Brian Henson takes us behind the judge’s table for the Jim Henson Creature Shop Challenge season one finale.
When it comes to competitive reality TV shows, we’ve seen people engage in everything from heated kitchen cook-offs to fierce runway walks…but nothing quite like this. The Jim Henson Creature Shop Challenge offered ten multi-disciplinary artists a chance to strut their stuff for the master craftsmen whose imaginations brought fantastical beings to life in films like Labyrinth and Where the Wild Things Are. It also gave audiences their first real glimpse at just how much skill, innovation, creativity and sweat it takes to try and attempt a career as a creature builder – a career which, lets face it, seems in constant threat of extinction thanks to our CG-oversaturated entertainment industry.
Tonight, Syfy airs the big finale, where Robert Bennett, Ben Bayouth and Melissa Doss will duke it out one last time in the hopes of winning a job at the Creature Shop. Though the series actually finished filming back in 2013, executive producer Brian Henson remembers every unexpected character reveal and agonizing judge’s panel leading up to the ultimate decision. Bracing himself for the fan reaction to the final episode and looking ahead to the future, the amicable chairman of the Jim Henson Company and son of Kermit himself shares his philosophy on making a reality show about craft instead of cattiness, keeping things handcrafted in a world of digital effects and being good ol’ fashioned “monkey tired.”
James Gartler: I’ve been really enjoying the show so far. It’s a shame this first season is only eight episodes long…
Brian Henson: Oh, I know. Syfy loved our pitch so much that they put us on a fast track and we went straight to series. I can totally understand them saying, “well, it’s a very expensive show so let’s do a smaller first season.” So that’s why. I think the next season, if there is a next season, will have more episodes.
JG: Have you been keeping the competitors locked up in a hotel with tape over their mouths since filming concluded?
BH: No. We locked them up while they were doing the show. We don’t...well, actually we kinda do! The way they can do so much in just two days or three days is that we put them up, we feed them and we drive them everywhere, but basically we don’t allow them any distractions at all. That’s really how they can do so much in such a short amount of time. But once we were done, they were allowed to go home. They just weren’t allowed to tell anyone what happened.
JG: How much sleep were they getting every night between these busy workdays?
BH: Generally speaking they got a full night’s sleep. Mostly they’d just be exhausted from working really, really hard. It’s like if you or I had a job and it was a four-day job and right in the last five hours, you’re not quite done and you go into this crazy adrenaline energy to finish up? That’s the way these guys worked from the moment they arrived every day. So mostly they were really exhausted, but we try to protect them and make sure they were sleeping. I think there are other shows where they like people to get genuinely monkey tired so they start being irrational and over-emotional and start to flake out and fall apart. We really didn’t want that to happen. We always knew that what they were doing is exciting enough and interesting enough. This was not a show where we wanted to pit people against each other or try to stir up emotional friction within the team. All of that would really detract from the strength of the show.
JG: …monkey tired?
BH: That’s a term I use that maybe other people don’t. That’s when your brain is completely exhausted but your body is still awake. You become monkey tired and you just start acting like a monkey!
JG: Obviously the fun of Creature Shop Challenge has been watching contestants piece together original creatures from scratch, but the show is also a terrific platform for bringing more recognition to the breadth of work the shop actually does behind closed doors. Was that part of the appeal for you in making the show – getting the word out that people still do this and do it really, really well?
BH: Well yes, I really love getting the word out and I love people to know what we do at the Creature Shop. Generally speaking, when the Creature Shop team is building creatures, you cannot point the spotlight at them because it’s still during that secret phase. Their creations will be judged by the quality of the illusion and the character in the creatures that comes out the other end but nobody will have really seen them doing the work other than their own peers.
I thought, we’re a fantasy company, so how often are we going to do a reality show? Very rarely. It’s a perfect contradiction, fantasy and reality, so for several years I’d been thinking if there was a really cool reality show for us to do. The idea that always seemed the best was what I called the All-Rounders in the Creature Shop. They’re the ones who can conceive it, sketch it, design it, develop a backstory for it then sculpt it, mould it, mechanize it, paint it, finish it and costume it. It’s very rare to find an artist that’s all-round and they’re like artistic geniuses. They’re amazing.
JG: Throughout the competition, it’s become clear how important it is not only to stick to a schedule but to also be a good collaborator as well and have a positive attitude in the face of unforeseen complications. What were you most looking for in a potential new member of the Creature Shop family? It really does seem like a close-knit group.
BH: Well, it is a very close-knit group, but that’s a little bit tricky. [The competition] is a little bit different than interviewing and putting somebody on in a trial period for a job in the Creature Shop. We really are judging them on the results of their work and the quality of the creature and character. We’re not judging them on their ability to be a team member, but if you’re not a good team member, the team will tend not to excel and that will mean the team is less likely to win. So good collaborators tend to rise to the top.
