The memories that shaped Tim Clarke: The legacy and long jeopardy of a master toy designer

We sat down with the co creator of Boglins, Tim Clarke, for a feature length interview about his plans to re-release the original globally beloved and game changing 80's toy puppet, his memories working for Jim Henson on Muppets, The Dark Crystal, Fraggle Rock and more!

You're responsible for bringing so much joy generationally all over the world. Can you talk about the toys, TV and films responsible for bringing a young Tim Clarke joy?

Well, to tell you the truth, when I was little my mum had very strict restrictions on what toys we could get. We were not allowed to get anything that was advertised on television, because she thought it was undue influence, so my brother and my sister and I resorted to the series catalogue because at that time most of the things that were in the series catalogue were not advertised on television.

The only thing I remember as a kid was getting for Christmas a bazooka gun, which was basically a cardboard tube with plastic candles on it. It had a central rod and it shot these soft plastic missiles. Basically it was just a spring, you push the missile back into the tube and then you pulled the trigger and it fired across the room. A bunch of my friends and myself had made a tank in our back yard out of a bunch of cardboard boxes, which we painted to look like camouflage, a hat-box that we got from somebody's mother, which was the turret, and a cardboard tube from a rug store up the road from where I lived, as a cannon. We used to play army, that's what we called it when I was little. I would also build forts in the back out of mud, build stuff in the snow, you know, taking a rubber ball and making a course for the rubber ball to go through in the snow, so a lot of it was stuff we created ourselves.

I had Pelham marionettes, which I think are still around. They're probably more popular in Europe than they were in the states. I had hand puppets and I used to put on puppet shows for kids in the neighbourhood to make money. My brother and I used to do a haunted house in our garage around the time of Halloween and we charged just a quarter to go in. A lot of it centred around designing and building and creating stuff on our own.

As far as films, The Wizard of Oz made a very strong impression, Dracula films with Bela Lugosi, Frankenstein, the Werewolf series of movies with Lon Cheney Jr. I would say they were the strongest ones that I remember, then of course when I got a little older watching, The Muppets on Ed Sullivan’s hour long variety show that The Muppets used to appear on quite regularly. When I watched them, I have to say I would have never in a gazillion years thought I would end up working with them. I always thought the only way you got to work on things in Hollywood was if you knew somebody who was already involved. Growing up on long Island, the idea of working for a film or a television company just seemed so remote.

You mentioned what would have been your first of many collaborations, which just so happened to be one that was with your brother. Can you tell us more about finding creativity in your garage, specifically doing haunted house and forging the earliest stages of your creativity?

We would do all kinds of crazy things. We would take grapes and peel them and put them in red food colouring and water and tell the kids that if they wanted to they could touch them, they were eye balls that we had dissected out of people. We would take spaghetti and different types of shapes of pasta and do the same thing, we would tell them it was people’s guts and put that in red food colouring and water. We would buy Halloween masks and repurpose them or add to them to make them more horrific. We would take a regular old Halloween mask and then make something out of clay, or something like that, to make it look like an eyeball hanging out of a socket. We would have skeletons that we kind of made into rod puppets, so that the skeletons would move; all kinds of crazy little things! We would just basically divide the garage up, so that the kids had to walk through a maze and it became the neighbour challenge, to be able to go through the whole thing without turning around and running away. We would also dress up in costumes and pop out of dark shadows at the corners of things. The garage had no ceiling and we would hang spiders on strings and pull them up and down. Rubbers bats! All kinds of simple stuff but also effective.

Were your parents creative?

My mum was very creative. When people asked my dad if he was artistic at all, he would say "my great artistic achievement is my 3 children". My older brother was a graphic designer in New York City for many years. My sister is a painter and does a lot of ceramic sculpture and pottery. We are all in the arts.

My great grandmother who was English on my mother’s side, painted pottery at The Pottery at Stoke on Trent or Burton on Trent, I don't remember which one it was. Both of my maternal grandparents were born in the UK, one in Stoke on Trent and one in Burton on Trent. My grandmother came over when she was ten. 

Were you able to experience much of the UK when you lived here?

