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Farscape: The New Motley Crew

A Peter Coogan interview

by Jane Killick
January 2000
Copyright 1999/2000 TV Zone (Visual Imagination Ltd.); reproduced without permission

The history of Farscape goes back several years. Created by the writer of the Alien Nation movie, Rockne S. O'Bannon and developed by the Jim Henson Company, it finally went into production and debuted in the US in the Autumn of 1998. Now Farscape is getting its first run in the UK, and the episodes currently being shown on BBC2 are a pretty close match to the orignal idea. "It hasn't changed that much, in fact," says Peter Coogan of the Jim Henson Company. "The basic premise of a guy who the audience could identify with and has these pop culture references. Ben Browder, the guy who plays John Crichton, is very funny, a lot of those he drops in himself. The show's idea centres around an experiment going horribly wrong and him ending up on the other side of the Universe on a prison ship, that was basically the premise. How you embellish that and develop it, obviously came in over the years."

Pete has been with the project since the early days. He saw through much of the development, was instrumental in selling the idea to co-producers The Sci-Fi Channel in the US and Nine Netowkr Australia, then was on set for the first season as Executive in Charge of Production. Despite the amount of work that went into Farscape before going in front of the cameras, he believes the episodes get stronger as they go along. "That's the great thing about how it was written. We didn't have 22 scripts going into it. You can shoot it that way and from an analytical statistical point of view, it makes a lot of sense. But from a creative character development point of view, it makes no sense whatsoever. Because we're working with an organic group of characters and cast and crew and you find out what works well together and what dynamic evolves during the show. I firmly believe that the show goes from strength to strength and really developes into great Sc-Fi drama, [especially with] the way Crichton develops and doesn't quite handle the environment. As human beings, how would we be if we were in a totally different alien environment? How would we handle it? could we handle it? Maybe you close down totally and go inside yourself and don't exist anymore. Crichton is able to respond to it with tongue-in-cheek humor, but at the same time, he never actually fits in. I think that comes through in the later episodes, which is refreshing."

Aussie Filming
The series was filmed in Sydney, mostly because of the involvement of Nine Network Australia. Other reasons for basing the production there was the type of locations that can be found in Sydney and the relative cheapness of filming in Australia. Science Fiction, especially when it involves elaborate aliens, far off planets and Space-bound action, is always expensive to produce, but Pete shrugs off any suggestions that their ideas were limited by the budget. "It's a bit like having a pallet of colours and you've only gor so much red and so much blue and it's how you utilize those resources," he says. "You can draw a picture that no one wants to look at, and then again you can draw something that looks absolutely terrific and people want more from you. Hopefully, you've done the latter. You'll always hear from everyone on a production that they want more money, but I think we have a great creative crew. Our production designer, Ricky Eyres, who is British, was just amazing with what whe was able to get out of his art department budget. The CG [computer graphics] was fabulous. The way the crew operated brought out some great ideas and I think that comes from having limited resources. If money is not an issue I think creativity, to some extent, gets stifled, because you can do anything and can continue to do anything. You need a parameter. And that's definitely how it was on this show."

Alien Designs
The many aliens that appear on Farscape have been created by the Jim Henson Creature Shop. Some of them, like Rygel and Pilot, are puppets. It meant they were built in London and shipped out to Sydney where the puppeteers had to get to grips with them. "There's always some degree of learning as you go along because an animatronic character, like an actor, can evolve," says Pete. "What I mean by that is, what you think is going to work in the workshop [doesn't necessarily work] when you put it in situ in a swamp in New South Wales or in a studio. You find ways in which you adapt. But we were very lucky, the guys here in London, that's what they do, they build these fabulous characters and then we take a service crew out with us. We took, on the first season, seven people out with us from London and we hired local people in Australia. We took out a principal puppeteer to perform Rygel, but we picked up four in Australia as well. Another puppeteer, probably the best in the world, an animatronics guy called Matt Wilson, came out and helped us for the first seven or eight eweeks to find people and help train them up. So it was a natural transition for us to build a character, then find a way to adapt it and put it to work in the shooting environment. It wasn't without its challenges, but it was relatively straight forward."

Evil Make-Up
for the aliens played by actors, it often meant a long session in the make-up chair. The two-and-a-half hours it took to transform Viginia Hey into Zhaan eventually came down to an hour-and-a-half with practice. It was slightly less for Anthony Simcoe, who plays D'Argo. "I remember when we first auditioned him, he had so much energy and enthusiasm and I kept saying to him, 'you could have a three-hour make-up every day' and he said, 'oh, let's do it, mate!' He just found a way of dealing with it. As did Virginia Hey who plays Zhaan.

