27th Mar2014

Interview: Brian Henson talks Syfy’s ‘Creature Shop Challenge’

by Phil Wheat

Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge is the latest SFX show from Syfy, following their successful make-up competition show Face/Off. In anticipation of the series debut we talked to Brian Henson, chairman of the Jim Henson Company and also the head judge on the Syfy series, about the new creature building competition series.


Can you tease a bit of some of the creatures we’re going to see coming up, since we’ve only seen what’s in the first one?

Brian Henson: Well, we keep it a little bit secret because that’s part of the fun so I won’t tell you too much. I will say that creatures in general – there’s a really wide range that you can do depending on if they’re small or they’re large or what kind of technique you’re using. Is it more fabrication or is it more mechanization?

And you will see a very wide range of creature – what we call the creature brief which is at the beginning of every episode I brief the creature designers on what kind of creature we want and what we’re looking for, and there’ll be a wide range. There’s a couple that touch on some of the universes that you know well from our company’s past and that’s part of the event and that’s a lot of fun. But I’m not really going to tell you any more than that.

Can you talk about kind of how you got started doing this series and why you decided to do it?

Brian Henson: Well it’s something we’ve been considering for quite a long time actually. Normally speaking the Jim Henson Company – everything that we produce has an element of fantasy in it and often fantasy characters in it. And so it’s not easy for us to imagine what we would do in the reality realm of television but the creature designers – specifically creatures versus puppets. We’re very famous for building puppets and when we build a puppet it’s a very different thing.

A puppet is clearly made of ping pong balls and felt and fur fabric and foam rubber and it’s not trying to look alive. It comes to life through the puppetry and through the puppeteers but when we do creatures which started back on Dark Crystal and then continued with Labyrinth and Storyteller and Dinosaurs and Far Scape. When we do creatures it’s a different sort of thing that we’re looking for.

We’re trying to create a creature that looks and appears to be a living creature and it has a lot more movement, a lot more detail. They’re more expressive and the specific artists that do this well tend to have started at a very young age. They tend to have started at the age of eight or nine sketching monsters and then started trying to figure out how to build them themselves.

They’re very rare talent and they’re hard to find but what they do is in my mind almost the closest to magic that you will find in the artistic field and nobody knows about these creature builders. They cannot win an Emmy award. They cannot win an academy award. They do sometimes but for kind of the wrong reasons. Rick Baker has won for makeup but he wasn’t doing makeup and, you know, sometimes our creature shop will win for costuming but they’re not costumes.

So really these are artists that people don’t know what they do. They haven’t seen it. They don’t really know about it. It’s kind of a secret area – dark secret area that we love exposing and showing what they do. So we have thought for years that doing some sort of reality series around those artists would be the most exciting and interesting to the general public and it was when I met (Joe Freid) who’s an executive producing partner on the show.

(Joe) comes from a reality background and when he came in and we started talking, he shared exactly the same enthusiasm and of course he had the right experience base to really put that into a television show. And then when we went out with the show SyFy loved it instantly and it went very quickly from a pitch to production and now going on air.

How would you describe the overall talent on the show?

Brian Henson: Oh it’s extraordinary really. I – well we benefited from a really excellent casting director who had been casting Face Off for many years so she had already seen hundreds and hundreds of artists from around the world. She kind of knew where to look for them in America as well as she had seen artists over the years that she – that were not right for special effects makeup but would be much more right for a show like this.

So that sort of gave us a step up and they were able to bring us about 40 artists that were really good from around the country. We whittled it down to ten extraordinary artists and they come from every sort of background. Some are working in the special effects business. Some work in the theme park business, some not in the business at all. They range in age from I think 21 to 41 but they’re all those kinds of artists that I was talking about – they been doing it since they were kids. They just needed their opportunity.

We had one – one of our contestants who literally had never been introduced to the professional materials that we would use and was doing stuff out of hot glue and other materials that none of us would have ever thought would work but because he’d been doing it for years, he figured out how to make tinfoil and hot glue look like a creature. It’s extraordinary.

