The new Syfy competition series Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge provides a fascinating window into the incredibly imaginative and creative environment of creature design. Each week, the hopeful contestants get hands-on experience in learning every aspect of what it takes to become a master in such a highly competitive field while working toward the ultimate prize of a contract working for the world-renowned Jim Henson’s Creature Shop.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, Brian Henson, Chairman of The Jim Henson Company and the Creature Shop and lead judge on the series, talked about how this show came about, the process for finding contestants that would live up to the standard that he would expect from an employee, the time pressure that contestants are under to complete each challenge, how agonizing it was to send someone home every week, what they typically look for in an employee, why teamwork is so important in this profession, and just how well-rounded someone needs to be. He also talked about what it’s like to grow up around creatures always being designed and brought to life, whether Farscape could return, at some point, and whether we’ll ever get to see more Fraggle Rock. Check out our Brian Henson after the jump.
BRIAN HENSON: We brought it to them. But the truth is, we’ve been thinking that, in the area of creature design and construction, it’s really an interesting area and the artists that do it are really extraordinary. So for years, we’ve been thinking that, if we did a show like this, or a docu-series in a reality format, that goes inside of the Henson Company, where would be a really, really cool area to explore. For us, that’s these creature designer/builders. Over the years, we’ve been trying to knock around what would be a good format, and Joe Freed, who’s one of the executive producers, came to me. He’s got a lot of experience in reality production and he shared the same enthusiasm for these extraordinary artists, and it motivated me and our company to really get serious about selling it. And then, it was very quick. We brought it out and showed it to a couple of places, and both places said, “Please stop showing it!” And then, Syfy were the ones that stepped up right away. When Syfy announced the series, it was about five days or a week after we had gone and pitched it. It was really quick. Everyone thought this was going to be a great show.
It’s also such a nice secret area to show the audience. These artists can never win an Academy Award, which is interesting. I wanted to put that in the show, and I never had a spot to say, “Welcome to the hardest creative position in the industry, that demands the most talented artists in the business, and you will never win an Academy Award. Unless somebody mistakenly puts you in the make-up category, where you don’t belong, or the costuming category, where you don’t belong, or the special effects category, where you don’t belong, you’ll never win any recognition.” It’s so specialized. Because your ultimate effort is to create a believable thinking creature, nobody wants to look behind that curtain. So, it just seemed like, in so many ways, this was a super interesting area where the artists take it really seriously, but the results are really entertaining. It’s a celebration of artistic genius.
What was the process for finding contestants that would live up to the standard that you would expect from an employee, and were you ever worried that you wouldn’t find enough people?
HENSON: Yes, I was worried, and I thought there was a chance that we would have to look internationally. And I think in the future, if we make more seasons of this, I suspect that will happen. We were hoping that we wouldn’t have to do that in the very first seasons when everything is so expensive because you’re doing it for the very first time. But we worked with the most extraordinary casting director, Jacqui Pitman, and she and her company have been casting Face Off for all these years. That turned out to be a little bit of a leg up, mostly because they had a good process, in terms of what we asked them to do to prove that they are the artists that they say they are. They actually had a whole lot of people that they didn’t cast for Face Off that they thought were more creature designers than special effects make-up people. A lot of creature designers also dabble in special effects make-up, so that helped. We had a little bit of a leg up because they had some they had seen over the years that weren’t right for Face Off, but were right for us. And then, they just had a very good process for reaching out to them. They ultimately got us 40 great candidates that we then brought down to 10 to make the show.
HENSON: They’re under very intense time pressure. What we do is that I give them a creature brief, at the beginning of every episode, and even that part is truncated. In real life, on a production, there would be meetings and discussions about every different way that you might do a creature, before you actually come up with a creature brief. But we give them the brief and say, “This is how you’re going to have to do this.” And then, we give them two or three days, or maybe more, but not much more, and that roughly equates to at least a week, in real life, versus the day that we’re giving them. They have to build much faster than the Creature Shop would normally. But part of the creature brief is that we tell them exactly what the screen test will be. Every episode of the show finishes with a screen test, where the creatures that they’ve built are put on camera and they do their screen test. On our show, all their creature needs to do is get through that screen test. If they get through that screen test, and then their creature falls to pieces immediately after the camera is cut, if they had the best creature and the best performance than they win. In the creature business, you’re not building something that will last forever, like you would in the theme park business. You build creatures to do exactly what they’re going to do. But with this, we always knew that they were only going to have one screen test, and the screen test largely used up their creatures. The speed means they take a whole lot of short cuts and it just barely gets on camera and gets through the screen test. Part of the excitement is, having built that quickly and cut so many corners, is it going to make it through the screen test.
It was cool to see you surprised by the contestant in the first episode who used tin foil and hot glue for his creature. Is it exciting for you to still discover new things about the craft of making creatures, especially after having been in the profession for so long?
