Ink & Pixel: Labyrinth

Ink & Pixel is a source of pride and joy for me as a writer and as such, I’m always striving to take this column further for those who read and enjoy it. If you yourself, or anyone you know, helped to make any of the amazing feature animated films found within this column, I would love to talk to you to further my knowledge. Please contact me at [email protected] so we can discuss it further.

It was a cool Summer's eve in the year 1986, when I watched my sister discover her first movie character crush. My young brain, hardly able to process how Teeny Little Super Guy fit into that damn cup, was mesmorized by the menagerie of goblin puppets that were dancing on the family television. My sister, Lisa, with her eyes shut, pirouetted around the living room singing the lyrics to “Magic Dance”, as David Bowie and his magical leotard-clad package pranced about the Goblin Kingdom. Inside of my television existed a world of pop sensation kings, hilarious goblins, and some of the best damn puppetry this side of Sesame Street. This was LABYRINTH.

So what's LABYRINTH doing being talked about in a column like Ink & Pixel? Well, if you've ever seen the film than you're more than aware that the film did in fact use some computer generated art, as well as a series of optical illusions to create some truly unforgettable moments and characters on screen.

LABYRINTH, for those of you who are either too young or deprived to remember, is the story of Sarah (Jennifer Connolly) and her journey into a goblin infested labyrinth owned and magically operated by a rock star king named Jareth (David Bowie). On a dark and stormy night, angered by the thought of having to babysit her toddler brother Toby (played by creature creator, Brian Froud's very own son, Toby Froud), wishes him to be stolen away and offered to the Goblin King. Immediately after Toby is taken, Sarah realizes the selfishness of her wish and pleads to the Goblin King to allow her the chance to win him back, by venturing deep inside of his labyrinth to retrieve the gurgling child. Along the way, Sarah befriends many of the inhabitants of the labyrinth while trying her best to solve the riddles and traps awaiting her inside of the bewitched maze. The journey will be a race against time, a test of her conviction, and rife with deceptive characters.

Directed by Jim Henson, co-produced by George Lucas and based upon the creature designs of Brian Froud, the company famous for Fraggle Rock and THE DARK CRYSTAL were set to develop their biggest feature-length undertaking to date. LABYRINTH began after artist and creature creator Brian Froud painted a picture depicting a happy child sitting amongst a band of rowdy goblins inside of room belonging to that of a dark and magical castle. His friend and collaborator, Jim Henson, asked Brian what the story was behind the painting, and within a few days an idea for the LABYRINTH materialized.

Loving the idea of having a rock star king ruling over a goblin kingdom placed deep inside of one of the most complex locales that man has ever dreamed up, Jim Henson along with Dennis Lee, set writer Terry Jones of Monty Python's Flying Circus fame to the task of creating the screenplay for the film while Henson focused primarily on the puppets as well as directing. LABYRINTH would soon prove itself to be a film that would push the patients and talents of everyone involved in the making of the film. Not only were they still building elaborate sets back in the mid-eighties, but new challenges of manipulating and building puppets arrived every day.

Remember that song I mentioned that my sister was so invested in singing? For this scene there were 53 puppeteers with their arms thrust deep inside the latex and cloth asses of 48 puppets from the Jim Henson Workshop, along with eight to twelve little people in full costume, danced and wise-cracked their way into the hearts of children and parents everywhere. From beneath the heightened stages of Elstree Studios (some of the sets needed to be built atop raised platforms so the puppeteers could execute their craft away from the cameras eye), seasoned men and women crept and crawled while a British rock god with better makeup than a Loreal cover-girl sang passionately into his microphone adorned “swagger stick.” And because of the enormity of this scene Henson and company were forced to hold auditions for on the spot hiring of 20 new puppeteers to fill out the space of what at first had felt like an “empty scene.”

LABYRINTH is also a very musical movie. The Goblin King himself, David Bowie, recorded five songs for the soundtrack of the film along with the help of the Harlem Choir inside of Atlantic Studios located in New York City. In an odd happenstance while recording the song “Magic Dance”, Bowie himself ended up having to sample his own vocals as the voice of the small child heard in the song due to little one remaining quite uncooperative during the recording process. Actually, the only song on the soundtrack that Bowie did not provide vocals for was the song entitled “Chilly Down”, which was performed by Charles Augins, Richard Bodkin, Kevin Clash and Danny John-Jules, the actors who voiced the 'Firey' creatures in the film.