I lived in England for two and a half years when I was working on The Dark Crystal. I didn't get to travel a lot because we were working pretty much seven days a week but I love England. I only wish I had gotten to travel to England when my grandparents were still alive but we couldn't afford that at that time. My grandmother’s family owned a whole bunch of butcher shops and all his sons managed them throughout Burton on Trent and Stoke on Trent and then I think just before the depression, he decided to sell them all and they moved to Canada where they bought land to start farming. It probably wasn't the best decision for the best timing but that's what he wanted.

Fast forward, you wound up going to study at Pratt University and being taught puppetry by Kermit Love (designer and builder of Sesame Street's Big Bird). What are some of your greatest lessons he taught you?

Oh, boy! Well, Kermit was an interesting character. He wasn't always the easiest person to deal with, not so much with the people who were working with him but for people he was working for. When we would design puppets for TV commercials, he was always putting his two cents in and I'll never forget one time the director turned to him and said "Kermit, you were hired to design and build the puppets. You did a wonderful job, I will handle the direction. I don't need to hear your comments". From that, I learnt that you have to be careful about working with a client, how you approach them and to be politically wise. He would end up losing work rather than gaining work, by his attitude. I think that was one of the strongest things I took away from him.

The best thing about Kermit was being exposed to everything and him inviting me to go and kind of do puppet wrangling on Sesame Street, when I was working for him. I got to watch Sesame Street being shot and see how it was approached and who did what on set, which was really fascinating. I also had the opportunity to be able to build puppets with the other people in Kermit's work shop. He had the contract to do a lot of the Sesame Street characters for overseas, so we built Sesame Street puppets for Kuwait, Germany, Mexico and a bunch of other places, as well as doing costume design for Ballet companies, because that's where Kermit came from originally. He had designed stuff for New York City Ballet, Joffrey and Twyla Tharp. It was like a constant shuffle between doing puppets for TV commercials to doing set pieces or costumes for ballet companies, to doing work on stuff for Sesame Street. That was over the course of a year.

Was your decision to depart from working with Kermit Love and join Jim Henson, one based on financial or creative reasons? 

Well, Kermit's work was kind of on again, off again. There would be several weeks where you would have no work and I wasn't getting paid. I wasn't getting paid a lot to begin with and so it was kind of hard to survive. In the fall of '78 I went to meet with Kermit at Pratt, where he was teaching and I was going to ask if I could get a recommendation to go and interview at Muppets. I walked through the door and he was just finishing his class, I was standing by the doorway, he said "Oh, I'm so glad you came today because Jim Henson is starting up this new project, Muppets, that I think you'll be perfect for working on. You have an interview with him next Thursday". At first I was kind of in a state of shock because I felt like he had been reading my mind, then I gathered up all my puppets. That Thursday I met with Jim later in the afternoon at the Muppet workshop and I just started pulling out other stuff I had built while I was in Kermit's class. The difference was that Jim noted and also Kermit when I was in his class, was that I was using my hand in a different way than just making my hand open and close a puppets mouth. I was using my fingers as the puppets legs and I was using creating puppets that went from one side of my body to the other. I was using materials in a different way than Muppets was per-se. In fact one of the puppets I showed Jim in our interview, later influenced the design of one of the environmental puppets in Dark Crystal. Sherry Amott and my self-designed the big orange creatures that scuttle around on the set as Jen is walking through the cliff. I haven't finished watching the new series to see whether they have included them again or not but it will be interesting to see.

Were many of your designs with Kermit Love under Children's Television Workshop influential and present in your work with Jim Henson?

More so, when I worked on puppets for The Muppet show than The Dark Crystal. I was basically there from the very beginning with Dark Crystal and we were developing all those new techniques of using foam latex to create puppets, rather than using cut foam and padded foam and fabrics. We were sculpting and making moulds and casting, which I think is the biggest difference from what Muppets was doing up to that point. Jim had hired Dick Smith to come in to show us how to work with foam latex. Dick Smith was a very famous makeup artist who had done The Exorcist and Raging Bull and a lot of movies. He was very well known in the industry and Dick was very generous in showing us how to do things. Up until Dick started basically teaching other people, the prosthetic make up business in Hollywood was kind of very cloistered and the methods and ways to do it were very sacred and not openly shared. Dick thought that was a really bad idea for the industry and we learnt an incredible amount from him and he learnt from us. He said when you apply prosthetic make up to somebody's face, the movement of the muscles of your face is very limited and the biggest and greatest movement is your jaw opening and closing, so he said what you can do with your hand is so much more expressive than what we can do with prosthetics being applied to somebody's face. It kind of opened new ways of thinking, for him as well as him sharing his ideas with us.

