Jim Henson's Creature Shop, debuting tonight on SyFy, allows ten up-and-coming creature designers to put their ideas and technical skills to the test in weekly monster challenges. We talked to judge Kirk R. Thatcher and contestant Melissa Doss to find out what's in store.
The legacy of Jim Henson is difficult to overstate. The Muppets and Sesame Street alone are massive cultural icons, and for sci-fi and fantasy fans, Henson created or was involved with countless touchstones like The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, Dinosaurs, and the creation of Yoda. The creature design studio he created, Jim Henson's Creature Shop, continues to work on major film and television projects.
The Creature Shop is, of course, at the core of SyFy's Jim Henson's Creature Shop, which debuts tonight, March 25. On the show, ten artists will create new creature based on that week's particular challenge – the first week involves undersea creatures, for instance. The creations will be judged and the contestants gradually eliminated, with the top creature-monger getting a shot at a contract working for the Creature Shop.
The show will be hosted by Gigi Edgely (Chiana from Farscape!), and the judges are Kirk R. Thatcher, Beth Hathaway, and Brian Henson. All three have had their hands on (or in) dozens of classic creatures. The contestants will also have three mentors to guide them through the challenges: Peter Brooke, John Criswell, and Julie Zobel. All there are Creature Shop veterans with impressive skills and lengthy creature design resumes.
To get a peek behind the scenes, we talked to judge Kirk R. Thatcher, who's worked on everything from Return of the Jedi, Gremlins, RoboCop 2, Muppets from Space, Muppet Treasure Island, and Dinosaurs. Then we talked to contestant Melissa Doss about the skills required to be a creature designer.
io9: To start off, could you tell me how animatronics and puppetry have advanced since you started in the industry? I have a feeling viewers are going to be amazed at some of the things the contestants on this show can do.
Kirk R. Thatcher: First off, I just wanted to say that I love io9 and peruse your website every day! So, as a daily devourer of whatever you have to offer across all the subjects you cover: science, science fiction, fantasy, the arts, media, pop culture, I am very pleased to be a part of it! Okay, fan gushing over…
When I started, latex was the most common material to make creatures from, which is primarily a refined rubber compound derived from rubber tree sap. Quaint! Back then the creatures were typically animated by men in suits with cables or levers and simple mechanical devices pulled and operated by sometimes a group of six to eight fx puppeteers hiding off camera.
These days, there are a myriad of flexible and rigid plastics used in the creation of creatures — silicones, urethanes, epoxies and acrylics that have all sorts of properties that can mimic real flesh, teeth, eyes and hair much more accurately. Also, over the last 20 years or so servo mechanism technology has become smaller and more powerful, allowing much more freedom to animate larger and more complex creatures without having to hide enormous amounts of mechanical equipment in or around them. With the advent of cheaper and faster computers controlling these servos, now one or two people can animate an entire creature or even program entire paragraphs of dialogue into a playback software system and get an entire performance that is repeatable and layered and therefore, very realistic.
io9: As a judge on Jim Henson's Creature Shop, what will you be looking for each week? What's going to set one creature above another?
Kirk R. Thatcher: Each contest presents its own set of challenges, both stipulated or inherent in the assigned task. Besides the stipulations of the challenge itself, ie an underwater creature, a winged creature, an ambassador from an insectoid alien species, etc., we tend to look for: originality or uniqueness, believability or level of realism, quality of finish, including sculpting detail, hair work and paint job, ability to be manipulated, including performability and mechanized movements. So quite a lot! What usually sets one above the other is a high level of quality within all or most of these criteria. Or whichever creature came together with a mix of elements that created something unique and surprising. It was never an easy task for the creature designers to be the best or for us judges to pick a clear winner each week. When stuck for a deciding vote, we usually defaulted to, "Which creature was most camera ready?" Meaning, which one could you put on a set and shoot the way it was presented with no more work being done to it.
io9: If someone wanted to get involved in puppetry and animatronics, what does that career path look like? What are the first steps?
Kirk R. Thatcher: First, watch our show! You will see much of what it takes to go from idea to finish in a short amount of time! If you still are interested there are lots of informational videos on the web for free, including some by Rick Baker, one of the top monster makers of all time! If you are still interested after trying some of the techniques you see, there are both online courses and actual classes held in shops and schools around the country. Just look up Animatronic or Creature/Monster making courses. You would be surprised how many there are now, some being taught by working pros!
io9: You've got a lot of iconic creatures and characters on your resume. What are your three favorites that you designed?
