Animal magic

Nick Smurthwaite enters the extraordinary world of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop and looks at the role that animatronics play in Buddy, a film about a pet gorilla.

Even after I’d found the warehouse in London’s Camden Lock, I couldn’t work out how to get in. Eventually I spotted a tiny stainless steel plate and entry phone beside a plain black door. Jim Henson’s Creature Shop clearly doesn’t believe in blowing its own trumpet Hollywood-style.

Once that black door slams shut, you enter a dream factory where dragons, elves and Ninja Turtles are brought to life, and humans transmute into beasts. A huge prehistoric bird hovers menacingly in reception, and it’s hard to think what to say to the woman who walks past me holding up two larger-than-life hedgehogs. Did one of them really wink at me, or did I only imagine it?

This is the house that Jim built. The late Jim Henson, that is, creator of The Muppets, The Dark Crystal, The Storyteller and a system of animating fantasy creatures that has become the envy of the film world and the pride of British enterprise.

The Creature Shop is in London because no American network would take a risk on a weekly variety show hosted by a frog. Henson moved to London from his native America in 1976 and produced The Muppet Show for Lord Grade. The real innovative stuff began with The Dark Crystal (1982), based on the dark Celtic visions of a British artist named Brian Froud.

While remaining loyal to Kermit, Gonzo, Fozzie Bear et al, whose popularity was then at its height, Henson set up the first Creature Shop in a disused post office in Hampstead and started to put together a creative team that included Duncan Kenworthy, who more recently produced Four Weddings and a Funeral.

“To build a new generation of mechanised characters we hired jewellery makers, prosthetics experts, musical instrument makers – people who were used to working on a small scale,” recalls Kenworthy. “Only on a Jim Henson project could you have got together a group of people who were so unlike each other.”

During the making of The Dark Crystal, Steven Spielberg, who was in pre-production on ET, asked if he could have a look round the Creature Shop. Duncan Kenworthy remembers being “a bit panicked because we were all concerned about people seeing our techniques. Jim was much less worried. He thought everyone should share these new developments.”

By all accounts, the Creature Shop was, and is, a uniquely convivial place to work. Anthony Minghella, director of The English Patient, who worked on The Storyteller for Henson, puts it down to the absence of market forces. “Jim was never out to please a target audience… he was always pleasing himself. From Kermit the frog comes a life-affirming decency, a passionate belief that there are stories to tell which don’t exclude children and don’t insult adults.”

After Jim Henson’s sudden death aged 53 in 1990, his son Brian took over the reins at 26. He had been working alongside his father for ten years, but had been unaware of the serious financial problems the company faced. Before Henson’s death, Disney had expressed an interest in buying the company. But the deal seemed less appealing to them with young Brian at the helm.

The twin blows of losing Henson and the Disney deal falling through left the company at a very low ebb. However, in just two years Brian Henson and his loyal team turned the company’s fortunes round, with lucrative merchandising and video deals, and the worldwide success of The Muppet Christmas Carol in 1992.

Jamie Courtier, project supervisor, who has worked for the Creature Shop for eight years, says the company has become more businesslike under Brian’s management. “Some of Jim’s projects were a bit self-indulgent. Brian is operating in a harsher business environment. It’s still a friendly place to work, partly because of the eclectic mix of people. The trick is to be businesslike without losing the artistry.”

To support the more labour-intensive projects like Babe and Buddy, the Creature Shop undertakes TV commercials (Penguin Biscuits promoted by talking penguins, Sugar Puffs’ Honey Monster and others), as well as being in great demand for a wide range of feature film requirements. Among these were several animatronic puppies and other creatures in the recent film of 101 Dalmatians, the monster in Loch Ness, a whole bunch of prehistoric beasties in The Flintstones, and the hideously scarred body of the Ralph Fiennes character in The English Patient.

The company is currently in the process of securing its future in an increasingly competitive market with two key areas of development. “We became aware, about five years ago, that the age of computer graphics was dawning and we all started to wonder if that was the end of our jobs, and if we would feel like plate-makers in the print industry did 20 years ago. But it hasn’t really happened like that because there are still things that animatronics does better than computer graphics, like real, hands-on integration with human actors,” says Courtier.

Nevertheless, Henson has accepted that it must work hand-in-glove with computer graphics in order to retain its international standing. Even now the Creature Shop is working on two feature projects – Lost in Space and Merlin – that has required an eight-fold increase in computer graphics personnel.

The other main area of expansion is in the production of commercials. Up until now it has merely supplied production companies with flying pigs, talking penguins, winking hedgehogs or whatever. Now it plans to join forces with a leading independent producer to make its own commercials on site.

Looking round Jim Henson’s Creature Shop you can’t help being struck by the diversity of skills employed in the creation of these little wonders of technology. In any working day you’re quite liable to encounter sculptors, illustrators, mould-makers, computer technicians, animators, engineers, skin technologists and production executives.

The question most frequently put to Courtier and others is how are the creatures brought to life so believably? The answer is Henson’s secret weapon – the Performance Control System, or PCS, the highest of hi-tech, which enables puppeteers to control 40 or more separate movements within a single character.

Puppeteering has certainly come a long way since the days of Sooty and Sweep. The post-modern Henson puppeteer now stands behind what looks like a workbench, watching video monitors relaying the actions of his or her character through the camera. On the workbench are two complex mechanisms – one an elaborate-looking joystick with separate digital triggers, the other a free-moving mitten-like device suspended from a metal gibbet. The right hand fits into the mechanical mitten, which controls mouth, lips and basic head movements. The left hand operates the joystick, which determines facial expressions.

The puppeteer doesn’t control the movements directly. Instead, he works out what expressions and movements he wishes his character to display, then programs all the required positions into the PCS computers.

“Our puppets are very definitely not robots,” says Creature Shop technical maestro Dave Housman. “What I’m trying to do is to get the technology out of the way by building a ‘natural user’ for our performers. Pianists don’t think about what notes they’re pushing, just about the performance. That’s all I want our puppeteers to have to think about.”

No Strings Attached – The Inside Story of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop by Matt Bacon is published by Virgin at 25.

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