by Karina Montgomery, contributing writer
I am sure that you reading out there are at least familiar with, if not super-fans of, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. This creative juggernaut has produced some incredible, indelible figures in cinema and television, spanning decades and countless dreams. You may not know, however, that Syfy (the erstwhile SciFi Channel) produces some fantastic competitive reality series (Hot Set, Face Off) where artists create the magical stuff of movies. For 5 seasons, Face Off makeup designers have blown our minds building monsters, aliens, trolls, and mutants inspired by a wild variety of concepts. Now Syfy is bringing viewers Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge beginning on March 25 at 10/9c, where ten designers will compete to win $100,000 and a shot at an apprenticeship at the fabricator/puppeteer mecca that is Jim Henson’s Creature Shop (JHCS).
The main judge and executive producer of the show is JHCS chairman Brian Henson, son and collaborator of legendary Jim Henson. I was privileged to have a conversation with judge Kirk R. Thatcher, an industry giant, as is his fellow judge, Beth Hathaway. I won’t enumerate their vast filmographies here, but please click through their names to see their credits.
Thatcher has that friendly rumble in his voice that instantly reminds you of your best friend from college; it will be great fun watching them judge the show. Contestants will be mentored mid-process by JHCS senior artists Peter Brooke, John Criswell, and Julie Zobel. The ten contestants range in age from 21-41, all share a passion for monster-making, and were inspired over the decades by the work done by this shop.
Thatcher described the youngest contestant, who “had never been out of his hometown before, [who] always showed up beaming and giggly, he was just so happy to be there … That’s the heart of the show,” he confided. The money prize and apprenticeship “is the reason and the excuse for them to be there, [but it’s all about these] Monster Kids and the sheer joy and creativity and fun of what they do … It’s not about snarking or crushing the competition; [they have] such a ridiculously short amount of time [that the show’s heart is] joy and creativity, not about destroying the enemy.”
Over the course of 8 episodes, these designers will build creatures from hand and rod puppets to fully electronic creations, each to be screen-tested by the judges in performance on a full set. See this promotional video, where Henson casually drops that the third monster was a rush job, done in only two and a half weeks rather than the normal 6-11 weeks. For the show, contestants have three days to complete each new challenge – actually just 36 hours! Challenges get progressively more complex as the contestants dwindle, and with so many components, you have to be firing on all cylinders to make it to the stage. They will be allowed to use some pre-made elements (like eye mechanisms) and get assistance in the mold room, a specialized and difficult skill, but the crux of each challenge is creating magic in a blink of an eye.
“I’m dying to see how they put them together in three days. It sounds like marketing [BS], but I really don’t know how they do it,” enthused Thatcher.
He confirmed their biggest obstacle is time, but the second is balancing their native strengths and weaknesses, especially on an individual challenge where they must do all the work themselves. Smart ones use their strengths to mask their weaknesses, such as good fur laid over a weak sculpture, and sometimes that’s to their advantage. Each episode is an intense creative crunch to see who will continue on to their dream job, and who will be eliminated.
Thatcher described judging this show as truly a dream job. “It’s so fun to be amazed by and to talk to these sweet, genuine, earnest, talented people.”
If I could count how many times he said “fun” – Thatcher is clearly excited about the show and had a ball shooting it.
Because of the regulations around cash prizes, he and Hathaway aren’t privy to any pre-judging information, not even what this week’s challenge is, until shortly before they mount the judge’s stage. As Thatcher says, there must be “no hint of jiggery-pokery!” They won’t see what occurred during those three frantic days until it airs.
For six to eight hours on the final day, they watch creature presentations, ask the creators questions, and then take about 45 minutes to deliberate and choose this week’s winner and who has to go home. Earlier that last day, the creators had four hours to work with their puppeteers to fit them and show them the workings before they’re performing on set.
Thatcher explained, “of course they have so little time – something would backfire or something happens, breaks, whatever – and it’s heartbreaking. They work very hard and you see that. They might have created some cool gag or expression but there’s no time for testing or making things more robust. They might come out and you smell that very specific smell of a servo burning and then you see a little smoke coming up from the back of the creature …” Here, Thatcher makes a deep groan of disappointment. “You can’t blame them, but if it comes to set [like that], you can’t win either.”
As a fan of Face Off, I have seen those catastrophic last-moment disasters; even without being versed in the craft of prosthetic makeup I feel their pain – for these judges, creature creation is their job and life, and they know that crushing frustration so well.
“I’d love me and Brian and Beth to get to do one of these challenges!” chirped Thatcher, delight in his voice.
In our conversation, Thatcher also told me that he’s often asked which of the judges is the Simon Cowell of the bunch. Simon isn’t a singer. “We’re all Paula Abdul!” Paula Abdul gets grief for always being so nice to her American Idol contestants, but she is a singer. She gets it – she knows what it takes to be up there doing what they are doing. Henson is the puppeteer, Hathaway is the builder, and Thatcher does a bit of everything, so they can’t be angry jerks because they know how hard it is. They would ask, “What went wrong there?” rather than, “That was awful,” like Cowell. “Everyone did work worthy of this show.”
Henson, as the main judge and producer, is probably the most honest with his criticisms, and he delivers the bad news to the least successful candidate. They are all doing amazing work, but it’s the one who was the least successful that week who goes home. Each challenge result stands on its own (like Face Off). In the audience, though, we will watch and learn their strengths and see how they work through their weaknesses as we get to know them over time.
These 10 contestants were chosen from an initial pool of 100. Thatcher said they could easily fill two more seasons with the great applicants that they had. Just to have the chance to work in the actual Jim Henson’s Creature Shop lab, which was re-jiggered to accommodate the show’s filming – never mind actually land a job there – they should have no problem finding new Monster Kids for years to come. “I can’t imagine having been a kid building stuff at home and having this opportunity … We’re having as much fun doing it as you guys will have watching it.”
It’s a hard job, what these Creature Shop artists do, but they are doing what they love and the joy of it really resonates between the contestants and judges. I liken these veterans to the 21 year-old contestant so tickled to be there. “If you’re directing the Muppets and you’re grouchy, you’re in the wrong job,” Thatcher adds.
If you’ve watched an episode of Face Off, you have seen how much sculpting and molding and fabricating goes into making one character that is then animated by a living actor. The JHCSC contestants need to be versed in anatomy, design, puppetry and sketching and sculpting just to get started. Then comes molding, mechanizing (cables, servos, radio controls, rods), building, and fabricating from wood, metal, plastic, cloth, leather, hair, foam, clay, fiberglass, and paint, all while keeping the performers’ needs in mind. “It’s not a manikin contest!” Their prior experience comes from being a specialist in a shop with a team – on this show, they are responsible for all the elements and have to hit it out of the park in all disciplines. Then the performers need to be able to coax a performance out of the final creations, to find that indescribable yet recognizable magic that differentiates a mere puppet from a true creature with a soul. Now do that in three days in front of a panel of your industry idols. Yeah, I’m definitely staying home that night to watch the premiere. Won’t you join me?
Drop a comment below if you think Kirk R. Thatcher should write a book about his experiences from Jedi to Star Trek and the Muppets!
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Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge on Syfy, premieres Tuesday, March 25, 2014, at 10:00 p.m. EDT and PDT, 9:00 p.m. Central.