Peter Tyler is a veritable Visual Effects expert, having worked in film and television for nearly a quarter of a century. He worked on Red Dwarf as Peter Wragg’s Director of Photography, from the very early days up to Series VII. We managed to successfully stalk him via the internet, and send him a load of questions. Hurrah!
I had always been interested in film making; from an early age I particularly liked science fiction and of course watched Dr. Who. (With my late Dad, who was a big fan of the series). I wrote my first script when I was 14, an alien invasion story with heavy Sweeney influence! (Much violence and swearing!).
I left college in 1979 and got a job in a paint factory for about 9 months, then moved on to an Audio Visual company in Edgebaston. Here I learnt the basics of film making and a lot about simple optical effects and I was promoted to Rostrum Cameraman. Thus my career in the film industry began in 1980. This year saw my College film (Tomorrow is Eternity – a violent Sci-Fi) come second in a televised Nationwide film competition. I was presented my prize by none other than Michael Winner!
I knew I wanted to work in feature films and so contacted Derek Meddings and Brian Johnson (both then at Pinewood Studios) and they were gracious enough to invite me to visit them on several occasions. I kept making my own films, experimenting with model making, special effects and filming techniques, as well as directing actors.
After much pestering, Brian offered me a job on The Neverending Story in Munich. I departed thence like a speeding bullet! Since then I’ve worked my way up via Tea Boy, Clapper Loader, Focus Puller and finally made it to Director of Photography after about 10 years very hard work. I always worked around Visual Effects but I’ve been lucky enough to shoot a few TV commercials and work on Drama as well.
In 1986, I was contacted by Mike Kelt, then of BBC Visual Effects, to shoot a sequence for Dr. Who – the space station shots for Trial of a Time Lord. We produced a pretty spectacular shot on a tiny budget and this led to me working on Star Cops, shooting all the Motion Control sequences. Shortly after, I spent 3 months on Aliens, met Jim Cameron (Aaargghh!) and learned a lot. By now my name was known at BBC Vis FX and so in 1987, Peter Wragg approached me to shoot the Red Dwarf spaceship for a cheap little sitcom of the same name. Series II went to Meddings Magic, for reasons unknown to me, but after that I shot all the model work for Red Dwarf, up to and including Series VII.
What was the average effects budget for Red Dwarf – and did it increase as the show went on?
On Series I, there was enough money to build the title space ship (approximately £8,000) plus £4,500 for a week of Motion Control filming.
Series III in 1989 had one week Motion Control again (£4,500), then 22 days model filming at the BBC Vis FX custom-built model stage in Acton. For the model shoot, my total budget was £30,000; this had to cover film stock and processing, lighting equipment, camera equipment and camera crew. Even back then, this was a tight budget. One of the reasons our shots (mostly) looked so good was that we shot on 35mm film, as for a feature film. All the Motion Control was shot 35mm, as the rigs were set up that way and we naturally wanted to maintain that quality image across to the model unit.
Series IV in late 1990 was filmed over a period of 31 days; by this time I had built my own Motion Control System, so that was used during this time. The separate £4,500 for Motion Control filming disappeared leaving £30,000 for ALL the shooting – an effective reduction in the budget.
Series V followed quickly in 1991 and we shot for 34 days; Motion Control and model unit for the same £30,000 budget. By this time, we as a team had become much more efficient and were so able to maximise our efforts on what was, effectively, an ever shrinking budget. (Remember high inflation?).
After a two year gap, we filmed Series VI as before, with my rig at the BBC model stage alongside model filming. Again, the budget seemed frozen at £30,000. By now we had to devise ever faster ways of achieving the required shots to keep within budget, which we did – JUST!
The next series did not materialise for three years and was now 8 episodes instead of 6, but the money remained the same, yes, you’ve guessed – £30,000. I looked at the figures; by this time the custom built model stage had gone – a victim of BBC cuts. We had more shots than ever to do and at 1996 prices. The only way we could do it was to switch to 16mm filming to save money. We had to convert Workshop 2 at Shepperton Studios to use as our model stage; this took time and money out of the budget. In all, we only shot for 11 days at Shepperton – no Motion Control this time (too slow and therefore expensive) with 2 extra pick up days back at the Visual Effects car park! When I put in my final bill for £30,000 I was asked if I could reduce it to £20,000! After a short period of therapy, I politely declined so the total budget stood at £30,000.
For various reasons, our involvement with Red Dwarf ended here. I did not work on Series VIII, nor did any of the original BBC Visual Effects crew. (A new version of the Red Dwarf ship was made by BBC Vis FX and was filmed but only one shot of it exists – this may appear on the Series VIII DVD).
Is there any effects shot you were involved in on Dwarf that you are particuarly proud of? And any that you’re, erm, not?
Some of my favourite shots we did for Dwarf are ones used very briefly and not always as intended. There’s a lovely landing sequence for instance: a small rusty red fighter (Ace Rimmer’s test ship – Ed) approaches a landing pad, the pad rises to meet it, there’s a flurry of dust as the ship touches down and the pad descends. During the shot the camera tracks out to reveal a rocky landscape and a rotating radar dish can be seen in the background. We put a lot of effort into that one but only a few seconds of it were used in the show. Luckily, you can see the shot in its entirety in the raw model footage on the Red Dwarf IV DVD extras.
