Brian Henson talks about Syfy’s “Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge” and the Sequel to “Dark Crystal”

Brian Henson is the son of Jim Henson, creator of “The Muppets” and the current chairman of The Jim Henson Company. For years Brian has been working with his family in the company as a puppeteer in roles like Jack Pumpkinhead in “Return to Oz” and directing//producing “The Muppet Christmas Carol” and “Muppet Treasure Island”. He was also behind the TV series “Farscape” as the Executive Producer. His latest venture is in reality TV on Syfy with the series “Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge”, which is similar to other Syfy shows like “Face/Off”. Media Mikes had a chance to chat with Brian about the TV show and also get the scoop on upcoming projects like “The Power of the Dark Crystal” and “Fraggle Rock: The Movie”.

Mike Gencarelli: How did the idea come about to do this show, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge?
Brian Henson: We were trying to think if there is a show that would make sense for The Jim Henson Company in the reality side of television programming. There aren’t many…because we are The Jim Henson Company. Almost everything we do has an element of fantasy or science-fiction in it. In many ways we are the opposite of reality. We make things that reflect on reality and allow you to objectively compare it to what we are presenting. But we decided that one area that is particularly exciting of our company is in the creature designing area. These artists, who are designing, conceiving and then building these creatures, really are like magic. They are extraordinary artists. We thought that doing a show around that aspect would be the most interesting area to the general audience. It is sort of like this secret world. There are no Academy Awards for creature designers. There are some creature designers who have won Academy Awards for costuming, make-up or special effects. Joe FREID, one of the Executive Producers, really shared the same enthusiasm in that area of our company and also has a strong background in reality TV programming. We went out to pitch it and Syfy loved it. We made it pretty close to the “Face/Off” format or even the “Project Runway” format. But what is different about it is that it is going into an area and a type of artist that is much different than anyone has ever seen. It is taking place in the Jim Henson’s Creature Shop and the prize really is a job with us.

MG: How do you come up with the challenges for the show like the first episode’s undersea creature?
BH: We basically kept making lists of creatures that we thought would be interesting. For season one, we said that none of the creatures should be allowed to use any compositing, puppeteer removal or some of the techniques that we would normally use in television or feature films. So that closed us up a little bit and kept us focused for season one. Then we had about 15-20 good ideas on the board and we basically produced what we thought was a good wide range of creatures. One thing that is great about creature making, which perhaps is not true of some of the cousins to our TV show, is they are very different depending on what kind of creature you are looking for and what kind of screen test you presenting at the end of the episode. It means that every episode is able to stand alone and be unique from the one before it, which is a lot of fun. You should also expect the challenges to be more and more ambitious as we go forward, which I think is pretty great.

MG: What are you feelings on CGI versus practical effects like puppet work?
BH: My take on it reflects my background and where I come from and where my dad came from, we are a performance oriented company. So what excites me is performing creatures and puppets. We do some CGI but we call it digital puppetry. The way we do CGI, is that we real-time animate 3D creatures using performers. So if it comes from performance and creating a real moment for the characters then that is what excites me and our company. So in that sense, I prefer the animatronic creatures to the CGI creatures. But that is also due to my background. If someone comes from key frame animation, they may prefer CGI to stop-action animation. But I think there is wonderful space for every technique. There is clearly a sacrifice you make when you decide to go CGI with a creature is that you are not actually creating a real moment that you then photograph. With most of our stuff besides the digital puppetry that we do, what you see has really been created and has been photographed and is now in the movie or TV show. It really happened and was really there. You can’t underestimate the value of that. It may mean that things are not quite as slick or accurate as CGI but it really happened and there is something really delicious and exciting about that. Certainly we have been seeing a big move towards CGI creatures but I think with films like “Where the Wild Things Are”, we are starting to see a movement back towards practical effects. But like I said there is definitely a space for both.

MG: I feel that this show actually brings this type of work back into the spotlight…
BH: Yeah, it’s been like a secret world. Nobody knows how these creatures are built and created. Nobody has done a show like this and it is really interesting watching them work.
MG: Yeah, one thing I would love to learn more about myself is the actual mechanics behind-the-scenes with these creatures.
BH: Well as you watch more of the series you will be more of that as well.

MG: Tell us about choosing your co-judges including Kurt Thatcher and Beth Hathaway?
BH: Initially we weren’t sure if we wanted to go with an all internal panel. Kurt is really an inside guy. Most of the work he has done in his career has been with our company. We wanted it to be as credible as possible because like I said the prize really is a job in the Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. Kurt is the type of person who would do the hiring along with me who would also be making those judgment calls. At a certain point, we realized it was just too much Henson. So we reached out to Beth Hathaway, who is also a very experienced creature builder but her background is along the lines of Stan Winston and Rick Baker. It was actually really fun bringing her in since she is kind of an outsider but we just love her. It was good having her point of views and opinions on the judging panel.

