How 'The Dark Crystal Age Of Resistance' Production Designer Gavin Bocquet Kept The Spirit Of Jim Henson's Film [Interview]

It's been 36 years since Jim Henson released the The Dark Crystal, and the rich world of his groundbreaking fantasy film is still fresh in fans' minds. Which presented somewhat of a challenge for The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance production designer Gavin Bocquet.

Bocquet is no stranger to a big fantastical production. He has worked on the big-budget Star Wars prequels, flowery fantasy films like Stardust, and Tim Burton's Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. But he felt the immense pressure of expanding on the wholly unique world of Henson's The Dark Crystal. "It was a huge film when it came out," Bocquet said. "It affected an awful lot of people in a certain age group, maybe late 30s, early 40s — film people who are directors now, or designers now, or concept people... But we felt to get the audience to connect with us, we really had to get that look of the movie right."

That proved to be more of a difficulty than Bocquet anticipated, he said in an extensive phone interview with /Film. The original designs and blueprints by The Dark Crystal director Jim Henson and his original production designers Harry Lange and Brian Froud, had all but disappeared. "Things weren't archived as well in the early '80s as they would be now," Bocquet said. "There was no digital backup of the sets that were made in the original film so we had to rely on Jim Henson's library of photographs and some basic set plans."

With its sprawling, organic aesthetic — all curves, roots, and no edges — the world of Thra is both like and unlike any fantasy world we've seen before. It's got your standard mystical woods, your gnarled, grotesque evil castle, but it's also entirely populated by non-humanoid creatures. The Gelflings are three-foot high elfin creatures that, in the film, share an innate connection to nature and to each other. Meanwhile the villains of the story, the Skeksis, are frighteningly warped and droopy bird-like creatures. There's nothing resembling a human in the original film nor its upcoming Netflix prequel series, so why should the world resemble anything like our human world?

"Hopefully it will be like nothing else out there right now," Bocquet mused.

How did you come onto the Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance project in the first place?

The contact initially was a very open contact from the director Louis Leterrier. I had met him socially before, not in the work environment, and just through the agency. The idea of Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance series came up with Louis doing it, and I got a call [asking] if I'd be interested in talking to Louis. And as soon as Louis and I chatted together, we seemed to get along very well and understand what this sort of show could mean. Then you're sort of off and running within a couple of weeks. It happens very quickly, they don't normally give you a call and say, "Can you start in 3-4 months?" There's a phone call and you have to start yesterday.

Can you tell me the process by which you would design a set, for example, and how it would go from model to shoot?

The first thing you start off with is obviously the script. They were very well formed at the time, which is always a help especially on a 10-episode basis. And you chat with Louis and Lisa Henson as well, and Halle Stanford the producer, just to get a feel for their overall [vision] for the show and what they wanted to do. And once you've got that first conversation, I like to get a little group of people together, four or five of us: researchers, concept artists, ourselves. And I like to spend 4-5 weeks putting a little package together to put in front of Louis. That's what we did, we had a four-week block for getting some ideas together for the different environments in the show, then came across to LA from London where Louis was, and had a first presentation there to show Louis, and Lisa, and Halle the ideas we were thinking about. Then from there it progresses to narrowing ideas down.

The worst day is obviously the first day where you have a blank piece of white paper in front of you. But once you read the script, that suddenly starts to really form a basis for how you schedule the ideas. You can't do everything at once, you have to start the bigger picture and then get smaller and smaller. It would probably be about 8 or 9 weeks before we had any big main approvals on some of the designs that we could start working on model form. That's how it starts, from a mixture of concepts and ideas and research work, putting in front of the director and producers and going to the next stage after that.

You've had experience doing production design for well-established fantasy/sci-fi worlds like Star Wars and ones where you've had more creative license like Miss Peregrine or Stardust. Where would you say The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance falls between those?

It's interesting, about 20% of The Age of Resistance takes place in Skeksis castle, and in the original film it was the other way around, about 80% took place in the Skeksis castle. So we knew that we had to reproduce certain amounts of the Skeksis castle in its original form, and 80% of what we were producing for Age of Resistance were completely new environments that hadn't been seen. In the same sense, when you look at Star Wars, we were also looking at a prequel of what had gone before, so apart from a few characters we were having to create new environments completely, in a sense, rather than relying on spacecraft or environments we'd seen before. But I think there's a slightly different emphasis on it in the sense, although the design input going into reproducing the Skeksis castle is not as pure as creating something from nothing, we sort of knew with Age of Resistance, we had to get the castle right, we had to get the fans to believe we were in the same place.