The scene featuring the 'Firey' creatures was not an easy one to film. First, each 'Firey' puppet needed to be controlled by a total of three puppeteers. Each of them was asked to work in tandem with one another to complete the choreographed movements instructed by the films choreographer, Charles Augens. After countless hours of communication and rehearsal the dance sequence was then filmed using a computerized camera against a black background. The puppeteers, needing to hide themselves from view dressed from head to toe in black body suits to help complete the look of the illusion. After filming the creatures, the backgrounds were then shot using the same camera, fixed to the same speed as the previous scene, and then layered one on top of the other inside of the films workshop to complete the scene's complex look.

Regarding the character of Hoggle, Sarah's surly friend and guide through the treacherous labyrinth, Hoggle was hailed as the most advanced and difficult puppet that the Jim Henson Workshop had ever produced. Requiring 18 motors just to control his face, four people were needed to operate all of these motors in concert with one another. Shari Weiser, a little person actress, was inside the full body costume of Hoggle while the jaw of the character remained unattached to her own. Therefore, the facial expressions of the puppet head worked independently from her own movements inside the costume. And because Shari had such tiny hands, animatronic hand extensions were attached to her own to allow the character to use his oversized, knotted hands.

In my personal opinion, the film's production designer, Elliot Scott, is an absolute genius. And it's with that opinion that I think the majestic and complicated sets of LABYRINTH put today's green screen film making techniques to shame. In addition to the optical illusions seen throughout the films many sets, Jim Henson hired ex-golfer turned optical illusionist and juggler, Michael Moschen, to be the crafty orb manipulating hands of the Goblin King. Standing directly behind Bowie, Moschen, thrust his arms underneath Bowie's very own, and while working completely blind, manipulated a series of glass orbs to complete the king's magical presence. Keep in mind that there were no camera tricks used at any point when Jareth uses the orbs during the film. It's truly something to marvel at.

LABYRINTH, was a film that demanded that The Jim Henson Workshop be on top of their game and be able to rise to any task no matter how large. It's not easy to craft these incredible costumes, puppets, and animatronics that lay beneath the fabric and rubber skins of the films characters. In the case of Ludo, Sarah's hulking beast of a friend inside the labyrinth, the Henson team was forced to rebuild the structure just days before shooting due to its daunting weight and slow response mechanics. Orignally weighing in at over 100 lbs. The Ludo suit was far too heavy for Rob Mills to operate. The suit then needed to be retooled and its weight minimized for the actor to remain comfortable during the films long shooting schedule. Eventually, the suit was worked down to less than 75lbs. This allowed for better maneuverability and performance throughout filming.

And lastly, remaining on the subject of the larger creatures found inside of LABYRINTH, for the finale of the film, the Jim Henson Workshop had constructed their largest puppet creation to date in the form of a 15-foot-high armored knight. Originally built using a form of fiberglass for its outside appearance the puppet needed to be built once more due to the fact that the fiberglass kept cracking under the duress of the creatures intended movements. On the second build, the giant was constructed using a polyurethane foam that seemed to do the job. Inlaid with a series of animatronics the giant weighed several tons and took about 2-3 months to build. Strangely enough, this humongous metal beast was able to be operated by only one man using a complex remote device.

At the end of the film's run inside of the United States LABYRINTH managed to pull in $12,729,917, just over half of it's $25,000,000 budget. Regardless of the almighty dollar, LABYRINTH has remained a staple and “essential” film of any child who grew up in the 80s. Seriously, just the other day someone had told me that they'd never even heard of this film and my jaw dropped like a broken Hoggle head. Practical effects, real sets, and puppetry may very well be a thing of the past, but I leave you with this notion: Would you rather invite a series of puppets into your imagination or be left with computer generated atrocities like Jar Jar Binks and The Smurfs? Yeah, that's what I thought. So get to your local shop or use the links found in the DVD/Blu-Ray section of Joblo.com to purchase LABYRINTH and gaze into a world of magic, puppetry, and David Bowie's expertly leotard-wrapped package.

Extra Tidbit: For a fleeting moment both Michael Jackson and Sting were considered for the role of The Goblin King.
Source: JoBlo.com
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