Few reality shows, make than none, require their contestants to possess the kind of creativity, skill and overall chutzpa as does the SyFy network’s Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge. That’s because it’s not about just out-imagining the other 9 contestants in a series of challenges whose goal is to bring high-end inanimate creature designs to life, but to end up with $100,000 and a contract to work for the Creature Shop itself. The winner will be the “all-around” creature artist: someone who can design, sculpt, build and mechanize their creations. So no pressure.
Serving as the head judge is Brian Henson, chairman of The Jim Henson Company and the Creature Shop. We stole a few minutes from the award-winning writer, director and producer to ask a few questions — and no, not about Farscape (which might just be making a comeback to the big screen someday).
Man Cave Daily: In this time of computer animation that can do pretty much anything that can be imagined, why is there such a thrill factor for what would be called “old school” now — creating with your hands rather than using a computer?
Brian Henson: Well I think in terms–from the point of view of an artist there’s much more there, there where you are physically creating a creature and you point a camera at it. You’re recording something that really existed. CGI is a virtual art form so there’s kind of less there, there when you work in CGI. So it’s compelling in that sense.
It’s also very compelling because when you work in a physical medium the medium itself will surprise you. So you can’t whereas in CGI you really can realize anything that you imagine but you also won’t be surprised. You won’t be going along and finding, you know, the clay works kind of better like this and so I’m actually pushing the sculpt in this direction which I didn’t expect or the weight of the creature is doing this and that’s making it do this which is kind of cool and not what I expected.
MCD: It’s more taxing than virtual?
Brian Henson: There is, you know, art should be a little bit of–it should be an exciting adventure as you’re producing something artistically. And if you’re producing something physically you get the benefit of those surprises, those left turns, those unexpected oh look at this texture. Wow, it does something even nicer than I thought it was going to do. You have a lot less of that when you work in a virtual environment.
MCD: So you feel that the personality comes through more clearly when there’s actually touching and molding going on, rather than point and click?
BH: Well yes, I think so and certainly at the performance end. If you create a creature physically rather than virtually, you then can perform it and you get all of the benefits of a spontaneous performance and you can create a creature that’s sort of–it’s thinking and it’s performing spontaneously in the moment. It can perform with actors which is much harder when you’re using a CG character where you will put the character in it post.
So you get–you get a real dramatic dynamic when the creature comes to life whereas with CGI some people are extremely good at making it appear spontaneous. Pixar are absolutely brilliant at making performances look spontaneous but they’ve done it by putting hundreds of hours into trying to figure out how to make that moment feel spontaneous whereas when you are in a performance medium and we try to perform everything live. We try not to pre-record even the most sophisticated mechanisms. We won’t do prerecorded robotics. We won’t–we try not to ever do that.
MCD: But you do work in virtual environments, don’t you?
BH: In fact, in our company we do do CGI work as well, but we hook it all up to realtime performances so that we can capture that spontaneity. And I think that may be keying back to when you said does it — it feels more alive. It feels like a more real personality. It’s because in the moment that it comes to life it is alive and it really is reacting to its environment and it’s not through a plan that’s been planned in advance hoping it feels like it’s alive.