Well I wanted to ask you what it meant to you when (Robert) says Henson is better than Disney.

Brian Henson: I knew somebody would, you know, there’s a – I couldn’t decide whether that was kind of – whether that should stay in the show but it was just genuinely his feeling and Disney and Henson are very different. Henson has – there’s an irreverence to our work as well as there’s sort of a rooted reality toward the personalities of our creations. Our characters tend to be very out there in terms of their concept but in terms of their personality, their stories – they really resonate as real living breathing with all of the burdens of life that all of us have.

And I really think he meant he – that universe of where Henson creates which is certainly a cousin to Disney is different and it was just where, you know, where he personally found the most excitement.

What is the reason why there’s such a thrill factor for what, you know, would be now called old school create, you know, creating with your hands rather than using a computer?

Brian Henson: Well I think in terms – from the point of view of an artist there’s much more there, there where you are physically creating a creature and you point a camera at it. You’re recording something that really existed. CGI is a virtual art form so there’s kind of less there, there when you work in CGI. So it’s compelling in that sense.

It’s also very compelling because when you work in a physical medium the medium itself will surprise you. So you can’t whereas in CGI you really can realize anything that you imagine but you also won’t be surprised. You won’t be going along and finding, you know, the clay works kind of better like this and so I’m actually pushing the sculpt in this direction which I didn’t expect or the weight of the creature is doing this and that’s making it do this which is kind of cool and not what I expected.

There is, you know, art should be a little bit of – it should be an exciting adventure as you’re producing something artistically. And if you’re producing something physically you get the benefit of those surprises, those left turns, those unexpected oh look at this texture. Wow, it does something even nicer than I thought it was going to do. You have a lot less of that when you work in a virtual environment.

So do you also feel that the personality comes through more clearly when there’s actually touching and molding rather than, you know, clicking and, you know, point and click?

Brian Henson: Well yes, I think so and certainly at the performance end. If you create a creature physically rather than virtually, you then can perform it and you get all of the benefits of a spontaneous performance and you can create a creature that’s thinking and performing spontaneously in the moment. It can perform with actors which is much harder when you’re using a CG character where you will put the character in it post.

So you get – you get a real dramatic dynamic when the creature comes to life whereas with CGI some people are extremely good at making it appear spontaneous. Pixar are absolutely brilliant at making performances look spontaneous but they’ve done it by putting hundreds of hours into trying to figure out how to make that moment feel spontaneous whereas when you are in a performance medium and we try to perform everything live. We try not to pre-record even the most sophisticated mechanisms. We won’t do prerecorded robotics. We won’t – we try not to ever do that.

And in fact in our company we do do CGI work as well but we hook it all up to real time performances so that we can capture that spontaneity and I think that may be keying back to when you said does it – it feels more alive. It feels like a more real personality. It’s because in the moment that it comes to life it is alive and it really is reacting to its environment and it’s not through a plan that’s been planned in advance hoping it feels like it’s alive, you know.

I have a question about the judging process. I know you’ve got this onscreen camera ready performance but is there any hands on portion of judging as well? Were you able to actually, you know, get down there and sort of take apart what was done or was the camera ready portion weighed more heavily than anything else?

Brian Henson: Actually you know what? It was very, very deliberate. We – when we build creatures, we build them for the camera. When we puppeteer puppets, we puppeteer them for a camera. We don’t even do – I mean we do do some live theatre but as a company our background and what we do – our art form – is we bring things to life for a camera. And a camera sees things differently than us and we very deliberately don’t ever go and touch it because it doesn’t really matter. What matters is what the camera saw and how alive it seemed to the camera.

The other thing that doesn’t really matter is if you used a texture that to our eye up close doesn’t look like a good texture but to the camera it looks like an excellent texture – that’s fine, you know. And that is a win. That’s a win.

The other thing that’s very different from us and prosthetic makeups maybe – once – a prosthetic makeup is very different. You apply it to an actor. It takes three or four hours to apply it and then it has to last all day long. So they’re going to get judged on a show like Face Off in terms of longevity. Will the makeup stay together all day?

