Derek Meddings

Interview

David Nightingale, Brendan Sheehan
with Philip D. Rae

You're quite at pains to point out that everthing didn't start with Gerry Anderson, so how did you become involved in the film industry?

I think most people know that my mother and father were in the film industry, in the days of Alexander Korda, and they worked on pictures like Four Feathers, Sabu, and the one with the flying carpet; what the heck was that called?

A fairytale thing... Thief of Bagdad?

Thief of Bagdad! We saw it recently. I suppose as a kid I always wanted to be in the film industry. My main interest at that time was drawing and painting. I wanted to be an artist in the film industry, some way or another, but I was too young. It only started when I came out of the Air Force, having done my National Service, at the time of the Korean War. I thought I was God's gift to the art world and soon discovered that I wasn't and that there were a lot of very talented people around. So I ended up doing the sort of jobs everybody does to make a living; I drove for Pickford's and I packed shoes in Dolcis' warehouse... I did all these terrible, boring things. When I say boring it's probably not boring for people who like doing that kind of work but I wanted to do something different, I wanted to be in an artistic job

Did you do your own home movies?

I've never made an amateur picture in my life – I don't think I'd have the patience.

What kind of films did you like as a child?

Well, I suppose I was into the Errol Flynn pictures, all the old movies being shown on television now.

Do you have an interest in science fiction, in spaceship designs, or is it just a general interest in miniatures?

It's just a general interest. I think space is boring, to be quite honest. Star Wars has made it a little more interesting because they've broken the barriers. It's like, as they originally set it up, doing Battle of Britain, but in space. So those pictures have become interesting, I love them. To me, 2001 was technically brilliant, but bored me. I've tried to watch it six times and I don't think I've ever made the whole film, I've always fallen asleep. It was too ponderous for me.

It seems surprising, then, from what you've just said that you've designed such a rich variety of vehicles over the years.

I like drawing and painting almost anything, I like doing landscapes. If somebody said to me 'Will you design a new car for a picture?', then I'd do it, or I'd have a go at it. I used to design the craft for Gerry Anderson at night and show the sketch to the model makers the next day, and say I want it that big, show them with my hands, and they would do it.

So you wanted to be involved in the technical side of the film industry?

I wanted to be an artist; I wanted either to do backings or do matte shots. I answered an advertisement in a paper that had come from the Art Department at Denham. They wanted a Title Artist, doing the titles for films. I couldn't stand doing titles, having spent five years in art school before I went into the Air Force. I wanted to paint pictures.

Did you have any formal qualifications?

Well, yes, as much as anyone has. I did know one thing: I couldn't stand doing things which were mechanical – such as lettering that had to be so precise. That drove me crazy, but you had to do all these sort of things anyway as part of your training so, of course, lettering was one of those subjects that you had to deal with. I answered this advertisement and thought, 'This is the way to get into the film industry'.

What year was this?

We're going back about 30 years now...

So it was relatively easy to get into the industry?

No it wasn't. This happened to be a Department that wasn't really controlled that much by the unions. It was also a situation where if they applied to the union and there was nobody on the books, they could take in people from outside, like we still do. The idea, of course, was to get your Union Card – there were certain jobs in the film industry at that time that you certainly couldn't get into.

Can you remember the titles that you did?

Red Beret, Iced Diamond was another, and all those British pictures that were made at that particular time. It was quite a Department. We did a lot of American films, a lot of cowboy films. We used to re-title American cowboy films, do the Spanish versions, the German versions, the French versions. You were just copying a typed sheet, everybody's name, of course, was the same but their trade was in German or French. We had a department that used to reproduce the backgrounds. Because they couldn't send a unit to the Arizona desert to film the background again, what we used to do was to paint the background. You'd put it in a projector, project it onto a board like a matte shot and you would draw it all out. If you could find a clip in the film that didn't have the titles over it you would use that as a reference for colour and you would sit there and paint, photographically reproducing this background. The titles would then be put on the top as an overlay, so if it was a moving background with a stagecoach galloping towards you, when we did the foreign versions the stagecoach would not be moving. One day the particular fellow who did this was ill, and they needed somebody who could paint the backings, so I volunteered. When he returned I was given the job of painting the backgrounds and he supervised the running of the Department. So that was my first break into painting for a film, and not just doing titles.

It wasn't a specific special effects department?

Les was also very versatile. Being an artist he could set up model shots, with something in the foreground, and something in the background and, when it was all put together, you wouldn't know that it wasn't a real set. So I was lucky in that respect. He took me on as a matte artist and when we weren't doing matte paintings we'd be doing things for Hammer Horror films, made at Bray, like bodies dissolving, people falling onto the floor and disappearing into dust, making arms with all the skin falling off, horrific things. Les was responsible for making the Hammer Horror films horror films. Had it not been for Les they wouldn't have been horror films! That's how I got my start in the big film special effects business.

One day Gerry Anderson came to Anglo-Scottish Pictures where Les had a department where we all worked, and he asked Les if he would like to do his series of puppet films. He wanted somebody who could paint backings, do a bit of effects, very minor effects, just be a very general artistic adviser.

Was this for Supercar?

No, he'd only just started, this was Twizzle. Gerry asked Les if he would like to do it and Les didn't really want to give up his week-ends, and not only that he was too busy with Hammer Films. He said, 'Thank you for the offer, but I can't really do it, I'm too involved, but he'll do it.' He just pointed at me! So I used to finish with Les, grab some sandwiches, and travel from Shepperton down to Maidenhead, Islet Park. I used to work week-ends and evenings, every Saturday and Sunday, and evenings we'd be working until maybe one or two in the morning.

Were they shooting the rest of the week as well?

They were shooting the rest of the week, and that's why I used to have to go down in the evenings. They used to programme it so that if there were some effects that they wanted, they would do it on a week-end.

Had you heard of Gerry before this?

No.

Did you have any qualms about working in television, as people in the film industry, in those days, tended to look down on television?

Well, yes, they did. Later on, when I was actually very well established with Gerry Anderson, I couldn't get people to come out of the film industry because they were working on big movies, and we were only playing with puppets.

You weren't worried?

No – I just wanted the money. Gerry couldn't pay the same salaries as they were paying in the film industry.

What kind of effects were there for Twizzle?

Oh, silly little things really. I can't remember some of the things, it was for little kiddywinks. Twizzle might pick up something and it would go 'ting'. He would pick up a wand and a light would appear, and a flash of lightning. The other thing I used to do was paint sets for them, miniature streets. If Twizzle was walking down a street I used to paint the houses on hardboard. There'd be a carpenter in the corner... Everybody worked on the same stage, so when I painted the set on hardboard he would fret it out.

So it was just you?

Just me. I was it.

How many people were working for Gerry then, was it a very small set-up?

Yes, it couldn't have been many more than 12, maybe not even 12.

Four Feather Falls was made with a bit more money. Did you make any of the little furniture?

No, they had a Property Master and he did that.

So your role would be to do what?

Well, when we started to do Four Feather Falls it would be to make the little guns, make them fire. Did they have a balloon in Four Feather Falls once?

Yes.

I think I made the balloon. They were very minor effects really. During that time, of course, you got involved in helping with whatever had to be done.

Had you left Les Bowie's stable at this stage?

No. Les had actually departed and had gone off to work on Swiss Family Robinson in Tobago, so I decided to run his ex-Department and I did so for a while, and I was doing alright until Les came back... And then he used to undercut me! He could do it better than me anyway. So I found I didn't get a lot of work, but I was still employed by Anglo-Scottish Pictures. By this time I had really lost interest in doing commercials, I had the taste of working on pictures like the Hammer Horror film. All of a sudden you got this feeling that you were in the film industry now. So to go back to commercials was starting to drive me crazy.

Even with Hammer, was there a lot of money to do the effects?

I don't know, I didn't get involved with the money side of it. Les did everything on a shoestring and, even if you gave Les a lot of money, his idea was never to make anything really complicated, and I still stick to this principle. If you can work it by using elastic bands and a piece of string, why get involved with something highly technical? People often think that way and you look at it and say, 'Why are you using that, why don't you just attach a piece of string and pull it?' People work in different ways. If they're engineers and they love doing things with hydraulics, it's very difficult to stop them. We get involved with hydraulics, but Les taught me to think in a simple way. I hate computers, but unfortunately we're getting into the stage where we've got to use them, or learn to use them, but I still hate them.

Were you involved in the development of Supercar?

Gerry asked me to join, permanently, several times, which I turned down because they weren't offering me the right sort of incentive – like money! We know money isn't everything, but it sure helps when you get it. I One day he said, 'Okay, we'll match Anglo-Scottish.' I was asking something like £25 a week. I think I eventually ended up getting £50 a week. I remember thinking, 'I could be a millionaire at this rate!' Eventually I decided I would leave Anglo-Scottish and join Gerry because it was obviously going to be more interesting. I joined them on the last part of Four Feather Falls and the next thing was Supercar. I designed Supercar with Reg Hill. It was more his idea than mine. With Fireball XL5 it was more mine than his. Whereas with Supercar he was pushing my hand out of the way, with XL5 I was pushing his hand out of the way as he was now a Director and special effects were mine.

How many miniatures were there of Supercar?

We had a 5-foot miniature, that was the largest, and then we had various sizes right down to little tiny things.

Did your work cover the puppet special effects sequences, like the rockets of Supercar firing?

Yes, all that sort of thing, what we call mechanical, floor effects.

How were the flying sequences done in Supercar, back-projection or painted backgrounds? It looks like back-projection on the opening titles...

No, we didn't have back-projection... Yes, I think you're right, I'd forgotten that. We did use back-projection for the main shots.

That must have been very rare in those days?

Yes, it was for Gerry, though not in film-making.

What sort of hours were you working on Supercar?

We'd settle down to working at 8.30am until about six. Sometimes we used to have to go over a little bit, but it was a cosy little studio, and you didn't mind. It was a lovely atmosphere.

What was the turnaround on episodes, one a week?

Oh God, no. I think it was something like four days at that time. They got longer, of course, as the programnes got more complicated. Then we moved into the Slough Trading Estate from Ipswich Road. When I joined they'd moved from Islet park, they were now right on the edge of the Slough Trading Estate in one of the old factories. This was Four Feather Falls. When we started on Thunderbirds I think we'd moved to a much bigger block of buildings where we had three or four stages.

How much involvement did Gerry Anderson have on a day by day basis?

He never interferred with me at all. So long as they went to rushes the following day and see something that looked good on the screen... Gerry used to look after the studio, he played a very active part in it, he even directed some of the episodes if I remember rightly, certainly some of the earlier ones. He was the king-pin behind it all. He motivated everybody with big promises about how one day we'd be as big as Disney, which he believed, and we believed. It just happens that it didn't turn out that way – he nearly got there.

You didn't fall far short, though.

It wasn't Gerry's fault that the series came to an end. It was really down to people who had actually taken over the company.

What sort of gap was there between Supercar and Fireball XL5?

I only remember that we finished one and started the other, there might have been two weeks, but I was never put off. There were times we had to lay off some people, until we got the script and everything together, but they weren't laid off for a great deal of time.

And this was true for all the series right up to UFO?

Yes.

Did you start Supercar on the basis of just doing one series, or were there any ideas at that stage for an extensive series?

I think they all started off hoping that after doing the pilot and doing maybe a set of whatever number Gerry was contracted for, they would be so popular we would do more, and I think that's what happened.

Whose idea was the Fireball XL5 take-off procedure?

Fireball XL5's takeoff ramp in Space City
Behind-the-scenes view of Fireball XL5's Space City with the take-off ramp on the left

Was it a very difficult thing to do? The Stingray jump out of the water is quoted as being a one-take shot...

How did you do it?

On wires. We had two people up on a bridge, one had the fish on wires, on a stick, and one had Stingray. I positioned them so that they would come up in the right place. We got them down in the water and I got rid of the wires, you know by painting them, spraying them, and that was it. Anyway, after that, because I couldn't believe we'd got it in the first take, I think we had about five more attempts at it and never got one to do it again. I said, 'Well, forget it. We'll see rushes.' and it was Take One.

