Just because there are puppets involved doesn’t meanThe Dark Crystal: Age of Resistanceis for little kids. “It’s not like they call itTheLightCrystal,” executive producer Javier Grillo-Marxuach joked withThe Vergeon the eve of the premiere of the Netflix series, which serves as a prequel to the cult-favorite 1982 fantasy drama.
Grillo-Marxuach worked alongside fellow executive producers Jeffrey Addiss and Will Matthews to resurrect the world of Thra. They used a mixture of recent technology and old-school craftsmanship to portray the Gelfling clans living under the rule of the evil Skeksis. While aiming for a young adult audience, the story features real stakes, dark twists, and intense action. Louis Leterrier, who helmedThe TransporterandThe Incredible Hulk, directed every episode.
Addiss, Matthews, and Grillo-Marxuach sat down withThe Vergeto discuss the making of the series, which features a remarkable voice cast — including Taron Egerton, Anya Taylor-Joy, Jason Isaacs, Mark Hamill, Eddie Izzard, Keegan-Michael Key, Awkwafina, Simon Pegg, Alicia Vikander, Andy Samberg, and Helena Bonham Carter — as well as some truly state-of-the-art puppetry. How the technology came to aid the storytelling, and vice versa, is almost as fascinating as the story being told.
This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.
How did you get involved with this project?
Jeffrey Addiss:Well, it’s the marriage of luck and hard work. So [Will Matthews and I] were thinking we’d really like to do a sequel toLabyrinth. And we thought, “Well, what are we going to lose?” So we told our agents to call up the Henson Company. They didn’t want to work onLabyrinth 2, but they said, “We’re working on aDark Crystalthing. Do you want to do that?” So we stayed up all night and came up with a great pitch for a sequel feature. We go in to meet Lisa Henson in her office, and she says, “I’m so glad you’re here to tell us about your idea for our prequel TV show.” And we were like, “Yep, no problem! We can do it!”
When we got the green light, that was when Javi came in, because we had never been in a writers’ room, much less run one. It was a very collaborative experience.
Javier Grillo-Marxuach:We say working on a Jim Henson product is a team sport. With this one more than anything else, the theme of the entire show is unity. The Jim Henson ethos is very collaborative. It involves a lot of different artists in all disciplines, including writing.
Everything about this project was really informed by this idea that we were all collaborators working on something bigger than all of us. The trope that was circulated was that this was a garden that had been tended for 37 years, and we were coming in to take care of it for a little while. We could decide where to put plants, but it was part of our job to keep the legacy intact and do new honor to that legacy.
JA:Don’t mess up the garden because, hopefully, we get to pass it on to somebody else. We had all the space we wanted — there was never a mandate of “You can’t.” We created whole characters, leads, and arcs. We were given a lot of space.
JGM:To give you a concrete example, we went in and we looked at the head sculpt for the Scientist puppet, and they sculpted him with two eyes. We were like, “Well, in the movie, he’s got a mechanical eye.” And they were like, “We know, but we have to sculpt them in full, and then we will take out the eye and put in the mechanical eye because that’s a separate prop.” And then we said, “Well, we need to tell a story about the Chamberlain’s duplicity and his ability to maneuver events in his favor. Let’s have the Scientist with two eyes at the beginning, and show how he only got one eye.” And then that helped us with our storytelling.
There was a point when this was being developed as an animated series. Why did that change?
JA:Netflix was developing an animated prequel series. And we came on only after Netflix called up Lisa and said, “Let’s do it with puppets.” She was like, “Are you sure? Do you know how hard that is?” It’s a testament to Netflix that they took this crazy leap of faith and did the show properly. It should be done with puppets. It should be live-action. It should feel tangible. It’s a built, created world.
Will Matthews:It was just luck that when we called up, they were at a new beginning, and we’re like, “Okay, great. Here’s how you do that.” And it all came together.
JA:I think that the animated show was skewing a little younger, a little more magical. We were a little bit more grounded in this world. We felt like this was a much more tangible, dirty world. We spent a lot of time literally dirtying up the puppets.
JGM:We looked at this as a 10-hour drama. We never looked at it as “a puppet show.” We came into this with the intention of makingGame of ThronesandLord of the Rings, something that could compete with those properties. And the thing that informed everything we did was that we needed to have characters with rich inner lives and a world with real stakes.
The voice cast recorded their lines after production. Were there cases where on set, the line would go one way, and then in post, you’d try something different?
JA:Yes, and there were times because production was so fast that I would literally just [have the puppeteers mouth] about eight to 10 syllables, and then I could go back later and write the line. I did that very rarely, but sometimes it did happen, and we could create those moments in post as well.
