This year's Entertainment Design Awards honor the spirit of collaboration, and The Jim Henson Creature Shop would be deserving of the honor for the sheer diversity of its collaborators alone. From robots and Blawps on the film Lost In Space to dragons and Cyclops on the TV movies Merlin and The Odyssey to all sorts of talking animals in both the film and musical theatre versions of Doctor Dolittle, The Creature Shop has worked with a wide array of artisans in a wide array of media.
Jim Henson formed his Creature Shop in London in 1979 in part to help create the characters for The Dark Crystal, the first all-creature animatronic feature film. Since then, the shop has produced creatures and prosthetics for a number of Henson productions, including Labyrinth and The Muppet Christmas Carol. Outside projects have included Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Flintstones, The English Patient, and Babe, for which the shop won the 1996 Oscar for Best Visual Effects.
For Lost In Space, The Creature Shop's project supervisor Verner Gresty worked closely with production designer Norman Garwood and director Stephen Hopkins during a six-month design phase. Robot I and Robot II, Blawp, and Spider Smith were all designed and produced as sketches and models before Jim Henson's Creature Shop began building for the film. The shop built two Robbie I robots and one Robbie II robot; all were built to be computer-operated for live performance or pre-recorded for playback performance. The robots were powered by a combination of hydraulics and electrics. Robot I weighed approximately 3,000lbs and could travel at 15mph; it had 60 control channels and at least 50 axes of movements. Blawp, an alien lizard-monkey, was initially conceived as animatronic but eventually produced as computer animation. He was achieved using the Creature Shop's own software system, which allowed traditional animation technique to mix with the Creature Shop's own brand of puppeteered computer animation. In all, Jim Henson's Creature Shop produced nearly eighty 3D character animation shots on the film.
For The Odyssey, the Creature Shop supervisor John Stephenson worked with director Andrei Konchalovsky and production designer Roger Hall to create a variety of characters, including a large, animatronic sea slug; a multi-headed sea monster; an animatronic replica of an Iron-Age pig; and a Cyclops costume with an animatronic head. Merlin was a collaboration among old colleagues, as The Creature Shop teamed up with Hall again, as well as with director Steve Barron, who directed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Film and television have long been staples of The Henson Creature Shop, but the last year has seen the company branch out even further, for instance creating the design and concept of a computer game, Rascal, for Sony Psygnosis' Playstation. It also is planning to get more involved in theme park, museum, and exhibition projects as well.
But perhaps most intriguing is its foray into theatre. The London production of Doctor Dolittle marked The Creature Shop's stage debut (see TCI November 98). Project supervisor Nick Rayburn and the rest of the Henson crew worked with director Steven Pimlott, production designer Mark Thompson, lighting designer Hugh Vanstone, and sound designers Richard Ryan and Paul Arditti on this ambitious project, which opened last summer at the Labatt's Apollo Hammersmith. In all, the shop brought over 100 creatures and effects--from Pushmi-Pullyou to Polynesia the Parrot to the Giant Sea Snail--to life for this lavish children's spectacle. Rayburn admitted that Dolittle created challenges that the shop had never encountered in its film and television work, but added that the company wanted to work on future theatrical projects.
That next project might just be Noah's Ark, a musical by Dolittle creator Leslie Bricusse. Rayburn says they are currently doing preliminary work on the creatures--two of each, naturally--and may even get involved in the production design as well. Noah's Ark seems ideally suited to the many talents of the Henson Creature Shop, and it's a project set to open, appropriately enough, in the millennium.