With creatures – again it’s very different. What we say is your creature has to do this performance for – whatever it is – two minutes and it has to get through that two minute screen test and look great. But the truth is if it falls apart right after the cameras cut – if it falls to bits, you still win because the point was to bring that creature to life in the most believable and most intriguing way for the length of the screen test and that really is part of what we do.

When we build a creature that we know has to do one shot, we will build the creature very differently than a creature that we’re going to build that needs to have a redo 40 lines of dialogue across 20 pages of the script. That’s a very different creature.

And generally speaking because we were giving these designers such a short amount of time. They had between two and four days to build these creatures. They were basically always building the type of creature that has – that is going to do one thing for just one or two minutes because truthfully in two to four days there’s no way – there’s no way they could build a creature that would have the durability to perform day after day after day on a film set.

I wanted to ask you, you know, what you guys are pioneered is the use of animatronics with the creatures you build. Does that plays into the show as well?

Brian Henson: Well yes. Again coming back to these guys are designing and building creatures, not puppets. And what’s important is that the creature is believably a living creature. So in terms of our criteria where we’re judging them, does it look like it’s alive? Do the textures and the finishing details look like a living creature? Does the movement – is it capable of the movement necessary for a performance that is realistic and believably alive and that’s when you have to bring in animatronics.

If the creature is only capable of the amount of movement that Kermit the Frog does for instance, it’s an excellent illusion of life and with Kermit and with the textures that are not believably living, that’s a wonderful illusion and an excellent art form. But with the creatures if you have that level of simplicity you’re – it’s limited how lifelike it will appear. So you need to start bringing some animatronic mechanisms in to help give it that added level of emotion and expressiveness that is necessary for a living illusion.

Is there anything you – any details you can give us on the possible Farscape movie? Is that going to happen?

Brian Henson: Well that’s a rumor and I cannot comment on it. I have said before to people that the next stage for Farscape should and hopefully will be a feature film but I cannot tell you anything more than that other than I am trying to move in that direction.

I did want to elaborate a little bit more on the CGI question and ask do you hope or do you think that maybe this show and focusing on the artistry of the animatronics will kind of create a resurgence in that art form over CGI or do you think the economics will keep the studios kind of sticking with the CGI?

Brian Henson: Well it’s interesting. The economics of CGI are not as good as the economics of animatronics – particularly what we can do now versus what we were doing 20 years ago with the green puppeteer removal, rod removal, and string removals. All these techniques are easier than ever. The big difference between animatronics and CGI in terms of movie production is that with animatronics you have to start a year ahead of shooting and to me this has always been really a studio dynamic that it’s very hard for a studio to know what movie they’ve got until they can see the director’s cut.

And so they’re a little bit in the dark and it’s uncomfortable for studios that are financing a movie when it’s a substantial animatronic build because it’s very hard for them to get a sense of what they’ve got and all they are very aware of is how much money they’re spending every week whereas with CGI the bulk of the work actually comes in after the studio’s seen the director’s cut. So it becomes just easier for them I believe to spend the money with CGI.

It is more expensive. A CGI creature is more expensive than an animatronic creature or even an animatronic CGI hybrid. It’s just – I think – I believe it’s just more comfortable for the studios because when the spending needs to happen is at a more comfortable stage for them.

But I do think we are seeing a resurgence of creating creatures that really are there in a space. Where the Wild Things Were – Where the Wild Things Were was a very good example of how you can use the benefits of animatronics where you’re putting a creature genuinely in a space with an actor genuinely in an environment but then you use CGI to enhance the expressiveness of the face and you kind of get the best of both worlds.

What I think we’ll see going forward is a little bit more of that because there are accuracies that you can accomplish with CGI that you really cannot accomplish with a creature or animatronic creature in terms of the very specific accuracy of lip-sync of eye lines. There’s certain things that the control that CGI gives you is genuinely absolutely a benefit to any creature that you realize.

