The Dark Crystal: Looking Back and Forward
The Dark Crystal. “HmmmMmmmmm.” One sound that triggers all kinds of memories: good and bad. Even though I loved all things Muppets as a child (and frankly, I still do as an adult), I was even more fascinated by all things scary Muppets. I watched The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth many, many times during my formative years, so much so, that I regularly scared my sister by imitating the sounds of the evil Skeksis from The Dark Crystal, particularly the Chamberlain:
Why did I love The Dark Crystal so much? It was a movie that most certainly gave me nightmares, but it also sparked my imagination. The Muppets Take Manhattan is easily one of my other favorite Muppet movies, but it always felt grounded in the real world. Sesame Street (at least in my childhood mind) was a real place - where both people and Muppets existed. But the world of Thra where The Dark Crystal took place, has always been a completely different world, full of unfamiliar creatures and new mythologies. There’s a lot to unpack once you start reading more about the conception and creation of The Dark Crystal. Although it was released in 1982, Jim Henson began the process long in advance. But before we delve into the nitty-gritty of the making of The Dark Crystal and what makes it so special, let’s revisit the story.
(SPOILER ALERT for The Dark Crystal)
The tale revolves around the titular “Dark Crystal,” which cracked a thousand years ago, allowing for the creation of two races: the peaceful wizards, known as the Mystics, and the evil Skeksis. A prophecy foretold that a Gelfling would one day heal the Crystal, causing the “the Great Conjunction” to begin, reuniting the Skeksis and the Mystics as one race. The Gelflings (who in all honesty look a bit like elves with 70’s haircuts) were all but wiped out by the malevolent Skeksis. At the beginning of the movie we meet Jen, the last Gelfling, who has been raised by the leader of the remaining Mystics. As the Mystic master nears death, he tells Jen about the prophecy to “heal the Crystal.” He tells Jen to seek Aughra and the shard; if Jen fails to do this before the three suns align, the Skeksis will rule forever.
"When single shines the triple sun,
What was sundered and undone
Shall be whole, the two made one,
By Gelfling hand, or else by none."
After the Mystic master dies, Jen embarks on a journey to find the astronomer Aughra and seek the Crystal shard. Once he finds her, Aughra warns Jen of the prophecy. Jen uses his musical flute to locate the true Crystal shard, but shortly afterwards, Aughra’s home is attacked by the crab-like Garthim sent by the Skeksis. Unbeknownst to Jen, the Emperor of the Skeksis has also died. The Skeksis, a cross between vultures and reptiles, fight amongst themselves to pick a new ruler. The Skeksis’ Chamberlain fights their General and loses, after which he is stripped of his clothing and banished from the castle.
The Skeksis send the Garthim to kill Jen who escapes, but Aughra is captured and brought to their castle. Jen runs away and encounters a small dog-like creature, Fizzgig, and its owner, Kira, a female Gelfling in the woods. Before Jen knows what is happening, he and Kira share a telepathic connection, sharing memories of their childhoods - Jen with the Mystics, and Kira being raised by the peaceful Podlings - after each lost their parents to the Skeksis. Kira can communicate with animals, and she vows to help Jen on his quest to fulfill the prophecy. After a short respite with the Podlings (who in a lot of ways are the predecessors of the Ewoks), the village is attacked by the Garthim. Jen, Kira and Fizzgig flee, only to encounter the Skeksis Chamberlain who implores them to come back to the castle with him. They escape the Chamberlain but journey to the castle to free a group of captured Podlings and heal the Crystal with the shard. All the while, the Mystics are slowly but surely also approaching the castle of the Skeksis.
During the film’s final act, Kira is separated from Jen and Fizgigg and captured. The Skeksis use the power of the Dark Crystal to attempt to “drain her essence” (a procedure they have used on several Podlings to retain their youth). During the attempt, a captured Aughra yells to Kira to “call the animals” to help her and she escapes. Kira finds Jen, just as he is trying to get to the Dark Crystal. He leaps onto the Crystal but drops the shard. Here Kira helps him by throwing him the shard, but she is stabbed by a Skeksis and dies in the process. As the three suns align, Jen thrusts the shard back into the Crystal and all of the Skeksis and Mystics are caught in beams of light passing through the Dark Crystal. The Mystics and Skeksis are rejoined as one race, becoming the UrSkeks. The Skeksis’ castle begins to crumble, revealing a white crystal castle underneath. The leader of the UrSkeks explains that they had once shattered the Crystal long ago, splitting them into two races and that Jen, in fulfilling the prophecy, has restored them. Jen is completely distraught as he holds Kira’s body, but the UrSkeks tell him to hold her close as they are, “a part of each other.” Kira revives and the UrSkeks tell them to make their new world in the Crystal’s light. THE END.
