Netflix’s biggest series will blow your mind
Rich, big, vast … These are the words that Lisa Henson, executive producer on The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance uses to describe the 10-episode prequel to her father Jim Henson's 1982 cult classic streaming on Netflix this week.
"This is the biggest puppet production in history," she says, speaking to news.com.au on the eve of the series' release in London.
With some 48 puppeteers - 12 as part of the core team and 36 more drafted in when needed, the real "heroes" of The Dark Crystal, as Henson puts it - operating dozens and dozens of handcrafted puppet creatures, the production was big, bigger than the original The Dark Crystal and Team America before it.
"The ambition of it, the amount of shooting days, the amount of puppets, the number of puppeteers, the scale of the build, it was just bigger in every way," she says. "It's epic."
Henson is the expert. The producer literally grew up on the set of The Dark Crystal and The Muppets as the daughter of legendary puppetry icon Jim Henson, whose creations have spanned everything from Sesame Street to The Labyrinth. She spent her childhood in the creature workshop and worked behind the scenes on all of her father's biggest projects. "That's how I was raised," Henson recalls. "Coming on set (and being told), 'Can you just move that leaf in the background?'"
This prequel, the biggest puppet production in history, could only have been possibly through a collaboration with Netflix and the advent of new technology like 3D printers. The tech allowed the workshop to manufacture more lifelike and advanced puppets, capable of greater movement and manipulation.
Netflix supplied the creative scope and budget required to mount a production as epic as this multi-episode series.
The story, which takes place before the events of the original film, follows a Gelfling rebellion against the evil Skeksis overlords and boasts a star-studded voice cast, including Taron Egerton, Alicia Vikander, Nathalie Emmanuel, Lena Headey, Catriona Balfe, Andy Samberg, Natalie Dormer and Mark Hamill.
Why now, though? Why revisit something that has been such an iconic part of so many '80s childhoods in the year 2019?
"The best time to do a sequel is 37 years later," director Louis Letterier jokes. Henson says The Dark Crystal has always been her "passion project" and revisiting the world that her father was "most proud of" creating is an honour. And for Letterier, the French filmmaker behind The Incredible Hulk and The Transporter, the answer is also nostalgia.
Letterier first met Henson in 2011 when he achieved mainstream success in Hollywood with the release of his film Clash of the Titans. Agents were burning up his answering phone trying to arrange meetings with the film industry's biggest names. "Who do you want to meet? Stephen Spielberg?" Letterier remembers being asked. "I wanna meet the Henson company," was his response. "Because Jim Henson's TV and cinema had literally educated me," Letterier explains.
"The beauty of Jim Henson's work and legacy is that you grow up with Jim Henson. The first time you watch TV it's a Jim Henson project. So Jim Henson had followed me and in a sense made me a filmmaker."
For Letterier, the original The Dark Crystal is "one of the greatest movies ever made" and his love of the original shines through in the Netflix series. Not content to stay in the director's chair, Letterier also served as cinematographer on the series, taking the camera into his own hands and moving around the fantastical sets with a fluid, kinetic motion, getting in close to the puppets to see the gritty details.
The details that, if you remember your childhood correctly, were nightmare-inducing for so many children. But all those scary Skeksis monsters with their sorcery, all the twisted morality of the original film, it serves a purpose. "I think children are very sophisticated and they're used to - in their fairytales - darkness," producer Halle Stanford explains. "Maybe The Dark Crystal offers a little road map for how to navigate that darkness."
The puppets were designed and costumed by legendary husband-and-wife team Brian and Wendy Froud, who both worked on the original The Dark Crystal. (Wendy is also the woman behind the original Yoda puppet in Empire Strikes Back.) Their son Toby, who was the baby in Henson's The Labyrinth, served as the series' design supervisor. Technological advances like 3D printing made the intricately designed puppets more lifelike and real, and a smattering of CGI here and there helped finetune some action scenes. But on the whole, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is an ode to good old-fashioned puppetry. Just as Henson would have wanted.
"We built everything," Letterier says. "CGI has the tendency to give you one layer. This is infinite. It just keeps going."
The series is full to bursting with Easter eggs and treats for eagle-eyed fans scouring the background. "Everything is moving," Letterier adds. "It's the only project (I've worked on) where the whole crew is active. When they're not working, lighting something or doing make-up, I put them under the stage. Even our Netflix execs, when they were coming (on set), I told them you will go under that stage and you will move that plant."
"It's been a remarkable journey for us to be as ambitious as we have been," Henson adds. "We couldn't do it one bit less good than the original film. And I actually believe that thanks to this man (Letterier) we have done it a little more excitingly. It's more cinematic, more thrilling than the original film because we were capable of getting the puppets and the puppet action to another level entirely."
The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance streams on Netflix from August 30.
Hannah-Rose Yee is a freelance writer. Continue the conversation @hannahroserose