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Jim Henson's Creature Shop

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Jim Henson with Kermit the Frog and his Creature Shop creatures.

Jim Henson's Creature Shop is the name of the London based workshop owned by the Jim Henson Company found at Oval Road, Camden. Distinct from The Muppet Workshop, the Creature Workshop had its roots in the pre-production for The Dark Crystal, beginning in 1978, assembling technicians, sculptors, and production designers, both Muppet veterans and outside talent, to create a realistic, unified world. At the end of this production, the majority of the staff left for other projects, as is common in the film business. Shortly after this, The Henson Company started crewing up for Labyrinth - and Henson expressed some regrets that many of the people who had worked on Dark Crystal were not available (since they were working on other jobs). As a result, he came up with the idea of opening a workshop that employed people on a long term basis, working on projects when they were available, and on research and development projects the rest of the time. Around this time "The Creature Shop" went from being an informal identifier to a formal one, used to denote the more aesthetically realistic, technically involved "creatures". Traditional puppetry techniques, while not entirely abandoned, were placed to the side in favor of radio-controlled advancements, animatronic technology, body suit performers, and fleshy latex faces capable of multiple eye, brow, jaw, and teeth movements.

Unlike the Muppet Workshop, which seldom accepted outside commissions, the Creature Shop was soon established as a special effects production house, utilized for both Henson films and series and outside, commissioned projects. The Creature Shop name first appeared in the credits of Dreamchild, for which the company's staff designed, built, and performed Lewis Carroll figures. The StoryTeller was the first television series to utilize the Creatures. Though primarily associated with realistic monsters and animals, the Creature Shop also occasionally built figures for Muppet productions, such as The Ghost of Faffner Hall or the Christmas ghosts in The Muppet Christmas Carol.

During this time, the controls became increasingly complicated - the earliest creatures were a mixture of cable operated and radio control - the latter originally based on modified Futaba sets, but later replaced by some custom transmitters ("Tranimats") based on JR hardware heavily modified by McGregor Industries, who were JR's UK distributors. These units had a large number of programmable mixes on them, allowing such things as mixing the eye up/down control into the eyelids for a more realistic appearance.

Around this time, the decision was made to investigate the possiblity of using computer controls to aid this process - this culminated in the development of a unit called SYNN (a heavily contrived acronym for SYstem with No Name) - first used for controlling the dog in Storyteller. This was the first iteration of the Hensons Performance Control System.

Full-bodied reptiles dominated the Creature Shop's slate in the early 1990s, creating the title characters in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, and an array of prehistoric beings in Dinosaurs. For these projects, enhancements were made to the Henson Performance Control System, an advancement from the earlier radio controls, allowing puppeteers to create complex facial expressions as well as detailed body movements, such as in finger joints. The team, including Faz Fazakas and Brian Henson, received a special Scientific and Engineering Academy Award in 1992 for this advancement. Later in the decade, the Creature Shop also became increasingly involved in digital puppetry and computer animation, in such projects as Loch Ness and Lost in Space. Other assignments involved creating realistic animal characters, for use as either doubles for stunt scenes or to create realistic dialogue in such movies as Babe, Dr. Dolittle, and Cats & Dogs.

The London base of the Creature Shop closed in spring 2005, It has now become a luxury apartment block simply called The Henson. A Los Angeles branch remains operative.

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