Terrahawks SFX. Behind The Scenes Special - 2
A conversation with Steven Begg, the man who put the Terrahawks futuristic world on screen.

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 2010 to chat about Terrahawks – his very first job and Gerry Anderson’s last major puppet show.
David: I’m assuming that you grew up watching Gerry Anderson programs, were they a favourite of yours?
Steven: I grew up with ‘Fireball’ and ‘Stingray’ being my first influence and then all the others, with ‘UFO’ and ‘Space: 1999’ having a big impact on me. But I never saw ‘The Secret Service’.
I was primarily taken by the miniature special effects work and wasn't that interested in the puppets.
The TV21 comics also had a massive impact on me as well and I basically learned to draw and illustrate by copying Mike Noble's stuff in particular. Other influences at the time were the work of Ray Harryhausen and also Douglas Trumbull (2001, Silent Running).

David: Were you specifically interested in the model-making work or was it more making movies and the filming of special effects?
Steven: I did dabble with model-making and was very interested in it, but it was the filming that really interested me. The lighting of the models and the camera angles and frame rates (plus a properly detailed model) were the magic to me.

David: I believe that you were into amateur film making, you appeared in the 1978 September issue of ‘Film Making’ magazine talking about your movie ‘Night of the Intergalactic Craft’, which had won an award.
Steven: Yep, it was a nonsense exercise in Super-8mm visual effects involving a plasticine stop-motion alien who comes to Earth and has a battle with hostile military forces. It was a non-stop model effects battle sequence but the 'Film Making' crowd seemed to like it.

I got the award from Bernard Wilkie who was an extremely nice man; he was the head of the BBC's visual effects department at the time and said that I would easily get a job in their department - anytime!
When I applied through the proper lines to do that I was rejected as I didn't have a degree in anything, which I thought was rich coming from a group who were, I felt, the benchmark in the worst VFX anyone had seen at that time!
Anyway thanks to Bernie.
David: How did you first meet Gerry and get a job on the Terrahawks production. Did you hear about the job and apply?
Steven: I knew Phil Rae and he was involved in setting up a Gerry Anderson exhibition in Blackpool. Phil tipped me off that Gerry would be visiting and so I gathered up my 16mm films and traipsed off down there from Edinburgh. I showed one of my films and Gerry said he had already seen it, which surprised me. Anyway he seemed impressed and said keep in touch, which I did, probably to the point of annoying him.
A year later I get a call from him saying can you storyboard? And can you send me some examples ASAP? I had done crude one's for my own stuff, but nothing I was proud of, so I spent two long nights churning out boards at the highest quality I could manage for imaginary action shots which I sent to him and he liked.
David: So you were originally hired to do design & storyboard work? How long did this go on for?
Steven: I storyboarded and designed for a quite a few weeks (I was delirious) till Ian Scoones started. My style of art on the boards was heavily influenced by concept designer Joe Johnson's art on the first three 'Star Wars' films, which was ink and marker. Funnily enough I've just spent the last two years working as VFX supervisor on 'The Wolfman’, which was directed by Joe. Anyway my take on the craft and hardware kind of ended when Scoones came on board.
David: Your pre-production designs for the craft seemed to be better than the final designs used - the Battlehawk for instance seemed much rounder and nicer looking - how were the final designs arrived at?
Steven: At the time the craft were being built Ian Scoones was in charge, so I didn't really have any say in how my designs where interpreted. The Battlehawk was the biggest letdown for me personally, as I'd drawn the thing as being very rounded and curvy. Gary Tompkins, the art director, drew it up as angular and Ian Scoones then chose the colour scheme. The only redeeming factor was John Lee and Steve Woodcocks panelling and detailing. This went for all the other craft to a degree. The first vehicle I had any real say in was the Overlander, as I had taken over as SFX Director by then.

There was a mooted third series of Terrahawks, as it was very popular on ITV at the time getting 7 - 10million viewers, and I talked Gerry into starting the first new episode with the old Battlehawk being destroyed and then a new rounder mark II version based on my designs replacing it. Unfortunately Christopher Burr decided not to finance that series.... Bugger!

David: I heard a story that the Battlehawk was supposed to be on a launch platform, which raised it up into its vertical take-off position?
Steven: Yes that’s true, but it was dumped as Gerry found it slowed down the action. This was around the time he fell out with Ian Scoones I think.