How do you think the new group of practitioners have expanded and improved The Dark Crystal with the Nextflix series, Age Of Resistance?

The things that I noticed most are the use of green screen, which existed when we were working on The Dark Crystal but wasn't that great because you would end up with a green haze round things. Even when we shot Fraggle Rock and they were using green screen for that, you would see a lot of green haze around the feathers and the puppets hair, or the fur fabric. The new Blu-ray of Fraggle Rock, which just came out, has been remastered and they did a brilliant job of getting rid of that and it looks absolutely beautiful. I was so surprised when I saw it for the first time. They did a brilliant job with it.

I really love the motion camera work that they're doing in the new Netflix series, which is something that Jim had experimented with but all the motion control cameras at that time were basically cameras set on harnesses that were spring loaded, so the movement still was kind of rather jerky. Jim had experimented with using macro cameras to shoot really detailed scenes with miniature sets but I don't know if any of that was used in Dark Crystal. I don't think the proportions worked out properly and they just resorted to building sets and the sets for Dark Crystal were enormous. I think they were bigger than anything else that they had done.

When we were shooting Dark Crystal they were shooting Star Wars at the same time and some of the people that were working at Muppets were working on Yoda, while they were doing that. It was amazing to be going from one set to the other and seeing how all of this stuff was being done. Some of the techniques of how things were done were really surprisingly simple. I remember walking by the guys who built all the spaceships for Star Wars in a model shop and they would make basic forms out of ply wood and plastic but then they were in their breaking up Revell models, to add parts and bits to the outside, which totally surprised me! I had no idea that they did that but I thought it was really kind of cool and of course it made sense. Why make all these little shapes and different windows and all that stuff when you can just buy a plastic model and cut it and fit to what you're working on. It's funny to think about those Revell models being regurgitated back into Star Wars toy properties, ha, ha! It's a full circle thing and I'm sure that most of the spaceships in Star Wars are now all CGI, computer generated.

For a production you spent so long working on you must hold so many fond memories of working on The Dark Crystal.

At the time it was hard for me to have perspective because it was my first job right out of college, working at Muppets in New York for almost a year and then leaving in August to go set up a shop in London. What I was doing there and what I'm doing now is exactly the same. It's sculpting, making moulds, making castings, figuring out new ways to make an eye mechanism, constantly thinking about how I can simplify the function of a mechanism within a puppet’s head, which is something that Franz Foz Fazekus kind of drilled into my head. Foz was a huge influence on my work at Muppets. He was a creative genius and Foz made all the mechanisms at one time for all the Muppets; Big Bird's eye blink and Bert's eyebrows. Anything that moved Foz was responsible for it as far as mechanisation and then he got into doing the radio controlled work and then the computer assisted movement for the puppets. He always drilled it into my head that the simplest things were the best thing because if something breaks on set and it's simple, it's easy to fix and you're not holding up production.

The approach of what we were doing on The Dark Crystal was so different than anything that Muppets had ever done before, that we were starting from scratch. We didn't have some expert to talk us through how to do it. Even from making the Mystics’ hands move or the Skeksis hands move, it was all kinds of trial and error to see what would work best. The Mystics’ hands themselves is making the extensions of their fingers, so that they could be manipulated easily and the fingers would bend when the hand was so large. It was a fascinating thing to figure out the best way to strain the internal mechanism, to make those fingers look natural. You then had to repeat it because each Mystic had four hands and we had to do two of each of Mystic, in case there was an accident on set and we needed to replace one right away. It was a long build! When I was working on Dark Crystal, I had designed the hand mechanism and it was one guy's full time job to make all the Mystics’ hands mechanisms.

What are your thoughts on The Muppets in 2019 and are you of the same opinion as Frank Oz, which is that the show is a shadow of its former self or do you feel differently?

The funny thing is I think that if you went back and looked at The Muppet Show itself, you don't in hindsight remember the best of the best skits. I went back and was looking at some of the old shows and I was going "Oh, you know, some of these bits are kind of weak". They weren't all that great or funny. There's other pieces that stand out and they're kind of in your memory banks.

