Farscape, a co-production by the Jim Henson Company in the U.S., Hallmark Entertainment in the U.S. and Nine Films and Television, part of Nine Network in Australia, blends state-of-the-art animatronics from the Jim Henson Creature Shop, CGI and live action to create a sci-fi universe on location in Australia. And for anyone who remembers back to 1978, let me assure you, it ain’t ‘Pigs in Space.’
The 22 x one-hour project-dubbed by the Jim Henson Company as its ‘most ambitious production ever’-begins in 1991, when Brian Henson, president of the Jim Henson Company, and his team of developers toss around ideas for a sci-fi show.
Set apart from other sci-fi shows with its present-day setting, Farscape opens with a 20th century astronaut getting caught in a wormhole and flung across the universe, arriving without invitation into the middle of an alien conflict. The hero, John Crichton, played by Party of Five’s Ben Browder, lands on a living animatronic ship named Moya, joining a motley band of rebel alien refugees-a creative combo of prosthetics and animatronics-in their battle against the Peacekeepers.
Marcie Ross, VP of the TV group at Henson and creative exec on Farscape from its inception, explains: ‘Brian [Henson]‘s dream was to do a show that utilized all the talents of the Creature Shop in London-the wonderful designers and puppeteers and our licensing and merchandising and publishing division. The `-ber’ picture for the whole project was to link all elements of the [Jim Henson] Company.’ At the same time, exec producer and series creator Rockne O’Bannon, the former exec producer and writer of the SeaQuest DSV series and screenwriter of the feature film Alien Nation, signs on as collaborator.
Don’t even try to spot the Muppet. Farscape marks a departure for the Jim Henson Company from strictly family fare by aiming for an older prime-time audience. ‘`Family’ tends to be a bad word in TV,’ says Ross, explaining that family programming tends to connote programming without an edge. ‘I think the whole Henson mentality is to always have humor and to play the story on lots of different levels, everything from the Muppet humor to a show like Farscape.’ Ross adds, ‘I think younger audiences are going to appreciate it because it’s this cool spectacle with strange animatronics and creatures and technology, and the adults are going to be drawn to it through some pretty sophisticated storytelling.’
Duncan Kenworthy, then-GM of Jim Henson Productions (which was renamed the Jim Henson Company last year), pitches Farscape in 1992 to Fox in the U.S., which passes. Angus Fletcher, senior VP of international co-production, development and TV distribution at the Jim Henson Company, reflects on the network’s reluctance: ‘This really was a show on such a scale-with animatronic-heavy characters. You can’t pilot such a show-you need to do a certain number of episodes before the [budget] numbers begin to make sense. That was primarily the problem with Fox, and indeed with many broadcasters. To launch a significant number of episodes cold is a brave decision on everyone’s part.’ But, he cautions, ‘if you start looking around saying, `there’s too much or too little, too this, too that,’ you run into the danger of not being able to make anything because you can always find a reason to not make something.’
Fletcher’s arrival at Henson in 1992 begins the next stage of the Farscape story as he starts to mastermind the co-production deal.
Although Fletcher asserts, with tongue in cheek, ‘we have no enemies, just friends,’ he is less than forthcoming with budget figures. ‘In any event,’ he adds, ‘we don’t talk about figures of the total budget, and even then, we lie.’ Fletcher estimates the budget at more than US$2 million per episode, comprised of deficit financing from Henson and Hallmark, with undisclosed license fees from USA Networks’ Sci Fi Channel and from Australia’s Nine Network. Henson holds all licensing and merchandising rights. Hallmark and Henson share U.S. domestic distribution rights, and Henson holds all international distribution rights outside of Australia. Also reluctant to give figures for the series, Bonnie Hammer, senior VP of Sci Fi Channel programming and USA Networks original production, says that Farscape is ‘the most expensive drama made for basic cable.’
And aside from a share of deficit financing, why did Henson choose to partner with Hallmark? ‘We’re working with Hallmark [because] we have an extremely close relationship with them on many fronts, not least of which is our [Odyssey Channel] venture and the Kermit Channel venture, but more importantly for this, we have a significant production history,’ says Fletcher. ‘We produced Gulliver’s Travels, which [Hallmark] deficit financed and is distributing. And we’ve made a lot of characters for many of their event programs, from The Odyssey through to Merlin.’ Hallmark officially signs on in early 1998.
