Stories abound about the making of The Dark Crystal, a fantasy cult classic with no human actors. Using puppets, feats of engineering, and elaborately designed sets, the movie follows two Gelflings, Jen and Kira, who survive the end of their race after the evil Skeksis take control of the planet Thra. The pair must restore the damaged Dark Crystal in order to bring peace and balance back to their world.
Jim Henson, who co-directed the movie with Frank Oz, capitalized on the popularity of Star Wars in order to bring his tale to cinematic life. ''The great challenge,'' Henson shared with The New York Times in 1982, ''was to create a complete world that doesn't exist and make it seem real, to create all the life forms on that world, their history, and their way of moving."
Henson harnessed knowledge from years of puppetry work on The Muppet Show and Sesame Street to build a unique vision that he hoped would dazzle audiences. The Dark Crystal's behind-the-scenes stories attest to its cast and creators' brilliance, creative talent, and tireless work ethic. Millions of dollars, millions of hours, and millions of foam rubber puppet parts later, The Dark Crystal is still revered by fans and has even spawned a Netflix prequel series.
The Massive Production Took More Than Five Years To Complete
The Dark Crystal's origins date back to 1975 or 1976, and the film was not completed until the end of 1982. This years-long endeavor was about much more than producing a fantasy film; it was an attempt to stretch the limits of puppetry. As concept artist Brian Froud, who was brought on early in the film's production, said in an interview:
Well, Dark Crystal took five years to make, if that gives you any indication! Labyrinth took three. We were really working at the forefront, I think, we were pushing what was possible as far as radio controlled puppetry. We used to call them "super puppets" because that’s what they are, really.
Jim Henson's intense dedication to making every detail perfect contributed to the movie's long timeline. "It was because of Jim not accepting the impossible and as a result he would work harder than anybody I’ve ever known because he was the one who led the way by working harder," co-director Frank Oz told an interviewer. "None of us could say no because he always worked harder than us."
Jim Henson Wrote The Initial Outline While Snowed In At The Airport
Jim Henson's imagination was sparked in 1975 when he saw illustrations by Leonard Lubin in the Lewis Caroll book The Pig-Tale. In the book, Lubin portrays two lounging crocodiles that caught Henson's attention. "It was the juxtaposition of this reptilian thing in this fine atmosphere that intrigued me," Henson said. These drawings were his earliest inspiration for the movie.
Three years later, when Henson was snowed in with his teenage daughter Cheryl, the pair worked together to write down the first treatment for what would become The Dark Crystal. Henson recalled, "I had a delightful time working on the concept and talking it over with Cheryl. And it all jelled during that time, so that I’m quite happy with what’s taking shape. All kinds of things came together."
Cheryl later reflected on the experience, too:
During the blizzard, the world appeared to be one enormous blank white slate. Before cell phones and laptop computers, being stranded by a snowstorm meant quiet time, time to imagine new worlds and their inhabitants. My father filled pages with ideas and musings. By the time we reached London, he had an outline for what was to become The Dark Crystal.
Concept Artist Brian Froud Designed Each Race Based On Its Connection To The Natural World
Brian Froud began his career as a fantasy illustrator. His work caught Henson's eye, and the two started a decades-long working relationship in the late 1970s. Froud was with Henson from The Dark Crystal's inception, and he served as the movie's conceptual artist and costume designer. Envisioning and designing diverse races and species occupying an expansive planet was no easy task, but Froud applied his knowledge of folklore as the various creatures were brought to life.
Froud enjoyed translating his drawings into physical models, telling Vice, "Because I’m an artist, I often found that the best way to communicate my ideas to the team was visually. I’d make a model of an idea, and we’d work off that."
Henson and Froud spent over a year drawing and making prototypes for the film's characters, which were condensed into a booklet for pitching purposes. From the miniature Gelflings to the towering Skeksis and everything in between, Froud designed the puppets based on their relationship to the natural world, an overarching theme in the story. This extends beyond the film's prominent races. The Podlings, for example, a race enslaved by the Skeksis, are round and earthy. Visually based on potatoes, their aesthetic and physical presence represents their strong attachment to nature.
The Movie Was Frank Oz's First Directing Gig
Frank Oz, who had worked with Henson on the Muppets, was asked to co-direct The Dark Crystal. As he shared in an interview:
Jim had been working on it in a laboratory situation, with no involvement from me, for about a year. When it was maybe six months away from shooting, we were on a plane trip to London for something else, and he asked me if I wanted to co-direct with him. I said, "I never directed, Jim. Why do you want me?" And this was typical Jim, he said, "Because it would be better." He didn’t care about credit at all - he cared about how good the movie was. He probably directed 70% of the movie and I kind of filled in.