If you grew up in the ’80s or are old enough to still remember VCR tapes, you may remember The Dark Crystal (1982): the Jim Henson fantasy drama with a cast of all puppets.
While the style of puppets slightly resembles Henson’s Muppets, the creatures of Thra – a made-up world ruled by magical forces – are darker, more realistic. Instead of brightly coloured frogs like Kermit, we see the Gelfling, a race of spiritually connected beings, rebel against the Skeksis, a terrifying bird-like race that have overtaken Thra and the crystal. Amidst these two groups on Thra are many others, all puppets who are brought to life through the intricate puppeteering and the elaborate sets that makes Thra feel real.
Almost 40 years since the initial release of The Dark Crystal, the movie has fallen, mostly, into the memories of odd movies we watched as kids or sits collecting dust in the pile of VCRs in our parent’s basements. Until, that is, it was announced that Netflix would be reviving it – this time as a series.
With a Hollywood-rich cast of voices such as Awkwafina, Helena Bonham Carter, Natalie Dormer, and Mark Hamill and a cultural craving for fantasy following the success of Game of Thrones, Netflix attempted to not only revive the movie, but make it something new. And even though CGI and film technology has drastically changed since 1982, the creative team and Henson family would not abandon the legacy of puppetry.
The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (2019) succeeds in staying true to its legacy while pushing forth a new story. And this is owed to the hands behind the puppets – the people bringing these characters and world to life. Beccy Henderson, a puppeteer and actor of several years, is the hand behind Deet and Naia, as well as an assistant for many other characters. For her, puppeteering is more than technical perfection. It is about embodying the character you are bringing to life.
How did you first get involved with Netflix’s The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance?
I was very obsessed with Brian Froud’s Goblins book and drawing goblins and stuff. And I liked the Muppets. So The Dark Crystal was kind of a marriage of Jim Henson and Brian Froud.
I auditioned. They held this massive audition list, with what seemed like every puppeteer in the world. I did not expect anything from it at all. I was just delighted to have been able to be in that room. And then I got a recall.
It was really terrifying because at that point I had only about five years of assistant puppeteer experience. I hadn’t done an actual character before. I was in this room with all these puppeteers and I knew their names just because they were big puppeteers in the UK. It was crazy to be in that room. And then Kevin Clash actually sold me Deet’s part. It sounded like quite a small part, so I thought, “Great! I want that one!” I really just loved her script.
What makes this new series different than the original movie?
It’s so crazy. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Obviously I’ve seen the original and I’ve seen creature puppetry, but this is just such a strange marriage of all of those things. And it’s so different from the original because it’s more high drama and it’s faster-paced and there’s more of everything. More Gelfling. More everything.
Everything was an experiment. Everything was the first time. I think it’s something to be proud of, no matter how it turns out or how people feel about it. We did something really groundbreaking and I think it’s brilliant.
What is your relationship like with the characters you play? Especially Deet, who is one of the three main protagonists in the series?
Deet is probably the closest character to myself. She’s a bit naive, I’m a bit naive. I like to see the best in everyone and everything, my cups half-full. She sees the best in everything right up until she finds out that it’s quite the opposite. I don’t know how to put it, but, Deet is like my soul. I think it is that way for a lot of puppeteers and their characters. In order to get that performance, you have to put so much of yourself into it. Then there’s a blessing in it too, with puppetry, where I perform other characters like Naia, who’s really not like me. She’s really strong and bold and fierce. With puppets, you get to still play those characters, because you don’t have to look like that character or even physically be like that character.
Do you have any personal craft techniques? Puppeteering rules to live by?
The number one rule in puppeteering is personal hygiene. Because you have to be so close. You’re always in someone’s armpit.
It’s really hot, it’s really sweaty, it’s really heavy. It’s all difficult. Even the Gelfling are so, so heavy.
I don’t know if you can picture a puppeteer carrying a concrete block – probably very, very similar. And a lot of the problem with it too is like they’re really heavy, but as well is that the muscles that you use to puppeteer aren’t the muscles that you normally use for strength. It’s like the muscles that you need to use for this part just don’t exist. You can’t train them up, you can’t go to the gym and strengthen this muscle – because it’s not there.
Being a trained actor in addition to a puppeteer, how do the two inform one another?
I come up puppeteering from an actors perspective and I put my energy into it that way and perform it through whatever emotions [the characters are] feeling. Whereas you can come at it really technically and be really technically perfect, but I do it a bit differently. For me I like an organic, emotional performance which actually lends itself to the Gelfling and The Dark Crystal because it is this high drama that you don’t normally have with puppets, like the kids shows and stuff.
Why return to the craft puppeteering in film when we have all this new technology?
I think puppets are so important to still give you that real feeling of the creatures and that you can actually step into their world and touch them. Or, in terms of like a Skeksi, like they could come and get you. They’re terrifying!
This marriage of digital, with just a little enhancement to our physical puppetry, I think is great. And with CGI, we can make some really great, crazy, fantasy creatures and worlds.
The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is now streaming on Netflix.