Jim Henson's Creature Shop

There’s a new competition show on SyFy, takes up from Face Off. Instead of doing monster make ups, it is doing animatronic and puppet creature creation. 10 competitors are vying for a slot on the staff at the legendary Jim Henson’s Creature Shop.

Typical of a show like this, there are a set of contestants given a challenge to build, a limited schedule, and often teams assigned at random.

The first week was to design and undersea creature like never seen before, that might be caught on the camera of an undersea ROV. They divided up into teams of 2, and were given 2 days to design the creature that would be worn by a professional puppeteer.

There were some interesting challenges of how to design and build using foam and other materials. They had a decent amount of technical discussion.

But of course there was also the “oh my, we don’t have any time, will we get it done?” that these shows carry, and there was one pair that did not work well together. The girl, Tina, was domineering and opinionated and wanted creative, artistic choices without concern for how to build them and make them work in the time alotted. The guy, Russ, didn’t want to argue and so stepped back and let her run the show, but then he got frustrated because he didn’t like her ideas but wouldn’t stand up to make things better. He even lied. When the shop mentor came around asking how things were going and specifically asked how they were working together, he said it was great.

Then it came time for the screen test. Each creature had a short scene on a set made up like an undersea floor.

One team had a crustacean type thing that was very unique. One team was a pair of guys with very little foam work experience who made a crawly thing. The puppeteer had to crawl around on his belly, and really couldn’t act in position for long before he had trouble breathing. The mouth looked like a giant muppet - it was supposed to be realistic, but the sculptor went for comedic.

That team got the low ranking and the muppet guy got eliminated. The winning team was a duo that worked really well together, had good communication and division of tasks, and had the successful crustacean thing.

The team with the communication problems came up with a fishlike thing. It was pretty much a giant fish. It managed not to fall apart - it broke in preparation and had to be rush fixed together, due to a poor design choice to make the body out of two segments glued together and the glue didn’t hold. Anyway, when their review time came up, Russ started whining how bad their team was and how the girl didn’t let him get in any ideas, etc. The judges raked them over pretty hard for their lack of professionalism.
So week two rolled around. The challenge was from The Dark Crystal. They were divided into three teams of 3, and assigned to reimagine a Skeksis that was banished to some foreign landscape for hundreds of years before returning to the castle. And there were lots of props and puppets from the movie on display, including several Skeksis and for the screen test, the actual Dark Crystal.

The teams were randomly assigned, and Russ and Tina ended up on the same team again with a lady, Ivonne. Oh joy. They both made efforts to work better, but it still had issues. From what we saw, Tina was scattered and not really focused on anything.

So each team had to build a Skeksis from their selected environment (decaying forest, desert, frozen wasteland), work with a professional puppeteer, but also each person had to operate some puppetry themselves. They were given three days this time.

One team doing the frozen wasteland came up with the concept of finding and killing an animal and using the hide as a coat. They had a pretty good sculpt for the face, and animatronics for the eyelids and nose. They had puppet hands operated by a team member. But the eyes were a little wideset and the judges commented you couldn’t really see both eyes at once.

The second team doing the decaying forest had a very good facial sculpt and paint with animatronic eyes, eyelids, and eyebrows. The body was built extra lightweight, which made it far easier on the puppeteer carrying it around. They had a second puppet, a tiny creature (the “Chicken Bug”) to interact with. It went over well. One of the moving parts was a feathered crest that was supposed to pop up that was not very dramatic and easily missed.

The third team had the desert, and that was the team with Russ and Tina. Russ sculpted a pretty good face, but put the eyes deepset and they were a little too deepset, you couldn’t really see in to see the eyeballs and if they worked. Tina worked on the animatronics for the eyes, plus she built the puppet hands and worked the hands in the creature with the puppeteer. She had a decent concept, but the hand gestures didn’t really function right. Ivonne did the costuming and body shell, but she left the fabrics too pretty and intact, so instead of looking weathered and dirty in the desert, they looked pretty pristine. And then Tina built a secondary creature to accompany their Skeksis and they rigged it with a peeing stream, so the Skeksis could drink it’s urine. None of the animatronics really worked - the eyeball didn’t function and the hands didn’t really work and the peeing creature didn’t move.