MG: What do you see that the future has planned for this type of practical effects and for Jim Henson’s Creature Shop?
BH: I think there is a lot of opportunity for us to do more creature work. I think we are coming out of a time where the industry has been in a flux. I think people are now starting to stabilize and spend more money for cool fantasy/science-fiction characters. I think you will start to see more practical effects…but probably mixed in with some CGI, which is like what “Where the Wild Things Are” was. I think the best creatures yet to come are going to be a little bit of everything used to bring that creature to life.

MG: Do you have any update on The Power of Dark Crystal and Fraggle Rock movie?
BH: The truth is that it took me five years to get “Farscape” on the air. These things take time. Some of that time feels like you are just waiting around. There is a lot of things that need to come together in order to make these projects work. You need to have the right talent, financing and distribution partners. But I can tell you that these both in active development currently within our company. We are determined to get them made. It is big though and a lot of elements need to come together to get a movie made.

Photos courtesy of Syfy

 

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Wayne Kramer talks about directing “Pawn Shop Chronicles”

Wayne Kramer is the director of the “Pawn Shop Chronicles”, which has an epic cast including Paul Walker, Kevin Rankin, Elijah Wood, Brendan Fraser, Vincent D’Onofrio, Thomas Jane, Matt Dillon and Lukas Haas. Wayne has directed other recent films as well including “The Cooler”, “Running Scared” (also with Paul Walker) and “Crossing Over”. Media Mikes had a chance to chat with Wayne about this crazy fun film and how he achieve the feeling of watching a graphic novel coming to life.

Mike Gencarelli: How did you become attached to direct “Pawn Shop Chronicles”?
Wayne Kramer: I was originally talking to Paul Walker about directing him in a script that I had written, but it was having some difficulty getting set-up. Paul was already attached to “Pawn Shop” and when the original director fell out, he called me up and asked if I would be interested in coming on board because it was already financed and ready to go. I was initially reluctant because the budget was quite low and I was only looking to direct my own projects, but I read the script (by Adam Minarovich) out of a courtesy to Paul. I was immediately taken with it. I appealed to my sick sense of humor and I also enjoyed the more surreal aspects of the world Adam created. I also felt that the material would allow me to bring a certain fun filmmaking style to the piece, if we could figure out how to get there on such a low budget.

MG: From the moment the movie starts its feels like you are watching a graphic novel come to life, tell us about how you achieved that aspect?
WK: Upon first reading the script, I felt it required a very stylized, almost Tex Avery-ish approach. Despite the lazy critical assessment that we ripped-off Tarantino (I get this on every film – and it pisses me off to no end because I’ve never been influenced by Quentin’s films, but it’s clear that we share many of the same influences: De Palma, Peckinpah, Aldrich, Hill, etc.), my initial feeling was that PAWN SHOP belonged in a universe that felt like a cross between early Coen Brothers (“Raising Arizona”, “Big Lebowski”, “O Brother…”) and 70’s revenge/exploitation themed films like “White Lightning” and “Prime Cut”. The more I played around with it in pre-production, I started to pick up on a “Creepshow” meets “Crumb” kinda vibe as well – in that the actual storylines felt like something from old EERIE COMICS with a Redneck flavor to them. It’s a whole stew of whacky influences hopefully stirred into its own original thing. I just have to say, it’s near impossible for any filmmaker to escape the shadow of “Pulp Fiction” when telling an anthology crime story and it infuriates me in that’s the first thing film illiterate critics glom onto. Aside from one wink at “Pulp Fiction” about Alton’s brother being killed in a pawn shop on the west coast(which was always in Adam’s script and in hindsight, I probably should have cut), PULP was the furthest thing from our minds.

MG: How was it reuniting with Paul Walker and putting him in such a unique role?
WK: It was a blast working with Paul again. He’s the most game actor I’ve ever worked with and gives nothing less than 100 percent each time. We share the same sensibility when it comes to dark, kick-ass material, so it’s never a battle of wills when we get on the set. He’s also the kind of actor that always has the
director’s back and as a filmmaker you couldn’t ask for anything more. Paul is also a producer on PAWN SHOP, so he had a little more invested than just turning up and focusing on his own character.