David: Mark Harris said that the Battlehawk hanger had been entirely lined with metal sheeting, was this because you were planning to have big flame effects coming out of the vehicle as it launched?
Steven: Yes the flames idea is correct and also came from Ian. Unfortunately they were not that big and by the time I’d got involved we were using backlit CO2 and air-movers to simulate exhaust jets. So it was a bit of overkill but it kept Mark and a couple of the other guys very busy for weeks which pissed them off!!

David: Did you have any input into the basic concept of the show - Were you involved with coming up for ideas on how the craft were launched?
Steven: The White House, the tree opening and the spinning lake vortex were Gerry's ideas.
I became good mates with the writer, Tony Barwick, and used to fire ideas off to him in the studio bar, which he then started to incorporate into later shows, the collapsing bridge with the Overlander in ‘Thunder Roar’ comes to mind.
The lake vortex and Hawkwing launch were the only ones that I actually shot myself.

David: How was that Hawkwing launch shot actually done?
Steven: The initial surface disturbance on the lake was done outdoors on a small exterior tank in the Bray studios car park which was specifically built for Terrahawks but only used this once. Shots of the actual vortex itself was achieved by pumping water around the inside of a Perspex cone/funnel and was shot at 120fps (*frames per second, normal camera speed is 25 so this shot is slowed down by a factor of 5) while pulling out of it's centre a 3-inch wingspan Hawkwing, on a single wire.  
The underwater shot of the vortex forming was shot dry-for-wet through a narrow foreground water tank with bubble effects in it. Just like the technique for Stingray coming out of its underwater launch tunnel. The actual vortex forming was a double-exposed effect.

David: What did you think when Gerry offered you the job as SFX Director!
Steven: Allegedly he had this in mind all the time, but I was utterly stunned.
I was so full of myself at the time that I leapt at the job offer anyway. I had a lot to learn, however the main one being dealing with a Union crew. The work was real fun, the politics not! The politics followed me onto ‘Aliens’ were the unions tried to get me kicked off that film - because I was too young!

David: Had much been filmed before this happened, as you did get the credit as SFX Director from episode one.
Steven: Big chunks of the various launch sequences had actually been shot, by Ian and Gus Ramsden (his assistant), before I took over, I had to hit the ground running and finish episode one. By episode two I was starting to get a feel for it and then by three (Gold), which was utter **** as an episode, I'd got the take on how to work closely with the SFX crew. Or at least I thought so.

David: What was the experience of the people surrounding you, as many seemed to be new starters like yourself. I recognized Harry Oakes as one of the old timers and I believe that Malcolm King had been in the business quite a while. Did they advise you?
Steven: Harry became a good friend and I constantly grilled him about how things were done in the past, e.g. what speed did they shoot the SHADO Mobiles? I learned a hell of a lot from him.
Malcolm I had a few run-ins with, mainly about the look of the pyro effects (explosions). I wanted the classic ‘Century 21’ bangs. He went the ‘Space: 1999’ route of having too much magnesium and titanium in the mix. We experimented with Iron filings and then we started getting what I wanted when I would dress rubber dust (coloured dust derived from the shavings of tyre remoulds, used for set dressing) on the top of his pyro. It was highly inflammable when airborne and would create a nice orangey-red fireball! Years later that's the very same mix for the train explosion at the end of 'Batman Begins'!
David: Although classed as the ‘Director’ there are pictures of you holding the models support wires during the filming, setting up the shot or operating the camera. Were you very ‘hands on’ - wanting to do every job?
Steven: Extremely, including painting the backings. This led to me getting a job with Derek Meddings years later, were I did pyro, painted backings, etc with him.

David: Terrahawks was made in 16mm, did this present you with any problems? Or did it have advantages. I’m just wondering if the prospect of using 16mm was less daunting to you with your previous experience than say jumping straight into using 35mm cameras.
Steven: I'd used 16mm on my amateur projects and was very confident with it. You get a better depth of field with it by the way. We were also told you can’t do steady multiple exposure passes, which turned out to be utter crap. Just take a look at the Terrahawks space-shots.
The down side is that it's inherently grainier than 35mm, which is why it didn't look too good in some areas. When 35mm came along in some later commercial work I none the less found it was pretty much the same approach.

