Doctor Who Cuttings Archive

Cut Price Miracles

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Since Star Wars, special effects has been a glamorous creative area. But what if you don't have a reasonable shooting schedule and millions of dollars to play with? What if you have to produce cut price miracles? John Fleming talks to BBC-tv Visual Effects Designer Tony Harding.

In feature films, success means getting perfection. In television, success can often mean simply getting anything on the screen at all. Although some of Britain's small-screen special effects are often criticised, the standards are surprisingly high—especially when you consider the pressures under which the special effects men work. To find out about some of these pressures, I talked to Tony Harding, one of BBC-tv's Visual Effects Designers who designed K-9 for Dr Who. The script merely called for "a mobile computer that vaguely resembles a dog". (It was originally to be called Fido.) How did this rather vague description of a computer develop into the K-9 everyone knows?

"Well, I did a drawing," says Harding. "It looked a bit like a mechanical Pluto to begin with. I took it down and they said, Lovely! Originally, in the script, it was supposed to wag its tail once, have a probe coming out of its head, a gun out of its snout, ticker-tape out of its mouth and be able to move around. But then they wanted the head to nod backwards and forwards and up and down. They didn't want the tail to wag just once, they wanted it to continue wagging. And," says Harding laughing, "I built in the flashing lights that always have to be built in. It got more and more complicated to such an extent that the head had to be enlarged to accommodate all the mechanics. They wanted a working prototype in the studio for a test less than three weeks after I'd been given the script. So I didn't have time to make up another mould for the head—it was cast in fibreglass—and we just had to enlarge the existing one."

The main problems in all aspects of television production are time and money. Special effects are a perfect example of this. Tony Harding explains.

"Even if the budget, by BBC standards, is good there's always a shortage of time. You receive a script and, two days later, they want you to go and discuss it all and they expect you to come equipped with all the ideas and all the solutions to all the problems. And then you find you've got another two weeks to go and prepare it all. It causes a lot of headaches for us. Also, a lot of directors don't appreciate how time-consuming effects are, both to prepare and shoot."

Dr Who is a classic example of this. Ironically, for a series concerned with the flexibility of time and space, time is the one thing Dr Who doesn't have. It is given the same shooting schedule as, say, a comparatively simple Noel Coward play. As well as the normal requirements of good acting, scripts, sets and technical standards, the Dr Who team have to cram in lots of physical and electronic effects. Each effect takes a certain amount of time to prepare and shoot. Each effect has its own problems. And, very often, there is only time for one "take". If the session over-runs the time booked for recording, there is the additional cost of "penalty payments" to the crew and all sorts of other costs and complications. So no-one wants to "go into over-runs". As a result, with time pressing, a lot of complicated effects sometimes have to be crammed into the last few minutes of the recording session.

There is the example of the first Dr Who episode in which K-9 appeared. The new studio director was experienced in television work—but only in situation comedies and light entertainment. He arrived on Dr Who and the result (in retrospect) is almost like a situation comedy plot itself.

"We had this K-9 which had been knocked-up in about two weeks flat," explains Tony Harding. "It was a radio-controlled thing. The radio-control wasn't perfect at the time, We just didn't have the time to really test it. It worked all right in our workshop but, when we got it in the studio, it was affected by all the stray signals and transmissions and it was going all over the place. It was absolute chaos. And, apart from that, the chap had taken so long to shoot a normal day's Dr Who that, at about twenty to ten (at night) he hadn't got round to any of the effects.

"We had a sequence where liquid nitrogen came spilling out of some huge tanks, filling the floor with vapour—things breaking—and we had about two minutes to do it. They couldn't afford another over-run and there was a lot of screaming coming out of the cans (headphones). The PA (Production Assistant) was on the floor saying Just get as much as you can in the next two minutes? We'd be getting something ready to shoot and WHOOSH the camera would be off before we'd actually completed it. Well ..."

Tony Harding laughs when he remembers it. But that sort of thing can be very frustrating for skilled technicians and special effects men. Because it is they who are held responsible if less-than-perfect work appears on the screen. Tony Harding, for example, worked on BBC-tv's Dracula, which had a relatively high budget in BBC terms. Although most reviews praised the effects, some were critical.

"But the problem," says Harding, "Is what we've just been talking about. From the time I was told I was working on Dracula to when it was completed and transmitted was about 2 1/2 to 3 months. The editing took over a month (because two versions were made:

18 one for Britain and one for the US). The location filming was about four weeks. It left us about three weeks to make most of the major props. Obviously, a lot of things we would have liked to do had to be either abandoned or simplified."

There are also problems caused, not by recording schedules, but by transmission schedules. Tony Harding explains: "Dracula was originally going to be a three-part serial, but then the powers-that-be decided that it would be more impressive if it went out as one continuous programme. As a result, they had far more material to cram in than they had time. So whole scenes were cut out. Some model shots we did. There was the ship crashing on the shore: whole scenes we shot in the Television Centre: and quite a bit of location work. All cut out!"

