Meeting Wendy and Brian Froud was one of my favorite things about Convolution. The Frouds have an incredible body of work, but some highlights of their career have been their work on Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth (Brian was conceptual designer and artist and Wendy designed puppets). Wendy Froud also worked on sculpting Yoda for The Empire Strikes Back.
I met the Frouds first at a “Meet the Guests” mixer at which I utterly failed to mix until Erik Biggleston of Games of Berkeley took me under his wing and introduced me to the Frouds (he literally led me to them by the hand). Wendy and Brian are so earthy that they seem to have wandered in to the room from one of their books. They aren’t just polite and friendly – they are warm. Wendy in particular is quick to take your hand in hers or give you a big hug. They act exactly as if you are the close personal friend they haven’t seen in a while. Towards the end of the convention, I got to attend a Q&A with the Frouds. Here’s some of the highlights:
On Getting the Call
Brian Froud worked on the influential book Fairies with Alan Lee, and Henson liked his art and asked Brian to come work on The Dark Crystal as conceptual designer. Wendy Froud got a call from Jim Henson because a friend of hers gave a puppet Wendy had made to Jim for his birthday.
“He asked me to come design puppets for him, and of course I said yes!” said Wendy, “I mean, I was going to be a waitress!”
Wendy and Brian met each other while working on The Dark Crystal in 1978 and have been married since 1980.
Working For Jim Henson
“The first thing I noticed when I walked into the Jim Henson studios was laughter. There was always a lot of laughing. And we all wanted to work hard for Jim. He had this quality that just made you want to bring his visions to reality” said Brian.
Both of the Frouds spoke warmly of Jim Henson.
“He was very shy”, said Brian, “always off by himself, in a corner, drawing. And you just wanted to make whatever he was drawing come to life”.
Both of the Frouds said that one of the difficulties with making a sequel to The Dark Crystal has been that it was so much “Jim’s vision”. Jim asked them to design the world first, and then develop the story based on the world. They were able to work on The Dark Crystal for five years – a schedule that the Frounds thought would be unlikely to be approved by any studio in the future.
Baby Toby in Labyrinth
The Henson Studio was just about to start filming Labyrinth when they realized that they needed a baby. Luckily, Wendy was pregnant and a little math revealed that her baby would be just about the right age by the time they needed to film baby scenes.
“Jim was hoping I’d have twins so we’d have a spare baby to work with. As it turns out, another woman in the shop was pregnant at about the same time, so her baby was used as Toby’s double”.
“Toby wasn’t scared by the goblin puppets because he was used to them and used to play with them all the time. In fact I had to be careful because sometimes he would pull their ears off. But he hated it when we put him in the crib when it wasn’t naptime and he would get furious and scream”.
Wendy was always on the set and they had a couple of additional “baby wranglers”. But it was still “a nightmare” to keep track of him, because Toby had just learned to walk and he kept trying to run off. Also, he loved climbing those crazy stairs (which weren’t actually very high). Any time they shot footage of him on the stairs, he was wearing a harness with Wendy holding on.
Toby’s first babysitter was Jennifer Connolly. It was her first babysitting job, and her mom came with her to make sure nothing went wrong.
Wendy was “loaned” to Lucas films to help create Yoda. Her job was to sculpt rough drafts of Yoda's head in a kind of soft, remoldable foam. Then everyone on the team would come through the studio and make comments, and she would resculpt the mold to reflect the feedback she was given, and then the process would repeat. Sometimes she made four or five Yoda heads and faces in one day. From the earliest drafts, Yoda was always old and green, with big ears, and he was always roughly the same size.
On Creating a Career
Brian Froud said that he’s not always sure what he wants to do, but he knows what he won’t do: “It’s the ‘no’s’ that got me on my path”. He also said that he thinks he’s done well because he’s always tried to do things that no one else was doing, such as when he and Alan Lee did the book Fairies.
When he did the pressed fairy book, Lady Cottington’s Book of Pressed Fairies, he and author Terry Jones got drunk over lunch and decided that it would be a good idea to try to pitch the book to publishers that very afternoon.
The publisher who finally took the book on later joked that he said yes to the project purely to get these two drunken men out of his office.
Brian considers his career to be successful in this sense: “Staying on the path. There’s no success greater than to keep struggling towards meaning and vision”.
A Tip Regarding Dealing With Fairies
Fairies insist on having everything right, but their ideas about what’s right are very different from ours, and they change their ideas about what’s right all the time. So be careful!