Another favourite of mine is Starbug taking off from the Red Dwarf hangar as the whole place begins to explode. The timing of the bangs works really well but again the shot is cut short; just as Starbug leaves frame a huge girder crashes down onto the launch pad!
A shot everyone seems to like is a flypast of Starbug in space with the camera rotating to follow it. This was shot on my own Motion Control rig in my small studio in Beaconsfield and was done “in camera” using travelling mattes and bi-packing (an extraordinarily complicated technique of getting a high-quality image without any need for blue-screen work. No longer used – Ed) in the Mitchell camera. This facilitated a very crisp look.
Shots that make me cringe are most of the ones I did for the “Planetary Pool” sequence in the episode White Hole. I shot the whole sequence on my own between Christmas and New Year (1990/1991) in my freezing, unheated studio. Due to the demands of the schedule I had only one go at the shots using painted spheres as planets and some very time consuming frame by frame projected effects. I also managed to create a very large matte line round one of the planets because I was rushing the shoot. All in all an unhappy experience!
There were some problems with the production of the effects for Series VII, and many physical model shots were replaced with hastily-done CGI in the final edit. What were the reasons for the problems, and how do you think the final episodes ended up?
There were many political and communication problems on Series VII, along with the inevitable late script changes and even some major re-writes. Indeed, one of the scripts was re-written AFTER our model unit wrapped. This led to many of our shots not being used at all. This was very frustrating for us, as we had no control over the situation and a lot of very hard work was wasted.
How do you feel CGI compares to physical model shots; both in Red Dwarf and in general?
Given that almost nobody likes the CGI shots used in Series VII, I really can’t understand why they were used at all. Cheap, perhaps? In my opinion, unless a lot of time and money is spent on CGI, it looks like what it is. Unfortunately, I think the CGI in Series VII and VIII looks like a computer game and detracts from the story telling. I am still yet to be completely fooled by CGI, even in multi-million dollar movies. I have, however been completely taken in, (despite my specialist background) by some cleverly shot model sequences.
A great example is a jet fighter attack on a series of bridges from the film The Bridges at Toko-Ri, made in 1954. The model effects are stunning, staged by John P. Fulton (winning the Academy award that year for his efforts) and are almost undetectable. Note when it was made – 1954. We don’t seem to have progressed much when you consider that my 8 year old son can spot ALL the CGI in both the Harry Potter films. We as film makers have a huge variety of tools at our disposal, CGI being just one of them. The trick is to know which tool to use to do the job in hand. Unfortunately, productions are sometimes ill advised to over-use CGI by companies who have invested literally millions of pounds in CGI equipment and have to justify that investment to their accountants.
I think Red Dwarf peaked with Series VI, both in our contribution and with the stories. The small proportion of our shots used in RD VII were messed around with in post production; some had motion blur added, others had extra CGI elements overlaid. Worse, some were used out of context, presumably due to last minute re-writes and didn’t work very well. One sequence that stands out, however, is the Starbug and GELF ship chase over a snowy landscape. This held up quite well, apart from some creases in the painted backing. (This was fixed in post production but for some reason the fixed shot was not used).
Have you seen any of Series VIII? If you did, what did you think of the effects in the series?
I saw the first couple of episodes from Series VIII, but was not impressed enough to continue watching. The opening CGI was dire; the model shot of the front section of Starbug crashing was fine – but it was just one set up. More time was spent on that shot than we used to have to do probably 20 shots on previous series! More importantly, the stories seemed to be re-hashes of all the stuff that had been done before.
Can you tell us anything about the Visual Effects team’s contribution to the forthcoming DVDs?
When the Red Dwarf DVDs were announced, I was asked to sort out all the film negatives of the model shots we had done from Series I to VII. This material was then retransferred on state-of-the-art telecine equipment to go in to the extras on the DVDs. Not all the shots have been used so far, but some never-before-seen footage has made it onto the discs. Mike Tucker recently did an audio commentary for Series V and also provided a documentary shot during the making of Series V, featuring the Vis FX team, myself included. This was shot in 1991, so we all look somewhat fresh faced compared to now!
What projects are you involved in at the moment?
BBC Visual Effects was shut down last year (2003). Decades of excellent work, immensely talented staff – all that counted for nothing when the accountants decided the department wasn’t profitable enough. I had worked with almost all the designers there from Starcops to Horizon – Columbia, over 18 years in all. Some are now amongst my closest friends so I was very sad and angry when I heard about the closure.
On a happier note: Mike Tucker survived the closure and has set up a dedicated Model Unit, allied to the BBC Post Production department. So far this has been very successful; jobs which I have shot with Mike include Horizon – Columbia, Piltdown Man – Exploding the Myth, Battle of the Nile, Billy and the Fighter Boys, Voyage of the Beagle and Brighton Bomb.
All the above jobs (with the exception of Horizon), occurred between September and December 2003 – a busy time for us. There are many jobs pending for the near future involving ships, submarines, Lancaster Bombers, hotels and, hopefully, some spaceships. As nothing is confirmed yet, I can’t be more specific but 2004 looks like being an exciting and creative year for us!
Peter Tyler, there. A true gentleman. All photos on this page are his copyright. So there.