'The Martian Experience' - Filming the Future in Super-8mm

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Over the years people have often asked me what my favourite Science Fiction film is and I have replied with various answers, 'Forbidden Planet', 'Star Wars', 'Moon Zero Two', and just recently 'Serenity'.
But in truth no existing film, or TV show, is really perfect for me. Some have great models and effects but lack good characters or stories. Several have good characters but the environment isn't ideal, while others are too funny or have no laughs at all. So my favourite film hasn't really been made yet, and I've come to the sad conclusion that the only person that can make my perfect film...... is me!
So one day, many years ago, I attempted to make my very own feature film - unfortunately it didn't quite work out to plan.
I began around 1980 and eventually stopped in 1985, mainly because the camera had broken down. In the end I had around 15-20 minutes of usable film and considerably more totally unusable film. Unfortunately the approximate running time of the whole story had grown to nearly an hour, so there was still rather a lot missing. What I did have was a lot of SFX shots that don't, to the casual viewer, make a great deal of sense. Out of finished footage only three sections held together in a recognisable form. The opening sequence where a spaceship approach’s Mars and a crew member is killed by a monster, a later portion from the middle of the story where the 'hero' investigates the crashed wreck of the spaceship, and then a tank battle in the alternate ending.

The equipment I used was a semi-decent Super-8mm camera, which was a Sankyo Sound XL-620 Supertronic with a lot of buttons on the side. This gave me several important abilities; to manually control the light exposure, single frame photography for animation, 4-second lap dissolve multiple exposure, slow-motion, and sound recording - not that I ever got that far! I also had two tripods and a couple of movie lights. The 'studio' would mostly be the small loft space in my parent’s house, or the garage for live-action and the big explosions, as my Dad didn't want me setting fire to the house!

Looking back at it now the chances of me actually finishing the film were at best ZERO. Filmed over a number of years the script naturally kept changing as new ideas came to me, whole new sequences were being added whilst already completed shots were being dumped as no longer required. Overall the length of the story was growing faster than I was producing actual finished film, so the end was actually getting further away. Overall though it wasn't a total disaster, or waste of money, because it was an excuse to design and build my own models, set off explosions, make spacesuits, crash spaceships, and just have fun playing at being a 'Special Effects Man'.

Models - The first major model build of the film was the spacecraft 'Olympus'; the front section is a scout craft that can detach for landing on the planet. The complete vehicle was built as a 15-inch model (right), then a larger 20-inch model of just the scout craft, plus a large section of the main body for a close-up shot. Main construction was Plasticard and model kit parts (often the Airfix Lunar Module or bits of Eagle Transporter) - plus two ping-pong balls for fuel tanks. Solar panels were black paint on white plastic, that was then scored with a knife to create the effect of separate sections. Design of the scout craft was kept to flat panels to make it easier to replicate at a larger scale. Unfortunately the rather nice large model (the best model that I had ever made at that point) was destroyed during filming - several times!
First Attempt - First Failure!
Filled with initial enthusiasm, but clueless about all the work that was required, I began filming. My first story idea was that a spaceship sent to explore Mars is destroyed when it tries to land, and then a second ship is sent to investigate. I decided to start by filming the opening sequence where the first ship is destroyed, which is like a little film in itself.
First of all I storyboarded the sequence (which in film terms means draw lots of pretty little pictures).
1. Establishing views of spaceship 'Olympus' in orbit over Mars.
2. Front section separates and flies away, descending towards Martian surface.
3. Strange glowing 'force-field-type-thingy' appears near mountain range.
4. Scoutship hits force field, interior shots of crew in action - panic occurs.
5. Out of control the scoutship crash-lands and explodes - end of sequence.

Well nice drawings but far easier to imagine, and draw, than actually film! The reality of film making began to hit home. Everything had to be built before I could start shooting, the spaceships, figures, costumes, control panels, planet and even empty Space. The spaceship itself had to be made in three scales, and then it had to be filmed. Then it was how do you move it? How do you light it? How do you even support it? Worst of all everything seems to WOBBLE!
Things seem to shake even when they are stationary, and especially when they try to move. And when they do move they don't manage to move at a constant speed, speeding up or slowing down halfway through the shot. If that wasn't bad enough I then discovered that on top of all that the film itself wobbles in the camera! Its not really noticeable during normal filming, because everything in the footage wobbles to the right or left together. But when I started to do multiple exposures (winding back the film to expose a 2nd or 3rd image) on the space shots the various elements could be seen to wobble in different directions, making it a very obvious problem.

This was all very frustrating but amazingly some of it seemed to look alright. The space shots of the vehicle in orbit and then separating all worked out fine, and the interior cockpit looked passable. For a shot of the scoutship powering away into the distance the rear of the model was removed and filmed separately, with airbrush propellant gushing out of the back. For a shot of the ship crashing into an outcrop of rock two separate pieces of film were joined together with a reflected explosion to cover the join - all clever stuff I thought. Unfortunately things were not so good with the explosions, with the scoutcraft exploding for two minutes. Well actually it exploded for about two-frames and then the model burned for two minutes. The slow-motion facility on my camera was just not good enough, I was filming at 18-frames a second and could only get up to 36 fps, so it was only slowed down very slightly.

