I watched the Dark Crystal again the other day and it still entrances me even after so many years. This is a film that had a profound effect on my imagination as a child and continues to fuel and inspire me to this day. The coupling of Froud’s concept design and Henson’s ability to bring such creatures to life produced a truly unique piece of storytelling.
Reveling in the genius of its puppetry, I got to thinking about how the craft of model making and animatronics has been such a solid foundation for modern special effects and CGI. Poor George Lucas has taken a lot of hits in recent years for his continuous tinkering with the Star Wars franchise. In all honesty I’ve never had much of a problem with the new movies and animated shows, I like the fact another generation is growing up with Star Wars as an influence, and credit where credit is due, Lucas, ILM and Henson really set the bench mark of quality where model making and animatronics were concerned.
However, with the new Star Wars movies I do think Lucas made one huge mistake, he put too much focus on the CGI and stepped away from the animatronics and model building that made the first movies so captivating. This is most apparent in Yoda (less said about the Vodaphone abomination the better). In the original films Yoda was a puppet, a fantastic amalgamation of latex and micro mechanics given life by the brilliant Frank Oz, and although we all knew the little green nutsack wasn’t real he felt real, he occupied the same space, the same air as Luke; they shared the same light. In the new movies Yoda is all very impressive with his ninja moves and his intricate expressions but he feels removed, detached – fake. He’s not nearly as engaging as when he was a puppet. And this is something I feel many filmmakers have fallen prey to in the CGI revolution.
I’m not saying I dislike CGI, I love it, and when you have a whole world created in 3D without flesh and blood actors in it, then the suspension of disbelief works more effectively, if you look at any of the Pixar movies, or the jungle scenes in Avatar, or the dark golem world of 9, then you become totally absorbed in the hyper-reality of the world, it is dreamlike, but, more often than not, CGI spliced into real footage can be lacking.
Two directors whose work I feel continues in the vein of Henson and early Lucas are Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro. Both can see the merits of model making and animatronics in helping to create totally immersive and believable worlds. They successfully meld CGI, actors, models and puppets into a seamless spectacle.
I was fortunate enough to work on a kids TV project with a puppeteer who had worked on del Toro’s Hellboy 2, playing the role of a creature in the troll market. His description of the set and characters and the way del Toro had such a love of the puppets and creatures in the scene was enthralling. When you look at the sequence in the movie it is a testament to how the puppets, prosthetics and set all gel perfectly, suspending our disbelief in a way that CGI can sometimes fail to do. Del Toro’s creatures in general are a feast for my imagination and the fact so many are actual physical occupants of our world makes them all the more pleasing, what I wouldn’t give to visit his creature workshop, although maybe not at night!
Jackson is the same, he opts for that ‘touchable’ object, whether its in the mindboggling ‘bigatures’ of Moria or Minas Tirith, or the oily ooze-dripping maw of the Mouth of Sauron, he gives his actors, and more importantly, his viewers something real to react to.
It pleases me greatly that there is such a strong return to the use of this craft in the mega-buck blockbusters being created today. For a while it looked like model making and animatronics might be lost beneath the tide of CGI, but fortunately the dedicated worldbuilders can see how the crafts enhance their visions making them even more real to our sophisticated but easily tricked eyes.
When I write of monsters or aliens I always picture a beautiful puppet in action, every frown and sneer, lurch and roar, perfectly played out by twitching circuits and meticulously rendered latex flesh. Long may this balance between the real and digital reign!
Here is the showreel of Gustav Hoegen – a true master of the craft! Just check out some of the crazy beings he has brought to life: