Aliens and Oscars
A Conversation with SFX Director Brian Johnson
June 16th 2001 at Pinewood Studios
By Martin Gainsford and David Sisson
With thanks to Chris Bentley
tell us a little about your early career?
Well, I lived in Stoke Poges at the time and my first job was at the Cement and Concrete Research Association, making concrete blocks which went into a crushing machine to test the strength and resistance of the concrete. It was very boring because all I did was make cement all day with various types of mixtures, sometimes with a little bit more of this or a little bit less of that just to create different mixtures of the stuff. It was just so boring that I found that I was desperate to do something else. I used to go to a pub called The Dog and Pot and there was a man who also went in there by the name of Les Bowie. He saw how down I was looking on this particular day and said, Whats up? and I told him how much I hated this job with the cement company and he said, How would you fancy a job in a film studio sweeping the floors? to which I said, Yes! and he got me into Anglo-Scottish Pictures. I met a bloke called Dick Andrews and that was it - I got the job.
I swept the floors at a
studio which was mainly used for animation and
documentary film-making, but the company offices were at
Shepperton so sometimes I was asked to drive things over
there in the company van. Quite often, I would have to
take things to the labs or collect film, and I began to
learn a little about film and cameras and all the rest.
Eventually, I left all the odd-jobs behind and became
what is known as a clapper loader. This was only on
commercials and small things but it was my first taste of
the business in the truest sense of the word.
You had no particular aspirations to enter the film industry as a child?
No, not at all. All I wanted to do then, as a kid, was to be a pilot. I fractured my skull and had some quite bad ear problems so I couldnt pursue my dream to be a pilot, but I really did enjoy those early days at Anglo-Scottish. Then I was fired. Well, everybody is at some stage I suppose, and one of the directors thought that I was spending too much time tearing about in the van or one of the company cars and I was fired. I just took myself up to London and got another job with a commercials company there.
Soon after that I was called up for National Service in the Royal Air Force and did two years. When I was demobbed, I walked straight into a job on the Val Guest picture 'The Day The Earth Caught Fire'. We were doing some location work out at Biggin Hill airfield and that was the start of the effects thing really because we needed scenes with powerful wind. We couldnt afford studio wind machines so we asked the people at the airfield to start the planes up and we positioned ourselves in front so that we would get the effect that these powerful winds were hitting the actors.
Then I got a phone call from Derek Meddings asking if I would like to join him and give him a hand with a television show he was working on. That was 'Supercar'.
Did you work with Derek at Anglo-Scottish?
Well, I didnt really
work with him but I kind of knew him. He was a title
artist and he was working with a bloke called Bob Archer
but he was learning to do matte painting with Les and
another guy called Ray Capel. I knew Les obviously, but
not so much Derek. He was always around and I remember he
had an old black Vauxhall Cresta (or it might have been a
Viva) and, like the rest of us, he didnt have a
great deal of money, so to make the car look better he
would stick on chrome tape to make it look a bit smarter.
Derek was such a talent but he never really thought that he was up to the job which was, of course, ridiculous because he was one of the greatest effects guys we have ever had. He was worried that it might all collapse whereas his job with Les was more secure, and he was worried about his wife and his kids. He really was such a worrier but Les said that he must do it because he deserved to move up the ladder. Les was a fantastic guy like that: he looked after his lads and if a better opportunity came up for one of them he would encourage them to go for it.
What were your impressions of AP Films when you joined the company?
Well, it was the tail end of 'Supercar' and everything was running pretty smoothly. 'Fireball XL5' was being prepared and that was the show that I really felt that I was involved with because I was in there at the start, I suppose. The studio itself was quite strange because it wasnt really a studio - it was a warehouse. The thing with me was that doing all those weird and wonderful documentaries on farms and cheese and all that, I was quite used to filming in unusual places, so a warehouse in Slough wasnt a problem for me at all.
Who was involved with the effects unit at that time?
Well, there was Derek, myself, a model maker called Eric Backman, and Alan Perry was in there too. He was a bit of a cheeky, chirpy chappie, a nice guy. He always reminded me of a second hand car salesman with all the gab. There was Arthur Cripps and John Read, who was quite senior but very much involved with the filming of it all too. Later on, Harry Oakes joined us and he was a lovely guy but I think that it might have been Stingray when he came in. Paddy Seale was there too as I recall, and there were a couple of others.
What were your specific duties?
Derek was the boss. He designed and so did Reg Hill. I tended to build things. Mostly the one-off things that used kit parts and bits and pieces but I suppose one of my main jobs was the flying.
Can you tell us about the problems facing you as a flyer?
It was bloody hot! I was up on a scaffolders plank which was secured at one end. There was a rope tied up in the rafters of the warehouse which hung down so I could hang on to this and lean out with the model suspended from wires and then attempt to make it look as if it were taking off or landing or whatever. When a ship had to go straight, it would have been easy to just rig up wires and run the model down them, but our programmes invariably had the models doing all sorts of manoeuvres like Stingray dodging a torpedo through some rocks or Fireball XL5 docking with Fireball Junior, so it was always a bit of a task really. When you were up there on the plank, you were very limited in what you could do so I developed a style of flying where I swapped hands and allowed the model to continue a little further on its journey to give the cameras a little bit more action. I remember I could do quite an impressive circular swing too and if I hung on to the rope, I could give the model a fairly reasonable arc of movement and that worked very well. We were learning all the time.
It sounds very unpleasant and quite dangerous.
It was something like 130° up there. There was no ventilation but I was young and one of the boys, so I just got on with it. On top of everything else, there were wires which carried electricity into the models to trigger off boosters and landing lights or explosive charges, and I was sometimes draped in wires which then went over my shoulder and down the wires used to fly the damn things as well. Somebody on the ground would physically set the charges off from a firing box and we used about 24 volts or sometimes 36, but the more powerful the voltage we used the more chance there was of the wires actually melting. We really were up against it all the time on those shows, but it was great fun and I learnt a lot.
With all of these hazards you must have had some fun and games- especially with the explosives.
Yes, we did. We used all sorts of things to make those explosions look good, but we had to be able to control them too. We had Brocks, the firework people, make some compressed gunpowder charges for us and they were small steel tubes with a clay bung which would set hard. In the tube would be the gunpowder and it would have been compressed with a pressure of, I think, four tons per square inch. They were put together in such a way that they would only burn from one end and not go off all at once. We very carefully drilled holes in the compressed gunpowder and poked the fuse in and this was something which you had to get just right. I remember we had loads of out-takes with only one booster going off or going too strongly while another was only just puffing. It was quite an art to get it all going correctly at the same time.
What was the biggest disaster you had in these terms?
Well, I dont know if you can call it a disaster really, but I remember that one time on 'Thunderbirds' we had filled the vertical boosters on Thunderbird 2 and the charges were a little old. When these things were made they were a bit like cakes, I suppose. Sometimes the consistency was too thick or too thin and these particular charges had gone really hard. Anyway, the amount of pressure and energy that had built up in them was so strong - because the bung at the end didnt break up like it should have done - that when the flame and explosion finally came through it actually made the model lift off the ground. Of course, it was totally without direction or co-ordination but it looked bloody spectacular!
Can you talk a little about the models themselves, Fireball XL5 for example?
Well, the main model I remember using was around 24 inches. I found that easiest to work with. There was another very detailed model about five or six feet long used for close-ups. Then there was a smaller one like the one seen in the launch sequence.
Were you involved in that particular scene?
Was I?!! It took a very long time to get that shot, it really did. I think in the end I remember just having to run along with Fireball on a wire and just whizzing it off the end of the ramp.
What did you think of the designs of those early vehicles?
Well, Fireball looked great and so did Stingray. Reg Hill designed quite a few of those early things and I loved the man dearly, but he was a real pain sometimes because he had no real engineering or mechanical knowledge and it was up to us to just make his things work. Peter Wraggs father had an engineering firm on the Slough Trading Estate and Reg insisted that we use them for all sorts of things, but we really just had to make do and invent things almost on the spot to get around a problem created by a script or a design or a piece of equipment that we had been presented with.
Some of the things we did were quite sophisticated for the day and others were incredibly simple. When Fireball Junior separated from the main body, it was just a matter of bringing in the cameras very close and one of us just pulling the model apart, and then later in the cutting room, adding a shot of the retros blasting and the main body turning away or whatever. That is why we had to think about what the editors would need to make a complete sequence work on screen. I do like 'Fireball XL5' because I read all the Dan Dare strips as a kid and thought that there were elements of that in the series and it was a great little show.
What was it like sharing studio space with the puppeteers?
Well, we were divided off from them and everything was filmed silent so it didnt matter what was going on, but I have to say that the puppeteers were a little strange - very nice, but strange. I have found this throughout my career when I have been working on projects where puppeteers were involved. Christine Glanville and John Blundall and the rest of them were lovely people but very different to the lads who I was working with. They werent living in the real world and were a little bit sort of arty, if you know what I mean? I remember that we would be blowing things up and there would be lots of smoke drifting about which they complained about, but we all got along fairly well.
Quite often, we would have to go over and help them with a physical effect required in a puppet sequence, but they never had to help us out on the effects sequences so they never really complained too much when we were cursing and shouting because it wouldnt be long before they had to ask us for some advice, or for one of us to go across and do something for them.
As the shows really began to take off with things like 'Stingray', we all kind of pulled together more because we knew we were doing something important. With people like Dave Lane (who in my opinion was an absolute genius) working closely with both units, you didnt feel quite such an atmosphere of us and them. That was Gerrys great strength in my opinion: bringing together these fantastic people who worked well and who were able to understand the problems of both teams and smooth things out for everybody. David was great with all of that because he worked closely with Derek and Christine and as an editor, he knew exactly what was required from both crews. John Read was important to the whole set-up as, of course, was Derek.
Gerry was brilliant in those terms but I have to say that there were times, especially for me when I was doing 'Space: 1999', that I really needed Gerry himself to make an important decision about something and I could never get hold of him. I was head of the effects unit and I needed to talk about an important aspect of the series and I just couldnt get hold of him. I was working down at Bray while Gerry was up at Pinewood which didnt help matters, but on one particular occasion, I decided to take myself over there to see him in person. I saw Gerrys secretary, Kate Curry, and told her that I would sit and wait if I had to, but I had to see him. She told me that Gerry had said that he mustnt be disturbed by anybody, but that I could wait if I wanted to. I sat there and sat there until finally, after two hours, the door opened and Gerry came out and said to Kate, Ive managed to get some fuel. There was a national fuel shortage at the time and he needed to get his central heating working at home. I understood that that was important, but I only wanted two minutes of his time to make an equally important decision on his biggest ever production, but he wasnt to be disturbed.
Things werent like that in the early days. Derek was always the person who I looked upon as my boss and he was always approachable and willing to listen to you, regardless of the problem. I really do feel quite strongly about how Derek was treated by the senior people on those early programmes, particularly 'Thunderbirds' when he did pretty much everything. He was designing, doing storyboards, going to meetings, filming and just about doing everything. It was his baby. I helped a bit and others, like Mike Trim, did too but Derek always wanted an involvement in every aspect of his side of the production on those shows.
Gerry and the others must have earned a fortune with all of those toys and things that Derek had designed in the first place. I remember how I felt when all of those toys of the Eagles from 'Space: 1999' appeared. It seemed like every kid in the country had one and I saw stacks of them in a shop in the States called FAO Schwartz and they couldnt get enough of them! But apparently I wasnt allowed to have even a small percentage of the profit on a toy based on one of my designs. It was a different story when I worked for George Lucas because I got a percentage of 'The Empire Strikes Back' and there I was only a technician, but on 'Space: 1999' I was head of the effects unit!
You obviously cared for Derek Meddings a great deal.
