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An Evening with Brian Froud
© Jason Myers
August 22, 2002

If you don’t know who Brian Froud is… you should. Froud is the painter and illustrator who created the otherworlds of The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth for Muppetmaster Jim Henson. He’s also illustrated books like Good Faeries/Bad Faeries and collaborated with Monty Python alum Terry Jones to publish Strange Stains and Mysterious Smells and Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book. Froud lives in Dartmoor, England with artist/dollmaker Wendy Froud, but he does occasionally venture to the states, as in this Q&A panel at the San Diego ComicCon.

On The Dark Crystal:

I’d always loved the Muppets. But I never sat on a chair watching the Muppets, because I always found I slid off. I always found myself on the floor, because they were so funny. And I really wondered about turning my work into a film. And wondered about it. And realized that it couldn’t really be flat animation, because although you could get the form in animation, you couldn’t get the details, and there was something in the details of what I was painting that seemed to suggest a lot more about the characters. And I thought, it had to be puppets. So, when the Muppets phoned, I was delighted, and then enchanted when I went up to London and saw them making the Muppets. This wonderful…. I always remember walking into this dark studio, and way way in the distance was this wonderful magical world of color and laughter. Everybody was just laughing. And that’s where they were filming The Muppets.

And then meeting everybody there, and meeting Jim. And he said, "Come to New York." He said, "I’ve got this idea." And his initial idea was reptiles living in a castle. He’d come across this children’s book, and he loved the idea. One day, he was with his daughter, Cheryl, and they were snowed in at an airport, and they started to develop the idea. So I came, and he hired Wendy. There was about nine of us, I think, that started as a group. Puppet makers. So that was it. He said "Reptiles living in a castle" and that’s how we started, and we just sat around in a circle, and talked about it, and I scribbled and drew in sketchbooks, and gradually the Skeksis started to emerge, and the Mystics started to emerge, and all the characters. And I just had so much fun imaging just how disgusting the Skeksis could be.

For the Mystics – Jim really liked my troll-like figures. He thought they felt very wise, and so we sort of developed those.

Initially, I made small maquettes of these things in three dimensions to get a feeling for it, and then Wendy was starting to sculpt some of the early Mystics. And it took a while for me to learn how to direct people, because I was used to being on my own, at the drawing board, developing characters, and I had to get my hands on it. I worked on people’s sculptures for a while, but then, of course, it wasn’t very politic. I soon learned how to get them to do what I wanted.

What mythologies influenced The Dark Crystal?

There are lots of influences. Lots of people say it’s European, and people in Europe say it’s North American Indian. It’s a whole mixture of that stuff. But it’s that movement of ideas and forms that went across the top of the world, from Scandinavia and Finland and across Iceland, Russia, and across to Canada. We were looking for ideas that were common to us all.

Why didn’t they use your art on the movie poster for The Dark Crystal?

I did one. It probably wasn’t good enough. I don’t know. I think they used it, eventually, on the book cover. I don’t know. It’s interesting, ‘cause although the posters are great, they don’t sort of look like it, do they? Those marketing decisions are always taken out of everybody’s hands once you make the movie.

On the art of The Dark Crystal:

We had photographs taken of all the creatures, and they were all sepia printed. We had one of the best sepia printing experts in the world to do it. Because what you were seeing was a craft, an art. We deliberately hired people who didn’t work in films… that had all sorts of different skills and disciplines, and I always felt that I wanted to put the puppeteers into a puppet or a creature that looked good and felt good. And we used only the best materials. In fact, most of the things were made of silk, mainly because silk is not only light, but it also drapes much better. Especially if the creature is slightly miniaturized, it looks better. And a lot of they Mystics’ clothes that looks like it’s just burlap and scruffy old things, it’s actually raw silk.

On the Mystic Valley:

We had Ozzie Morris, who was a famous lighting cameraman. He did Moby Dick. He talked about Moby Dick. Houston wanted Moby Dick to look like scrimshaw, so it had a little extra edge to it. And we did experiment a lot with filters, so the film would actually look like one of my paintings, but we discovered quite early on when we did it, that the film looked too flat. It looked like it faded. So, I planned all the color schemes. It all comes from getting the sets the right color.