Pictures Left, top to bottom; Three exposure shot of the Sun, model spaceship, and a painted planet Mars. Miniature set with three 'Action Men' astronauts. Stop-motion was used to animate them; the pilots hands were made from tin-foil so the fingers could be moved. Two exposure shot of the ships separating. Another two exposure shot of the scoutship on fire - the model was stationary during the shot so that we could light the fireworks stuffed in the back, movement was suggested by panning the camera and adding a moving landscape on a second pass. The models were usually stationary for most shots, movement created by optical zooms, panning, or a moving background 'starfield' cloth mounted on a wheeled frame. The pilot figures did not move during the 'shaky-cam' crash but you could not tell. Finally the ship explodes thanks to more fireworks - I had to stock up on bonfire night and still have some to this day. My friend (Tony Groves - reluctant explosive effects assistant) still well remembers us both staggering from a smoke-filled garage!

Click Here for YouTube - Film 1 : Crash Landing on Mars

Second Attempt - A Higher Quality of Failure!

After piecing this masterpiece together I realised that the story was not going to work and reluctantly had to scrap it all - so back to the drawing board.
From my first film experience I had one miniature space-suited figure and a Martian landscape with plenty of red sand, in fact lots of red sand! So how about a film set on Mars called 'The Martian Experience'.
Well at least I now had a bit of experience so I tried to put it to good use. The first film was going to have four people in it - ridiculous!! The easiest option was to have one person and centre the story around him. Of course he needs someone to talk too, so I gave him a Robot, that way we have two characters but only need one actor.
The story would be about a man who drives a supply lorry between research bases on Mars, then one day he spots a crashed spaceship and investigates. Being a bit of an 'Alien' fan it is no surprise that he finds a monster that thinks he is the only edible thing on the planet, and chases him!
Like my first film I decided to have a teaser section at the beginning of the film to get the audience interested. This would show the ship approaching Mars and something going wrong which leads to the crash. So I got out my pens, drew the storyboards and began filming.

New film means new spaceship. This one was called the 'Argo' and was a cargo transporter. Again flat-sided construction because I would need to build the bigger crashed version, plastic sheeting over a balsa wood shape, kit parts for detailing and an eggcup for a main engine! The ship was designed with the edges hanging down, like an upside down U-shape - but you could not see this unless you looked from the rear, and as a result it just looks rather plain and fat from the side!!
First up were the shots of the spaceship 'Argo', and here I decided to experiment. For a shot of the ship flying towards Mars I decided to create Mars by projecting a slide of the planet onto white card, then also project the moving ship using my Super-8 projector, whilst filming it all with my camera panning across the screen which would get away from having a locked-off shot - and it almost worked!
Mars looked great, the projected image looked far better than the flat-lit artwork and photograph that I had used before, but the image of the spaceship had terrible contrast and didn't match any other shot I had done. So this effect was scrapped.
Next I decided to re-film it using a multiple exposure of the projected Mars and an optical zoom on the ship miniature, however again I decided to experiment. As the light bulbs inside the engines were not very bright I decided to try and boost them by doing an extra pass - just like I had read about in 'Cinefex' magazine, where the weak lights in models (such as the starship Enterprise) were filmed on a separate pass, at a different exposure, to help burn them into the film. So I decided to try this and spent a great deal of time setting it all up in my parent's blacked-out living room, and again it almost worked. The extra pass of the main engine travelled in perfect sync with the model - except that it was a couple of inches behind the model!
That's why you need Motion-Control I guess, so the shot was re-filmed yet again (above) as a simple locked off two-pass multiple exposure.

The few spaceship shots that I did eventually shoot came out rather well and were probably the most perfect shots in the whole movie. This was especially true of the close-up shot of the passing spaceship. Here I ran into the common problem of keeping things at an even pace for the duration of a shot, as models or camera movements often speed up, slowed down, or just hesitated almost every time. In the end I simply slid the model across a black table top using single-frame stop-motion, with carefully marked timing points for it to pass over. This technique resulted in a consistent speed across camera for the duration of the shot.

Above: the first section of film was completely storyboarded, shot for shot, as I needed to know exactly what props and set pieces needed to be built.
For the live-action interior sequence, where a crewmember is killed by the monster, I had to make a costume and partial full-size set. The costume was a pair of orange overalls with some badges added. A gun was fabricated from Plasticard and kit parts, with a shampoo bottle top for a barrel - sprayed matt black it looked quite decent. The set was made from a series of hardwood support frames that held up sheets of hardboard. The whole thing bolted together and could be assembled when required.
Obviously a willing actor was required and I did not want to go down the route of using my friends, who were all the same young age as myself, and would immediately spoil any aspect of realism that I was trying to achieve. I needed an adult, an old guy - 'Dad can I borrow you for a few minutes?'
5-foot model corridor built from hardwood, plywood, cardboard and plastic sheeting.
Unfortunately even with my full-size piece of set, built inside the garage, I quickly found out that my 'actor' walked past it all in two seconds flat, and no matter how I framed the scene I would end up showing part of the garage walls or the ceiling - it was a disaster! I needed a corridor set at least four or five times bigger than the one I had, and there was no way of building it full-size. So I went small-scale and built a 5-foot long model corridor that was scaled to suit my 12-inch 'Action Man' doll, that I then dressed in a suit to match my Dad's outfit.
To film it the camera was attached to a wheeled base (made from Meccano) and pushed down the corridor to get point-of-view shots. Wide shots of the crewmember were achieved simply by grabbing the doll by the legs and gently moving it up and down slightly to make it look like it was walking (like they did in 'Captain Scarlet'), and I mixed this with extreme close-ups of my Dad's face. It all tied together quite neatly and worked rather well - helped out to a large extent by the overhead lighting, creating pools of light and shadows, that helped disguise the faults.
Of course the end of this sequence features my 'Monster', which I had to design and create - and then bring to life! This was a bit of a struggle for me and I tried to think of how I was going to do it, with stop-motion being an idea for a while, but in the end I decided to go with puppetry. The design came together quite quickly as I wanted something that had a big head with a large open mouth and teeth, big claws, and a spiked tail - and that's pretty much all it consisted of!
To make it I just formed the shape from a product called 'Mod-Roc', which is plaster-bandage material. This bandage is dropped into a bucket of water to activate the embedded plaster-of-Paris, then placed over wet crushed up pieces of newspaper. More plaster could be added to finesse the shape, and 'Milliput' epoxy putty was used to form all the teeth and spines. To get this solid monster to move the plaster was simply knocked off around the joints to allow the bandage material to flex. This puppet was just scaled to my 'Action Man actor' so I then had to build a large sized claw (from the same material) for the single shot of it attacking my Dad. Later in production I also built a larger scale head with lights inside to make the eyes glow in the dark. This head actually fitted on to my hand like a glove, with the light switch inside that I could activate with my fingers. Because the head was only to be seen from the front I built it much flatter than the puppets head, compressing it down so that it would be easier to handle and film.

After months of filming I had finally finished the beginning of my movie, there was still a great deal to do but at least it appeared to be working to plan.

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'The Martian Experience'
Part 1: Monster on the loose
Sorry - No sound

Part 2 - Driving about on Mars
At last we are on Mars, but it was here that the film began to go to pieces. As filming progressed at a very slow rate I began to realise that yet again it was growing into an epic that I couldn't possible complete. As a result the script began to change on a weekly basis, undergoing a great many alterations, and then several major changes towards the end as desperation and boredom took over.

To begin with though it all seemed fine. In the story the hero drives a futuristic lorry across Mars so that was the major model to construct. Built from Plasticard, balsa wood, and selected model kit parts it came out at around 28 inches in length. The wheels on the truck were modified Meccano parts, whilst the wide ones on the trailer were cardboard tubes wrapped in plastic sheeting, with plastic strip ribbing for tread. A fair amount of effort was put into making the trailer detach and filming the two vehicles parting - yet this was all eventually scrapped and the vehicle is only ever seen as a complete unit.

The landscape was built on a raised platform using four 8x2 foot sheets of chipboard that could be arranged as required. Small Martian rocks were formed from 'Pollyfiller' repair paste, medium sized from plaster bandage, and then the large ones from baking tinfoil (slightly crushed) over cardboard formers. Red sand came in small packets from my local model railway shops. The red sky backing always had to be over-exposed to stop it from looking like a flat painting. Design of the hauler was inspired by the big-wheeled vehicles from 'Thunderbirds', and the Y-Wing Fighter from 'Star Wars'. The long front-end design was a problem for when it went over mounds as it would dig-in to the dunes - it also wobbled greatly due to a lack of suspension.
A macro lens on the camera meant that I could get really close in on the model, so there was no need to build larger scaled sections. However I now ran into the problem of the model being too big for my Martian set! This landscape was fairly big yet turned out to be next to useless with the model sat in it. The problem was that the model needed to be three feet off the set to begin with so that it could then enter the frame at the start, and then it needed an additional three plus feet of run-off room and I simply didn't have it. So the model was always in frame to start with, then had to accelerate and then stop before falling off the tabletop, which meant that I hardly had any useable film from the middle of the shot. On top of that there was also focusing problems, the model shaking as it moved, and it looking too big for the landscape surrounding it. Time for a re-think.

The answer was similar to the problem I had while filming my live actor, in that if you couldn't get the medium distant shots then just cut between wide and close-up action. For the wide shots I used a photo cut-out of the model truck mounted on a stand and dragged across the tabletop on a wire, which had the benefit of giving my Martian landscape far more scale. Then I shrank the tabletop down so that there was only two feet of landscape between the camera and the sky backing, switched the camera to the macro facility, and filmed the model from only a few inches away whilst pushing it with my free hand. This resulted in really nice close-up action shots as if filmed from another vehicle, and got around all the other problems to boot.

Left: the robot co-driver, who was later promoted to be the actual driver, but never filmed. The puppet made from plastic parts was very brittle and fell to pieces, a full-scale upper torso was never completed. Centre: the drivers cabin which was being built full-scale when production ceased. Right: Dozens of shots of the vehicle without the trailer were shot and then scrapped when the script changed. The macro lens allowed me to get so close that the camera would touch the model during the shot.
In the (first) story the lorry delivers supplies to various research stations, and it is one of these stations that first detects the spaceship descending and alerts our hero to the possibility of a crash occurring. The driver dismisses the idea of ever finding anything out in the desert but the following day his scanner spots a broken radar mast sticking up over a far distant sand dune, and alters course to investigate.
The METCOM station was another model built from Plasticard and kit parts. This one was mostly made from two older scratchbuilt spaceship models that I had broken up, one of which was the main hull of the 'Olympus' spaceship from my first film.
Putting lights into models was a bit of an effort, so for a shot of an illuminated METCOM sign I resorted to filming a doctered photograph of the model instead of the physical prop itself. The area where the light panel was supposed to be was carefully cut from the photograph and then I put some translucent plastic in place, back-lite it, and then just filmed the small 6x4 inch photograph using the macro lens facility.
CGI - 1980s cheap style.
As the story unfolds the hero finds the crashed spaceship because his scanner spots the radar/communications mast sticking up behind some far sand dunes. I had realised for a while that I needed some computer screen shots for my film and I decided to do them using actual computers - which was not too clever because most proper sci-fi films to that date had usually just used traditional cel-animation - or built basic shapes out of white wires that were filmed against black backgrounds and then coloured with filters - which I should have done!
To get simple screen shots of various messages appearing I just took my camera to work and filmed one of the office VDU's in my lunch time. On a blank screen I could type words, lines or blocks, and then film them live or animate them using single-frame filming. Flashing alert signs could be done by simply turning the brightness up or down!!
However to show the spaceship radar mast on the horizon - and then zoom in on it - was a completely different and more complex problem. To do this I resorted to 3d computer graphics - no kidding! Home computing was a bit of a rage at the time although for all the talk about learning to do programming most people just seemed to play games on them. I had just bought a 48k Sinclair Spectrum computer and amongst the games was a 3d image program. This program was terrible because you created it by drawing layers which built up into the final image - however the drawback being that you didn't actually know what the final image would look like until you had finished it - and even worse the computer gave no warning sign of when it was getting to the point of crashing!! I had to draw this complicated 3d image four times before the computer finally managed to show it without breaking down under the strain, and then it took another two hours to film the ten-second effect. But I have to say that the final shot looked impressive at the time.
After spotting the ship the hero drives over to investigate, meaning that I had to build the ship to a larger scale, again from plastic and wood although this time it was only a partial half model. The biggest problem here was going to be getting the hero to walk from the truck and into the wrecked vessel. My plan was to copy what I had done for the first part of the film, using a live actor for close-ups on partial sets and a small Action Man doll, dressed in an identical outfit, for all other shots requiring bigger environments. But only the actor could walk and I couldn't film him. My first idea was to use stop-motion and did a test with the 12-inch spaceman figure with reasonable results. But an Action Man doll is not really a viable figure for animating because it is not very good at holding a set pose. When you animate a figure walking it has to often stand on one leg during the shot, and that means that all the joints must move freely yet have the ability to be frozen in place - plus you need to be able to secure the standing foot to the tabletop.

The other major problem is that you do need a bit of skill to animate anything in stop-motion, it is a simple technique but it is not simple to work out the timings, and get things to move correctly. After my test I decided that my skills, and the doll, were only really up to just animating the arms and head for some brief scenes, certainly not walking - so another technique was needed. The answer was in one of my many special effects magazines where instead of animating a single object that could change slightly over the course of 24-frames you instead use 24 slightly different objects that appear to be the same thing - basically like a cartoon but in real life.
So my trick was to first shoot a friend walking on film so that I could note how many frames of film I needed for a single walk cycle, and the positions of his arms and legs in each of those frames. Then I set my 12-inch figure up in front of my normal 35mm stills camera and took a series of photographs of it matching those very movements.

When these photographs were printed I could then carefully cut out each picture of the spaceman and stick them onto stands, numbered in sequence. The landscape set was then built and the first cut-out placed in the centre and two frames of cinefilm were shot, then that cut-out was replaced with the next which was placed a few millimetres further on and two more frames exposed. This continued until I had used all the cut-outs, at which point I then went back to number 1 and used them all again, and again. The result was really rather good and I was quite pleased with myself, as my spaceman figure now appeared to walk quite convincingly through the frame.
There were of course a few faults. Firstly because I had used two frames of film the image seemed to flicker more than normal, but that is always the drawback of stop-motion. I could have improved it by using single frames but that would have meant twice as many photographs, and I wasn't going to redo it all. So I decided to shoot some more scenes using the photo cut-outs but this time added some scenery between the camera and the figure to partly obscure it, and then also added a camera pan - both of which helped to disguise the effect.
The second problem was that there was a bigger difference between the last and first photographs than all the rest, which created a slight jump. However this just made the spaceman look like he had a bit of a limp, which I thought was rather neat and liked the look of it.
The partial larger scale spaceship model. The camera was always kept as low as possible to make the models look bigger, and I was often having to adjust the tripod height as the edge of the table would start to appear in the viewfinder. For one shot a small mock-up of the spacesuit helmet visor was attached to the camera lens so that I could shoot an angle from the hero's point-of-view. I had hoped that I could use it often, but it didn't look that good as it was a bit dark and out of focus.
'The Martian Experience'
Part 2: The Crash Site
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Part 3 - Inside the Ship

Now inside the wrecked spaceship the hero investigates to see what has happened. Here I was able to use more live-action and I talked one of my colleagues at work into appearing as my 'star'. For this I had to make a full-size spacesuit costume that matched the small action doll I had been using up to this point. As I had planned this all along I had kept the design fairly simple and only used flat panels in the construction, which meant that is was very easy to duplicate. Also I had already started the full-size helmet, chest and backpacks when I built the puppet-sized version and so I was able to do the detailing on both at the same time, which helped to make sure the shapes matched up.

