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Creature Feature

April 2000
Copyright 2000 SFX Magazine; reproduced without permission

It may be the pet project of Jim Henson's Creature Shop, but don't call it Muppets in Space, executive producer Brian Henson and creature creator Jamie Courtier tell Dave Golder...

You may have sniggered at the idea of The Science of Star Trek. You might even have had a good chuckle over The Science of The X-Files. But, trust executive producer Brian Henson, if there's ever a book out there called The Science of Farscape it'll be an out and out laughfest.

"What we wanted to do was science fiction with no rules; Farscape is not 'science' fiction. Farscape," laughs the irrepressibly ebullient son of Muppet maestro Jim Henson, "is based on dubious science."

Which may explain why the show has produced such a polarity of reactions. Some decry it as hopelessly old-fashioned, a return to the "monster of the week" episodic banalities of Irwin Allen. Others are embracing the free-for-all lunacy of the show. But whatever you make of this manic Muppets from Space/Buck Rogers/Babylon 5 hybrid, you can't deny that visually it's one of the most idiosyncratic, most carefully crafted and lovingly conceived SF shows ever to illuminate your cathode ray tube.

Hardly surprising, considering the show was created specifically to be a showcase for the Jim Henson Creature Shop, the FX company set up in the UK by the late Jim Henson initially to work on The Dark Crystal, but which has since gone on to become the world's foremost suppliers of animatronic artistry to the film, TV and advertising work (everything from Loch Ness monsters through Lost in Space Robots to the new improved Honey Monster). While The Henson Creature Shop in New York continued to pump out fluffy puppets mainly for the small screen, the UK Creature Shop specialised in more "realistic creatures"; or, as Henson put it, "With the stuff we make at the UK Shop, the illusion would be if you cut it with a scalpel, it'll bleed. The New York shop never tries to make anything that looks like it'll bleed. You'd just get fluff or something."

The trouble was that The Creature Shop was becoming a victim of its own top-flight reputation and found that it was being commissioned almost exclusively for movie productions. Brian Henson, who took over the Henson Corporation after his father's sudden, tragic death ten years ago, wanted to prove that The Creature Shop's talents could be translated to the small screen without the support of a Titanic-sized budget.

"It started five years ago," he reflects, precariously seated (and always seemingly on the verge of leaping up from his chair) in a canal-side meeting room in the London Creature Shop's Camden Home. "Even before that probably. We wanted to do a television show that would bring what The Creature Shop can do to television. Because The Creature Shop was working almost exclusively in feature films at that point. We had done Dinosaurs which was very successful, but it was a comedy series, and we wanted something that was a little edgier, but which would inevitably end up with some comic moments, because all our stuff does. So in a lot of ways it's our most sincere dramatic series. But it's still irreverent."

Henson's lean frame bristles with manic energy as he enthuses about the show, his sinewy limbs deckchairing with enthusiastic contortions. The meeting room has been decked out with impressive maquettes of characters from the series, models and piles and piles of production sketches -- many of them still bear the original name for the series, Space Chase. Also on hand to talk about the technical side of the programme is Jamie Courtier, one of the Shop's senior and longest serving FX guys who had a guiding hand in the design and construction of all the regular Farscape animatronic characters. But for the moment he's happy to let the Henson human whirlwind spin on...

"I guess we started by looking at the energy of the cantina from the first Star Wars," continues Henson. "Here's a movie which stood on its dramatic strength but which had some really ridiculous ideas in there. In a scene which people remember as a very macho scene -- Obi-Wan Kenobi cutting off the arm of that alien -- you look at that scene and it's full of the most ridiculous creatures. There are all sorts of whimsical ideas in there. And so we wanted a show that had that level of lighter, more whimsical science fiction.

"We then thought that it would be great for a modern day person to be brought into this alien reality, someone who would constantly be able to exploit the alienness of the show. Because if all your characters are comfortable there you could never exploit what you've done."

But a little bit Buck Rogers surely? It must be a criticism he hears often...

"Um, now," Henson says, somewhat taken aback, as if, indeed, it has never occurred to him before. "We just wanted to be able to insert the 'modern' perspective, have Crichton go, 'This ain't the way it was in Star Wars.' He expects this alien place to be like the things he's seen on TV and at the movies, but it isn't. Besides, the idea of placing someone from our world into another didn't originate with Buck Rogers. There's things like Narnia."

And so Henson, with the basic idea of the show in mind, went in search of a writer who could hone the format into a workable state. "That's when we met Rockne O'Bannon," says Henson. "He put the whole thing together from that rough concept of what we wanted: a showpiece of what The Creature Shop could do with television, a science fiction show, and a modern day human point of view. He built the whole concept of John Crichton, his experimental flight going wrong... The creation of the personality of all those characters is very much out of Rocky's head."