The first day of shooting was the Mystic Valley, where the Mystics walk down, and we spent all day filming it. So, we had a half-an-hour’s worth of film, and we projected it down in a big cinema in London. We watched it, and Gary Kurtz from Star Wars, who was one of our producers, came over and said "You know, Brian, when those Mystics walk down, they just blend into the background," and he’s shaking his head, and I said "Yes, isn’t it marvelous?" I think it was probably the finest moment, watching them. When they were part of the landscape, it did look like one of my paintings.

But in the Mystic Valley, they lit it, and we had, at that point, the most lights ever, on any movie. I don’t know, it might be superceded by now.

Where are the Dark Crystal puppets now?

Well, some of them are in a traveling exhibit the Muppets have. Some are in various museums, like the Museum of the Moving Image in London. I think there’s a puppet in Atlanta. Although, if you do see one, you’ll be looking at the real costumes, but you won’t be looking at the real heads, because they’re all made of foam latex, and foam latex disintegrates. If you put it in a plastic bag away from the light, it will last a few years, but eventually it just goes sticky and collapses. So we cast all the heads in fiberglass and made replica heads.

On designing the puppets:

We did lots of prototypes. A lot of the design of things… we started off with sketches, and then we mocked things up, built them, changed the scale, changed everything. And I changed lots of things in terms of design to accommodate the mechanical things, ‘cause puppets really hardly do anything, and what you’ve got to do is create the illusion that they can do everything. Lots of the costuming, for instance, is there to hide either somebody hiding behind, or mechanical things like rods going up to the hands. That’s why a lot of the costumes have other dangly bits. It’s to confuse the eye.

It was actually quite interesting to create a whole world. It was actually quite a challenge. So I did all this sort of mythology and underpinned it with lots of geometric images.

One of the challenges, of course, is that these creatures are so bizarre, something you’ve never really seen before, the Skeksis and the Mystics. You’ve got to try to make each one of them individual so you get to recognize them very quickly. And then, the other secret of the Dark Crystal, it turns out that they actually were the same race, they split themselves, so we had to find a way to bring their anatomy together in the end to become another creature.

Frank Oz always said it was like Grand Central Station on the set. You always had a pile of people trailing behind any one of these creatures. The film got sort mislabeled because of E.T. coming out at the same time, as being a special effects film. And it wasn’t at all. What you were seeing was performance. You could almost have done the whole thing on a stage. Almost. And what I tried to do in designing creatures was to give the puppeteers the ability to give a good performance.

Jim wanted reptiles, and as you look at them, I pushed them towards birds, so they become almost like early dinosaurs. All my best work is always an amalgam of various elements into one creature. And so when you see the creature, it seems familiar but you can’t figure out. For hours and hours we looked at nature films, just to look at movement. To see how things moved. The problem is that nature does it so much better. We can try to recreate, but…. Yes, we always looked to nature to inspire.

We had monitors everywhere so that the puppeteers could see what they were doing. We had monitors inside the Skeksis.

On the pod people:

One of the initial concepts for them was a potato head. The idea that a potato has eyes all over it, and we experimented a lot with just having literally eyes anywhere on the head, which was fun, but it didn’t work for the puppet. We found that you always needed focus, so you needed the two eyes close together.

The pod people. I think, the only bit of puppeteering I did in the whole film was somewhere [in those scenes]. I was always too busy, generally, because not only was I preparing the characters, to make sure they were ready to go on set, supervising the sets themselves. By the time we started filming, I was moving onto the next set, getting ready for that, so I never really saw much of the filming.

On The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth:

The whole film took five years. We did various prototypes of the Mystics. Things like the Garthim, we would build, and Jim would come in and look at it, and he would say, "Well, how heavy is it?" Jim was marvelous. His major concern was for not only the safety of the puppeteers, but their health and comfort. So we actually built into each creature either a way of getting out quickly, or getting access to air for them. They always had like a partner who would rush in and deal with them. So, the Garthim were rebuilt several times just for getting the lightness. We spent a huge amount of money just for the sake of the comfort of these puppeteers.

So it’s difficult to say when everything starts and everything finishes. I know we worked for three years of Labyrinth, and we did those creatures over a great period of time. But near the end, we asked Terry Jones to come in and tweak the script. But what that involved… he suddenly looked at my sketchbooks and developed new creatures. We did a huge rebuild of characters right at the end, and we were all ready to do it. We did some of the creatures really quickly, and in fact some of the things we were doing from scratch in a couple of weeks at the end. A lot of the goblin things.

On the start of Labyrinth:

So, when we had actually finished [The Dark Crystal]…. It took five years of our lives, and we were just exhausted. There was a special showing of it in San Francisco. And they showed the film, and then when it was over, the screen went up, and there were curtains, and the curtains parted, and behind it there was a table set up as a Skeksis’ banquet, with all this wonderful food. Jim and I and a whole lot of people sat down.

When we were in a limousine, driving back to the hotel… having done the film and saying "Never, ever again"… Jim said, "Should we make another one?" and I said, "Oh, why not?"

So I said, "Well, what about?" He said, "I don’t know." He said, "Actually, my daughter was studying mythology and he said, "What if we do Indian mythology?" I said, "Do you know anything about that?" He said, "No." And I said, "Well, neither do I."

So I said, "Look, what about goblins?" He said, "Oh, that sounds interesting. What I want to do is, this time I want to have human beings in it. I don’t want just puppets." And immediately what flashed into my mind was the image of a human baby surrounded by Goblins. And he said, "What’s the story?" and I said, "I don’t know. But a labyrinth is always a good metaphor for lots of things."

So that’s how it started. I painted this picture of the baby, and six months later, Toby was conceived. And by the time we built everything and were about to film… we always said the baby would be a year old… Toby was a year old, and so he became the baby. But astonishingly, he looked like the painting.

I designed Toby’s costume. It refers to Alice in Wonderland. There are a lot of Alice in Wonderland references in the film. And his costume refers to Alice’s striped stockings. We knew we were going to use a real baby. But we also knew we were going to use puppets at various points, and I thought something very distinctive makes the baby stand out against the mayhem of all the goblins. We bought these baby clothes, but we discovered that all the stripes didn’t match up, so we tracked down the original material, and we made identical baby clothes, about 30 of them, something like that.

On David Bowie’s costume:

What was described in the newspapers as "perv pants", the very tight things, which… originally we wanted to give him a codpiece as well, but nobody could pluck up enough courage to ask him to wear it.

On the goblins:

We did all sorts of goblins. Some were small hand puppets. Some were people in costumes with mechanical heads. We had small people in costumes. Who was R2-D2? Kenny Baker. I ran into Kenny Baker once, and I said, "Oh, you were in my movie." He said, "Legend?" I said, "No. Labyrinth." He said, "Oh, did you set fire to me?" I said, "Not personally", but he was one of the goblins, and evidently he was on fire at one point.

I saw a bit of the film recently, and I had just forgotten about those chickens… all this mayhem going on… people on the edges throwing chickens.

On The Dark Crystal DVD:

I was a bit disappointed with the DVD of The Dark Crystal. In the section where you get all the extra information, there was none, and all they needed to do was scan the book [The World of the Dark Crystal] in, and they didn’t really bother.

On movies and books:

There’s a huge amount of work that happens between the drawings, and what you get on set. If I just did a drawing, and walked away, it wouldn’t happen. You’ve got to be part of every step along the way.

I draw these things. I draw and paint pictures that suggest stories, but have no idea what the story is. I like to give that away to somebody else. We’ve done a whole series of books that way. Where the pictures come first, and we have a writer. And that’s how the films were made. The scripts got developed from all the drawings that I was making. So, the way it got to the screen was actually a wonderful surprise.

On Home Sweet Home:

We all live in England… in the west country, on the edge of Dartmoor, which is a land of mists and myth. If anyone knows Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, that’s set on Dartmoor. We live in a… traditional house in which the animals lived in one half of the house, and people lived in the other, and they all go through the same door.

It’s an old house. We were on the little mini-tour of Seattle, and they proudly pointed out this wooden shack, and said it was the oldest house there, and I don’t know what it was… 1820 or something, and suddenly I snorted. And they said, "Well, what?" I said, "You call that an old house?" They said, "What do you call an old house?" I said, "Well, our house on the front was renovated in 1690. It is described officially as probably late medieval, so that’s 1500, and it’s very likely that the foundations are Anglo Saxon." So they had to agree that that was an old house.

My studio is on the left hand window, and Wendy has her studio on the other side of the house.

All artists are supposed to have wonderful light. Big windows, lots of beautiful light coming in. I have this tiny window. The light so timidly knocks at the window and creeps in.

