High & Low: Special Effects

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Of all the difficult tasks I have faced whilst writing Ganymede & Titan, this has to be one of the most difficultistestist. Even more difficult than writing an article which doesn’t manage to be spectacularly rude about somebody for very little reason. How the bloody hell do you manage to boil down the quite staggering amount of amazing special effects work for Red Dwarf into one easy-to-digest Top 10 list?

Answer: with a lot of kicking, screaming, self-doubt as to the worth of my entire life, and general dissatisfaction. Hopefully that’s sold this article as something well worth reading. Let’s get on with it, shall we?

10. Starbug Leg

Psirens

Huge Starbug Leg on planetThe kind of forced perspective shot that Dwarf rarely attempted – in fact, the only other example which springs to mind is the corridor shot near the end of Back to Earth. By means of clever camera angles, a relatively small model of a Starbug leg looks bloody huge. Combined with the excellent location work, the result is very nice indeed.

What I especially love about this is that even after you know exactly how it’s done, you still can’t really see it in the final shot. The illusion remains intact.

9. Planet Wide Shot

Thanks for the Memory

The Dwarfers on a planet, with Blue Midget in the backgroundOddly enough, as we shall see later, Series 2 contains one of the best examples of Red Dwarf combining live action and models in one shot, and one of the worst. Surprise: this is the good one. The first time we see our heroes on the actual surface of a planet, and this shot sells it perfectly – in fact, the show never really bettered it.

The Hologrammic Projection Cage does win the award for “most obviously going to be dropped idea in any programme ever”, though.

8. The Holoship

Holoship

The Holoship next to Red DwarfOne of the great things about Red Dwarf is that it looks like nothing else on television – and this is one of the greatest examples. The obvious way to have done a hologrammatic ship would perhaps be to take a normal-looking ship, make it transparent, and add a few sparkly effects on top. Instead, Dwarf creates this beautiful perspex model. Stunning.

(But thank God they cut out the shot of it opening up, as seen in the raw effects footage on the DVD. The magic is well and truly broken.)

7. Exploding GELF Icon

Emohawk – Polymorph II

A flaming Starbug flying through wreckageIf there’s one criticism that can be made of Dwarf‘s model work, it’s that each shot tends to do only one thing. A ship flies past, or takes off from a hanger, or explodes… but generally only one thing at once. A churlish thing to complain about perhaps, when the shots end up so good, but it’s one of the few things about Dwarf‘s effects where the money limits the ambition.

The beauty of this shot, then – in an action sequence which is one of the best Dwarf ever did – is that we see the GELF icon exploding… and then the flaming Starbug flies through the wreckage. A bravura shot, which could have pointed towards where the effects work could have gone in VII… if that hadn’t been such an absolute disaster.

6. Cat/Cat High Five

Camille

Cat high-fiving himselfTo be honest, I could fill this entire article with just split screen shots and justify every single one. From the amazing scene in Future Echoes where Rimmer walks out of one door and walks in from the other, to Me² with its long, ambitious dialogue scenes between the two Rimmers, to the double Lister scene in Psirens which moves beyond the normal straight line split to produce a scene you blink at and wonder how the hell it was done… there’s no shortage of them.

But to represent them all, I pick Cat high-fiving himself in Camille. Not only is it perfectly executed, but it’s also the perfect example of a piece of effects work enabling a joke pretty much no other show would ever do. It’s the essence of Red Dwarf, in fact.

(As an aside, the confidence in which the show was doing split screen work by this point is exemplified by the second picture here. The showy main shot is the standout… but in the same scene, Ed Bye quietly frames the other shot with Camille Cat in the corner. An unexpected way to do a split screen, but an entirely natural shot if it was two different characters. The result: you totally buy the idea of two Cats in the room… and the subtle confidence of the secondary shot helps sell the main shot and accompanying gag.)

5. The Polymorph

Polymorph

The Polymorph rearing up behind the crewOK, OK, yes. It’s a massive Alien rip-off. There’s the odd dodgy shot here and there. (Yes, final shot of the episode, with your crappy wipe and weird change in background when the second Polymorph is revealed, I’m thinking of you.) So why pick the Polymorph?