David: 'Space: 1999' rather famously utilized the multiple-exposure technique for many of its special effects. You copied this but seemed more willing to push it to its limit – you didn’t seem scared of over-lapping images.
Steven: I was very happy with a lot of the space shots on this show and we got wilder and more adventurous as the show progressed, to the point where I started to introduce the multi-exposure trick into non-space stuff. For example, the UFO in ‘Cry UFO’ had us bolt a forced perspective landscape onto the camera as we did multiple in-camera passes on the Close-Encounters style UFO model, with it flying over camera.

David: Did you feel an added pressure of audience expectation, in that you were working on a Gerry Anderson production, something that would be compared to 'Thunderbirds' and 'Space: 1999'.
Steven: Yes there was a great deal of pressure. Particularly in my mind...
We just didn't have the budgets of the original shows or the resources. Bob Bell said we were only slightly bigger than ‘Fireball XL5’ in our complete puppet/model unit set-up!

David: Not only that though, Terrahawks was also made at a time when Sci-Fi and special effects were suddenly big business in Hollywood. You now had 'Star Wars/Battlestar Gallactica' effects to try and match up to in episodes like ‘First Strike’ !
Steven: Yep, with our cheap and cheerful resources I tried to emulate/send up big budget effects! Sometimes I was surprised how close we got thanks to a great crew.

David: Was there much contact with the puppet department?
Steven: Very little outside of checking what a particular character looked like if we had to manufacture him/her/it in miniature.
When we first saw the puppets we thought we might be in trouble, but their goofiness seemed to win some people over who thought Terrahawks was actually a pastiche of the earlier shows - which it seriously was not supposed to be, but thanks to Tony Barwick it ended up that way.

David: Did you get involved with operating the full-sized Zeroids?
Steven: No we had no involvement with the full-sized Zeroids, or puppets what so ever.
However I'd planned to try and overlap more by having puppets in the foreground on our miniature set-ups, also double-expose them into our model footage had a third series happened.

David: Was it tricky working with the very small Cubes and Zeroids?

Steven: The Zeroids where easy (they were just EMA spheres) and fun, the cubes less so, as its kind of hard to animate a box! I thought the Zeroids could have had a show all of their own and I know that Gerry seriously considered it.
We used wires to move them, also blowing/throwing them, stop-motion and sometimes running the camera in reverse. The whole Zeroid gag was based on the bouncing spheres that appeared in ‘The AB Chrysalis’ episode of 'Space: 1999'.

David: You used stop-motion in some of the other shots – manipulator arms on vehicles, the wing tips of Hawkwing, etc. Is this a technique that you were a fan of?
Steven: I was a big fan of stop-motion and used it where possible. It all seemed to be a mystery technique to Gerry and the crew, till I did some in this show. I then did the pilot of ‘Dick Spanner’ years later using stop-motion, with my 16mm Bolex camera which I'd used on my previous amateur epics. On the strength of that show Gerry then went on to direct a series of animated commercials, so you can say I introduced 'stop-frame' to him.

David: What sort of camera film speeds were you using?
Steven: We did everything but 25fps, the normal live-action speed. I used all speeds from single frame up to 400fps – which was done on a special camera called a Photosonic, for the really big explosions. Sometimes we shot at 4fps to get a really sharp image on space stuff

David: So how many cameras did you have access to? And was there an average number of effects shots that you had to achieve per day?
Steven: We had two 16mm high-speed Mitchells , the Photosonic, and my Bolex for single frame. We averaged 6-10 shots a day…. to my mind then and now, way too fast!

David: While many of your space explosions done with a simple straight cut from a spaceship to an explosion, some of your later ones (examples - 'The Ultimate Menace', 'Jolly Roger One') featured electrical discharges, mini-glowing flares and then what appears to be an over-lapped explosion(s) that I could only imagine being done on an optical printer. How did you do such an effect in-camera?
Steven: Our Space explosions where done using the zero-gee approach pioneered By Brian and Nick on ‘Space: 1999’, where the camera looks straight up at a pyro suspended overhead so that all the sparks and debris radiate down towards the camera (It always bugged me that Joe Viskocil claimed to have invented that technique for ‘Star Wars’ five years later). It was primarily a jump-cut effect but ‘Ultimate Menace’ was indeed an optical dissolve. 'Jolly Roger One' had us actually blow the model up Zero-G style but again was dissolved over a multi-pass space shot of the Jolly Roger ship. They were the only optical effects in the whole series. The Glows and flashes were a separate pass of flashbulbs and fibre-optics (sometimes with Vaseline on the camera lens) attached to the models in the non-explosive piece of film. Also the electrical discharges were real small scale arcs photographed against black.