It was O'Bannon, the man who also wrote the pilot for SeaQuest DSV, who devised the characters and universe of Farscape -- the premise that John Crichton finds himself on a living ship, Moya, with a bunch of political refugees, running from the ironically-monikered Peacekeepers. But a lot of the fine tuning conceptual work was developed hand in hand with the artists and technicians at The Creature Shop; Zhaan (the bald blue spiritual priestess) and Moya's Pilot, for example. "If you want to see the original maquette of Zhaan," says Henson, "you'll find a little 60-year-old blue man. That was when we were going to have a different female character who we then lost."

While O'Bannon was honing the concept, Henson boarded the global marketing merry-go-round, trying to convince TV channels and producers to stump up the money to make the show. "It's a very, very big show. It's the biggest show that's ever been made," says Henson proudly. "And it's a very, very daring business proposition that we've done here. That's largely why it took four years. We did an enormous amount of work to realise the show visually and you're seeing a millionth of some of the ideas.

"But we had big airbrush presentation paintings; we had to have maquettes of every character. We had an enormous visual presentation. We were going to television broadcasters and just filling a room with images to help them get a feel for what the show was. But then we still had problems getting the show financed because they were saying, 'We're not sure we really want to make a show that's all creatures.' And we would have to say, 'It's not all creatures, but we haven't designed the actors because they only need casting."

Finally, financing secured, the show swung into action, with filming taking place in the now trendy -- because it's so cheap (ask George Lucas and the Wachowskis) -- Sydney. Which, according to Henson, is one of the reasons why Farscape can afford to look so lavish, while not having Trek's megabucks behind it. "I'll say two things: Farscape is less expensive than Trek, but there's more work in it. That's largely a function of the exchange rate of the Australian dollar to the American dollar, and the fact that the Australian industry is a more fledgling industry than in America. In Australia, it's a newer industry and exchange rates are much lower. And that enables us to do more show for less money. If we were to make it in America it would be more expensive than Star Trek."

Henson also believes the amount of preproduction that was done on the show also managed to keep costs under control. He indicates the production sketches...

"There were reams and reams of this kind of work. So when it came to making the show the production team was creating a lot of these images for the screen very, very cheaply. They weren't searching for 'the look'. They weren't building something and then saying, 'Well it's not good enough,' and starting again."

Having 20 years or so of The Creature Shop doing research and development was another budget bonus.

"We were able to bring an enormous amount of experience to a show. In launching this show we had over 12 artists and technicians from The Creature Shop down there. And then we had performers training and staying with the show, training the characters, puppeteers and performers inside suits. And I was there training the directors who were shooting this stuff."

As you might expect, being an effects house, The Creature Shop has a large number of SF fans on its payroll, inspired to enter the industry by movies like Star Wars. Courtier agrees, and reckons that Farscape therefore fueled a more fevered state of excitement than usual.

"Oh yeah," he says, "there's a generation of kids, probably always will be actually, that ensconce themselves in SF and fantasy. I was one of them. I lived inside a science fiction book world from the age of about nine upwards.

"And also, the underlying root feeling among Creature Shop folk is that when you go to a party anywhere in the world and you tell people you work at Jim Henson's Creature Shop, they say, 'Oh, you make Muppets.' It's quite understandable really. And, you know, we haven't really made Muppets here, ever. They're made in New York. The London Creature Shop has always been a harder edged sort of place. So to be faced with the challenge of working on a show like Farscape is just a dream for this place. I'm talking collectively. It's everybody's aspiration. And the fact that it's an in-house project makes it that much more exciting because it's so much more integrated."

So Courtier and his team designed and built the main regular animatronic characters here in the UK, but they had to be shipped to Sydney for filming. And getting Henson creatures through customs always creates problems.

"They always get held up in customs," grins Henson. "You have to list all the chemicals involved, and all the computer equipment. When customs see that they always get worried. We had terrible problems on Dinosaurs because we shipped the suits to LA to shoot, and the Gulf War broke out that morning. We were fucked... those dinosaurs were stuck in customs for three weeks."

Now, though, the show is almost exclusively created in Australia.

"It started that the whole show was built here, and then it moved to Sydney with a large British and American contingent," says Henson. "The writing was originally done in California, and that's also been moving southwards. At this moment, I think they're shooting episode 30, and right now, everything's in Sydney. There are still some British people, but half as many. Just as there are still Americans, but half as many."

Even most of the writing is now done by a mainly Australian team of scribes.

"Rockne is now consultant because he didn't want to go to Sydney, which is fair enough," reckons Henson. "He was the first to admit it's got to be run in Sydney. So he's now like an executive consultant who's the creator. Believe me, we still keep him busy. David Kemper, who really was his writing partner, was the one who volunteered to go and live in Sydney. So, David's there heading the writing team. But at this point everything's made there. There's quite a sizable Creature Shop there now.

