Jim Henson gained legendary status for his Muppet creations before his death in 1990, and his son, Brian Henson, continues his father’s legacy for creating fantastic creatures through puppetry and animatronics. Starting March 25, Syfy brings the mystery of this art to television with their latest reality competition series, “Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge,” where Henson will be one of the show’s judges for contestants trying to earn a job with his family company. He sat down for a media conference call to discuss the show, his father and how the art of animatronics remains relevant in the age of CGI.
Q: Can you talk about how you got started doing this series and why you decided to do it?
Brian Henson: Well, it’s something we’ve been considering for quite a long time, actually … [These artists are a] very rare talent and they’re hard to find, but what they do is, in my mind, almost the closest to magic that you will find in the artistic field and nobody knows about these creature builders. They cannot win an Emmy award. They cannot win an Academy Award. They do sometimes, but for kind of the wrong reasons. Rick Baker has won for makeup, but he wasn’t doing makeup and, you know, sometimes our creature shop will win for costuming, but they’re not costumes.
So really these are artists that people don’t know what they do. They haven’t seen it. They don’t really know about it. It’s kind of a secret area, a dark secret area that we love exposing and showing what they do. So we have thought for years that doing some sort of reality series around those artists would be the most exciting and interesting to the general public.
Q: How would you describe the overall talent on the show?
BH: Oh, it’s extraordinary really. We benefited from a really excellent casting director who had been casting “Face Off” for many years, so she had already seen hundreds and hundreds of artists from around the world … [Artists] that were not right for special effects makeup but would be much more right for a show like this.
So that sort of gave us a step up and they were able to bring us about 40 artists that were really good from around the country. We whittled it down to ten extraordinary artists and they come from every sort of background. Some are working in the special effects business. Some work in the theme park business, some not in the business at all. They range in age from 21 to 41, but they’re all those kinds of artists that I was talking about. They’ve been doing it since they were kids. They just needed their opportunity.
Q: What is the reason why there’s such a thrill factor for what would now be called old school creating, creating with your hands rather than using a computer?
BH: From the point of view of an artist … when you work in a physical medium the medium itself will surprise you … And if you’re producing something physically you get the benefit of those surprises, those left turns, those unexpected, oh-look-at-this texture. Wow, it does something even nicer than I thought it was going to do. You have a lot less of that when you work in a virtual environment.
Q: Do you hope that this show focusing on the artistry of animatronics will create a resurgence in that art form, or do you think the economics will keep the studios using CGI?
BH: Well, it’s interesting. The economics of CGI are not as good as the economics of animatronics — particularly what we can do now versus what we were doing 20 years ago with the green puppeteer removal, rod removal, string removals. All these techniques are easier than ever. The big difference between animatronics and CGI in terms of movie production is that with animatronics you have to start a year ahead of shooting … Whereas with CGI, the bulk of the work actually comes in after the studio’s seen the director’s cut. So it becomes just easier for them, I believe, to spend the money with CGI [even though] a CGI creature is more expensive than an animatronic creature or even an animatronic CGI hybrid.
But I do think we are seeing a resurgence of creating creatures that really are there in a space.
Q: So what does it feel like to have a father who’s so cherished and beloved the world over?
BH: It’s very, very comfortable actually for me. It’s kind of lovely. I think that I’m kind of blessed by a situation where everybody knows how wonderful my dad was and how special he must have been to me … And in terms of continuing his legacy, it’s never been really a burden. His legacy is do bold things and don’t be scared of failure, and if you fail but you’ve been doing something bold and innovative that nobody’s seen and it failed — that’s a triumph. And, you know, don’t copy yourself. Don’t copy other people. Do things that are fun and be irreverent and question the status quo and be a little subversive when it feels like the right thing to do.
“Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge” is hosted by Gigi Edgley of “Farscape,” and in addition to Henson, judges include creature fabricator Beth Hathaway (“Terminator 2,” and “Jurassic Park”) and creature designer Kirk R. Thatcher (“Star Wars: Return of the Jedi” and “Muppets Wizard of Oz”).
Tune into the debut of “Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge” March 25 and Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on Syfy.
Photo Courtesy of Justin Stephens/Syfy
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