David: The model making on the show was of a very high quality. I believe that all the model building work was done in-house (Apart from Spacehawk built by Philip D. Rae) unlike past shows that had outside contractors.
Steven: We had a great team initially headed by Nick Finlayson, who left after the first series to work on a Bond picture and then Simon Deering from 'Alien' on the second.
Nick was actually talked into leaving the show by his wife, who thought the show was too childish and would hurt his career. Years later I worked with him again on the miniatures in 'Casino Royale'.

David: The Overlander was a brilliant design, very ‘Thunderbirds’ like.
Steven: By the time the episode with the Overlander appears I'd been given full reins on the model effects. I'd been a fan of all the multi-tracked/wheeled vehicles that had appeared in the earlier Anderson shows, so this was my pent-up appreciation of all those designs!
The Overlander was great fun to shoot. Its suspension was a brilliant idea by a chap called Peter Bohanna, where he used rubber erasers as suspension in its chassis! It gave it terrific scale and action - and luckily all the cabs followed each other.

David: Did you design the figure in the gardens that was actually the Radio-Telescope – I thought that was a really neat design!
Steven: That was designed by Ian Scoones, who was a really nice guy, but just not into science fiction action stuff. He also designed a lot of abstract shapes for Zelda's fleet which Gerry rejected before we settled on the angular geometric type spaceships. One of which ended up as a background spaceship in 'Aliens'!

David: Was there a size limit on the models – they did sometimes seem smaller than some of the models used on past shows. Was there a certain scale that you worked at?
Steven: We were rather limited by the size of the stage. Actually it was the smallest one at Bray studios. When Derek Meddings came by one day he was stunned that it was all the room we had for shooting the miniatures. I really wanted to go outside but the weather was always a problem.

David: Spacehawk was the first craft to be built for the series. Apparently a rush job built in time for the arrival of the Japanese investors. Although an interesting design it wasn’t really designed for use in the series like the other vehicles. Did this give you problems - like wheres the docking ports? It must have given you a headache when the scripts suddenly called for it to 'land' on a moon or planet - something that it simply wasn't built to do.
Steven: We needed it in a hurry, so Phil Rae modified it from one of his existing earlier models. It did look a bit different from all the other hardware, but I always assumed that because it was so big (I never knew why this craft had to be so big) that all the hatches and doors where hidden somewhere on its detail. I hadn't quite got Tony Barwick’s ear by the time they had the silly idea of it landing on the moon and Mars in following episodes.

David: The nightime cityscapes looked rather good, even though there didn’t seem to be many model buildings – was it mostly done using backlit artwork or something?
Steven: They were indeed just large pieces of backlit art with some minimal model work in the foreground in some shots, just to give extra depth. Again we double exposed moving pea-bulbs to imply traffic or flying vehicles in the distance.

David: Was the barrel moon/planet the same as that used on 'Space: 1999'?
Steven: Yes it’s the barrel moon from ‘1999’.
There were loads of artifacts lying around in Bray studios from that show when we arrived to do Terrahawks.  A close-up Eagle section (which became the close-up of the Treehawk bay on the Spacehawk, yes I know its sacrilege), and loads of huge black and white lunar landscape cut-outs.

David: Was there ever something that you could never get to work?
Steven: Actually I hated the flying wire-work. Not only did you have to paint them out on set you had to stop the bloody model from wobbling. I got round that some times by shooting in reverse to get unusual motion and changes in velocity.

I know Derek Meddings hated it too and that is why he lumbered Peter Wragg with the more boring flying stuff on ‘Thunderbirds’. I moved heaven and Earth to get a motion control rig on this show but it died before that happened.

David: Battletank was, I believe, the first Gerry Anderson ‘Hero’ craft to be operated using radio-control, did this ever present a problem?
Steven: No, not at all. I don't remember any problems other than constantly having to change its batteries.

David: There was a different Battletank design in the episode 'A Christmas Miracle' with the addition of a gun turret. Was this in the script or just your idea to improve the tank design? 
Steven: I liked the idea of having a huge arsenal of weapons, and modifications on the hardware, so when possible I encouraged the model makers to play around modifying existing designs.

David: Were the Megazoids supposed to be able to come out of the Battletank? It was blown up in one episode (Terratomb) and I kept thinking why didn’t they get out!
Steven: Nope, they where an integral part of its design. They were meant to be primitive Zeroid technology bolted onto the tank, therefore expendable. With hind-site, I think I thought too deeply about all that stuff, as it wasn't reflected anywhere else in the show.