It was quite difficult in some senses because things weren't archived as well in the early '80s as they would be now. There was no digital backup of the sets that were made in the original film so we had to rely on Jim Henson's library of photographs and some basic set plans. But we felt to get the audience to connect with us, we really had to get that look of the movie right, so they could connect with that environment from the first film which would then give us a good basis for exploring the other 80% of new environments. If we hadn't got the castle right or believable as something from the first film, it might've been harder to grab the audience in the new world. So hopefully we managed to get that right.

So was the castle the only element of this world where you paid specific homage to the world that Jim Henson created with the original Dark Crystal, or were there other instances where you kept the original film in mind?

You could say that everything we did, whether it was for Jim Henson or Harry Lange, the original production designer, or Brian Froud, everything was trying to pay homage in the sets. We were using the reference in the first film, from technology to vegetation. But we did have big elements in what we call The Endless Forest, of which we did see certain amounts in the original film. So we knew we had to reproduce that, and the Orreryas well where Aughra is, that was a reproduction in a sense but we saw a little more of it in our show. I think in the Endless Forest, we had a bit of a challenge, because we knew we had to make it into 12 or 15 different parts. We had a very mobile set in terms of things on rostrums and trees and things that could be moved around to give Louis different parts of that environment. We were all bound by finances and budget so we couldn't afford to build 13 different forests, so you'd have a sort of kit of parts, that you move around. That was changed throughout the 10 months of shooting, into about 15 different environments in the schedule, then with the help of a bit of CG background to give it an extra different feel, it would work that way.

Then with the Orrery, that gets us into the world of, "How much do we build and how much is a CG addition?" Again, it's an expensive thing — CG and digital work — it's great but it's not a magic tool to do everything. So you have to balance how much you build in certain sets against how much is a digital extension. And in the Orrery scenes — there's only two real scenes in the Orrery — so there was a discussion early on that it's not the best idea to build the whole of that piece as a physical set. We built the floor up to 12 feet, but the main mechanics of the middle section of the observatory was all a CG addition because that was the best visual and financial route to go with that. But that was another one like the castle where we were producing pretty accurately what we could see in the original film. But again, we had no drawings, we had to take it all from reference photographs and hope we got it right.

Were you able to consult with any of the original crew members on The Dark Crystal film?

Funnily enough, a lot of our construction crew, there were quite a few sons and daughters of people who had worked on the original. And a couple of older guys who were assistants on the original film. That was a really nice move that 30 years later, you've got some family — because they all enjoyed working on the first film — it was a great family experience. I think Jim Henson and the Henson group tried very much to make it a big, enjoyable family event on that first one. And I think Lisa Henson tried to do the same thing on the second with Louis. I think they really achieved it, it was a very enjoyable experience and collaborative experience. That helps when you're working under pressure.

I think Brian Froud, who was obviously with us with his son and his wife on this one, he explained that they had about two or three years prep on the first film to do about 31 sets, I think. But we had six months to do 84. Times have changed! But I quite like that, sometimes you can think about things too long and instinctive ideas under a bit of pressure often are a good way to go as well.

But we did have one of the art directors, Malcolm Stone, he was on the first one looking over the forest set. He came in for a few days to give us a bit of background on how they worked with the puppets, because we had to move into that same puppet world. And we took some of the ideas that they had with the first film, with the platforms or rostrums to make the puppet system work, and adapted it with slightly different technologies. But he was the only person in the art department that we spoke to who had been on the original one. An interesting thing is, I think I was Return of the Jedi as a young assistant art director, and they were making Dark Crystal in the same studio, so I do remember popping across to see Dark Crystal when it was being made. It's quite interesting to think that 30-odd years later I'd be working on the same thing.

Speaking of the way that you had to work with the puppets specifically, at Comic-Con, director Louis Leterrier spoke about tunnels and ramps built in the sets for the puppeteers to navigate. Were there any specifications you had to adhere to because of the unique puppet-centric nature of the production?

I think the main aim with that whole system of trying to make the puppets work was to give Louis the simplest platform to shoot and direct on without too much confusion about how the puppet world would need to operate. You have the Skeksis, who are basically human-size and can either be a full puppet with one person inside it or a pelvis-up version with five operators. And then you have Gelflings who are three foot high, and needed a two-foot high rostrum. Some scenes, each of those type of characters could be in the same scene, so we had to develop a series of platforms or rostrums, which were basically tables, that could be interchanged very quickly to help Louis not have to wait too long while the puppeteers operate. It's not exactly NASA what we did, it's not rocket science. But we did create quite a clever basic rostrum system where the tops were very interchangeable very quickly without destroying the sets and allowing Louis to direct in a natural way as possible. We kept all those rostrums, if it then goes to another idea of Dark Crystal, all that work is being kept.