I said we made sure that the artists slept [during the competition], but when the Creature Shop is working on real projects, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes we can’t let them sleep and sometimes people do go home for four hours and then come back in again, particularly when they’re working at that level. If you’re working on set and you’re around a high-stress situation in a shooting environment, you need your artists to be able to function and represent the Creature Shop very well in that environment. I don’t necessarily see that through the process of judging, and I don’t see what goes on in the workshop. Even though I’m Executive Producer and I’m sort-of in charge of the show, I had to be in charge of the show without ever watching them working in the Creature Shop. I wouldn’t ever see how well they worked together while I was judging them.
JG: So when you chose the winner in the final episode, had you been able to watch the footage in the workshop at all?
BH: No, no, I hadn’t. It was all about the results, but like I said, Kirk [Thatcher] and Beth [Hathaway] and I would get a very good sense of who was working well in teams just by how they talked about each other. It was always about the results of their work and every episode was basically stand-alone. We’re not taking into account the work leading up to that episode. The only reason why they’re more likely to win is that they are fewer artists, but every episode and every winner is judged on their work in that episode.
JG: Having worked your whole life in this industry, you must have really related to their struggles, week in and week out…
BH: Yes. There’s almost no bigger pressure than being on set with an animatronic creature that isn’t quite working right and having an entire shooting crew standing around who don’t have a clue what you do or why you’re doing it. All they know is that they’re waiting for you. It’s a very, very high-stress situation to be in, so we sympathize and empathize with those artists so much that yeah, we feel for them tremendously.
JG: What did you feel going into the final judging panel to decide who was going to get the prize?
BH: Oh…it feels impossible, almost. As we were getting into those later episodes, it was just so, so hard when you knew the caliber of all the artists was so strong. We’d have to have a slightly different approach to every challenge to figure out how to decide what the most successful creature was, and as you watch the finale you’ll see the standard is extraordinary and it was very hard for us to really zero-in on how to determine which was actually the most successful. You’ll hear all of our reasoning in the episode, and in the end all three of us were very comfortable that we made the right choice.
JG: Good. Well, hey, at least there are no regrets, right?
BH: Well, every time we let somebody go there was regret. Every time. Every time we dismissed an artist I felt awful.
JG: What will you be putting the winner to work on once the finale airs?
BH: Oh, I don’t know. I have a whole bunch of ideas. The Creature Shop is run by Peter Brooke, who you’ve met in the series, and [he and the team are] working on some Henson productions and some outside productions. Pete will use the winning artist wherever he thinks they are best suited.
JG: I have to admit I wish the episodes ran a little longer so we could see more of the creature building process. Compared to a show like Face Off, it sometimes felt like we didn’t get to see enough of how the contestants designed and put everything together…
BH: Yeah, I know. Next season, we’ll do two-hour episodes! (Laughs) This was one of those situations where we had to leave the audience wanting more. It’s not as straightforward a process as any other elimination competition series. It’s an art form that is not as predictable as prosthetic makeup or designing and making clothing…but it’s also why the show can go on and on and on. I can come up with many different types of creature challenges so that every episode has its own unique flavor, but it does mean the audience has to roll with it a little bit because there isn’t a standard process to create a creature. So yeah, it’s true, it would be great to watch them in the workshop longer but I don’t think we’ll ever have a format that’s longer than the one-hour commercial television format.
JG: Should the show continue for several seasons, how many jobs could you conceivably offer the winners at the Creature Shop? Do you think it would become necessary to change the prize at some point?
BH: You’re getting ahead of me! I’m not really sure. The standing of the Creature Shop changes as we do the show. More and more clients and companies become aware of the shop by us doing the show, so it would be nice to think there’s a possibility that we could just keep hiring the winners and for a little while I want to believe I can keep doing that.
JG: Given the glut of CG characters and effects in films these days, I feel like there’s a real interest now in seeing things on-screen that are physically there with the performers. Is there a shift in the industry back towards creature-making for films? Are studios willing to invest that kind of money versus going the CG route?
BH: Yes. I definitely think so. I think that Spike Jonze was doing that with Where the Wild Things Are. I think it’s probably less likely that its going to be happening in the 250 million dollar movies, that are still doing ‘how do we get more and more and more happening at the same time?,’ but I think where you’ll see that is with the more artistically excellent films and in television. You’re seeing it now with Game of Thrones and stuff like that. There’s a return to excellence in craftsmanship and a little less slickness. I think you will see more of these practical creature effects where they’re really there.
JG: And it makes such a difference when they’re really there, it honestly does.
BH: Well, it is an illusion but it’s not that much of an illusion. There really is a creature present in the room, which is more exciting than knowing that there is virtually a creature in the room.
The finale of the Jim Henson Creature Shop Challenge airs Tuesday May 13th at 9pm on Syfy and the Space Channel.
James Gartler is a Canadian writer with a serious passion for animation in all its forms. His work has appeared in the pages of Sci Fi Magazine, and at the websites EW.com and Newsarama.com.