Build Me a Creature, Fast as You Can

‘Tis always the season for puppets, if you ask me, but Gremlins is officially holiday seasonal. I watched it again for the first time in many years and there were a lot of things I had forgotten, including the scene where Gizmo stunt drives a Barbie Dream Car around a department store, which is pretty awesome. I was thinking we were probably due for a Gremlins remake sometime soon, but apparently it’s going to be a prequel cartoon on HBO Max called Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai. My son pointed out that the Mogwai actually look quite a lot like Baby Yoda from The Mandalorian and he’s not wrong. Comparing the two made me think about how puppets are crafted and how I wish that there would be another season of the reality show Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge.

Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge is a reality competition show that ran for a single season on the Syfy network in 2014. Ten contestants were brought to the Creature Shop in L.A. to participate in a series of design challenges with the winner earning a cash prize and a contract job as a Creature Designer. Each episode introduces a different concept and the contestants have two or three days to bring it to life with puppetry and animatronics that would usually take weeks to make. They each make a creature that looks like it’s part of a swamp set (which the crew amazingly also created in three days) until it moves to snatch and eat a small muppety puffball of a creature. They create creatures that glow in the dark, creatures inside creature suits that open up, their own Dark Crystal Skeksis, and one of my personal favorites, comical talking creature heads mounted on wizard Donald Faison’s wall.

All of the designers are insanely talented and it’s a well-made show, but I found myself wishing that I could just watch more of them crafting puppets and learning from their Creature Shop mentors without the typical reality show conventions getting in the way. The experts seem shy and are probably much more comfortable behind the scenes, but I would have loved to hear more of their advice and stories in place of the ubiquitous tension-building around whose creature had a broken eye or was maybe not going to finish in time. I’d also love to have seen the designers getting support from them with specific areas they don’t have experience in, especially because it would help to balance out the reality that men are still systemically more likely to have been given the opportunity to learn things like mechanization. It’s just not fun to watch a super-talented designer struggle and do less well because she had to spend five times longer learning how to make moving eyes and isn’t as good at it as her competitors. Yet. Cause you know just from watching her that it’s definitely “yet”.

I think I was more aware of the apparatus of the reality show formula than usual because the world of muppets and the personalities of the kinds of people who like to make muppets don’t tend to lend themselves very well to it. Muppets are all about cooperation rather than competition, and the convention of playing up the drama between competitors mostly seems like they really had to dig for it. What they did get centres a lot around communication challenges, especially with a few of the designers who I suspect may be neuro-diverse, but since there’s still so little acknowledgement of how neurodiversity impacts communication and interpersonal interactions at work that often just plays out as generic conflict.

The majority of the stress and drama comes from the designers having such a short timeline to produce really complicated projects, and it’s obvious that all of the experts and judges felt really badly for them and were incredibly impressed with what they were able to turn out. The judges are Brian Henson, Beth Hathaway (Jurassic Park, Batman Returns, Chronicles of Narnia) and Kirk Thatcher (ET, Gremlins, Dinosaurs, Return of the Jedi), with guest judges including Neville Page (Watchmen, Star Trek Beyond) and Barry Sonnenfeld (director of Men In Black) and they all seem a bit shocked that the contestants were actually able to do what they were being asked to do by the show that they’re all on. They’re also clearly concerned about not hurting the contestants’ feelings, and as head judge, Brian Henson seems like someone’s very nice dad who might at worst be disappointed in you for not doing your best. Of course, he’s still Brian Henson and is incredibly good at what he does, so the designers are understandably personally and professionally horrified by the idea of him being disappointed in them, but it’s refreshing to see everyone being so reliably kind to each other.

I’m not at all sure that what I want to see in a reality competition show is what most people are looking for though. I would love to see a show that took the stress out and just showed me the craft with people being given the best possible opportunity to do their best. I often fast forward through parts in other shows where they cut scenes together to foreshadow the contestants failing or highlight them getting into fights, and I don’t enjoy watching them being set up to clash or intentionally played off against one another. I’m sure that there are some or many people who are genuinely there for the drama and would not like the show I’d make. I can’t imagine a network would go for it, but I do wonder if I’m alone in this? I don’t doubt that the drama is a train wreck that pulls in lots of viewers, but how much of the audience would actually be happier watching something different?

Maybe it’s partly that reading the US and world political news for the past four years has been like a circus of a reality show where each headline brings some new thing that you’d be told was too over the top if you were actually writing it, but I just want to see people helping each other to succeed. Sadly, I don’t think it’s likely that there will be another Creature Shop Challenge, but I have expanded my lifelong conviction that the world needs more Muppets to include Creatures as well.


alex MacFadyen looks forward to what creatures may be be brought to life in the coming year!

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