And the difficulty was — if you're doing a Muppets show, generally you have kitchen sets and squares, you could work with square rostrums or four-foot rostrums, it's a little bit easier. We always used to joke that there are no straight lines in our world, everything is very organic and sculpted. So that created an issue with making joins in the floor, how you make them seamless and the audience not noticing that we have spaces to build up. There are obviously straight lines, but in terms of the architecture, you can probably say there isn't much that comes across as a normal piece of architecture.

You touched on this before, but what percent of the production design was a practical effect versus a digital effect?

The whole balance between physical sets and digital sets on any project is similar, it's like where do we stop and where do visual effects start? Pure theory about that: You look at each scene, how long you're in an environment, what action is in that environment, and generally, even visual effects companies will tell you to build as much as you can because doing the compositing and creating worlds is not the cheapest. So within your budget you try to get a balance between where you want to use those little elements to expand your world.

Generally I would say that 95% of what you see is a physical set. We only use visual effects in terms of sets and environments where you wanted at certain moments to show that distance and a bit of magic to it. And that's a big discussion between Louis, Lisa, myself, and Sean [Mathiesen] the visual effects supervisors on each set and each scene, how much you can go into that direction. With the puppets, I think there are some CG versions of some of the characters. But I think the idea was that they wouldn't create any characters or creatures that wouldn't initially be a physical puppet. They weren't going to create elements that would only be CG. They were really saying that this is a puppet show. Hopefully it will be like nothing else out there right now because everything else is a little more CG-oriented.

For sure, I would say that of the digital effects used in this series, it only enhances the physical effects and design.

Yes, I'll just say with every department you never have quite enough money to do all the things that you want to do. So you really have to choose your moments when you do something a bit extreme for a scene or visual effects, whether Sean or Lisa decide to go in that direction. Thra itself is a world we know, it's got trees and rivers and mountains and snow. It's not a new physics, it's not a new world. And I think wherever all our environments we started to base it on things we might see on our planet — bit of a reference of rock, or the snowy fjords of Norway, or the deserts or woodland areas, or underground areas. You're always looking for something as a bit of reference to sort of key off and then move it into a more fantastical world, but still basing it on something the audience can relate to better. I think if you're trying to create new physics, new worlds, new materials, and new technology, that's sometimes harder for the audience to feel connected to. But if you've got something that's sort of fantastical, that makes it easier for the audience to connect to.

Going into that, how would you say Age of Resistance sets itself apart from other familiar high fantasy worlds? Or was that something you didn't concern yourself with?

That's a very big analytical question. You hope that you don't think about other worlds. You basically get very focused in on the script, and the story, and the characters you're telling. And your aim as a production designer is to help tell the audience what those characters are like, to build them up and help move the story along. When you're looking at the different Gelfling clans — from the backgrounds in Ha'rar, to the woodland in the Stone-in-the-Wood, and the groves down in the underground world — you're hoping that your environments that you designed, whether it's the architecture, where they live, or the surrounding environments, help tell the story of who they are and what they are.

The Vaprans in Ha'rar are the most sophisticated, elegant group of Gelflings. Their architecture and where they live have a very elegant, sculpted feel to it. Whereas the Stone-in-the-Wood Gelflings are a more woodland group of fighters and farmers. And the underground Domrak-dwellers [a village cavern deep in the Mountains of Grot] were obviously very subterranean. Once you get into it, you're not really aware of what other films or shows you're trying to avoid, you're just happy if what you designed for Louis and Lisa helps tell the stories of those characters in those environments. Sometimes it's instinctive, you just do what feels right for that moment, or character, or environment. And I suppose it's best to avoid all the other things that are out there because they're all created for their specific scripts and their specific characters. I think our biggest connection, as you mentioned earlier on, was paying homage to the whole feel of what you saw in original film with Harry Lange, Jim Henson, and Brian Froud, trying to use that as your basis.

The world is so much more expansive in Age of Resistance, from the more organic designs of the wildly different Gelfling civilizations, to the sharp Gothic designs of the Skeksis castle. How did you go about creating a distinctive look for each setting and group of characters?

We joked that we had no straight lines, so everything that you see is slightly organic or slightly not-as-geometric as you'd imagine. And that was a design by nature of what we see in the original film, I think that's where it came from. And certainly when you look at the four areas that we had, including the Circle of the Sun, which comes up later. The Vaprans in Ha'rar had a fjord-an snowy landscape background, the Stone-in-the-Wood was a woodland background, Domrak was an underground world, and the Circle of the Sun is in the desert environment. They're pretty good separation of Gelflings, so you really help the audience not [get] confused about where they are or who they're with.