So I don’t know that we will see a return to all animatronic creatures becoming a major resurgence. What I do think we’ll see is more of this sort of hybrid approach where we’re using animatronic creatures and often in wider shots and in the distance they may be fully animatronic but when they come up close we’ll be utilizing CGI enhancement to make more accurate the expression and performance of the creature. I suspect that’s where we’re going.

So you definitely would not consider it a dying art – the art of animatronics.

Brian Henson: No, I don’t think so. I think that – I think it continues to develop with the materials and the filming techniques that are available on set. I don’t think – I think it – there is less of it now certainly because 20 years ago it was basically all animatronics because there wasn’t – CGI wasn’t around yet or even I guess further back than 20 years. So we certainly are seeing less of it in terms of the character and creature balance in the industry but I think what we will see is more coming back like Men in Black was a wonderful combination of CG and animatronics.

I do believe that we will see more of those. It requires a little bit more courage from the studios to green light those movies but I think we will see more of that.

Ultimately what are the key qualities that you personally were looking for in the winner of the show?

Brian Henson: Well the truth is the way we approached it because it felt right which is probably – which is certainly slightly different than – I believe it’s a very credible TV series that we’ve made. We take it very seriously. We don’t manipulate the results at all. But one thing that is a little bit different than if we were interviewing and testing ten designers to ultimately choose one.

We on every episode was judged independently of the work that had gone on before. So basically the winner will be the one that made it through all of the eliminations and then had the best result in the final episode. So in that sense we don’t take into account some things that we would perhaps when hiring but the criteria that are most important really to us in terms of that designer is A, can they visualize a creature that is intriguing, has impact and has a personality in their visualization?

Can they then realize that through sketching and sculpting and then can they bring it to life in such a way that it has a story. They have a sense of what that creature wants and needs, what that creature’s rhythms are, where they would live, how they would live and does that story resonate as real and is that story reflected visually when you look at them. When you look at a person you have a sense of their entire life.

The first one minute that you see somebody you have a sense of where they come from, how they’ve lived, what’s important to them and all of that’s equally as important when you create a creature. So we’re looking for the designers that can visualize and sculpt that and then we’re looking for the all-around designer which is the rarest artist in our business – the one that can then – once they’ve realized it visually can then do all of the fabrication, all of the mechanizing – everything that they need to bring that creature to life and have it reflect that story that they have in how that creature has lived.

Interesting. And as a judge did you feel that you were more impressed with someone’s creative talent or with their technical ingenuity?

Brian Henson: Well different – every artist was different. Everyone was different. All of them came in with stronger aspects of their skills and weaker aspects of their skills and all of them were different. So some of them had very strong fabrication skills and were weaker in mechanizing. Some were very strong in mechanizing and fabricating but were a little bit weaker in design.

So they all came in needing to improve in their weaker areas in order to make it to the end. All of them had areas they needed to improve – that they needed to build during the run of the series. And the growth of the artists throughout the series is really impressive.

So will all of the challenges utilize puppeteers to bring these creatures to life?

Brian Henson: All of them – do all of them? Yes, all of them did to a degree. It’s – puppeteers are kind of a – they are a unique talent because everything that they do is to try and tell a story through movement, try to add life – convincing life through movement and it was very early on that we decided you know what? It’s just correct that they should have professional performance assistance when bringing their creatures to life for the film test.

The idea of doing a film test on a creature where they didn’t have the support and assistance of professional performers just seemed like clearly the wrong way to go and not credible. It’s not what we would do.

So some of them – they sometimes had more support with professional performers and sometimes less support and we – we addressed it challenge by challenge how much professional support and how little they would have but they are performing often in their challenges. Often they are performing their creature but always with some sort of assistance from professional performers.

However we did say to the performers you are not allowed to conceive of the performance of the screen test. You need to get that brief from your designer. Your designer needs to tell you the story of the creature. Your designer needs to tell you what they want that creature to do and then you need to then do that in the most convincing way and working with them on how to do what they are intending to do in the most convincing way possible.

