Farscape: Sci-Fi with Attitude

by Jim Bertges

April/May 2002

Behind the Curtain - an interview with Dave Elsey.

SciFi with Attitude

Farscape, which is headed toward its fourth season on the Sci Fi Channel, has been praised by fans and critics alike as "The best Science Fiction on television." Produced by The Henson Company, the series follows the exploits of astronaut/scientist John Crichton whose space shuttle-like ship, Farscape, is one of mankind's early experiments in faster-than- light travel. On its initial flight, the faster-than-light ship plunges into a wormhole in space and emerges in a distant part of the universe. Crichton is rescued by and eventually becomes part of a motley crew of alien fugitives aboard a huge living starship known as a Leviathan. However, to discover what sets Farscape apart from its Science Fiction brethren, viewers have to look at the show's characters.

Rather than have each character as an almost allegorical representative of an entire race, the aliens who populate Farscape are treated as individuals. They all have positive and weak points, strengths and flaws, although some are more flawed than others. Not only do their personalities clash and conflict, but at times the show's heroes are ready to kill one another. It's quite different from the camaraderie found among the crews on most other TV Science Fiction programs. Another distinctive feature of Farscape's characters is their appearance. Extensive prosthetic makeup and detailed character designs for a majority of the characters on the show is the norm. This also gives Farscape a different edge from much other SF programming.

The man in charge of creating and maintaining this wide assortment of aliens is David Elsey, the creative supervisor for the Henson Creature Shop. David, who trans- planted himself from his native London to Australia for his stint on Farscape, had worked with the Henson Creature Shop on several occasions and wasn't surprised to hear from them when they called about Farscape. He was surprised to be offered the job as supervisor, especially since it would mean he'd have to shut down his own effects company in England and move to Australia. However, It. was probably one of the best moves a guy who spent his childhood dreaming of creating monsters could make. 

As with many of his colleagues in the makeup effects business, David started out as a fan who discovered he wanted to do more than just watch strange and wonderful creatures on the screen. In trying to figure out how to go about making a living creating monsters, Davidís young mind latched onto a novel approach. "When I first started I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. I knew that I was a fan of creature features and anything I could find to read about It, but hadn't really grasped the Idea 1hat making monsters was anyone's job. If anything, I wanted to be a doctor so that I could basically be Peter Gushing as Baron Frankenstein and get to create monsters to my heart's content. It never occurred to me that the rest of the medical profession might not take too kindly to this. About the only way I could satisfy my need (as fresh corpses were quite difficult to come by at that time} was to read monster mags, watch late night horror films and buy lots of Aurora model kits. Yeah! Aurora rocked as far as I was concerned; But no matter how hard I tried to make them, in the end I was never satisfied."

Although he enjoyed the idea of modeling, it just wasn't enough for David. He soon discovered that he wanted more from his creations and at the time his skills weren't sufficiently honed to garner the results he desired. "The boxes were the best thing about the models because (A), they didn't look like the models inside and (B), they had atmosphere, which is hard to pull off when you're seven years old and you're staring at your badly painted Dracula model (with glowing head) in your bedroom. The other thing that frustrates you when you're a kid is that try as you might, model kits never quite got the reaction you wanted from people. For one thing, they don't move and unlike their full sized counterparts, they don't terrify or thrill your mates at school. It was frustrating.

Then I read an article about Jack Pierce and Roy Ashton and I realized that these two had made just about every creature I'd ever liked at that point in my life. From that point on, at about ten years old, I knew what I wanted to be. I started to specifically look for articles on makeup and special effects and that was how I started to learn about Dick Smith. He became my hero, as he still Is."

There are times, even now when David's childhood experiences and memories are dredged up in some of the strangest and most coincidental ways. "8y the way, here's something you may find funny. When I was a kid I had a book by Alan Frank, called Horror Movies or something, and on the cover, which I was obsessed with, was Peter Gushing as Frankenstein and his young assistant performing a brain operation in a still from Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell. I was obsessed with this picture and wished that I were the assistant helping to create the creature. Flash-forward to Farscape season three and I found myself turning actor Shane Briant into a monster who was none other than the Baron's assistant in that picture. I know I'm thirty-four, but stuff like that still throws me."

David spent many youthful years practicing and experimenting with makeup with only limited knowledge of what he was doing. Even though he lacked a definitive road map and wasn't encouraged by friends or family, David persisted and ultimately found a way to learn more about his .chosen trade. "Iíve known that I wanted to do this since I was ten. However, I can't recall anybody at school or at home exactly rejoicing in that fact. My aunt was kind enough to let me set up a small workshop in her house, as the smell of burning rubber was starting to lose its appeal in my parents' kitchen and I spent every second I had round there trying to figure out how this stuff was done. There weren't really any good books or articles about makeup then. I kind of had to construct a jigsaw of information gleaned from hundreds of snippets of articles and pictures of people like Dick (Smith) actually working. This was hard work, but fun. Eventually I started to write to my heroes and ask questions."

