This interview with Brian Froud comes from 2007, when it was published in Death Ray 06.
This particular piece appeared in our “New Gods” profile slot. Unfortunately, the 2009 release date he gives at the end of the article for The Power of the Dark Crystal has come and gone, but I live in hope we’ll see it some day. You can read my review of the original The Dark Crystal here.
I interviewed a number of artists for Death Ray, and will be posting the articles here in due course. Hopefully, should I get permission from the artists, accompanied by some of their glorious illustrations.
Froud was a really nice chap to talk to (my rule of thumb is that artists and writers are great to speak with, actors less so), and yes, he really does see fairies…
The Goblin King
A quarter of a century ago, Muppet Master Jim Henson tracked down Brian Froud to provide art direction on The Dark Crystal. We talk to the master of faerie painting about this film, his artworks and his encounters with the other…
Brian Froud paints fairies. His pictures, influenced by the pre-Raphaelite movement, Arthur Rackham and Swedish artist John Bauer, are a mass of detail, of otherworldly faces peeking into the human world.
“I left college as a jobbing illustrator,” he says, “and did all sorts of things for about five years – magazines, book covers, and I got fed up with it. I used to have battles with art directors, until I discovered that any project that I art directed myself I would win awards for. As soon as I created my own things it just worked.”
Froud had always yearned to live in the countryside, so he upped sticks and headed to Devon. The folkloric book Faeries, produced in conjunction with artist Alan Lee (who lives in the same village) came out in 1977. He’s not looked back since.
“When I moved to the country, my response to nature was to paint fantastical creatures, fairies and trolls. It just haunts me, I’m fascinated. I can’t help it. I’ve a book coming out in America called Brian Froud’s World of Faerie. It’s thirty years of my work. It’s a journey through time – my earliest stuff up to the very latest. But it’s also a journey deeper into fairyland, as my art has become more about the spiritual aspects of fairies.”
This journey has taken to Froud to the edge of Faerie itself… The artist says he now sees the little folk. His good-natured tone becomes a little more self-conscious.
“It was just after finishing Good Fairies, Bad Fairies, I was on tour signing and I spontaneously started to see fairies.”
And these positive experiences generally?
“Erm, yes,” he says tentatively. A chuckle breaks his reticence. “Until the white van arrives!” He explains, “As an artist there are various techniques you use to get across an idea, but it has to contain an element of truth. And it’s fascinating to me that when I’m doodling in sketchbooks, I’m looking at these faces, getting them so I can say. ‘Yep, there’s something true there,’ rather than something I’ve made up.”
Ah, so he communicates with the fairies through his art…
“No, no. I am seeing them. Everyone says they want to see a fairy, and they want to see it with their eyes, you know, but you see it with an inner eye. They are psychic experiences. It doesn’t happen all the time, and I can’t make it happen, and it’s always a bit surprising… It’s hard – I paint fairies that feel right, but to paint fairies that look right is difficult. The experience involves so many other things.”
Wherever his art springs from, his appreciation of nature, his own imagination or through a communion with the world of Faerie, Froud’s pictures do have a glamour about them, and carry a lot of emotion for his fans.
“This could be self-delusion,” he says “but my sense of the ‘rightness’ of the pictures comes across from the response I get from people. It’s often about family, their mothers have given their books to them, and they’re going to give their books to their children, or that the books have helped them through terrible experiences, even abuse. The books have given them a safe world to flee into. I’m very humbled and proud that they’ve had such an effect on people.”
Froud’s also known as a conceptual designer on Hensons’ fantasy classics The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth and The Storyteller, and for him these experiences remain a high point of his career. Jim Henson saw a picture of Froud’s on a book cover, and thought the artist would be perfect to help him bring to life an idea for a world he’d had. Froud jumped at the chance, and not only because he is a huge fan of the Muppets.
“I’d always wondered what it would be like if my art moved. I figured that traditional animation would not work, because my art doesn’t have depth to it, and so I’d actually thought, well maybe puppets is the way to add that depth.”
Ironically, after hiding himself away in the country, he was to spend much of the next five years in New York and London. But it had many benefits, not least that he met his wife Wendy, a puppeteer, at Hensons.
“Being in the Muppet workshop was like being in heaven. Colours, glue and fur and stuff! Jim and Frank [Oz] would come in and talk about the world, about the sort of creatures that might populate it.”
Froud oversaw every aspect of the design, drawing and sculpting on The Dark Crystal. Initially beginning with a small team, as the crew grew to 360 people, the lone artist had to learn to collaborate, the most satisfying part of the experience.
“It took five years of my life in the end. And I think that’s what makes The Dark Crystal unusual, we did literally build the whole world from the ground upwards. A whole world that had history, it had a religion, it had different animals. Jim was financing it himself until really quite late in the day. That gives it its freedom of expression. Nowadays everything is driven by accountants, I don’t think you’d ever get that freedom again. We made this film for ourselves, it caused confusion when people saw it – they wanted to know who it was for. But we though we didn’t really know, I think it affects everybody.”
This lack of a clear target audience and the release of ET meant that The Dark Crystal was a modest financial success. Froud and Henson’s next foray into fantasy, Labyrinth (1986), bombed. But both have gathered a large cult following, and Froud expresses amazement at the diversity of different editions he signs at events. Over the years a sequel to The Dark Crystal has been mooted, but it’s only recently that Froud was approached to design creatures for a second film in the series. He was initially less than taken with the idea.
“My first thought was ‘Why’? I’m always up for going on forwards, not going backwards. If we’re going to go back to this world, there’s got to be a reason. Talking to David Odell, who scripted the first, we came up with a reason. When we left this world it was paradise. Now we’re returning, something’s gone wrong; why? For me that’s the intriguing nub of the story. At the moment that’s in the script, but who knows what will happen! Anyway, I’ve done some designs for various creatures, Gelflings and things like that.”
Currently the film is going under the name of The Power of the Dark Crystal. Hensons literature reveals that a much older Jen and Kira, the heroes of the original, are rulers of the Castle of the Crystal. A fiery girl named Thurma from the centre of the planet (early development of The Dark Crystal featured underground civilisations, according to Froud) requests a shard of the crystal to revitalise the inner sun. The Gelflings refuse, so Thurma steals one, leading to the re-emergence of both Mystics and Skeksis.
“They’re still getting the final funding in place,” says Froud. “I spoke to Cheryl Henson at Comic-Con the other week. And she’s confident we’re talking about a 2009 release.”