And how much do they know about their puppeteer beforehand because I know in the first challenge they had to fit inside the suit. So do you know like the measurements and what your person can do before you have to do that?

Brian Henson: Well they don’t really know what they can do. Actually even we don’t know exactly what our performers can do. I mean we know some of them, you know, we know them very well but you never know exactly what they can do. They always knew the precise measurements of their performer and towards the end they kind of knew from the measurements who they were going to be getting but they always knew the precise measurements of their performer so they would know whether the performer could fit in or reach in.

And if they made mistakes, it would be their mistake. Sometimes the creatures didn’t fit as well as they should have with their performer but that would have been their error because they were given enough information to insure that that wouldn’t happen.

In the premier it turned out that the losing creature also happened to be the hardest on the puppeteer. I’m curious if a similarly difficult creation happened to clearly be the best most imaginative looking creature in a challenge, would its physical difficulty for its performer on principal potentially cost that contestant the win?

Brian Henson: Not likely actually. If the creature – if the performance of the creature was wonderful and convincing but really beat the heck out of the puppeteer, we would definitely critique them for that. We would definitely say that’s a warning sign. But if they got through the screen test in a really convincing way, we wouldn’t actually ding them for that.

So we would say to them that’s a big warning because you literally have done a creature that can do one take because on take – halfway through take two your performer’s going to drop and that’s not going to work. If you’re on – you cannot go on set and say to a director by the way, my performer can only do one take.

So we would definitely give them a slap on the hand for having done that but if they got through the screen test we would basically say but you got through the screen test by sheer luck because that creature is so punishing on your performer it is literally by luck that you got through the screen test. So do you know what I mean?

So beyond and sense of commitment to this art or obligation to his professional legacy, I’m wondering what does it feel like to have a father who’s so cherished and beloved the world over?

Brian Henson: It’s very, very comfortable actually for me. It’s kind of lovely. I think that I’m kind of blessed by a situation where everybody knows how much – how wonderful my dad was and how special he must have been to me and, you know, I think most people probably feel that way about their fathers and most people don’t benefit from an entire world whenever you meet anybody knowing exactly how that must feel.

So it’s sort of a – it’s a very nice feeling. People – people really loved my dad and they know how – they can anticipate what he was like as a father and all that and you can tell from his work and he really was a wonderful father and I loved growing up with him as my dad and I loved working with him as an adult.

And in terms of continuing his legacy, it’s never been really a burden. His legacy mostly is do bold things and don’t be scared of failure and if you fail but you’ve been doing something bold and innovative that nobody’s seen and it failed – that’s a triumph. And, you know, don’t copy yourself. Don’t copy other people. Do things that are fun and be irreverent and question the status quo and be a little subversive when it feels like the right thing to do.

So that legacy is kind of a wonderful and liberating – it’s a liberating legacy to continue as opposed to a restricting legacy that everybody’s trying to refer back to well what would the founder have done, you know.

What is the hardest most complex creation you have ever worked with in your entire career?

Brian Henson: Oh well there’s kind of a difference between hardest and most complex. I think the hardest was Audrey 2 for little shop of horrors. It took months and months and month of rehearsal to bring to life those big Audrey 2’s – the feed me and the mean green mother – the really big Audrey 2’s. Those were the hardest. It took it a lot of work. Frank Oz is a very, very – has a very demanding eye. He really demands a very, very high standard of excellence with creatures when he’s directing.

And so I think that was probably the hardest one. The most complex – that’s an interesting question because it’s sort of the complexity and what it’s going to do. I would say for when we did it the Ninja Turtles were probably the most complex at that particular time. The amount of technology development we had to do to create four all talking acrobatic wireless turtles that were creatures for Ninja Turtles was a very complex challenge. It then opened up the whole performance control system – the development of the performance control system, all of our wireless technology.

It started us on a development that then did get more and more complex but the leap that was required there was pretty extraordinary. (Hoggle) was a very complex character for Labyrinth. Oh I don’t know. Yes, there is lots – they’re always complex in different ways.