David: You did several illustrations of the hook design on the Battletank and its use to recover the vehicle and winch it back into the Battlehawk. These were published in several magazines but it was never featured in the series. Did you ever try to film this sequence?
Steven: No it was never required story wise. I screwed up the Battletank drop in the early episodes, I seem to remember it bounced about far too much; it was probably one of the earliest shots I actually supervised.

David: That was the very small model, the problem being that it had no suspension system. From the fifth episode (Close Call) you switched to bouncing the big model in front of camera – which was one of my favourite shots in the series.
Steven: That model was supported off camera by me, with a stick under its chassis and bounced manually into shot. Once it settled I whipped the stick out as the tank roared away. That whole concept was inspired by the really 'Hard' hardware of the earlier shows. There is an episode of 'Joe 90' (Business Holiday) that really had a big effect on me, where he's driving a tank (A14, I seem to remember) attacking a rocket base (what else?) and the action just galvanised me forever!

David: Who was inside the giant Sporilla suit - was that someone in your department?
Steven: Ben Tuszynski who was one of our model-makers played the Sporilla, who was 4ft tall by the way. That was great fun as it was basically a homage to the Japanese 'King Kong' type movies, where they have a guy in a (usually crap) suit. However, I wish we had done more.

David: Your effects shots certainly improved rapidly as the series progressed. The White House model for instance looked rather small in the opening episodes, yet without changing the model you were able to make more believable shots.
Steven: The model was basically way too small, but in later episodes there were some night shots of the Battlehawk taking off where I got low-angles on the house and double-exposed the Battlehawk model into the shot.

David: Were there any other model designs during the series that stood out or pleased you. The Space Tank was rather impressive and seemed to have the same Overlander chassis. And the ZEAF also seemed to suddenly appear and become a very major craft - pretty much replacing the use of all the other ships in Zelda’s fleet!
Steven: The Spacetank was indeed inspired by the Overlander!  I seem to remember that by the episode it appeared in (Two For The Price Of One) we had really nailed the action and explosions on the show. There was also another tracked bomb disposal vehicle based on the Leopard tank chassis, just like the Battletank, which was ok.
The ZEAF was a Tony Barwick idea and built and designed by John Lee in the workshop. My main take on it was to make it fly as fast as possible. Make it as dynamic as possible. A lot of people thought that it was a revamped Snowspeeder from ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, which is was definitely not.
There was also a flying wing spacecraft designed by me in the episode ‘From Here To Infinity’, built by Steven Woodcock, which rescues the stricken Alpha Probe satellite returning to Earth which I thought looked cool.

David: What did you think of the finished program at the time?
Steven: Mainly, I just wish the puppets had been better realized, the show was very camp and if we'd gone with Martin Bower's original take on the characters (i.e. sexy as hell females for example) I think it would have been a classic.

I know the show was derided by many, but I was very proud of the show in many ways as it was my big break. Although it alienated me from a lot of the older effects guys who had earlier come through the same gates with Gerry - with the big exception of Derek Meddings, which says a lot. They went out of their way to stir things up with the Union, which was quite strong at the time. They forgot they had all had similar breaks at Century 21 and didn't like the idea of a newcomer stealing their thunder.

David: Has your opinion changed now?
Steven: I picked up tricks and techniques on that show that I've used on the bigger features I've worked on over the years, but sadly, I find it very nostalgic but pretty un-watchable now.

David: When you look back at the various jobs that you have done to date, TV shows and major feature films, where does Terrahawks come out purely on the enjoyment level. Hard work obviously but was it one of the good times?
Steven: It was the most fun I've ever had on a project. Mainly because of the massive learning curve and relative freedom in making up the shots.
Sadly it was my first proper job in the film/TV industry so I had to wait until projects like 'Batman Begins' and 'Casino Royale', over twenty years later, to have almost the same freedom and fun!

David: Thank you very much for your time Steven.

BACK TO INDEX ........... or ........... Back to INTERVIEW SELECTION

Many thanks to Philip D Rae for the use of his colour behind-the-scenes photographs.
Other photographs by Anderson Burr Pictures Ltd.
'Terrahawks' is copyright by Christopher Burr - No infringement of copyright is intended - non-profit fan interest site only.
'Terrahawks' is a Gerry Anderson and Christopher Burr Production.

David Sisson 2010