Syfy event gives BR native shot at Jim Henson job

The phrase in Robert Bennett’s bio — “spent a lot of time in his room making monsters” — may sound weird, but it’s paid off.

The Baton Rouge native not only has a dream job with Walt Disney, but is also competing on Syfy’s new series, “Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge.”

An admitted quiet kid, Bennett, 29, said when he got home from Bethany Christian School each day, he’d head to his room and create.

“I’d build monsters. I’d draw things. I’d build little models of stuff. And my parents were so amazing. They always gave me the tools I needed whenever I needed something,” Bennett said from Orlando, Fla., where he’s a sculptor for Walt Disney Imagineering. “They were always trying to help me to have a way to have an outlet for my creativity. They were very, very supportive, and it helped me a lot to find my style. Even though I was in my room, I was still doing what I loved so it was the better part of my childhood.”

Now Bennett will be creating creatures each week on Syfy for a team of judges led by Brian Henson, son of famed Muppet creator Jim Henson and chairman of The Jim Henson Company and the Creature Shop. The show was filmed at the Creature Shop in Burbank, Calif., where characters for the TV series “Dinosaurs” and films like “The Flintstones” and “Where The Wild Things Are” have taken shape.

In each episode, Bennett and nine other designers are given a different challenging monster project, along with a two-day deadline. One designer is eliminated each week, with the winner receiving a prize worth up to $100,000 and a contract working at the Creature Shop. Both the nature of the challenges and the tight time frame proved daunting, Bennett said.

“I work in the character plaster department (at Disney), so we deal with sculpting rocks and giant characters out of concrete and trying to convey realism through hard surfaces, so that they can last and guests can climb and jump on them and they don’t break,” he said. “And it’s a totally different kind of animal because you’re trying to make something that lasts as opposed to what we do on the show, where you’re designing a creature that’s going to have skin, and it’s going to have eye mechs (mechanisms), and it’s going to blink and breathe and look around and get emotions out of people. It’s kind of 360, but the basis of it is still the same, to be able to sculpt and make something look real and believable.”

At the same time, Bennett is used to spending more than 48 hours on a project.

“In our line of work you’re always trying to come up with something crazy and different and that’s always kind of a challenge within the challenge, but the real thing that I think was kind of tripping us all up was the time,” he said. “Even when you’re in a crunch and you’re really trying to get something done, you still have a week or two to build something. And it’s very rare that you’re building something of this caliber in two days for these really incredible people in this industry that have been doing this for years.

“Then you have to present this in front of people who have been your childhood heroes. It’s very stressful, but so much fun at the same time.”

Fun at Bennett’s regular job is partly because there are no typical days, he said.

“One day you’re making a giant snake egg, one day you’re making a giant rock wall of a castle, so you really have to be on your toes.”

Bennett’s been with Disney about a year. After receiving his associate degree in industrial design and special effects from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh in 2004, he first worked as a costume designer at SeaWorld, also in Orlando; and then doing animatronics for themed restaurant chains Rainforest Café and T-Rex Café.

“I’ve traveled all over the world installing Rainforest Cafés. I’ve been to Cairo, and Dubai, London, Paris, Istanbul,” he said. “That’s where I really honed my craft. You have to make something really quick out of nothing and you have to ship it.”

The T-Rex and other dinosaurs have fascinated Bennett since childhood.

“I’ve always been into movies and I remember I wasn’t supposed to watch ‘Jurassic Park’ when it first came out (in 1993). I remember I snuck out one night, and I remember watching that one scene where the dinosaur bites the guy, like eats the guy, and I just remember, even as a little kid, I knew it was fake, and I knew how cool that was, and that somebody had to have made it. So I just became obsessed. I watched ‘Dark Crystal: The Making Of’ (Jim Henson’s first fantasy film) more times than the movie itself.”