Michael McCormick is a puppeteer and creature creator who worked with Jim Henson on some of his most memorable productions including The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. As part of the Albuquerque Museum’s new exhibit opening this Saturday, The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited, he will be introducing The Dark Crystal at a film screening followed by a Q&A. Weekly Alibi sat down with McCormick in his Albuquerque home to talk about his work with Jim Henson, the craft of puppetry and the creatures he created. The following is an edited version of that conversation.
Weekly Alibi: You're from Santa Fe?
Michael McCormick: I grew up in Santa Fe, Los Alamos and ultimately, Espanola.
When did you begin working with Jim Henson?
Late in 1979. Literally three weeks after Roger (singer-songwriter Roger Miller) saw us on the street, I was in London showing my puppets to Jim and ultimately to Brian Froud. That's where the real connection came was with Brian. He called me a couple of weeks ago just to tell me, “I'm so glad you were there. I fought for you, man. I knew you could make all this crap look old.”
So, Roger Miller said to go to London and you just went?
He didn't even say that. What he said was, “You know that I worked for Sesame Street?” He was so generous, just a lovely spirit. Just really a nice guy. He basically said, “Has Jim Henson ever seen your puppets?” And I said, no, he hasn't. He said, “Do you want him to?” And I said, is this an introduction? And he sort of nodded. That's how I got the telephone call through to Jim's office. So anyway, there I am on a train dropping off at L Street in northern London. I brought my puppets with me, but they were in a big box which I ended up dragging behind me. I was completely out of place walking into the studio where they were filming the Cleopatra sequence with Ms. Piggy. That was early in the morning and I stood there until closing time when they wrapped that day. Wow. Jim sort of gave a very quick flip through my folio. I said, I have the puppets and he said, “I'm not interested in seeing them.” He said, “These are good photographs, get him a limo and we'll go into Hampstead. You're going to be talking to a woman named Sherry Amott.” There I am, dropped off in Hampstead on Downshire Hill, right in the heart of what was hot in London at that time, taken in by Sherry and introduced to a small group of people talking puppets. Then this real short gentleman beckoned me to his office and I saw that the walls were covered with plates from the book Faeries. Son of a gun, if this wasn't Brian Froud who dragged me up to his office. I was hired at that moment.
What was the first project you worked on?
The first part of the project I worked on was the Skeksis. They didn't have a working puppet at that point. I created a prototype. There had been other ones, other efforts before that to build Skeksis, but this was the first one that got Frank Oz.
“Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show” were filled with such lovable characters. What were the conversations like in developing an evil creature like the Dark Crystal’s Skeksis?
You have to understand that the project had been going three or four years before I hired on in New York. Brian had been brought to New York and he was living there doing prototype work for Dark Crystal, the actual concept for the whole thing to get it on paper. That's something that went way back to Jim's original ideas. I think it was a yin yang kind of thing because it went from “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show” all the way through the horror of the Skeksis and what is a very frightening film in many ways.
Were you trying to terrify children with the Skeksis?
No, but Dark Crystal was a good example of that stuff that was story drawing. It evolved and became more and more powerful. The first you really see of that aspect is in the banquet scene when you see the Podlings as slaves. It was an evolution. Their original intent was to film sequentially and of course it wouldn't work. That's the spontaneity of that kind of thing, where there's stuff that happened that just simply isn't on paper. That was true all the way through. The story evolved.
Do you have a sense that Jim Henson knew the details of the creatures he was creating or was he letting them evolve throughout the fabrication process?
That's Jim’s genius. I say almost in present time because that energy is still around. It was a combination.
You also developed the armor on the Labyrinth goblins, which really took their form as creatures that were funny and scary at the same time. Is there a piece of armor that is funnier and scarier combined than the Pickelhaube?
Did you call it by his actual name? No. There's another film called The Last Valley with Michael Caine about the 30 Years War. He has a hat that he uses as a weapon in that. He's talking to somebody and then sort of drives the spike into this guy's gut. You're not expecting it because it's just a hat. Surprise, surprise.
How do you put together creatures that can dance with David Bowie?