Some of the Dracula effects scenes were shot at the BBC's own film studios (which used to be the Eating Film Studios). Ealing has two water tanks built into the floor and one of those was used: "We had a great big rocker—a rocking arm—with the actual deck of the boat built on that. And that rocked up and down into the tank, which was full of water. And we also had some dump tanks full of water around the main tank."

Most of the scenes showing the ship at sea, however, used no water at all: "It was just sheets of polythene with a model boat on a central spiggot so it rocked about. We had salt falling on it to represent rain and the inevitable bit of mist blowing around". One reason that water was not used is that the BBC does not have a large enough or a realistic enough tank for model filming.

Tony Harding started his special effects career at Slough with Gerry Anderson's company Century 21. The facilities there were different—and better. "We had a big tank there that was about four feet deep, and it had a "water horizon". In fact, it was a weir—the water gushed over the back and was recycled and pumped back in. In that way, by having the camera very low, you can create a water horizon and, if you use a wide-angle lens, it also creates a lot of depth (ie distance to the horizon) and you just paint whatever you want on the backing. That's the sort of thing you just can't get hold of nowadays, because any model shots used in feature films are probably shot in Malta (where there is a large effects tank by the sea) or they're using models which are of an enormous scale like Derek Meddings used in The Spy Who Loved Me. I mean, the actual model of that tanker was about sixty foot long, I believe (see Derek Meddings Interview, Starburst 11). We just don't have the money to finance that at the BBC.

"In the film industry, it's different. For example, the Dracula which they're shooting at Shepperton (directed by John Badham), they've been down there months now and it could go on for months, If they want a storm effect, they just flood a stage—build a huge model. It's frustrating for us because a lot of us here know that's the way it should be done and we could do it if the money were there." Another difficulty of being a special effects man in television is that critics (both professional and non-professional) don't appreciate the pressures which limit what is possible on the small screen. Sometimes, even directors aren't aware of the limitations, as Tony Harding has found out:

"I remember a while back, when I was a Visual Assistant, we were doing some model shots for Dr Who of a spaceship flying along, doing a complicated manoeuvre and then exploding. And the director said: 'Yes, it's like that shot in 2001'. I mean, Stanley Kubrick had just taken two years to perfect it and we had three days in this puppet theatre to do it.

"It's very frustrating when you've sweated blood and tears trying to think of the way to achieve a certain thing and you get either a critic in the paper or someone you know in the union or some freelance who says 'Oh, that was awful! It was so pathetic!' I wonder how they would cope with three weeks to prepare all the effects for a programme. After all, Dracula was a feature-length programme. It was 2 1/2 hours or, when they showed three hour-long episodes, 3 hours. A Dr Who story is the same; it's almost feature-length."

The point, of course, is that a Dr Who story doesn't get the budget of the average tv commercial, let alone a feature film budget. Tony Harding once visited friends at Pinewood Studios and, in one hut, some effects men (whom he didn't know) were working on one of the Kevin Connor-John Dark fantasy films:

"One of the guys said 'What do you think of this?' It was a pterodactyl—a motorised one. The wings flapped. I said 'Oh—that's nice.' 'Yeah,' he said, 'It was made in a rush: we only had four weeks to make it.' Well, we had a similar problem (with a bat) for Dracula and my assistant had to knock one up in two days. It looked every bit as good. That gull you can see above your head is also mechanical: the wings flap on that. That was made in three days. But this chap was so pleased that he'd done it in four weeks."

When Tony Harding joined the BBC, after working on Gerry Anderson's series Captain Scarlet, Joe 90, The Secret Service and UFO, the Visual Effects department was quite small. Since then, it has expanded and is still expanding at a phenomenal rate. They now have their own workshops and base at Acton, in West London. And things are getting better all the time—perhaps because, as a result of Star Wars etc, people generally are more aware of the impact special effects can have. Certainly there is more recognition of the craft.

"It's • true," says Tony Harding, "Even within the BBC, we've been elevated from the sort of labourers-on-the-floor level to something akin to Design. They now consider it quite creative. A lot of directors now are making more use of our department. There was a time when quite large production teams within the BBC didn't even know we existed. But now we've got this wonderful new workshop and office block here. We've actually been allocated quite handsome funds, by BBC standards, to equip ourselves. So, I think, at last people are beginning to realise that we serve a useful purpose."

Even so, you might think it would be difficult to get much job satisfaction with all the problems. Tony Harding, however, does:

"You get a lot of satisfaction if you do achieve something that comes off, You've put a lot of effort into it and it does turn out all right. Then you do feel as though you've achieved something, because the odds are stacked against you."

Has he ever thought of going into feature films?

"I was asked if I wanted to go on to Superman. But it was towards the end of Superman and ..."

Presumably the insecurity is also a factor?

