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My Visit With Labyrinth/Dark Crystal Designer/Builder Mike McCormick

Me with the real Jareth mask in Mike's studio

Mike McCormick / Michael McCormick (II)
Film Credits

Labyrinth................................Goblin Armour Designer
Labyrinth.......................Creature Workshop Team: Goblins
Labyrinth................Creature Workshop Team: Riding Goblins
The Dark Crystal.............Creature Fabrication: Skeksis Unit
Return of the Jedi....................................Puppeteer
White Sands.............................Special effects make-up

Article by Monica Roxburgh

In mid August last year, I got an email from Petter Ettinger, an Assistant Film Editor who had worked on "Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight", "The Horse Whisperer", and "Crazy in Alabama". He explained that he was planning to direct a short film in April '99 that would involve a puppet or animatronic creature, and in fact, would completely depend on the convincingness of the creature.

Somehow he had stumbled across my online gallery and seen my puppet, masks and other art. He really liked what he saw, and wanted to talk to me further about the film project, and find out if I would like to get involved. The plan was to gather up a group of talented young people and experienced industry veterans in his home town of Alburquerque, NM. We would make a 20-30 minute piece to enter in film festivals, and to serve as an example of our work and experience.

So that is how I got involved the the film, "The Phoenix". I spent the next 8 months researching the phoenix legend, designing the puppet, tracking down suppliers for the materials I needed to build it, figuring out HOW to build it, and finally, building both the main puppet and a stunt version. There didn't end up being quite enough time to get into any animatronic building, (eye blinks were to be added digitally), but the puppet ended up being quite effective as a hand and rod puppet. As it was, the last two months of building it were full-time.

On April 25th, I finally flew into New Mexico, where everyone was gathering for a week of rehersal and general preparation. On my first day there, Peter, myself and a couple of other crew members went to visit the person that Peter was hoping to have as a second puppeteer for the Phoenix, a puppeteer living in Alburquerque named Michael McCormick. The name sounded familiar, but couldn't initially place it.

At Michael's house, we all sat and chatted about movie stuff for awhile, and then Michael showed us a number of his wonderful rod puppets. Then just before we left, I asked if we could see his studio. It was a fantastic place, a huge room full of puppets and props, materials and tools, and other creative artifacts. As I walked through it, I noticed a dusty box, lying on the floor, off to the side of the room. Something in this box seemed familiar, even from the distance where I stood....

I stepped closer, only to have my brain refuse to accept what my eyes saw. I reached towards the box, (only hesitating long enough to ask Michael if it was alright to touch things), and then I pulled out Jareth's mask from Labyrinth.

That sudden realization of where I was standing and who I had just met was a major life-altering moment. Suddenly, I discovered things scattered all about this studio: other masks from Labyrinth, numerous pieces of Skeksis costume, the Crystal shard that Jen used to heal the Dark Crystal, the top of the Skeksis Emperor's scepter, prototype goblin faces from Labyrinth, pieces of Goblin armor, and much, much more.

The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth were the two films I saw as a child that made me want to make creatures for film, and learn how to puppeteer. The masks from Labyrinth were the masks that inspired me to become a maskmaker. And both films have long existed as proof in my mind that there actually is a place for fantasy in the movie industry. So stumbling into one of the main people behind the construction and design of so many things in these films was an entirely bizzare, wonderful, unexpected thing. And to stumble into him on the first day of being on location on my first film--well, that was just simply mind-blowing.

So over the next two and a half weeks, we prepared for the shoot, and then shot the film. I had my hands full, as not only was I puppet-builder and primary phoenix performer, but was also makeup-designer and make-up artist for "Zippo the Clown", (an odd character who served as kind of an evil alter-ego for the Phoenix), and was involved in the design and construction of the cages that that phoenix is in after its capture in the film. But there was still time to spend with Micheal, both to practice with the bird, (which really allowed me to make some terrific leaps in my understanding of how to move a puppet), and to have long conversations about Jim Henson Productions, artist Brian Froud, and the film industry, while sipping tea.

Michael has been been less involved with the special effects business for awhile and has been focusing on his personal art, writing screenplays, and developing his Punch & Judy shows. Luckily, he found the Peter's Phoenix story interesting, and decided to get involved.

The shoot is now over and the film is being edited. I am back in the midwest, getting things organized before I take my next step into Creature building and puppetry as a profession. I am still blown away just how all the elements came together in the creation of this film. Everything from my meeting Michael to Peter's origiinally stumbling across my website and deciding that I might be the person to build the bird is just so amazing. And the whole experience of being part of making a film was a completely wonderful, inspiring, exhausting and fantastic thing.

Find more out about the Phoenix at Monica's website:



Page Maintained by Monica J. Roxburgh

Labyrinth characters © Henson Associates, Inc. 1986
Labyrinth movie title and character names are trademarks of Henson Associates.