The woman who plays Dr. Crusher (“Star Trek: The Next Generation” actor Gates McFadden) she was our director of movement. She's a very well-rounded human being.
David Bowie is no slacker to have in your film as well.
That's the only reason the film has done anything. Something had to happen to pull it together with a song, which is a great song. Right? I mean, Bowie's music for this is much underappreciated. I think he really outdid himself. Great guy, too. To be around, to work with, just extraordinary. It just had to happen because there was David sort of lounging in his chair looking at this thing going on and the baby was there. These guys were rocking in their little holes. (Gates McFadden) just said it has to expand. This is supposed to be a musical, but why does it have any dance routines? It was interesting because nobody was expecting that.
Do you think people would be surprised to hear that Labyrinth is a musical?
I think so.
Was that the intent from the beginning?
Music is always somehow or another inherent in those productions, all of them. “Sesame Street” to “The Muppet Show.” Music was always very, very important to those. I think Jim was very musically inclined though not particularly gifted as a musician. He certainly appreciated where that stuff fit. It's even in Dark Crystal, but it's subtle, it's underplayed.
How do you approach the puppetry for dancing with David Bowie as opposed to “The Muppet Show’s” John Denver? Were there conversations about how to make it darker?
So much of this stuff was not pre-structured. There were very spontaneous element in Jim's awareness. If something happens that catches his attention, he'll go with it. It happened with a character that I built, The War Machine. He didn't know it was happening. Nobody did because we were stuck in Hampstead, two or three of us who finally put that together. There was a break, one of those things that happens every two minutes in film, everybody stands up, stretches loose. All of a sudden here comes this war machine walking down the ramp and people were just looking at it. It caught everybody's attention and they stopped. There was a round of applause. I never felt so good in my life. Everybody sat down, this was at noon, and he said, that's it for today. Bring me the writers. And they wrote it in that afternoon. We were the first people hired onto Labyrinth, so we were very fortunate being able to hire other people we wanted. We were almost in a production designer position. Brian called me aside and he said, “can you build me a prototype for Ludo?” And I said sure, but how long are we talking about? He said, “Can you give me something in a week?” We built a prototype for Ludo, but at that same time, he said, “Can we have a war machine? Some kind of like medieval war machine or sometime?” I said, let me just screw that around. That's what emerged from it.
Was the directive simply that they were going to need a bunch of puppets, so just get to making puppets and see where to go from there?
You got it. You could never which one to use. Jim was never, particularly at that point, around the studios or the shop. Brian was there almost nonstop. Brian never okayed anything, even though he was in a position to. He just let them evolve.
Did Jim Henson just walk into the shop and point to the puppets he wanted to use?
No, not in the way that, say George Lucas did with Salacious (B. Crumb from Return of the Jedi). He had so much faith in Brian. We’re talking about six years of working together at that point or maybe seven years then, there was just rapport. If Brian liked it, you could be pretty sure Jim would like it.
Did the shift in materials away from felt and foam influence your aesthetics?
Sheet latex. The latex is poured into the mold, poured off and then left to dry, and then pulled out as the skin padded, and wires connected, then all of the sudden, it's a functioning animatronic. We borrowed the term animatronics because we needed something to be able to work in England. Animatronics was not a term that had ever been used by the unions. That's how the whole thing was able to happen with New York people. Animatronics was borrowed from Disney because it had been used when referring to the Abraham Lincoln figure.
The shark in Jaws was animatronic.
That would be animatronic. Jim said to me one day, in his frog kind of way, “Mike, I want you to meet Steven Spielberg” and there was Spielberg standing in my work area in Hampstead. We were closed and nobody supposed to come in, but there's Jim was Steven and Carlo Rambaldi, the guy who did E.T.. They were having trouble with the eye mechanisms so he had come to pick our brains a bit on eyes.
Tell me about the actual dark crystal and the shard.
You needed a device. You can extend the crystal and the whole thing into a religious metaphor. It's almost a Christian metaphor for the fragment of the true cross.
It's the Maltese Falcon? The MacGuffin?
It's the same. It's that missing key that services the story over and over and over again with nobody ever getting bored with that storyline.