Was the launch of XL5 a one-take wonder?

No, that was a real pain. I remember going through hell to get that. We had to do it in a similar sort of way. I'm not sure how I'd do it if I had to do it again now, I'd probably think of some clever way of getting it off the ramp, but at that time the only way to do it was to actually have somebody run it. It was on a trolley which was actually being pulled, and somebody had to walk the length of the track, keeping the rocket on the trolley, follow it and, at the end, take it off. The rockets were firing on the back, if you remember. We found a company called Schermuly's who made them for us and they used to knock out thousands of these things, and you'd just put them in the back. They didn't give any power, they were just a visual device. It took them a long time to get it to look right. I remember it was a real problem.

Were the space sequences shot on wires, or with the camera tracking towards the miniatures?

No, they were all on wires.

When was the camera tracking principle first used?

It's been in the industry for many years, but when you're doing something like that you're usually doing it blue screen, or you're doing it motion-control nowadays. Having said that, of course, there were occasions when, if we were hanging a craft up against the roller sky, the craft was in a static position and the camera would put movement in, we would zoom out or zoom in following it, and then the camera would make a little pan to the right or left, though if you panned too much you came off the backing and you'd see the rollers going round.

A point of view from another aircraft?

When we used to do shots where we would track into a vehicle, in space, the big problem, of course, is always getting depth of focus between the stars and the subject. At this time I was really very new to it, knowing what I know now I could have done it in a much simpler way. The stars were on the background and looked terrible. So on occasions like that it was a case of tracking the vehicle and the camera close to the backing.

How big was the miniature of XL5?

We had a 6-foot model of XL5.

Where is it now!?!

I don't know, I did see it many, many years ago... and then a smaller one for take-off, which was something like 18" long.

Were the models built in the studio?

Water sequences in Supercar seemed to be very unsophisticated but for Stingray you were dealing with water all the time – water is the big headache in the effects game...

working in the tank
Derek positions the galeon for the Ghost Ship episode of Stingray – note the extremely low position of the camera to lower the horizon and heighten the illusion of reality

The backgrounds were often on a curve, weren't they?

Yes, they were, but when we moved to our bigger premises we used more flat skies so we could actually stack and store them. What I did was paint a night sky, space sky, storm sky, sunny sky, desert sky and, as I couldn't keep changing the background painting, I came up with this idea of flying them so that I had a set of skies and we could lower one behind each new set.

Was there any resistance to doing Stingray because of the water?

No, it was Gerry's idea. I always knew water shots were going to be a problem so we used to run high-speed cameras to give a better effect.

How much detail was given in the scripts about action sequences, or was it left to you?

It would give a description of a vehicle, but you knew darn well that it wouldn't work. The script will say 'a tracked vehicle with 50 lights on the front'. If you actually made it like that it would be hideous, so it was my job to design a vehicle to fit the sequence.

What about car chases, would they be left entirely to you?

Yes, all the effects were left to me. What I used to do was sit with the director during a lunch hour, or in the evenings, and we would go through the script. I would sit there and do little storyboards of what he wanted me to do or how his action, that he was going to shoot, had to tie up with mine, or mine with his. The effects at this time were taking a very prominent part. Every time they came to a new series the first thing they asked for was more effects, more effects. I had about three stages, and three crews, shooting effects. I had to direct one stage and keep my eye on the others.

Did you have any problems changing to colour for Stingray? The puppeteers have sometimes said it was more difficult to paint out the wires in colour.

Were all the versions of Stingray built at the same time, or did you just start off with one size of miniature?

We'd usually build one, maybe two, on the first script because it might say a big close-up of Stingray and then a tiny Stingray for a shot of it way out in the distance. Later on we would make in-between sizes.

Can you remember the names of some of the people who used to build the models for you?

I do remember Ray Brown, he was one of the first ones. Then Peter Aston, who came later. Peter still works in the industry running his own model-making company. Roy Walden has just returned to the fold after many years, and is now working with me again.

A company called 'Space Models' did a lot of stuff for UFO, such as Skydiver...

Yes, they did. I used to put out work to that company when we were hard-pressed.

How were the miniatures moved on still water?

On an underwater track, the water being a foot deep, and then pulled by wires just under the surface. Stingray was put on a little stand on tracks.

What about aircraft flying over a landscape, how were the wires attached?

The wires were attached to a tube, running on a Bowden cable. We used to run out a Bowden cable, thread a tube onto the cable and then run the wires up and over the tube, and tape it on. Then fix a line to the tube, grease the inside of the tube. We used to shoot at high speed to smooth the action of the aircraft. When I gave 'action', one of the crew would run like mad pulling the wire attached to the tube with the aircraft fixed to it.

There's a piece of colour artwork of Stingray in the series, did you do that?

Reg Hill did the painting of it.

How big was the Marineville miniature?

Marineville was about 12 feet square.

And who would build that?

My model-makers. Most of the things were built in the studio, the only time that things went out was when we were either very busy or we couldn't cope with the size or the complex shape. I had model-makers that were excellent as they'd worked in these large companies where they'd been making aeroplanes for various aircraft companies.

How was the Marineville base lowered down, on hydraulics?

Moving onto Thunderbirds, did the Andersons say 'We want five craft which do these five specific functions, you design them.' Or did they say 'The series is about a rescue organisation, you design the craft that will be needed.'?

behind-the-scenes shot
Working on what is left of the Anderbad monorail after helicopter Watchdog crashed into the track this illustration has a larger version

I think we all sat round and discussed it. We were given an outline of what the story was going to be. I can't remember what the descriptions of the vehicles were, but I know that what I designed didn't look anything like the description. I remember taking in this design to Gerry and thinking to myself, 'Well, he's not going to like this because it's nothing like the description in the script.' He looked at it and loved it.

Can you remember what that was?

Yes, it was the big green thing, Thunderbird 2. I hated it, what a bastard to fly! Should never have designed it, really.

Why did the wings point forward, and not backwards?

Why was it so difficult to fly?

It was so big. It had to be large because it had to dwarf everything. Whatever came out of that was like these big American freighters, it had to make Thunderbird 2 look enormous. If you had a tracked vehicle, you couldn't use a little tracked vehicle because you'd have scaling problems with everything else, so you had to make a tracked vehicle in scale with everything else, which of course then meant that you had to have Thunderbird 2 looking huge.

Was there a conscious scale so that they were all in proportion to each other?

No, I don't think so.

So they weren't built to specific scales, then?

No. The sequence where the chair goes up through the bottom part of Thunderbird 3 was one time when we built a very large section.

How many people were working under you at this stage?

I suppose I had about 40 or 50 people, working on three stages. We probably had more than 50 people, actually, it is hard to say. Counting model-makers, we probably had more.

Thunderbirds started off as 30-minute episodes. Can you remember how many were completed before the change?

No, I don't remember. I remember it happening after we had finished quite a few.

Were the feature films made as if they were a very long episode, or were things on a much grander scale all around?

We tried to make it a little grander. I always felt that I was shooting everything for a film anyway. People used to say that it's all right doing the sort of effects you're doing because they're only going to be on a television screen and you don't see the wires, so it really doesn't matter too much, you can't see the wires on television. I used to have arguments with people in the industry over it because in actual fact our rushes were shown on a normal sized cinema screen as we'd be seeing most of our rushes here at Pinewood, and everything used to show up. If we did a shot and the wires showed up, even though I used to get rid of them to the eye, sometimes the camera still picked them up. If we saw that in rushes the following day we used to re-do the shot. Having said that, someone once said to me, 'Well I remember a shot seeing wires.' Well, there might have been the odd occasion when there was no way that you could re-shoot it again, so you'd have to let it go.

But you would be so meticulous that you would re-do the shot?

Oh yes we were, and it was up to me, I didn't have to go and get permission, just used to go and shoot it again.

Were you involved with the episode with the alligators?

Yes! That was the most expensive episode I think we ever did. Because it was so good they actually gave us more money to spend.

Where did the alligators come from?

Some place up north, we got them shipped down by some private little zoo. They were 3-foot crocodiles, and we had a 5-foot crocodile that we could never get out of the basket because he was so vicious. We had one alligator that was so docile that it used to lie on the studio floor and we used to cover it with wet sacks and put a couple of 10K (lights) shining on it. It used to stay there all day long. We used to step over this thing and it wouldn't blink an eye.

What about the story of one getting loose?

Oh my God, yes. We were doing a sequence where the crocodiles or alligators – it was Attack of the Alligators but they weren't all alligators – where people looked out the back of the boat as they were going through the swamp to see this alligator coming up behind them and, of course, the shot ended up with the alligator snapping the back of the boat off. To get that point of view I had the camera right down on the water level and a rope around the alligator's neck, with a non-slip knot on it so that we didn't choke it. The alligator was over that side of the tank, underwater, and we had a rope through a ring and I was in the tank with big waders on. The reason I was doing it was that I thought I knew the sort of speed I wanted to pull it.

So I pulled and, of course, this thing came up to the surface as I pulled, so its snout was aiming towards the boat, it was their Point of View (Ed. Note: the point you are looking from). The next shot we were going to do we had to work out how he was going to open his mouth and snap the back of the boat off. I was pulling this rope, he was quite heavy this thing, we had a rope on its tail so I used to pull it back, without being too unkind to it. I went to go for the next take and I pulled the rope, and there was nothing there! All of a sudden you could see this sort of 'V' shape travelling through the water. Everybody reckons I left my boots in the water and just went 'vrooommm' straight up! I remember jumping out and landing on the edge of the tank and thinking 'Christ, this thing's lose in the tank now! It'll get it's own back on my legs!' It was all right when I had it on a rope and somebody had it by the tail.

Are there any other examples of things going wrong, wires breaking?

Oh yes, hundreds of times.

You had a knack of shooting models in high-speed sequences?

Yes. I designed, for Thunderbirds, a rolling road and sky and the rolling sky is still here, in this studio, and it's used on the Bond films. We'd put the rolling road and the rolling sky together, and we used to have a smaller one that ran at a slower speed, the foreground going fast and the next one going at a slower speed, and then the background going slower still. Do you remember the one where the aircraft came into land..?

Trapped in the Sky...

Yes, lost its undercarriage.

The very first episode in which there is a puppet character called Meddings, the one who tries to reach the bomb and fails miserably! A bit of an in joke..?

Yes, it was, he's the brave bloke, isn't he? Silly devil! Well, I wouldn't have even attempted it! I don't know why he did it... Yes, an in-joke, and you all felt a bit proud.

Are we correct in saying that new models were built for Thunderbirds Are Go!..?

I think they were probably elaborated a little bit, I'm not quite sure. I can't remember if we were still doing Thunderbirds then.

There were six episodes of Thunderbirds which feature new puppets and models used in Thunderbirds Are Go!, but you can't remember new ones being used? Were new models being built all the time?

Did you ever build the sets in forced perspective?

For Captain Scarlet, how did you do shots with helicopters without the supporting wires interfering with the rotor blades?

Did you ever film them upside-down?

Very seldom, it meant that you put the whole set upside-down as well.

How big were the model buildings on Captain Scarlet? As big as the ones which you had on Superman II?

behind-the-scenes shot
Street set from Captain Scarlet this illustration has a larger version

They varied. They were never quite as big as those, they might have been as tall, but they were as wide and as detailed because we used to do car chases in city streets.

Who was responsible for designing things like the wasp or Spectrum symbol — you?

No. I don't know who did those. I think Keith Wilson designed those. I'm not sure. The Rolls Royce was interesting because we had to get permission from Rolls Royce to use the grille. I did the design of the car, sent it to Rolls Royce, because they asked to see it, they approved it and then said we could have the radiator. They had one which I think was on one of the earlier Rolls where the grilles used to open. That's the one we used because the machine gun had to come through. They let us have it: on permanent loan and we used to look after this thing. It was a lot of money in those days, they still are a lot of money. We used to guard it with our life and it was always put away and locked up.

