Revisiting Jim Henson's "Dark Crystal" Through the Film's Trippy Ephemera

Revisiting Jim Henson's "Dark Crystal" Through the Film's Trippy Ephemera

by Seth Ferranti
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CULTURE
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“We all say this is a once-in-a-lifetime album or actor, but ‘The Dark Crystal’ really is a once-in-a-lifetime movie,” notes author Caseen Gaines, who compiled the film’s concept art in a new book.

All images courtesy of Insight Editions

The late Jim Henson was best known for The Muppet Show, which premiered in the 1970s, but he got his start on Sesame Street a decade earlier where he showcased his his puppeteer talents and created some of the most memorable characters ever, such as Kermit the Frog, Ernie, and Rowlf the Dog. Henson mesmerized and enthralled kids around the world and became a household name in the process. And when he finally took his characters to the big screen in 1979's The Muppet Movie, it became one of the highest grossing films ever. Kermit's song from the film, "The Rainbow Connection" (voiced by Henson), broke Billboard's Top 100, rising to number 25, before being nominated for an Academy Award.

But The Dark Crystal, released in 1982, was a stark departure from Henson's previous work. The master storyteller went in a different direction with his puppetry for the movie, focusing more on realism and symbolism to tell the story of Jen, an elf-like creature on a mission to find a mysterious gem that will save his alien world. The film's puppets were based on Brain Froud's artwork, and the feature became a commercial and critical success in its own right.

A new coffee table book, The Dark Crystal: The Ultimate Visual History, out through Insight Editions, not only celebrates the 35th anniversary of the film, but collects all the rare ephemera, concept art, storyboards, on-set photos, and other material that offers a vantage into what the day-to-day production of the fantasy classic was like. MERRY JANE talked to the author, Caseen Gaines, by phone to find out more about the project, how it evolved, and the significance of some of the images included in the deluxe tome. He broke down various images for the book, and explained what makes them special.

Caseen Gaines: What really intrigued me was looking at where Jim Henson was in his career at the time when he made The Dark Crystal and what sort of attracted him to telling this story that was so different than his work with The Muppets, which was really reaching its zenith. During that period between 1976 and 1982, Jim Henson did The Muppet Show, The Muppet Movie, and The Great Muppet Caper, but he was working on The Dark Crystal all in that period of time, too. The film meant so much to Jim Henson. He spent a lot of his life and his own money working on it. He really was very passionate about this movie, and was really disappointed that he never got to see the film develop the cult following that it now has. The film has absolutely no digital effects in it. There is no computer work in that film whatsoever. It's really caused people to give it a second look over the years and really appreciate it for what it was, which is an amazing piece of art in so many different aspects. I think that's why the film has really endured over the years.

Caseen Gaines: In terms of the visual history component, it's a film that's truly unlike any other in terms of the aesthetic. It remains the only live action film told entirely with puppets and it's a complete fantasy world. It's different than anything else that Jim Henson has ever done, including Labyrinth. It also tells a beautiful story — this idea that we all have a destiny, and that our destiny is connected to everyone else, is a really powerful message. The movie was also very personal to Henson for a number of reasons. Number one, no artist likes to be pigeonholed and he was really kind of growing concerned at that point in his career that he was becoming known as "The Muppet Guy." That people only saw him as someone who can do characters like Kermit the Frog and Big Bird. He wanted to demonstrate that he could do more, that he was a filmmaker and artist, and that puppets could be used not just in a cute and cuddly way, but also to talk about deeper themes and tell more interesting and complex kinds of stories.

Caseen Gaines: Jim Henson was a firm believer that there's nothing wrong with scaring or challenging a kid. A lot of the original Grimm Fairy Tales are a little bit scary, a little bit dark, and The Dark Crystal is a return to that kind of storytelling to children. It's a great fantasy adventure and most fantasy adventures have darkness to them. There were a lot of kids that were scared by it at the time and even still today. The movie really speaks to Henson's sort of personal philosophy that there's no such thing as a totally good person or a totally bad person. Everybody has a little bit of good and bad in them. The Skeksis and the Mystics were two sides of the same creature, but because of the division in The Dark Crystal, they've been split into two separate species. Their race is dying because good and evil cannot exist as a whole. You cannot be entirely good or entirely evil. The film explores a lot of those deeper themes.

Caseen Gaines: The story behind the making of the film is so incredibly unique. It was 1981 when they were developing the creatures, and it really was a film that came out of a specific place and time. For that reason, it's a film that can never be replicated and that is a really special thing. Now, we all talk about how this is a once-in-a-lifetime album or this is a once-in-a-lifetime actor, but The Dark Crystal really is a once-in-a-lifetime movie. There are so many amazing, talented people who worked on this film that came together at the right point in their lives to tell this story in 90-something minutes. I was always sort of fascinated and captivated by the fact that it was entirely told with puppets. If you are a fan of Jim Henson, then you really owe it to yourself to learn more about this amazing movie. Hopefully you come away with a greater appreciation for the many, many artists that worked alongside Jim Henson in the making of this film.

Caseen Gaines: The hardest part of doing the book was trying to fit in all the things that we wanted to include. The Jim Henson archives provided us with so much material and what I ended up doing when I was writing the book was first trying to focus on just telling an interesting story. The creatures in The Dark Crystal are unlike any other character that had been created by the Jim Henson Company prior to that film. There was a lot of trial and error to figure out the best way for the body performers to puppeteer through the body puppet, the best way for some of the creatures to look. There were a lot of different prototypes that were developed. I hope that readers really take away an appreciation for this film that wasn't fully appreciated in Jim Henson's lifetime, but has since gone on to be revered as a real masterpiece and highpoint in his creative career. Jim Henson was an artist in the truest sense of the word and most people are familiar with his work through The Muppets, but the project that he was the most proud of in his entire life was The Dark Crystal.

Caseen Gaines: I think the book's removable attachments just helped to compliment the story and the visual history aspect. I'll give you an example, my favorite attachment in the book is a pitch book that was created to interest potential backers in The Dark Crystal back in its earliest days of pre-production. It's a short document, eight pages long, with all hand-drawn art. That entire book is reproduced in the book. While I write about that book and describe it in detail in the text, it's also great for people to have a facsimile of the actual booklet that they can thumb through and look at. It's actually very close to the size of the original booklet. Again, it's just trying to take that 35 year history and put it in the hands of Dark Crystal fans. That's something I'm really excited for people to see and look at. There are never-before-seen production notes, never-before-seen sketches from Jim Henson and Brian Froud, who was the conceptual designer on the film. There are hundreds of full glossy photographs and never-before-seen material.

Caseen Gaines: If you're a fan of The Dark Crystal, even if you feel like you've seen it all, there are a lot of brand new images and differently brand new stories in the book that will peak the interest of casual fans and diehard fans alike. What struck me about The Dark Crystal was that you could only have made that film at the time that it was made. If that film was made 10 years later, there would have been more computer animation and the creatures probably would have been made digitally. You couldn't have made it five years earlier, because the technology like form latex was not as available. We currently live in times where we are also divided. Fifty percent of the country thinks one thing and the other 50 percent thinks something completely the opposite. No one can imagine how the other person could even believe what they believe and The Dark Crystal sort of says we all depend on each other, we all need each other, and there's a little bit of the other person's perspective inside of us too and that's OK.

The Dark Crystal: The Ultimate Visual History is out now, order your copy here

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Seth Ferranti makes documentaries, films, comics, and writes for VICE, Penthouse, and OZY, among other publications. He spent 21 years in prison for LSD conspiracy charges and is now out in the world reaching for the sky. http://www.sethferranti.com/


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