HENSON: Oh, sure. I’m always excited when somebody does something a new way. To me, that’s delicious. You have to be open to new ways of doing things because that’s the only way you discover a whole new approach. That was Josh. I was very impressed with Josh because nobody told him how to do that. These artists probably all started before they were 10 years old. They usually already have a passion for this, at a very young age. Initially, they’re just doing it like art projects. They like to make creatures. And then, they get more and more sophisticated. But, they usually start at a very young age. Josh’s background was that he just did it all in his garage. He had no idea how to do anything that he was doing, but he saw creatures on television and in movies and he set out to make them himself, having no idea where to start. That’s pretty great.
Now that you’ve completed this season and seen what these contestants had to offer, how impressed were you with what they could do, and were you bummed that you could only have one winner?
HENSON: Truthfully, every week was agonizing. Having to send one of them home, every week, was really, really hard. They all really wanted to win, and they wanted to prove themselves. But the time you get to just the last few, it gets overwhelmingly agonizing to have to let them go.
HENSON: If they have the creative talent and the wherewithal to be great at what we’re doing, that’s what we did. Our corporate culture is pretty loose and fun and exciting. We demand that people try ideas. If you tried a new idea and you failed, good for you. We will celebrate failure, if it was done with commitment and it was bold. You get a star for that, in this company. We have a pretty wide expectation of personalities. We want everyone to be different. Thematically, that was what my dad was always doing, anyway. You would very seldom see a Jim Henson production about a nuclear family that was a mom and dad and kids. We were always much more about everybody being so different and that being exciting, and how it’s fun to form a family of radically different individuals who come together over a shared dream. But, getting a job at the Creature Shop usually requires years of being one of the top go-to freelancers. In the Creature Shop, when we’re working on a project, most of the crew there are freelancers. They’re people that we’ve gotten to know, over the years. It’s very rare that somebody becomes staff. So, this is an extraordinary opportunity for the winner of this show. We really are giving them a staff position.
This competition really encourages teamwork and stresses the importance of teamwork, in this profession. Why is that something that is so important?
HENSON: It really is a much more exciting creative process if a team of five individuals are working together to create something. You can have two approaches to it. You can either have everybody investing 100% of their imagination, their creative ideas and their talent, and then you end up with something that’s extraordinary that not any one of those five could have told you about ahead of time. It only could have happened from the team. Another approach to teamwork is one person having a vision, and then four team members come and assist that one vision to make that vision happen. That’s not quite as exciting. In this instance, we make them work in that first approach where they’re all on the team and they all have to put their best ideas into it. They just have to figure it out together. That’s really exciting. If somebody’s not a good team member, then it will have a depressing affect on all the other team members. Somebody who’s not good at working in a team, it’s not so much that their work isn’t so good, but they’re bringing down everybody else’s work, too. That can be a problem. It is true that in the Creature Shop, sometimes there will be a job that is, from beginning to end, something that an individual will do. But generally speaking, there is some team element to ever contract, every creature, and everything that we do in this company, so being able to work on a team is important.
Do you have to be proficient in all aspects of creature building, or can you be more specialized?
HENSON: You can be quite specialized. Back in the ‘90s, you could be very specialized. Back when the factories were really big and there was a lot of animatronics going on, people could be extremely specialized. The rarest talent is what we call the all-arounder, who can design it, sketch it, sculpt it, mold it, fabricate it, paint it, and put mechanisms into it. That’s what we’re doing in this show. We’re finding all-arounders, and they’re the most exciting and the hardest to find. A lot of people will be much more specialized. But even if they’re very specialized, if they really have a working knowledge and a certain amount of skill in all of the areas, they’re going to be better at their specialty. In this show, we’re pushing them to do everything, but that’s not necessarily the way that the Creature Shop actually works, all the time. It does sometimes, but not all the time.
Growing up around creatures being brought to life, did it ever take away the magic for you, or did it inspire you even more?
HENSON: It’s always been both. Going back as early as I can remember, my dad was working puppets. I really enjoyed seeing him build the puppets, and I really enjoyed being there when he was glueing eyeballs to fabric, but I equally loved when he would then bring them to life and do the performances. I thought that was great. With The Muppets, and with the animatronics and creatures too, these are not perfect illusions of life. We’re all aware of the craft. Particularly with a Muppet, we’re aware that it’s felt and fabric and ping-pong balls. But then, bringing it to life is really, really wonderful. So, it’s not that there is an illusion there. Everybody knows that The Muppets are not actually alive, and somebody has put them together and brought them to life, and that’s pretty much true of the creatures, as well. The creatures that we build are a much more realistic illusion, but we still love them because we know that there are artists that created them and are bringing them to life.
With Gigi Edgley hosting this show, it’s prompting people to wonder if there will ever be more Farscape, at some point?
HENSON: It’s very, very hard. It took a long time to get Farscape going, the first time. But, I do not want Farscape to be done. I don’t want the universe of Farscape to be finished, and I am putting substantial effort into trying to get the Farscape universe to continue. But, I don’t really want to say anymore than that.
Will Fraggle Rock ever come back, in some form?
HENSON: Yes, we are also working on Fraggle Rock.
Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge airs on Tuesdays nights on Syfy.