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The Love Story Behind Jim Henson’s ‘Dark Crystal’ Puppets

For the Frouds, the world of fantasy is a family affair.

In 1982, lovers of fantasy adventures around the world fell in love with Jim Henson’s cinematic masterpiece The Dark Crystal, which just returned on August 30 as a ten-episode Netflix prequel series. But only two people can say they fell in love while working on The Dark Crystal in a Manhattan loft studio surrounded by foam, liquid latex, and prototype versions of some of the most magnificent puppets ever to be realized on screen.

When dollmaker Wendy Midener met illustrator Brian Froud during the pre-production period for Jim Henson’s then-unnamed departure from The Muppets, the two couldn’t have imagined the twists and turns their lives would take together. Their DNA is so entwined in their work that even their then two-year-old son Toby got into the family act, donning red and white striped pajamas to play the baby kidnapped by David Bowie in 1986’s Labyrinth, another film rich in the Frouds’ unique worldbuilding aesthetic.

While their toddler’s cinematic debut could have inspired him to become a musician like his co-star, Toby soon became interested in joining his parents in the family business.

Jim Henson Company/Lucasfilm

Today, Toby is a puppet builder in his own right, who has worked on films like The BoxTrolls, ParaNorman, and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. “There really wasn’t a time when Toby wasn’t interested in creatures and puppetry,” Wendy Froud says in an exclusive interview with Fatherly. “After all, he grew up with them! Being the baby in Labyrinth meant he was always surrounded by puppets, and our house was full of both Brian and my creations.”

Now, nearly forty years after they met, Brian and Wendy returned to the workshop, this time with their son Toby, who served as Design Supervisor on The Dark Crystal: The Age of Resistance. Their decade-long familial collaboration made for a smooth transition for their journey back to Thra, the fictional world inhabited by Gelflings, Mystics, Skeksis, and the other occupants of the rich fantasy landscape of The Dark Crystal.

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“Brian and I felt like the parents of everyone working on the series,” Wendy says. “But in general, we worked with Toby as equals. I think because we’ve worked together since Toby was quite small, the dynamics were easy – although Toby has SO much more energy than either of us! We kept having to remind him that we’re getting old! The three of us just get along really well and enjoy working together. We all hope we’ll have the chance to do it again soon!”

Credit: Brian Froud

For a family whose work still holds a special place in the hearts of families worldwide, it begs the question — what movies have a special place in their hearts? “When Toby was younger, The Princess Bride was one of our favorite films to watch together.”

Just as it is for Jim Henson’s children, who collectively keep their parents’ legacy alive through various projects, for the Frouds, collaboration is a natural part of their family dynamic. “When we’re together at home, which isn’t very often now, we tend to spend our time working on or developing projects together,” Wendy Froud says. “Each of the three of us tends to bring a different skill to the mix, but together we love coming up with new ideas, new creatures and new directions to go in.”

“Brian and I felt amazingly lucky to have Toby working on the Dark Crystal with us. He brought so much energy and an amazing skill set to the project. It was wonderful to watch Toby and Brian working together to solve design problems and costume details. They work really well together.”

The Dark Crystal: The Age of Resistance is currently streaming on Netflix.

Editor’s note: Caseen Gaines is the author of the book: The Dark Crystal: The Ultimate Visual History (Insight Editions, 2017). He is also the author of books on the making of Back to the Future, A Christmas Story, and Pee-wee’s Playhouse.