ONCE UPON A TIME, there was a baby in striped footie pajamas crawling through Jim Henson's Labyrinth, chased by "Goblin King" David Bowie. That baby grew up to be Toby Froud, an Englishman living in Hillsboro, so deeply imprinted by his goblin captors that he was compelled to sculpt their images over and over...
Okay, that's not exactly how it happened. Froud actually got his infant acting gig—and later joined the puppet-making craft—via his parents, Brian and Wendy Froud, puppeteers on Labyrinth and co-creators of Henson's luminous The Dark Crystal. Now, with their help and backed by Heather Henson (Jim's daughter), Froud has created his own puppet film, the short Lessons Learned, right here in Portland. We called him on Father's Day to discuss the "Froudian" legacy and our giddy anticipation of Lessons.
Raised by puppets: "Puppets have been a huge part of my life. I always loved the puppets. I would push their faces... they were soft, foam latex, and they never really scared me. I always maybe knew they were puppets, but I certainly also believed that every single one of them was real and knew the power that they held? If that makes sense?"
Growing up with my parents and the world that they create was amazing. It was just a wonderful artistic fantasy world that was nurturing and exciting at the same time, and of course it inspired me to become an artist myself. The first puppets I remember making were hand puppets, simple Punch and Judy style, very early on. I also made a couple of fish and mice with my mother. I was always playing with foam and different puppet materials, I think. One of my first puppets was a deep purple creature with a long, spindly nose and dangling legs, ping pong ball eyes, foam head...
I had nothing to rebel against; I got up to age 18 and realized my family had never had a major argument. Having such strong artists as parents, I still had to find myself as an artist. I grew up in Chagford in Devon, England, around an amazing community of artists who worked with my parents. Then I studied art at London University. I had to learn certain things before I finally embraced the fact that I actually love this world I know. My passion is these creatures and these fantasies: goblins and fairies and fantastical characters.
It's been such a pleasure as an adult to delve into that world, the Froudian world that we now all create. We collaborate now, and we're able to talk openly about the creations that we do. Being able to have my father design one of the characters, the old-lady spider Fate, was such a thrill. I suppose she is a sort of Aughra callback [from The Dark Crystal]... the feeling of her, the age and wisdom."
Lessons Learned plot synopsis: "A boy goes to his grandfather's house for his birthday, and his grandfather gives him a small wooden box and explains that this is his 'lessons learned' box that he'll carry with him for the rest of his life—a physical symbol of what happens metaphorically as we collect wisdom and experience fate. The kid, who is curious, asks his grandfather if he also has a box... and of course he does. Grandpa has a much larger trunk to hold his lessons. The boy, having discovered his grandfather's trunk, is pulled inside it, and it's full of smaller boxes holding each lesson, like a file room. As the boy explores them, he's pulled deeper into his grandfather's journey and discovers that the lessons are far more real than he ever thought they would be."
At a certain point he's pulled in a little too far and thrown into a situation that becomes slightly dangerous, experiencing some of his grandpa's lessons that he isn't ready to face, especially when dealing with Time and Fate. He's pulled back out of the trunk by Grandpa and told those were not his lessons, and finally he's reassured with a nice cup of tea."
"Boxes": "... are always a fun way to start a journey, because if you have a closed box, absolutely anything could be inside it. I love Pandora's box, and Alice in Wonderland, and the idea that you can open a door to anywhere."
[Froud also sculpts characters for LAIKA, including in the forthcoming feature film The Boxtrolls.]
Bowie-Toby reunion?: "Unfortunately, I haven't seen David Bowie again. I've always been a huge fan of his music growing up, and I would love to meet him again. I would hope that one day it may be possible?"
Heather Henson's mission: "Heather Henson has been commissioning and acquiring short puppet films from around the world. She creates collections called Handmade Puppet Dreams, which she shows in different places around the world, and [that project] is growing with each new film that is made a part of that. She's always interested in puppets, and films, and meeting artists who truly believe in and have passion for what they do. My family has known the Henson family for many years. Heather and I had spoken a few times in the past and attended different events, but this is the first time we've come together and brought the Henson and Froud names together again. Her role was executive producer; she gave me a grant to start creating this film, and I then went on to run a successful Kickstarter campaign so that building, filming, and finishing this film was possible.
Specs and stats: "After completing the Kickstarter campaign, I went to work creating the puppets and gathering an amazing team of people to be a major part of the whole project. I rented a 5,700-square-foot warehouse on Columbia Boulevard for three months. We built three big sets, all starting four feet off of the ground, so the puppeteers could move around under the camera's view. We created five puppet characters, each requiring at least two people to operate, and Granny Fate took up to eight puppeteers.
The whole idea behind this was to do as much of this as practically as possible, so most of what you see is real, and done on set. We had such an amazing group of people [many from LAIKA] from builders, fabricators, and painters to technical and visual effects, editing, and sound. All sorts of people came on board, each time bringing such talent and passion to the project. I am truly honored to have worked with them, I certainly hope to bring everyone together again for the next one.