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Dark magic and puppets: A chat with Netflix's 'The Dark Crystal' creators

The '80s and '90s babies would know: Remember the magical puppetry world of The Dark Crystal? The cult classic was born from Muppets creator Jim Henson's dark fantasy adventure film in 1982, co-directed by Frank Oz, featuring an all-puppet cast set in the vast, complex world of Thra.

Within Thra, never-before-seen creatures existed, born from Henson's Creature Shop – Gelfling heroes, villainous Skeksis, and wise Mystics – creatures that today's younger generation can now get to know.

Netflix brings to life The Dark Crystal world after almost 20 years, telling its immersive origin story through a 10-episode prequel series entitled, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.

The series follows Rian, Brea, and Deet – 3 members of the elf-like race of Gelflings – who, after uncovering the Skeksis’ evil secrets, take on a thrilling adventure to fight for their planet.

Photo courtesy of Netflix

The visually-stunning, hand-crafted series features the voice talents of Taron Egerton, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Nathalie Emmanuel as the 3 Gelflings, along with a star-studded supporting cast featuring the voices of Catriona Balfe, Helena Bonham Carter, Natalie Dormer, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mark Strong, Alicia Vikander, Mark Hamill, Jason Isaacs, and Andy Samberg.

To usher in TDCAOR's Netflix premiere on Friday, August 30, Rappler sat down with executive producer Lisa Henson and director Louis Leterrier for a quick chat about the highly-anticipated series.

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is poised as a dark, high fantasy epic adventure series. Could you call it a "family-friendly" watch, suitable for all ages? How did you strike a balance between both audiences, younger and older?

Lisa: The story is basically an adventure that works for both the parents and the kids. It might not be appropriate for the littlest children, but we really feel that this isn't like Game of Thrones or Handmaid's Tale where you really just can't let children near it!

EXECUTIVE PRODUCER. Lisa Henson is the daughter of 'Muppets' creator Jim Henson. Photo courtesy of Netflix

EXECUTIVE PRODUCER. Lisa Henson is the daughter of 'Muppets' creator Jim Henson.

Photo courtesy of Netflix

 

Louis: I had two kids while making Dark Crystal, so my wife and I always struggle going to the movies or finding a show on TV that we can all watch together. Some shows are too kiddie for us, others they can't watch – but when you strike that perfect balance and find a whole season of TV that you can share together – yes it's both scary and funny, some stuff the parents will get, some the kids will laugh at. It's a happy balance where we can all experience this world together.

DIRECTOR. Louis Leterrier directed all 10 episodes of 'The Dark Crystal' for Netflix. Photo courtesy of Netflix

DIRECTOR. Louis Leterrier directed all 10 episodes of 'The Dark Crystal' for Netflix.

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Lisa: We did work hard to strike the right balance where it's a little scary, but in a way that just deepens the experience and makes the stakes feel real. Parents may say, "You can cover your eyes!" but they're still going to watch the show. It'll be a great family viewing experience. 

Louis: The beauty of Netflix and dropping all episodes at once is that you can decide to go on this journey one day at a time, or even in 3, 5, or even 10 hours, if it's a rainy weekend. You can all enjoy it together and then talk about it. 

That's the beauty of the original movie – the themes are universal and timeless. It's about nature, how everything is connected, and also about good and evil. It starts a conversation, and as a parent, I realize now is very rare nowadays on TV. 

There's also a Netflix documentary coming out called The Crystal Calls. It focuses on what goes on behind-the-scenes of The Dark Crystal – the meticulous craft and the hardworking crew behind the show's stunning art. 

Lisa: Yes, it's a very good documentary that Netflix commissioned at the same time. It's important for young people to get to see how things are done, particularly if it's a unique process like this. They will learn so much from watching the documentary. It's also very entertaining. Some people who've seen it say they would've wanted to go into filmmaking. There's so much craft! You just see the beautiful art practiced by the crew. 

Photo courtesy of Netflix

 

Louis: It's true. The original movie made me want to go into filmmaking, because I was old and young enough to realize that it was puppets and there were people in it. The nature was built by hand. I'd ask myself, "How did they paint it? How did the mountains exist?" I asked a lot of questions. They looked like toys, like stuff I could do myself.
How? Why? What is puppetry? Where's the person?" It's going to be an interesting one to watch and share. 

What is it specifically about The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance you wish viewers would know before watching, and appreciate about it afterwards? 

Lisa: We worked hard to have the show in its early episodes invite new viewers to watch it. We know a lot of young people haven't seen the original film, even though their parents may have. We want them to feel quite comfortable just tuning into this show without any preparation at all. In terms of what they can appreciate afterwards, I refer back to that great documentary. If you want to know how it's done, watch it in between or after.

Louis: It's a puppet show. Don't expect to see humans. There are absolutely zero actors on the screen. If you haven't seen the movie, you don't have to watch it! Just experience the story from the start and go for it. It was important for us because there are many fans to please, in hopes to do the original movie justice.

Photo courtesy of Netflix

At the same time, we could not make it too "inside" the original story and then alienate new people who'd come in. So we had to walk people into the story at the beginning, but very quickly it picks up, perfect for the fans of the old. 

We bet '80s and '90s babies are excited to see a prequel reboot to the 1982 puppet adventure cult classic. Firstly, why a prequel, and why a TV series? What about the original film did you want to explore or provide a different take on?

Lisa: The world of the Dark Crystal – Thra – is, of all the things Jim Henson created, I felt is the one thing that felt like a reality outside the movie. This is a world that has a past, present, and future, where things might be happening on the other side of that planet or within.

There was such deep building in creating the world of The Dark Crystal that we're constantly compelled to go back there and find other stories set in that world. We started in publishing, released a bunch of graphic novels, and some YA novels. It's our little Middle Earth. It's something that feels so real to us.

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Louis: When watching the original movie as an audience member, I had so many questions about what events led to where we are. It made total sense to go into the prequel show. Not a movie, because there's so much story to tell. We needed more than the 10 episodes to tell the story. Leave it to the people if they want to see more. But it's one of those rare movies that had created such an intricate world that you need to have a guide through it. The movie, in a way, is the exclamation point at the end of a very long sentence.

You've maintained Henson's realistic puppet animation style. How come? Were there ways you improved on it? 

Louis: The Henson company has continued to keep the puppetry flame alive. When I came to them and begged them to do something with The Dark Crystal, there was no other way than using puppets for me. 

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Lisa: And Netflix really jumped on that! Louis and I were actually working on a sequel film for Dark Crystal, then Netflix said: "Can you do the television series? With puppets at the level of the production of the feature film?" We took a big gulp but we were also astonished and so thrilled. Yes, we can do that, but do you know what you're asking for? Do you know how big and epic and complex that would be? But... "We're Netflix. We do big things."

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Louis: At the end of the day, the quality is better than a feature film because it's Netflix. Their standards of delivery are so high – like 4K Dolby Atmos HDR. It's better than any movie I've done. It's so high-end that it feels like making 5 feature movies. Every episode feels like a mini-movie and the 10 episodes feel like a 10-hour movie.

In terms of what we improved on...digital technology these days helps us to augment puppetry – to help the movement of the puppets. Sometimes, it helps me with my directing style where I'm running around and chasing puppets and making pieces of fabric look like action heroes. 

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Lisa: We do a lot with digital. When we catch puppeteers in shot, we take them out. We also used CG to build this world and make it much much bigger. The first movie is a tad claustrophobic – it's amazing but they built all those sets on stages, so they couldn't go outside those big sets. We used a lot of CG to create an impressively vast world. 

Louis: Again, we make every puppet look like the best puppets. We aim for that. We never went beyond what a puppet could do. Ultimately, it looks like "puppet plus." It's nothing more than a puppet. It's still a puppet, but the best version of one. Hopefully, people won't be able to tell when we removed, enhanced, or did something with the puppet. So far, so good.

You can catch The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance and The Crystal Calls documentary on Netflix starting August 30. – Rappler.com

Steph Arnaldo

If she’s not writing about food, she’s probably thinking about it. From advertising copywriter to freelance feature writer, Steph Arnaldo finally turned her part-time passion into a full-time career. She’s written about food, lifestyle, and wellness for Rappler since 2018.

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