Jim Henson and the famed Jim Henson’s Creature Shop have been behind, or influential in, the creation of many of cinema’s most memorable live action creatures (not ‘monsters’ – they are always referred to as ‘creatures’). Everyone knows about The Muppets, Sesame Street and Labyrinth, but you’ll be surprised at just how many creatures Henson and co had a hand in bringing to life.
Yoda – Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
Although Yoda was sculpted by Stuart Freeborn, a veteran make-up effects designer, Jim Henson was brought in as a consultant. He also brought with him some of his fellow Jim Henson’s Creature Shop puppeteers, including Wendy Froud (puppeteer, and wife of The Dark Crystal concept artist Brian Froud) and, of course, Frank Oz. There was a point where Yoda was going to be played by a costumed monkey – cinema can breathe a sigh of relief that that idea fell by the wayside.
Nightmare factor: 2/5 – Who wouldn’t want that cute little critter riding around on their back?
Aughra – The Dark Crystal
Aughra is the cantankerous old (very old) wise woman who advises Jen on his mission to heal the crystal. She’s a wonderful creation, full of wrinkles and frowns. She was performed on set by the film’s co-director Frank Oz, along with three to four other puppeteers working her arms, eyes, etc, but her voice was later provided by Billie Whitelaw. Donna Kimball will be voicing her in Age Of Resistance, where hopefully we will find out more about Aughra’s long and mysterious life.
Nightmare factor: 3/5 – She’s nicer than she looks.
The Turtles – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
The 1990 live action Turtles movie was possible in large part because Jim Henson’s Creature Shop designed and built the turtles themselves. Lighter versions of the body suits, containing fewer weighty mechanical elements, were built for fight sequences. Brian Henson was the chief puppeteer, as well as acting as the film’s second unit director and overseeing fight scenes. The Creature Shop also created Splinter.
Nightmare factor: 2/5 – Totally tubular, yes. Scary, no.
The Fireys – Labyrinth
Seriously, what is it with Jim Henson and puppets taking their eyes out? If there’s one scene from Labyrinth that’s haunted Millennials more than any other, it’s the weird Fireys dance sequence, in which Sarah stumbles across some terrifying dancing creatures who can disassemble their bodies at will and try to do the same to hers. Yikes.
Nightmare factor: 5/5 – This one stayed with us for years.
Skeksis – The Dark Crystal
With their hulking figures and high-pitched cackles, the Skeksis haunted the dreams of every young child who watched The Dark Crystal. The Skeksis puppets are huge, full-body creations that required six puppeteers – two operating it from inside, and four external puppeteers handling limbs and other elements. The Skeksis also originally didn’t speak English, but instead spoke a made-up language based on Ancient Egyptian. Test audiences hated it, though, so the Skeksis were dubbed into English.
Nightmare factor: 4/5 – Terrifying, but so OTT as to become funny in places.
Gonzo – The Muppets
SciFiNow doesn’t, as a rule, cover talking animals, which is why most of the Muppets are absent from this list. We do, however, love aliens, so let’s take a moment to appreciate Gonzo, the blue-furred, hook-nosed ‘whatever’, who was revealed to be an alien in 1999’s Muppets From Space. He also made a pretty good Charles Dickens in A Muppet’s Christmas Carol.
Nightmare factor: 1/5 – Are you kidding? It’s GONZO.
The Fraggles – Fraggle Rock
How could we pick just one of Fraggle Rock’s loveable characters? It was a feelgood show that Henson hoped to use to feed anti-war sentiments to kids, with characters regularly finding non-violent solutions to their problems. The Fraggles are also an excellent example of the Creature Shop’s ‘magic triangle’ – by placing the eyes in just the right place over a protruding nose, it makes the eyes look as if they’re focusing. Which explains why many of the Creature Shop’s creations have that distinctive ‘Muppet’ face shape.
Nightmare factor: 2/5 – The Gorgs were pretty scary, to be fair.
Hoggle – Labyrinth
Hoggle begins the film as a grumpy creature working for Jareth before becoming a hero, and also has the distinction of being Labyrinth’s first creature. At the time of Labyrinth, in 1986, Hoggle was the most complicated character the Creature Shop had ever build. Four people were responsible just for controlling his face, while a fifth actress wore the Hoggle suit, controlling his body but not his face.
Nightmare factor: 3/5 – His eerily realistic facial expressions are definitely in uncanny valley territory.
The Grand High Witch – The Witches
Casting Anjelica Huston as The Grand High Witch in the Roald Dahl adaptation was enough to make the character scary, but the Jim Henson Creature Shop went one step further when it created the real faces of the film’s witches – and in the utterly nightmarish scene in which she, and the other witches, are all transformed into mice. The Creature Shop’s half-transformed puppets are truly horrific.
Nightmare factor: 5/5 – The Roald Dahl scare factor is present and correct.
Pilot – Farscape
Produced by The Jim Henson Company, puppets were at the heart of Farscape’s alien setting, and while Rygel XVI, the greedy deposed monarch, might be the show’s most memorable puppet character, Moya’s Pilot was the more impressive one. The multi-armed creature was part-character, part-set, and all Henson Company technical wizardry.
Nightmare factor: 2/5 – You sort of forget he’s a puppet.
Vogons – The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy
Jim Henson and Douglas Adams knew each other and had discussed working together, so it was only fitting when the film adaptation was made that the Creature Shop provided the film’s creatures, even though both Henson and Adams were dead by then. The Shop made the Marvin the Paranoid Android costume, but the Vogons are the real scene-stealers. While they were augmented with some CG, the bulk of what you see on screen is all Creature Shop work.
Nightmare factor: 3/5 – We wouldn’t even mind if they read their poetry to us.
The Wild Things – Where The Wild Things Are
The Creature Shop refined the designs for the Wild Things, then figured out how to build them as life-sized puppets. They weighed around 150 pounds and were operated by a single performer inside each suit. Rather than giving them animatronic heads, the Wild Things’ facial expressions were added in CG. The suits were so hot that performers would occasionally pass out, but the suit was too heavy to fall over so it would take the crew a while to notice. Quite how such cumbersome creatures looked so energetic on screen is frankly mind-blowing.
Nightmare factor: 1/5 – Cuddles please.
Earl Sinclair – Dinosaurs
Dinosaurs was the early-90s puppet sitcom that the world didn’t know it needed. Dreamed up by Jim Henson and intended to have an environmental message, it didn’t make it to screens until after his death. The dinosaur puppets were full-body suits, with facial expressions controlled by animatronics, a process which had been developed by Brian Henson and his team for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles the year before.
Nightmare factor: 3/5 – We were scared of the Baby, okay?!
The Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come – The Muppet Christmas Carol
The Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come is such a simple creation that it doesn’t even really seem like a puppet – just a tall guy in robes. And yet he brings with him such an air of dread and fear that it’s only in adulthood that you realise what an effective puppet he is. We think it’s the lack of a face that makes him really scary.
Nightmare factor: 4/5 – BRING BACK THE GHOST OF CHRISTMAS PRESENT, HE WAS LOVELY.
The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance is on Netflix from 30 August. Get all the latest sci-fi news with every issue of SciFiNow.