But this set up one of the most brilliantly executed moves I think I’ve seen on one of these shows. So during building, Tina started the eye animatronics but wasn’t getting them to work so Russ stepped in to fix them. Well, they still didn’t work. So when it came time to tell the judges who did what, Russ didn’t mention the animatronics and let Tina say that she built the eye. Then the judges commented they really didn’t see it work, so Russ handed Tina the controller to operate. Tina had been in the puppet working the hands, so she didn’t know about the eye failure, so she tries to operate it and sees it not work, and then makes that observation. So boom she’s just declared she was the one who did the work, and now it’s not functioning. And even though Russ had the controller during their screen test, she was the one who pointed out the failure.

Anyway, the winner was the guy who did the operating Skeksis head with three sets of animatronics, a great sculpt, and great paint. And the eliminated contestant was Tina.
What I like about this show, though, is the judges are very good at pointing out the strengths and weaknesses for every contestant. They mention the good things and the bad things, and small details like the frill needed to be more dramatic, or the winning head had a ruffle under it that was unclear whether it was costume or flesh, or the eyes on the other creature being too wide-set and not able to see directly in front of it.

I have a hard time seeing this show as anything other than a hour-long commercial for the Henson’s business.

After the first episode I though “Well, maybe they’re just covering the basics in case this show is being watched by people who lived under a rock since the 50’s.” But the second episode is pure homage to the studio, with more Fangasm-worthy fawning over childhood idols. Plus, there are all the faked/staged reactions like all of the contestants in the first episode being shocked and amazed that they might have a chance to work for the Creature Shop if they win. Yeah, right… because you all just wandered in off the street to see what the cameras were there for. There couldn’t possibly have been a contract or anything to tell you what was going on.

It’s a shame, because this variation on Face Off is something I’ve been hoping to see for a while, but it’s being totally ruined by the amount ass-kissing and self-promotion going on.

I’m not even sure I have any comments on the creatures or contestants…

I only saw the second half of the first episode but I was amused by the amount of chatter over the ‘realism’ of the models. “His eyes seem too small to be in the ocean depths” “But they’re largely vestigial” “Ah yes, I see how you used a filmy blue color…”

Muppet-fish was just a lousy looking puppet for a Muppet or a fish.

So you’re concluding, based on what you saw at home, that one of the contestants successfully managed to trick the judges, and so to penalize another contestant. What makes you think that the judges didn’t have access to all the same information you did?

Same here. Forgot this was on and set the DVR to record the rest of the new episodes, then I caught a repeat and was so underwhelmed that I told the DVR to not bother recording any of it.

Is it just me, or does Brian Henson look a lot like Bill Maher?

I’d be kind of surprised if any of the judges saw footage of what was going on in the workshop before it got edited into something at least close to what ends up on TV, and that probably doesn’t happen until after they’ve shot the judging. Certainly, they could look at it if they wanted, but there must be dozens and dozens of hours of footage shot each day that gets edited down to what we see. I don’t see the judges (who have real jobs they need to get to) slogging through all of that just to spy on the group dynamics of the contestants before they judge the results.

That being said, I don’t think the incident Irishman mentioned was nearly as Machiavellian as he made it out to be. Russ didn’t trick Tina into taking credit for the servos. She did that herself, right at the beginning, when they gave the breakdown on what parts they worked at. Seeing as that was basically a lie - it was Russ’s work that was in the final project, not hers - I don’t have too much of a problem with her taking the fall for its failure. Particularly since it was her fault it got screwed up in the first place. “I thought I could figure it out as I went along!” Really? I bet Russ and Yvonne hit the roof when they heard that.

My wife raised a good question last night, with CGI becoming so good, how much are in demand are these puppetronics?

One reason I don’t find this show too compelling is that there has been no real individualism at this point, just teamwork and it they aren’t doing a good job, IMO of explaining how everything works together. I think I agree with the sentiment that this is all just a big jag for Jim Henson studios.

