Space Precinct - Behind The Scenes with SFX Director Steven Begg

By David Sisson ...............................................

Steven Begg has been in the film industry for nearly 30 years, working on television shows, commercials and major feature films; with a list of credits including 'Aliens', 'Lost In Space', 'Tomb Raider', 'Batman' and 'Casino Royale'. I caught up with him in 2011 to chat about his work on Gerry Anderson's 'Space Precinct', the 1990s cops-and-aliens-in-space television show.
David: I guess if we are going to talk about ‘Space Precinct’ then we should really mention ‘Space Police’, which was a one-off hour long pilot film made back in 1986, for a reported one million pounds.
Steven: ‘Space Police’ was an idea concocted by Tony Barwick and Gerry. They were taken by the show ‘Hill Street Blues’, which was very big at the time, and Tony came up with this hybrid idea of putting that concept in space, which he and Gerry embellished on.
Meanwhile, I had been working on ‘Aliens’ with Bob and Dennis Skotak, the VFX Supervisors, and I started to get aggravation from the ACTT union that I didn’t have a union ticket (which I did) and interference in my work on that film which escalated to a point that I thought I’ve just got to get off this. So I ultimately moved onto ‘Space Police’, which I’m not sure was such a good move with hindsight.

It was still a very low-budget production (not a million pounds for sure and most of the set pieces came from ‘Aliens’) so everything was shot on 16mm. But I wanted to expand on the multi-exposure trick first used on ‘Space 1999’, and then by myself on ‘Terrahawks’, by double exposing nebula’s and interesting space vista’s with matte painted planets into the space shots. I also learned a lot working with Bob and Denny on ‘Aliens’ as well and exported a lot of in-camera tricks we used on ‘Aliens’ into ‘Space Police’. Such as using a 50-50 Ghost-glass mirror to put two images together for example.

David: Again you used stop-motion, this time on a couple of characters as well as the flying police car.
Steven: Yes. I think the stop-motion is not too hot on the robot dog ‘Mega-bite’ (god help-us), however as it was shot in a small room at Bray using my Bolex camera and in a bit of a rush. The car engine deployment less so, it was inspired by the Dropship from ‘Aliens’, which was inspired in turn by Thunderbird 2. Remember I’d just worked on that film and so Mark Harris (Production Designer) and I were keen to get that sort of look and hardware onto this show. To the point where Mark got a lot of the sets, props and dressing from that movie for free to use on this show. Bizarrely we met a lot of resistance, because they didn't realise how iconic Aliens was going to be...

David: The explosions in the show looked spectacular – the monorail train exploding as it fell down the cliff was superb.
Steven: We used the Photosonic camera running at 300 frames per second, which makes fireworks look like Atom bombs. But the model was a bit small I think.

David: What did you think to the finished film, did you expect the pilot to lead into a series at the time?
Steven: I thought it looked good, courtesy of Mark Harris’s production design (better than the more believable-somewhere around 200,000 budget allowed) but the bad acting, cringe-worthy dialogue, terrible music, stuffed it – and the pantomime heads didn’t help either!

To be honest I don’t think a lot of the Visual effects were actually that great, other than some of the opening VFX shots.

David: Was it a surprise to you when Gerry returned to selling the concept in 1994? I assume you were involved with the small concept film that was produced to help sell the idea at a trade show in America. I believe that parts were reused from ‘Space Police’ and you designed the prototype police cruiser at this early stage.
Steven: John Needham (of Mentorn films at the time) took a liking to the basic concept and cut a trailer out of the original pilot. I did some concept art for a brochure, which made the Cruisers look closer to cars, which to be honest I didn’t actually like. This was redesigned again for the actual show.

David: Did you have any input into the format of the new series?
Steven: Very little, I just couldn’t get the logic of the show. He dressed like a New York Cop but was on an Alien planet as far as the concept went.

David: Your original flying car design was much more sci-fi than the finished article.
Steven: It was felt that my original streamlined version didn’t look too police-car-like, so Bill Pearson and his guys modified it to look more angular. It was a cross between a police helicopter and the Space Shuttle and it would leave the planets atmosphere in a huge blast of engine plasma (poorly realised by Magic Cameras then proto Digital Dept) - this never got passed on to the shows writers. I saw the Police Car as the star of the show and the only one that could escape and re-enter the planets atmosphere, thus giving them a lead on the planet-based villains they would deal with each week (Why the hell are Brogan and co in space anyway?).

David: Did you design the other craft in the show – like the Suburb and Precinct Station House?
Steven: Yes, I designed the Precinct which I thought turned out looking good, the Suburb less so, but nothing to do with the miniature which was gorgeous, more the concept. I put all these walkways and a central park on it that we never went near. (See pictures lower left of page and article at bottom of page)

David: How did you approach each script – were there regular script read-throughs with all department heads and discussions with the director?
Steven: On the first episode there was probably a big meeting with all HOD's. But when things got really going I would just have a chat with the director, with storyboard artist Jim Cornish attending, and find out if the director wanted things to go left to right or right to left, or if he felt strongly about some piece of connecting action from us. Jim became our liaison with the Art Dept as well so we could tie up the look between VFX and live action.

David: Did you draw any of the storyboards to your effects this time, or were you given any from the Directors?
Steven: Jim did all the VFX boards, and some of the designs, throughout the series. He was based with us at Shepperton studio and then went onto doing the 'Batman' and 'Harry Potter 'films.

David: Were you ever involved with the budget – or get feedback on how much you had to spend, or warned of any over spend?
Steven: Initially yes, then Tom Sachs the co-producer took over. Everything I've done since I have to be very involved in the budgeting of the VFX shots.

David: What sort of set up did you have in your department? How many staff?
Steven: We had Bill Pearson overseeing the miniature construction and design, with a gang of maybe 8-10 modelmakers. Two guys in Magic Cameras Motion Control Stage, and then 4 people doing the digital stuff.

David: How was the SFX department organised. Were there people who specialised in doing the ‘space shots’ or ‘flying wire-work’ - or did everyone work in all areas?
Steven: We had two different scaled shooting stages but with Bill's guys and our Special Effects guys servicing both. The bigger stage handled all the city shots, wire-work, explosions etc; the smaller one at Magic Cameras the Moco stuff. However by the end of the series there was a big crossover in some of the shots and sequences, with Nigel Stone and Rick Mietkowski (the Moco guys) doing matte-paintings and high-speed shots.

David: What sort of cameras did you have to use for your effects?
Steven: We used a 35mm Mitchell camera for Moco stuff but the bulk of the effects were shot using 2 high-speed 16mm Mitchells, as used in ‘Terrahawks’, converted to Super-16.

David: What is Super-16? If my memory serves it is wider than normal 16mm film but looses some sprockets? If so doesn’t that pose a problem for film stability?
Steven: It definitely looses a sprocket, but thankfully it didn't affect our registration on multiple pass and high-speed shots. If you multiple expose the film through the same camera then registration isn’t quite the same issue as you get repeat wobbles (if there are any) on all passes.

David: There were some in-camera space shots but you tended to use motion-control most of the time – it looked very good, was that all 35mm?
Steven: I had worked on a lot of feature films between ‘Terrahawks’ and ‘Space Precinct’ and knew the only way to get decent motion-control space shots was to use 35mm film. I had become very friendly with the Magic Camera Company, courtesy of Derek Meddings, so automatically defaulted to them for this kind of work.

David: You had had a lot of success (with space scenes) by just using multiple exposures in ‘Terrahawks’, did you consider that technique again before opting for motion-control, or did you want to establish a different look for the new series?
Steven: I wanted motion-control on ’Terrahawks’, which we could have done even in 16mm, but the Mo-Co gear (Drivers, Motors software, etc) was still relatively sparse in the UK at the time. However I didn’t like the gap in the stars approach which results with double exposure and wanted motion-control for ‘SP’, which was more time consuming but gave a better effect. However at times we got so laden with FX work that I had to resort to the double-exposure technique for some shots.

David: Were some of the Suburb and Precinct House shots done in-camera? There is an often used downward angle shot of the Precinct House where it swings across screen with the planet below and bright sun glare from the right – it looked very clean and natural.
Steven: The Suburb was shot in-camera in 16mm in half a dozen shots by the main effects unit; this was in order to ease the burden the Motion-Control unit was under at the time.
The Precinct shot was a Moco shot put together in-camera by Angus Bickerton but with multiple exposures. Angus and I had worked on a few cheapo movies before ‘SP’ where they didn't really have the money for complex optical work, so we tried as much as possible to keep everything in-camera if possible, even if we had access to motion-control.

David: The space effects work certainly looked impressive.
Steven: I wanted the show’s effects to be as good as ‘Star Trek Next Gen’ at the time. I pleaded with them to keep the effects count down low, at least to start with, so we could get the miniatures, motion control, and digital up to speed and of course that was ignored; so I had to resort to the tried and tested techniques of flying a lot of the vehicles on wires which I hated.

David: How were the colourful star-backgrounds created – they seemed to be very nice paintings?
Steven: They were airbrushed art by me on shiny Neoprene plastic and Astrolux, a glossy black card. This was lit by polarised light which when photographed with a counter-polar filter on the camera would give vibrant colours and jet-black blacks. I also used the Les Bowie trick of flicking a toothbrush to spatter paint onto the boards to create realistic, random star-fields.

David: Bill Pearson got a screen credit at the start of each episode – I’ve not seen a modelmaker get such a prominent credit before. You must have worked very closely with him.
Steven: Bill was a very important element in the miniature effects shots and I liked his design sensibility. I was keen to get him involved with ‘Precinct’ from the beginning and knew he would bring elements to the models that we hadn't thought of. Bill even did a couple of nice full-scale set pieces for us on the last episode, the Stealth bomber cockpit for example. Since the modelwork was such a major element in the show it only seemed fair to give him a major credit, which I pushed for.

David: Trying to create a busy futuristic city must have been a nightmare for you, it’s not like a single spaceship against plain black space, you really have to fill the screen with detail.

Steven: I recon the big futuristic city was probably the most difficult SFX in any of Gerry’s shows and I don’t think we pulled it off completely. We also started shooting without all the requested miniatures built, i.e. no city!
The modelmakers just couldn’t get into doing the buildings quick enough (too boring) so I had to go raiding other productions to flesh out our city in the initial episodes. Some of the buildings came from ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ and a sci-fi film my chum Angus Bickerton was doing at the time for example.
We had ‘Blade Runner’ as the visual model but it was seriously hampered by our really awful live-action production design, were the buildings and alleyways had red brick and breeze block finishes at ground level and we had to transpose that into supposedly mega alien structures which was never going to work, and didn’t.
It was also mostly daylight in our SFX shots which didn’t help the atmosphere either. Our digital dept also got lumbered with doing multiple screen inlays (monitors, viewscreens) rather that concentrating on the money shots where we wanted to see people in our model streets.
David: How were the long distance shots of the city done – looking down through the clouds. Was that a Glass-shot of some sort?
Steven: It always looked to me that the high altitude shots of the Earth made its clouds look like Talcum powder on a flat layer just above the surface of the planet. So using that guide I got a big bit of glass, 8ft by 8ft and supported by 6inch blocks on its corners, positioned it over a matte-painting or ultra-small miniature of the planet or city surface. I then sprinkled Talc onto the glass surface till I thought it looked good. The great thing is that you get a shadow from the Talcum clouds on the model/painting surface if its a day shot and they are back-lit and glowing if its night.

For the really high shots, i.e. space shots, we projected a cloud transparency then a city lights image (which was a bit of chalk artwork on black) onto a white dome to represent our planet, Altor. This technique was started on ‘2001’ and then used on ‘1999’; the difference with us was that we had motion-control to put nice roles and drifts on our shots.