A Kiss Is but a Kiss!

Correspondence led David into hands-on relationships with working effects professionals. As these things happen, with persistence and many studio visits, David's interest turned into employment. "At this time Chris Tucker started to help me out with information and I started to visit him fairly regularly and pretty soon I was visiting Rick Baker on Greystoke at Elstree Studios. I became a sort of a studio hermit at sixteen and used to see Jim Henson so regularly around the studio (he was shooting Labyrinth) that he used to say hello to me and wave at me as he assumed that I must be working on the film. Also at the studio was Lyle Conway who was Jim's creative supervisor on Dark Crystal, Return to Oz and Dreamchild. I was very inspired by his work, so I kept visiting him until I suppose he was so sick of me that he hired me. That was on Little Shop of Horrors. Lyle became and remains my friend and inspiration to this day. Also on that film was a puppeteer by the name of Brian Henson, need I say more?"

That fateful meeting and working side-by-side with Brian Henson would lead David to Farscape, but there was still time needed to hone his skills, an accomplishment which only comes with experience. "Actually it took a long time to get around to working for Henson as I pretty much jumped from film to film after that including Hellraiser, which was as far from what Henson's was doing as you could wish. But eventually I was at Elstree again, this time on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and I used to go and visit my mates who were working on The Storyteller (which I still think is the best thing that the Creature Shop has done prior to Farscape). John Stevenson said, "Why don't you come and play at the Creature Shop," so I did and I helped with the boy-to-mouse transformations (doing the mechs) on The Witches and helped Steve Norrington (director of Blade) with Angelica Huston's makeup. After one film I left Henson's to do other things such as Alien 3, and after awhile set up my own shop to do Steve Norrington's first film Death Machine. My company was called Creature Effects and I ran that for three years until Henson's called me about Farscape." As a die-hard Science Fiction fan, David was eager to tackle the challenge of Farscape. but as with any major decision in life, it was a difficult choice to make. He had to leave his home and family, travel to another country and set up an entirely new life. "I'd known about Farscape as an idea for about three years, but the weird thing was that there wasn't much industry buzz about it. I'm a Sci Fi nut so to me it was like being handed the Holy Grail and I wanted to make the best of it. It's hard to believe now, but everyone I talked to from Henson's was lukewarm about it, It was like 'Oh yeah. episodic Sci Fi doesn't work unless your name's Gene Roddenberry or Muppets in Space' Terrible! But I thought, and continue to believe, that things are only as good as you make them. So I closed my life down in England and set off into the unknown."

Applying prosthhetics to 
Diagnosan Tocot

Once in Australia, David found that instead of just being another country, it was a whole other world. He quickly found reason to identify closely with Farscape's lead human character. It's become a sort of joke now. but without knowing it my life was about to mirror what was happening to John Crichton in Farscape. I was hit by culture shock. Absolutely nothing that I did in the UK worked any more. Materials were different; I had no idea how to find things or who to hire. And of course nothing was one hundred percent working that had been built in the UK, as there are always bugs that need sorting out with new puppets when you start filming. On top of that, I had successfully talked the producer into doing outlandish creatures way beyond the usual foreheads on TV Sci FI. All this with only, a few short weeks till we started the continuous build and shoot that was to become Farscape. I was literally lost in space!"

The Henson Creature Shop has a history of providing effects for films and television both for outside projects and Henson productions. But Henson has an even longer history of puppetry (or Muppetry) to call upon as well. However. that reputation can become a liability as well as an asset especially among critics and naysayers. It's something David feels they have overcome with Farscape. "Henson's have been doing this for a long time and its hard to think of another company that would be better suited for this type of work and would have the clout to kickstart a project like this.

But I got the feeling by looking at what they had done with the original designs that they were trying to break the mold from what they usually do. Iíve always felt that there is a Henson look and I felt it important to separate Farscape from that look to escape the Muppets in Space jibe that we would inevitably get. These days you only hear the Muppet thing from the more lazy journalists who probably haven't seen the show. The show is quite pleasingly black (In its vision) actually."

Although David wasn't involved with all the initial designs and creation of the characters on Farscape. he has still had much hands-on experience with their day-to-day operation. More than just designing and building the characters, David is charged with making them function for the cameras and keeping them In good working order. "I wasn't Involved in the original design work on the show and didn't build the main characters, so it's not possible for me to describe how they came about except to say that they were designed copiously during the many years that Farscape took to get off the ground. Since then I have modified most of them and rebuilt some of them to improve how they look and work. The original build was around nine months and took place in England." .

The characters of Rygel, the imperious and untrustworthy former monarch of the Hynerian race and Pilot, who as his name implies is the pilot of the living ship known as Moya, are probably the most complex and interesting characters on a TV series to be portrayed by puppets. Rygel, who started his life as more of a Muppet type creation with cable and hand controls and a few animatronics, has evolved over the seasons to a more fully animatrionically operated character. Since he is a main character in the show it is necessary to maintain more than one Rygel for safety purposes. David commented, "We now have two versions of Rygel; three if you count the stunt version (touch wood, so far in three years we have never needed the back up!)."

