‘The Dark Crystal’ Production Designer Gavin Bocquet on Bringing Jim Henson’s Thra Back to Life

     September 5, 2019

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Imagine for a moment the sheer amount of willpower, manpower, and creative effort that went into not only faithfully recreating Jim Henson‘s fantasy world from The Dark Crystal but vastly expanding it for The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. That was the task set out for the production team, led by Production Designer Gavin Bocquet. An alumnus of Star Wars, having worked with George Lucas and Frank Oz on four feature films in the franchise in addition to more than 30 other titles, Emmy-winner Bocquet was well-suited to bring new and returning aspects of this alien world to life. But that didn’t mean it was easy.

If you’re like us and have become enthralled by all things Thra and The Dark Crystal, then you’ll want to check out our discussion with Bocquet. He pulls back the curtain to reveal how the sets literally came together, both from a close-up jigsaw puzzle-like perspective and from a broader point of view, along with just how many people it took to design, create, and assemble the more than 80 sets in less than six months time. Everything about the way The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance came together seems miraculous, and it’s increasingly obvious that this series is something special that may never be repeated. And for Bocquet, it was a uniquely challenging experience that he hopes will inspire a new generation of creatives. See what he had to say about that experience below.

If you’d like to watch The Dark Crystal, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, and/or The Crystal Calls: Making ‘The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance’, be sure to click the relevant links.

And for more on all things Dark Crystal, check out our own write-ups below:

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Image via Netflix

First of all, for folks out there who maybe aren’t familiar with industry terminology, what exactly does a production designer do and what were your responsibilities on The Dark Crystal?

Gavin Bocquet: The production designer on a film or a TV show is really responsible for the look of the show from the set, to the locations, to the set decorating, to the props, the hand props, and basically helping tell the story, helping develop the characters, and helping move the storyline along really. So anything you see behind or in front of the actors that isn’t the actor and isn’t the costume is probably the product designer’s influence.

Would you say this is one of the biggest projects that you’ve ever worked on?

Bocquet: I think starting with basically a blank canvas for 80% of the script and trying to honor what had gone before with Jim Henson and Brian Froud and Harry Lange, the production designer of the original show, that was quite the daunting part, because you’re trying to live up to something that was quite a groundbreaking movie in its time. And to come back to that 30 years later to try to push it even further than they were able to push it at the time, that was the daunting part of it. I wouldn’t say it was necessarily the hardest, because they’re all hard in their own way, but the blank piece of paper at the beginning is always the hardest moment. But once you get started with the people around you, it becomes more exciting rather than daunting.

Speaking of the people around you, about roughly how many people were on your production design team?

Bocquet: Within the art department, who were the creative group under the production designer, it can vary, but on this show is probably about 20 or 30 from art director, set decorator, assistant art directors, set designers, concept artists. But then if you include the construction side and the prop-making and the set dressers, then you’re probably up to about to 200 or 300 at a peak moment. But in the pyramidal way that everything is delegated down from the top end down to the face of the pyramid really.

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Image via The Jim Henson Company

This is a prequel series of something that already existed over 30 years ago, so was it a particular challenge to have to match that aesthetic?

Bocquet: Yes. I think matching the aesthetic and matching the success in the sense visually, the sort of groundbreaking ideas that they had in that first film was the hardest. But 20% of our story took place in the Skeksis Castle, which was predominantly where the original film took place. I would say 80% of the original film took place in the Skeksis Castle. That was quite a good place for us to start in the fact that we were reproducing the environment that had been there before and having to check back and look at the archives and basically reproduce what had been done.

So that got us into the spirit really early on, because there were sets that we could get onto without having to do a great deal of design work. Obviously, in the early ’80s there wasn’t so much archiving as you can imagine as there is these days. Everything these days is archived up to the eyeballs, but in those days we were having to track back through the film, track back through some early reference that Henson had kept.

But then the other 80% of the film on our side, on the series, is other areas of Thra with the five or six other clans that we saw of the Gelflings, so those had never really been concepted or designed in any sense at all. So that’s where we had to move into the more, I wouldn’t say exciting areas, because it was exciting recreating the original, of course, but starting with the original Skeksis Castle world gave us all an inherent feel, I think, in those first few weeks as to where we could push the other environments to give them their character and help the story move along.

Everything on this production was made from scratch, right?

Bocquet: Yes.

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Image via Netflix

There was no existing material you could really work with other than the references?

Bocquet: No, definitely nothing physical at all. There was a museum. I think it’s on your side actually as a Jim Henson-Dark Crystal exhibit where there was a very early version of a model of the Skeksis Castle and some of the characters, but nothing physical that we could ever use. We basically had to start from scratch. Of course, over those 30 years some of the construction techniques would be a little bit different these days than they did in those days. Not a huge amount, but it was best to start from scratch basically. So I think everything you see in the film from an art department point of view was created from scratch is probably the simple answer.

Was this your first time working with puppets?

Bocquet: Well, funnily enough, in my younger days I was on Return of the Jedi as an assistant art director, and then eventually, no connection to that, going on to the prequels with George [Lucas]. Obviously, at that time, George was almost turning to digital, and Yoda was becoming a digital character in some of the scenes in those three prequels. I did at one point work on the Jim Henson series called Greek Myths just as an assistant art director again, but again that was all puppetry. Still, in that Star Wars world there was still a lot of puppetry on them. We still had Frank Oz with Yoda on the prequels.

But generally, I think Dark Crystal is a pretty unique experience in terms of every lead character and every character you see is a puppet. I think on all those other shows, even the sequels of Star Wars, there’s a lot of puppetry in there coming back that way, but you could never really say the whole of the story is based around puppet characters. So I think that’s the groundbreaking side of it from the original film, from this one, that people are going to see a series that is completely puppet-orientated.

Although there are some CG elements to the puppetry and to the backgrounds just where necessary, the general feeling I think from the creature design team with Toby Froud and Peter Brooke at Henson’s, and Lisa Henson obviously is a producer, was if they couldn’t create a character as a puppet that could only be created as a CG character, they wouldn’t go that way. Every character you see, like the new characters or the new creatures, they had to be able to be produced as a puppet, even though in the show there might a CG version of that character or creature just for some wider shots of movement.

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