Did that lead to the cast improvising?
JA:We had Eddie Izzard. It’s one of his great skills. It’s tricky because we have so many rules in terms of words. Like, we try not to assign genders to the Skeksis. It’s very controlled and scripted. But within that, if the performer has an idea, and we can make it match to the mouth-flaps, we’ll come up with a new line.
WM:Eddie Izzard got “bugger” in.
JA:It was really funny, and it made us laugh, so there we go. Everybody’s building off of each other. And the voice actors got very protective of their puppeteers. Like Taron [Egerton] would be like, “No, no, Neil [Sterenberg] is mine.” They form a connection. It’s a synthesis. All of the puppeteers have voices in the show as well, so they’re all over the place.
On your largest group scenes, how many people would be on set?
JA:On average, I think we were like 200 people because we also had our shops in the warehouse as well. We took over a warehouse space with 89 sets, which was about the size of two football fields. We also had a creature shop in there. So there are a lot of people, even separate from the design and art department, a lot of people in the building separate from what’s on set, if that makes sense. And then our largest days, I think we had 100 puppeteers on set, which is crazy. Some of them are doing radio control or second unit, things like that. Sometimes we had puppeteers just holding two puppets in the air as background because, like, “We need bodies on-screen.” I think if you’d ever picked up a puppet and lived in England, at some point, you wound up working onThe Dark Crystal. It was big.
WM:An amazing thing about puppeteers that I don’t think everyone understands is that they can play the lead on a character, a big part on a lead character, and then in the next shot, they’re someone else’s left hand. They really are a troupe. There’s a lack of ego. They move from one character to the other. It’s really encouraging about humanity.
JA:It really feels like the idea of an old-school theater troupe, where one moment, you’re the lead, and the next moment, you’re handing somebody a cup. That’s how they treat it. It’s really cool.
How many puppeteers does it take to operate one Gelfing?
JA:Usually three. You’ve got the main puppeteer who’s doing the mouth and one arm, then they’ve got an assist doing the other arm, and then there’s somebody doing radio control of the eye blinks, and things like that. Unless you’re Alice [Dinnean], who did Brea. Alice had a separate performance system where she was controlling a lot of that herself, with a literal Wii nunchuck they converted. So she would often only have herself and an assist because she was in control of a lot of those facial movements.
WM:It’s one of the reasons Brea is so good at eyerolls.
JA:Yeah, because that’s Alice, doing every part of that performance along with her assist doing the other hand, all simultaneously.
JGM:One of the most fun things about doing this job was every Friday, we had a meeting at the creature shop. And we were watching the people there innovate new ways of doing puppetry. So for example, one day we got there, and the 3D printers were just chugging away. Obviously, 3D printing has been a boon to this kind of storytelling. But they were building a system that was custom-designed to the puppeteers’ hands, with individual controllers per finger, so the puppeteer would have complete fidelity from his or her hand movements to the hand at the end of the rod.
I was also there the day they first tested the AI system with the Wii nunchuck controller. We got to see, in real time, how they were taking this art of puppetry that they’ve done for so long, and in meeting the challenges of the show, creating new technologies to do the things the creature shop has been doing for 50 years. One of the most interesting things was seeing how much 3D printing figures into it now and how much that helps build custom pieces for puppets, custom pieces for everything. That process has been game-changing.
WM:I remember one day at the shop, one of the designers very gently handed me the Emperor’s scepter. He said, “Be careful. This is the original from the film.” And then he accidentally drops it, and I started screaming. And then he was like, “Oh no, I just 3D-printed it. It’s just a perfect match.” [Laughs.]
JGM:Even though the Jim Henson Company is not exactly lax about archiving — they are the caretakers of the legacy of one of the most venerated creators in popular culture — there are certain things where they had to make guesses. One day, I went to the creature shop, and there was a guy airbrushing Aughra’s skin. He had a magazine that was printed in 1982 when the movie came out, he had stills from the movie, and some of the books that came out when the movie came out. Because nobody could quite figure out what Aughra’s actual color was. She looks different in different shots because of how she’s lit, the way any actor would look different. So sometimes you’re seeing an exact duplicate of what was on-screen 37 years ago, and some things on-screen are educated guesses.
When it came to crafting the action sequences, did you feel limited by knowing you’d have to execute them with puppets?
JA:It wasn’t about limitations. It was about collaboration. Louis had a pretty good idea of how he was going to shoot it.
WM:It was very impressive storyboarding. I remember a lot of versions of storyboards.
