By Konstantine Fekos
Jamestown native Russ Adams used to believe some of his biggest claims to fame were the appearances of his animatronic monsters in foreign indie films and Jimmy Fallon owning one of his studio-made werewolf masks.
That was before he visited the world-renowned shop of the late legendary creature-creator Jim Henson.
Adams can now count his appearance as one of 10 competitors on the new reality series, “Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge,” which premieres today at 10 p.m. on the Syfy channel.
“I can’t even put into words how exciting that is for someone in our field,” he said. “You walk into a place where you can only imagine what the inside looks like. And then, the fact that you’re going to be working with people who’ve been living and breathing Jim Henson’s work for decades.”
Jim Henson was perhaps best known as the creator of the Muppets and Sesame Street puppets as well as creatures in other feature films like “The Dark Crystal” and “Labyrinth” and television shows such as “Fraggle Rock.” His work established a legacy of family entertainment now continued by his son Brian Henson, who heads the Jim Henson Company and Jim Henson Creature Shop.
The show features special effects artists, costume designers, prop builders and more competing for a prize worth up to $100,000, including the chance of scoring their dream job — a contract with Henson’s Creature Shop in Los Angeles.
As the owner of Escape Design FX studio in Utah, Adams was elated and more than grateful for the opportunity to work in such a coveted place with other creator hopefuls.
“You see Kermit up on top of the building and it’s like, ‘Oh my God, I’m actually here,’” he said. “We all may be adults age-wise, but that changed the second we got in the door.”
Adams heard the first echoes of his life’s calling while growing up in Jamestown, tinkering with a few store-bought toys and making his own out of paper and wood.
“It’s every parent’s horror (when) their kid tells them they want to be an artist,” Adams laughed, recalling times when he was advised to perhaps look into accounting or other professions. “I used to tear toys apart to see how they work. Then I’d make something better than what I started with.”
With limited resources and no Internet, Adams gleaned all the information he could from magazines at the library to learn his future trade. Trial and error remained his primary mentor well into is teenage years.
After graduating from high school, he would eventually acquire a master’s degree in literature and serve in the U.S. Air Force for about 10 years.
His last station brought him to Ogden, Utah, where he opened his studio and settled down with his fiancee and two children.
There, he’s been contracted to construct countless costumes, masks and even animatronics.
While he makes more creatures than he can even list in a sitting, Adams said he has become known throughout several film and production circles as the “werewolf guy.”
“If a film needs a wolf suit or some kind of animatronic for what they call the ‘hero shot,’ they’ll give me a call,” he said. “Between those and minotaurs, werewolves are my absolute favorites to create.”
His background in literature allows him to draw deep inspiration from famous authors like Stephen King, Edgar Allen Poe and Mary Shelley, whose creature got lost in translation between her classic novel “Frankenstein” and the silver screen version, Adams said.
“If someone would’ve just paid attention to literature, there’d be a very different monster, not the zombie Hollywood created,” he mused.
Creative entry process
Creature creation is often meticulous, Adams explained. A multi-week operation can be forced into half that time with contract deadlines as the creature goes from clay to mold to its variable final materials.
“Typically, for real good attention, it can take anywhere from three weeks to a month and a half to create something,” Adams said. “One thing that takes a while is individual hair punching. That’s every hair with a tiny little needle.”
As if teaching himself a career and advancing through it wasn’t challenging enough, Adams completes his many works with red-green colorblindness.
“I usually don’t have a problem if it’s a creature or a monster, then I’m playing with my own color schemes,” he said. “When I create something more human, subtle tones give me a problem. I have to ask someone in the shop.”
He chuckled as he recalled walking around his studio on occasion, asking people what color he has in his cup.
“It just looks white to me, but there can be slight yellows and stuff,” he said. “That’s why you need people you can trust.”
One such trustworthy fellow, a special effects supplier and friend of Adams’, shared some preliminary information about the Creature Shop Challenge several months ago when the show was still looking for designers.
The project was top-secret and at one point known only as the “untitled creature show.”
By the time the final competitors were chosen and the concept fully revealed, Adams admittedly felt a bit constricted by the rules of non-disclosure.
“I felt like I was back in the service, all cloak and dagger,” he said. “We were all on a Jim Henson adventure, thrilled to death, and we couldn’t tell people what it was or that we were on it.”
Despite the show’s competitive nature, Adams said he and the many cast and crew members acted cordially and worked together to help one another and make their final product the best they could.
“I’d been on sets before and I was lost on this one,” he said. “That’s probably what I love most about film production. The set becomes like a small town. You’re back in Jamestown with that comfortable everyone-knows-each-other feeling.”
Henson’s Creature Shop alone was a world of adventure for Adams, who explored its individual departments, each a complete studio dedicated to a single step in the creature-creation process.
“There’s so much going on there,” he said. “Molders, sculptors, finishers; you could spend a year learning so much more than you thought you knew.”
Adams isn’t one to toot his own horn, but he feels prepared to handle any greatness that may come his way after appearing on a show with his skilled colleagues under Jim Henson’s name.
Having spoken with other designers whose business has doubled or tripled from national exposure, he expects some measure of publicity boost once the show airs.
“Hearing that, I know it’s a possibility,” he said. “You sort of have nothing to do but hold your arms open and make the most of every opportunity that comes in.”
As he gathers with his family and friends around the television set tonight, he’ll have but one concern on his mind — how he’s going to look on TV.
“I’m sure I’ll be wincing when I see how it’s actually going to look,” he laughed. “We all may look like we’ve got our composure, but we’re giggling idiots. It probably took hours to calm us all down.”
In all seriousness, though, Adams is confident the series will reveal the experience he lived on that set — the collective product of an amazing group of people who put their hearts and souls into what ultimately made some of his biggest dreams as a creature-creator and Henson fan come true.
“It doesn’t matter who won the show,” he said. “All of us will be attached with Jim Henson forever and that is such a complete honor.”
You can watch
“Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge,” which includes Jamestown native Russ Adams, airs its first episode on the Syfy channel today at 10 p.m. For more information on the show, visit syfy.com/creatureshop.