The basic costume was simply a pair of white overalls with added bits of cloth at the neck and wrists, coloured stitching, and various patch's. I also added some padding and fixed some detailed Plasticard sections to the cloth at the wrists, so that it looked more technical. I did this by drilling holes in sheets of thin plastic which then allowed me to sew them securely onto the cloth, and then I could glue more plastic pieces to those areas.
The chest-unit, and backpack, were both built from plywood and then detailed with plastic sheets and kit-parts, the main airtank tube being made from several Airfix Saturn V's. These finished props looked very effective, but were also very heavy and difficult to wear.

The helmet was much lighter and just made from plastic sheets. A small hand torch was built into the top to make it look more interesting. The puppet version also needed one too and as a result it had wires trailing out of the back, which had to be hidden during the film shooting.
Design was influenced by technical problems, the air supply section deliberately covered the mouth of the actor so that I would not have to worry about matching the soundtrack to his lip movements in post-production - not that I ever got that far!

Another gun was required and I made this my modifying a scratchbuilt 'Space: 1999' stun gun that I had built years earlier. This was rather a crude balsa wood item so I clad it all up in plastic and added a lot of detailed parts, plus another shampoo bottle cap for a barrel. This one had to have a working light in the muzzle so that I could add the 'scratch' laser effects at a later date. For this a micro-switch trigger was added and the top was raised up to encase a battery pack.
The tube piece on the bottom is because the original design included a power cable feed to the gun, but I didn't bother with it during filming.
Left: All the live-action scenes were shot on one cold winters evening. My friend from work, Martin Storey, wore the spacesuit. He wandered around our small garage as I tried to direct him and explain what he was supposed to be doing, and seeing. He had nothing to read because there was no script, and there were no storyboards to look at either, because the whole thing was just in my head, and only I understood what was going on and how it would all fit together. However as there was no sound recording I could just talk him through the scenes and get the shots I required.
The Action Man doll came with a silver jumpsuit which I just painted white, then added the stitching and plastic parts. The standard boots and flesh coloured hands were given a thin wash of grey - everything done with Humbrol enamel paints. I had to cut the top of his head off to install the light in the helmet. Above left: Electrical wires can be seen trailing from the figure and also the lamp in his hand, a problem that I had to shoot around. The lamp was just a 1.5-volt bulb encased in modelling clay.
As before I was struggling to shoot my actor against my tiny set but this time I was helped by the interior of the ship being so dark. Because of this I was then able to set up various parts of the set on my driveway, and shoot more scenes outdoors as night fell. As only the set pieces were lit you naturally assume that the rest of the set was in darkness, when in fact there was actually nothing there!
Of course this could only work on certain shots and the script still called for numerous sets such as the cargo hold, with cages, and the control room with mutilated corpse! All of that was done with miniatures and was constantly inter-cut with the live-action shots. The 5-foot model corridor came into use again and this could easily be filled with broken pipes and wires to look like a complete mess, then I could cut to shots of my actor with just a few bits of wire hanging in front of the camera and you still thought that he was in the bigger looking set. I also gave the actor a torch that he could constantly wave around and then used it myself to illuminate the models sets, and this effect helped to tie the various different shots together.

The hero enters the cargo hold and walks past rows of cages, here he was supposed to see dead creatures and then find one cage ripped open, but I never did shot those scenes. The hold was just a model set, with the only live-action set piece being a simple single piece of wire mesh that I filmed through.
He then makes his way to the control cabin and finds a dead crewmember. This set was again mostly created as a model, as was my corpse. For the establishing shot I had an Airfix skeleton sitting in a chair and splashed it over with red paint for blood. For the grisly close-up shot I used a life-size plastic-kit skull covered with flesh coloured Plastercine (modelling clay), and fitted a plastic ball for an eye!
A small section of the control panel was built so that the character could check an instrument reading and pick up some papers to review the cargo manifest. He then moves on to investigate further. I was now running out of angles to shoot my actor against the tiny bits of set, so I began to use the Action Man figure for some scenes where I needed to see something around him. I did a few shots using stop-motion where he turns his head and lifts his gun, but I found that I could get good shots simply by moving the still figure past camera - the camera movement helping to disguise the lack of movement in him.

The monster was a real problem in that it could barely move! However the dark sets helped disguise this.
The monster now wakes up and makes its grand appearance by smashing through a wall, and then tries to eat the spaceman. For this shot I turned the set on its side and filmed upwards so that all the wall pieces, and debris, flew straight down at the camera, making it seem a much more violent action.

