Cheers, puppeteers!

Pub date February 1, 2012
WriterSean McCourt
SectionFilm Features

Showcasing the boldly imaginative and innovative talents of the artisans at the Jim Henson Company, the 1982 fantasy film The Dark Crystal broke new ground when it came to visual special effects and believable creature creations.

The movie’s tale — evil Skeksis versus good Gelflings and Mystics, just tryin’ to restore balance and freedom to their world — captivated viewers’ imaginations upon its release, and has gone on to become a beloved part of many people’s childhood memories. And it’s still earning new fans: in honor of the film’s 30th anniversary, SF Sketchfest presents a special Crystal screening with guest Dave Goelz, who performed the puppetry for fan favorite Fizzgig, as well as the Skeksi Garthim Master SkekUng.

Goelz, who’ll introduce the film and share some rare, behind-the-scenes footage, is looking forward to marking the movie’s milestone with fans. “What I love about doing these events is that it reminds me of the quality of the things we were doing, and that they are enduring, and how much we enjoyed making them,” he says.

Having worked with Henson since 1973, Goelz was no stranger to busting through creative and logistical boundaries on film and television projects, but even he was uncertain for a time about Crystal‘s chances of success. “We all knew Jim as an incredible, indefatigable optimist. He was just so positive about everything, and he just believed that we could do anything — and he usually figured out a way to do it,” Goelz remembers.

“On the first day of shooting, though, we had to have the Skeksis file by the bedside of their dying emperor, and that was the very first shot that I was in. We were up on a two-foot riser, walking, and each Skeksis has two people inside, and then about four people down below, sort of duck walking on the floor, with each one holding a cable control.

Partway through the first shot I fell off the riser — it was dark, I couldn’t see where I was going. I remember thinking at that moment, ‘Jim’s optimism has really caught up with him this time. We’ll never get this thing shot!’ But of course, within two weeks we were ad-libbing in the characters.”

Goelz attributes the film’s success to the hard work of everyone involved, but points especially to Henson’s emotional and financial commitment to the quality of their projects.

“These things were developed and rehearsed for months, only Jim Henson would make that kind of investment,” Goelz says. “He was always like that. People who worked in the shop all those years tell me that he never came in and said, ‘You can’t buy that fabric for Miss Piggy. It’s $200 a yard!’ — he never held back on anything for the shop and the characters.”

In addition to the time, money, and effort spent on bringing the world of Crystal to life through advances in special effects technology, the crew also found simple ways to add depth to the film’s characters, as was the case with the lovable Fizzgig.

“The reason he’s convincing is because he’s used sparingly,” Goelz notes. “He’s a character who can’t really do much; he can move his paws and blink and open his mouth, so if you overexpose him you will realize that he’s limited. But the way he was conceived was to be used sparingly and that was useful.

Secondly, the way he traveled was by rolling [himself into a ball], which made it very easy for us to shoot him. We just rolled him across the shot, so that was extremely simple. One of the simplest things in the movie!”

Having worked with the Muppets for nearly 40 years (bringing life to much-loved characters like Gonzo and Bunsen Honeydew) and lending his talents to affiliated projects such as Labyrinth (1986), Fraggle Rock, and a host of other films and television shows, Goelz says he loves to see the impact of his efforts on fans.

“A lot of people who originally saw these projects [as children] are in their 30s now and have little kids, and they want to pass this along to their kids,” he reflects. “It’s very heartwarming to see there is a legacy.”


Sat/4, 11 a.m., $10

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF