Last year the Jim Henson Company called for entrants to submit short films based on Jim Henson’s “The Dark Crystal” for their Dark Crystal Fan Film Contest. As a long-time fan of the “Dark Crystal”, I have been eagerly awaiting the shorts’ public appearance. I was excited to return to the world of the Crystal and hopefully experience something new.
As some of you nostalgic ’80s kids remember, “The Dark Crystal” was a mystical fantasy film produced by Gary Kurtz (“The Empire Strikes Back”) and directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz.
In a true Hero’s Journey arc, the “Dark Crystal” tells the story of Jen and Kira, elf-like ‘Gelflings’ on a quest to rid their world of the ‘Skeksis,’ an evil reptilian race with vulture-like features. The movie was a part of a line of puppetry projects made by Henson in the ’80s, including the lighter-hearted fantasy film “Labyrinth” staring Jennifer Connelly.
Since then “Crystal” has gained a large following and many fans from around the globe submitted entries to the contest for their chance to win a trip to Hollywood to tour the Jim Henson Studios and meet members of the Henson Family. In addition, the winner and finalists would also have their shorts screened at various film festivals.
Last week the Jim Henson Company finally posted the submissions via their YouTube channel, and I spent a magical afternoon drinking tea and screening the films.
I watched all the shorts twice and while there were some real gems in the group, one in particular stood out to me. ‘The Great Conjunction’ directed by Joshua Hoareau is a live-action short that follows the story of a Gelfling named Anara (Lysette Le Cerf) and an Ursek named SilSol (Liam Murphy). It was clear from the start that the stand-out cinematography, beautiful location — which looked like it could’ve been shot right in the world of Thra — high-production value, musical score, and quality acting set this short apart from the rest.
The storyline was very engaging and one I desperately wanted to see expanded into a feature-length film. Another aspect that set ‘Conjunction’ apart was its use of an actor to play the Gelfling Anara. In the original “Dark Crystal” film the Gelflings were puppets. I actually liked seeing a Gelfling portrayed as a human while interacting with a puppet (this is undoubtedly from my love affair with “Labyrinth”). The spin was fresh and original as it pertained to “Crystal”.
‘The Great Conjunction’ truly is something special and it’s no surprise that it shines and was a finalist in the Dark Crystal Contest. ‘Conjunction’s’ director Joshua Hoareau is an award-winning director based in Melbourne, Australia. He studied film and digital media at Deakin University and established the film-production company Cinestudios. Hoareau is also a member of the Australian Director’s Guild and has worked on internationally-renowned projects including films, commercials, and music videos.
I’m honored today to have Joshua on the blog to discuss ‘The Great Conjunction’ and his love for the “Dark Crystal”.
Welcome, Joshua, and thanks for stopping by! Can you please tell us about your journey into filmmaking and Cinestudios’ inception?
I began dabbling into film at the age of 14. I embarked on creating my first film, which was based off a story I had written called ‘The Arctor Wars’. This amateur school project turned into a film trailer, which gave me my first taste in film-making. In my final year at school I realised that film-making was not just a hobby but a passion, thus leading to the creation of a short film called ‘Remnants of Chernobyl’ which gained High Distinctions and was entered into Australian Top Design for my media class.
I actually made the decision to turn my love for film into a career half way through sitting my final year exam for law. It was a weird time to come to that decision, as I had always planned to go into law, but it felt right.
After finishing school I attended Deakin University studying a Bachelor of Film and Digital Media Majoring in Film. During my time at Deakin, I worked on several student films including ‘A Slight Case of Death’. I worked as the cinematographer on the film as it afforded me the opportunity to be one of the first in Australia to work with the ‘then new’ RED Epic cinema camera. The film went on to air at the New York International Film Festival exposing me to the film festival circuit.
During my time at university I worked part time at the Woolworths Distribution Centre (equivalent supermarket like Ralph’s but in the distribution warehouse) stacking boxes to make money to fund my own film ventures. I quickly took to YouTube as a form of getting my work exposed to the world and created many short videos with the help of family and friends.
After graduating university in 2012 I went on to work for a film wedding company, which helped me, hone my skills in working with DSLR’s and also working in time sensitive fields. In my spare time, I would continue to work on my film scripts, as my passion for writing was as strong as my passion for film.
After many sleepless nights juggling 2 jobs and my personal film work, I reached the decision to open up my own film production company. This came about in the form of COREHAZA Productions. I used this company name to begin making music videos and short films to help build a name for myself. This company eventually became ‘Cinestudios’ an official film production house in Melbourne.
