Cause and Effect

Red Dwarf‘s effects. Seen as irrelevant or simply boring by some people, I adore them – for the first six series, at least. Partly, of course, for how well they help tell the story – but mainly because they’re cool. Which is why, goddamn it, I get irritated by things like the following.

“The first series of Red Dwarf is very good, if not quite perfect. Whilst the writing is good, and the acting superb, the visual effects and sets are primitive.” – schaedenfreud82mk2, Amazon review

“…I’m not a RD purist like some who like the “quaintness” of the original model shots.” – Danny, alt.fan.pratchett

“The explosion and recreation effects of Red Dwarf were very Blakes 7. In this day and age, they really should have done better.” – Neil Postlethwaite, alt.tv.red-dwarf, on Demons & Angels

“IMHO The *lack* of decent special effects in Red Dwarf is part of what made it funny…” – Rntt, atvrd

Now, it would be tempting to do an article stating that all of Dwarf‘s effects are perfect and that these people are talking bollocks, such is my strength of feeling about it. But it would be a bit of a lie. Off the top of my head, things that spring to mind that don’t work that well are: Lister putting his hand through Rimmer in The End (the actual effect of the hand going through is fine, but it’s obvious that Craig is on a bluescreen), Cat in the Blue Midget hanger in Kryten (awful fuzzy edges; makes you wonder why they even bothered including the shot), the awful bluescreen shot in Demons & Angels where Low Lister tries to shoot our Lister who rolls away in the foreground; the rematerialisation of Dwarf at the end of the same episode (GRAINY AND SHIT), and the abominable space filth dematerialising next to Starbug in Emohawk (lovely 2-D spinning discs ahoy!). There are no doubt quite a few others.

Quite a few of these problems Dwarf has are with bluescreen shots; something that Dwarf sometimes didn’t get quite right. (And sometimes they did, of course – witness the brilliant RoboLister stuff in DNA.) There are very few model shots that don’t work; they’re nearly all gorgeous.

Now, I saw Spider-man the other day. Which is a great film, with some great effects. But there’s some rather unconvincing bluescreen work in it – particularly on the balcony at the World Unity Festival when the Green Goblin attacks. You can complain about CGI Spidey all you like, but at least it doesn’t matter if he’s slightly cartoony – I want my balconies to look real, thanks. Now, which is more deserving of contempt in this department – a late eighties BBC sitcom, or a multi-million dollar Hollywood production?

That’s the relative way of looking at things. The other way is absolute: it doesn’t matter about when the series was made, or what production difficulties it had, or how much money was thrown at it: it’s what is on screen, right now, that matters. In which case, I return to the central argument: nearly all of Dwarf‘s effects are marvellous. Anything that can produce effects like this:

Starbug on the rocks in Back To Re...erm, I mean, CUNTING DIMENSION JUMP, DESSAU YOU CUNT.

Is worth of applause. Whether it’s from a 1991 episode of a BBC sitcom or not.

So, the question is: why are Dwarf‘s effects seen in such a bad light? Is it because the series is shot on video (not the model effects, I may add) and so people think that looks cheap and then generalise it to the whole programme? (Why some people think video looks cheap I don’t know, but that’s a different article.) Is it because it’s a BBC science fiction series, and so people expect it to look cheap, and so convince themselves that it is? Or is it because the opinion makes an amusing snipe in an article?

Perhaps a glimmer of an answer can be found in the following: Starbug crashing in Marooned. It’s gorgeous, and impressive. But there’s no denying that it doesn’t sit well with the stock Arctic footage used in the montage; I personally think it was a mistake including the stock footage at all. Are people expecting Dwarfian effects to be too realistic? For a start, absolutely realistic snow footage would be impossible on a sitcom budget. Secondly: this is a sitcom, not a documentary. Absolute realism is simply not required. Thirdly: IT DOESN’T MATTER. It still looks absolutely fantastic. And it’s worth pointing out that the snow scenes are the most unrealistic model shots Dwarf has; the space shots feel far more realistic.

I still find it very, very difficult to understand why anyone could think like this. But, you know, I can sort-of-see the reasoning. Bar a couple of dodgy shots, I think the Polymorph looks brilliant – but I can understand why some people might not be convinced. What I do have a problem with is this:

“why red dwarf is now shit… Its too polished a product now (who watches the programme for its effects
and quality?)” Michael, ATVRD, on VII

“Red Dwarf is not the same since Rob Grant left, the effects are too good to be in keeping with the series…” – family clare, ATVRD

“The special effects have got better, the comedy’s become sharper…” – Craig Charles, about VIII

“Although the new one with Kochanski and the flashy special effects is just… argh. It has none of the original’s panache for silly tv. See, the low budget and wobbly sets were all part of the charm…” The Amazing Maurice, The Sugar Quill Forums

“Chris Veale was responsible for all the CGI on Series VIII. Between Jim, Chris, and Bill, and at amazingly low cost, they produced the best special effects the show has ever had. Ever.” – Doug Naylor, Red Dwarf VIII scriptbook

What. The. Fuck?