Have you guys ever worked on something – either filmed something or tried something – and it was just never released? Like do you guys have a Henson archive somewhere of stuff that’s never been released to the public?

Brian Henson: Yes, it won’t be – it won’t be finished productions. I don’t think we ever finished a production that wasn’t released at all. Oh now, I guess we have – now we’ve done some pilots that never aired. Of course we have. That we’re finished pilots of TV shows that didn’t air. Mostly we have a whole lot of like screen tests, character tests that were for projects that ultimately were too ambitious to finance or stuff like that but yes, we do have – we have a whole lot of like film tests and creature tests and also a handful of pilots that never released and they’re good.

I know that contestants, having such a big opportunity to be on the show, that they learned a lot from you but was there anything that they took away from spending time with them or anything you learned from them?

Brian Henson: Well I think that we always learn from talented artists all the time. I think that not only did I learn. In the show we also have three creature shop masters that are working with the teams as well and with the designers as well and I think what we all saw which is something that we don’t often do. We don’t often decide that we’re going to make a creature in three days. It’s just not something we do. It’s just too fast.

So I think we all learned watching talented people trying to come up with a strategy and a workflow that would result in a creature in three days’ time – I think we all learned an enormous amount because it’s just not something we normally do. And I do think that coming off of it we did think wow, okay it’s kind of nice. We’re all learning this faster route which is kind of cool and I don’t know if you’ve seen it on air but we did a 30 second promo for the show which has the one eyed, one horned flying purple people eater that comes to life and then a two eyed, two horned flying purple people eater like the old song which we recovered in a modern way and then a multi eyed multi horned that comes crashing in in the end.

And it’s a great 30 second promo for the show and we did that right after we finished the show. The SyFy marketing team came to us and said well we have this really ambitious idea. Do you think we can do it? And we said well how long do we have to build the creatures and it was 2 ½ weeks from the beginning to fully build and shooting and that’s not two to four days but it’s still much, much faster than we would normally work and it was really interesting watching my creature shop go okay, we can do that.

You know, they’ve just been watching these designers do creatures in two to four days and watching them say we can do that and we can make them great. We can make them fantastic and they really did an extraordinary job in a super short amount of time. And I’d say we learned a lot about how to prioritize the most important things creatively in a creature and how to create a very fast workflow.

Are there going to be any guest stars or maybe guest judges that make an appearance on Creature Shop Challenge?

Brian Henson: Yes, there will be. There will be. I don’t know that I can tell you more than that other than there will be. I think that – I think, you know, the whole idea is we won’t tell you what’s coming up exactly but yes, there will be.

What the criteria was for selecting the judges, obviously besides yourself, on the show?

Brian Henson: Well that’s an interesting question and we had – it was – here’s what we – in early preproduction in trying to figure out what the judging panel was, we were trying to balance what would the actual judging panel be in the Jim Henson Company choosing a creature designer as one end and that knowing if we put a panel tougher that really was pretty precisely the minds that would be making that choice in the company that that would add real credibility to the show as it is a real process and it is a real Jim Henson company process.

Ultimately in the end we thought you know what? Although that is the most credible way to go, the other way to go is you pull together the best and the brightest creature designers in the industry today regardless of whether they’ve worked with the Jim Henson Company. And that’s also a very exciting approach however it slightly undermines the credibility of the process and at the end of the day we really are choosing a creature designer who will become staff in our company.

So what we did was we sort of did a balance. So Kirk Thatcher is a top creature designer in our – who has substantial experience in our company, has done a lot of directing for our company so he understands what we’re looking for from a creature and when it works best on screen. I with my experience mostly through performing and directing creatures – I have, you know, my point of view.

And then what we decided in the end was for the third seat to actually look outside the company and Beth Hathaway has a lot of experience working with Stan Winston, Rick Baker outside the company and the idea was well let’s bring Beth Hathaway in. She also has a different experience base from Kirk and I in terms of creature design and comes from outside our company. And we thought that that felt like a kind of good balance.