I think there's a lot of hyper criticism, plus with the internet now everybody thinks they have a voice and has a right to criticise. I think what they've done with the new Netflix Dark Crystal series is brilliant. It seems to me that it goes forward in a way that I think Jim would have done himself, if not even pushing the envelope even more so. When it comes to what Disney has done with The Muppets I think they have done some great things and they've probably done some things that weren't as strong but that's the nature of the beast. Everybody that went to see the live shows in the Hollywood bowl and these other places, said it was brilliant and wonderfully done and it was live, they loved it. For the most part everybody is saying that the Netflix series is excellent. If people want to nit-pick it, they can but overall I think it's just an outstanding thing and the amount that they got done in such a short time was an incredible achievement. 

Jim was very fortunate to have a lot of really talented people working for him. The writing staff on The Muppet show was exceptional. The puppeteers were exceptional. Because of the position that Muppets had in the world, he was able to draw the best people who wrote music and lyrics for the show! Even for Sesame Street, Joe Raposo wrote some of the most beautiful music for that. Paul Williams as well. There were a lot who wrote for Muppets from the very beginning, who had an incredible imagination and had such a great sense of comic timing. Frank (Oz) was really good at improv'ing and doing things off the top off his head, which is why Jim would take him when he had to do appearances on live television, almost always he took Frank, because Frank had to come up with things off the top of his head, that would just crack everybody up in the room. Frank and Jim worked together so closely and I understand why Frank would say it's never going to be the same without Jim. 

I remember once when I was working in the London shop, the chauffeur was waiting to take Jim somewhere to another meeting and he was just drinking coffee and talking to me. He said "you don't know these two guys, when I pick them up in the morning and I take them to the studio, they start talking like Bert and Ernie in the back of the car. They start cracking these jokes and this morning they had me laughing so hard I started crying. I had to pull over to the side to wipe my ears, so I could see where the hell I was going". He said "I hear the best jokes and the best material driving to work in the morning that nobody will ever hear! I wiped my face and then they started yelling at me to get going back on the road, because they were going to be late for work, ha, ha". It's very true. For some of the stuff when I was working on Sesame Street, they would stop taping and Frank and Jim would just improv. with each other and it was hysterical. Sometimes it was funnier than what was on the show. It was the best of times with the best people! In some ways I don't think that can ever be repeated because of who they were and where they were at that point in time.

What do you think made Jim Henson such a singular figure and force in our culture? What was it about him?

He had an unending imagination and willingness to experiment and play. He was incredibly patient. He was kind of on the shy side and he would come in and suggest things to you but he wasn't there to tell you exactly how to get it done or do it. I think the best thing about Jim, was that he recognised creative people and how they best worked and he let us do it and that's so rare, just so rare.

When I got working in the toy business later on, which most of the time I was working for smaller companies because I wanted to be able to design and build my own products, I was working for one company and they made somebody the Art Director, who wanted me to draw out everything that I was working on. I said "no, just build it" and he said "yeah but I would like to see a drawing of what you're going to make". I said "it's a three dimensional object, it's not a two dimensional object". It was a puppet and it was animated, so the drawing isn't going to have much of a relationship with the end product. I said "I'll just build it and then if you don't like what I've done, I'll correct it and change it" and he just had the hardest time grasping that concept. He said "is that what you did when you were at the Muppets?". I said "yes, there were a lot of times where we were just told to build puppets for background characters for The Muppet show and we weren't given a sketch or a drawing or anything, we just made stuff". He couldn't believe that! That was down to the brilliance of Jim. He was very accepting and very much wanted people’s participation.

Early on in script readings for Dark Crystal, anybody and everybody was free to throw out ideas and Jim started talking about the end of the movie and he said the Mystics and Skeksis join and they go into the crystal and then the crystal heals Kira and that would be the ending. I said "Jim, I think it would be so much better if you go into the crystal and come out the top of the crystal and they are the creatures they were before they were divided". He looked at me and said "Tim, that's a brilliant idea, we're going to do that". That was Jim! That was the amazing part about him. If you had a good idea and Jim liked it, he was all for it, go for it! That was true with everybody. Foz would come up with these great little things and show him to Jim and Jim would go "Oh, Foz, I love it, you got to do it. Ok, you make that. Go ahead". He was always open to that with everybody. It's influenced me my entire life in the way that I approach what I do and how I do it.

