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netribution > features > interview with john stephenson > page one
John Stephenson arrived in New York a furniture designer, and after a chance encounter with Jim Henson began work on his latest film - Dark Crystal. Within five years John had become head of his famed Creature Shop in Camden. Since then, John has acted as creative supervisor on a vast range of features including Return To Oz, The Witches, The Muppet Christmas Carol, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Flintstones The Adventures of Pinochio and Lost In Space.
Having previously worked on the animatronics behind Babe, John chose a live-action Animal Farm as his debut feature. On a budget of US$22m John and his team created breathing, walking and talking animals to recreate Orwell's nightmare vision. I caught up with the man who - in my opinion - has the best job in the world, at Belfast's Cinemagic after Animal Farm had just screened to some 300 school children.

| by nic wistreich |
| photos by nic wistreich|
| in london |
  Did you always know that you wanted to work in movies?
No I didn't. I went to the Royal College of Art as an industrial designer but I actually started out as an architect. After my industrial design masters at the RCA, I decided to fall into some area of design and the film industry appealed to me particularly - I thought I'd be a designer and I ended up as a director which is a bit of a surprise really. I never planned to be a director although it seems obvious now that I should have been.

How much experience have you had as a director?
Well this is my first major feature as a director on my own but I've lost count of the amount of features I've worked on, an awful lot, and I've directed a lot of effects and second unit parts of features. For instance, I did a great of Lost in Space, the special effects parts.

How did you get your first break into features?
Well I left art college in 1979 and, at that point, the British film industry was an even more closed shop than it is now - in fact it's not so bad now but it was really difficult in those days. If you had relatives in the industry then it was pretty easy but it was also very small, so I did hawk my portfolio around a bit and made a few very unsuccessful attempts to get in and I really would have swept the floors. I didn't have any plans for myself, I just thought it would be nice - I failed. Then I got offered a job designing furniture in Los Angeles….Hollywood in fact - I hadn't put two and two together in those days, it was a nice chance to visit the States and it was quite interesting work really. Ultimately, I went to New York to visit some friends from college, they suggested I approach a company around the corner from them and it turned out to be the Henson organisation. I went in there with a folio of industrial design, they were just starting work on Dark Crystal, and rather typically of Jim Henson I started work the very next day. That was it of course, I was in. Despite being freelance for that first film - and for the next five years of films, I eventually took over the leadership of The Creature Shop in 1985 and from that moment on I was directing.

Are you based in London?
Yeah we're based in Camden.

What was Jim Henson like as a person?
Jim was great, no one was closer to him, he was just a good bloke - that's the best way to describe him. He wasn't a genius as many people described him, what he produced was genius because he had this way of appreciating other peoples' talents. He put together a very clever group of people, and I'm still there as well as many of the other original members and he's left a tremendous legacy - something we are still trying to live up to.

Did you ever imagine that you'd move from industrial design to making puppets?
Well it was a bit of a shock to me but I never actually made any to be honest because the Henson organisation has a workshop in New York that makes the most remarkable puppets. The Creature Shop in London is very much more about the effects element of filmmaking, we are much more filmmakers than puppet makers here.

Did you start off working with models for the Creature Shop?
Everything, I'm an absolute jack of all trades and master of none, I've done the lot. I've designed things, made things, I've worked as production designer on things. I've worked in special effects areas, creature effects, make up effects, visual effects and I've just finished directing animation on a film - I've sort of done all of it really.

Are there any characters that you've worked on that you could really say are yours and what has been your favourite project?
Animal Farm is the only project that I can say is truly mine, everything else I've worked on in the film industry has been the result of a collaboration with fantastic people - the people at the Creature Shop are just amazing. I've been very privileged to have led them really. The best thing I've worked on…I was very fond Pinocchio with Martin Landau, a man called Jamie Courtier designed the puppet and it was truly masterful. We did a film called Monster Maker many years ago and we built this huge creature in a church that was amazing.

What was your involvement on Babe?
Babe was something that I started off but it was Neil Scannon that designed and built most of those creatures, again with a fantastic Creature Shop crew.

What about the sequel?
I had nothing to do with the sequel, Neil went off and did that on his own - quite rightly - I think he did the right thing but that was directed by a chap called George Miller. Technically, the second one is much better than Animal Farm but they both cost 3 times the amount, actually a little more than that but I don't think it was a very good film. I think Animal Farm is a very good film but technically inadequate, I think Babe 2 was a crap film that was technically brilliant.

What do you mean by technically inadequate?
Well there are a few dodgy moments and a few areas where improvements could have been made to be honest but the spirit, the structure and the story are all great - I'm very proud of it actually.
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