Derek was a lovely bloke and
all his boys thought the world of him. When we were doing
'Thunderbirds' it became apparent that he
couldnt be as involved in every aspect of the
effects as he would have liked. It would have killed him
being here, there and everywhere so he had to rely on
people like myself and Shaun Whittacker-Cook to take the
strain for him I guess.
Did 'Stingray' being filmed in colour encourage you to stay for a while longer?
I think it did because it
was such a step up from 'Fireball XL5'. It was
obviously still a television programme and a
childrens one too, but it was quite apparent that
the production values were very high and I think we were
all quite excited to be involved in this colour
programme. We looked on the sets and the models in a
different way because in black and white you could just
throw anything in there, but now we were having to look
at things with an eye for what looked correct and what
might clash with this or that.
What can you tell us about the obvious problems facing you all with a series set in and around water?
Well, a new set of problems were presented to us but as before, we worked hard and overcame them. The main problem I had was with the water tank itself. It was built by the people who Reg Hill knew on the trading estate. It was designed to split in the middle and there were these clamps and a rubber seal which supposedly held it all together. It leaked a little bit but worked reasonably well. The problem was when we had to drain it to refill it or clean the tank or the filter or whatever. Reg had designed this tank with a thin pipe which meant that to drain it you had to wait about three hours. I went to this place that sold pipe and similar equipment to the pumps and filters that we were using and found a pipe that was six inches in diameter and was also flexible which would have been a great help to us. I went to see Reg and told him about the problems we had draining the tank and that this new type of pipe would really help us. Anyway, he worked it all out and said, Sorry, mate. It just works out too expensive. I told him that we would be saving money because using the new pipe meant that we could drain the tank in about fifteen minutes instead of the three hours it was taking us with the thin one already fitted in the tank, but he wouldnt have it. I went back fuming to Derek and he said that he knew that Reg wouldnt have any of it.
I could have understood it if the company were short of money but all of the company directors were pulling up every few months in increasingly flashier cars and all I was doing was asking for a bit of pipe to help drain a tank more quickly to be able to get more film in the can at the end of each day. It was a bizarre situation and by the time we had got to 'Thunderbirds' I was pretty sick of it really. Derek had a family and was working until the early hours of the morning. I was finishing at 10 or 11 at night and he would still be there drawing and I just think that certain people were taking advantage of him and the rest of us to a point.
What were your feelings when it was announced that 'Thunderbirds' was to be a full hour-long programme?
We didnt care really. We knew we were a top class outfit and we hit the ground running and just got stuck in. We never really had time to worry about the length of the episodes or the complexity of the sequences. We just had to work out how best to execute each shot and move on to the next one.
We had a huge team by this time. On the earlier shows I could count the crew on one hand. Not with 'Thunderbirds'. There was Ian Scoones, Richard Conway, Mike Trim, Peter Wragg doing the flying and loads of other really talented fellers. On 'Thunderbirds' we needed that expansion because we just couldnt have coped otherwise. We had to have models built outside which our boys in the workshops then worked on to bring them up to a standard of realism suitable for filming. Everybody was just working flat out. The problem was that on the earlier shows you had one star craft like Stingray. Now you had five and all of them were built in multiples or in sections and we were finding that some didnt match. Thunderbird 2, for example, used to turn up in three or four different shades of green, so our boys had to repaint them or really heavily weather them to make them look similar. It was a huge job just to do that.
What were your favourite 'Thunderbirds' vehicles?
Technically they all gave us problems. To look at I think Thunderbird 1 was OK, Thunderbird 3 wasnt a particular favourite of mine I have to say, but Thunderbird 2 was amazing. I think today you would say it was the dogs bollocks and that is true because it was fantastic. It looked superb which ever way you shot it and it was used in pretty much every single episode I think. We had lots of multiples of that throughout the series because it took a bit of a pounding one way or another.
Do you recall how you would have set Thunderbird 2 alight in the episode Terror In New York City?
I dont recall that particular episode, but I do remember having to set it on fire and what we did was to cover the sections of the model which were to be on fire with silver foil to protect it. Then the foil would be covered in rubber gel and we lit it. I think we scorched the model a little bit, but we had a good crew responsible for running repairs and paint jobs. We never just blew things up or set things on fire for the sake of it. We planned things out and if we only needed to damage a small part of the model that is what we would do. Sometimes things ran away from us and a whole craft was destroyed but we tried our best not to.
You mentioned these running repairs: in an age before Super-Glue how did you cope?
I look back and wonder that myself actually, but mostly we used chloroform to get a quick bonding. It worked especially well on the kit parts that we used to dress the models with. The minute Super-Glue itself appeared in the shops, we were on to it in a flash because you just cant hang about waiting for things to dry.
Can you tell us a little about your use of kit-parts in the series?
I would take a trip to the local toy shop or model shop to see the latest things that were out. Even if I wasnt working and I passed one I would pop in to see if there was anything interesting. We used a German bridge building kit quite a bit, Airfix was another one I liked using, Aurora, Revell, anything that looked interesting. We used a great deal of those type of kit parts in '2001' too.
What was the atmosphere like at the studios at this time?
Amongst the crew itself it
was fantastic. We all mucked in and knew our jobs and had
a great time. Most lunchtimes you would carry on and have
a sandwich and a cup of tea while you worked. Sometimes
you would shoot out for a quick pint or even a game of
football on the field at the back of the studios, but
generally we just got on with filming.
Was it this attitude that pushed you to leave and join the visual effects team on '2001:A Space Odyssey'?
I suppose so, but like I said, I wanted to be working on feature films anyway. I was on about £30 a week at AP Films. Now that was a good wage compared to someone driving a bus or working in a bank, but not compared to other people doing similar things to me in the industry. I had asked for a rise on a couple of occasions and was told continually, Sorry, mate. No money for rises, and all that sort of thing. Anyway, I had really had enough but if I had been offered something like £10 or £15 extra per week, I would probably have stayed because I enjoyed what I was doing and being with Derek and the rest of the lads, but no extra money came my way. At the time, I was the head of a complete effects unit doing an important job and Derek could rely on me to do the job.
