A world of fantasy and magic that we could only dream is the real life for the super talented, humble and gracious Toby Froud. A puppeteer, artist, and sculpture who many of you may know as the baby kidnapped by the Goblin King in the enchanting movie Labyrinth.
“Goblin King, Goblin King, wherever you may be. Take this child of mine far away from me.”
I was very fortunate to chat with Toby about his and Heather Henson’s collaboration for their new short film, Lessons Learned, of which he is the director, writer and creator. A younger generation of Henson and Froud together again. We talked the film, puppets, Labyrinth, David Bowie, Jim Henson, childhood memories and a new generation of fantasy for the future dreamers
We know your new project, Lessons Learned, came to reality through the kick start process. Can you tell us a bit about the project?
It started when my parents and I had a gallery exhibit at the AFA gallery in New York and Heather Henson came to see our art and we spoke, she asked if I wanted to do a puppet short film. She funds artists around the world to do short films and gets them started. So I said yes…and then realised I said yes and thought well I better get to work. From there I did the kick start, wrote the script and built Digby, the first puppet. It did amazingly well and the response from the world was really astounding. I doubled what I wanted, I didn’t know what to expect, which was the nice thing about it. From there we went ahead and I had an amazing team of people who gathered, whether it be friends that I work with from my job at Laika who do stop motion puppets. We then got the team together and acquired a warehouse for 3 months and started building. We built everything in about 2.5 months and then shot the whole thing in a week and a half, then cleared the whole thing out and started post production.
What would you like people to take away from the film?
Lessons Learned is certainly meant to be a beginning, an entrance or a view into another world. A Froudian world that you may recognise but haven’t seen for a while. I want people to be immersed in that again. It’s also the story itself, the young boy goes to his grandfathers place for his birthday and his grandfather gives him a box, his lessons learned box – which he will take through life with him, anything that he comes across, any trials and tribulations will go into your box. He then askes his grandfather if he has a box, he says of course but mine is much bigger, its a trunk. So the boy gets too curious and looks inside grandfathers trunk and gets pulled in and goes into an Alice in Wonderland-type journey and experiences his grandfathers box in a very real sense. He comes face to face with fate and time itself before getting pulled out of the trunk by his grandfather who says its not your time yet, you will learn these lessons in time and everything looks brighter after a cup of tea.
I wanted people to take that away with them. The idea that you learn lessons in life that may be too adult for you now, but somethings are good to know and learn when you do.
Yourself and Heather Henson working together is like our childhoods being magically reborn. The partnership of your father, mother and Jim Henson impacted a generation. How long have you and Heather worked together, and do you have some more projects planned for the future?
This was the beginning, it was really nice, its fortuotous the timing was right for both Heather and I. It’s the younger generation of Henson and Froud. This is a new thing for us, and we really were not sure what was going to happen, she knew she wanted to help me do a puppet film but had no idea what I would do. This has been a really good thing and we’re finding our way now. Yes, we’re certainly talking about future things.
Your parents have been involved in some of the greatest films of all time, including Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back, Labyrinth and Dark Crystal. What was your favourite character from the films they were a part of?
I have a few favourites. The Garthim Master from Dark Crystal, he was puppeteered by Dave Goelz. Such a wonderful performance for me, particularly against the whimpering Chamberlain.
Ludo from the Labyrinth, he’s a wonderful giant.
I love Star Wars, and absolutely its Yoda. (Toby’s mother, Wendy Froud, was the sculptor and fabricator of Yoda). The original Yoda, I just love it. I think Frank Oz was an amazing choice, certainly as he was a great puppeteer but he brought comedy and life to that character. I was disappointed by the later versions of him, but I love the original version. The silicone version in episode 1 was terrible as many people would agree with me.
What was it like growing up with such creative parents? Have they influenced your work?
I was always creative. I grew up in an old house in England full of art. They were always very supportive and we were always being creative as a family and meeting amazing people and artists. What seems very strange and fantastical to people was very normal to me. Art and fairies and goblins are a real thing to me. That was the idea, meeting friends saying you live in that world..I thought – don’t you? I grew up in a very fantastic and creative environment that they nurtured, it was wonderful. I grew up with them teaching me and we work even better together now than ever.
We all know you as the baby boy in Labyrinth that was stolen by the Goblin King. How did the role come about and do you recall the filming?