Now that we’ve refreshed our collective memory of this complex and detailed story, let’s take a look at the long road to its creation, and what comes next. Jim Henson was first inspired to create The Dark Crystal by the artwork of artist Brian Froud. In 1976, after seeing Froud’s cover art for a book titled, “Once Upon A Time,” Henson immediately set up a meeting with Froud. Within a year, they had made a deal to work together on Henson’s next film. The story goes, that in February of 1978, Jim and his daughter, Cheryl, were snowed in during a blizzard in New York on their way to JFK Airport. While they were stuck at a Howard Johnson’s for 72 hours, Jim came up with the idea for The Dark Crystal, and wrote an entire outline for what would later become the film. While in New York, Henson also hired a recent graduate, Wendy Midener, to help develop characters for The Dark Crystal. He was so impressed with her talent, that he sent her along with Frank Oz to help create and develop Yoda for The Empire Strikes Back. Midener continued to work with Henson on Crystal and later Labyrinth. (Her collaboration with Brian Froud on these films also led to the two getting married.) For Crystal, Henson brought on longtime writer for The Muppet Show, David Odell, to write the screenplay based on his story. He asked Frank Oz to co-direct the film with him, giving Frank his directorial debut. Oz has been the puppeteer and voice actor of some of the most memorable of Jim Henson’s creatures: Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal, Grover, Cookie Monster, Bert, Yoda and so many more. But the crazy thing that I did not realize until I did a little digging on IMDb, was just how many excellent movies Frank Oz went on to direct after Dark Crystal - The Muppets Take Manhattan, Little Shop of Horrors, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, What About Bob? - to name a few. In a 2007 interview for the San Francisco Gate, Oz recalled:
"When it was maybe six months away from shooting, we were on a plane trip to London for something else, and he asked me if I wanted to co-direct with him. I said, ‘I never directed, Jim. Why do you want me?’ And this was typical Jim, he said, ‘Because it would be better.’ He didn’t care about credit at all — he cared about how good the movie was. He probably directed 70 percent of the movie and I kind of filled in."
In 1979, Jim purchased the building in England that would eventually become the headquarters for Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. The Dark Crystal was the first ever live action movie to be filmed starring only puppets. The film predates much of the CGI/motion-capture technology that has now become the norm in films starring animated characters. In several interviews, both Henson and Oz have stressed that creating the film’s villains, the Skeksis, was a huge challenge. There were performers inside of the costumes, but Henson and Oz wanted them to be perceived as creatures themselves, ones that were far from human. The Skeksis’ head was really a hand puppet that was being performed above the puppeteer’s own head, while the puppeteer watched from the inside of the costume on a small TV monitor.
Additional performers were used to operate the Skeksis’ arms and all of their facial movements. Sometimes up to five or six puppeteers were needed for each individual Skeksis. During an interview on The Russell Harty Show in 1983, Frank Oz said the important thing for he and Jim was that people believed in their characters. They didn’t want the audience to be taken out of the experience thinking about the puppeteers inside, they wanted viewers to be encapsulated in this new world and with all of its creatures. (You can watch a clip of the Harty interview and see some of the puppets from the film here.
The Dark Crystal was filmed at Elstree Studios near London, with exterior shots filmed in the Scottish Highlands, as well as at a variety of landscapes throughout England. While Brian Froud was responsible for the Concept Design of an entire new world, Creative Supervisor Sherry Amott assembled a team of 60 animatronic fabricators to sculpt, sew, mold and create the puppets for the film. (Amott worked on several of Henson’s projects, and later was Head of Fabrication for Audrey II in Frank Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors). Many of Henson’s tried and true puppeteers performed as the Skeksis, Gelflings and Podlings in the movie, while dancers, clowns, acrobats and mimes were recruited to perform as the gentle Mystics. Again, pre-CGI, the puppets were controlled through a variety of radio, mechanical, electrical and hydraulic systems (this continues to blow my mind). The Dark Crystal used miniatures, painted sets and blue screen technology to create the world of Thra. Henson was so thorough and imaginative that originally the Skeksis spoke an entirely made up language (one based on Egyptian and ancient Greek). Initially, test audiences found Crystal confusing, particularly the language of the Skeksis. After these test audiences responded poorly, Henson decided to go back and have Odell create English dialogue that was dubbed in after shooting. However, when the film’s investors, along with the new management team of the film’s production and distribution company (ITC Entertainment), wanted to make even more major changes, Henson refused to budge. He bought the film back with his own money for $15 million to keep the integrity of his story.
