Ink & Pixel: The Dark Crystal

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.

Can you remember the very first time that a film caused you to become stricken with genuine fear? I can. For me it was the first time I watched the American-British fantasy film THE DARK CRYSTAL. Everything was going so well at the start of the film. The sets were breathtaking, the score danced about my ears as if it were being carried on the delicate wings of a wood nymph, and I could swear that I felt my spirit physically lifting from inside of my body as the movie played on … until those horrifying Skeksis showed up! I mean really, man. Damn!

At it's heart, the Ink & Pixel is a column about appreciating animation in all of its forms. So it should come as no surprise that every now again we explore the damn near extinct art of Puppeteering. Because back before we had CGI and companies like Pixar, this style was one of the most mesmerizing ways for filmmakers to create real movie magic.

THE DARK CRYSTAL, released in 1982, was directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz of The Muppets and Sesame Street fame. The film tells the story of Jen (voiced by Jim Henson), a young male Gelfling (a creature that's very elf-like in appearance), and his quest to restore power to a magical - yet broken - crystal. This crystal, once returned to its former glory, has the power to unite the forces of good and evil within his enchanted land. You see, legend has it that one thousand years ago, a crystal of immense power fractured, and two new races came into being. One of them, a hunchbacked race of sorcerers known as The Mystics; the other a foul and reptilian race known throughout the land as The Skeksis. The Mystics live in harmony with one another and work to preserve the sanctity of their land, while the Skeksis became fixated on becoming immortal, and ruling over all existence with a forceful, taloned grip.

It is said that at the time of the Great Conjuration, when the three suns align, that if the crystal is indeed restored, it will bring balance and harmony to the world once more. The fate of an entire world rests with Jen and his companions: Kira (voiced by Kathryn Mullen), and a toothy pile of fur named Fizzgig (operated by Dave Goelz). Will they be successful in rejuvenating the ancient crystal that can cure their world? Or will it be consumed by the encroaching darkness brought on by the malice of the Skeksis? This is Jim Henson's THE DARK CRYSTAL.nice synopsis!! :D very engaging!

As I'm sure that you're well aware, films do not exactly happen overnight. Sometimes it takes several years to plot, organize, and execute the makings of a major motion picture. The idea for what would eventually become THE DARK CRYSTAL was conceived over the years of 1975 to 1976. During that time, Jim Henson discovered a children's book which featured crocodiles adorned in elaborate robes and jewelry. Henson, a firm believer in the notion that it's unhealthy for young children to not be familiar with the sensation of fear, aimed to craft a film that would inspire young minds as well as give them a jolt to their more delicate sensibilities. He wasn't some creepy old man or anything, far from it. As a storyteller, Henson missed the thrill and the horror that came packaged with the original Grimms' Fairy Tales. When crafting THE DARK CRYSTAL, Henson wanted nothing more than to restore that sense of terror that he believed would teach children about caution and skepticism.

Because THE DARK CRYSTAL took so many years to complete, it stands to reason that the film experienced a rather marked evolution before making it to the silver screen. In the beginning, the film had been set in a land called Mithra - a wizardly land, populated by talking mountains, hulking beasts made of rock, and an incalculable amount of animal-plant hybrids. Originally, the story involved a villainous race referred to as The Reptus (you know them now as The Skeksis), who - in a coup against the peaceful and highly spiritual Eunaze (who later became The Mystics in the final draft) - had seized power over the land of Mithra. Though there were many rewrites beyond the film's first draft, THE DARK CRYSTAL retained many of the themes that were present at the film's conception. Plot points such as the quest to reunite the crystal with its broken shard, the inclusion of a secondary female protagonist, and the goal of reuniting the races of Mithra to bring about peace were all included; if smoothed a little around the edges.

THE DARK CRYSTAL is also widely recognized as being the most philosophical of Henson's works. Drawing inspiration from Jane Robert's “Seth Material”, a book containing a collection of metaphysical texts dictated by Roberts to her husband during the years 1963 to 1984. At that time, Jane (well known as a psychic), claimed that an “energy personality essence” or spirit by the name of Seth was able to speak through her. She then instructed that Seth's words be recorded for all to consider. Over time, this “Seth Material” has contributed to many of the ideas found in New Age philosophy. Henson was so adamant about the book's importance to the film that he insisted his lead art creative, Brian Froud, and screenwriter, David Odell, study the text prior to any collaboration on the film.