Would you be responsible for designing everything, even such things as the Mole?

No. There was a young lad who was a brilliant little artist called Michael Trim. I couldn't cope with drawing storyboards for three directors when I was running three stages so Michael came in and he used to do storyboards, in actual fact he was better at it than I was. He'd spent his whole life drawing and had this really slick way of doing things. I don't think I ever saw him when he wasn't drawing, in his lunchtime, any time. I used to give him vehicles to design and although I get the credit for doing all of them there were times when he totally designed cars or vehicles and there were times when we did them together. I'd say 'I don't like that', and he'd alter it. I often wonder what happened to Michael... I used to design the ones that got all the praise. I used to make certain of that. I'm no fool!

What about S.I.D. in ufo?

I think Mike Trim did that, but often I would do a sketch but wouldn't have the time to develop it. I would say to him, 'There you are Michael...' and he would sit there and go into it in detail... and do a fantastic job.

What did you think of the idea of doing Thunderbird 6, had you finished Captain Scarlet by then?

I can't remember. To do Thunderbird 6 was great. It was really an exciting picture to do because we used a Tiger Moth, that was Thunderbird 6 as you remember. We went out on location for that and spent six weeks in a field near Booker Airfield.

And all ended up in court.

Yes! The M40 Motorway hadn't been opened then, but they'd completed this certain area. We had Joan Hughes, who is a fantastic pilot who used to work for British Airways and run their flying school. She was the lady who flew the plane under the bridge. It was up to her; she had to make as a pilot the final decision as to whether to go under the bridge or not. It was all down to the safety of the crew and the safety of herself; she was not to be pressurised into doing anything that was dangerous. We had a miserable Official with us and this silly old so-and-so was telling an experienced pilot, who'd ferried aircraft over from America during the war, what she should do.

This Ministry man said she had to come down, touch down on the road, roll under the bridge, then take off again. That was acceptable. We wanted her to fly under the bridge and she said she would have to make the final decision, depending on the wind, as the other side of the bridge the road did a very slight curve and there was a wood on the right hand side. That's how it was left. Come the day of the shooting and he was there. We got all the cameras set up and she came down the road, touched down and rolled under the bridge then revved-up and took off. It wasn't very exciting. We actually said to her, 'Joan, do you think you could fly under? Don't take any notice of this silly old so-and-so here.' She said that she would really have to do what he told her to do because, otherwise, there would have been a lot of trouble and, of course, we said, 'Yes.'

Being an experienced pilot, Joan reckoned that it was more dangerous to touch down and we knew she wouldn't do anything she didn't think was safe. She certainly wasn't going to kill herself. We were all right, we were behind big concrete structures. She came down the Motorway and straight under the bridge. It was fantastic! We all cheered and this misery said, 'I told her she couldn't!' Then we all got back to the airfield where she'd landed we said, 'Oh my God, he could cause havoc.' Joan said, 'You could probably see the wind had changed, I was having a little bit of difficulty, I had to fly under the bridge.' He was told this, but we were prosecuted and we all got dragged up in Court on something like 20 charges... and got away with every one. The judge wouldn't listen to this silly little man. Of course we hadn't got all the shots that we wanted under a bridge, over a bridge, under a bridge and so on so we went into a field and built a section of motorway in niniature with the bridge in-scale with a five-foot radio controlled Tiger Moth we'd built. We had two of them built. In actual fact we got some better shots coming down under the bridge on the model.

Did you ever work with any other radio controlled equipment? Weren't you involved with a model jet?

That was an experimental aeroplane, Ray built it. We built these engines that suck in the air and blew it out the back. It did take off, but it didn't fly very far. It was not something we were going to use in a Gerry Anderson picture, but if we had got it flying we would have written it into a script.

Would you be involved with the setting up of the model shots for TV21?

Oh God, yes, that used to be a drama... We used to have to do that in the evening and weekends. Dougie Luke, I think it was, and sometimes another stills man would come in and we would set up these shots. In the end we had to give it up; the editor of TV21 was asking for shots that were virtually impossible to do in the time.

So he would ask for specific shots?

Yes, so if it was the Crablogger he'd want the sequence where it was tumbling down the mountainside. So, you can imagine, you'd have to wire the Crablogger up in a certain position but you'd also have to have rocks wired up as well to look as if they were bouncing, then throw in the dust. It was a vast set. We would have to clear the stage to set that up and then clear it again to put back the set that we'd already got ready for the following day's shooting.

So they wouldn't have had a stills photographer working while you were shooting?

They don't even do it on major films now. At the end of these pictures I get a request from the Production Office: 'You didn't happen to do a shot of your model...' They won't pay one to do it. The same thing applied there, although I stood a better chance there of having it because I could call over and say we need a stills shot, but sometimes it was certainly not convenient because they would be shooting on the puppet stage something which they needed the stills man for. Also, often when the stills man did come over to us from the position he would have to shoot from he would be giving the game away as to how we were doing it.

Did you have new models especially built for the TV21 shots, because they look very clean?

They had been cleaned up. I don't think we had models specially built.

What about Fireball XL5?

That would have been rebuilt.

Who built the rock snakes for Thunderbirds Are Go!?

I think Brian Smithies was responsible; you see I've had all the best working for me.

There's a set of stills showing various monsters holding Thunderbird 1 etc. Who was your plasticine man? Would he have done those?

Yes, a man called Roger Dickens. I haven't seen him for years. Just as well; he doesn't like me anyway! I used to give him nervous breakdowns. He's never forgiven me for the speed with which we had to make things.

Did you ever have enough time?

Never, that's why poor Roger used to have breakdowns, because things had to be made virtually overnight. He was very creative, had to take his time. I couldn't understand it then but I can understand it now and, of course, I was saying, 'This has got to be ready by tomorrow you know, Roger.'

Was there ever a time when you found you couldn't do a particular shot?