"I remember a guy towards the end who plays a character called Scorpius, Wayne Pygram, who has quite an intense make-up. He was a lovely, well-balanced kind of guy, a guy who you'd quite like to go and have a drink with. But in the space of an hour-and-a-half whent he make-up was going on, he'd become this evil character and you couldn't talk to him. He followed me off stage one day and he said, 'Pete, is there a problem between you and I?" and I said 'absolutely not, Wayne, I just didn't want to break your characters'. He said, 'I was worried sick, I thought I'd said something'. I didn't want to shatter the character because he was so convincing, even the grips and the electricians couldn't look himn in the eye. It's part and parcel of that kind of job and the genre that you find a way to best schedule it and keep the actor's' health and energy levels in the forefront of your mind."

Pete Coogan is now back in London, having set the series on it's way for the first season. But work is still going on back in Sydney where the second season of Farscape is being filmed, having been a hit in the US and Australia. It only now remains to be seen how it will fare in the UK.

Sidebar: Special Visual Effects Supervisor Jamie Courtier on P'au Zotoh Zhaan

"We were involved in many conceptual designs for Zhaan. That character was once a man in our conceptual thoughts and was called Zen and shared some of the personality profile that she now has. She was a sort of spiritual leader in a way, the calm one, as opposed to characters like D'Argo who's prone to fits of energetic poutbursts and violence, and Rygel who's a frustrated ruler. Zhaan is the most philisophical of them all. I suppose when a show's being conceived right at the beginning, it was a collection of loose thoughts by a collection of people which included Brian Henson, Rockne O'Bannon and us at the Creature Shop. The character developed from the writing end and from Brian, and it was good to get the balance right."

Sidebar: Special Visual Effects Supervisor Jamie Courtier on Rygel XVIII

"There was always going to be a little character, power-mad ex-emperor of billions of subjects who couldn't accept the notion that he now has no subjects. That's Rygel who is the little puppet character we did for the show.

"He's got hundreds and hunders of moving bits. He's got 25 little motors in his head and it takes between two and four people to operate him. He's a conventional hand puppet in essence -- ie, there's someone underneath him with their hand in his head operating the jaw -- the rest of his face is driven by an external puppeteer off camera.

"Rygel has taken a lot of time to get to the right place, but he's better now than he was. That's quite often the case with animatronic charatcers which can't be auditioned and found to be right before we start shooting. Quite often than not, they arrive a week or two weeks before the shooting, having come out a tihgt built schedule; they're then given to puppeteers who have very little time to get used to the equipment, let alone build a character performance. So it may take a few weeks for them to settle in and then to start drawing out what can be really good about a character like that.

"We developed a sense of background for some of the characters as we were building them. Rygel, for instance, has nostrils which are very high up in his head and our feeling was that he was an aquatic creature from a very muddy planet and that his features would be happiest immersed in water. Just they eyes and their nostrils and their ear flaps would be seen as they basked in their natural environment. Of course, Rygel doesn't appear to like that! But I've got an answer for his physiology."

Sidebar: Special Visual Effects Supervisor Jamie Courtier on General [sic] Ka D'Argo

"We ran through the gamut of different designs for D'Argo. He was going to be something like Chewbacca many years ago because Star Wars was something that everyone held up the looking glass to. And, in matter of fact, D'Argo became more complex and he needed to be more complex than big furry thing. So he went through his debacle of different guises. He was once a brutal lizard-type thing, and then a hairy thing, and he finally emerged as D'Argo the warrior with very interesting drealocks!

"He wasn't so much inspired by his home planet environment, but there were a few ground rules: If you had a race of warriors, they would have bony skulls and nose plates and be unbelievably tough. He has natural armour, in other words."

Sidebar: Special Visual Effects Supervisor Jamie Courtier on Pilot

"Pilot is cool. We always felt they were subterranean creatures or tunnel dwellers because he's sort of embedded in the ship and doesn't move out of place. He's somehow symbiotic with Moya who is an organic spaceship. We didn't quite develop the theories as far as we did with Rygel, but we somehow felt life on his home planet was probably a similar sort of existance to that on the ship. He would always be plugged into something; if it wasn't Moya, it was be some other kind of symbiotic relationship.

"It was a great joy to work on Rygel and Pilot simple becuase there were no constraints, so our imaginations could fly. For us at the Creature Shop, it's like being let off the leash. The leash quite often wants us to make extremely realistic creatures which have to match their live counterparts, as in Babe. The challenges are still enormous and fascinating, but your imagination isn't involved, whereas in Science Fiction we're free to be inspired."