By IAN FAILES
Netflix and The Jim Henson Company’s journey back to the Dark Crystal world in the streaming series The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance brought with it an incredible opportunity to return to the practical effects and puppetry seen in the original 1982 film. Yet, with so much advancement not only in puppetry but also digital visual effects, this prequel series could take advantage of the latest in filmmaking technology.
Indeed, Age of Resistance contains a whopping 4,288 shots, crafted by DNEG and overseen by Visual Effects Supervisor Sean Mathiesen. Here, the VFX Supervisor breaks down the wide range of work involved, all the way from puppeteer and rod removals, to expansive environments and CG characters.
With more than 4,000 shots to complete, it was a two-year process for Mathiesen. What he took away, in particular, from the production was just the sheer level of detail that went into making the show and filling out the world of Thra in which it occurs. “There were so many fine nuances that make everything feel as magnificent as they do,” he says. “That went for the puppetry and the visual effects, too.”
Since the show would be relying on puppets and puppeteers performing the action on stages, a significant portion of Mathiesen and DNEG’s visual effects duties were puppeteer and rod removal. When they were in full view of the camera, puppeteers tended to perform scenes wearing bluescreen or greenscreen clothing. Clean plates, photographic reference, scanned sets and an enormous roto and paint effort led to the final shots. Some shots also were filmed entirely against greenscreen or bluescreen.
For a number of the puppets, in particular the Gelfling, DNEG carried out facial augmentation work in terms of blinks, brow movements and sometimes jaw lines. The character Deet, for example, had large eyes that took up a large amount of space in the puppet head. Normally servos would be able to take care of some blinking, but they could not fit into the head. “So we would give her blinks, and then move eyebrows and cheekbones and squidge up her nose just a little bit,” says Mathiesen. “It was all those kinds of very subtle movements that don’t actually read much unless they aren’t there.”
Generally, the puppeteers worked inside a sunken set with the floor elevated on a platform, allowing them to puppeteer from below. But for shots requiring Gelfling to walk or run as ‘full-body’ characters, these were crafted in CG by DNEG. “We scanned the puppets and then made digi-doubles of most of the hero ones and some background puppets as well,” explains Mathiesen. “Then whenever they do a stunt, jump out a window or run across the floor, that would be digital, too.”
The extension to the Gelfling digital-double work was some completely CG creatures, of which there were many. This included The Hunter or skekMal, who at one point leaps from tree to tree. Then there are the Crystal Skimmers, large flying transportation creatures, plus many other background – and sometimes foreground –inhabitants of Thra. The Spitters, for instance, began life as puppets but were particularly complex to operate, given they had six legs. DNEG re-created the creature for certain actions, plus for a moment where they all combine.
One creature, Lore, was initially planned to be entirely realized in CG, but actually came to the screen mostly via puppetry. It is essentially a pile of rocks that comes to life. DNEG crafted a digital version of Lore that aided in removing puppeteers for certain shots. However, notes Mathiesen, “We wanted to make sure that they made a puppet version of it, at least to have as lighting reference to put in any scene where CG Lore would be. But then the puppeteers rose to the occasion and figured out how to puppeteer where they would be completely dressed in blue and the creature connected to boots and rods to move in the right way.”
The world of Thra was brought to life also via exotic landscapes and extensions crafted by DNEG. The sanctuary trees in the Caves of Grot were full CG environments, as were several others. Sometimes, the studio would take stock footage plates, such as a volcanic plain in Iceland, and alter that to stand in for the world. “We might remove the notable features of Iceland’s mountain ranges and replace those with a more fantasy oriented range,” details Mathiesen.
The final piece of the VFX puzzle for Age of Resistance was magic, a mix of lighting FX, dust, lightning, strange beams, and anything else that had to depict the wizardry and the different religious-like imagery and symbology on the show. Along with the creatures and environments, this magic added, to the already complex nature of the narrative, notes Mathiesen, but it also meant he could find specific aspects of the rich world of Thra to draw upon in completing the visual effects shots with DNEG.
“There’d be things about the final shots where I’d say to the team, ‘Make it more blue.’ I’d I go off into some weird abstract story about how Thra has three suns and one of them has a little bit more blue, and so therefore we should composite the shot a certain way. Everybody would say, ‘Oh my God, why didn’t you just say you want it more blue?’ It might be easier to do that way, but it’s just that I found myself thinking like that once I’d been part of the deep mythmaking side of Henson’s world.”