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Outside the Box

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Cinematographer: Rory Taylor

Since Doctor Who was first broadcast in 1963, the beloved BBC series has presented all manner of science-fiction-infused adventures headlined by its titular Doctor, the sole survivor of the alien but decidedly human-looking race of Time Lords. The Doctor and his companions travel through epochs and galaxies via the TARDIS (an acronym for Time and Relative Dimension in Space), a combination time machine/spacecraft that appears, at least on the outside, to be an unassuming police box. It's "bigger on the inside," though, and allows the heroes to journey far and wide while battling foes of all stripes — and, inevitably, save the day.

Over the course of the Doctor's onscreen existence, tastes in television have changed almost as much as the technology used to produce it. Deftly managing these factors as they apply to Doctor Who's camera department is a team of cinematographers, including New Zealand-born director of photography Rory Taylor, whose history on the series includes 22 episodes going back to David Tennant's incumbency in the title role. Taylor notes, "Ernie Vincze, BSC was the original cinematographer I shared lighting [duties] with on Doctor Who. We alternated each filming block for four years, and discussed in detail the various lighting ideas required for each show. Working alongside Ernie was a wonderfully creative and aesthetically stimulating time."

Taylor's involvement in camerawork began in 1978 at the Swansea College of Art and Design. "I applied to every film school in Great Britain from my native New Zealand," he recounts. "From art college, I got a job as an assistant cameraman with the BBC Wales film unit in Cardiff." After traveling the world working on "all genres of programs: documentaries, sport, daytime TV, 2nd unit on dramas," Taylor advanced to the status of lighting cameraman in 1988 and subsequently worked on a variety of BBC network dramas, including Berkeley Square and Insiders. In 2000, he left the BBC for a freelance career, working on such series as The Story of Tracy Beaker, Upstairs Downstairs and Casualty, as well as Doctor Who and its spinoffs Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures. "Drama is my passion," he asserts. "I love the skill and adventure of telling a story with a camera."

Following a 16-year hiatus, Doctor Who was relaunched in 2005, and its recently completed eighth season starred Peter Capaldi as the Doctor. Taylor was behind the camera for the season's two-part finale, which comprised the episodes "Dark Water" and "Death in Heaven." Both episodes were written by executive producer Steven Moffat, produced by Peter Bennett (whose involvement in the series includes credits as both producer and 1st AD), and helmed by the series' first American director, Rachel Talalay.

Given the history of the production, Taylor has come to expect esoteric demands. "Every episode has huge production values [with] greenscreen elements, stunts, explosions, chase sequences, prosthetics, monsters and enormous sets," he says. The two-part finale was no exception. "Rachel and Peter wanted it to be fast-moving, scary, exciting and adventurous," Taylor adds, noting that the script called for such environments as an active volcano; the "Nethersphere," where people go when they die; the Unified Intelligence Taskforce's equivalent of Air Force One; and glass tanks housing skeletons that would turn into the Doctor's oldest nemeses, the Cybermen.

Since 2011, the BBC's Roath Lock Studios in Cardiff has played home to Doctor Who, providing the stage space necessary for the show's expansive — and diverse — sets. Taylor observes, "Every foreign world and alien planet in each episode is so different that, apart from the interior of the TARDIS, there is no in-house lighting style on Doctor Who." Production designer Michael Pickwoad supplies scale drawings and design concepts, and then, Taylor explains, "after an in-depth discussion with [the director] about each scene on each set, I try to imagine the scenario —the shape of the light [and] whereabouts the scene might be played."

The next step is to draw up a formal plot for best boy Steve Slocombe. 'As much as possible," Taylor says, "I like to be involved in the installation of the lighting rigs. Once the construction of the set takes place, it's easier to see any potential lighting problems." To enable quick lighting adjustments, Taylor employs individually addressable dimming for every instrument on the set, and he works with gaffer Mark Hutchings, "twiddling, fussing, and making sure everything is going to plan," the cinematographer says. He also emphasizes the importance of a second, ready-plotted backup option "to be put into use quickly whilst on the floor alongside the actors, if everything is not going to plan. That is paramount."

The volcano set for "Dark Water," Taylor relates, "was relatively simple. The key light element was a real flame bar kept just out of vision, with fireballs safely in shot. We used steam to amplify the heat and vapors, with red, orange and white Kino Flos at various distances from the actors, set slightly below their eyelines, to act as a Might as if from the lava flow"

Additionally, Taylor explains, "300-watt and 500-watt tungsten Fresnels with Lee red gel filters were installed in the set and fed through lighting dimmers to give the effect of molten magma moving [beneath] the two actors." The resulting pools of light were slowly faded between 50 and 100 percent to simulate the changing heat source, and the molten rock itself was realized as a greenscreen element. Taylor also had a 4K space light rigged overhead with red gel, but "it wasn't needed," he says. "Since the Doctor's hair is predominantly gray, I had to be careful that in his dose-up the mixture of colored lights didn't make it look too much as if he were performing in a pantomime."

Taylor adds that sound recordist Deian Humphreys "wasn't particularly impressed with all the extra noise [from the fire effects], but as a previous Doctor Who director said, 'It's television, not telesound!"

Elsewhere in the episode, Taylor explains, "the Doctor discovers a tower block full of skeletons, each one in its own tank full of fluid that we later realize is 'dark water.' The water eventually drains from the tanks, and as the skeletons come into contact with the air, they regenerate into Cybermen. All very terrifying, scary and wonderful!"

