My sense of skepticism fought hard against my gleeful anticipation of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge. As much as I love Henson creations, how would it hold up being thrust into the reality competition show format? Jim Henson had a profound impact on my life. Almost all of my favorite early memories involve a Jim Henson creation. And of course there’s his impact on television, movies, and untold millions of burgeoning imaginations throughout the 80s and 90s. So how would a reality competition show handle the treasured, revered, practically holy world of Jim Henson?
Quite well actually… The show had problems, but they were of a different nature than the problems plaguing other competition shows. Creature Shop’s biggest flaw was that it was almost perfect. The subject matter is unlike anything else ever ported to the reality competition genre. Sure there’s Face Off, which superficially resembles Creature Shop. Face Off came first, and while shaky in recent seasons, is still entertaining. Creature Shop’s subject matter, namely Animatronics, is not an art that lends itself well to frenzied schedules that demand hurried work.
The work that goes into Animatronic creatures is humbling. Weeks or months worth of work will yield masterpieces. Days, however, are not the measure of quality creatures. A lot of the creations on Creature Shop were really quite brilliant, but they suffered from the artists having almost no time to do really great work. Puppets, especially of the animatronic kind, need to be almost perfect to make them seem alive from every angle and through all motions. There simply wasn’t enough time to bring all these creatures to life convincingly.
As important as sufficient time is sufficient manpower. I was surprised to see how specialized some of the artists were. I generally assumed that if you were into animatronics you could do everything. But it looks as though that might not be the case. I think the show would benefit from teams competing, rather than individuals. With a team, each member could focus on their strength and really put together some amazing creatures. If they don’t have the prize being a job, they could shift the focus towards teams.
While I may have gone on about what I though needed fixing, I can’t stress enough how much I really enjoyed Creature Shop. There were a lot of novel things going on here. Just the subject matter itself is a brilliant refreshment to an otherwise stale course. Reality competitions are mostly crap, and that’s because it’s hard to watch people just compete in menial niche challenges over and over again, berating each other, scheming against each other, and just being ugly human beings in the process. Creature Shop shows a better side of people; the friendly, encouraging, creative side.
The best part of the show for me were the screen tests. After the creatures were born they had to perform during screen tests on actual sets, and on occasion, with living actors. The most important part of an animatronic creature, besides how it looks, is how it comes to life. The Screen Tests were a really interesting and fun way to do the “presenting” aspect of a reality competition. I was shocked at how much impact this presentation style had on me. Especially during the Skeksis competition. The Dark Crystal is my favorite childhood movie, and is still one of my guilty pleasures, and sources of childlike awe. To see new Skeksis walking and talking on camera, on the very set the Dark Crystal was filmed on, was truly something special!
The finale was a real treat. Everything good about Creature Shop came together to present a truly captivating screen test, and a real sense of drama all the way through the selection of the winner. I really hope Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge comes back for a second season. With only a little tweaking to the format, I think Creature Shop could give us some really fun television for years to come!
image source: [SyFy]