When he pitched Fraggle Rock to HBO in '83, he described it as a show for kids that would end war. Do you remember having a conversation with him about that idea?

When we were working on Fraggle Rock, we just knew that it was another television show. I didn't learn about that whole concept, that Jim wanted to create a children's television show that would create world peace. At the time we were given character sketches from Michael Frith and we were told basically what the concept behind the story line was but it wasn't described that I remember that way. HBO was in it's infancy at that time in the United States, so I didn't even get to see the show until many years later because I didn't have HBO back then.

It is nice having built Travelling Matt and that Jim had voiced or puppeteered in countries all over the world in that native language, such as Germany or in Spanish. Everywhere I go people know who Uncle Travelling Matt is and they'll start speaking to me in Spanish and I'll go "well, no, I don't speak Spanish, ha, ha". It's a wonderful connection to have.

The relationship between kids and kids being scared, was something that Jim was interested in, such was the case with The Dark Crystal and his intentions to capture the darkness of the original Brothers Grimm fairy tales. How pivotal has the subject of horror been in the role of your work, particularly Boglins?

I have no idea, ha, ha! I have to say, when I was working on Dark Crystal and sculpting the Mystics, my wife would get on the underground with me and some little old lady would come and sit down across from us. I would be staring at their wrinkles and one time my wife jabbed me in the ribs and said "what are you doing?!". I said "well, that old woman over there, she just has the most incredible wrinkles and I'm looking at them so that I can use them when I'm sculpting tomorrow". She said "it's bad enough having a husband who looks at other women but old women? What is going on?" Ha, ha.

Would it be fair to say that it's the horror of ageing and not so much horror itself that you find creativity in?

It's not even that. There's great beauty in grotesque and I've always found that to be true. I think of the amazing things about doing these toy shows and travelling around the world and working on the new Boglins. I'm always amazed with the amount of women who come up to me and tell me how they had Boglins as a kid and they loved them and how cute they are. I say "really, they're cute?!" and they say "yes, they're ugly cute". The line that beauty is in the eye of the beholder is so true. What each individual person perceives as being horrific or ugly, or attractive, or beautiful, or humorous, or offensive, it's all very personal. To be able to bring about all those kind of emotions and connection with people, to me, is the most wonderful thing of what I've been doing. Having people come up to me and tell me how much they loved playing with Sectaurs or Boglins when they were a kid makes me happy. I'm just happy that that concept I had all those years ago actually worked and had an effect.

You unleashed Boglins in '87, a year and a decade, which was already more than familiar with goo, Monsters and a boom of gloopy 80's features. How did the concept come together?

When I was working at Muppets and I was working on Fraggle Rock, I had said to Jim that I thought it would be really good to open up a design studio at Muppets, where we created toy concepts and pitched them to toy companies. What we were doing was so much more innovative than what the toy companies were producing, or how they were licensing the Muppets as characters. I mean, even some of the hand puppets that the toy companies made for kids to play with were so rigid and non-flexible and not very good puppets. He said to me "Tim, it's a wonderful idea, I just don't want to do it". What I didn't realise at that time, which I think is very much true is that Jim wanted to be a creative person, he didn't want to be managing a big entertainment company like Walt Disney did. That was not his vision. He wanted to go from doing The Muppet show, to doing Sesame Street, to doing Dark Crystal, to doing Jim Henson Hour and expand his horizons, not contracting them by having to run this gigantic business. That's what got me into thinking about it.

After they put me freelance staff I started doing toy development on my own, doing things with foam latex. The first Boglins were made from foam latex and it was basically all the stuff I had learnt from working on Dark Crystal, that I just applied to this new monster character. Maureen Trotto who was working with me at that time, we were doing props and puppets and stuff for TV commercials, said "let’s start throwing down some ideas", which for me was the natural thing. I sculpted up the very first Boglins and I showed them to Seven Towns who represented them and everybody said "this is great. This is brilliant!". Maureen sculpted some characters also and they were shown to Coleco and added to their Sectaurs line and then later Coleco went bust, so Boglins came back to us and then it was shown to Mattel, who got it right away and they started producing it. Dwork who was one of the first large Boglins, looks very much like the character that we presented to Mattel back then. I still have Dwork and I'm trying to figure out a way to create an eye mechanism that I can manufacture and make myself, that's not going to cost an arm and a leg, which I have done with the new Cyclops Boglin. It works great as just a single eye but my plans are to make it so that it has two eyes that function that way. Maybe the next thing I'll do is bring back the original!