In 2013 I entered my film ‘Arrival’ into the WD Project Sci-Fi Film Competition. This was the very first time that one of my own films of which I wrote/directed/filmed/edited was entered into a festival. I won best film, best cinematographer and best editing for the short film. Following this win the film went on to win a multitude of awards and air internationally.
In 2014 I completed a film called ‘Peacekeeper’ aimed at raising awareness for Returning War Veterans, Homelessness and Child Trafficking. This film went on to win both Best Film and Best Film on Returning War Veterans. The film began airing internationally to help raise awareness for these serious issues. I’m now in pre-production on my upcoming début feature film, Peacekeepers.
When did you first see the “Dark Crystal” and what impacted you most about the film? Can you offer any thoughts as to why the movie has become such a beloved classic?
I must have been around 8 years old when I first attempted to watch the “Dark Crystal”. I remember going to Blockbuster and looking through the fantasy section. I was flicking through the videos and came across the “Dark Crystal”. The VHS cover art intrigued me (it was the one with the Skeksis and the Crystal Castle on the front). After getting home and beginning to watch it that night, I think I got up to the scene where the Podling was being drained of its essence and my mum saw it and freaked out, so I wasn’t allowed to watch it.
It wasn’t until a few years later after heavily getting into fantasy novels that I remembered the “Dark Crystal” and went back and watched it. Ever since I’ve been a big fan of the film. I love the fact that it has combined fantasy with sci-fi without losing the spirit of either. The story, the music, the style (puppets) all came together beautifully.
The thing that probably impacted me the most was the story. It was something different. At first there seemed to be a clear ‘good guy, bad guy’ mentality to the film, but this slowly changed as I started to realise that both the Skeksis and the Uru were connected. The balance between light and dark is a concept that has always intrigued me.
Being a child of the early 90’s I grew up with a lot of movies and shows that by today’s standards wouldn’t be ‘appropriate’ for kids. “The Dark Crystal” was definitely one of those films. But I think that one of the best things about the “Dark Crystal” is the fact that it used the medium of puppetry (which at the time was only really relevant to children’s shows) to tell a dark story, one that could appeal to adults. From my knowledge this had not really been done before, and thus the “Dark Crystal” set the stage for a new type of film style.
What was the inspiration for telling Anara’s and SilSol’s story in ‘The Great Conjunction’?
I am a huge fan of origin stories. I’ve always been drawn to the history of things. I began work on the short film about 3 weeks before the due deadline. At the time I wasn’t sure what I wanted to focus the story on, so I sat down and re-watched the “Dark Crystal”, seeing if there was anything I could connect to the film (story wise). The film provided me with so many questions. The most intriguing of these was right at the end of the film where we are introduced to the UrSkeks. SilSol says to Jen, “Many ages ago, in our arrogance and delusion, we shattered the pure crystal. And our world split apart.” This line prompted me to begin some research online. This is where I learnt the history of the UrSkeks.
The fact that they were banished from their home world due to their non-conformist nature and sent to Thra to master their darker selves was an interesting concept. It was at this point that I came across the quote “At the hour of the Great Conjunction, the crystals sang out, calling each to each… and the star-beings opened a door in the light and stepped across the cold void of space.” This is what got me hooked on the concept of focusing on the UrSkeks.
My original idea was going to focus on the UrSkeks planning the great design for their home world’s crystal before they were exiled to Thra. The film would have taken place in a dark room, and we would hear the voices of different UrSkeks planning and scheming, but we would not see them until the end. This was going to be a reveal for the audience to realise that these are UrSkeks before the fall.
I strayed from this idea when I decided that I wanted to tie it more heavily into the film itself. This is where I decided to incorporate a Gelfling. I like ‘first contact’ stories, and decided to create a first contact situation within the universe of the Dark Crystal. Information I found about the first Great Conjunction only spoke about the UrSkeks encountering Aughra, but I realized there was room for something to happen before that or even at the same time.
I imagined how the UrSkeks were banished, as their race used the crystals to send them to Thra. In my mind this journey was not instantaneous, and took time for them to arrive on Thra. This is where I decided that SilSol had been sent through the portal first and thus arrived first, before the others.
In the film you’ll notice he is injured. Originally this was going to be due to a native creature on their home world (think of a small flying Skeksis type creature) that followed through the portal and attacked Anara, with SilSol rescuing her but being injured in the process. There wasn’t enough time to make the creature, so I kept the reasoning vague.