That reminds me of another story. When Derek first suggested that I take on a similar role to himself but with an effects unit of my own for 'Thunderbirds' I was really pleased and quite chuffed to have been asked. Reg Hill called me in to see him about the position and told me that if Derek thought I could do it that was fair enough, but as far as he was concerned he thought it was beyond me and that I wasnt really capable of taking the job on. Thanks, Reg, I thought to myself, but it all worked out fine and I think that my stuff was as good as Dereks on 'Thunderbirds' so I didnt know what his problem was. I was glad that Derek finally began to delegate work because he would have run himself into the ground with the amount of stuff that needed doing on 'Thunderbirds'.
Anyway, even though I had pulled off some nice effects shots and everything was running really well, I was given no rise of any nature. I thought to myself, this it it, Im off. I gave Les Bowie a call and told him what was going on and asked if he could keep an eye open for anything that I could maybe join him on or do alone, as I had made my mind up to leave the Anderson set-up. A day or so went by and he called to say that I should expect a phone call from Stanley Kubricks secretary because he was over in the UK planning a big science-fiction picture called '2001: A Space Odyssey' at MGM. Well, the secretary called me and I was really excited because there was a definite buzz in the industry about this film. Apparently Stanley had seen 'Thunderbirds', was very impressed by the wire work that we had done on the series and wanted to do something similar with '2001'. I was pretty much given the job over the phone and went straight back and handed in my notice at AP Films.
Derek was terrific. He understood my situation and said, No problem. Good luck to you, mate. We talked a great deal - 'Thunderbirds' was almost over and there were other good people in his team like Ian Scoones and Shaun and all the rest, so I didnt feel that bad about leaving and Derek was great about it. I was aware of some of the things being planned for 'Captain Scarlet and The Mysterons' but as far as I was concerned it was still a kids puppet show. I hated puppets and wanted to develop my skills and I never felt that those later puppet shows would have allowed me to learn what I did on things like '2001'.
I think I only really needed to give a weeks notice but I wanted to leave on good terms with everybody so I gave them a months notice. After about a week or so, I was called in to see Reg Hill in the office. In I went and Reg said, Weve considered everything and spoken to Lew Grade about some extra money for you and wed like you to stay. I told him that it was too late and that I was going to work with Stanley Kubrick on this big important picture at MGM. Reg told me that Gerry wouldnt be happy and that when he got back from a meeting in London he would want to see me.
Off I went and a bit later, Derek and I were called up to the offices again. Derek looked terrible and I guessed that something was up. I walked into the office and there in front of me was the entire AP Films board of directors: John Read, Reg Hill, Sylvia looking away from me at the wall, Norman Foster the production manager, Ken Holt and Gerry. Gerry was the only one who spoke and told me that he had seen Lew Grade and that they were able to offer me more money. I told him that was all very nice but I was now committed to joining the team on '2001'. Gerry then said that he could pay me £100 per week. I was just staggered because, just a few months earlier, I would have been happy with just £10 extra and would have stayed, but now I was intent on moving into feature films and I had made up my mind.
I thought that I could finally speak my mind, so I told Gerry that I thought that it was funny that a few months earlier they couldnt even afford an extra £10 a week and now they were offering to pay me almost treble what I was earning to keep me on. I wasnt at all prepared for the reaction that my remarks caused. Gerry was absolutely furious and he stabbed this gigantic cigar that he was smoking into the ashtray with such force that it sort of exploded with sparks flying out everywhere, and I remember thinking that Gerry could have done a good job in the effects department doing explosions like that! I got up and walked out. Derek had heard what had gone on, but I still decided to work the rest of my notice until eventually I had just had enough of the snide remarks and comments that were filtering down through the ranks to me and Derek, and I agreed that it was probably better for me to leave before that month was up.
What can you tell us about the early days of production on '2001: A Space Odyssey'?
I was living at Gerrards Cross at the time and it was a hell of a drive over to the MGM Studios at Borehamwood. I got over there and I met Stanley Kubricks secretary who was very nice and she told me to go over to B Stage: Stanley would be over there setting up some tests and hed speak to me. So off I went. Now the stages at MGM were big stages and could then be doubled again by opening an interlocking door so that they really were huge. Anyway I walked in to B Stage and at the other end was a painter. I could see that whatever he was painting was only just finished and he was just standing there looking at what he had done. I walked over to him and said, Hello, mate. Ive come to meet Stanley Kubrick. Have you any idea where he is? This man turned around and said, Im Stanley Kubrick. He had this dirty old blue jacket which he always seemed to be wearing, an old pair of baggy trousers and he was surrounded by all these brushes and tins of paint. I couldnt see him properly and just thought he was a painter! He was fine about it and introduced me to Tony Masters, Robert Watts, Harry Lange and some of the others and I was away.
What did you feel that you could bring to the production?
Well, I certainly felt that I could show them something about wire work with models. It turned out that I didnt really know any more than any of them - certainly no more than Wally Veevers who actually taught me a great deal more than I knew already about the subject. I learnt pretty quickly from all the guys there. People like Doug Trumbull, Con Pederson and Colin Cantwell, who had come over from the States, dealt with me because I had been working closely with Wally but they found him a little difficult to work with.
Doug and I became good mates: we were virtually the same age and he was a very bright guy. When he was working on the Moonbus I suggested that he have lots of girderwork, much like I used later on the Eagle in 'Space: 1999', but it was decided that it wasnt right for it. When I later came to do my own Moonbus-type vehicle with the Eagle in '1999', I was intent on getting all those pipes and girders in there and also used it as a chance to pay homage to '2001'. I wanted to create something which looked spectacular and exciting but somehow like the Moonbus, a vehicle which was real and somehow worked, and I like to think that I achieved it in the Eagle. It was sort of modular and I was very pleased with it. We were able to add boosters and stuff as the series developed and it worked very well.
What were your specific duties on '2001'?
I was responsible for the models once they were built. With Doug, I was also responsible for dirtying them down. Harry Lange designed the basic shapes of them and when the idea of using kit parts was introduced to him, he became very excited. Doug and I would have done all of that type of stuff and the whole airbrush thing was us as well. It would be wrong of me to say, I took kit parts, and the use thereof, to 2001. Doug and the rest of the crew were all clever guys coming up with new ideas every day. I worked on the film for three years and was responsible for some things and not others. We all kind of grew and learnt from each other.
The actual duration of it all was one of the biggest surprises of the entire picture. I knew I might be on it for a year or so and that was nice to know because in this industry to have a guaranteed weeks work is great, but three years was just staggering. I felt that it was something very special but I have been lucky because I felt that with quite a few of the things Ive done, like '2001', 'Thunderbirds', 'Space: 1999' and 'Alien' - and that was one that I would have cried about if I hadnt got it.
During the course of your time on '2001', were you in touch with Derek Meddings and were you aware of what he was doing on things like 'Captain Scarlet and The Mysterons'?
I saw Derek and I thought that some of the things that he and the guys were doing was very, very good. When you see a shot that you werent involved with you always think it looks good anyway, unless, of course, it is something really poor, but Dereks work was continually of a very high standard for television, and even in film at that time for that matter. I think Derek was a little jealous that I was involved with a really big picture like '2001', but I was envious of him because he was the boss at Century 21 so I guess we admired each other in different ways. I personally feel that he should have got more recognition at the time from the other people who worked with him and I honestly think that the success of those shows is largely down to Derek.
How did you find it when '2001: A Space Odyssey' was completed and you were back in the market place again?
It was strange really, because for three years I had almost been in a sort of '2001' bubble. I had lost touch a little with the industry as a whole, and I think we all did actually. I never got a credit as a supervisor on the film and the film itself actually broke MGM and so there I was looking for work. I wasnt fussed about just doing science-fiction simply because that was what I had been doing for the last eight years, and so I did a few war films. I did 'Mosquito Squadron' with David McCallum from 'The Man From U.N.C.L.E.', and then I did some work on 'The Italian Job' out in Malta. Pat Moore was effects supervisor on that and he had these terrible photographs of Turin which we filmed against a skyline.
I was then approached to do a television series with very big production values which was to be filmed all over Europe. I would be doing the physical effects and the lead actor was going to be another 'Man From U.N.C.L.E'. star, Robert Vaughn. That series was 'The Protectors' for Gerry.
Back into the fold as it were.
Yes, quite. I was given a Volkswagen Estate which I loaded up with explosives, guns and blank ammunition. Off I went to Copenhagen where I met up with Charlie Crichton who was one of the directors, and it was the first time I worked with that lovely man. He did 'Space: 1999' too. I drove from Copenhagen to Austria in a day. Can you believe that - 750 miles? The rest of the crew and cast all flew and I remember that we ended up on this bit of rock on a bloody great mountain. We had to step from this cable car onto the mountainside cable car stop. There was a gap which actually wasnt that far across, but it was when you looked down and saw that it was three thousand feet down to the plains below. I had to rig up some bullet hits and that sort of thing.
It was a nice show to work on, even working with Gerry again. It was more than five or six years since the exploding cigar incident and it was all water under the bridge as far as I was concerned. In the interim, we had occasionally seen each other at various studios and waved to each other, so there were no hard feelings.
Did you experience any problems driving around Europe with a car full of weaponry and explosives?
Actually, I did. I was driving through an Italian border post when I was stopped. I had a Walther, a Smith & Wesson and about half a dozen other pistols and all the rest and the Italians said, You have to leave all this here. I tried to explain but they would not let me take the guns, so I called the production manager in Venice to try to sort something out. Off I went, leaving all this stuff in a lock-up on the border, worrying about how we were going to manage without it. I couldnt believe it when I got to Venice because there was an almost identical box waiting for me there with a complete set of guns and it turned out that a Mafia guy had supplied them for the filming!
The biggest problems on 'The Protectors' were sorting out the arguments between Nyree Dawn Porter and Robert Vaughn about who should have the bigger hotel suite or the bigger caravan! At the end of the filming, I came down with a terrible dose of food poisoning and I was flown back to Britain, so somebody else had to drive the car and as they went back through the border they were waved over, the guns were put back in the car and off they went. All of this was probably around 1972 as I recall.
At this time 'UFO' was gaining a reputation around the world, were you familiar with the programme?
Yes, I was and some of the stuff that Derek was doing was outstanding, but I have to say that by that time I could have done equally as well with the team he had. They were good guys and I had learnt a great deal in the five or six years since I had left Gerry to do '2001'. I understand that Derek and Gerry had a bit of a fall out. I dont know what it was about and I dont know exactly when it happened, but I understand that it was around that time and Derek moved on to do different things: the Bond films, of course, were on the horizon for him. So when Gerry was planning 'Space: 1999', I got a phone call. It wasnt a problem because I had seen Gerry on and off for a few years and, obviously, I had just done 'The Protectors'.
Were you aware of the proposed enormity of the series?
I think I read some plot outlines maybe, and I certainly talked to Gerry and realised that it was going to be a big show. I told Gerry that I would love to head the effects unit and that I was confident that I could do some really nice work, but I wasnt prepared to be treated like I had been on 'Thunderbirds'. Gerry said, No problem. Youll be looked after and you can hand pick your own team of guys.
How did you decide on who to use?
I wanted people who I had worked with in the past, or who I knew could deliver the goods. I wanted Nick Allder as director and Harry Oakes to light it. I wanted Terry Pearce and David Litchfield on camera. We set up at Bray and did some stuff that I am still very pleased with. Keith Wilson and I worked together on different ideas for Moonbase Alpha. Keith was a genius and he could do some wonderful things. I told him that we should think of Alpha like the TARDIS in 'Doctor Who': it didnt matter how big something was on the outside, if it looked good and the inside looked good too people didnt mind that things didnt match perfectly, and I think it all worked out very well in those terms.