Simple: because for the majority of the time, it’s one of the best examples of Red Dwarf selling us a non-humanoid creature. For all that, say, the mutton vindaloo beast in D.N.A. may be better in some respects… it is also very obviously A Man In A Suit. So is the Camille blob, for that matter. The Polymorph avoids this entirely. And the shot near the end of the episode with the Polymorph appearing behind our heroes is one of the single best CSO effects the series ever managed.

Ironically, despite wearing its influence very much on its sleeve… with the Polymorph, the series felt like it could do anything. Arguably, Red Dwarf was never as experimental again as it was in that autumn of 1989 – every aspect of the show pushing at the boundaries. A series where it felt audience sitcom could do anything, if given enough imagination.

Even – occasionally – somebody else’s imagination.

4. Ocean Crash

Dimension Jump

Starbug on the rocks in Dimension JumpMuch as with the split screen shots, this article could pretty much be stuffed with Starbug crashes and you could justify each of them. As I’m only allowing one, it’s almost an impossible choice.

But I’m going for this: the spectacular crash onto the ocean planet in Dimension Jump. Why? Because despite being amazing, most Starbug crashes are very obviously model shots. Excellent model shots, but model shots nonetheless. What I love about this one is that it’s the closest Dwarf got to looking like they built a full-size Starbug and smashed it into the sea. As great as the crash onto the snow planet was in Marooned the previous season, nobody could say those soap flakes truly looked like snow. The additional fact that water is very difficult to get right in model shots due to scale issues means this is fully deserving of the official title Best Starbug Crash Ever. Maybe Tucker & Co deserve an official G&T certificate. It’d go nicely next to their BAFTA.

3. Developing Photos

Timeslides

Pan across living photos in TimeslidesLet’s be honest: variations for most shots in this list are created for many, many SF films and TV shows. Sure, a shot of Starbug crashing might be an absolutely beautiful shot, and a beautiful ship design… but look in the right places, and ship crashes are ten-a-penny.

However, some shots are true one-offs. And this particular one – a slow pan across many different photos, come to life through mutated developing fluid – is so well done, that it almost looks normal. It doesn’t even look like an effect. Which is, of course, the whole beauty of it.

What’s amazing about this shot is that it’s exactly the kind of thing that was bloody difficult to do in 1989. If you want to go and shoot a spacecraft model, then the basics are fundamentally the same, whether it’s now or 25 years ago. But a shot like this is so much easier these days with computerised motion tracking. It would be a great shot for a movie to pull off in the late eighties, let alone a BBC sitcom. To be honest, I still don’t understand how they got it looking so perfect.

The final piece of brilliance? The show didn’t even need to do this particular shot. It would have been far easier to just lock-off the camera and done a stationary shot – in fact, it would clearly have been the obvious thing to do. But Red Dwarf at its best specialises in the non-obvious.

2. Starbug Take-off

Demons & Angels

Starbug taking of with explosions around itThis list wouldn’t be complete without a hero shot of Starbug that didn’t involve an enormous crash. I’ve always had a soft spot for the overhead beauty pass (first seen in Series IV, and used all the time in VI), or the very opening shot of Psirens (where memorably, the script describes as Starbug “beetles across the disc of the sun”.)

But instead, I’ll go for this: Starbug taking off from a self-destructing Red Dwarf in Demons & Angels. As hero shots go in Dwarf, it’s hard to beat. It’s no surprise that this shot was reused in Back to Reality, where the new, movie-style crew flex their muscles and kiss the girl. This is film-quality work. (Just ignore the fact a variant of the shot was also used in Rimmerworld, where Starbug takes off from the doomed simulant ship… despite this clearly being Red Dwarf’s hangar. There’s a fanfic to be had in that. A really fucking rubbish one.)

1. Closing Credits

Red Dwarf Series 1 – Red Dwarf IV

Red Dwarf closing creditsBrace yourself, everyone. I think I’m going to have to break out the word “iconic” here. Fair warning.