In the original 8 min edit of the film, SilSol says, “The other will arrive soon…but something…something must have gone wrong…” This was alluding to the fact that he was injured. But in the 5 min cut for the competition, I had to remove the line for time.
While incorporating Anara, I wanted to give the Gelflings some backstory that hadn’t really been focused on yet. When writing the story, I was not aware of the Dark Crystal Creation Myths books, so most of my knowledge and information came from online.
In my research I wanted to find out when the Gelfling’s began to Dreamfast. Was it an ability they always had, or did they develop it? This is where I decided that the ‘gift of the dreamfast’ would be given to the Gelflings from the UrSkeks. It made sense to me seeing as the UrSkeks have powerful psychic abilities. This then begged the question, how did Gelflings pass on memories before the dreamfast? This is where I incorporated it into their music. The Gelflings would incorporate their memories into their music and pass the songs down to each generation passing on the memories.
I wanted to provide some ‘hat tips’ to the original film in my short by referencing them in various ways. These were done through the opening shot at the waterfall, which was mimicking the introduction of Jen at the mini waterfall playing his flute. The reveal of SilSol’s name so we realise that he will one day be the Chamberlain.
The song Anara plays when he dies is the same song Jen plays at his introduction alluding to the fact that he is a descendant of Anara (the music is passed down through the generations). The final line of SoSu where he says “though I sense your paths will cross again in this age…or the next”, was alluding to the line spoken by the Master Uru when he said “We may meet in another life…but not again in this one”.
Where was the film shot and what were some of the challenges that you faced in making the short?
The film was shot in Olinda, Melbourne, Australia. One of the challenges with filming things in the bush here in Australia is that a lot of it has an ‘Australian’ look to it. So when you see it, you immediately recognize it’s Australian. So to get around this and keep the fantasy feel of “the Dark Crystal”, I looked for areas where we had imported trees that could double for somewhere not here.
There is a great area of woodland and forest in the Dandenong Ranges, which has a wide variety of different tree patches from overseas that provided for a great filming location. I chose a spot where two different patches merged so there was a mixture of greenery. Funnily enough, it was right in the middle of a dirt bike track! Luckily though we only had a few cyclists ride through.
Only beginning production 3 weeks before the deadline was probably one of the more difficult aspects of the film as time was of the essence! Everything was rushed in the first 2 weeks so we could begin filming in the last week before the deadline. My mum and I went shopping for material for the UrSkek costume and my dad began marking out all the designs on the fabric. At the same time my mum and I found designs for Anara’s costume and took elements from a few different pictures and combined them.
We actually had two international students from America and New Zealand staying with us at the time, and luckily enough they were a great help with the costumes, coming up with cool designs and helping out with the materials. One of the crew members began working on the UrSkek face. I began building the UrSkek arms using wireframe hands from an old Halloween prop skeleton.
After 2 weeks some things were ready to go while others weren’t but we had to begin filming to meet the deadline. So the first day we shot the waterfall scene. We hiked down the waterfall track with our gear and began filming. Everything went pretty smoothly on day 1 though we had some stoners decide to sit at the top of the waterfall smoking and making a bunch of noise, which was annoying, but after a while they left.
The 2nd day of filming was probably the most difficult. This was the first day where we had both actors on set in full costume/prosthetics. We ran into a few issues straight away, as the UrSkek face had been glued onto a mask, but the glue was not holding properly so the face kept moving. The prosthetic for Anara also began cracking during filming which was a problem.
To fix the UrSkek face moving, we started filming the sequences once the UrSkek was lying down (the original script had some scenes where he was standing up before he collapsed). So in this we sat the mask down on the actors face. This became a problem though as the glue fumes were really strong and the actor didn’t have great ventilation, so I decided to remove the mask from him, as I didn’t want him to get sick.
We then began to film Anara’s sections instead so at least we had that footage covered. But during filming the prosthetic began to crack more and more. Unfortunately as this was happening, one of the crew (not the actor who wore the mask) got very sick on set, and we had to call an ambulance (they’re okay now) and cancel the filming. This left me in a bit of a spot with only a few days left before the deadline, and only the waterfall scene footage was useable. After getting home, I slept for a few hours and then began messaging cast and crew to see what could be done. One of the crew members got me in contact with some people who were able to take care of the prosthetics.
The next day I was driving around all day picking up bits and pieces to get the new prosthetic done. As there wasn’t enough time to make one from scratch, I purchased a pre-made prosthetic. I also purchased a few bits and pieces, as I had to find a way to apply the UrSkek head without putting it on the actors face. I had an old prop hairdressing head in the garage, so I took that and shaved the prop, and began molding the UrSkek face onto that. After what seemed like forever (but in reality was only a single day), I had finished the UrSkek head and everything was ready to go again. We organized to shoot the next day, and I had to call in all my favors to get enough crew out on set (huge thanks to you all, BTW).