Do you see Boglins as your punk album and middle finger to the toy companies, who haven't seen eye to eye with you in the past and a deeper response to what was being released by them?

That's a good question! I've never thought about it that way. What I will say is that I find it very interesting, that with the newer Boglins that I've done and what some people think are Boglins and aren't Boglins. They say "well, that doesn't look like a Boglin" and I go "ok. That's interesting. How is it, that the person who made them is not making something that looks like a Boglin?" Some guys have very defined ideas of what they think a Boglin should look like and what it shouldn't look like. I remember I did the Angler Fish Boglin recently and some people think it looks like a Boglin and some people don't think it looks like a Boglin. It's always fascinating to me. With Cyclops everybody says "well, that really looks like a Boglin!" It's like I'm glad I finally figured it out, ha, ha! Grumph, which was the first small Boglin I did, is actually almost an exact copy of the one that we presented to Mattel back in the 80's. I did the one large one, which looks like Dwork and then the small one, which when they were produced they never looked like Dwork. Maybe it was because he looked too mean or grumpy? They didn't take that approach and went in another direction. It's fascinating! How is it that sometimes I can make a Boglin and sometimes I don't make a Boglin, ha, ha. As far as I'm concerned they're all Boglins.

Is it challenging for you to create knowing that people, especially fans who have such complex relationships with nostalgia have such big expectations?

No. I really don't think about what people think. I'm too old and my interest is just in having fun and enjoying what I'm doing and it's a wonderful escape to my own imagination and creativity. I'm really appreciative of the fact that people are enjoying what I'm doing, you know? It's wonderful to have this direct connection to the consumer, because through the internet it's like I would have not been able to do this ten years ago I don't think. It's a wonderful thing that the market place has opened up to creative people and that they can create their own audience and sell their own products, how and what they want them to be. I'm really appreciative about the people who are supporting what I'm doing now and it's really wonderful to have that connection.

Are there any films or TV shows that you were approached to work on that for whatever reasons never came to fruition?

I was never approached after working at Muppets. I did TV commercials with Maureen (Trotto). New York wasn't big in the film business then and when I went to work on Sectaurs, we went into production on a movie and Universal had put up £10m to produce it and Coleco was supposed to do a matching amount of £10m but unfortunately Coleco was in the midst of terrible financial problems because of the Adam computer, so they said they couldn't do it and they ended up doing a five part animated series.

Being married and having kids, I wasn't pushing to get more film work because it would mean going to California for the most part and travelling back and forth and I was not really fond of L.A. Having been out there for 6 weeks on production for Sectaurs, it wasn't really my kind of lifestyle.

Banana Splits was recently rebooted and reimagined into a Horror comedy. Do you ever worry about the dreams that you've created, be it toys or puppets and them being made into nightmares?

That's already been done with Boglins being abused in a really sick horror movie, which I'm not even going to mention. Because we still own the intellectual property I sent them a cease and desist and the distribution never happened. It's probably still out there in some form on the internet but I don't think it went pretty far, thank goodness! I've been approached by several different film companies. I'm in a difficult situation because right now Boglins is being bandied around by different licensing companies and nothing has come to fruition yet, so I'm waiting to see what happens.

What's next for Tim Clarke?

I just finished doing the new Cyclops Boglin and I've been getting a lot of orders, so I'm filling those. Everything is made by me by hand, so it's time consuming but rewarding.

I have a bunch of other ideas. A lot of the Boglin concept ideas are things that I actually designed 30 years ago that never got done, so it's nice to go back. The Cyclops is something that I had drawn 30 years ago but that Boglin which I did, was designed way back when we pitched it to Mattel. I keep playing around with these ideas and what I want to do next. I know Boglin minis are a big thing in the UK and Europe because it's where they sold most. Boglins only sold in US for two years whereas in Europe and many other parts of the world, they went on for seven or eight years, which is kind of unheard for a toy line to have that kind of long jeopardy. The popularity of Boglins especially is much greater in Europe than it is here in the states.

Visit Tim Clarke's webstore here.

Interview by Luke Bailey