Firstly, the implication in some of these opinions is that any form of glossiness suddenly made Dwarf unfunny. Well, as the effects in Series 1-VI are generally great, that’s that argument out the window for a start. And even if that hadn’t been the case, the fact remains that, much as I love the effects in Dwarf and feel they are important to the show – if the script and acting is good enough, the show is good enough. Glossiness has nothing to do with the quality of the story, jokes and characterisation – and if you’ve got that, then a show will be great. So the argument is just bollocks anyway. The same argument applies to the Movie, of course – anyone worried that it won’t work because of “TEH HOLLYWOOD EFFECTS” is rather missing the point.

But this isn’t my main qualm with the statements. I think you can guess what is. Quite simply, the effects in the last two series of Dwarf are at best, not as good as the previous six series, and at worst, just plain shit.

Again, there are exceptions. And – hooray! – the bluescreen work in Ouroboros when they first enter the linkway is great – actually, from an effects point of view, the whole sequence is. But most of your bog-standard Starbug-flying-through-space work is just very poor indeed.

Now, the story of what happened to VII’s effects is well-known by now. Just a quick taster from Time Hole:

“As series VII reached the editing room, it became apparent that having the model shots filmed before the end of the live action shoot hadn’t worked out. The shots available didn’t quite gel with the main stories, and there was no money for any more expensive model work.

Enter, stage right, one Chris Veale. The young CGI whizz had once hoped to be a cinematographer, but moved into computer animation at university. One effects shot, shown to Doug and Ed while he visited the Grant Naylor offices (Chris had actually had work experience there!) impressed the writer and director so much that they asked if the existing ship could be replaced with a Starbug.

For a negligible amount and using Alias (the graphics package used for Jurassic Park) on his own computer at home, Chris produced a mass of bluescreen ‘Bug shots, plus starscapes and planets, in a matter of weeks. In the edit suite, a motion blur was sometimes added to the shots.”

Basically: a production SNAFU. Now, hopefully the VII DVD will go into the exact details of all this – along with all the unused model footage. But, going into absolute mode for a minute, what really matters in the end is the final quality of the shots. And, it has to be said, a 2-D Starbug blurring around the place is not an adequate replacement for BBC VFX’s gorgeous model shots. It doesn’t even come close. In fact, what it is, with Dwarf‘s past history in wonderful effects, is this: rather embarassing. Now, please tell me again – how is this in any way slick? Or glossy? Or even vaguely comparable to previous series effects? How could anyone think this? At all? Ever? HOW, GODDAMIT?

Perhaps people talking about glossiness in the effects are simply confused by the film effect applied to the series. A discussion as to whether it is appropriate to Dwarf or not is beyond the scope of this article, but it is technically impressive and looks very good – unlike some film effects I’ve seen over the years, which turns the screen into a blurry mess. And yes, the four-sided sets for series VII are very impressive. But VIII is usually encapsulated within the “glossy” tag – and that series reverts back to plain video, and three-sided audience sets. And, whilst I still enjoy the sets in VIII, they don’t feel as nice as sets in previous series. Indeed, the studio set for the S.S. Manny Celeste in Pete is verging on the not very good at all – a charge that I can’t think applying to any other Mel Bibby set in the entire run of the show.

Series VIII’s effects were better than VII’s, of course. At least they’re all 3-D. And yes – if they were the only effects Dwarf had ever had, I might be better disposed to them. But all I can do, time and time again, is compare them to effects shots Dwarf did in 1987 – and find them woefully lacking. It’s telling that the best special effect by absolutely cunting miles in Series VIII is Starbug’s crash in Back In The Red. Done with good old-fashioned models.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying the Dwarf production team had any choice in making those shots. It was probably the only way they could go – they certainly couldn’t afford to do things the way they had before. The BBC VFX department now had to make a profit on every show they did – as Doug details in the VIII scriptbook, Dwarf simply couldn’t afford to use them any more. Using Chris Veale was the only way to go. (Why the BBC wouldn’t give the top-rated show on BBC TWO a bigger budget, especially when it makes so much from overseas and video/DVD sales, is beyond me.) I’m simply saying that, from a purely objective angle – compared to previous series of Dwarf, they simply aren’t even a tenth as good. And thus yet again, I cannot understand the “glossy” tag attached to them. Neither can I understand Doug Naylor’s statement (also in the VIII scriptbook) that Series VIII has the best effects the show has ever had. I’d love to see someone try and argue that one in detail, no matter what you think of the last two series.

It’s not just the model effects, either. Even just comparing some of the video effects in Series V or VI (the deaths of the crew in Demons & Angels or The Inquisitor, or the transportation effects in Rimmerworld) with the ones in VII or VIII (the time wand, anyone?) and a lot of the effects in the latter two series are seriously lacking.

In the end, if I let all mental and physical operations cease, I can just about comprehend people slagging off Red Dwarf‘s effects for the first six series – plain wrong though I think they might be. But the attitude that the last two series had far superior effects – well, words fail me. It’s quite the most FUCKING WRONG thing I’ve ever heard in my life. Why the hell is this idea so widespread?

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