I don't think so, there was always a way of doing it, so I would get round it somehow. That was part of the fun, and it still is; that is not letting any shot beat you. As long as the Director is prepared to change it a little bit to your way of thinking you can do it. Nowadays there isn't a shot that can't be done. I'm not saying I can do them all because a lot of them require motion control. The effects you see nowadays have really got into high tech.

You had a problem on Doppelgänger?

Yes we did. We built this eight-foot rocket, built all the launching pad; it took us three or four months. I designed it so that it would look like one of the American launches because I'd seen a lot of them and the way they were actually set on the pad. When they fired they had this chute where the flames were all directed and all the water to cool down the girder work the thing was standing on because it stood there for a while for the rockets to fire up, and then the clamps opened up and off they went.

I nicked things from the Russian launch sequence where the clamps were very high up on the side of the rocket, and the tower slid away, and then the fuel gantries unplugged and fell away and the rocket stood there for a while burning. It was connected to a wire so the only way to get it up off the ground was to pull it, and this was going to be done by one of my faithful assistants, my right hand man at the time, Ian Wingrove. The only place he could pull the rocket was down the end of this chute. It was all dressed in to look like concrete and everything and there were little jets of water spraying; it was something like a garden spray, it was so fine. It was miniaturised to look like millions of gallons of water being pumped into it.

On cue the fellow pushed the button and the rockets fired up; they were magnesium flares and they burned brilliantly. I had them specially made and they put out a great tongue of flame which, under pressure, went really straight down, none of this curling up at the end, it was so vicious. We had this jet of smoke at one side and this sheet of flame coming towards Ian and he just froze! In those few minutes the model rocket caught fire. There was nothing we could do. We couldn't put out the fire because it was magnesium. We rushed in with fire extinguishers in the hope that we could minimise the amount of damage but the rocket just burned merrily. We just stood there. That was the first day of shooting!

So what did you do?!?

We had to remake the rocket, do it all again. It was the launch into space, there was no film without that.

Why did you shoot that sequence outdoors, most of your work was shot indoors, wasn't it?

We did it outside because I wanted the real sky, but some of the shots were done indoors, it's hard to tell. All the clamps pulling away were all shot indoors and the initial lift-off was done indoors. When we first did it we were going to do it indoors, after it was burnt I took it outside. It happened to be one of the only lovely sumners that we'd had, it was absolutely beautiful.

And, of course, you can't beat natural lighting?

No, you can't. It doesn't matter how good your Lighting Cameraman is, He-up-there does it much better.

You had a rather neat way of making the ufo miniatures look like they were spinning – a clear plastic dome which didn't actually spin, although it looked like it did. Was that built into the design?

Yes, I built that into it because I knew I was going to have problems.

So you would figure out how the miniatures would work when you were designing them?

I used to try never to let my design be influenced by the fact that I would be trying to work out how to do it. That was death because you would never come up with anything. Even nowadays I say to Production Designers, 'Do not think about the problem of how I'm going to do it, just tell me what you want, we've got to overcome the problems.' I used to tell myself, 'Okay, so you've designed this craft with eight wheels, how am I going to make eight wheels turn when we do it?' I used to work that one out later. When we were doing Skydiver we had a funny situation; Skydiver was never underwater, it was always shot through a tank, so it was actually on wires. One sequence was where it was fired at with a torpedo and it crashed to the sea bed.

Subsmash...

Well, we had it all on wires and were shooting through this tank. The signal to one of the special effects assistants was 'Cut' and he had to cut the wires which meant the torpedo had made contact. We were pulling this torpedo along a wire and when it struck Skydiver there was a bang, which meant the assistant had to cut the wires which would release Skydiver to crash to the seabed into a cloud of dust. We had little charges under it so it looked as if it went into silt. Unfortunately I chose a very bad signal! I should never have said to him, 'Your cue is Cut!' We'd got the cameras rolling and then one of the cameras jammed. The cameraman said, 'Camera jammed!' so I yelled out, 'Cut!' He did! That was Ian Scoones... I'll drop 'em all in it.

How did you make the ufos fly?

They were on motors and on wires.

How did you control the clouds?

I used to paint the clouds on a backing. Sometimes we used to use smoke. If you saw a looking-down shot we used to cover the whole floor with dry ice and smoke.

Did you have a bigger budget for ufo since the effects are much more sophisticated and mature, or was it down to your experience?

I think a lot of it was down to the fact that we'd all learned a lot, we were going on past experience really.

Was there a demand on you, because it was a live-action show, to make the effects more realistic and less model-y?

I never used to try and do them as models. We probably did have a little more money because it was a live-action series. I think possibly the stories were a little better.

What happened when ufo came to an end – you went straight into the Bond movies?

When they closed down the studio, at the end of ufo I unfortunately, like everybody else, had to go and find another job. I'd been with them for something like 10 years. It was a bit of a blow.

So why did they close down?

I think Lew Grade decided there was no call anymore for science fiction pictures.

cbs ordered another series of ufo...

That's right! And we'd already closed the studio!

That idea ended up as Space:1999. By that time you'd become involved with the Bonds...

When the studio closed I did a picture in Denmark starring Oliver Reed, Diane Cilento and Don Gordon, for a Production Designer called Tony Masters. That was the first thing I did after finishing with Gerry Anderson. I was out there for four months in Copenhagen doing the picture; I got a Danish crew together and we set up a special effects department. When I came back I was asked to do Fear Is The Key, and Tony had been responsible for some of the Bond films. He was going to do the next one, the first with Roger Moore. He obviously liked what I did on Fear... and asked me if I'd like to do the next Bond and, of course, I haven't looked back from there...

So, in many ways, the end of ufo...

...was the best thing that ever happened to me. You think it's the end of the world only to find it was the end of one period of your life.

Were you ever approached to work on Space:1999, or any other Gerry Anderson project?

No, because, as Gerry once said to me, 'I can't afford you now!' He's right... He can't afford me!

We should be grateful for a free interview...

It's costing the company a fortune me sitting here!