"Weil, to a certain extent. Also because a lot of the work involves great long foreign locations and it doesn't make for a good marriage. I wouldn't like to shoot off to the West Indies for six months. My wife certainly wouldn't be very happy about it unless she could come with us. As we've got two children now, just approaching school age, that would be out of the question. That's one of the things. That's quite important to me."

"Also the hours you have to work in feature films. You don't have very much spare time once you're on a picture. And, since you can't afford to turn down any pictures, you just don't have any spare time. Huge sums of money. No time to spend it. Also, I like to be able to go and discuss things with people. It's the entire job I get satisfaction from: it's not just the actual making of effects and designing thing. Within our department, we're free agents. We're allocated to a programme and, so long as we don't cause any serious problems, how we choose to work is entirely up to us."

Of course, the facilities at the BBC, a general television production company, are not yet up to the standard of Gerry Anderson's very specialised production company: "At Century 21, everything you wanted was there. There were tanks and mobile tanks clamped together. There'd be camera pits in the ground so you could get a camera absolutely down at ground level and build a set the entire length of a stage, There were lighting cameramen that appreciated the problems of lighting models. There was a great stock of all the basic things you need for model filming, like special tungsten wire to hang models on and special line and special motors. All sorts of things were there ready to be picked off the shelf and used."

And, of course, BBC cameramen aren't specialised in model work as Gerry Anderson's technicians were. Quite a few camera-men—especially of the old school, who have now left—had little or no interest in model filming. It was just an unwanted chore for them. The results sometimes showed that. And sometimes, without meaning to, perfectly willing cameramen can cause terrible special effects headaches. In this year's Power of Kroll story for Dr Who, Tony Harding had to design a monster described in the script as "something that resembles an octopus, about a mile across". That was only the start of his problems.

"The trouble is that it was shot badly. The cameraman was a young cameraman who was trying very hard and he was given some wrong information about how to achieve a split screen. There's the monster at the top and the foreground at the bottom. He was told (by someone in the camera department) to actually introduce a matte (a device which blacks out part of the picture) into the camera—into the lens. On location, we shot the foreground, with people running around. Then, on our model stage, we shot the background which was the monster waving his arms around, Then the labs, hopefully, were going to soften the edge. He should have shot full-frame of both (the location scene and the studio scene) and the labs could've put a soft-edged wipe in and that would probably have achieved it. But what had happened (because of the matte) is that there's a very, very hard edge and there's no way, because of the cost, that you're allowed to go and re-shoot it."

So, through no fault of Tony Harding or the inexperienced cameraman, a less-than-perfect scene had to be transmitted. Ultimately, viewers are likely to dismiss it simply as "bad" work by the special effects man. Which is unfair. Also, of course, the best special effects are not noticed at all. Tony Harding has worked on The Explorers, The Dick Emery Show, Monty Python, The Light Princess, Come Back Mrs Noah (for which he made the mechanical flying seagull), The Aphrodite Inheritance and many other productions. As he says:

"Lots of shows you wouldn't even believe had effects in them. I mean, this show The Brothers Grimm which I'm doing for Omnibus. Here's a list of the effects they want in it. Things like the glass slipper that Cinderella wears. In the original story, when the Ugly Sister tried it on, blood spurted out of it. I'll just have to build a reservoir in the high heel. We'll probably make it out of plastic with sets of tubes in there so that, when the foot goes in, it'll press a ... Well, you see, once again, you've got to find a cheap way of doing it. You put a reservoir of blood in there so that, when the foot goes in, it will spread up and round the foot." I left Harding pondering another part of the Grimm script:

"There's a story about a diamond mountain or a quartz mountain, A bird flies up once every hundred years and wipes his beak on it and gradually wears the mountain away so that, by the time the mountain has worn down to the ground, that's that beginning of the end of eternity. I've got to do that somehow,"


Above: Tony Harding's original concept sketch for the Power of Kroll story for Doctor Who. Right: Tom Baker, tv's Doctor Who, poses fora publicity photo with his co-star from the same story.

Mary Tamm and Tom Baker pose with the robot /computer, K-9.

Left: Tony Harding's concept sketch for the computer dog K-9. Above: The Doctor (Tom Baker}, Leila (Louise Jameson) and K-9.

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  • APA 6th ed.: Fleming, John (no. 14 (October 1979)). Cut Price Miracles. Starburst p. 17.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Fleming, John. "Cut Price Miracles." Starburst [add city] no. 14 (October 1979), 17. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Fleming, John. "Cut Price Miracles." Starburst, edition, sec., no. 14 (October 1979)
  • Turabian: Fleming, John. "Cut Price Miracles." Starburst, no. 14 (October 1979), section, 17 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Cut Price Miracles | url= | work=Starburst | pages=17 | date=no. 14 (October 1979) | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=29 May 2024 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Cut Price Miracles | url= | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=29 May 2024}}</ref>