But how else do you describe Red Dwarf‘s closing credits? A beautiful, swooping shot across Red Dwarf – a motion control shot that is as good as any effects work the series ever managed. (The decision to get rid of this closing sequence in Red Dwarf V in favour of a starfield and some badly-animated blue blobs is one of the few questionable decisions that particular series made.) It’s a perfect showcase for that first Red Dwarf model itself – one that has had the odd bit of flack over the years, but I still think looks absolutely superb. Somehow, this shot takes a great hulk of a mining ship – that’s had random bits and pieces stuck all over it (both in-universe and in real life)… and makes it look graceful. No mean feat.

It’s also a good example of how taking care of the smaller things when making programmes is hugely important. Take a look at the end credits of most sitcoms. It’s a rare one you’ll find these days which matches what Red Dwarf achieved – an image etched into the memory, popping up in your head long after the programme has finished. Just imagine what fun other shows could have, if the time was taken to create memorable end credits. (And if channels gave them time to play them, and didn’t spray graphics all over them… but that’s a rant for another day.)

The hilarious thing is, as part of Red Dwarf X‘s back-to-basics approach, an attempt was made to recreate the shot – and, as can be seen on the “We’re Smegged” DVD documentary, it just didn’t work, as they didn’t have access to a motion control rig. Maybe it’s foolish to draw too many wider conclusions from that… yet the fact Red Dwarf in 1988 had access to full motion control, and 24 years later they didn’t, strikes me as a good example that television doesn’t always move forwards in the way we’d all like.

But enough of my own personal agenda. Red Dwarf‘s closing credits. Iconic. Seriously. Unlike the following… yes, it’s time for the dregs of Red Dwarf‘s effects work. And if you skipped all the above because you wanted to know what I thought of the bad stuff first, then you are clearly a terrible person. I like you.

5. Space Corps External Enforcement Vehicle

Emohawk – Polymorph II

A flying disc warping next to StarbugAs I said above, the chase sequence in Emohawk is one of the best action sequences in Red Dwarf of all time. But out of brilliant effects shot followed by brilliant effects shot, one stands out like a sore thumb: that of the Space Corps External Enforcement Vehicle warping next to Starbug… by way of a 2D spinning disc. (Which looks far worse moving than in this accompanying picture.)

What’s even worse is that a later shot shows that they did actually build a proper model for the ship, rendering this even more ridiculous in comparison. Occasionally with VI, the sheer amount of effects work required means the odd dodgy shot peeks through the gaps. This is one of those gaps.

4. Cat in Blue Midget’s Hangar

Kryten

A blurry Cat in Blue Midget's hangarMost of the time when looking at the first two series of Dwarf, the series proves that the cliched idea of what a BBC North West production would look like in 1988 is just that – a cliche, with no basis in fact whatsoever. Then a shot like this comes along, and it’s somehow even worse than that cliched idea. Even Doctor Who during its most cash-strapped days rarely managed a CSO shot so blurry, fuzzy, and generally manky.

What’s worse is that it spoils a rare – and lovely – shot of Blue Midget’s hangar. It makes you wonder why they didn’t realise the shot wasn’t working in the edit, and just used the model shot as it was without Cat inserted into it (and without his accompanying wail). It’s not like the story requires it, after all – you’d lose nothing, and you’d be replacing a shitty effects shot with a good one.

3. Legion’s FACE

Legion

Legion's distorted faceOr, more specifically, one single shot of Legion’s FACE. Most of the shots of the Dwarfer’s faces melded together work fine – it was never one of my favourite effects. but it just about works most of the time. But the shot where Legion reaches for his mask and the face has to move stretches the effect past breaking point. Again, I would have just cut the shot; you don’t really need to see the effect quite as much as we do.

It’s interesting to ponder what other ways the effect could have been achieved in order to have a) a more convincing effect, and b) allowed the actor to move. Part of me wants to suggest some kind of hideous makeup job. Done right, it could be really creepy and grotesque. Done wrong, however, and it could have been even worse than what we ended up with. But frankly, expense would kill it: three different versions of the makeup would have been required for different character combinations.

Off the point somewhat, but something I’ve always wondered: why does Legion just stand there whilst Kryten tries to knock everyone out, instead of stopping it like he threatened? And WHY IN THE NAME OF HOLY FUCK does he take his mask off? Purely for the benefit of the viewer, presumably.

2. Ace Rimmer’s Pods

Stoke Me A Clipper

Ace Rimmer's podsAh, the holy grail of bad effects shots: the sweeping ambition, the soaring music, everything selling to you that this is a big moment… except for the fact the actual effect is pretty shitty. I’m reminded of this hilarious scene from Lost.

Still, this is very much the opposite issue compared to the previous two entries. They could have easily been fixed in the edit by just dropping the shot: but this shot is vital to the episode. It’s also not a shot that you could point and laugh at and say “should have done it with models”. It’s a tricky shot for anyone to do convincingly, let alone for a sitcom in 1997.

But it still stinks. Sorry. And it’s topped off with the appearance of the umpteenth crappy 2D Starbug in VII. Oh, speaking of which…

1. VII Starbug

All of Series VII

A nasty Starbug shot from VIIWhat can I say? At this point, complaining about the effects in VII feels like kicking a puppy. A rather ugly puppy which was born prematurely, and was a last minute replacement for a family that wanted another dog but realised that the puppy they had purchased wasn’t suitable for the house any more after they’d had some renovations done, so they took him out and buried him in the back yard, only to dig him up years later and sell the remains for people to gawp at.

Still. We know they’re crap. GNP know they’re crap. It’s been well-established that the entire mess is down to problems with production that GNP would never let happen again… wait a minute. Still, none of this stops a fair few contemporary interviews and reviews saying that VII had much improved effects work. I can only imagine an awful lot of people suffered some form of temporary blindness at the start of 1997. Or, just possibly, that they had heard the effects included a lot of CGI, expected it to look better… so their brain magically told them it was. Just a theory.

The ironic thing about the terrible Starbug shots in VII of course, is that there are occasional glimpses of something far better: the most prominent example being the opening shot of the VII title sequence, which actually showcases a pretty good CGI Starbug – and, of course, the split Starbug in the Xtended version of Tikka. So the terrible end result of a lot of the Starbug shots in VII is a double kick in the teeth. If only the budget had existed for the excellent replacement effects on Tikka To Ride Remastered as seen on the DVD release to be extended beyond one episode… which leads us neatly into our next article.

Yes, we’re taking a break from High & Low next month, to be replaced with a brand new, one-off feature: Low & High, where I’ll be taking a look at the worst and best changes in Red Dwarf Remastered. YES HA HA WHAT A VERY FUNNY JOKE WE HAVE DONE. Suggestions below please, whilst I summon up the courage needed to watch all nineteen episodes in a row whilst staying away from sharp household implements.

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22 Responses to High & Low: Special Effects

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  1. Nice article, well done. Have a star.

    Red Dwarf Remastered. The End. Skutters.

    That is all.

  2. Good luck finding five good changes in Remastered. I really fucking hate the sound of Rimmer crashing into stuff after he tries to attack the Cat, the replacing of Felicity Kendal’s bottom with Marilyn Monroe’s, and Holly saying “Yes, God?”

  3. That is another excellent article. Goes to show what an outstanding visual feast the show offers.

    I haven’t watched remastered in a long time but at least they tried to do *something* with the cockpit window at the start of Marooned, we get extra time with the three Listers and three Rimmers at the end of Stasis Leak and in the same episode Rimmer’s swift knee to Hollister’s happy sack is much more satisfying.

    The worst things about remastered episodes are the replacement Holly shots, the removal of black card/white card from Balance Of Power and all the ship shots. John found something nice to say about some of the VII effects, but there is nothing redeeming about them in remastered. EXCEPT for the way the sun disappears behind a section of Red Dwarf and then blinks back into view in the closing credits. Maybe.

  4. This is a bloody good article, John. Really looking forward to the next one.

    There are obviously a lot of bad changes in Remastered, but I think there are a few that actually worked…

    I remember being impressed and sort of moved when I first saw the passage of time to 3 million years in ‘The End Remastered’. I’m not sure how I feel about it now but I remember on first watch loving the music they used after Lister is frozen in stasis. I thought the sound effect of the stasis booth activating followed by the new music cue actually helped (freeze frame is a little meh, though). That’s something I feel works a little better than the original. Those changes made it feel more dramatic in comparison, and I think the additional model shots (instead of just one) really helped give the feeling of some time passing.

