Last Wednesday I sat in my writing armchair with my laptop slowly cooking my lap desk thingy (it’s from IKEA, so it probably has a stupid name) when my partner poked his head in the door and said, “do you want to go to the cinema tonight to see The Dark Crystal?”
Now, I had no recollection of jumping back in time to the early eighties, so this seemed odd. He went on to explain that the classic Jim Henson film was being shown at our local art house cinema, Chapter. What was more, after the film we would get to meet puppeteer and performer Toby Philpot who not only worked on the film in question but also cult fantasy classic Labyrinth and Return of the Jedi.
Naturally I said yes and we toddled on down, grabbed some drinks and a flapjack (it’s not a popcorn type of cinema) and settled in for the show.
The Dark Crystal
The Dark Crystal follows perhaps the most simple and classic of fantasy adventure plots. To save his world, Jen, last survivor of the persecuted race of Gelflings, must find the crystal shard and reunite it with the Dark Crystal, but his every step is hounded by the armies of the cruel Skeksis, the dark and twisted race that rules the land.
The attention to detail in this film is truly astounding; every frame is packed with richly decorated landscapes both alien and enchanting. While the few optical effects created, not from complex computer generated graphics but screen projections and early blue-screen work, do come across a little dated, the environments and characters have stood the test of time.
The story suffers slightly from a lack of pace, and unfortunately the creators felt the need to keep reminding you of the plot every five minutes, but never-the-less, it is a thoroughly enjoyable, endearing film.
Question and Answer with Toby Philpot
After the film Mr Philpot rose from his seat and we were treated to a fascinating account of his experiences working on the film.
Although only credited as one of the Mystics, the peaceful, gentle race of beings who raised Jen from infancy, he explained that all of the performers were involved in virtually every scene. Each of the characters required a team of puppeteers and every moving part of the set was controlled by a human operator.
One particular scene he described occupies only a few seconds in the film. As the camera pans through the alien jungle, a series of pointed, propeller topped seed pods spin up out of the picture. Toby explained how initial efforts to pull the props up with strings produced poor results and then someone had the idea to reverse the film and drop the pods into the picture. After that the team of puppeteers spent an afternoon “playing darts” by dropping the spinning pods from a gantry over and over until they achieved the perfect take. After each shot, an assistant bundled the props into a bucket to haul back up for another go.
The enthusiasm with which he recounted his time working with Jim Henson and Frank Oz, creators of The Muppet Show was obvious and genuine. He explained that after each long, tiring day of filming, the performers had the opportunity to sit and watch the rushes (the unedited footage) from the previous day, and how, even though they were exhausted, they rarely passed up the chance.
As experienced puppeteers, Henson and Oz strove to create a working environment keyed to the use of puppets. Thus, every stage floor was raised with removable sections to allow the performers access from beneath, and even the walls had access points. When performing in the fearsome Garthim suits, assistants would be on hand to give directions and hook up the suit to a gantry between takes to take the weight off the operator. Toby used the term “happy energy” to describe the feeling of collaboration and camaraderie.
Much of what he said chimed with my own experiences working on film shoots with The Great Escape, especially the friendships formed, and it was a genuine pleasure to listen to him speak.
I have great respect for the creators of this adventurous experiment of a film. Toby explained that Henson and Oz entered into the project with the aim of creating a truly believable world, populated by alien creatures, where the viewer did not see puppets or men in suits, but living creatures. An ambitious goal, true, but one which I think they succeeded at admirably. Although in Toby’s own words the film is flawed in terms of its story-telling, in terms of its creative vision, in my opinion, it has no equal.
For me there is something both nostalgic and genuinely impressive about the special effects of the eighties. While early efforts at computer generated effects now look clunky and unbelievable, the beautifully crafted models, sets and costumes of earlier times still look as impressive as they always did. It is my hope that Hollywood never truly forgets the rich, dynamic quality that physical effects can bring to a film and I was delighted to find that Mr Philpot shared my views when I got the opportunity to ask him a question of my own.
I leave you with the classic 1982 trailer for The Dark Crystal, and hope you’ll join me again next week. Also, remember to visit The Great Escape this Monday for our September video, Yarn.