My hero now grabs his gun and blasts away which gave me another big technical problem of what should happen with the gun?
One simple trick is to carefully scratch the actual film, which removes the emulsion, so that light shines through like some sort of ray-gun effect (pic 1 below). Unfortunately Super-8 film is very small and so it is difficult to see exactly what you are doing, although it does help to put a light in the end of the gun to act as a guide. I did give this a try but I was not too happy with the results and abandoned that idea, although it is still in the film and looks rather '1930s Flash Gordon' in style.

I then went for a locked-off shot of the gun firing and double-exposed a laser beam coming out of the barrel, and a similar shot of it then hitting the monster. The beam was simply a slit in a piece of black card with a light and a coloured filter behind, by uncovering the slit with another piece of black card the beam appears to come out of the gun.
However when this trick was reversed onto the monster (far right) it looked rather lame and it needed something more adding, like sparks flying off at the impact point. That was done by changing the card from black to white so that I could then project the sparks on from a slide projector placed next to the camera - so laser light from the rear and sparks from the front, and all shot in the dark so nothing shows. Easy!

Both techniques had there plus and minus points. The scratch effect looked poorer but could be added at any point when the actor chose to fire, so was more natural. The double-exposed effect looked great but was static - plus no one was actually holding the gun, which is a slight flaw!!

'The Martian Experience'
Part 3: Hunter or Prey
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The monster is dead - but the silly thing wasn't supposed to be! In my story the monster is wounded and gives chase to our hero, who goes back to his truck where he, and his robot pal, have to figure out a way to kill the massive armoured brute. But again I realised that there was just too much filming still to do and that I probably was not going to finish. Plus my monster was such a problem to photograph that it was not going to be possible to get the footage that the script called for - in fact it was so useless that it made the stuffed shark in 'Jaws' look like an award winning actor! Time for another story rewrite, and another, and another. Each new idea had to incorporate the previous footage that I had shot and shorten the projected running time.
Terran Law Enforcement tank 402 takes fire from the robot hover tanks. The target view was a light pattern reflected off a sheet of glass mounted, at a 45-degree angle, inside a black box attached to the camera lens. This test came too late to be included in the film.
At this point Gerry Anderson's new series 'Terrahawks' had appeared on our television screens and I was rather taken by the Overlander and the Battletank scenes in the episode 'Close Call'. Inspired by this I decided to dump any more of the slow-paced 'alieny-monstery' stumbling about in the dark nonsense and go for pure hard-core model action stuff. Lets have some explosions!

Part 4 - Action Stations

The final rewrite turns my robot pal into the actual lorry driver, and then my hero driver into a secret agent of Terran Law Enforcement. This agent is sent to Mars to investigate the ship crash and secure the secret cargo. The lorry is driven by the local undercover agent, and contains a futuristic tank for our hero to drive (yes, a bit like 'Captain Scarlet'). Of course this rewrite to shorten the film also added scenes, such as his passenger ship landing at a Mars base (see film 2), which I did actually shoot. This scene came out rather well with the space vehicle landing in a cloud of rear-lit gas.

The landing bay was built from plywood as an open-sided box shape. The interior was then clad in the usual plastic sheeting and then covered in various model kit parts - mostly panels from the sides of some lorry container kits, and frames from the Airfix Girder Bridge. I incorporated a number of vertical pipes into the design, one of which was the actual support pipe that raised and lowered the spaceship model. Because this pipe was only painted plain grey, without any markings on at all, the camera could not detect when it actually moved up and down the rear wall, even though it was in plain sight.

The spaceship was a plastic container from a garden centre, detailed again with kit parts. Most of the detail was simply drawn on with a black biro and enhanced with Letraset decals, and coloured tapes. To save time, and stop wasting money and effort, only the side facing camera was completed. The gas for the engine was feed up through the hollow support pipe and into the back of the model.

The story now is that the monster was only part of the cargo, and that it was actually let loose to cover the deliberate crash of the spaceship. The criminals who organised this have already been to the crash site, off-loaded the precious secret cargo and are now driving off into the distance with their loot. Our hero must now jump back into his lorry, chase the villains, and stop them at all costs. A bit of excitement at long last!
The tank bay was built as a separate model from plastic, and outfitted with a few flashing lights.
The first job was to design three new vehicles to star in my film. First up would be the hero's Battletank and its design would be governed by two practical limitations.
Firstly I had a 1/35th scale Tamiya tank kit from a previous Martian model build, that was fitted with two small motors to power the tracks, so that was definitely going to be the chassis for my new design. Secondly this vehicle was supposed to come out of the back of my existing lorry container, so it had to appear to conform to the shape of that model or it just wouldn't logically fit the part.
As with all such fantasy vehicles the reality was that it would end up being too big to actually fit inside the lorry anyway - but you can't tell that from watching the film. However the general inward-angling trailer sides did conform to a good tank-like shape, and so the two vehicles do seem to match up well.
The model was just made from plastic sheets and kit parts, this time forming a shell that was just loosely placed over the tank chassis. Model size 10 x 4 inches. The original plan was to incorporate a fan inside to blow air out of the bottom to create a dust trail, so vents were added to the top panel. However the small size of the model and the wires already going to the motors and lights prevented me from doing that. The missile tubes on the top were constructed to a larger scale but never filmed.
This new tank model turned out to be rather nice and operated fairly well, although I'm not sure if it really went fast enough. The biggest problem that I had with it was simply controlling it. There were two motors inside, one for each set of tracks allowing the model to turn, but this was hardly used as it slowed the vehicle to a stop. However these motors were controlled from a remote box (containing the batteries) and this was connected to the tank via long electrical wires. Hiding the wires from the camera became the big problem and at times this simply could not be done, so the batteries were placed inside the model and it was allowed to run wild for some shots.