That’s great and it’s – I’m really thrilled to see (Gigi) back in the Henson family again and as your cohost. I think that’s awesome.

Brian Henson: No, I know. We thought that would be fun. We did think that, you know, if we’re going to bring in – if we’re going to bring in a host into the show that isn’t – doesn’t have a specific role in the process of evaluating us tasking these designers and critiquing and ultimately eliminating that bringing somebody that has history with us and has worked on the sets. (Gigi) would, you know, for 88 episodes and a full two night miniseries work side by side with creatures on a daily basis. So it felt like a really nice choice and she’s a lot of fun and just a lovely lady.

I’ve heard mention of your proprietary Henson performance control system and I was wondering if that’s something that the contestants will at any point be taught or have access to throughout the show.

Brian Henson: Well I think maybe. I don’t want to jump ahead into future seasons and, you know, I hope that we will be doing future seasons and I’m sure that as we do we’ll be looking at other elements of creature design and performance that awe can introduce that still work within the timeframe of a reality challenge series. And we didn’t this season – I will say that – because we didn’t have the level of complexity in the mechanizing where really the performance control system would assist.

But I don’t know. Going forward that’s definitely a layer we could pull in as a way of escalating the ambition of the creatures going into future seasons.

Because that sort of involves them looking at a monitor to see what their creature is doing, right, where they’re doing it themselves?

Brian Henson: Well mostly the performance control system – what it was really designed to do and we started designing it before Ninja Turtles and it – the first experimental creature using that system was the dog in the Story Teller series that would play John Hurt’s dog. I used the early beta version of the performance control system and then Ninja Turtles was the first one.

And really the idea with that system is take one puppeteer who’s puppeteering through their hands through a mechanical interface and then that mechanical interface is reading what they’re doing with their hands is then being taken in by a computer and then the performer can program the computer so that one trigger on one of their hand controls can actually control any of the server motors in the animatronic creatures so that you can have blended expressions and that if you have all these blended expressions and mouth shapes that are available and you can perform by emotion as opposed to thinking about I want the right eyebrow to go half way up and the left one to go all the way up.

You’re using sort of real time mixing board that the performer would program. Really the system was designed for when a performer is trying to perform kind of five or more motor driven movements on a creature and the performance control system is generally utilized when there’s kind of 18 to 35 motors that one performer needs to operate. And again that really is a higher level of complexity in the animatronics than is easily realized on this type of timeframe.

But I think going forward we learned a lot about what you can do with the team challenge, you know. If you put several people working on a creature for three days – let’s say you have four people working for three days. That’s 12 man days. It’s a lot more than if you have an individual creature that’s being built over four days. That’s still one person only working for four days. It’s four man days. So as we go forward we’re finding ways that we can get more ambitious and more complex with the creatures.

Well thank you for explaining what the control system does exactly. I wasn’t quite sure. Real quickly will your sister Heather pop up perhaps as a special guest or advisor any time this season? Can you share?

Brian Henson: I don’t know. Not in this season. In this season I was really the only Henson. Well yes in a meaningful way. There’s a little – some snippets of a couple of other Hensons.

Any chance you guys either in the series or in a movie or maybe a TV special where you guys might revisit some things you did in the past like maybe another visit to the Labyrinth universe or maybe Dark Crystal?

Brian Henson: Well yes. I mean we’re very, very careful how we would extend or sequel classic works that my dad did. So we’re very careful about it but I can say that there has been thought and there is development both around Labyrinth and Dark Crystal and those are both worlds and universes we would like to see revisited but only if it’s done in the best possible way but yes, we’re thinking about it.

These are complex worlds to produce inside of so it takes a lot of time and energy and careful work to make sure that – we won’t do anything until we’re really confident that we’re doing something that’s great and something that really supports the original work of Jim Henson and doesn’t kind of reconceive it if that makes sense.

That makes perfect sense and I understand because you don’t want to run the risk of messing up something that’s already, you know, already wonderful and beautiful.

