"The Jim Henson Creature Shop Challenge" sounded like a concept to good to be true to a Henson geek. Syfy's new reality show gives ten special effects artists a shot at working for the much beloved Jim Henson Creature shop, best known for creating elaborate creature suits and puppets for movies and television. It follows the "Project Runway" competition template, having the contestants build a new creature every week, and evaluating them via a screen test. The show is a very much a Jim Henson Company affair, hosted by "Farscape" actress Gigi Edgley, and featuring mentors and judges who are effects industry veterans. The head judge is Brian Henson, current president of the company, who looks more and more like his father with every passing year.
As a Muppet geek, I had to get a look at this thing. So I watched the first two episodes, and came away with somewhat mixed but mostly positive reactions. The contestants are all clearly talented and experienced, capable of turning out incredibly impressive work. It's a lot of fun to watch them build their creatures. We're not at the stage where more than a few big personalities have emerged, but the weekly projects are strong enough to carry the show. Also, the folks behind the scenes are still working through some bumps in the show's formula. "Creature Shop" hews to the "Project Runway" formula a little too closely, and sometimes it's not a good fit. The judges aren't the type to drop one-liners, and the contestants' array of creative skills are more interesting than the usual manufactured drama you can sense is being played up. I wish the design and fabrication portions of the show were longer than the judging portions.
The two rounds so far have been promising. I wasn't thrilled with the first, which asked the contestants to design a deep sea creature that had to lurk along the ocean floor, and resulted in some pretty unappealing entries. The second challenge, however, was great. The contestants were given the much more complex task of creating their own villainous Skeksis character from "The Dark Crystal," which included puppeteering it for the screen test. The results were far more impressive, and I could imagine the characters actually appearing onscreen, unlike the contenders from the first round. It didn't hurt that Hensons furnished "Dark Crystal" props and shared trivia about the film, which was very gratifying to this 80s fantasy geek. And there was much more shop talk about the business of effects work, which I hope continues.
However, it's hard to escape the sense that the show is really one big promotion for the Jim Henson Company and its work. I've loved these guys and their output for decades, so I'm very receptive to the hero worship many of the contestants have shown in these episodes, but at the same time I think they lay it on a little thick. The most familiar Muppet characters like Kermit and Piggy have been notably absent from the installments I've seen so far, but with a new movie in theaters, I'm sure they'll show up eventually. I recognized plenty of other material from the Henson archives, though, including lots of clips and artwork from "Dark Crystal," "Labyrinth," "The Storyteller," and "The Jim Henson Hour." Of course, we have to keep in mind that this is what the Hensons have the rights to.
Still, in the back of my mind I can't help noting that so few of the featured examples of the Creature Shop's work are very recent. It's a sad reminder that the visual effects industry has largely been taken over by CGI, and a practical effects operation like the Creature Shop has become a rarity. They're surely one of the best at what they do, but the demand has been steadily dropping off for a long time. I stumbled across a reel of their recent work, which mostly consisted of character puppets for obscure ad campaigns. Their last really big project that I know of was creating the Wild Things for 2009's "Where the Wild Things Are," and even those characters ultimately had CGI faces.
As thrilled as I am to watch the show and see the way that it celebrates all the different crafts that go into creature creation, it also feels a little like it's operating in a different world. I can imagine similar reality shows built around the finding the next great PIXAR animator or the next great Nintendo game creator, but those are big companies that are part of thriving industries. Would the PR be worth it for them to commit so many resources to something similar? I don't think so. Meanwhile, "Creature Shop Challenge" feels sadly a bit like it's pitching for its own relevance.
Those Skesis sure looked impressive, but what film would actually use them in this day and age?