"And that's, in a lot of ways, how some of the most exciting stuff happens," Henson continues. "It's what happens with a television show. Like with Dinosaurs. We built all the dinosaurs here, but then, when you're creating the show you have to start creating little characters for little moments here and there.... I don't know it you remember Dinosaurs, but we had "All-Dino TV," invented on location in California, and we were building all there crazy stupid puppets for it. And it became one of the most wonderful aspects of the show. I think the same thing is happening down there in Sydney. What started as six to ten characters built here is growing to 20, 30, 40, 50 characters... they're being generated very quickly. Extremely complicated characters are going from nothing to suit in two weeks. Television just creates an efficiency level that is far beyond what you can find anywhere else. And you don't even know how you get there. It's just with a television show everyone knows what the show is, everyone knows what something should look like. Cos they're there on the show they know what a creature should look like, they know how it should move, they know how it will work, who's gonna make it. The Muppet Show, you know, spawned 500 characters. And new techniques came out of it. Often the most amazing research and development came out of television series."

Which is a bit different to the nine months the regular animatronic characters took to make; but, as Courtier points out, they have to withstand much more scrutiny each week and are expected to take much, much more wear and tear. But while the "guest" characters may not be as complex, building them animatronically still have an advantage over computer generated characters. As Henson points out: "CGI characters are so expensive to produce for television, that you can only have them onscreen for seconds per episode, and they rarely interact with other characters because it's so difficult to make look effective."

So if the Australian Creature Shop is churning stuff out at such a high rate, do they, like Trek's makeup maestro Michael Westmoreland, cut corners by mixing and matching bits of previously-built characters to make new ones?

"That never happens here," retorts Henson with mock indignation, before adding in a low whisper, "But in Sydney.... Am I allowed to say anything?"

Courtier doesn't seem too worried about secrets coming out. Besides, he adds, "The sets for The Matrix are there in Farscape, here and there..."

"Oh, ssshhhhh..." hams Henson, before caving in. "Yeah, okay, The Matrix was shooting on the same lot in Sydney, and their skip was conveniently close to our art department..."

The current trend in SF shows is overarcing plots, something which Farscape initially eschewed. But that could be changing. "TV channels want you to produce a show that can be shown anywhere," says Henson. "Because they want to know that, say, episodes 15 and 23 and 38 -- the episodes they know rated the highest first time around -- they can stick them on whenever. So to start with the channels were scrutinizing our scripts to make sure they could air them in any order. Then we started getting away with arcing. We're getting more and more towards doing storylines that will go through six episodes or so."

Henson also admits other lessons are being learnt as they go along.

"You change things all the time. What we wanted with this show was an open enough format that you could throw anything in it. If the show's energy and format is open enough that any crazy idea we have can walk in there that by nature means we are going to make mistakes -- and yeah, some of the early episodes probably did go a bit too far. Alternatively, sometimes we think, 'Wow, we never thought that was going to work so well.' You know, I reckon virtually any character you could find in this Creature Shop could walk into Farscape..."

Courtier laughs. "What about Flat Eric..."

"Oh yeah, we did Flat Eric," muses Henson, his scalpel theory trounced by the Creature Shop's work on the chart-topping Levi ad puppet. "Oh, I dunno. Flat Eric with a big cable out his back linked to an enormous computer bank. Absolutely we could put that in..."

Did somebody mention dubious science? -- SFX

Sidebar: Designing Pilot

He's the most complex creature in the show. He's also the crew's favorite.

Of all the regular animatronic characters created for Farscape, Pilot was the one that involved the most input from a number of different perspectives -- from Henson himself, through writer Rockne O'Bannon to the artists and technicians in The Creature Shop.

"Pilot comes out of a bunch of different directions," reveals Henson. "It was definitely Rockne's idea that the ship, Moya, is alive. And the idea was that we wanted to give a voice to this living ship. But we didn't want a mouth and we didn't really want the ship talking through a computer, because that's very Star Treky. So that was when Rockne 'rooted' the pilot in the ship so he could be the communication with Moya. Really, I think one reason why there were a lot of different people's influences on Pilot was because largely, to Rockne, Pilot was just the 'Voice Of Moya', not as important as an individual, and probably a pretty shallow character.

"So early on we spent a lot of time thinking, 'You know, he's the worst person to be in a position of control. He's the first to panic. He probably has anxiety attacks. He probably gets a little too drunk at night. If they've had a really hard experience he's probably the one who's had a heavy night and just can't function the next day.' We've sort of gone with some of that. We've gone from the idea that he speaks with great confidence and all but often he has no idea."