This 3rd day of filming went more smoothly than the last and we were able to get all the shots. We did run into a few problems though, as now that the UrSkek face was not a mask, we weren’t sure how to control it. So we had the actor lie down next to the UrSkek cloak (which was stuffed with backpacks and other random things) and he controlled the head with his hands under the cloak while another crew member controlled the arms under the cloak. This made for an awkward situation, but one that seemed to work! I felt super bad for our actor playing Anara as she had a bad cold, but still had to wear the prosthetic piece on
her face all day!
The other big situation was the scene where the UrSkek is standing up at the end. We got one of the crew to wear the cloak and control the arms, while the actor placed the UrSkek head on top of the crew member while standing behind him and hiding behind the cloak/head controlling the head. This should have been the last day of filming, but once I got home and began editing the footage, I realized the prosthetic piece (though applied beautifully) looked more like a ‘Who’ from Dr. Seuss than a Gelfling.
I ran the images by some friends/fans of “the Dark Crystal” to see their thoughts. They all agreed it didn’t look right. This is where I made the decision to do one more day of filming just Anara’s scenes, but without any facial prosthetics as her human face looked closer to a Gelfling than the prosthetic.
Because there were only 2 days left till the deadline, I still cut an edit of the film with the prosthetic footage and got the film’s composer to begin the music with that. The next and final day we filmed Anara’s scenes again. So when you watch the film, each time it cuts between Anara and SilSol, they are on different days (Anara was just staring at the ground in her close up takes). Finally the film had all been shot. After rushing the edit, the film came to 8 min, which I had to cut down to 5 min. It was difficult to choose which bits to cut out, but in the end I was able to cut it down enough.
After finishing the edit, color grading, sound mixing and adding the composer’s music, the film was ready to be uploaded online. This would usually be the easy and simple part, but no, not for me, not for this film. After re-watching the film a million times to make sure it was finished, I jumped on the website to begin to upload the film only to find my internet was not working. I tried several fixes but to no avail. After ringing up my service provider (with my mobile, as my home phone was also not working) I found out there was an outage in our area, which was according to them would not be fixed for a few days (it ended up being over 3 weeks).
I quickly rang up my cousin to see if I could use their internet. So I headed down and began the upload. At this point the deadline was only 14 hours away. The upload began at about 11pm and finished around 2am in the morning. I was excited it was finally uploaded, but as I clicked the finish link, the page reset, and the film had not uploaded. I was down to 11 hours.
After freaking out, I drove to my friend’s house and tried uploading it on his computer. After another few hours, it finally uploaded and I received my confirmation email! The final remaining deadline time was 9 hours.
Had you had much experience before working with puppets?
This was the first time I’ve ever had to work with puppets, and I have to say it gave me so much more insight and respect for the art of puppetry! The time that goes into design and building, let alone trying to learn how to make it work on camera is immense. It was definitely a learning experience.
What other projects are you working on at the moment and what are your hopes for the future of Cinestudios?
As a full production company (that includes a whopping 1 employee…me) I work across a wide variety of projects spanning from film to commercials to music videos to corporate work. Some of the bigger film projects I’m working on at the moment include my debut feature film, ‘Peacekeepers’ which follows the story of a group of Peacekeepers based in Somalia and the struggles they have to deal with in keeping the region safe.
I’m also working with another company ‘Gena8 Studios’ on their new sci-fi saga called ‘Garrison 7’. I’d love to expand Cinestudios one day into a film academy where we can teach all things film. For now I’m just trudging away doing as much work as I can, because in the end, I love what I do.
If you could offer one piece of advice to aspiring filmmakers, what would it be?
The best piece of advice I can give to aspiring filmmakers…hmmm…in the wise words of Tim Allen in Galaxy Quest, “Never give up. Never surrender!” Film is a very trying field, and it will test you to your core. But if you can hold on for the ride, you’ll find it’s well worth it in the end! Always keep filming; always keep trying new things, keep practicing. A film-maker never truly stops learning, so never stop trying!
Thanks for stopping by, Joshua, and congrats on being a finalist! Making this short has definitely been a wild ride for you!
And a big thanks to everyone who surfed on over to read this interview. Please like and share and if you’d like to read an interview with the Jim Henson Company’s Author Quest winner, J.M. Lee, please have a look-see here.
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