The Bad Guys

The Sandcrawler was only built in one scale. The 24 wheels looked great as the vehicle charged over hilly terrain, giving the appearance of having a complicated six-axle suspension system - when in fact it had none at all! The actual model was only supported by the 2nd and 5th axles, and they had very little movement in them. The other four axles provided no support to the model and were only attached by thin pieces of plastic that simply flexed as the model went over the dunes. Top Right: big Robot Hover Tank model, that never hovered or moved, it was only used for close-up shots. Airfix Saturn V and Space Shuttle parts were used on the missile launcher turret.
The villains Sandcrawler vehicle was the next to be built. This needed to be another big truck to move the cargo, and as I was a big fan of the Overlander from 'Terrahawks' then that model heavily influenced my design plan. Not that there was a specific plan here as the design also came about simply due to the bits that were available from my large box of spare parts.
To build various things for the film I was using a large amount of model kit parts, and so I was often visiting my local model shops to boost my supply. One shop had a special sale on and I managed to pick up some 1/25th scale lorry kits and half-a-dozen Apollo Command Modules. The later were cut in half and glued to either side of a plastic box to form most of the Sandcrawler hull, the rest being a sheet of 30-thou plastic wrapped around a support frame. All the wheels from the lorry kits were paired off and stuck to a simple chassis to create a very dynamic looking vehicle - its only drawback being that it could only go in a straight line and not actually turn!!

While I did think of adding guns to the Sandcrawler I decided that it would be better to give them a tank too - only they would have an automated robot-tank that hovered over the sand. Nice idea - with just the simple drawback being that it could not actually hover!!
Building it was easy, as yet again I stuck to a flat-sided design that suited its brutal function. Large and small versions were built at the same time, allowing me to make sure that I could scratchbuild a duplicate of any model part that I happen to use, without causing me too big a headache.
Filming the models 'in action' proved more of a problem, and in the end the big one never moved at all. Attempts to move the small one over the sand proved useless, and so I eventually I just had to clear a path in the sand and allow the model to slide over the bare tabletop. By keeping the camera at a low angle the other sand, piled on either side, disguised this cheat. However for one shot I needed to show the tank turning and aiming it's missile launcher at the camera. I could not do this by pulling the model on wires so I animated it using stop-motion, again the model didn't hover but this time actually pushed it's way through the sand.

I have to say that by this point my models were beginning to look pretty decent, which was a pleasant surprise to me. When I began filming my modelling experience had just been assembling Airfix-type kits, and putting some occasional extra detail in. For this film I had been building things from scratch, and although they had been pretty crude to begin with they were now starting to look the business. Often my biggest fault was over-building everything and finishing complete models detailed on every side, when it was simply not required. The worst example was when I started slowly hand stitching the detail into the patches on the spacesuit - it was stupid because I could paint it on in a few minutes and the camera could not tell the difference. I guess it was just me wanting the stuff to be nice and worth keeping, when it actually just needed to be useable... and disposable.

Explosion by flashpaper alone

Of course if we are going to have a tank battle then we are going to need explosions of some sort, and that was my biggest problem of all. The only explosions that I had filmed so far had been for my scoutship crash-landing in the first aborted film project, and they had not been too successful.

Shooting effect by light reflection
First of all the vehicles had to fire their guns in some way, I did originally consider using a quick blast of gas from my airbrush but decided in the end to use a more simple 'light' effect. For this I fitted small light bulbs into the Battletank's rocket tube assembly, which meant that a mass of electrical wires had to be fed out of the bottom of the model, joining the existing wires for the drive motors. These wires linked to a plastic battery box with a 'keyboard' of contact switch's on top. During filming I could tap the various keys on the box, to create circuits, which would activate the lights.

Viewing the resulting footage I decided that the effect, while acceptable, was not very spectacular and something else was needed. The answer was flashbulbs which I bought from a local camera shop. These came as plastic cubes containing four bulbs each, so the first job was to cut them open and extract the bulbs, which could then be wired into the models for each shot. The bulbs could only fit into the bigger models, so the big Hover Tank could shoot them but not the small Battletank. So I then started to build just the missile section in a larger scale but it was never finished.
Instead I realised that I could just add the light flash onto the small model by placing a sheet of transparent plastic in front of the camera, at a 45 degree angle, and reflect the light in from the side - but again that only worked on a locked-off shot where you could line everything up to match.

Now we get to the explosions and my first idea was again to use fireworks, especially as I still had a box full of them. However the scenes called for the explosions to go off as the vehicles went past the camera, so timing was everything! Film magazines had mentioned the use of 'Flashpaper', a combustible paper that can burn harmlessly in your hand, and that was sold by magic shops for performing tricks. So I set up my models and took a few snap shots with this flashpaper igniting (above) and the results looked OK, the trick was how to ignite it though.