    I also quite liked the replacement music cue for the Observation Dome scenes in ‘Better Than Life’ and ‘Thanks For The Memory’. In some ways I even like it a little more than the original music cue. Although I think that might have something to do with the fact that with Series II, I saw the Remastered version first.

    Not to sound too positive about Remastered but I thought the film effect actually works a lot better in Series II than it does in 1 and III. Of course, the original looks better, but I think the closest the film effect came to actually working was for Series II. I don’t know why, but it just looks good to me.

  5. But it still stinks.

    I like it. :(

    —-

    I’m rather partial to the Remastered Cat evolution image (though part of me thinks it shouldn’t be of The Cat himself) and Cloister art.

    Doesn’t Goodall’s Observation Dome music get replaced with a track that’s also Xtended over the space wind? That was unpleasant.

  6. G&T Admin

    I haven’t watched remastered in a long time but at least they tried to do *something* with the cockpit window at the start of Marooned

    Oh, man, I’d forgotten about that! If I’d remembered that would have been a serious candidate for inclusion in the Low section of this article…

    Thanks for the kind words everyone.

  7. Excellent article John, as ever. On the subject of remastered, I *think* the above shot of Cat in Blue Midget’s hanger in ‘Kryten’ was removed, but I’m not certain.

    And the ocean crash in ‘Dimension Jump’ is one of my favourites too, if it weren’t for the fact that water just refuses to scale. Water always wins.

  8. Fantastic stuff, John.

    The Ace Rimmer pods is what I had in mind when I clicked on this. It’s a fantastic idea; selling the entire premise of the episode wordlessly. The music is just right.. BUT IT LOOKS LIKE A CARTOON.

    As for the Remastered. The Holly stuff is piss-poor, particularly when it’s at the expense of character moments (Black Card/White Card).

    I really can’t think of 5 good things Remastered did. Or even 1 thing, actually. Some of the audio things they did were reasonable…but then that’s compounded by Rimmer’s mum being dubbed in Polymorph. Ditto animating the Bunkroom star-field…but not being able to do this when the camera was moving.

    Every good intention is compromised by shitty effects, or outnumbered by WTF intentions.

    #Dwarfacts The developing photos shot in Timeslides was actually accomplished by hanging up a couple of iPads playing pre-recorded videos.

  9. G&T Admin

    I can think of a few positive changes but I’m really interested to see John come up with five. I’m sure they’re buried in there somewhere…

  10. G&T Admin

    I currently have two obvious positive changes for Remastered. Three up for grabs, so suggest away…

    FWIW, in the Top 10 of this article, I nearly included the exploding gazebo from Beyond A Joke, which does serve to inflame the minor amounts of testosterone vaguely circulating my body – but just couldn’t quite justify it. On a similar note, I do feel slightly guilty about entirely ignoring BTE and RDX, but there was just no space. I nearly included some of the Bladerunner-esque CGI shots in BTE, and they are very good, but they just don’t grab me in the same way as the shots which made the cut.

  11. The worst thing on Remastered for me was ‘Bodyswap’, The way It was re-edited and the changes to the music cues, they took one of my favourite eps and made it wrong. Oh yeah and the new chase scene which sucked but by that point I was already annoyed with all the other changes.

  12. Great article. But I am gonna disagree with your Series VII picks. The CG Starbug isn’t actually that bad. It’s horribly overused, but it’s not bad. If anything i think it’s the planets in VII that have aged the worst.

    I also can’t quite agree with the Ace Rimmer pods either. Obviously by todays standards it’s a weak shot, but i remember really being sold by it at the time. Probably due to the great music and the fact i was 12. But i can’t hate it when i watch it today. It does the job for me. Believe me there are actually worse effects and model shots in 2005 Doctor Who.

    I actually think that while the Starbug crash in Dimension Jump is great, the shot is slightly ruined by the last bit of it where you get a closeup of Starbug coming to a stop on the rock. It’s slowed down and really loses realism in those final few seconds as the model rattles a bit. But the approach is great.