And the reason for the Australian partnership? ‘To get as far away from my front doorstep as possible,’ jokes Fletcher. ‘No, that’s not true.’ Having co-produced the mini-series Frankie’s House with ITV in the U.K. and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 1990, Fletcher suggests taking the show to Australia, and ‘it made sense to have a significant partner. [Nine Network] tends to work on bigger, more high-profile projects. They’ve carried some of the Hallmark product.’
In addition to the prior relationship, Fletcher concedes that ‘the real reason for going down there is creative-the look [Australia] could bring to the show. You can go from desert to jungle to mountain, and you haven’t really gone very far from Sydney.’ Henson’s Marcie Ross continues: ‘Creatively, Australia was exactly what we wanted it to be. At first, we were talking about filming in England, because that’s where our Creature Shop is, but most sci-fi shows are very much set-bound, and we wanted to be able to go out onto different planets. Australia has the perfect diverse landscape-it looks sort of alien.’
The project also picks up Australian writers to join the U.S. team of scribes that includes O’Bannon, co-exec producer David Kemper, the former creator and writer on the TV series Pacific Blue, and writer Richard Manning. All directors, with the exception of Brian Henson, are Australian. And so Farscape becomes an Australian content show, with an Aussie majority of cast and crew.
In January 1998, Pete Coogan, exec in charge of production for the Jim Henson Company, flies from the U.K. to Australia to base the production out of the Fox Studios in Sydney and to check out locations. He moves to Australia in June 1998.
Are there any currency gains from shooting in Australia? ‘Coming into the show, there was a sense of how to get more bang for your buck, as it were,’ says Coogan. ‘At the time, the exchange rate for the Australian dollar was very, very weak against the greenback. But now, the Australian dollar has become very strong again. But, you have to take a rate and lock your rate and then forget about it frankly, because otherwise you become very, very depressed or very, very happy.’
Coogan further describes the advantages of shooting Down Under in achieving feature-quality production values: ‘In L.A., we wouldn’t get a [feature] film crew, but [in Australia], there’s no line of demarcation between film and TV, so over half of our crew, probably 70%, have extensive experience in Australian movies. Because of that, the expectations are higher, and we definitely are challenged with regard to using animatronics, CGI [done at Sydney-based Garner McClellan Design], live action [and] prosthetics. And [we're] trying to do everything on a TV schedule that is extremely challenging in any country, not just Australia.’
What kind of sked allows the Australian crew to get it in the can? ‘On episode 10, we’re onto an eight-day schedule and, if possible, [want] to get it under eight days. But the premiere episode [block shot with third episode], we shot for 21 days.’ Shooting began September 1998, and is expected to wrap July 1999.
Does Coogan have any concerns about working in Australia? ‘I had this perception of Australia being extremely hot all year round, and [thought] if you put people in a prosthetic, it will just melt.’ To date, everyone has kept their cool.
A sneak preview of Farscape aired on USA Network on March 14, and its premiere episode kicked off on the Sci Fi Channel in the U.S. on March 19 as part of the channel’s Friday night block of original programming called Sci Fi Prime. The launch is part of Sci Fi 2.0, the Sci Fi Channel’s initiative to create a broader audience for the channel through an expanded lineup of original prime-time programming. Farscape will premiere on Nine Network at the end of 1999 or in early 2000.
Sci Fi Channel’s Hammer explains Farscape’s appeal for the channel, which picked up the first 13 episodes in May 1998 and the remaining nine in January 1999: ‘It [was] the broadness and scope of the project that intrigued us. Because it’s new, the CGI and animatronics are very, very big. It’s not like buying acquired product that has old-style animation or old-style animatronics or creatures. We want to expand the definition of sci-fi-’outside of that which we know to be true’ is really the definition now. It’s not the older definition of science fiction, where it’s just otherworldly stuff.’
With U.S. and Australian territories presold, interest from the international market has been strong.
Collectible figures aimed at the adult consumer will be launched at the end of 1999, with toy products for the younger audience in the following year.
Stretching budgets, schedules, wormholes, sci-fi programming and the definition of the Henson family audience in one fell swoop, Farscape will take us to a parallel universe and home again. So kick back and order up the alien pizza, it’s coming to a TV near you.