David: The city seemed to light up so not just painting? Also later shots introduced clouds moving past camera – double exposed in?
Steven: Wide aerial shots of the city where accomplished using a backlit, extremely small scale, model of the city with clouds double exposed or again using the talc on glass trick. All shot motion-control of course.

David: You seemed to try and put movement into the camera during most of the model sequences– instead of a locked-off shot there seemed to be pans and twists. Was this to help disguise the wirework, or make the scene more dynamic?
Steven: The main space shots were shot Moco so we could be as lively as possible with them, in fact I thought our space stuff was better than ‘Next Gen’ at the time. The wire shots drove me mad so I had our Cameramen Harry Oakes and Pete Talbot flare the lens out or move the cameras as dynamically as possible…Its difficult doing ‘Blade Runner’ on the cheap!

David: You certainly seem to use plenty of smoke and lights to make the cityscapes look believable – there were even a few lasers shining in the sets.
Steven: I used every trick in the book in order to Jazz our city miniatures up.

David: Did you shoot all the city miniatures in smoke? Did everyone have to wear masks?
Steven: The model city was shot in a smoke environment to give it scale. Unfortunately Harry Oakes didn't like the discomfort of this, wearing masks and all that, so he decided to call it a day. There wasn’t a lot I could do about this, as I knew the smoke was very necessary to our shots, so Peter Talbot took over and got up to speed very quickly - thankfully.

David: Talking of ‘Blade Runner’, there was a nod to that film in the episode ‘Deadline’ with a dirigible floating over the city showing advertisements – how were the adverts placed on the models screen?
Steven: Monitors where built into the model. We found that if you shot at slower that 25fps (most British monitors then were 25fps-50 hertz) you didn't get the roll-bar line appearing, that would clearly identify it as a TV video screen.

David: How many police car models did you have for filming, were there two or more of the big models? And did the flashing police lights cause problems for the different filming speeds you were using?
Steven: Yes we had several scales. The smallest ones where generally used for the wirework and had to be externally powered down the support wires. The bigger one (two models I believe) were used for motion-control and crashes. The rotating lights did cause us some problems but the continuity was all over the place in the show anyway so I didn’t get too worked up about it. We had early discussions about adding the flashes digitally but our digital guys were too busy doing more mundane work.

David: In the episode ‘Flash’ one of the police cars exploded, was this a complete dummy model, was it made of special material to break up?
Steven: Yep, Ian Biggs and Tracey Curtis my on-set FX people made a breakaway version of the cruiser in a mixture of vac-formed shapes and brittle castings, which broke apart nicely when the pyro (explosive) went off.

David: I did like the numerous flying chase sequences; they really began to get very exciting.
Steven: I got really stressed out with them, as I knew they had to be shot like a regular car-chase, which meant hundreds of cuts and camera angles, which is fair enough. However I’m stuck with these bloody models wobbling about on wires because that’s the quickest way of doing this stuff.

I passionately hate wirework because no matter what, you are always controlled by simple physics. Things on wires will only do so much so quickly! One trick you use is to slightly over-crank the camera 36, 48-72fps to try to hide the wobbles and shakes but the editors cut the show on a computerised editing system called Lightworks where at the push of a button you could speed shots up, therefore counter-acting the slow-motion smoothing on the models! I had a constant battle with them over that but a few shots got through. Derek and Brian never had to do similar work so I couldn’t even learn from them. So I got the guys to put the buildings on tracks and the camera on tracks, and then move them all in order to apparently speed up our car chases. It was the equivalent of a three-dimensional roller backing!!