You've obviously done quite a lot of work on the Bonds, such as the Lotus sequences in The Spy Who Loved Me. Were all the underwater sequences done in miniature?

No, we built a full-sized car that was driven underwater.

What about the sequence in For Your Eyes Only where you flew a helicopter through a building?

It's what we call a foreground miniature. When we went to Beckton Gasworks we had to find a place where the helicopter could fly into a building and, of course, there was nowhere there that could get it in without the pilot killing himself! I saw that building and said, 'If I did a foreground miniature we could fly between the building and the miniature.'

How tall is the miniature?

It was about 6 feet.

The miniatlure and the real building, both look the same building, you can't see the difference.

No, you can't. If you saw the film, the helicopter flew into the building. In actual fact it didn't, it flew between the miniature and the real building.

How far apart would the miniature and the real building be in fact?

About 100 feet. We set the camera up and I said, 'This is how big it should be.' The Art Department just drew up this building to the size I'd said. I looked through the camera, got somebody to stand in front, and said, 'If it is this far away we can hold focus, make it 6 foot high.' The miniature isn't built in perspective. When we did the helicopter flying inside the building I was looking through the camera and guiding a special effects assistant who had an air line on a rod on the floor of the miniature. He would pull the rod, following the helicopter, creating a dust which looked as if it was caused by the rotors.

Your work is so good you don't get any credit, people don't know they're looking at special effects.

Thank you! The sequence where we blew up the harbour in Corfu; we weren't allowed to do it for real, so it's a miniature in the picture.

They wouldn't let you blow up the real thing?

No. They had a man on their Council who had been in the war and was an explosives expert and he told me that the shock waves from the explosives would damage the walls of their historic castle – which was built by the British. I said very politely that if the shock waves were going to damage the castle then they would also kill the crew. They had originally agreed to us blowing it up, but it's like a lot of these situations; once you're there they know you've gone to a lot of expense, gone to a point of no return, they then say, 'Well no, you can't do it.' So we had to do it as a miniature, which worked better for us because because we could do more damage, we could actually blow the whole building up. We could only blow the roof off the real one in Corfu, so it would have been a phoney shot anyway. But when the rest of the people who had worked on the picture saw the film they were shocked. It was a back-handed compliment. They said to me, 'I thought you were stopped from blowing up the building.' They didn't know we had blown it up as a model.

If people in the industry don't know what are your effects because they are so real, how can you work be judged for an Oscar?

Well, what they do is the company submits the picture and then you take out all the effects and show them as an effects roll.

There's a story that Doppelgänger lost out to Marooned because they thought you had used real footage. What's the story there?

No, they knew we didn't use real footage. In actual fact we got a lot of praise for it. I think we should have won. I was told by the American Director, 'Don't get too excited, you won't win it because they have big star names in their picture like Gregory Peck.' They used real footage, we didn't.

They had some poor special effects...

Yes I know, and it won.

Doppelgänger isn't in the same league...

Remember the vertical take-off aeroplane that landed in Doppelgänger? It's unbelievable. I couldn't believe that we didn't win. I still look back and think to myself 'I'd like to submit it again...'

The only one who has equalled those effects is yourself in some of your later movies.

Like when we launched the Shuttle before the Americans did in Moonraker.

We won't ask you what's your best work because that's always to come.

Hmmm!

But what's your favourite thing you've done so far?

God, there's so many things I have enjoyed doing. As I said at the beginning, you're really never satisfied with what you've done, it's a bit like an artist. I can see why some of the famous artists throughout history went mad, because you think you've just done your best work only to find two days later, when you look at it, that there's something wrong with it, you've got the wrong set of eyes in, and it doesn't look the same and you thought it was marvellous.

Have you any souvenirs?

Not a thing.

You haven't got a Shado mobile stuck at home?

All I've got is a couple of Dinky toys which my children have, and an Angel fighter, one of the biggest ones we made, with a broken wing and nose. I thought, 'One day I will actually bring it in and have it rebuilt.' That's the only thing. You do stupid things. You should have collected them, although I don't know where the hell I could have put them. It's like finishing a picture here, the company keeps all the models and they put them in store and, in the end, they have to get rid of them because the building isn't big enough.

What would have happened at Century 21? Gerry Anderson has been quite open and said some people took them as souvenirs?

Yes, everybody borrowed one for the future – except me.

Well, that's what everybody says, you see...

Well, if there's anybody who should have had them it should have been me! But I haven't, other than the Angel fighter, and that was one that I had before the company finished. I had it made by my model-makers and thought, 'We're never going to use this size,' and kept it for inyself.

You were saying what my favourite is. Well I suppose having won an Oscar for Superman I I think the San Francisco bridge sequence with all the cars is. We did all that with models and there's only a couple of shots where we used real cars. We set up part of a runway and marked it out like the road on the bridge and we just did a shot where the fellow hit the Volkswagen and went over the front, and a quick shot of the cars missing each other. All the rest of the sequence was done with model cars and they weren't radio-controlled, they were all on wires on a model bridge.

You were involved with a French film about a Jumbo jet crashing into an aircraft carrier?

Yes, we did all the sequences of pilot's point of view of the aircraft carrier. Then we did shots of him coming in to land, the wing hitting the bridge, the wings ripping off, hitting all the other planes on the deck and then going over the side, finishing up in the sea.

How did you feel about filming down on a miniature?

You always have to spent more time and effort trying to make something look good from a high angle. That's why if you look at Thunderbirds and all those series you'll find that we were always down on the set as if looking from a miniature man's point of view. If you imagine he was an inch high, then we used to put the camera lens where his eye would be.

Again, people don't realise what they're seeing.

When we worked on Superman II we had a lot of work to do on the model street. At the end of the film the Director's Secretary said, when she saw the titles, 'Why did we have a model unit working all those months on the film?'

Were you involved with all the Krypton sequences, like the star-like spacecraft which takes the baby Superman to Earth? It's not quite clear who did what.

Yes, it's amazing the number of people who get the credit. We did all the miniatures.

How big were the Krypton dome miniatures?