When we have visitors, and they come and see where it is, they’re often really disappointed, because they discover that my drawings look like the landscape. They’d always thought I made it up. And I said, "Well, no, I don’t really have any imagination." So, it really looks like this. When we worked with Jim Henson on Dark Crystal, he came to visit, and he said, I want the film to look like this. He wanted the qualities of the rocks and the water and the moss.

Across the moor, there are lots of standing stones and bronze age stone circles.

On his books:

The Faeries Pop-up Book, that’s out of print. The Wind Between the Stars, that’s out of print. Master Snickup’s Cloak, that’s out of print. The very expensive The World of the Dark Crystal, which can be bought for a mere five hundred dollars. I think I’m deceased.

It’s been a long arc to my career, I suppose. We did Faeries, and then I worked on Dark Crystal, which was five years, and then Labyrinth three years, and then, basically it took ten years to Good Faeries/Bad Faeries, with Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book in the middle. So, it’s taken all this time to get on with some more books.

After Once Upon a Time…. From this one, I was offered The Land of Froud, which was ostensibly a retrospective of my work, but I just sat down and painted a whole bunch of new pictures. And its format was the large-size paperback, and I was one of the first living artists to be in that series, so, for years, when I‘d meet people, they’d say, "Oh, I thought you were dead."

On The World of the Dark Crystal and Faeries:

We are trying to get The World of Dark Crystal republished. I wouldn’t hold your breath. I fought so hard to get all the overlays in it. Nobody wanted to do it, because it was too expensive and they didn’t understand why it was there, so I think we would have the same problem now, but you never know.

That’s one of the problems I had when I was trying to get the next Faerie book published, because I went back to the original publishers, and they said, "Well, nobody buys big illustrated books anymore," and I said, "Oh, dear. But, originally, it was a bestseller." And they said, "Well, you know, that book about giants didn’t do very well." And I said, "I didn’t do the book about giants." They said "That book about witches. That really didn’t do well" and I said, "I didn’t do the book about witches."

So, they said, "Well, I don’t think anybody’s interested in faeries. And then they said, "Well, I suppose the only way you could get people to read a book about faeries is to get somebody famous to write it." So I said, "Fine, can you find me somebody who’s famous?" Six months later, I found out that they hadn’t even thought about it. I kept painting, so the book got bigger, but it also got more focused. And I fought them. I fought them. Because I became famous, and then wrote it myself. I was lucky to stumble across Lady Cottington and her pressed faeries, and that was such a success it paved the way for the real thing.

We’re going to do a big book about trolls, and it’s one of our next big projects.

And then there was Faeries. Ian Ballantine… the grand old man of publishing who brought paperback books to America…. Under his arm, he had a book, and he showed us, and we looked at it very politely, and said "very nice" and handed it back. And it was the book of gnomes. And he said, "we want you to do a book on Faeries." So I said fine. So, he went away, and I started to work on it.

We did all the research, we started to write it, we started to paint the pictures. And then Ian Ballantine came back with this book of poems, and we looked at it quietly, and handed it back again, and at that point, we went, "Oh my God", and we just realized that what he was expecting was the follow-up to Gnomes, but they wanted Gnome-like Faeries. They wanted something that was fluffy and fun and jolly, and here we were doing these terrible green things with gnashy teeth that bite your ankles. And, at that point, there was a moment or two when they doubted that they were going to publish, but luckily they let us go ahead, and it went on to be the success it was.

Initially, the intentions of Alan [Lee] and I was that we would paint the pictures first, each of us, and then we would draw on top of each other’s art. Unfortunately, there wasn’t time, because it was a rush to do it in six months, and we couldn’t do it. But that started the idea off of doing paintings and then lots of drawings that went around the outside. And, in fact, when we realized that we didn’t have time to do that, we deliberately, then, in various pictures, tried to copy each other’s style so we’d confuse people about who did what. Alan did all the beautiful ones. And I did all the funny, ugly ones.

What’s next?

Twelve years ago, I painted a series about runes. We’re getting close to getting it published. It’s being written now, and it’s one of the next big projects.

Any plans for a new movie?

Maybe. I mean, over the years, I’ve had lots of talks with lots of people, and nothing happens, so it’s hard to say. We’re in talks again that might be something.

Jason Myers is Film/DVD editor for RevolutionSF.

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