When you've got four different environments like that, you've got a short time to let the audience understand where you're moving geographically. So if you could create four or five different environments where the different Gelfling clans live, you're already in a good position, because the audience immediately perceives that it's a whole different world. Some of that came from the history of expanded Dark Crystal, the Encyclopedia of Dark Crystal. But even in the encyclopedias, they're quite simply explained, they're not expanded too much. But it gave us a good understanding of where to start when you're trying to create these environments and separate out the different Gelfling clans visually.

How many brand new environments and settings did you get to create for the series?

Obviously we haven't broken it down, but I always felt that there was 15% of our world that took place in the existing Skeksis castle world. Though we created some new environments in the castle as well, like the bathhouse scene and the subterranean catacombs. Oh, I suppose I should include the forest with that, though we did create some of the forest. I would say about 70-75% of the new series were completely new environments that we didn't see at all in the original film. Somebody might analyze that in more details, but that was the gut feeling we had.

What was the biggest challenge you faced when tackling the production design for The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance?

Conceptually the biggest challenge was honoring Jim Henson and Brian Froud and Henry Lange as the production designer, because I think we've all realized with the notices and the publicity that it's getting, that it was a huge film when it came out. It affected an awful lot of people in a certain age group, maybe late 30s, early people who are directors now, or designers now, or concept people. It really gave them [the] inspiration that creativity and concept work, illustration work, there was a sort of career there. It sounds a bit funny. But it was one of the first films that was so different to everything else, the people felt in the early '80s, "well there's a whole world here that can be explored," which it did with many types of films going into Labyrinth and other pieces. It's quite amazing how it has had that effect. That was what we needed to do — that was the challenge — was to honor the fact that it did have a really strong appreciation of the original film. And it seems like people have been waiting for it for a really long time.

But I think of the physical challenge of what we built, on pure financial and creative terms, we had to get the castle right. If we didn't get the castle right, the audience would have found it slightly harder to connect with what else we did. But the other world that I think we did well was the background world of Ha'rar with the cathedral and the library. That was meant to be a very sculptural piece of architecture. By nature that's expensive for us to do in construction, anything that isn't a straight line costs a little more. We had some clever ways of making these sets, sculpting these sets that look like they're sculpted in a very organic way but [don't] not always in real life work. I think the fact that we managed to produce those worlds that hopefully look more intense sculpturally than probably they were physically, if you walked on the set, that would be a big satisfying area.

But strangely, the little Gelfling homestead down in Domrak, which was about 12 feet long and four-foot high with about 10 camera crew in there and 20 puppeteers was also critical. Because it's so small that the camera's going to see every detail, every texture, every prop in close-up. So it's not just the size or scale of things you create that give you more satisfaction — sometimes the smaller things can be even more satisfying.

What was your favorite part of the production design for Age of Resistance?

It's hard because the next one you do is always the most exciting. But I'll say, I think Ha'rar and the whole background world was the one we really had to get right. It was something that had never been seen in the film. Also the Circle of the Suns that we did later on in the series, which again was nothing to do [with the original film], they're completely new. Whereas the Stone-in-the-Wood environment is sort of in the organic woodland world. And Domrak — well, now that I'm saying it, I think Domrak, the underground world, was also a pleasure to do and produce something different. Because in a lot of films, we've seen a lot of underground worlds, so to get something that has its own character and works with the characters in that world. So I guess I'm saying that they're all satisfying.

Well, you have been hinting about the end of this series. Can you tell me anything about a potential season 2?

I can't tell you, because I don't know! It's not that I've been told not to say. I haven't heard anything about that directly. I think if I had been available at the premieres in London and New York, I might have more in-house information. Obviously the ambition at the beginning, that was always the idea. If something's successful and works well it would be silly to think there wouldn't be something following up.

And would you return for a season 2?

I would return like a shot if it's offered. People often ask what you'd like to do next, if you get a choice. And you always want to do something different. So when Dark Crystal came up, [I thought], "Wow I've never done anything like that before, where the whole series is based on puppetry." That was a pretty exciting thing to jump into, and along with Lisa Henson and Louis, it was a totally enjoyable creative experience and you could never say you wouldn't want to do that again.

Yeah I'm sure you could create so many more rich environments with a second season.

I know there are two or three other Gelfling environments, which I'd presume if they go further, would also come up. And they're also very different environments. You wouldn't want to be reproducing what you've done before, you have to expand and move on that, like all series do in the second and third [seasons], they get bigger and go in different places. So that would be exciting to do.


The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance premieres on Netflix on August 30, 2019.