The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance’s designer on ‘a purer form of puppetry’

Ahead of The Dark Crystal prequel series, we interview design legend Brian Froud about bringing the much loved world back to the screen...

Brian Froud was the conceptual and costume designer on classic films The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, working with Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to create the unforgettable characters and settings that have ensured a lasting cult following for both movies. On August 30th, The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance – a ten-episode prequel series to the 1982 film – will come to Netflix, with Froud’s designs once again setting its visual tone. He talked to us ahead of its release about Jim Henson’s legacy, the enduring appeal of fairies, and the limitations of CGI…

This has been a long time in development, hasn’t it? How did it all come about?

Over the years, there’s been a desire to do another movie or another series, so every so often, I’d do some designs, and then it would fall through. But they’ve always been perhaps animation, perhaps something else, so it’s a really genius idea by Netflix, who said, “Look, why don’t we do this, and why don’t we actually make it with puppets?” (laughs) So that was the amazing excitement of it, and once that was a go, we were working really hard and really quickly, whereas The Dark Crystal (film) took five years. This is ten episodes, and there are several films in there (in length). There have been new creatures, designs, sets to build. It’s been an amazing journey.

The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance is a prequel, set in an earlier version of the familiar world of Thra. Has this made much difference to your design process?

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It is a prequel, but it’s not so ‘pre’. (laughs) It’s a lot more of the usual, so to speak. The challenge is to recreate things that look exactly the same, plus new ones with new shapes and forms and details.

How much of a technical challenge has this proved, almost forty years on? Has the process been any easier, or just a different type of difficult?

Well, it’s never easy. We had the same difficulties as we did then in bringing puppets to life. They do certain things well, and other things they don’t do at all well, and also back then we had five years to do it, lots of leisure, and lots of people we had trained to understand the style, and in how to do things. In this one, we had to bring lots of people up to speed really quickly, and so that was a bit of a challenge at the beginning, but they just got it very quickly and worked so hard.

It’s exciting again to be working with so many different talents, and then to bring it all together and see it on the screen, or to be on the set…It’s just gorgeous. That’s maybe a strange thing to say, given how strange the Skeksis look, but everything is really beautiful and some of it just takes your breath away when you see it because it’s real. That’s the exciting thing. We’re not talking about CGI. It’s great.

You’re working largely without CGI, aren’t you?

The CGI enhances various things where we need it. When we did The Dark Crystal, we didn’t have green screen. It’s very hard to imagine that! But now we do, and we do use some green screen, which means we can hide the puppeteers, and we can actually go back to a purer form of puppetry that is much more dynamic than what we could do before.

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How many people were working on this?

That’s a very good question, and I’m not totally sure of the answer! You have to throw a lot of people at something like this. We had people in California, we had people over here. The English plasterers who worked on the sets were amazing. What’s been great, filming it here in England, is that we had everybody in the same place, with all the workshops around the set. That was really great, to have a large team all focused on the same thing.

The irony is that most things are in bits all the time. I often don’t get to see my creatures until the last minute. A lot of the fun has been getting something together the night before (laughs) and then at 6:30 in the morning, my son and I would be on our knees in front of the sketches, getting things ready for nine o’clock that morning. Once it’s on, of course, that’s it, you can’t change anything! It only really comes to life on the screen.

It’s always been something of a family affair, hasn’t it? (Brian’s wife, Wendy, worked on the original film, and his son Toby is also a puppeteer and creature fabricator.) How do you find working together?

We work as a really good team. Toby’s a brilliant translator of my work. As a family working together, it was wonderful, because we respect each other’s work.

You worked really closely with the late Jim Henson on the original Dark Crystal. How has it been returning to this creative world again in his absence?

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It’s been wonderful working with the Hensons again, and working with that legacy. He pushed us all into this world that nobody had really seen before, and it was wonderful. I think everything looks even better this time than it did the first time round, though! The genius of Netflix was in actually commissioning this. They really wanted puppets because they were fans of the original film. Their enthusiasm has meant that we could build things and make things of high quality, with all that power behind the technical aspects of it, and gave us, the creative team, the freedom to visualise it all. Luckily, they’ve been loving everything we’ve been making. They’re proud of it, and so are we.

