Fantasy illustrator Brian Froud began his collaboration with Jim Henson for the 1982 movie “The Dark Crystal,” designing the entire look for the world of Thra filled with strange creatures, plants, and structures. Gelflings themselves are odd, fey beings smaller than humans and yet similar enough to mankind to seem familiar. This presented a challenge when it came to translating the drawings into three-dimensional puppets.
“They are our human representatives in a strange world where everything is really odd, where everything is alive, where rocks move and sing and everything is not quite what it seems,” said Froud. “We had to remind the sculptors that these are not human, that these are more kin to the animals. The challenge was to get them to have an other world quality, at the same time to be empathetic, because they go through a lot, and they are telling their story as our story.”
Now, nearly 40 years later, he’s once again acting as the creature designer on Netflix’s prequel series “Age of Resistance” with his son, senior costume & creature supervisor Toby Froud.
“The Gelflings probably are the hardest puppets to create, but also to perform truly because they have that human relatable element to them. It’s harder than anything else,” said Toby Froud. “You look at the Skeksis and go, ‘Oh wow, OK there we go,’ and you look at a Gelfling and you go, ‘Is it right or not?’ That was always the problem, and also the challenge, and also the triumph of the Gelfling in the original but also now in the show.”
Brian Froud only had to conceive of two Gelfling for the movie — the dark-haired Jen and the platinum-blonde Kira — but in the prequel series, he has a whole race of Gelfling to tackle and define within their respective clans.
Below is a breakdown of the seven Gelfling clans and how the Frouds made them distinct through anatomy and costuming, based on each clan’s culture and environment.
“The Grottan are the cave dwellers. They have bigger ears and bigger eyes. Being in the cave, they develop differently,” said Toby Froud.
Residence: The Caves of Grot, underground; accessible to the Sanctuary Tree
Physical Characteristics: Big eyes that are photosensitive, larger ears. They’re also pale.
Other Characteristics: A strong and proud, but gentle race. They eat glow moss found in the caves and also care for the nurlocs who tunnel there.
Examples: Deet, her brother Bobbin, her two fathers, Maudra Argot
“They’re the more woodland warrior, [a] classic type of gelfling. They are strong and tribal in their clan and they probably become more dedicated to the castle in that point of history as well. They’re protecting the laws as part of the castle guard,” said Toby Froud.
Residence: Stonewood in the Dark Wood, adjacent to the Crystal Castle
Physical Characteristics: Dark hair and strong
Other Characteristics: Fierce and known for their prowess in battle
Examples: Rian, his father Ordon (Captain of the Castle Guard), Maudra Fara
“The Vapra are of the air, the mountains. They are the higher clan of gelfling, certainly because of the All-Maudra is the head of that clan, but also the head of all gelflings in their society,” said Froud. “They’re sort of pale and they think themselves higher above. They don’t like Grottans, they look down on them.”
Residence: The mountains and cliffs along the northern coast. Ha’rar is the capital.
Physical Characteristics: Fair skin with white hair, often found elaborately braided
Other Characteristics: Well-educated and cultured, but also believing themselves to be better than other Gelfling clans
Examples: All-Maudra, Brea, Tavra, Seladon, The Librarian, Mira
“They are from the marshes, and they are most amphibious, wetland, swamp-like Gelfling clan. They have the feeling of algae and moss, that seaweed-type quality to them,” said Froud.
Residence: Swamp of Sog, mainly residing in the town of Great Smerth, which is named after an enormous tree at the center
Physical Characteristics: Greenish tinge, gills and wings used for swimming. Incredibly strong.
Other Characteristics: Fierce warriors.
Examples: Twins Gurjin and Naia, Maudra Laesid
“The Sifas are obviously the sailors, they are the sea, they travel wide via ship,” said Froud. “They are gypsies as well. They have that quality to them, sort of colorful, pirate-like almost. But they don’t trust other clans either.”
Residence: Mainly at sea, but they live along the coastal villages of the Silver Sea, including the port of Cera-Na. They also travel in a clanship named the Omerya, which is made of coral.
Physical Characteristics: Many of them appear to have russet hair and favor blue attire.
Other Characteristics: Skilled fishermen and sailors. They’re free-spirited and adventurous, but superstitious and know about symbols. They will welcome any other clans into their ranks as long as they can deal with the Sifa lifestyle.
Examples: Elder Cadia, Onica, Maudra Ethri
“The Dousan then are of the deserts, the nomads. They’re also the most secretive and they aren’t seen by many because they keep to themselves,” said Froud. “They have green markings and paintwork on them and their skin turns different colors. Whether it be through berries that they’ve eaten or just genetics. They have a great relationship with geometry and magic that is unknown to other Gelfling.
Residence: Crystal Desert; can be found gathered at the Wellspring, a verdant oasis deep in the Crystal Desert
Physical Characteristics: Colorful, painted skin
Other Characteristics: They have a relationship with the giant, ray-like creatures called Crystal Skimmers and rarely travel beyond the desert. Dousan shamans hold ancient rituals involving music, known for affinity with the circle of life and death. They’re the only clan banned from being castle guards.
Examples: Rek’yr, Maudra Seethi the Skin Painter
“The Spriton are the more of the land, the farmer race of Gelfling. Tonally those guys are more russet and auburn tone to them,” said Froud. “Harvest, things like that, that’s all they’re about really. And you’ll sort of see that in Kylan, who is a Spriton himself; he’s peaceful and he’s loving. He wants peace.”
Residence: Southern plains of Thra; many are from Sami Thicket, but travel to trade with other parts.
Physical Characteristics: Tan skins, darker hair
Other Characteristics: Knowledge of fine arts, agriculture, and creature husbandry
Examples: Kylan, Maudra Mera
“Our challenge was for the prequel — to have so many new Gelflings — was to differentiate between the different tribes; not only the costumes, but in the sculpt of the faces,” said Brian Froud. “They come to life through the artistry of the puppeteers, and then that’s the moment where it takes the breath away, where you go, ‘That is the surreal moment.’ Something that started as a few little lines on a piece of paper, it’s gone on this journey with everybody, and it’s such an extraordinarily magical thing when you see these things come to life.”
“The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance” is now available to stream on Netflix.