When you began work on 'Space: 1999' did you make a decision to adopt the multiple exposure technique of effects photography as opposed to the 'Thunderbirds' style of shooting?
One of the first problems I came up against was the camera that Gerry wanted me to use. He had a 16mm Mitchell camera and told me to shoot the effects on that. It was three percent cheaper to use 16mm but I said to Gerry, Youll be saving a few bob, but it will just look shit. You cant do effects to the standard that we did on 'Space: 1999' on a 16mm camera. It was ridiculous. What we did use were high speed, rock steady 35mm cameras which allowed us to multiple expose, and that was why we needed Terry and David because they really knew all about that kind of technique. We all knew that '2001'-style shots were what we all wanted and the multiple exposure technique was really the only way to achieve it.
How did you plan shots using this technique?
Well, we had a grid set up in camera so that you could plot the course or see the course that a model had taken through the shot. We then had to go back and follow the path of the ship dropping in stars and I actually think it worked very well. What I really wanted to do was to rotascope in all these intense stars and starfields but we didnt have the time to do it. We had fifty or sixty effects shots per episode and we just had to get on and do it in the quickest and most economic way possible. We were given ten or eleven shooting days per episode, so we were churning it out at a rate of five or six shots a day. I wanted to do a good job and having learnt what I had done, I really thought that doing it Dereks way was slow and a little old fashioned really. I didnt want to go down the old road of painted backings and so on, although there were times when we shot things just as we would have done on 'Stingray' or 'Thunderbirds'.
Many of the effects shots seen in 'Space: 1999' are reminiscent of those seen in the Hammer film 'Moon Zero Two' which you also worked on with Nick Allder.
Yes, although along with a great many other technicians, I dont receive a credit as the effects were credited to Les Bowie. It was a terrible film as I recall, but some of the effects and miniatures were quite nice. We had the benefit of a director of photography who was particularly awkward to work with in terms of visual effects photography. He had these terrible photographs of the Moon from some satellite or something that had landed there and they were grossly under-exposed and everything looked green. Because the pictures had this green tint, he thought that the Moon was really green. I said to him, Look up at the Moon you can see that its bloody grey and not green, but he wouldnt have it and we had to colour all this cement dust green because he insisted on it.
What particular sequences were you responsible for in 'Moon Zero Two'?
We did the radio-controlled buggy and we had the full size one too. We were able to use them in the same shot with the big one driving along and passing behind an outcrop of rocks, and then the model coming out the other side so that it looked like it was going off miles into the distance. Les Bowie made sure that the effects were good because that was Les, even though the film was pretty awful. He was a master. The budget he had on that first thing I did with him, 'The Day the Earth Caught Fire', was only £17,500. That was materials, wages, models, stage space, the lot. He took pride in his work more than being worried about making money. That was what the guy was like.
There are a number of links between 'Moon Zero Two' and 'Space: 1999'.
Yes, thats right. We had Catherine Schell in there obviously and I also think some of the 'Moon Zero Two' space suits were used in 'Space: 1999' as well but I think they were repainted or something as I recall.
Can you tell us a little about the design of the Eagles in 'Space: 1999' and artist Chris Fosss contribution to it?
Well, Chris may have done an illustration that I believe was used in a promotional brochure or something, but the actual original design was mine. I also did the Hawk and a number of other ones. When it came to actually building them we often had to put them out to other companies or individuals because I never saw the sense in having my people tied up with building things when we could get them done reasonably by other firms. It allowed us to just concentrate on filming them because we were really a very small unit and didnt have the time. Of course, there were times when we all got involved in building something or fixing something but mostly I was concerned in the filming and getting it done on time.
My only recollection of Chris Foss was when I was asked to do a feature film version of the comic strip 'Dan Dare'. I worked on the film for quite a while and we even went to Cannes to push it but it never came off. I remember Chris Foss was involved in the artwork for that and he was also involved with 'Alien' too a few years later.
The original design drawings for the Eagle were done by me. I then took on Michael Lamont, one of the famous Lamonts involved in art and design in the British film industry, and he drew it out as a plan from my sketches. It wasnt quite as long as I wanted so we added bits and stretched things out until it looked like the thing that was in the series. We had the front elevation and all the rest done and when it was ready to be built, I think Derek Lovegrove built the first one, the 44 inch Eagle, for us. We had three other sizes, 22 inches, 11 inches and 6 inches, and I am still very pleased with how it came out in the end.
In virtually every episode, we saw an Eagle meeting an explosive demise of one sort or another. Did you go through a great deal of miniatures to achieve these spectacular crashes and explosions?
Well, if we could avoid blowing up a model or damaging it too greatly we would, but sometimes one went up and that was that. Mostly we would do all sorts of things to give the impression of an exploding vehicle. We would cut and then insert a shot of an explosion using a bag of kit parts with just a few recognisable pieces in there. Another time we would blow up an image of an Eagle using a photo cut-out or something but sometimes we did have to crash or set a model on fire, but we were very careful. If an Eagle was to crash on a planet or the Moon surface, we would cover the set with polystyrene balls and then put quite a thick layer of grey dust and powder on top. This meant that when the model came crashing down onto the surface there would be loads of dust kicked up and the Eagle would really look like it had ploughed into the Moons surface. In reality, it was all these soft polystyrene balls so because the models themselves were pretty strong, there was generally no damage at all, but with all the dust being thrown up it looked quite realistic. I was really just so pleased that the Eagles themselves looked so good. It wasnt a problem to see them crashing, taking off, flying or even just standing on the launch pad because they just looked great no matter what they were doing - like Thunderbird 2 really, I suppose.
Were you involved in a hands-on capacity as you were on 'Thunderbirds'?