My father was the primary concept artist and my mother was a sculpture on both the films (Dark Crystal too). At the time they had always talked about a baby for Labyrinth and needed one at that moment, at that time I happened to be the right age and happened to look just like the design my father had drawn and painted. One of his first paintings was of a baby surrounded by goblins at the very beginning of the whole project, Labyrinth, and it’s hanging in Jim’s old house in London today I think. It looked like me. He had drawn this 6 months before I was even conceived. He was painting on a cosmic level. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
I was very happy on set, all the moments of me crying was because they needed me to cry.
Labyrinth had such a great soundtrack thanks to the amazing David Bowie. What was your favourite song from Labyrinth?
I have never met David Bowie since. I would love to. I am a huge fan myself, growing up with his music, the man’s a legend. (Answering as I break out in song ‘You remind me of the Babe, What Babe’). My favourite song is As The World Falls Down. It should be Dance Magic, but I really do love As The World Falls Down. It’s a beautiful song and points to a lot of different aspects and times in my life.
I think alot of people forget that George Lucas (Executive Producer) was involved in Labyrinth. Have you worked with him since then? Could we maybe see you in Star Wars VII?
I wish, no. I haven’t worked with George since, but my father has on many projects. I am looking forward to Star Wars VII because of the puppets. I think JJ Abrams is doing a great job of bringing that feeling back. I think it will be great and its a great time for puppets.
You’re extremely talented and have worked in some of the most creative companies such as Weta, Henson Studios and currently Laika. You have also been part of many iconic films, including Narnia and Paranorman. What was your highlight working on these films?
I interned with Henson when I was 15. It was my dream when I grew up to work with the muppets. It was a wonderful thing. Then Jim died and the company changed and they are doing some wonderful things now with the company and I look forward to the future of that.
I fell into different places, I actually fell into Laika, stop motion. Laika has been an amazing home for me for the last ‘almost’ 5 years now. From Paranorman to Boxtrolls, which I was a sculptor on which was a lot of fun. We’re onto the next one which will be released in the next few years but we are well into it.
(At Weta) I worked on Narnia and King Kong. I did some miniature work and sculpting. I was certainly still a novice. I was able to be around such talent and amazing creative artists, I call them artisists because that’s what they really are, and to just be along side them and learn from them and be part of a group, to see a workshop like Weta, be exactly like Henson’s during a film, the idea of artists and passion and drive to do something magical is astounding. That was my thing, same on King Kong.
Have you ever met a muppet?
My first memory as a child and also one of my only memories of Jim (Henson), was when I was about 4 years old. Jim was walking with me in the garden and trying to convince me he was Kermit the Frog and I didn’t believe him. I also got to meet quite a lot of the muppets over the years and my favourite, with Dave Goelz, as Gonzo the great, I love Gonzo. I am good friends with a couple muppeteers also.
What is your preferred creative skill?
Thats a tough one. I love it all, I just love the whole process. Sculpting a character is a passion of mine, certainly because its the beginning of creating a new character or thing. You start with the face and start to see it come together. The other part is the ageing of a puppet or piece of set. The paintings or finishings of these things because thats what really gives it life. Everything comes together in that last bit of paint and texture and you know now this character has lived and is living and will continue to live on. It’s amazing.
They are very much like children, you want them to succeed and work.
Reality shows are very popular these days and recently the show Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop finished its first season. Do you see more publicity being created for your line of work and could we see you in an upcoming series, as a judge or mentor?
You never know. I would hope to see my father asked. If he was asked as a mentor for a week that would be wonderful and invaluable. He is a very good teacher, but he will never admit it, but he really is. He has a great sense of working in a very creative way with people.
(Shows like these) are bringing back puppets into the light. Puppets have certainly been pushed into the behind the scenes and are usually just special effects now as creatures, monsters, what have you. CG has certainly taken over. I think people are missing a real puppet, a real thing.
Lastly at Geek Bomb we play a game called PWR (Playing, Watching, Reading). Can you tell us what you’re playing, watching, and reading?
I am playing Duplo’s with my 16 month old son. I’m watching Gordon Ramsay’s cooking show and just finished listening to Michael Caine’s autobiography, which I absolutely loved, it was wonderful.
Lessons Learned is dedicated to the lovers and dreamers. Thanks to the Froud’s and Henson’s, they have created a world for the lovers, the dreamers and you!