There will always be filmmakers who prefer to work with physical effects and/or cannot afford CGI.

Eh, the price of computer effects are dropping rapidly, while physical effects are staying more or less constant. For most purposes, the computer effects are already cheaper, and even where they’re not, sooner or later they will be. So it’s not true that “there will always be filmmakers who cannot afford CGI”.

No, but there will always be Chuck E. Cheese.

You wouldn’t guess that by the state of the last Chuck E. Cheese I was in.

It is called “Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge”, how can you not understand that it was one big ad for the Jim Henson Company? What else would it be?

One weakness of CGI is having something that actors can interact with. You see that a lot on SyFy’s lousy special effects, where a fight scene with the monster is done with shots of actors waving weapons at the camera, cutting to a view of the monster with weapons being waved at it. Some of those movies can go a whole fight scene without ever putting a monster and a person in the shot at the same time.

There are solutions other than these creature shop kind of projects, but it often makes sense to at least build a hand, head, tail, etc. for certain kinds of close-in shots, even if the overall monster is done in CGI.

And of course you run into issues with features like human skin, hair and eyes where it’s just easier to get a quality, natural-looking effects out of silicon/wax/foam/glass/etc. It’s one reason why so many of the first CGI effects were metallic. It’s far easier to CGI animate a liquid metal terminator than a human-skin terminator.

What about the low-budget and independent studios which are capable of producing physical effects in-house? Hell, even large studios had to forgo CGI in the past few years due to budget restrictions.

Missed the edit window.

…for certain films.

I’m just glad that they took the unusual-for-reality-tv step of getting rid of the drama queen (Tina). I was afraid they would keep her around just for the on-camera hysterics.

What I like about this competition compared to Face-Off is that they are actually competing for a job in a field they want, at a company thats worth competing to get a job at (for those that want to be in that industry).

This puts some different spins on what happens during the competition - professionalism, etc, as well as the skills they are going to have to demonstrate. You could be the best fabricator there, but if you screw up a team project, you could be gone for that (assumed).

While Tina certainly deserved to go - I’m guessing that the guy that worked with her both weeks will be next or very soon.

Not so much trick the judges as get the other contestant to take ownership of the dud effect that was really her fault rather than try to brush it under the rug or downplay it. She stepped right into the spotlight on that. Tina was in the suit with the puppeteer and did not know about the eye failure.

As Miller says, I doubt the judges review any of the three days of filming the construction that goes into the program. That editing is all done later. I just don’t see that as a realistic expectation in these programs. They sent a mentor on a walk through on one day, and she might or might not have noted specifics, and those notes might or might not have been passed to the judges. I’d vote likely not - she wasn’t a judge, just an assigned mentor, and her job isn’t to preinform the judges on what to look for, merely to help the teams to better.

And her advice was good. But a specific incident, the frill that unfurled on the cold Skeksis, she commented on what a good idea that was and how it fit the environment, whereas the judges needed it explained to them and didn’t like it.

So yes, I think there’s a lot going on the judges don’t have access to and are basing their opinions largely on what goes down in the reveal room. But there may be editing there that removes things we don’t see. Certainly there is in Face Off, and I wouldn’t doubt it here, either.

Two points. First, Russ easily could have taken credit/blame, he spoke before Tina did in the “What did you do?” session when he stated he molded the head and painted. He could have said he worked on the eye servos, but he didn’t. Instead, he downplayed his role in trying to get them to work after Tina had fucked them up.

Second, Tina didn’t know the eyes didn’t work, so when she said she worked the servos, that pointed the finger clearly at her before she knew there was a problem. Then when the judges asked for the demo, he let her operate them rather than do it himself. And she discovered they weren’t working, with a very obvious reaction. It just put the icing on the cake. Sure, he admitted he was operating them and they failed right out of the door, maybe operated once. But he let Tina discover it herself, after having taken credit for them even though she couldn’t get them working at all.

I think the right person was sent home. She was a drama queen, and she was overselling her skillset. The servo problems Russ had were likely the result of design choices made early that he had to work with rather than things he could have built from scratch.