Oh, yes. I did a bit of flying and I was in there. I liked flying the 44 inch Eagle as it looked good because of its size, but it was a problem at times for that very reason. I am quite proud to say that even though it was so big and heavy I was able to fly it with one hand using a T-frame and wires and it still looked good. In the second series, I used it quite a bit but I guess the 22 inch was the easiest for us to work with. We also kept the models static and used the cameras to give the impression of movement by tracking past them, but we did that traditional wire work too. In those days, we just did whatever it took to make a shot work and if it meant using the big Eagle we did it, if it meant using a small Eagle we did it and if it meant actually blowing something up we did it. I have to say that even if it meant using some kind of dangerous chemical we did it too. We just wanted the effects on Space to look good.
It could be said that you were single-handedly responsible for the hole in the ozone layer!
Yes! I know what you mean with all that freon gas. We used freon gas to give the Eagles a realistic-looking exhaust burst and to kick up a little dust on the pads. We never thought about the consequences of the stuff - we just thought, That looks great, so we used it. We used titanium tetrachloride too to make the ships look like they were smoking after having exploded or burning up on re-entry or something, and that was dreadful stuff.
My only real concern throughout my career has been harming animals. I actually remember saying to Gerry that there were two or three scripts in the second season of 'Space: 1999' that I wouldnt touch because there were things in there that I knew meant animals being harmed or made to do things I didnt like the sound of, so I made a bit of a fuss. I actually refused to get involved in the episode of 'Thunderbirds' with the crocodiles. I am not a vegetarian or anything but I just dont like the idea of animals being hurt to entertain people and when they started talking about running voltage through the poor bloody things to make them move I just said, No way am I involved in this. It was not on. It is so much better now, but years ago animals went through all sorts for the sake of a movie and I just didnt agree with it at all. I really would have walked if I had been involved in some of the films I have heard about because Im not afraid to do that.
Have you ever been driven to walking from a picture?
Yes, on a movie called 'Universal Soldier'. I was at odds with the director over this idea that he wanted to use real bullets and bullet hits whenever he could to make a shot look realistic and to give a supposed feel of authenticity to the picture. I tried to explain that it was just too dangerous and that real bullets dont look as spectacular as movie bullet hits anyway. Finally they agreed and we had to re-shoot some stuff because it just looked crap with these little bullet holes. We were out at Bisley where the firing ranges are, where the army and police train. I was setting up one target with special effects charges and all of a sudden one of the actors picks up a real gun with live ammunition and opens up on this target just a few yards away from the one we were rigging up. It was pretty close and myself and the other effects guy just dived for cover and screamed at the tops of our voices for him to stop firing. I was just furious and stormed over to him and the director, I was livid and I said, Thats it. Im off. The whole picture was a disaster and I dont know if it ever actually came out at the cinema. They had these ideas about doing things for real but sometimes you have to forget realism in order to achieve an effect that looks good on screen.
On 'Space: 1999', how did you get the balance between realism and what looked good on screen?
It was difficult, but on 'Space: 1999' I wanted it all to look as authentic as we could. There had been the real Moon missions by then and the public were familiar with the kind of vehicles that were landing there so I couldnt do something like 'Fireball XL5' obviously, but I still wanted to do things that made people go, Cor! Look at that! I had this thing about vehicles having a kind of insect look: the head or beak of the Eagle was the beginning of that sort of shape and then it went down into a body with legs and so on. I think it was very futuristic and not run-of-the-mill. I was still pleased that we captured a real NASA sort of look to it as well because the lunar landing vehicles were not unlike the beaks of the Eagles with those dark windows set back into the main structure. I was very pleased with all of the design aspects of the series actually, but there were other aspects that I wasnt quite so impressed with.
Well, honestly, the acting wasnt that great at times and the stories were crap werent they? That is the unfortunate thing because it all looked just gorgeous. I felt that the stories lacked focus. I felt that something like 'Star Trek' worked better. There was a start, a middle and an end. I think that was what was missing from 'Space'. 'Star Trek' had effects which looked pretty crappy really, but you cared about Spock and Kirk and all the rest them and if you arent interested in the characters or the stories it doesnt really matter how good the effects or sets are. When you see these American shows there are hundreds of writers involved. Poor old Chris Penfold could only draw on about four people and that was it and I think in those terms we floundered. I have to say that the first series was much better than the second with Maya and all of that stuff.
It must have been frustrating with you and your team working hard on effects if you felt that the live-action work was falling short of the mark.
It was, but at the time we never worried that much because we were just concerned with getting our allocation of shots on film each day. You cant afford to worry about everybody elses business. You have to crack on with your own. Obviously, as a senior member of the production team for a big show I had opinions and thoughts on other aspects too.
I wasnt that impressed
with the casting actually. I remember Gerry and Sylvia
coming back from America saying how great it was that
they had got Martin Landau and Barbara Bain. I was young
and probably talking out of turn but I said, Great.
But theyre a bit old arent they? Gerry
picked up this picture and said, Look at that.
Hes a good-looking tough kind of guy and look at
her - shes beautiful. I said, Yeah, but
thats a 'Mission:Impossible' publicity
shot from about 10 years ago.
Given all of these problems you must have been pleased to have been with your own unit at Bray.
God, yes! Absolutely. I still had to go over to Pinewood to get involved with some of the physical stuff being done although I did have Les and some of John Stearss boys handling things there. I have to say that I dont really recall too many specific episodes or shots or even problems because we just churned them out. I remember Brian The Brain and a few others but I was very busy at that period of my career and I just kept moving from project to project.
I think after 'Space: 1999' I went straight into 'The Revenge Of The Pink Panther', 'The Medusa Touch' with Richard Burton and then the real big ones like 'Alien', 'The Empire Strikes Back' and 'Dragonslayer'. I was involved with the first 'Superman' too. I was part of a team developing a radio-controlled plane which was painted and dressed to look like Superman. It wasnt all that successful but when that film was in pre-production they were trying all sorts of things to get the flying to look right and that was just one option which was never actually used. They must have spent millions even before one frame of the actual film was shot. I was involved when Guy Hamilton, the Bond director, was signed to do it and none of us ever saw the man. He was always off playing golf. How can a director on a film as big as that be off around Europe playing bloody golf when the effects guys are knocking themselves out trying to create an effect which will make an audience believe a man can actually fly? He needed to be around to see rushes and to talk about things. It was no surprise that he left or was let go or whatever. I had never heard anything like it.