Tocot and Grunchlk

Pilot takes seven puppeteers to operate with one person actually inside the pilot puppet. The voice for Pilot is provided by the actor who also portrays one of the show's main villains, Lani John Tupu. Tupu plays Peacekeeper Captain Crais, who is perpetually in pursuit of Moya and her crew. He has even found himself in scenes where Crais has had a face-to-face confrontation with Pilot and when the final voiceovers were completed, he found he was responding to his own acting. Since Pilot is actually a part of the living ship, Moya, the question occurs, was he designed in parallel with the ship or was the ship created first and Pilot made to fit into that design? David was easily able to provide an answer, "Pilot was created before the ship was designed and Ricky Ayres had to tie his incredible set design in with the puppet."

Farscape uses a fair amount of Computer Graphics work, but it seems to be mostly confined to ships and things going on out in space. At the same time, there is also a great deal of practical, on the set, in front of the camera character and creature work. With the seamlessness of today's computer work it almost becomes inevitable to ask, Is there a point where the two come together? Is there CG involved in some of the characters and how does this affect what is done with the characters while shooting? David is quick to say that what is seen on screen is, for the most part, what was filmed on the set. "Our creatures are mostly performed live. Sometimes we use CG to remove a rig, but I'm proud to say that our stuff is almost always on set so that the actors can interact with them. This is important as I think you can sense the difference when the actors are playing against something that is in the shot actually acting back,"

On a show like Farscape where people and creatures, costumes and sets overlap each other, it is almost a certainty that the work of the various departments would intermingle as well. "Sometimes our work does overlap with other departments. A good example of this Is in season one where we felt that our techniques were better suited to the construction of the Drak egg sack set in episode 2. Also, we do a lot of the creature costumes on the more outlandish creatures as it makes sense to do the fabrication and costume in one as it he1ps us get a continuity of look and movement. Also, our approach and the materials we use are quite different to what a straight costume designer would use. This also lends a more alien feel to our stuff."

As an artist and a creator, David is understandably proud of his work over the seasons. Among the many creatures and characters that he's had a hand in, David is able to pick several as his favorites and one in particular that has made a lasting impression on everyone who follows Farscape. "Having done three seasons now, I have many favorites among our creatures. I love Turac the Sheyang from season two, the Scarrans and Tocot the surgeon, also from season two. I also like Rygel and Pilot, of course, but most of all, my favorite is Scorpius. He not only represents the way Farscape started to change direction and get darker, he is a great amalgam of Wayne Pygramís acting and dare I say it, a rather nice makeup design." 

Dave Elsey airbrushing Scorpius

Not only did the character of Scorpius provide David with one of his favorite designs, it is also one of those occasions where a makeup artist must not only create a character, but he must also discover or create a special material in order to achieve a special appearance. Under a two-week deadline, David worked with Colin Ware and Damien Martin creating a makeup material that would provide a pale translucency to Scorpius' flesh. "Scorpy's makeup is Hotflesh, which we invented for his character because I've seen many pale makeups get that joker, clown-like look that doesn't read like it's the character's own translucent flesh color. Hotflesh is translucent so it doesn't suffer from this. I still use foam though, just because I like it. However, I can see myself moving over to Hotflesh for good one day." 

On many shows involving elaborate makeups on a number of characters, the makeup department keeps a  variety of alien parts on hand when a quick job is needed. Under the tight deadlines imposed by a weekly series, it's a reasonable and sensible move. However, David doesn't maintain a stockpile of bits and pieces; he'd rather face the time pressures and create his creatures from scratch. "We almost never reuse things and we don't make creatures out of stock parts. I stand by this on principle and that's why we are in constant hell on Farscape!!! Hee hee. I'm steeped in Horror and Sci Fi, models and fantasy books so inspiration isn't a problem. The real problem is the usual two weeks that production gives us to build everything in. Which is a tall order when you consider how long the original puppets took to create."

David's not the only one who has to face those killer deadlines and he is not one to take all the credit for the creations that put the life into Farscape. "None of this would be possible without a good team and I have the best people that Oz has to offer, in particular Damien Martin, Adam Johansen, Brett Becham (the most amazing mold makers in the world), Martin Rezard and especially Colin Ware without whom I couldn't do Farscape. Becky Hunt, my coordinator (without whom I'd have gone mad long ago) and Lou Elsey, fabricator and creature costume designer without whom the creatures would only be half as good."

Of course, David and his crew realize that the show couldn't be the success it is without the support of its fans worldwide. "We are a great team and we try to see what we are doing from a fan's perspective. We want Farscape to be the sort of show that would excite us. The ultimate fan boy thrill for us would be to see as many of our creations as possible as model kits in the pages of this magazine.  

Farscape is owned by The Jim Henson Company, Hallmark Entertainment, Nine Network (Australia) and the Sci-Fi Channel. No copyright infringement is intended and no financial gain has been made by any of the staff of this web site.