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Of all the ambitious projects that Netflix puts into production, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance stands out in just about every way. For one, it's a TV prequel to a 37-year-old cult classic feature from the legendary Jim Henson and Frank Oz. It's a massive, epic fantasy adventure centering on a gigantic cast made entirely of lovingly crafted (and sometimes nightmarish) puppets. Plus, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance actually manages to eclipse its predecessor across much of the board.
Understandably, nothing about bringing The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance to life was easy. Except, perhaps, for getting fans Jeff Addiss and Will Matthews involved as co-creators of the new series. Addiss and Matthews, along with fellow fan, writer and co-executive producer Javier Grillo-Marxuach, spoke with CinemaBlend ahead of the show's August 30 premiere on Netflix. The entire conversation was beyond fascinating, but I was blown away when the topic turned to how challenging a puppet-based Netflix show can be when it comes to getting the voice casts recorded.
Jeff Addiss: It's incredibly technical. Because unlike an animated film, they don't record before we shoot. They have to match to what the puppeteers did on the day, which means they have to match the lip-flaps. Which means that even in rewrites or anything that we did, it had to match the lip-flaps on the screen. So it's funny, the voice actors would come in, and we would warn them that this is how it was going to be, but you could tell that hadn't quite wrapped their heads around it yet until they watched it: 'You shot it all?!' And we were like, 'Yes.' So it's extraordinarily technical, and what happens is, at first it can be overwhelming, but these are amazing performers, and they find their rhythm and they find their way of doing it. We spent a lot of time walking people through the process and getting them comfortable. Then they can come to life, because they can find all the places within these lip-flaps to add their own flourishes, to add their own touches of personality.
It's one thing when puppeteers provide the voices themselves, with Jim Henson, Frank Oz and their inner circles able to cover all the performance angles. But The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance's A-list cast members mostly worked independently from the puppeteers' filming process. That aspect mightn't be so rough on a smaller-scale show, but the Netflix prequel boasts over 30 main and recurring characters, voiced by the likes of Taran Egerton, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nathalie Emmanuel, Helena Bonham Carter, Jason Isaacs, Alicia Vikander, Simon Pegg, Mark Hamill, Caitriona Balfe, Keegan Michael-Key, Eddie Izzard, Lena Headey, Awkwafina, Andy Samberg, Natalie Dormer and many more. Even Sigourney Weaver!
Many of those cast members hadn't necessarily frequented puppet-based projects in the past, and thus had to more or less find a new path with their acting. Sure, similar tasks are required in traditional animated projects when dialogue is rewritten after the animation is completed but here, the ENTIRE performance is tethered to matching the puppets' mouth movements, which isn't so easy to rehearse with precision in the shower or car without the visuals to refer to.
To add more contextual scope, over 10,000 lines of dialogue were recorded for The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, which averages out to around 1,000 spoken lines per installment in this ten-episode first season. And now to really tip the scales and make everyone's brains hurt. Because Netflix is so big around the world, that painstaking process definitely wasn't limited to just Age of Resistance's U.S. voice actors.
Will Matthews: All of that is done for recording it in English, and then you've got to do it all again for every other language. There were teams all over the world matching these mouth-flaps, and emailing us questions like, 'How do you translate Skeksis into German?' And we're like, 'Uh, don't?' . . . Yeah, we got a lot of translation emails. Podlings and stuff like that. Some of it would translate, like Chamberlain, and then some of it, you don't.
Skeksis is Skeksis, no matter where you go. Dozens of translation teams across dozens of countries around the world were themselves dealing with dozens of local talents' puppet-acting skills. When The Dark Crystal came out 37 years ago, international dubbing techniques likely weren't on par with Netflix's approach today, so it's mind-blowing that producing a single project like Age of Resistance necessarily requires such a mighty effort from so many. Likely not what the show's writers predicted for their futures when they watched Dark Crystal as kids. At least, realistically.
Of course, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance's recording sessions also boasted a sub-challenge that ended up being the hardest aspect of all in some respects: breathing. Here's how they explained it:
Will Matthews: You know, the hardest thing was the breathing. The actors would have to do these breathing passes.
Jeff Addiss: So basically they would go in and we would do each of their lines individually to make sure that we matched and had what we needed. And then we would go in at the end of it and do what is called a "presence pass," which is all the breaths for the scene. So you wouldn't say the line, you would just do the breathing, and any grunts and little sounds. Not so hard on a regular scene, although it's harder than you think because you're controlling your breath. On action scenes? Incredibly difficult. You'd have two or three minutes – we'd break it into chunks – where it's just [acts out various grunts and labored breaths.] And we would always warn them, 'You're going to get dizzy.' And they would say, 'No, I won't. I've done this a million times.' And we'd say, 'Okay.' And we would do the first one, and they would have to sit down because they'd get dizzy. It's incredibly difficult.
This set-up definitely isn't exclusive to puppet shows in the world of animated projects goes, but I dare say episodes of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance feature more unique and labored breaths and grunts than typical TV shows or animated features. Anyone who doubts the wear and tear that stuff can have on the throat should take a few minutes to practice in private.
The co-creators talked about how difficult Benedict Wong had it – though it's definitely for the benefit of the performance – and how well Mark Hamill tapped into his inner Skeksis for the prequel series.
Jeff Addiss: I'm sitting there, Louis [Leterrier, series director] is sitting there, we're very comfortable. They're bringing us tea, and poor Taron has to do these action sequences that are just minutes of grunt and breathe and grunt and breathe, and screams. Those screams! And the Skeksis' voices are incredibly rough on the throat. Benedict Wong would go through gallons of water. He would just hold the jug of gallons of water and just be downing it to do that voice, to get those sounds. He made some sounds I've never heard a human being make before. It was like he made whale sounds. Even just his snorts were so lifelike and so beautiful.
Will Matthews: I tell you who it wasn't hard for. Mark Hamill. That guy is insane. He's unbelievably good at this.
Jeff Addiss: It's just so much of his personality that breaks through. He's such a pro. He could knock out more takes in a session than anybody else, and I don't know that anybody got close.
If you have a butt-ugly villain whose voice needs to sound like Batman: The Animated Series' Joker after he'd just fronted a thrash metal band's final show, seek no substitute for Mark Hamill. Just get Mark Hamill.
For as much work as it took to bring The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance to viewers in its gorgeous final form, Jeff Addiss couldn't be happier about the end result, nor more pleased with everyone who worked on the globe-spanning voice-recording process.
Jeff Addiss: It took months and months and months of being locked up in recording studios. We have an amazing group – they're not gonna get enough attention, and they really should – of technicians in the department who had to match all of these, who had to get in there, splicing consonants, recutting and making it work. It was a very technical process that we did that I'm very, very proud of. I'm very, very proud of the team that we worked with doing that, because they were just phenomenal.
Here's to all of those talented technicians and others getting all the credit they deserve! Check out some of their work in action by watching the trailer below for The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.
Thankfully for the film's fans, there isn't much longer to wait. The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Season 1 will hit Netflix on Friday, August 30, at 12:01 a.m. PT, with lots more yet to come from the streaming service in 2019.