the dark crystal age of resistance production design

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.

Continue Reading The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance >>

Pages: 1 2 3Next page

Cool Posts From Around the Web: