The Dark Crystal, Jim Henson’s beautiful new age fever dream that was designed to scare kids, is getting the necromancy treatment from Netflix this August. The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance will be a prequel series that revisits the mystical land of Thra. That’s right, a reboot of a cult classic is coming out, so now it’s time to look back on the original so you can impress your friends with obscure pop culture knowledge. Oh yeah, trust me, they’ll be super impressed.
Anyone who has seen the original Dark Crystal knows that the story is mostly a rambling hodgepodge of ideas Henson came up with based on a book written by a multi-dimensional ghost named Seth. The real star of the movie is the groundbreaking and arguably peerless design, animatronics, and effects, both visual and practical. Henson’s team, which included other legends such as Frank Oz, Brian Froud, and Oswald Morris, breathed life into a world in a way many people believe have yet to be emulated or matched.
In celebration of a new entry into this fondly remembered world, let’s take a look at seven interesting facts about the effects in The Dark Crystal. This way, the next time some nerd tries to question your devotion to a fictional universe in a misguided bid to manufacture a purpose for their wasted life, you can hit them with some hard facts. Without further ado, here it is: The Dark Listicle.
1. Old School Now, Cutting-Edge Then
These days, the practical effects of The Dark Crystal are considered old school, classic, and lowtech; what with the no computers and all. In reality, the methods used to achieve the lifelike representations of nonhuman actors were cutting-edge for their day. The costumes and puppets were extremely intricate, and involved sophisticated electronics as well as telecommunications.
For example: Frank Oz’s character Augrha, the one-eyed astronomer, took three, sometimes four additional people to operate along with Oz. They controlled things like the character’s facial movements and twitches via electric controls and yards of wire. Inside the puppet, Oz communicated via radio and even had a specially made, miniaturized television monitor so he could see what the camera was recording in real time. They even had an advanced video recording setup so they could look at the takes on the spot instead of waiting for film to develop.
2. Not All Groundbreaking
The Dark Crystal may be known for its innovative practical effects, but the visual effects methods they used were downright classical. While most of the exteriors were built practically and shot live, the production team used glass matte painting for some of the more expansive landscapes.
Exterior footage was shot, then a team of artists led by Industrial Light and Magic’s Michael Pangrazio and Chris Evans (no, not that one) got to work. They hand-painted the detailed exteriors on massive plates of glass that could then be placed over live footage to create the effect. It’s a method that dates back over 120 years. It was extremely time and labor intensive, but at least this was back in the days when visual effects artists got paid for their work.
3. Why Yes It Is to Scale
One of things that made The Dark Crystal so believable is that nearly every set was made to scale. Castle interiors, the Mystic village, Augrha’s massive orrery, all made by hand on sound stages big enough for people in costumes and puppets to run around in. It looks real because it is real. In fact, over 80 plasterers worked tirelessly to craft these intricate environments that resembled works of art on a human scale.
The one big exception to this is the external castle of the Skeksis. The penny-pinching studio wouldn’t give Jim Henson the money to make a full scale castle in a desert somewhere despite Henson’s insistence that it was necessary, so they built it in miniature. Along with a combination of VFX and a bitchin’ smoke machine, the castle exterior was brought to life in all its terrifying glory.
4. Labors of Love
The puppets and characters in The Dark Crystal are so detailed that it seems like each one was made by hand to be unique, despite the mind-boggling number that had to be made. It seems that way, because that’s how they did it. A small team was assigned to each of the major characters (the ones with names like Mystics or Gelflings) to create their costumes/puppets. The teams were also encouraged to add their own unique details to help the characters stand out. The artists made everything, right down to hand painting the glass eyes.
Since the process of designing and creating these massive costumes took years, the teams got quite attached to them and actually became jealous of one another. Since some characters were needed sooner than others based on the shooting schedule, some teams got more time to finish than others. Fortunately they realized they were all in it together, overcame their differences, and no effects artists were ever suspicious of each other ever again and they lived happily ever after.
Watching The Dark Crystal, you might notice that everything has an otherworldly glow and seems to be infused with different colored light. This lighting made the locales feel magical without looking like it was lit with a lite-brite. These days, everyone and their mom can achieve this effect with a digital filter on their smartphone, but back then it was a bit trickier.
Cinematographer Oswald Morris used a device called a lightflex (also known as a colorflex in some forms) to capture the feeling of Brian Froud’s concept art. The lightflex had to be attached to the front of the camera. Inside was a beam splitter and a variable light source that flashed an exposure over the shot, thereby lowering the overall gamma of a scene. With a process this complicated, it must have been difficult getting likes on Instagram for their vacation photos.
6. Not Just Creepy, Also Dangerous
Many people who watched The Dark Crystal as a kid have a special little corner of their nightmares reserved for the land striders. Remember? Those hideous bat-sloth-walrus monstrosity that ambled around on 8-foot long legs and had latex skin? If you don’t remember, you’re one of the lucky ones.
These terrifying beasts were obviously people on four stilts, so it was actually impressive to see them run, ghoulish though it may be. It also looked dangerous, and Henson agreed. So for all of the running land strider scenes, each stilt stunt man (Stint man? Stult man?) wore a harness and was attached via cable to a massive crane system. So if the stult man tripped, instead of crashing to the ground he would be suspended in the air wriggling his grotesque legs like a ghastly puppet. At least that didn’t make it into the movie…
7. Odd Is Easy, Human Is Hard
The Gelflings were little mouse-hobbit hybrids that served as the pure, loveable “Forrest Gump” protagonist to the Skeksis’ hideous “America in the 70s” antagonist. Their design was the most human-like, because they were the main characters and thus the vehicle for the audience into The Dark Crystal’s world. You might think that this made them the easiest to design, but their proximity to our own appearance in fact made them the most difficult.
Over a few years, the design team went back and forth from too animal, which was not relatable, to too human, which was too fake and ugly. Turns out the more you try to make a puppet look human, the worse it looks. Seriously, google image search “realistic human puppet” and see how long you can scroll before you sharply inhale through your teeth. Eventually they found the goldilocks Gelfling version that was animal enough to be cute, and just human enough to be one of the few non-nightmare-inducing creatures in the movie.
The Dark Crystal re-premieres on Netflix August 30. See the beautiful trailer below.