Labyrinth 30th Anniversary: Karen Prell on Helping Hands and David Bowie

When I went to DragonCon for the 30th anniversary of Labyrinth panels, I got to witness my very favorite scene in the movie, which is my very favorite movie, right in front of me. Aside from David Bowie’s package, the Helping Hands may be the most memorable effect in Labyrinth. They were a column of dozens of hands who caught Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) on the way down. With three volunteers from the audience (not me unfortunately), Prell demonstrated how the puppeteers made faces out of their own hands. David Bowie

I got to speak with Prell by phone before the 30th anniversary Labyrinth Blu-ray came out. Prell was a Henson puppeteer primarily on Fraggle Rock, who performed the Worm, Junk Woman, various goblins and a Firey in Labyrinth. She answered questions about specific techniques and working with David Bowie. The Labyrinth 30th Anniversary Blu-ray, 4K Ultra and DVD is available now.

It was amazing getting to see you demonstrate the Helping Hands in person, my favorite scene in my favorite movie. 

Oh good, you were there. They had so many wonderful Labyrinth events. I’m glad you got to see that.

After 30 years, do the Helping Hands come right back to you like riding a bicycle?

Yeah, pretty much. We put so much work into all the different things we were performing and so much of our performances is really getting that muscle memory down like a musician. So if you ask a musician to jump to the song that you first learned 30 years ago, boom it comes back right like that.

Have you demonstrated the Helping Hands periodically over the years?

Every once in a while. When I introduce he movie, it’s a fun, easy thing to bring some people up. You don’t really need a puppet because you’re just using people’s hands. It really brings a live how something was accomplished and having that insight and excitement about how something comes together, it’s fun for the participants and also fun for the audience to see how it all comes together.

Where do you think Sarah would have ended up if she’d asked the Helping Hands to go up?

Oh, gosh, that’s a good question. That should probably be explored at some point. Probably more amazing things that someone would have to invent and puppeteer. I don’t know a good answer to that.

Labyrinth 30th AnniversaryDid you have your choice of goblins you got to perform?

When we were doing all the big group scenes, Brian Henson and Kevin Clash were the puppet captains on the big goblin scenes because there were so many puppets and puppeteers to place all around Jareth’s chamber. For some, they had an idea of what characters they wanted people to perform and where they wanted to place us. Then they became the go to goblins that whenever there were scenes to shoot, that would be the one that we would grab and jump into the scene with. One that I performed a lot was a kind of bird faced goblin wearing a big giant helmet with a spike on it that is chewing on a chicken leg, sitting at Jareth’s feet. That’s one I performed a lot and it’s also in the line-up when he’s doing his “You remind me of the babe” chant. Another one, Pico, I performed in some scenes and I was very pleased to see Pico in the Labyrinth display at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta. It’s nice to see that he’s survived. That was a fun little goblin.

Kevin Clash went on to be a character puppeteer with Elmo. Did any of the other Labyrinth puppeteers go on to have signature puppets?

A lot of them had already been doing featured characters on The Muppet Show or Sesame Street or Fraggle Rock. So I don’t know if there were puppeteers where Labyrinth would have been a starting place for their Henson puppet career. Most of them were very established performers that were brought into Labyrinth because they’re very experienced and they could bring the depth and the entertainment to the characters in the movie.

How did you end up cast as the Worm?

That was something that Jim decided. It was already part of the plan. We shot the movie in 1985. We were in the middle of Fraggle Rock production so I’d had a couple of years to establish myself as a main character on Fraggle Rock. Jim and Brian and Kevin figured out what characters I’d be performing but as far as I know, it was Jim who decided that I should perform the Worm and I’m very grateful for that. It was a small character but had a lot of opportunity for some really nice acting, so I really appreciate that.

Another big question of mine is could Sarah really have gone straight to the castle if the Worm hadn’t stopped her?

That’s another good question. Well, the Worm certainly seemed to think so. Again, we’ll never know. It would’ve been a very short movie if she had. Of course, if she’d gone there by herself without help from Ludo and Didymus and Hoggle, it would’ve been a very different situation, so it was probably good she went the way she did so she could round up all her friends to go with her.

Did you have to become a singer for Fraggle Rock and Labyrinth?

Well, Labyrinth the voices were all dubbed. So it was a lot of British actors were doing the voices. They used Brian Henson’s voice for Hoggle but all the other characters, which is unusual for Henson performers. Normally they do provide the voices. So those were all actors and singers who did the voices. For Fraggle Rock, I did the singing for Red. I’m not a trained singer so that was a bit of a challenge but the songs were so, so beautiful and so singable, so they were so fun to perform. It was very exciting to see what kind of songs we’d be tackling every week on Fraggle Rock. I just learned the songs by ear. I couldn’t read music. We had some puppeteers that had beautiful voices and could read music so we had some background singers to help flesh out the songs, so we had a good mix of people jumping in to make those Fraggle Rock songs really special.David Bowie

I guess there are only two songs in Labyrinth that have singing parts besides David Bowie, “Magic Dance” and the Firey’s song. So those were all dubbed by British singers?

That was of course David Bowie doing “Magic Dance.” I think he did the baby voice and maybe even some of the creature voices in that, plus some other people helping out with the goblins. The Firey song was sung by the actors who did the voices for the Fireys. one of the voices for the Fireys was Charles Augins. He did the voice for my Firey number 2 and he was also the choreographer for the dancing of the Fireys. So he got to do several jobs on the movie.

Did David Bowie get what acting with puppets was all about?

He did. He did. He was just so fascinated by our process and really enjoyed what we were doing with the puppets. As an artist himself, he was just fascinated by everything. Certainly didn’t mind the amount of preparation and the number of takes and all the physical challenges there were with working with the puppets and everybody on platforms and needing extra takes to get the puppets to do things right. He was totally on board with everything and really enjoyed it.

In one of the panels, you mentioned finding a lot of leftovers in Elstree Studios including some Star Wars stuff. Now you were filming there in 1985. Once Star Wars had become popular, didn’t they keep track of all their material?

Jedi was ’83. I remember seeing bits of Storm Trooper and C-3PO armors in the corners. Even though they were really popular, just the whole market in memorabilia, there wasn’t internet then. Even home video hadn’t really taken off and continued to fuel and increase the interest in the movie. Day to day in a movie studio, there’s always debris from productions sitting around. Most of it gets cleared away and thrown out but some stuff, especially if it’s a space that was a former workshop, things just get shoved in the corners. You’d see stuff there and not really think anything of it. “Oh, that’s leftover from that or Aliens or Superman or Indiana Jones.” They were shooting so many movies around that time at Elstree. Those were the two main things I remember seeing around there.

Are you going to be involved in the Fraggle Rock movie they’re developing?

All I can say is the movie’s in development and it sounds like it’s going to be really, really exciting. There’ll be more news when there’s time for more news.

With the Firey scene, that was an early example of the use of digital in puppetry. Since then, have you gotten to explore more uses of digital work in the craft?

I did some very, very early puppetry motion capture in England on the Animal Show they had. A bee called Tizzy, a very early version of the Henson Performance [Control] System. So that was really interesting to try that out. I haven’t gotten a chance to us or learn the current iteration of the system but it sure is amazing what they’re able to do now with having so many things performed by just one performer when back in the days of Labyrinth, you had to have four or five different people doing all the different controls for a character.

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