When it came time to return to the world of Thra and reimagine the Dark Crystal movie for a whole new generation on Netflix, cinematographer Erik Wilson’s goal was to transform the puppets and make them more majestic. “You get into the politics and you get into the characters and you forget that they’re puppets,” he says.
Wislon chose Cooke anamorphic lenses for the project for a number of compelling reasons. The original Dark Crystal is one of the most iconic movies of the 1980s; a dark-themed fantasy that took the puppetry skills that the Jim Henson Company had honed in over a decade of producing Sesame Street and writ them large on the big screen for big audiences. It was ambitious, it was spectacular, and it has firmly lodged itself as a childhood memory in the minds of an entire generation of filmmakers.
All of which makes it a perfect fit for Netflix in 2020. The series was originally pitched by the Jim Henson Company to the streaming giant as an animated series, the reasoning being that it would not want to spend the amount of money that a full puppet-based production would need. To Henson’s surprise, however, that was absolutely what it did want (in the memorable words of one commentator, it decided to “go big and go foam”) and so a 10-part prequel series, Dark Crystal: The Age of Resistance, was given the green light.
Shooting started in November 2017 in a converted warehouse at Langley Studios in Slough to the west of London, with Louis Leterrier directing and Erik Wilson shooting.
“I always knew it wasn’t going to be a small thing, but I still came to the project completely unprepared for the scale of it and was in awe of the aspirations for it,” said Wilson. ”I always imagined that the puppets would be hiding behind a table and we would be filming them with a static camera, but that couldn’t have been any further from the truth. Every single shot is moving. We did one lock off shot in the whole series and it never even made it into the final cut.”
Leterrier had made a successful proof of concept using a Red Dragon and asked Red Digital Cinema to design a 1:1 ratio square extraction mode (4320 x 4320) from which to extract (de-squeeze) the anamorphic image created by Cooke Anamorphic/i prime lenses. Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance was shot using five of the specially modified Red Dragon 4K at 2.2:1 with a Kipper Tie Gold Diffusion OLPF. “Everything becomes a bit sharp with 4K and the filter helped with that,” said Wilson.
The set was an unusual one. The warehouse ceiling was already fairly low, and with a four-foot rostrum in place to allow the puppeteers to move around the different scenes (all exteriors were also shot inside), the shooting space became even narrower.
“Lenses where you blur the image so you can shoot off the set or puppeteers’ heads without actually registering what they are, are ideal – hence, anamorphic is your friend,” explained Wilson. “A lot of lenses wouldn’t fit the part because they’re designed for a slightly smaller sensor, but going through all the different lenses that I liked I realized the Cooke lenses would actually fill this square we need to record on. We did some tests and they were great. I really like the Cooke Anamorphic/i’s; they have personality, they have charm, and they also are technically very, very good.”
A lot of testing was done on the initial set up to get the right mix of equipment for a look that would work well for the puppets’ skin and make-up, as well as the lighting. Because the shoot was to be done in blocks, everything was lit by color-changing LEDs running through a desk. That meant the set could be built and lit perfectly at the construction stage and packed safely away before being brought out quickly and precisely for the shoot months later.
The Cookes worked perfectly in these slightly unusual conditions. “It’s the look I like; they feel warm, gentle and rounded, and they worked wonders with that sensor,” said Wilson. “Looking at the spherical tests versus the anamorphic, with the Cookes the puppets seems more majestic; you got transported into their world to a much greater degree.”
Plus, of course, there was the original 1982 movie to consider.
“All the methodology of the look was based on the film, but we just needed to take this further because we were expanding on the scope of the movie and we were doing it with much more than equipment. We also needed to do it on a TV schedule rather than a film schedule, which was slightly harrowing,” he added.
It was a long shoot, all in all lasting 180 days, which made it a demanding period for Wilson and the team he name-checks as doing amazing work throughout: Gaffer, Andy Lowe; Key Grip, Ronan Murphy; and Focus Pullers Iwan Prys Reynolds and Jon Garwes. In fact, the shoot was long enough that the go-to lenses that the team used changed as they went along, starting with the 40mm and 75mm and ending up on the 50mm and 100mm.
“The Cooke Anamorphic/i set has a large range of focal lengths and we used all of them, but a lot of the close ups using the 75mm and the 100mm were very popular,” Wilson said. “The image quality and the consistency from the wider to the longer lenses was great. We were happy to use all of them and they’ve been designed for a modern production: the frontal elements are the same size, the focus and the iris ring are in the same place — all the mechanical things are in place and it doesn’t take any time to change a lens which is vital due to time pressure.”
The end result is a hugely impressive show which is not only a technical and craft tour de force — it looks genuinely fantastical and excellent in 4K — but also a highly engaging return to the world of Thra. “I got sent the episodes before the grade and I sat down to watch one, watched another, and then I got completely hooked and binged the rest,” he said, “I forgot that I was meant to be watching it and analyzing it. You get into the politics and you get into the characters and you forget that they’re puppets.”