MG:  Let’s talk about the rest of the cast, how did you gather all this great talent together?
WK: Well, once a film gets greenlit, you just start moving ahead and word gets out that the film is happening and agents start doing their thing, which is to get work for their clients and somehow it all just falls into place. I was super thrilled when Matt Dillon agreed to play Richard because Matt’s an actor I’ve always loved and thankfully he also turned out to be a joy to work with. I honestly think Matt had the most difficult role to pull off in the film because the leap his character makes tonally in just a few hours is insane and I don’t think many actors without Matt’s subtle comedic chops could have pulled it off. It felt to me like he was channeling Bruce Campbell circa EVIL DEAD towards the end there with his manic hysteria. I had met with Vincent D’Onofrio a few months earlier and he had a great take on Alton and thankfully it worked out and he ended up in the film. Vincent was another amazing actor to work with. I’d love to do anything with him in the future. Brendan Fraser really came and invested himself in the character and it was hysterical to watch him disappear into Ricky every day. He had the most difficult schedule on the film, having to fly in and out of Louisiana several times to accommodate his character turning up all over the schedule. We were also lucky to fit Elijah Wood into a very tight window as well and he was a total soldier for his few days on the film since he had to wear a very uncomfortable and complicated make-up rig, which he never ever complained about. Super cool guy and a total fan of the genre. I think one of the most exciting additions to our cast was Kevin Rankin as Randy, Raw Dog’s partner in crime. Kevin is the consummate actor and just disappears inside every character he plays. I didn’t even realize until we were a few days into shooting that he played the character of Devil on “Justified,” a show I’m a huge fan of. I also have to commend Pell James for having the courage to take on the role of Cyndi. She’s virtually unrecognizable in the part and we only see her clothed one time in a quick flashback moment – so she has my undying respect. She also happens to be an incredibly talented actor who should be doing way more movies. I’ve been friends with Thomas Jane for quite some time and he was kind enough to agree to play The Man for me, which I think is a fun little cameo. Another actor that should be working more often – and on bigger films. Same goes for Lukas Haas who was another joy to work with. We got very, very lucky with the cast and I hope to work with all of them again at some point.

MG:  Tell us about your decisions to switch aspect ratios between each segment?
WK:  I was just having some fun with some of the faux Sergio Leone type moments in each chronicle. The arrival of The Man felt like it wanted to be in widescreen, almost like those old Marlboro ads that played in movie theaters (it was probably more an international cinema thing because I saw them in South Africa when I was a kid and we saw a lot of commercials before the main feature started). When Matt Dillon faces off against Michael Cudlitz, it felt like it warranted a similar aspect ratio gag – and when Brendan Fraser’s Elvis impersonator arrives in front of the barber shops, again, I felt like it was almost a classical western motif of the stranger come to town. Having an aspect ratio gag in each chronicle also created a visual commonality between all three stories and for me is a reminder of the tongue in cheek approach to the film.

MG:  What was the biggest challenge of entwining these three segments together?
WK: I think the biggest challenge was taking three tonally very different stories and trying to make them fit within the same narrative. We jump from a Tex Averystyle, madcap Hillbilly episode to a darkly humorous Southern Gothic revenge story, to a more comedic take on the musician meeting the Devil at mythical crossroads in the deep South. But if someone looks a little deeper at the film, they will see a fun subtext about the town of Erwin, Georgia being purgatory and all the (morally dubious) characters coming through the portal of the pawn shop being challenged to make choices that decide their very fates. We buried lots of Satanic imagery throughout the film, some more obvious than others. There are pentagrams carved into the tables of the barbecue joint, which is also called “Lou’s Fire Pit” as in Lucifer, which features a very hellish red color motif. JJ gets his face burned into the seal of the smoker which reads, “Holy Smokes.” The meth lab goes up in hell fire… Satan makes a deal for Ricky’s soul by transforming him into Elvis for four minutes on stage… The liquor store with the blues player out front is called Cross Roads Liquor and the address is 666 Charon Street… The liquor store also has a painted clock sign with no hands suggesting time has stopped in this town. We have creepy, featureless masks on some of the carnival extras – if you look carefully, you’ll see them at times. Some of the girls at the carnival are also holding little devil dolls. Many other references as well…

MG: What do you have planned next?
WK: I’ve got a bunch of irons in the fire. It’s hard to talk about them until they actually get greenlit. I may be doing another film with Alec Baldwin (and Patrick Wilson) next year, so I’m really looking forward to that.

