Cooke Optics Capture Updated “Dark Crystal” For Netflix

When it came time to return to the world of Thra and reimagine the “Dark Crystal” movie for a whole new generation on Netflix, Cooke anamorphic lenses were chosen to transform the feature’s puppets and, in the words of cinematographer Erik Wilson, made them “more majestic.”

The original Dark Crystal is an iconic movie of the 1980s; a dark-themed fantasy that took the puppetry skills that the Jim Henson Company had honed in over a decade of producing ”Sesame Street” and brought them to the big screen. It was ambitious, it was spectacular, and it has firmly lodged itself as a childhood memory in the minds of an entire generation of filmmakers.

All of which made it a perfect fit for Netflix. The series was originally pitched by the Jim Henson Company to the streaming company as an animated series, the reasoning being that it would not want to spend the amount of money that a full puppet-based production would need. To Henson’s surprise, however, that was absolutely what it did want, so a 10-part prequel series, Dark Crystal: The Age of Resistance, was given the green light.

Shooting started in November 2017 in a converted warehouse at Langley Studios in Slough to the west of London, with Louis Leterrier directing and Erik Wilson shooting.

Leterrier had made a successful proof of concept using a Red Digital Cinema Dragon camera and asked the company to design a 1:1 ratio square extraction mode (4320 x 4320) from which to extract (de-squeeze) the anamorphic image created by Cooke Anamorphic/i prime lenses. Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance was shot using five of the specially modified Red Dragon 4K at 2.2:1 with a Kipper Tie Gold Diffusion OLPF.

“Everything becomes a bit sharp with 4K and the filter helped with that,” Wilson said.

The image quality and the consistency from the wider to the longer lenses was great, according to Wilson.

The image quality and the consistency from the wider to the longer lenses was great, according to Wilson.

Cooke Optics' Anamorphic/i lenses were chosen for the production for a number of reasons. First, the set was an unusual one. The warehouse ceiling was already fairly low, and with a 4ft rostrum in place to allow the puppeteers to move around the different scenes (all exteriors were also shot inside), the shooting space became even narrower.

“Lenses where you blur the image so you can shoot off the set or puppeteers’ heads without actually registering what they are, are ideal, hence, anamorphic is your friend,” Wilson said. “A lot of lenses wouldn’t fit the part because they’re designed for a slightly smaller sensor, but going through all the different lenses that I liked I realized the Cooke lenses would actually fill this square we needed to record on.”

A lot of testing was done on the initial set up to get the right mix of equipment for a look that would work well for the puppets’ skin and make-up, as well as the lighting. Because the shoot was to be done in blocks, everything was lit by color-changing LEDs running through a desk. That meant the set could be built and lit perfectly at the construction stage and packed safely away before being brought out quickly and precisely for the shoot months later.

The Cooke lenses worked perfectly in these slightly unusual conditions. “It’s the look I like; they feel warm, gentle and rounded, and they worked wonders with that sensor,” Wilson said. “Looking at the spherical tests versus the anamorphic, with the Cookes the puppets seems more majestic; you got transported into their world to a much greater degree.”

It was a long shoot, all in all lasting 180 days, which made it a demanding period for Wilson and the team. In fact, the shoot was long enough that the go-to lenses that the team used changed as they went along, starting with the 40mm and 75mm and ending up on the 50mm and 100mm.

“The Cooke Anamorphic/i set has a large range of focal lengths and we used all of them, but a lot of the close ups using the 75mm and the 100mm were very popular,” Wilson said. “The image quality and the consistency from the wider to the longer lenses was great. We were happy to use all of them and they’ve been designed for a modern production: the frontal elements are the same size, the focus and the iris ring are in the same place — all the mechanical things are in place and it doesn’t take any time to change a lens that is vital due to time pressure.”

The end result is a hugely impressive show that is not only a technical and craft tour de force—it looks genuinely fantastical and excellent in 4K—but also a highly engaging return to the world of Thra.

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