Can you tell us a little about those big movies and the rewards they brought you?
Well, it kind of goes back to 'Space: 1999' actually. We were working at Bray on the first season when we got a phone call from some Americans who were planning this space picture and were looking to film it over here in England. We invited them down to the studios and had a chat but we were really too involved in shooting 'Space' to think too much about it all. They came down to Bray and asked how we might go about doing certain shots and we told them. They saw the Eagles and all the rest, liked what they saw and immediately offered me the chance to do the effects for their picture. I told them that we had just signed to do another series of 'Space: 1999' but one of these guys said that they hoped there would be a series of movies based on this idea and would I like to do the second one if it all came off? I said, Of course, I would love to do it, and off they went and to be honest I didnt really give it much thought after that because I had to get on with the job in hand which was 'Space'. Then a picture came out by the name of 'Star Wars' and it hit me that it was George Lucas and Gary Kurtz who had come down to see me at Bray a couple of years earlier!
The big science-fiction thing happened and I got involved in 'Alien', but then I got a call from Gary Kurtz and he said, Hi. Do you remember me? I came to see you a few years back about working on our picture but you were busy. Are you free to work on our next picture which is the sequel to 'Star Wars'? I was in a bit of a spot because I really wanted to do it but I was signed on for 'Alien' and I knew the schedules of the two pictures would clash. Gary Kurtz said he would take care of it and had a word with 20th Century Fox and it was agreed that I would be released from 'Alien' when they needed me for 'The Empire Strikes Back'. Originally Walter Hill was signed up as the director of 'Alien' and it was arranged with him by Fox that I was going to jump ship towards the end of production to do 'Empire'.
The problem was that Walter left 'Alien' and in came Ridley Scott who wasnt involved in this arrangement. Months later, when I was really involved in 'Alien', all these calls came through from Lucasfilm and finally I had to walk away from 'Alien'. Ridley was well pissed off and I dont blame him. It was just that he took so long on 'Alien' - and rightly so because it is an amazing picture - that it must have seemed to him that I was leaving him half way through the picture, but if it had all gone to the original schedule arranged when Walter Hill was on board, I would have only been leaving a few weeks from the end of production to join the team on 'Empire'.
It actually wasnt that far off the original schedule really, but I was annoyed myself because I didnt want to leave the picture as I was loving it. It was a great film to work on. Nicky Allder carried on and I went off to do 'Empire' and as soon as I could, I got him and the rest of the boys over to Elstree to work on it as well. I was back and forwards all the time between ILM and Elstree but it was worth it because the film has got some really nice stuff in there. When I was in the States, I had a lovely house courtesy of George Lucas overlooking the bay in San Francisco and a Porsche and all the rest and it was just great.
What was it like when the Oscars started coming?
It is a hell of an ego thing
but just amazing. We were in California at the time
working on 'Empire' but we went to the ceremony
and I thought that there was no way was I coming away
with an Oscar because I thought that the Spielberg
picture '1941' was going to get it for effects.
We were actually up against Derek for his work on 'Moonraker'
and the first 'Star Trek' movie was nominated
too, but when they screened these little clips to show
the different effects sequences, the 'Alien'
clip got this amazing roar from the audience. I remember
the reaction when people first saw it in the cinema with
people screaming and crawling out because they
couldnt stand the suspense and all that, so I knew
it was a special picture. Then they got to the
announcement of the winner and they said, I think,
Carlo Rambaldi... and that was it, my name
was announced and we had won it.
That wasnt your final trip to the Oscars was it?
No, it wasnt. I was back there the following year for 'The Empire Strikes Back'. That was a big one because we had a special award as the Academy felt that there were no other pictures which came anywhere near us that year for visual effects, so we went along knowing we had got it. I was up there with Richard Edlund and Dennis Muren but we were just the tip of the iceberg because on that picture there were about 140 men doing effects at ILM and another 35 in England. You are a team member but my name was there to collect it and I was very pleased. Then I was nominated again for 'Dragonslayer'. That was a picture that I was personally asked to work on by Lucas and Spielberg. I was working on 'Raiders Of The Lost Ark' when I was called in to see George. Steven Spielberg was sitting there too and he said that their mates were doing 'Dragonslayer' for Disney and asked if I would I work on it for them. I was annoyed because I wanted to carry on with 'Raiders' because I could see how good it was going to be. I did 'Dragonslayer' but after that I didnt work for Lucasfilm again.
You were also involved in 'Aliens' for James Cameron.
Yes, thats right. I
was on the Oscar nomination list for that too. Jim
Cameron called me into his office to tell me that there
were four nominees names allowed by the Academy and
I was one of them but LA Effects had a clause in their
contract stating that if the picture should be nominated
for an effects Oscar that a senior member of the LA
Effects team should have their name up there or there
would be a massive penalty paid to them.
Coming almost full circle, is it true that Jim Cameron made the 'Aliens' crew watch episodes of 'Thunderbirds' in order to instill in them the kind of ideas he had for the model shots?
Yes. He knew the kind of feel he wanted and what could be achieved and so that was a kind of a guide I suppose.
|I was very
flattered by Jim because he is usually all over every
aspect of his productions but I was out at Bourne End and
he hardly ever came out to see me, so I guess he was
pretty confident with us and happy with everything we
were shooting for him.
Jim is a kind of fan of all the things that I have done and I have to say Im not. Thats not to say that I didnt enjoy working on all these productions but I dont collect stuff like I guess people like you do. Nonetheless, it is lovely to know that, to this day, people enjoy work that I did many years ago on things like 'Thunderbirds', '2001', 'Space: 1999' and 'Alien' and I am proud to have been responsible for things that still give people pleasure.
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interview photographs by Martin Gainsford
Moon Zero Two photographs by Neil Swan
Gerry Anderson production photographs ITC Entertainment Group
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Martin Gainsford & David Sisson (2001). Thanks also to Chris Bentley