It's not often that you get a chance to see the place where your childhood memories were literally built. It's kind of like peeling back the curtain on your dreams and finding the architects of them busily at work, pulling the strings, painting the scenery, and creating the characters you will vividly remember decades later. That's what it's like to visit Jim Henson's Creature Shop.
The story of Jim Henson's company is a long one, but here is the ultra-quick version. By the 1970s, Jim Henson's company was creating characters for Sesame Street, The Muppets Show, Saturday Night Live, and many others. This led to the 1982 feature The Dark Crystal, which you may remember from your nightmares. In fact, it was The Dark Crystal that lead to the formation of the team that would eventually become The Creature Shop. The original Creature Shop formed in London, and would lead to classics like Fraggle Rock and The Labyrinth.
When Jim died in 1990, his son Brian Henson took over the Creature Shop. The company continued working on major hits, like The Muppet Christmas Carol, and doing animal work in the movie Babe, work that earned the company its second Academy Award.
At that point, it opened up another studio in Burbank, CA, where they would go on to do work for commercials, TV shows (such as Dinosaurs), and movies, including Where the Wild Things Are. They even made a head for Deadmau5.
Today, the NY shop specializes in hand puppets and a lot of the Muppets. Most of the Sesame Street puppets are still built there. The LA shop focuses more on the creatures, which feature animatronics, servos, and more realistic skin textures.
Recently, we were given a tour of the Creature Shop in Burbank by Brian Henson himself, where Jim Henson's Creature Shop Challenge was shot, a show currently running on the Syfy channel. We were lucky enough to see some of the masters in action.
Like anything, creatures begin as an idea. They may get their start as a character already written in a script, or they may be dreamed up by the character designers and built first before a personality is assigned to it. Regardless, the first physical manifestations of the characters almost always take the form of pencil and paper sketches.
After the initial sketches of its body and face, there will be additional sketches to map out the creature's expressivity. What kind of faces does it need to be able to make? What kind of gestures must it be capable of? All of that plays a critical role in how it will be designed and built.
Usually the heads (and sometimes the bodies) are molded out of clay, before casts are made of the clay molds. From there, the design team pours rubber into the mold for the flesh. Usually foam latex is used because it's pliable and strong, but very lightweight.
If they want something more realistic, they'll use silicon. Silicon has the advantage of absorbing some of the ambient light—a feature of human skin that foam latex doesn't share. The disadvantage of silicon is that it's a lot heavier. It's actually close to the weight of human flesh, and that can make the creatures more difficult to manipulate.
The bodies are either fabricated or they are sculpted and skinned. Once you've built the head structure, skinned it, and then put it onto the body, that's when you start to get a real sense of the character.
While that's all being done, the skeletal structure is being built. There's a whole suite of drill presses, band saws, belt-sanders and a large stockpile of aluminum pieces that can be used to form bones.
At same same time, they're also building the creature's muscles, tendons, and ligaments, which take the form of servo motors, joints, and cables. Eyes, mouth, lips, cheeks, ears, and wings are all possible points of articulation.
Anything that moves has to be built mechanically and in harmony with external structures. Typically the motors will go into the creature's body or neck, which will then drive the cables that operate the mechanical features in its face. The motors are all operated by remote control.
We got to watch the Creature Shop's Animatronic Supervisor John Criswell (who wears an awesome leather outfit that looks straight out of Mad Max) restoring the electronics on an aging creature, as well as remotely operating various eyes, tails, hands, and other appendages.
The level of detail and nuance of movement they can create is just amazing, and sometimes seeing the mechanics behind these creatures is almost terrifying.
Once the creature is all together, tests are done to make sure that the it can move how you need it to, and that its face is capable of all of the expressions needed to play its role. Once that's done, it goes under the knife (or hot glue gun) one more time to be finished.
That's all of the intricate and painstaking detail work that makes these creatures so lifelike. Everything from skin textures, hair, fur, aging, distressing—hell, even make-up is added. This is only done after the creature passes its tests for expressiveness, because if something has to be rebuilt you don't want to have to do all these labor-intensive fine-details all over again.
Once all of that is done, it is given to the performer for a rehearsal period. At that point, the performer will begin playing with the creature and working with it intensely. They're discovering what the creature is good at, and where it's lacking. They figure out how every single shot is going to be done. Throughout that period the creature is being tweaked and adjusted so it will perform exactly as is needed.
Once all those little kinks are worked out, it's ready for shooting.
Once upon a time, all of the servos were controlled by simple parallel processing Scorpion boards, but today it's computer-based (though still hand-controlled). Using a proprietary system they call Henson Performance Control Software (or HPCS), a single performer is able to control an unlimited number of servos.
It was a real game-changer when it debuted and the system actually won a technical Academy Award back in 1992. It allows you to group servos together, so one single hand motion can create a "mixed expression," such as pulling the head back, frowning, and furrowing the eyebrows all at once.
It was wild to see the way Henson and the Creature Shop master designers treat their creations. When a little rat creature's servos weren't getting enough power because of some voltage issue, they described him as a "poor little guy" and "tired." They got to work fixing the problem with such tenderness and genuine care that it was almost like they were working on a beloved pet. It was actually very touching.
In almost all cases, the person who performs the creature's face is also the person that does its voice. "That way the character can improvise and play in the moment," Brian Henson told us. "If you work with pre-recorded soundtracks, it works, and we do it sometimes, but it's not quite as potent as an effect. So it's better if the puppeteers are performing it, and our puppeteers are really great performers as well.
"As the same time, sometimes you want a celebrity voice on a creature, and, for that, you can do it a few different ways. You can pre-record the celebrity and then have the creature lip-sync to it, or you can the puppeteer impersonate the celebrity and then have the real celebrity replace the voice is post."
The only celebrity Henson could remember doing his own puppetry was Jason Segel, who wanted to learn how to do it for the last scene in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. He actually came in and took classes. That was just a hand-puppet though, which isn't nearly as complex as the servo-controlled creatures in the show.
"But, generally speaking, I don't think we've ever taught a celebrity how to puppeteer," says Henson. "It's hard. It's really hard, and usually it takes years before they're ready to perform in a movie or a TV show."
Another interesting twist is that the Creature Shop doesn't limit itself to characters that exist in the physical realm. When computer animation is called for, the studio can deliver a fully-formed character in far less time than CGI would take. Enter the Henson Digital Puppetry Studio, or HDPS.
On the input end, it looks just like it would for an animatronic creature. The performer manipulates an intricate set of controllers with his or her hands, and that is fed into the same Henson Performance Control Software we talked about earlier. What's different is that on the output side, instead of being fed into a matrix of servos, it pours into the HDPS program. That software creates a live 3D animated representation of the character, and it moves in real time.
It's a cruder form of animation compared to traditional CGI, yes, but it has certain advantages, too. For starters, there's speed. The puppeteer can perform the character's face in real time, and the director will know right away if they're getting the performance they're after. Layers of detail can be added on in post to make things look better and match the surroundings; but, for TV shows where time is of the essence, it keeps things moving right along. It also adds an element of improvisation. The performer can react spontaneously (just as the character would) which can make things seem more authentic.
Because there are so many buttons and levers that can be pushed, each performer customizes his or her own program when they use it. That way the character works in a way that's comfortable to them, and they know all of the shortcuts. A single performer may control the entire character; however, in some instances, a performer will just control the face while, located in a motion-capture arena, another performer wearing a motion-capture suit will do the body. So they're fully animated creatures, but they're all performed in realtime.
They use an extremely powerful computer to run the system because lag is the enemy. "The performer needs to be able to see exactly what they're doing," says Henson. "Any delay at all will completely ruin it." Despite rendering some pretty detailed 3D digital animations, the system worked without any latency that we could perceive. It was slick.
The system is used extensively in TV. Sid the Science Kid (currently running on PBS), for example, is made entirely in the HDPS using the two-performer method. In contrast, in the video you see above, Brian is manipulating the character Rygel from Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars (which Brian also directed). In most scenes, especially when closeups were involved, they used an animatronic Rygel. But, in scenes where he had to be walking around, or others that might be further away, they used the digital version of Rygel through the HDPS. A lot of effort is expended to make sure the lighting and textures match, but when all is said and done, you can cut between the two relatively seamlessly.
"It's a more efficient process because you get a lot more animation completed in a day," says Henson. "It's not as precise as keyframe animation, but what it has is spontaneity: It really did happen. We can animate multiple characters at the same time and shoot them with camera operators that are working virtual cameras. So we can capture a spontaneous scene between creatures that you can't do with keyframe animation. So it's less accurate than keyframe animation, but it feels far more alive."
When we came to visit the shop, shooting had just recently wrapped on Jim Henson's Creature Shop Challenge, which is now running on Syfy. At the beginning of each episode, Brian gives the Creature Designers a brief that says what kind of creature they're looking for, what it must be able to do, and other elements—like where they live or some detail from their history. They'll also let them know if there are additional elements that they'll be judged on. The team is looking primarily at believability and performability of the creature. "Does it look like it's alive, and does it move like it's alive?" says Henson.
Participants are then given between two and four days to generate their creatures. Sometimes they work alone; sometimes in teams of two or three. Either way, this is extremely fast. "For every day we give them, if it were a professional schedule, it would probably be a week or two or more," says Henson. "It's a very compressed schedule."
Another interesting element is that these creatures don't have to be built to last: "It's not like the theme park business, where you're trying to make a creature that can repeat the same thing over and over again for ten years and not fall apart." Henson explained. "We just want it to look the best and move the best for what it actually needs to do, so we actually say, 'Look, if it makes it through the screen test and it looks great and moves great and then the instant the cameras stop rolling it falls apart, you still win.' That's part of the magic, and that's how it works in real life. You have to use shortcuts and weird little tricks to make it look just right in the shot."
(Image courtesy of NBC/Universal)
The final day of the challenge is the screen test, which happens on the Henson Sound Stage. The designers are introduced to Henson's professional performers, who spend a short time with the creatures and then perform them in the test. Brian serves as the head judge, along with two other judges (master creature designer Kirk Thatcher and master creature fabricator Beth Hathaway) and the occasional guest judge. They watch the performance, then grill the designers about what they've put in their creatures, why they made the choices they made, etc.
The judges then deliberate and pick one person to win, and one that will be eliminated. At the very end, the last designer standing wins a staff job in the Creature Shop, as well as a cash prize. For most of them, the job is a dream come true.
I watched the first two episodes of the show, and while I generally want all reality programming to die in a trash fire, this is actually pretty good. The creatures these designers create in a matter of just a couple of days are absolutely amazing. Even the contestants who get voted off early are incredibly skilled, and the amount of creativity and detail they can cram into their creatures under such a short time-constraint is inspiring. It's just a lot of fun to see them do what they do best.
Ultimately, getting to go inside the Creature Shop was both wonderful and surreal. It was like walking through a room full of fossils from long-forgotten memories. Some of them looked just like you remember them. Some of them were falling apart (like Fran from Dinosaurs) in a way that kind of makes chills run down your spine. Regardless, the place had an intangible magic to it, and it's wonderful to see that the magic is still in very good hands.
Huge thanks to Brian Henson, John Criswell, and everyone else at the Creature Shop for their time and for showing us around.