David: How were the vehicle crash scenes shot? Were the models pulled through the scenes on a wire or thrown across via an air-cannon or catapult arrangement?
Steven: I use ever trick in the book including throwing the model on the set myself by hand (Note: you can actually glimpse a gloved hand during the Police Cruiser crash in ‘Seek And Destroy’, and in the original ‘Space Police’ pilot, during a crash sequence in the opening chase)

David: If I were to criticize I would say that the city didn’t really have much in the way of other flying vehicles around – really there should have been hundreds of flying cars on screen. Obviously budget and time were against you but were any attempts/or test shots done to add more vehicles into the scenes?
Steven: We were promised all sorts of digital help in populating the city, such as CG traffic and people in the streets but our (Magic Camera's) digital department got snowed under doing mundane fix-it shots. We were budgeted at only 40 an episode, so the money shots were put to one side till later in the series. Hate Street's space factory where you see Brogan and Haldane walk around in Bill's miniature was the kind of work we wanted for the whole series but didn’t get till late.

David: Did you have any involvement with the live-action set?
Steven: I had very little dealings with the actors. We were lucky to get two representatives of the Magic Camera Co to be present on the VFX shots done by the main unit.

David: Did you have any effects ideas for the show that never made it to the screen?
Steven:  I think the integration of the live action/effects in Hate Street showed the way the show should have gone. The blue-screened actors into Bills miniature factory space station were some of the best shots in any of Gerry’s shows.
Also the snow gave the model city great atmosphere and hid the crummy-ness of the live action street sets. However, the office production personnel at Pinewood didn’t like the mess the paper snow in that episode caused in their offices so that buggered up any interesting environmental stuff for us, for example. 

David: So paper was used for the live-action, how was miniature snow done?
Steven: It was also paper snow with a bit of flour mixed in. You can get this fake snow in all scales by the way, from big clumps to ultra fine stuff.

David: In the episode ‘Body And Soul’ Brogan and his son fly their Hopper over Merlin’s Asteroid and are surprised to see a crashed spaceship – but I was more surprised by them flying over some strange alien looking buildings on the surface, especially as they weren’t even mentioned in the script?
Steven: The unusual artifacts on the asteroid were an idea that had hung over from the original plot idea of Brogan and son visiting a comet, and then discovering in its tale some derelict spaceships – just like the film ‘Lifeforce’. With hindsight it was a bad idea (of mine) to keep the alien objects on the asteroid, as it was confusing to the viewer.
David: As the series progressed and the first episodes were completed were you happy with the results?
Steven: I thought we got off to a shaky start (Such as the Pizza bike chase where I discovered the editors were speeding up shots for the first time.) but things did improve - but ultimately I was still bitterly disappointed with the show. All the publicity guff about ‘the biggest budget ever’ severely damaged the show big-time!  

Also why were we shooting on super 16mm 16.9 only to have it cheaply cropped to normal 4.3 - god only knows….

We also had a one light telecine which was originally just for rushes, but then became the master for the show (it’s much much cheaper) and just looked flat and grainy.

 I also thought we had the crummiest looking live-action sets ever committed to a sci-fi show, which looked like they came from Coronation Street!

David: You sound a little down on the show.
Steven: I'm surprised myself that I'm currently so negative about ‘SP’. I guess its because I got so frustrated with seeing great opportunities thrown away again and again - and I could see ‘Precinct’ being ballsed up yet again the moment they hired a production designer who seemed to be completely uninterested in the production - and of course the Script Supervisor was a ex-comedy writer for Mentorn!

David: Looking back now what are your views on the show, do you have a favourite episode at all?
Steven: The best episode for me was 'Hate Street'.
A year or so later John Needham and I got together to discuss a potential new series of ‘Space Precinct’, and what worked and what didn’t on the first series.  I told him that I felt ‘Precinct’ should have been harder and edgier, more like the Sean Connery movie ‘Outland’ which he totally agreed with.
He even shot a test using the same alien-looking characters - but with more moodier lighting - and it looked great!  However, the opportunity to revisit ‘Precinct’ vanished and we developed an idea called ‘Eternity’ which was then presented to Gerry who liked it, but is still in a state of limbo.

David: Thank you very much for your time Steven.