JA:But there’s nothing that I would say that we ever pitched, that anybody ever said, “We can’t do that with puppets, it’s too far.” Which is crazy.
WM:I mean, everyone’s trying to push the envelope all the time. And so everyone is the best at what they do. And everyone is trying to find a solution. So it was really very free.
JGM:An action sequence is no different from a musical number. In a stage musical, it’s what happens when dialogue no longer serves a dramatic purpose. So you always have a true north, whenever you’re staging this kind of stuff, in what is telling the story, what is driving home the emotional stakes. So there are a bunch of sequences where maybe you’re not seeing what we came up with in the room — not because the puppets couldn’t do it, but because there wasn’t enough time or money or what have you. But everything that’s in the show is there to serve the emotional reality of the world and the characters. And whether you’re doing drama or puppets, action sequences are hard to choreograph, technologically difficult. But you always have your true north of what in it is serving the character and the story.
You can do nearly anything with CGI these days if you have enough time and money, but this feels so much more real.
JGM:We treated the puppets the way you would actors in a movie. There’s a big talking point inDark Crystalcoverage about, “Oh, they didn’t use CGI?” Well of course we did. We’re building a world. It’s a huge VFX project. But the puppets are the main event, the puppets are the actors.
The biggest lesson I think we can all learn from CGI in filmmaking is that we need to be selective about what we choose to show on-screen. Because ultimately, one of the drawbacks of being able to do anything and everything is that you get too much. You don’t get enough of the gaps in the storytelling that engage your mind in it. There’s a reasonStar Warswon the Oscar for Best Editing. It’s because their technology was limited enough that they had to make very strong choices about how the film being put together served that story. And with us doing this, even though we have access to all of this puppetry, even though we have access to CGI technology as well, we needed to look at all this and figure out, when the rubber meets the road, how do we make scenes so they’re only serving story?
JA:That’s a very high-minded answer. I’ll tell you, one of the most fun things is throwing puppets off of things. We just had the best time. So if you watch the show, if you notice in the back half, puppets start getting chucked around more because we just liked it. Just throwing those things was the best.
JGM:They did so much puppet-throwing that it’s going to be an Olympic event.
JA:We got really good at it.
JGM:A lot of people are going to see this and assume we did a bunch of things with CGI. And the truth of the matter is that a lot of the time, we didn’t. You are looking at really old-fashioned technologies that are working in concert with CGI. I mean, so much of this of this product is handmade. I think it’ll be interesting to find out what people thought was what and how frequently they’re right or wrong.
It’s been said that if Jim Henson had this technology, he would have used it just as much.
JGM:Jim Henson wasn’t exactly a Luddite. If you look at, for example,Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, they spent a lot of time and money figuring out how to make Kermit ride a bicycle in the prologue, and then that technology got applied to all of the movies that came afterward. Puppetry isn’t a static art. It’s an art that depends on technology. The technology keeps feeding the craft.
WM:That said, there’s nothing better than a couple of Podlings yelling at each other.
JA:Because they are the most puppety. There’s variations of like how puppety you can get with it. Yeah, the Gelflings are more “human.” They have a little bit more weight. But a Podling can run in, scream, fall down, jump up, be drunk, and run out the door, and you’re having a great time. A Gelfling doing that doesn’t feel right; a Skeksis doing that doesn’t feel right. So Podlings are really fun and freeing because they’re just physical comedy.
WM:You haven’t lived until you’ve had Lisa Henson say, “You shouldn’t put that in the script.” “Why not?” “It might be too puppety.” “I guess you’d know!”
Do you have a target audience in mind for this in terms of age?
JA:I think Netflix does, and I think other people do. We just tried to write the story that felt right to us. We were thinking about younger audiences. We weren’t consciously trying to go to “dark places.” That is part of the show because it’s part of the legacy. There were times when we would have long talks about the violence, but it wasn’t from a perspective of trying to hit an age. It was trying to say, “What’s the point of the violence? What are the repercussions of the violence? And how is it part of this story?”
Do you have a plan in place for a second season?
JA:Yeah, we have a written document that plans out season 2. Everybody’s very excited about it. And now we just wait to see what the numbers are and wait for that phone call that we get to go back to Thra.
WM:If you watch it, we will write it.
Production on season 1 presumably involved a lot of development, construction, and planning. Do you think season 2 would get going a lot faster?
JA:I think it would be more efficient, but I would try to use the time to make the show even bigger and crazier.
JGM:We know a little bit about what you can do with puppets and what the edge is. But we’re ready to move it to the next level after that.
Plus, more puppet-throwing.
JA:Oh my god. It’s so fun to throw puppets.