When you think of some of the iconic muppets, monsters and otherworldly creatures that have graced the big and small screen, chances are they were created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop – the legendary makers of movie magic. Founded in 1979 by the late Jim Henson, carried on by his son Brian Henson, the shop has earned its esteemed reputation with its creations appearing in such classics as Labyrinth, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Dinosaurs (the TV show) and, of course, The Muppets. So what are the venerable fabricators of fiction up to nowadays? When they’re not actively involved with FX and Fabrication, they are making aspiring creature designers duke it out for a job in SyFy’s new show Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge.
Stemming from the success of SyFy’s hit show Face-Off, Jim Hensons Creature Shop, which premiered last night, is a carbon copy of the show in almost every way – talent/competitors are given a concept, 3 days to realize their design, present it and be judged by a panel of experts. Heck, even the host is another hot blond woman. The only difference is, instead of facial make-ups being applied, designers are creating full bodied creatures through puppetry and animatronics.
Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge is hosted by Gigi Edgley of Farscape, and in addition to Henson, judges include creature fabricator Beth Hathaway (Terminator 2, and Jurassic Park) and creature designer Kirk R. Thatcher (Star Wars: Return of the Jedi and Muppets Wizard of Oz).
The Creature Shop has set the bar for a caliber of work that is unmatched in quality, design and sheer imagination. Reality TV, on the other hand, has the stigma of appealing to the lowest common denominator with less reality and education in favor of amped up drama. In that regard, you would think having a reality competition show based around such a respected creature building studio would be a disservice to the shop. Well it is not an ideal format, but how else is this medium going to bring awareness, ignite imagination and stay relevant in the age of CGI?
Mind you, creature effects work goes wildly unrecognized. In an interview with Cable TV, Brian Henson said the following:
These artists are a very rare talent and they’re hard to find, but what they do is, in my mind, almost the closest to magic that you will find in the artistic field and nobody knows about these creature builders. They cannot win an Emmy award. They cannot win an Academy Award. They do sometimes, but for kind of the wrong reasons. Rick Baker has won for makeup, but he wasn’t doing makeup and, you know, sometimes our creature shop will win for costuming, but they’re not costumes. So really these are artists that people don’t know what they do. They haven’t seen it. They don’t really know about it. It’s kind of a secret area, a dark secret area that we love exposing and showing what they do.
I’ve been a fan of creature building and practical effects ever since I was a kid experiencing Star Wars, Labyrinth, The Ninja Turtles and many other movies and shows that featured wildly imagined characters. I remember watching, and still watch to this day, behind-the-scenes featurettes and being utterly fascinated with the process of bringing characters to life, and what goes into making me, the viewer, believe they existed in the reality of cinema. It opens me up to a world of pure imagination.
Unlike most valueless reality television, Face-Off and now Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, allow the craft to speak for itself. Watching a troupe of colorful personalities create monsters, muppets and everything in between is akin to watching Bob Ross paint; it’s seeing something amazing come together from nothing. It is as entrancing as it is inspiring. Plus, like with any reality competition, you have an opinion on who you think is going to win. You’re vested in their journey; take your bets kind of thing. As far as the contestants go, it’s really not about making it to the end, though getting the acclaim and financial purse is the name of the game. It’s about being a talented but obscure artist and getting seen. Being on a show like this is going to open a lot of doors.
As far as the first episode goes, it didn’t start off strong. Brian Henson issued the challenge of creating newly undiscovered life that you might find at the bottom of the ocean. This didn’t really leave way for creations with much character, or identifiabilty, as there’s only so much you can do with earthly sea life. The results weren’t very astonishing. Most creations looked like something a mother (A talented Mom, with a lot a time on her hands) would make their child for a highschool play. They would have worked as Kaiju monsters, but in the context that they were given, not so much. I expected more. I think as the weeks go by we’ll see more exciting constructs and designs, that will make use out of puppeteering and animatronics.
Despite the first episode being a little hum drum, I think Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge is a service to showing the appreciation to the artistry of puppeteering and animatronics and will inspire those to continue the art form.