One of the most memorable facets of THE DARK CRYSTAL has got to be its awe-inspiring production and creature design. When looking for the perfect talent that would be capable of bringing Henson's dark visions to life, Jim turned to the creative talents of English fantasy illustrator Brain Froud. Froud jumped at the opportunity, and quickly went to work on helping to create a film that was billed as “the first major motion picture that did not include any human characters.” Instead of a human cast, THE DARK CRYSTAL featured “a showcase for cutting-edge animatronics” and introduced audiences around the world to a completely unique cinematic experience. Until this point in motion picture history, the world had never seen a film that featured only puppets controlled by elementary rods, cables and the occasional use of radio controlled mechanisms for smaller gestures. It was to be the first of its kind.

Ugh! Okay, it unnerves me to write about the beautifully grotesque Skesis, but they're a fairly important and impressive part of this film. Seriously, my skin is crawling right now. Okay, here goes. When Jim Henson conceptualized the Skeksis, he modeled them using The Seven Deadly Sins as his inspiration. For example, the Skeksi that represents the sin "Wrath" is adorned in blood red garb, while the most envious of the pack wears green. Indeed, while there were more than seven Skesis featured in the film, Henson and his team not only invented new sins but also portrayed particular sins more than once. Each Skeksi, designed to resemble a living nightmare - a terrible thing that bore a strong resemblance to something that is “part reptile, part predatory bird, and part dragon” - was defined by having a different job or function within their own poisoned kingdom. To differentiate them stylistically, each Skeksis was draped in the robes and glittering jewelry that best represented their varying personalities and evil intent.

While filming, each of the Skesis required multiple puppeteers in order to function properly. The primary puppeteer would situate his or herself above and behind the creature with their arm extended over their own head in order to work the skull and facial expressions. Another performer would manage the Skeksis' right arm. However, even with their years of training, there was no way of seeing beyond the immense size of the puppet using only the naked eye. To compensate for this, each performer was affixed with a monitor strapped to their chest, capable of providing a live feed of what lay ahead of them at all times. Now that you know this – imagine how many people it would take for all 10 of the Skeksis to share the same scene. Yikes!

When designing the races seen throughout the film (the Gelflings, Skeksis, and Mystics), Froud included among them a certain level of geometric symbolism that implied a oneness or unity between them. As different as they were, both Henson and Froud wanted to be certain that the audience understood the necessity for harmony among the races found in THE DARK CRYSTAL. Certainly this is the time to explore the nature of the old hermit woman, Aughra – The Secret Keeper (voiced by Frank Oz).

The character of Aughra embodies all races, genders, and the very essence of the world of Mithra itself. Her appearance is quite startling at a first glance, but upon investigating further, one will discover that resting in the center of her forehead is a protrusion that represents a third eye. The third eye is an arcane and hermetical concept referring to a speculative invisible eye which provides perception beyond ordinary sight. The concept of the third eye appears in a vast number of both ancient and modern theologies - making it a near universal symbol of cosmic consciousness. Henson and Froud created Aughra as a way of tying the world of THE DARK CRYSTAL to all forms of spirituality as well as a way of teaching children about spiritual tolerance and diversity.

THE DARK CRYSTAL was released into 858 theaters across the United States in December of 1982. The film, despite the tremendous amount of creative talent behind it, met with a series of mixed reactions from parents and audiences that were bothered by the film's dark nature. Parents were astonished by Henson's departure from his prior work with The Muppets – a franchise known generally for being family-friendly and often times educational. Word spread quickly of the film being “too intense” for children and it soon left theaters after only having made $40, 577, 001.

THE DARK CRYSTAL is still to this day my favorite Jim Henson project. As much as the child in me burns for the wonderment of Jim Henson's LABYRINTH, THE DARK CRYSTAL speaks to me on a very personal and spiritual level. The artistry, themes, and spiritual diversity make it a truly unique children's fantasy film, and the horror aspects of it are something you will never find in any film meant for younger audiences perhaps ever again. If you've never seen this film I strongly recommend that you seek it out and watch it with your third eye pried wide open.

Extra Tidbit: "Third Eye" also happens to be the title of one of the greatest Tool songs ever written.
Source: JoBlo.com



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