Photographs by Dave Watkin and David Sisson.
Thanks also to Andrew Hopkinson for additional behind-the-scenes photographs (as marked).
'Space Precinct' is copyright by Mentorn Films

No infringement of copyright is intended - non-profit fan interest site only.

Saving the Space Suburb

Many years ago (late 1990s) I got a phonecall asking me if I wanted to go and ‘save’ some Space Precinct film props that were stored in a warehouse in Wales, a warehouse that was shortly due to be demolished. I agreed and was soon being driven down to the place in a rather slow and noisy van.

As we entered Wales it began to rain, and then continued to rain very heavily for the rest of the day, which certainly made the trip much harder especially when you don’t know quite where you’re going, and then have to meet up with another group, and then hopefully find the chap who had the keys and was going to let us into the place.

Hours later we all stood together, in the rain, in a rather depressing run-down industrial area, we were finally let through the padlocked gates and entered the building – only to still find ourselves standing in rain as parts of the roof had gone and the water was dripping through the ceiling! Walking through dark corridors illuminated by the occasional working light bulb, we quickly discovered that there wasn’t much left - as we were told that local school children had been entering the building to steal everything – great!

Room after room was empty but for broken boxes and bits of scrap, at one point I tripped over a casting of a ‘Space Hopper’ which I put in a bag. This appears to be a simple casting used for the crash sequence in ‘The Fire Within’. There was a shattered top hull casting and a rough casting of the bottom – the rubber mould for which was lying in a mud puddle outside in the yard.

After searching all the rooms we found just one, very big, box which we pried open to discover lots of polystyrene packing chips and the big Space Suburb model buried beneath. This model had not been taken purely because of its size, which as I say was large. Leaving it in the box the group of us managed to manuvere this almost back-breaking weight out of the room, up some stairs and out to the van – where we quickly gave up all hope of staying even remotely dry as we struggled through the large puddles, mud, and torrential rain to lift this box into the back of the vehicle.

With one thing saved we were then lead round the back to a very old and rusty looking Nissen hut, inside rested the full-sized Police Cruiser and the Hopper – both very large and broken. Against one corner stood a pile of fibreglass moulds of the alien masks, a pile that reached up to the curved roof. Unfortunately there was not much that could be salvaged and I think the only thing that anyone came a way with was a door from the Cruiser that was lying on the floor.

Having ‘saved’ the Suberb model a big problem then became quickly apparent, in that the model was simply too large for anyone to keep, and nobody wanted it in their house! As the truck was passing my home a decision was made to leave the model in my possession while the model was assessed and a decision was made. After examining the model I suggested that it could be reduced in size by cutting off all the radiating habitation domes, and then modifying them so that they could be fixed back into position.

The process was fairly straightforward but took a while as there are a lot of habitation domes on the model. Each corridor section had to be partially stripped of parts, which meant removing the clear walkway 'glass', the flat walkway with figures attached, and several detailed castings glued to the sides of the main core which was box-section plastic tubing. Each piece of tubing was hacksawed through, about an inch out from the main body, then a new piece of smaller tube was inserted inside the removed section which would allow me to securely plug the part back into position. With that done all the detailed parts were then reattached, which covered the break I had made completely.

A few of the fragile castings had shattered during the process so I made a rubber mould and cast up some new ones. Also there were a few 'glass' parts missing from the model which I then had to recreate. This was done by pouring plaster-of-Paris into one of the exisiting parts to create a master that I could then use to mould replacements from transparent Plasticard, detailed with silver-grey Letraset tapes.
The model was mounted on a small tripod for support, which was inserted into the central heavy-duty pipe that runs up through the model. The detailed top and bottom domes just pull off, as does the radar/communication tower.

The various parts were all numbered so that they don't get mixed up, and then the model was returned to Fanderson, the Gerry Anderson fan club.
Pictures below; The model, after alterations, on display at a Fanderson convention in 2002.

BACK to INDEX Article by David Sisson 2011
My thanks to Steven Begg, Andrew Hopkinson, and Dave Watkins
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