Ten tanks, each measuring 4'x4'x6', appear in the scene. For logistical reasons, as well as the safety of the actors in the tanks, the production decided early on not to fill the tanks with water, and so Taylor worked with the art department to create a convincing dry-for-wet effect. The solution involved a coat of sea-blue paint on the side walls of each tank, and a wrinkle-free opaque white silk stretched across the back to create "an illusion of emptiness behind the skeleton, so nobody had any idea of the depth of the tank," Taylor notes. "It seemingly went on into infinity."

When the tanks were meant to appear full, Taylor lit the silk with a 1K Fresnel gelled with Full CTB. Then, "when they were empty, I was able to alter the color to match the side walls, to sustain the illusion of the change in clarity. [When the tanks were full] I also covered the front glass panel with Lee Frost to degrade the apparent sharpness of the skeletons and give the impression they were submerged in fluid." Taylor lit each skeleton from above with a 100-watt Dedolight focused on its skull. The last ingredient of the dry-for-wet recipe was an Acme LED Wave DMX water projector, set to a very slow speed.

Achieving the desired effect "took two 12-hour days of testing, much debating and a lot of research," Taylor notes. "The dark water was the basis of the whole episode, so it was vitally important for [viewers] to believe what they were watching." The final onscreen effect of water emptying from the tanks was created digitally, "much to my relief and disappointment," says a somewhat rueful Taylor. "[It was] another thing I didn't need to worry about, but it would have been fun trying to solve the problem."

Another key set for "Dark Water" was the office of Dr. Chang (Andrew Leung). Taylor describes the environment as "typical Doctor Who. The character is a scientist, and his office was beautifully dressed with lavish props, wonderful practical lighting and opulent black sofas. But it was simply enormous: 56 feet by 40." While the office shared elements of the water-tank set, with a single tank lit identically to the others, it was intended to look very different in the context of the narrative. "The art department concealed the tank with various screens, which I lit with small, colored LED lights. I specifically requested that the art department supply a white opaque-glass desktop, where I could hide [Litepanels lx1 Bi-Color LED fixtures gelled with Lee #216 White Diffusion] underneath to act as a soft key source."

Given such a large, enclosed set, Talalay had expressed a desire to shoot in 360 degrees. Accordingly, Taylor used another four space lights rigged over the center of the room and "made sure the background had enough colored LEDs to give the feeling of opulent space," he details. He also employed a single lx1 Bi-Color as key, back or fill light, as necessary. Ultimately, the set's fixture count ran to more than 200 lights, which were installed during a two-day pre-rig with a crew of five electricians. Taylor notes wryly, "The designer commented that we outdid Bond."

The technical pedigree of Doctor Who goes back to some of the earliest television studio cameras, but these days the production carries two Arri Alexa Classics, which record ProRes 4:4:4 to 32GB and 64GB SxS Pro cards. The crew split the rushes at lunchtime and wrap, and supplied the files directly to the BBC's on-site editorial department. (There was no digital-imaging technician.) The Alexas were paired with Arri/Zeiss Ultra Prime lenses, which were managed by 1st AC Jonathan Vidgen. Sets were lit to a T4, says Taylor, because "part of the character of the Doctor is that he very rarely stands still in one place for any length of time. [Also,] I never believe I should restrict where an actor wants to go.

"I had a truck full of lights, from an Arri 18K to a 100-watt Dedolight kit," the cinematographer continues. "Every light was used so much that I was nicknamed 'Tipper Taylor' by the electricians. I presume that's a compliment, but you never know!"

Postproduction on the series is split between the BBC's own facilities in Cardiff and Molinare in London. Colorist Gareth Spensley, working in collaboration with assistant Francois Kamffer, undertook color correction and some visual-effects duties on "Dark Water" and "Death in Heaven," using FilmLight's Baselight software. Each episode takes about two to four days to grade, Spensley explains, adding, 'As a show it's an absolute gift, because each week you're setting up a new world. There are no rules. We can be doing Victorian London one week and an alien apocalypse the next.

"We do a lot of effects support work in the grade at Molinare," Spensley continues. "That might encompass taking a main effects shot where it's snowing, and we'll add the snow in the close-ups, too." Spensley is keen to emphasize the two-way collaboration between his facility and the BBC's postproduction department. He continues, "A good example from 'Death in Heaven involved the clouds over the graveyards. We were just asked to put a gray grad in, but we borrowed the textures that visual effects were building for the main cloud shots, and we tracked those into the majority of the graveyard scenes. I think we did 30 or 40 shots where we added roiling clouds." Despite this additional complexity, Spensley enthuses, "it's great fun. There's tremendous creative freedom to keep the show looking fresh and exciting."

Taylor concurs, and says he considers Doctor Who to be "unique in the fact that it's a British institution, a series that is broadcast all over the world, with a fan base that covers every generation — and the challenges to the director of photography are enormous."


Captions:

Top and middle: The Doctor encounters Missy (Michelle Gomez) and the Cybermen in the episode "Dark Water." Bottom: Cinematographer Rory Taylor.

The Doctor and Clara (Jenna Coleman) meet with Dr. Chang (Andrew Leung) in his office, where a single Cyberman tank is held.

The Cybermen make their way through the city.

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  • APA 6th ed.: Rhodes, Phil (March 2015). Outside the Box. American Cinematographer p. 48.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Rhodes, Phil. "Outside the Box." American Cinematographer [add city] March 2015, 48. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Rhodes, Phil. "Outside the Box." American Cinematographer, edition, sec., March 2015
  • Turabian: Rhodes, Phil. "Outside the Box." American Cinematographer, March 2015, section, 48 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Outside the Box | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/Outside_the_Box | work=American Cinematographer | pages=48 | date=March 2015 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=14 December 2019 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Outside the Box | url=http://cuttingsarchive.org/index.php/Outside_the_Box | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=14 December 2019}}</ref>