Your artistic inspirations draw heavily upon fairy imagery, in particular the work of Arthur Rackham. What is it that makes this aesthetic so timeless in its appeal?

My work is literally grounded. The reason I fell in love with Rackham was his trees. His trees have faces in them, and that’s how I feel about trees, and nature: that it has a life of its own. So when Jim Henson asked me to design this project, he was always keen on the rocks being alive, on everything being alive and connected to each other. When I was designing and building the original Dark Crystal, that’s what we did. Everything talks, or thinks, or moves. Even though the world of The Dark Crystal is some otherworldly planet – it’s not meant to be Earth – it has many things about it that we, as Earthlings, really connect to. (laughs) It’s not outer space, it’s not rocket ships, it has an organic feel to it. It’s immersive, and it’s emotional. I think that’s what appeals to people.

In the original film, you built in symbolism that was intended to represent the unity between the two warring sides. Will that be present in the new series?

I can’t help but put in symbolism, in the costuming, in the decorations, and in the architecture. Just like in the original film, you’ll be rewarded by re-viewing it, by looking at it again and again, and finding out what’s lurking in the corners, or what that really means. Jim Henson originally responded to my work because he loved England. He loved its connections to the ancient mysteries, and ley lines, and ancient sites, which I’ve fed into my work. I deliberately put in imagery that was cosmic, and again, we snuck it into the Netflix series!

Were you delving into the Arthurian legends again, as in the past?

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Well, my Arthurian influences come from Glastonbury as a sacred centre. I’ve always been intrigued by that, and you can see at the beginning of The Dark Crystal, with the lightning and the electricity that radiates across the landscape into the castle. It’s really a reference to the ley lines and things like that. It’s a bit of everything! I think people just pick up on it instinctively. They see the depth in the original film, as there is in this as well. They don’t have to understand exactly what it is, they just connect with it.

The Dark Crystal has an enormous fanbase. Do you get many opportunities to connect with those fans?

In general, when I’ve been out on tour with my books (Brian has worked on a number of art books about fairies and goblins, including 1978’s well-known Faeries), it’s been really gratifying to talk to people and find out how influential the original film’s been. First of all, they say that it scared the bejeezus out of them, which wasn’t our intention! (laughs) The other one is always some sort of creative response. They’ll say that they got into the business because of it, that they wanted to paint, to draw, or to write. Jim Henson would have loved to hear that, because we knew so many creative people in the first place. There were lots of people who hadn’t made movies before, who were doing the fabrics and the mechanics, and we put it all together, and that all shines through. We did that in the original film, and we’ve just done it again. I think it’s something that people haven’t really seen in a long time, and I think they’ll be entranced by that.

How do you feel about CGI? You use it on occasion to enhance things, but is that how you see it: as a tool to be used sparingly?

I mean, I’m never been a great fan of it. What I love about CGI is when you never notice it, that’s when it’s working best. The major problem for me with a lot of CGI is that it hasn’t grown up yet! What I mean by that is that in the early days of animation, they discovered it was rather dead, so they used this process called squash and stretch, and that seems to imply life, in a two-dimensional way. With CGI projects, they use that idea, and the characters are squashing and stretching, and it doesn’t look believable. It’s just really trying to get the CGI people to calm down a bit, and then it’ll be fine! (laughs) This is our counterblast against it right now. However, there’s been some beautiful, magnificent CGI, so I can’t really knock it.

What would you like people to take from Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance?

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When I was designing things for the new Netflix series, sometimes someone would say, “Oh, there’s something very similar in such-and-such a film.” And I’d say that was only by accident, because I don’t really watch that many films. My influences are not films. For people who do CGI, it’s all other films. But this, and The Dark Crystal – its influences are all from literature, from old paintings. It comes from another place, which is much calmer, and, I often think deeper. Its sensibilities have a different feel, which I think will be showing up on the screen, and people will really enjoy that.

The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance premieres on Netflix on August 30th. Read Brian Froud tell us all about working on Labyrinth here.