Monday, May 9, 2011

Character Design: Cirque du Soleil OVO and the Dark Crystal

The Awesome Performance & Character Design in Ovo
Evokes Memories of Awe from Dark Crystal Experience

Creatures are a key element of Fantasy works.  They are usually represented on a colossal scale (dragons, the Star Wars Rancor, etc.) or on a humanoid scale (like the mythogical Minotaur...or the orc armies of Tolkien's Middle Earth).  To be surprising and scary, creators of new monsters are motivated to be unique (familiar creatures inherently have lost their sense of strangeness that makes them fantastical in the first place).  Creating novel things becomes increasingly difficult as the historic pool of creatures accumulates; this May, I was inspired to see how the Cirque du Soleil reinvented their offerings with "Ovo", a theatrical fantasy based on an imaginary insect world whose unique richness stems from its character/creature design (this was my first experience, though it is the 25th show design in as many years for the Montreal based entertainment group).

Ovo - Cricket Costume

It seems Cirque du Soleil needed a new excuse to allow their talented performers to show off, and they hit the mark really well.  All the designs meshed as an integrated world: the sets, the costumes, the choreography, music...somehow the entire event appeared as one place.  Designing costumes that not only look insectan, but allow performers to perform athletic feats without distraction had to be challenging for designer Liz Vandal

Was there a story?  Not really...though it wasn't needed.  The performance was entirely eye-candy.  Was there conflict?  Almost no conflict existed in the storyline, with some minor comedy coming from the Foreigner character trying to woo the Ladybug (of course, there was the ever present man-vs-nature conflict with the contortionists, acrobats, etc. continually snubbing their noses at gravity and muscle contractions).  Except for a few moments that I cannot explain....


A Fleeting Battle Brought Mysterious Conflict!
Mysterious walking sticks brought tension to the stage. These stilt walking bad guys tried to approach the Foreigner, but the Ladybug fought them off. Were these Walking Sticks?  Or Jim Hensen's Landstriders? I cannot identify these creatures by name since they were not represented in the program or online (by deduction, they were not "fleas", "roaches", or"mosquitoes").  I share a snapshot of the Official OVO Program booklet since I was unable to locate an image online to reference. To highlight the Walking Sticks I desaturated the surrounding set (below image).
These instantly evoked the awesome "Land Striders" from the 1982 Dark Crystal Movie.  Of course, the Land Striders were literally big puppets, powered by stilt-walking puppeteers...though I recall them being the "good" type of creature.


Dark Crystal Land Striders


Ovo - Walking Sticks?



Dark Crystal Sequel Brewing
Dark Crystal Skeksis
Now I remember...the Land Striders were largely dismembered by the evil Garthim beetles (allies of the bird-like Skeksis).  Looking for inspiration on designing creatures?  I recommend procuring the The Dark Crystal (25th Anniversary Edition) which provides featurettes revealing behind-the-scenes designs, including commentary by the Dark Crystal's conceptual designer, the acclaimed Fairy artist Brian Froud.




Froud has a distinctive style that seems to bring real-life to his fairies--even take life away to preserve their real-forms...as in Lady Cottington's Pressed Fairy Book : 10 3/4 Anniversary Edition; In addition to sketches, the book was designed to preserve (to a squished degree) real fairies. 

Froud's Pressed Fairy

Froud's  Fairy















It is interesting that even in 1982 (before ATM's and microwave ovens really hit their strides...let alone computers as we know them), Jim Hensen was inspired to bring "life" to the movies that the new band-wagon of special effects could not (Star Wars was rocking the movie world then).  Over three decades later, there is still a reliance on technologies that do not necessarily impart a sense of real-life in our characters.  The Dark Crystal's Garthim beetles were as real as the Scarabs in the live performance of Ovo, and arguable more real-feeling than many of today's digitized creatures.  The challenge for artists is figuring out how to really animate our fantasy characters with pen and paper (Ovo has done it for the stage).   

Well, like many other promising movies in the 2011 Sword and Sorcery film queue, there is a sequel brewing that may reinvigorate the awe of the Dark Crystal for another generation (see below links). 


Dark Crystal Garthim