 

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Blu-ray Review “Pawn Shop Chronicles”

Actors: Paul Walker, Brendan Fraser, Matt Dillon, Norman Reedus, Vincent D’Onofrio, Elijah Wood, Lukas Haas, Kevin Rankin.
Director: Wayne Kramer
Rated: R (Restricted)
Studio: ANCHOR BAY
Release Date: August 27, 2013
Run Time: 112 minutes

Film: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Extras: 2 out of 5 stars

What a trip! From the moment this film starts, I couldn’t help but think that this feels like a live-action comic book. It is action packed and very intense. It is graphic, in-your-face and feels like “Pulp Fiction” on drugs. The film also packs one very impressive cast spread out and also intertwined between each of the three stories. Just look at the box, the better question is “Who isn’t in this movie?” Everyone in the cast, no matter how small the role, really adds a lot to the film. It is a real ensemble. My only concern is that the film slows down a bit in its third act but ends up paying off as it all comes together in the end. Very clever, unique and a ton of fun.

Official Synopsis: In this shop, these people may be pawning far more than they bargained for: Brendan Fraser (“The Mummy”), Elijah Wood (“The Lord of the Rings”), Vincent D’Onofrio (“Men in Black”), Academy Award® nominee Matt Dillon (“Crash”), Norman Reedus (“The Walking Dead”), Thomas Jane (“Hung”), Lukas Haas (“Inception”), and Paul Walker (“Fast & Furious”), star in 3 twisted tales all connected by items from a Southern small-town pawn shop. A man searching for his kidnapped wife, a couple of white-supremacist meth heads, and a sad-sack Elvis impersonator, plus more desperate characters come to life in the action-packed and hilarious story written by Adam Minarovich and from the director of “The Cooler” and “Running Scared”, Wayne Kramer.

Anchor Bay is releasing this film as a Blu-ray combo pack with a DVD disc as well. The 1080p transfer relays the film’s comic book feel very well and looks sharp doing it. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 works well with the film’s fast paced again and music. In terms of special features, I would have expected more from this release. There is only an audio commentary from director Wayne Kramer and writer Adam Minarovich. I would have loved to seen some behind-the-scenes featurettes.

Blu-ray Review “Little Shop of Horrors: The Director’s Cut + Theatrical”

Starring: Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, Vincent Gardenia, Steve Martin
Director: Frank Oz
Rated: PG-13 (Parental Guidance Suggested)
Studio: Warner Home Video
Release Date: October 9, 2012
Run Time: 94 minutes

Film: 5 out of 5 stars
Extras: 3.5 out of 5 stars

“Little Shop of Horrors” is one of my favorite musical-comedy movies of all-time. This 1986 film is an adaptation of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s popular off-Broadway musical – which was also taken off from Roger Corman’s 1960 cult classic.  Warner Brothers is finally releasing this film on high def Blu-ray and are include two digitally remastered versions of the film on one disc – the theatrical edition and a director’s cut.  The director’s cut is the real draw here since it features the restored twenty-minute alternate ending.  Warner has restored and digitally remastered the ending in full color, which is a big deal if you are a fan of this film.  This is the first time that this has be available since it was only available prior in B&W. The release also comes packaged in a collectible forty-page digibook with some great content, including film trivia, actor and director bios and more.

Warner’s had taken the time to restore both versions of the film and they looks as good as ever. The 1080p transfers look really great, it is not a 4K restore but it is still very impressive. The music in the film is very important, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is perfect.  You will find yourself blasting out your surround system and singing a-long. Speaking of that, I would have liked to seen a sing a-long track for those, who don’t know all the words.  There is an commentary track from Frank Oz on the theatrical version of the film. “Frank Oz and Little Shop of Horrors: The Director’s Cut,” is an introduction by Frank Oz with Richard Conway about the new feature. “A Story of Little Shop of Horrors”  is a fun and sharp behind-the-scenes documentary.  There are also a few outtakes and deleted scenes with optional commentary from Frank Oz, which are worth checking out also. Lastly, there are two theatrical trailers included.

Premise: A skid-row florist’s “mean green mother” of a monster plant is the center of “the looniest, nuttiest, most outrageous movie musical comedy in years” (Jeffrey Lyons, Sneak Preview). Rick Moranis, Steve Martin, Ellen Green, Billy Murray and other comedy greats star. “Little Shop of Horrors”, nominated for two Academy Awards® in 1986, including Best Music, Original Song and Best Effects, Visual Effects, debuts on Blu-ray Disc™ October 9, 2012 from Warner Home Video. The Blu-ray debut of the film, directed by the inimitable Frank Oz (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Dark Crystal, The Muppets Take Manhattan), includes two hi-def versions of the cult classic: the one shown in theaters and The Director’s Cut, featuring a newly restored 20-minute ending from the director’s first cut, now in color, that fans have been waiting to see.

Buy It 10/9 on Blu-ray™ http://bit.ly/LSOHDCBD
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