Even at double speed shooting the explosion doesn't last long. So some shots were extended in the editing stage by cutting the shot in half , overlapping, and repeating a few frames.
After several experiments my answer was to use a flash bulb as an igniter, so that I could trigger them using the electrical keyboard that I was also operating the lights from (somedays you really do need three hands!). The flash bulb was wired up and then carefully wrapped in flashpaper, this was sprinkled with explosive powder removed from a firework, and then the whole thing wrapped tightly in a tube of tinfoil. The idea is that the bulb flash generates heat that is trapped by the foil, which ignites the flashpaper, which in turn sets off the explosive powder. The results were certainly acceptable and on one early occasion the camera caught a direct sight of the bulb flash going off, which burnt out a couple of frames of film, and added to the visual impact. From that point on I always tried to line up the explosive tube, so that it pointed towards the camera lens, to replicate that accidental effect.

The explosions were reliable, controlled, and most importantly safe, so I could just shoot them indoors. Models, motors, lights and explosions, everything was going to plan and I was having a ball....... and then the camera started making funny noises, and broke - Bugger me!

My loft studio at the end of production. Left to right; model spaceship set, landing bay, half the corridor model, Martian landscape crash site, and the full-size lorry cabin is under construction.
So I quickly sent it off for repair, but when it was returned weeks later the viewfinder was out of alignment and I could not focus the lens properly, so off it went for further repairs. More weeks passed and when it finally came back in full working order I was busy building some replica models from the Gerry Anderson television series 'Thunderbirds' - and have a lot of fun doing it too.
The film stalled, the camera was packed safely away, the props went into a box and I cleared the loft space to make it tidy. Then months later I realised that my movie making days were over and the film rolls were placed in another box and forgotten.....
..... Until 2010 when moving some old boxes I came across the film reels and decided to look at them. Much of the stuff was stuck together in story order but not properly edited, with many takes of the same shots being repeated over and over again. There was also some extra film reels with bits that had never been used. As a test I projected the film against a sheet of white card and refilmed it on my cheap Samsung digital stills camera, with it set to its movie-mode option. The results were passable and it was nice to have a copy to easily view on my computer. But best of all it gave me a chance to play with the simple editing program and actually present the footage in an almost finished state. The plan was to just put the first part on YouTube, where my Dad is killed by the monster, as that was just a straightforward copy of the finished film.
Then I decided to chop up the next bit and stick it into order with a few captions. I was starting to enjoy myself now and realised that I could tweak the next section where the hero meets the monster. In the cinefilm nothing much happens and there is no ending. Now just with some editing he does meet the monster, kills it, and then leaves. All of which I assembled from bits of film found in a box!
Luckily there was a quick panning shot of my studio tabletop, on an out-take, which shows the spaceman doll and then the monster puppet lying on is side, which I've now used to show the monster lying dead. The lighting of that scene is not good, but at least it could be used to actually end the film.
Of course that left the tank battle scenes, which were never finished at all, but here again I got adventurous. Playing about with the computer program (which actually crashed a few times as I asked it to do too much) I started re-editing the various clips of film that were available, and then because there were gaps I started making up some new stuff.
I really needed some scenes of computer instrument panels lighting up, and a gloved hand activating the gun, so I just filmed them quickly with my digital camera. I didn't want to do too much of this as the visual quality is very different from Super-8 film, and would stand out, so the clips are shown very briefly. However the buttons and gloved suit are the actual 25-year-old props that I pulled from my loft, so are authentic to the period.
To find even more footage I went through all the spare rolls and found a few useful clips, then I hit on the simple idea of refilming some of the existing footage from different angles, in close-up, or with a camera pan to give the illusion of it being a different shot - which worked out pretty well. The final vehicle explosions were sadly never done, so quick cuts from my reel of explosion-test-footage were inserted instead.
Then I got really adventurous and added sound - blimey!

I have to say that sound effects certainly add to the visuals but they are a pain to do. Some of you might have recognised the sounds as they may come from Gerry Anderson programs. The criminal's vehicle looks a bit like the Overlander from 'Terrahawks' and now also sounds exactly like it! Whilst the good guys truck sounds rather like the lorry from the 'Joe 90' episode 'Colonel McClaine'. Other sounds are from my washing machine!!

'The Martian Experience'
Part 4: Seek and Destroy
Has sound - turn up your volume
Click Here for YouTube Film
Of course like any other great film there has to be the 'Making of' video to compliment all this superb action. So like all the major studios I have cobbled together a load of old bits and pieces, plus some new stuff, to add to your viewing enjoyment. This video has had more hits on YouTube than the actual films themselves - which I find slightly odd!
'The Martian Experience'
Behind the Scenes
Has sound
Click Here for YouTube Film
I have to say that I have enjoyed seeing this old film again, and it almost makes me want to start again. In fact I do actually have a story, the characters, the starship, and I'm slowly working on the script. But you really need to win the lottery to make films like this. If I ever try to make one of these again I want a studio - and a crew who will hold things, pull things, make things, and do what I ask without them saying 'How much longer is this going to take?'

'The Martian Experience' is a David M Sisson Production 1980 - 2012
My thanks to Reg Sisson, Andrew Sisson, Martin Storey, and Tony Groves for their assistance in making this minor motion picture.
All photographs, text, and spelling mistakes are copyright David Sisson 2012
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