Kirk R. Thatcher: The baby from Dinosaurs and his father, Earl Sinclair, and BP Richfield, Earl's enormous Ceratopsian boss from the same show. I also have some creatures for some television series that have not been made yet that I am fond of too, but you'll have to wait to see them!
io9: Did you have the opportunity to work directly with Jim Henson? How did he and his work inspire you?
Kirk R. Thatcher: Yes. I was very fortunate to work with Jim the last five or so years of his life and he inspired me in countless ways and gave me a lifetime of great memories and friendships. For me, the most influential aspect of working with Jim was his style of collaborating with creative people and his genuine, caring spirit. Those of us who worked with him all say, You worked with Jim, not for him. It always felt collaborative and you always knew he respected you and your work even if it wasn't going in the direction he desired. He managed and shepherded a gang of artists, performers and writers, all with disparate personalities and quirks, yet it always felt like you were part of something bigger that mattered and you were important to its success.
Also, because of all the unique, artistic characters both human and otherwise, it often felt like a big, crazy party that you got paid to attend. Not all the time, but some of the time, and that was always a joy. To be creating and inspired and laughing while you are making something! It's a rare, if not non-existent work environment in the entertainment business, if not all creative endeavors, and having worked in that rarefied air, it's all the more noticeable when you aren't surrounded by it. Because of this, I have tried to carry on in that tradition as a director and creative leader in any project I am involved with, and fortunately, I have continued working with his family and his company where that atmosphere is both revered and nurtured. Also, he liked to be silly and always ordered dessert. So I appreciated that. I just don't know how he stayed so thin!!
io9: How did you get started working on creature design/puppetry/animatronics?
Melissa Doss: I actually loosely got into creature design about four years ago when I started working at a small foam fabrication shop. I ended up learning so much from the shop, and the other effects artists that I met, that I started building all kinds of fantasy stuff for my friends (puppets, masks, and mermaid tails included). As a kid though, I had always sculpted little creatures out of oven bake clay and done simple costuming for plays, but honestly I never had any idea it would eventually lead to a career.
io9: What are your biggest influences when it comes to the creative side of the design process?
Melissa Doss: I'm most influenced by my love for fantasy and science fiction when it comes to designing. I'm always trying to recreate that feeling of magic I got as a kid when I watched things like Star Wars, Hook, and Farscape, but at the same time I have to work so hard to top it and make sure it's like nothing I've seen or done before.
io9: Creating creatures seems like it requires a ton of different skills and areas of expertise. What's your strong point? Which part of the process are you most confident in?
Melissa Doss: Creating creatures takes so much work! There is so much that goes into just the concept of a creature and then you have to make the dang thing! Honestly the more skills you have to bring to the table the better, because there is no one way to skin a monster. I personally have been very blessed to have picked up a lot of useful skills in this arena because I love to learn. My strong suits though rest in foam fabrication and painting, peppered with sculpting, sewing, and mold making. Quite honestly there isn't much I don't do. If I had to pick my favorite part of the process though it would be in the finishing. The magic is in the details, and that's when you start getting all the "Ooos" and "Awws".
io9: What one creature in the history of film and TV would you have loved to have worked on? Anything you'd have done differently with it?
Melissa Doss: Okay, so I would have loooved to work on any and every single alien from the Men in Black movies series, especially the squid baby from the first movie. Those crazy aliens are what got me so interested in creatures, and I wouldn't do a single thing different to them.
io9: Pitch me your dream show or movie project. You're the producer, the head designer, and totally in charge. Is it a kids' show? A dark fantasy? Something I probably haven't even imagined yet?
Melissa Doss: Now my dream would be to have a movie that is a mix between fantasy and sci fi, like if the Men in Black stumbled on Hogwarts. I'd want it to be a movie that's not too scary for kids, but something adults will have a good time watching. I think it'd be great to see how magic could help with some of our extraterrestrial issues and also how some advanced alien science could help tame some magical creatures that have inhabited our earth since the dawn of time. I like the idea of there being something more to our world and universe than meets the eye, that behind the daily grind is a whole realm of magic and mystery and that at any moment you could accidentally stumble upon it. That would be my dream, because there would be so many puppets and creatures it'd make your head spin.