Brian Henson: Yes. I mean I think it’s very unlikely that you would ever see from our company a remake of a classic that Jim Henson made for instance. So it would always be sort of a sequel or an expansion or a spinoff – something that works in conjunction with and supporting but not ever trying to replace.

What is – what is your most absolute favorite character you have ever done or worked with?

Brian Henson: Oh that’s too hard a question. That’s too hard a question. I’ve worked with way, way too many creatures and characters that I love in so many different ways. It’s almost like in the different – I have favorites in all of the various different universes. Like in Dinosaurs the TV series, I loved the baby dinosaur. I thought that that was a great character. In Far Scape probably my favorite is pilot. I think that that is one – I think that’s perhaps the finest animatronic creature we’ve ever made in terms of it having believable soul and an emotional presence.

In some ways when Pilot’s performing in the Farscape series, the best actor in the room is Pilot which is pretty great. And oh boy, I don’t know. Over the years the Story Teller dog – Story Teller’s dog – the Story Teller is a series. It was very big in Europe, not very well known here but I did the dog character in there. I loved him. I loved Hoggle. Hoggle was very near and dear to my heart from Labyrinth and took a lot of my life there and of course all the Muppet characters I love. I can’t tell you I have a favorite.

What advice would you give someone who wants to become a creature designer?

Brian Henson: Well that’s a hard one. it’s interesting because the question that I get the most from people in the public is how do I become a puppeteer and I’m going to just for a moment just answer that one because in the past it’s been very hard to become a Henson style puppeteer because it requires a camera. It requires monitors. There’s a lot involved in the technique where before there were camcorders and video recorders it was almost impossible really to become a Henson style puppeteer. You could work in front of a mirror but that wasn’t really ever going to be the same thing.

Nowadays if you want to work on your puppetry I say to people well just get out your little webcam, put it up at a standing height and make videos and post them on YouTube, you know, just go for it because you can actually just do it and you can find, you know, build your own puppet or if you can’t build your own puppet, go to FAO Schwartz and get a build your own Muppet because they’re great and just get going.

So puppetry – becoming a Henson style puppeteer has become much, much easier with modern technology. Becoming a creature designer – boy is it hard. And there’s almost nobody – you can come into the creature shop in a more specialized manor. Like people will come in who are sculptors and they really want to sculpt creatures and they’ve got excellent sculpting skills and you can see it from their body of work and they’ll come in and start sculpting creatures or you might have a designer who sketches creatures or you might have a mechanic that shows that they’ve built beautiful mechanisms and that they are an excellent mechanic and they have an enthusiasm for creatures so you can bring them in just to mechanize.

The kind of artists that we’re looking for in this series is what we call the all-around creature artist. And they have to be able to design and sculpt and build and mechanize their creatures. Those – that is usually not a late in life decision. That is usually something where they’ve been doing it. they’ve been doing it but to, you know, whatever level of success and to whatever level of self-satisfaction but they’ve been trying to do it since they were 8, 9, 10 years old and really they’re already somewhat accomplished in this area and then they’re just looking for the opportunity to do it in a more professional arena with more materials and more higher expertise that they can put together around them in a team.

And those people – and they’re very rare – they really just have to put together their portfolio and come talk to the few places like the creature shop and just interview. And of course the creature shop like all of the other big shops and physical affect shops are interviewing people all the time if they have an impressive portfolio.

My last question I have to ask because I’m such a huge fan. Is there going to be a Fraggle Rock movie?

Brian Henson: Oh I can’t – you know what? I can’t really be specific on anything but we are developing a Fraggle Rock movie and we are enthusiastic about it but it’s not so far along that it’s got a production schedule or anything like that and the truth is no movies are, you know. It’s like we’re working. We’re always developing. We’re always refining our movie projects and they don’t have a schedule until they have a schedule and when they have a schedule you’re going to be shooting in 15 weeks, you know. It sort of – it comes together very quickly after many years of hard work developing.

Well thank you. I hope so. I’ll keep my fingers crossed…

Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge airs Tuesdays at 10/9c on Syfy in the US.


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