The fact that Pilot was to be "rooted" in Moya also enabled Jamie Courtier and his team at The Creature Shop to build something a bit more elaborate.

We discovered something on Dinosaurs when we made BP Richfield, the boss who was always behind a desk," say Henson. "We discovered that if a character doesn't have to move you can do the most extraordinary things because weight's not an issue. And Pilot is an enormous puppet. He could never move. He has an enormous supporting rig to hold him up and there are five performers underneath him.

Some of the details which Courtier's crew have incorporated into Pilot may not be immediately obvious to the viewer.

"His whole eyeplate slides right forward which is anatomically really, really not proper," enthuses Henson. "You get the sense that Pilot has got very bulgy eyes, but you don't realize his whole eyeplate has slid forward. It's enormously expressive, and it's a kind of cheating of movement which you won't find in nature. And his mouth is also very, very effective. There's a double-joining on his jaw which is also a cheat which you won't find in nature. But it allows him a more complex speech pattern that isn't as accurate as CG but is more interesting than CG to watch.

"He's a wonderful mix of the technological and the organic, and there's something primitive about him. But he's very intelligent. There was nothing that failed on Pilot. Whereas with nearly all the characters we produce there are some failures or disappointments, every step of the way just made Pilot better and better and better." -- SFX

Sidebar: Farscape's sexy blue-skinned priestess talks exclusively to SFX

Virginia Hey plays Zhaan, the blue-skinned Borg-like priestess in Farscape. A native of Aussie-land her first major acting job was playing opposite Mel Gibson in Mad Max 2 (impeccable genre credentials then) and she actually claims to be a fan of the genre. "It appeals to my inquiring mind," she says. Good Lord.

On acting: "I've been an actress for 17 years; I started when I was three! My first real acting job was Mad Max 2. What a debut, being able to play futuristic cowboys and indians with Mel Gibson, and get paid for it!

"Life school has been my training. I act from my heart and soul. There have, of course, been many tutors in my journeys, mainly coaching me along the lines of Practical Aesthetics."

On her proudest moment: "To be such an innovator and risk taker in my role of Zhaan! And the pride I feel in my search for answers as I actively pursue my other great love: natural therapies. I have an obsession to find out how the human mind, body and spirit ticks!"

On her preparation for the role: "Strangely enough my life prepared me for this role. I don't think to this day the producers realise that Zhaan and I have identical interests in medicine, science and spiritual pursuits. It was the kind of character that I couldn't refuse; she is what I would wish to aspire to if I could attain her level of knowledge. Mind you, it would certainly take me the 812 years it took Zhaan."

On Zhaan's character: "Zhaan is a Delvian priest highly skilled in all things scientific, medical and physiological. She is a Ninth Level Pa'u (priest) who struggles with inner demons to attain her spiritual balance. She is a complicated and rich character to play, who has twists and turns to her that will keep you spinning.

"It is not uncommon for Eastern mythological religious figures to be depicted as blue, as you know. It is the highest, most spiritually healing colour in the spectrum, so to be blue as Zhaan is an honour in that respect! I actually think it is very beautiful make-up, I always have. The Creature Shop are pure genius! It is, of course, a vast change in appearance for me compared with my previous work, but this is an extraordinarily artistic piece, and, as I mentioned before, I am proud to break new ground and take these risks for the sake of art."

On Farscape: "It's abstract! Each character takes between six to eight people to operate, so you're working with bodies all over the place. Dodging and stepping over bodies in the middle of scenes is hilarious. But I took to believing their surreal cognition easily, because thanks to my mother - who was an artist - I'm blessed with a wonderfully artistic imagination. So I embrace Rygel and Pilot as fellow actors... when they're switched on! It is sometimes a little disarming to see them lying mute and inactive, especially when you have just been in the middle of a highly charged emotional scene with them. I do adore working with them. Of course it does help being in love with all Rygel's and Pilot's animatronic operators. Bless them!

"In the first series I was working about 17 hours a day. My make-up takes three hours to put on and one hour to take off, so I am at work for a total of four hours even before I step onto the studio floor. Study time for scripts and sleep becomes the main focus and priority. I've got a nice idea though; maybe we can talk the producers into adding a barbie, a pool and beach strip to the studio! What colour would Zhaan go if she had a tan? Purple? She'd look fabulous in a little g-string though, don't you think?"

Virgina's message to Farscape's fans: "I hope you love Farscape as much as we do. We welcome you into our family of 'Scapers'. Will you do two things for me? One is to keep a close watch on Farscape and to have fun! The other is to visit a free site which you'll find at www.hungersite.com, click a button and a free serving of food will go to a starving third world person in need. No cost to you, the site is corporate sponsored and privacy protected. See you each week on BBC2."