After its release in 1982, The Dark Crystal had mixed reviews with audiences - many parents were concerned with the dark nature of these new creatures, and feared their disturbing affect on their children. Henson, for his part, believed in a healthy dose of fear. According to interviews with Frank Oz after Henson’s death, Henson “didn’t think it was healthy for children to always feel safe.” Henson himself felt that children were more open and willing to accept new things than society gave them credit for, but he did attempt to prepare audiences for this change in tone by having public exhibitions in New York and Los Angeles prior to the film’s release. These exhibits showcased the film’s artwork, puppets, costumes and even some of the set pieces from the film. Henson even commissioned a design team to create a limited edition fashion collection based on the movie’s costumes that was sold at high-end department stores in London, New York, San Francisco and Houston. But despite Henson’s attempts to prepare audiences, many were disappointed at this departure from Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy.
In doing a little research on the history of The Dark Crystal, I came across an interview with Jim Henson and Frank Oz on a 1982 episode of Entertainment Tonight. In the interview, Henson warns that the film is really different from the Muppets many fans know and love. Frank Oz describes the film as a movie, “entirely of Yodas and E.T.s.” At a certain point, the interviewer asks Henson and Oz, “What did the film cost to make?” Initially, they avoid answering the question, but when it comes out that the film cost somewhere between $20-25 million dollars both Henson and Oz have some really great replies. Oz stresses that he got annoyed talking about the cost of a film because, “that’s not what you do a film for... you’re really doing a film cuz’ it excites you.” Oz tries to impress upon the interviewer and viewers at home, that when they are making these creatures for the film, they are creating their own movie stars from scratch, and the technical aspects of the filming adds about twenty-five percent more time to the shooting of the movie. This is something to consider, even today when watching movies like The Lord of the Rings Trilogy or Rise of the Planet of the Apes, or the stop-motion work of Fantastic Mr. Fox or Isle of Dogs. The number of skilled talent behind the creation of The Dark Crystal in all of its facets - set design, costumes, jewelry, props, sculpting, leather-working, puppeteering, electrical engineering, voice acting and more - is astounding.
In the years following Jim Henson’s death, writer David Odell and his wife, Annette Duffy, attempted to piece together the ideas that he and Jim had originally discussed as a possible sequel to The Dark Crystal. Several attempts were made to get this project going, but ultimately the film was scrapped, and Odell’s screenplay was adapted into a 12 comic book series, “The Power of the Dark Crystal” released in 2017. In May 2017, The Jim Henson Company and Netflix announced that they were teaming up to create a prequel to The Dark Crystal called, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. Shooting began in Fall of 2017. The prequel will be a ten episode series that will explore the world leading up to the original movie. A teaser was released by Netflix back in 2017:
Since then, three actors have been announced as voices of characters in Resistance: Taron Egerton (of Kingsman fame), Anya Taylor-Joy (The VVitch, Split, Glass), and Nathalie Emmanuel (Game of Thrones). I, for one, am pretty excited to see this new work by The Jim Henson Company, to witness a combination of practical effects and new advances in technology that Jim himself would surely have been excited by. I hope in the days leading up to this new chapter’s release that you will revisit the 1982 work of Henson and Oz. Whether it is as a brand new viewer or an adult who enjoyed it as a kid, take the time to get completely lost and immersed in the mythical world of Thra, root for our heroes Jen and Kira, and let yourself be scared by the Skeksis. After all, it’s healthy to be scared now and then.
Want to read more about The Dark Crystal, including the full original script? Visit www.darkcrystal.com
Besides watching movies, Diana likes the great outdoors, drawing and reading comics, and just generally rocking out. She has a BA in English Literature and is an art school drop out. IG: @dldimuro