in a lot of ways, into this world. So we thought of it as tackling it from three different angles.”
Another major ingredient in the future success of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is the skillful voice work done by actors like Mark Hamill, Simon Pegg, Awkwafina, and Jason Isaacs, whose Skeksis voices are delightfully over-the-top. “Traditionally in animation, you go in and you record before they animate, and then they animate to your performance,” Addiss explains. “In our case, we shot it all live with the puppeteers doing it, and then we go into a studio with the voice talent and they have to match what the puppeteers did… They had to find the way to bring their performance and the performance of the puppeteer together, which is very tricky. So you could see in the beginning when the voice actors would come in — and these are some of the most talented actors in the world — and they would look at it and go, ‘Oh no!’… It was really amazing to watch! We really got some of the finest actors in the world, and then made them unrecognizable!”
In addition to the skilled puppeteers themselves, however, it will perhaps be director Louis Leterrier’s visual style that will stand out most to viewers of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. “One of the things that Louis brought to this project was a real sense of change from how the original was directed,” says Grillo-Marxuach. “If you look at the original, it’s a pretty pastoral piece of work; Jim Henson described it as a painting. It has a lot of long takes; the camera doesn’t do a lot of motion… Louis really came at it from a sense of wanting to put you in the middle of gelfling civilization and make you feel like you’re one of them. He shot three cameras per setup, and a lot of the time that third camera was a Steadicam that he operated himself… So one of Louis’ big contributions to this thing is a visual dynamic that you haven’t seen in this kind of material before. It wasn’t just about directing puppets and puppeteers; Louis really came in to try to revolutionize the way that material with puppets is shot.”
So will fans of the original The Dark Crystal be spoiled, knowing that the last of the gelflings in the 1982 movie means that the mission in The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance must ultimately fail? Not according to Addiss. “When we pitched the show to Netflix, we pitched an ending. We have an answer to this, and we don’t want to give it away,” he says, being purposefully cryptic. “We don’t want to even really hint at it. But Thra is a big world, and there’s a lot of space for hope in that world. And so we hope that people will come to the show with an open mind and enjoy the journey, but maybe it’s not quite the ending that you think it is.”
Or, as Matthews puts it, “In the opening of the original, the Master says to Jen, ‘There’s more to the story than you know.’ — we ran with that!” Discover the story of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance when Netflix brings all ten episodes of the miniseries to subscribers on August 30, 2019, and read all of the news surrounding the show here.
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Michael Ahr is a writer, reviewer, and podcaster here at Den of Geek; you can check out his work here or follow him on Twitter (@mikescifi). He co-hosts our Sci Fi Fidelity podcast and coordinates interviews for The Fourth Wall podcast.