Quite large, it was something like 20 feet off the ground, very big because in one of the shots we pulled back from a back-projected picture of Marlon Brando and Suzannah York. We pulled back, and back and up, up and up. That was an enormous set.

So many different technical credits appear at the end of a major feature so are you responsible for all the effects, floor and miniature?

On all the Bond Films, on every picture up to Superman I I've always been responsible for the models and the floor effects. There's a long story attached to Superman I where I find it very difficult to get back into a situation where I control the whole lot. They'd already started Superman II and asked me to do it, but I was doing Aces High out on the back lot there and the Director at the time, Englishman Guy Hamilton, asked me to do it. I said that I couldn't because I had promised to do the next Bond, which I wanted to do. So I did that and by this time of course, the Director had changed and they'd now got Dick Donner. He kept ringing me up while I was on the Bond and I said, 'No.' I don't know why I said I didn't want to do it, I must have had a reason at the time. The Bond finished and the telephone rang and Dick Donner said, 'Derek, you can't tell me you're doing the Bond now!'

That must have been quite flattering!

Of course it was, you're always flattered, I loved it! So of course I did it! Otherwise I wouldn't have that gold statue standing at home...

A lot of people say that Oscars aren't important but obviously to you they are.

Oh, they're important to me! I've been trying to win one all my life.

Did you have any involvement in making Superman fly?

Yes, I did. Superman was flown in so many different ways. Sometimes he was a model; on Superman II, when he flew up the Eiffel tower, the best part of it was done with a model. There were some quick cut-in shots of Christopher Reeve against front projection and a pole arm job but flying up the Eiffel tower, that was done with a model.

Were you involved in making Superman I and Superman II at the same time?

No, I only did one, I never got involved in that. I said I could only concentrate on one.

Was the helicopter sequence in Superman I with Lois Lane live-action?

A mixture of live-action and model.

How big was the helicopter?

It was five feet, no, in actual fact we had a smaller one than that, and we had the full-size mock-up. When Superman dived through the picture over New York and you saw all the cars in the street, that was a small model. He flew down the streets, a lot of model shots. Flying to the Eiffel tower and flying up the tower and taking the lift out throught the top: model shots. I say this because a certain person got a lot of credit whereas he didn't deserve all of it, he did not do all the shots of Superman flying with front projection. He was flown on a crane by Colin Chilvers, he was flown on a crane by John Richardson in New York, in Canada he was done travelling-matte against a blue screen, and he was certainly done as a model as I had to do lots of shots of him flying.

What about the sequence in Superman II when the coach was hurled about, was that done live-action?

It was a mixture but it was done with a miniature. When they threw it on the full-sized set it was a foreground miniature and then we did a miniature shot of the coach hitting the ground, sliding along sparking. That was also cut in with one quick shot of the real one. The first initial hit with Superman was also done as a miniature, when it went into the back of the truck that was parked on the road.

How difficult is it making a miniature which is exactly like a real vehicle?

It's not difficult at all, really. I've got fantastic model makers. It's like making the Lotus car, the model is exactly the same as the full-sized one, it's just that it's smaller. Every detail that was on the full-sized coach was on the miniature coach.

Have you anything else lined up, the next Bond?

No, I won't be doing that. I didn't do the last one because I was working on Krull. I also didn't do Superman II, except for the last part where they blow up the computer. I didn't do anything else on that one. I won't be dong the next Bond because I'm doing Santa Claus. I really did enjoy doing the Bond films but they really don't require a lot of miniature work. I've always been in charge of all the special effects work on a picture, like I was on Supergirl but when I joined Superman, Colin Chilvers was doing the floor effects, Roy Fields was doing the opticals and Les Bowie was doing the mattes. I came in just to do the miniatures. That's how I left it. I couldn't walk in and say, 'Look, I'm not going to do this film unless you get rid of this lot.' They were all mates, anyway, so why should I? When we did Superman II, it was set up under the same conditions really and Superman III would have been the same thing. I really prefer to be in charge of the lot, as I am on Santa Claus. On this there isn't a great deal to be done on floor effects, apart from snow...

What do you enjoy doing most?

I think that I enjoy doing the real trickery side of the picture more than getting involved with blowing up cars, for instance. Without putting down anybody else, as much as I enjoy blowing up things for real, there's a lot of people who can do that. I get more satisfaction out of doing what I'm doing, tricking people with miniatures.

Do you think your type of miniature effects work will be overtaken by motion control systems, or do you hope to get motion control yourself?

Yes, I'm desperately trying to fight for it now, America has leaped ahead. Even now, with those facilities, people are still employing people like myself. I've just got to come up with making their film work. Santa Claus won't go to ILM, won't go to John Dykstra, because it's so expensive. I say I need motion control so I'm going to get a motion control unit but a lot of the picture will have to be done in a traditionally filmed way.

Motion control isn't the answer to everything..?

No it's not, none of them are. Front projection, back projection, blue screen, you can't do the whole film with one system. Motion control and the way they do it at ILM and Doug Trumbull in particular, they're unbeatable. They have now got so much equipment, VistaVision equipment, VistaVision cameras and optical printers but we've got a company here called Arcadon, which Brian Johnson is a partner in, and they have got some very sophisticated equipment. They've got a VistaVision optical printer which they've built and the way they're going they're going to be the ILM of this country.

VistaVision being a large format negative size?

Yes, it's a larger format film stock: eight perfs instead of the usual four. The picture covers twice the normal negative size. It's like comparing a 10x8" print with a 5x3½" print.

So you're working now on Santa Claus, is there a release date for it?

Not Christmas 1984, that's for sure! The big problem is: how do you make eight reindeer fly? I'm not going to say until we've done it! Certainly I've got to do it with some miniatures.

Supergirl II?

I should very much think so. I haven't seen Supergirl finished but I think it is an excellent picture from what I've seen of it.

Derek Meddings, thank you very much!

A pleasure, thank you.

text ©1984, 1985 David Nightingale, Brendan Sheehan & Philip D. Rae
published originally in Supermarionation is Go! #11 & #12