?Founded by pioneer puppeteers Jim Henson and Frank Oz in 1985, the Creature Shop was originally Henson’s full-time workshop in London. It functioned as a relatively permanent incarnation of the team of builders brought together to work on projects like The Dark Crystal, and has since become one of the standards for cutting edge puppetry, design, animatronics and visual effects. The Creature Shop expanded beyond London to two other locations in the early 1990s – New York and Los Angeles – in order to accommodate some of the extra workload brought on by Dinosaurs (a whole TV show with a full cast of animatronics characters? No shit that’s labor-intensive!).
Now, the purpose of this list isn’t to debate the relative overall merits of the movies or TV shows it contains, but rather to showcase the quality of the visual effects. And with the new Muppets movie finally released, it’s nice to look back fondly on some of the Creature Shop’s other fine work. Why no Muppets or Sesame Street mentions? Because everyone already knows (or should know) that those are Creature Shop creations. So while some of the entries or their order might seem surprising, try to keep in mind the examples of fantastic puppetry and special effects work that lies therein.
10) Cats & Dogs
Now, despite what you may think, this film contains more than Jeff Goldblum sniffing beagles for science. It’s actually a fair example of merging physical effects with CG effects, as the animal characters make appearances as live animal actors, puppets, computer-generated representations, and sometimes a combination of live/CG work. And really – if the world was in imminent danger of hostile takeover, wouldn’t you want your new overlord to be someone named Mr. Tinkles?
9) Alice in Wonderland
Ah, 2000’s Alice in Wonderland. The surprisingly star-studded made-for-TV movie that runs right through the Uncanny Valley and out the other side, giggling madly. Despite some examples of lackluster CGI effects, the visual/physical effects in this adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s most well-known story won the Creature Shop an Emmy – particularly for the puppet work for the Cheshire Cat, the terrifying baby (seriously – look closely at this baby and tell me it doesn’t scare the shit out of you), the Gryphon, and the White Rabbit.
This film raked in the noms back in 1995 (it lost Best Picture to Braveheart), and the Creature Shop snagged an Oscar for Best Visual Effects. Using the perfected version of the type of animatronics system whose prototype was successfully developed in the TV show Dinosaurs, the work in this Australian/American film was a nearly seamless blend of animatronics, live animal actors, and very subtle CG. While one country pig’s quest to become a sheepdog might not win everybody over, it should at least be remembered for the Creature Shop’s stellar work and “That’ll do, pig. That’ll do.”
7) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Whatever you might feel about this adaptation of Douglas Adams’ wonderful book, hopefully we can all come to agreement about one thing: the Vogons were disgustingly awesome. Adams gave a description of these giant bureaucratic alien slugs that was at once shudder-inducing but at the same time left a lot to the reader’s imagination. The Creature Shop filled that gap nicely, taking on the challenge of squishy, slimy alien anatomy and coming up with a fantastic visual representation of a race that can kill you with its poetry.
Just taking a look at the long list of creature performers who worked on this film should give you some idea of its scope. To truly appreciate the kind of work that went into this film, you really should just watch the making-of documentary Inside the Labyrinth. In the “Dance Magic” scene alone, there were 48 puppets, about 10 little people in costume, not to mention random types of live birds perched in various places or wandering around. With such a small cast of humans, almost everything but the scenery was animated – and sometimes that was, too! And the Goblin King’s infamous “area”? Believe it or not, all Bowie.
5) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Jim Henson himself said that at the time, the Turtles (and Master Splinter, of course) were the most advanced creatures he’d ever worked with. The Turtles were constructed at the London location in an 18-week build, which is insanely quick when you consider everything these creatures need to do in the film. The animatronics system for the Turtles’ heads was a groundbreaking process largely developed by the Creature Shop’s resident electronics expert, Dave Housman. The chief puppeteer on the shoot was Brian Henson, who also served as the second unit director and was responsible for many of the film’s stunt scenes.
Back when the SyFy channel was still relatively awesome (when they called themselves “SciFi” and still had re-runs of MST3K episodes), they had the good sense to launch a ground-breaking new series (produced in part by Jim Henson Productions) that incorporated a cast of human, nearly-human, not-human but bipedal, and puppet life forms. The Pilot and Rigel were the two full-time cast members courtesy of the Creature Shop, and they were just as strong as the live actors. The Shop was also responsible for most of the alien prosthetics and make-up.
3) Where the Wild Things Are
Sometimes, when Hollywood decides to adapt a beloved children’s book to the big screen, you end up with a dull eyesore like The Cat in the Hat. And sometimes you get something like this: a technically and aesthetically beautiful work – a perfect incarnation of Maurice Sendak’s well-known illustrations, and a deeper story that doesn’t get in the way of the original. The Creature Shop’s collective skill shined through in its Wild Thing suits and animatronics, with more minute details of the Wild Things’ expressions woven in with CGI.
2) The Storyteller
This short-lived but Emmy Award-winning series was created and produced by Jim Henson in 1988. The premise was that of an old storyteller and his dog, recounting many obscure European folktales in the first season. The inspiration for the show came from Jim Henson’s daughter Lisa, who had taken a class in folklore at Harvard, and Henson was enchanted by the idea of presenting these tales faithfully. It was a British/American co-creation, so some of the episodes were run together on The Jim Henson Hour in the United States, instead of airing separately like they did in the UK. Henson attempted a follow-up season, this time focusing on Greek myths, but it only lasted for four episodes.
1) The Dark Crystal
This film tops the list because it contains no visible humans – all of the characters are puppets, and all of the scenery is fabricated. In order to accomplish such a feat, Henson asked Brian Froud to be the conceptual designer, whose work gave Henson the inspiration for the film in the first place. The 60-member team assembled to sculpt, mold, sew and fabricate the massive puppet cast became the basis for Jim Henson’s orignal London Creature Shop. The puppeteers for the main characters of the film were drafted from the ranks of the Muppeteers, but the performers for the rest of the puppet cast were actors, mimes, dancers and acrobats – hand-picked because of their skill in being able to “tell stories with their bodies.”