I also think he isn’t blameless in the mess, he was too quiet and didn’t fight for any choices on the first round and then burned her hard in the judging session. He did work better the second round, but I think he’ll be gone soon, too.

Tonight’s challenge: build a creature that is hiding in a junkyard and incorporating junk as part of it to allow it to hide and look like part of the mess. The creature has been caught and is in a cage. Work in teams of 2, 2 days. The finished creature would have a team of 5 puppeteers to operate, and nobody can be inside the cage, so it is full external puppetry.

The winning design was a weird alien guy who made a mechanized suit. He sits in the center and operates it with levers and such. They mechanized the creature head, arms operating levers, and then the overall mechanized suit moved and stood. And then they had a motorized wheel that was spinning the whole time. It really incorporated the junk from the junkyard and had a lot of creativity and accomplishment in the 2 day timeframe.

Another set made a giant ape that escaped from a mad scientist’s lab and was attaching things to it. Operationally, it moved well and looked scary and had a very good set of eyes and face. But it didn’t really meet the requirement to look like it was incorporating all the stuff from the junkyard.
Another team made a rat/wolf thing that was turning into a bit of a cyborg. That one had very good movement and use of space from the knees up, but kinda had troubles when they were assembling it inside the cage and lost a bit of motion in that process.

And the fourth team had some alien that was a giant body, with a weird eyestalk on top, a “fake head” on front, and some skinny arms. That one had problems. It didn’t look like it incorporated much junk, the backstory they told was interesting but wasn’t conveyed by the creature, the fake head didn’t work, it was a visual mess you couldn’t figure out what you were looking at. The thing was roaring the whole time, but didn’t have a mouth. And the movement was very constrained, not like a beast rattling around in a cage.

The fourth one was the team with Russ in it. During the build, he was frustrating to work with again. He didn’t like how things he built were doing, he scrapped a bunch of things he built and started over, they came in to day 2 without having much to show from day 1. Unfortunately, from the comments the judges were saying, it almost sounded like he was going to get more credit for what worked than the other guy.

Fortunately one of the other competitors announced that if he won, he would have to uproot his family from North Dakota, and he didn’t want to do that, so since he wouldn’t be able to accept the job if it came his way, he was putting family first and dropping out. So that saved both the bottom creature’s guys for one more week.

But Russ has been bottom in all three weeks. Me senses a common thread.

So, nobody else is still watching?

This week was an individual challenge to dream up a mythological creature who was slain and had its head mounted on a wizard’s wall, that then came back to life to talk to the wizard and tell its story.

The puppet was to be operated by two professional puppeteers from behind a wall, and needed to have mechanisms.

The challenge of the week was animatronics for the ones who didn’t have that experience. Lex, Ivonne, and the other girl all struggled with a lack of experience. One of the guys had issues with his failing at the last minute as well. But the ones chasing eye mechanics struggled to get complete in time, and didn’t succeed.

The good ones included a tree creature that was very good and won, an ice troll that was pretty good but had eye problems and bouncy horns, and another creature that was a hippy thing, but the eyes were too open and nonexpressive. Otherwise that one was highly praised.

The middle included a Minotaur which was basically a big bull head, and Lex’s Chupacadabra, a cat-like predator thing. She never got her eyes working and the eyes she installed were flat orbs with uncovered plastic lids. She was scrambling to complete, but managed to get the fur installed and mostly painted.

The bottom looks were the two other girls, both struggled with time because of mechanics. The one girl had a sea creature that was the Loch Ness Monster’s cousin, with a good story, but the paint job was flat and it didn’t really read as a sea creature, and the puppet didn’t function great.

The other was Ivonne, who had serious fabrication issues. The mechanics were too big for her original head mold, and she basically had to tear apart and rebuild a different shape, then spent so much time with the eyes that ultimately she didn’t use at all (and hid behind fur) that she didn’t get the rest of the fabrication complete. The ears were uncovered, bare unpainted foam. And her backstory didn’t impress the judges.

So Ivonne got sent home, and Ben got his second win. Russ managed to be safe.