    I think Series VI has the best effects work overall for me. Worst effects, i’m gonna have to say Series X! While there’s some fantastic model work in the last episode, and other great flybys, some of the flybys and quick model shots are horrible. Presumably they are the ones they couldn’t reshoot.

  13. Low Remastered.

    1. How fucking dare you replace Gordon. Or was that a deleted scene from remastered on body snatcher. Either way it’s the worst idea ever in the whole of dwarf, (except for Duct soup episode not remastered,)

    2. The text on screen ending to polymorph. Lets’ make a show better by changing the ending, And just type the new script onto the show??? WHAT THE FUCK???

    3. The rimmer interference effect in Queeg. Great idea on papper, in reality it still shits all over Chris’s great performance.

    4. Rerecorded holly. Mostly doesn’t work. Doesn’t blend well.

    5. Floating heads at the funeral, rubbish perspective.

    Oh and The removal of the song “cash” by Craig Charles band

    Plus nearly everything else, they remastered.

    High Remastered.

    1. Cutting the utterly shit actor playing George McIntyre down a bit making less of him in the episode.

    2. I actually like the drunk Leg walking Blue Midget when it’s on the planet staggering. Sorry I know im not supposed to like cgi over model shots, and the drunk driving gag worked fine in the original, and yes they over do the drunk driving bit in space in the remastered version, but I just love the leg version staggering around, and while the blue midget dance sequence and guitar solos were a bit stupid I don’t hate them as much as most people, so I like that that ship got a drunk scene.

    3. Krtyens space bike flys into the credits. OK it’s still shit, but the original last shot of the episode was shit. So it’s like slightly less shit I think. Like a turd with a bit of air freshener now on it.

    4. Removal of black card white card. Always hated that.

    5. I quite liked the cat evolution art. I know it’s not normal to see still art in the show, but was nice looking.

  14. Yes, the new Gordon wasn’t used in the end. I think he’s rubbish, but even if he wasn’t, I agree – fuck knows why anybody thought it’d be a good idea to replace Gordon Salkilld. Me and Andrew Swadling once cracked each other up doing impressions of Gordon in the yard at school, and it wasn’t Phil Philmar we were taking off, that’s for sure!

    Those infamous skutters in The End are shit of course, but they did provide us with that brilliant bit of Re-Dwarf, so maybe in a way they’re one of the best changes. Cracking article btw John, I did mean to say so in my first comment :)

  15. I’ve just remembered an improvement in Remastered. It’s a fraction of a second long, is barely noticeable but certainly rights a wrong. It’s “Mc”.

  16. Off the top of my head, the absolute worst Remastered changes are:
    1. Polymorph ending.
    2. Bodyswap CGI chase.
    3. Cut out black card scene in Balance of Power.
    4. That Skutter who goes across the screen in The End.
    5. New voice for Rimmer’s Mum.

    In fact you might as well make the whole remastering of Polymorph a single entry as that is an almighty fuck up.

    I guess a good one can be Kryten flying away in the bike. It doesn’t add anything and is poorly done but at least this change is trying to do something that they also tried to do in 1989 but were held back by technology. Bit of a back handed compliment there but I imagine you’ll be struggling to come up with 5 so any little might help.

  17. The removal of the song “cash”

    The removal of the song “money”

  18. “Good lord.”

    I still, to this day, have no idea how I never noticed the missing Mc on the VHS. I had to have seen Kryten at least a couple of dozen times before the DVD release, and always remembered “McNugget” very clearly. Then the first time I saw it on DVD, I noticed it was just “nugget.”

    I was wrong, certainly…but I wonder why it never clicked when I was watching it on tape, and then clicked the very first time I saw it on disc.

    Also this is my favorite High & Low yet (not a backhanded compliment…I’ve enjoyed them all), but I’m shocked that the chameleonic microbe eating the escape pod isn’t on here. Is that even what it’s doing? At least with the bad effects listed here, I see what they were going for. (And in the case of the Rimmer coffins being aware of the intention earns it at least a little bit of a pass.) But I have absolutely no idea what the fuck the microbe was doing.

  19. G&T Admin

    I’m shocked that the chameleonic microbe eating the escape pod isn’t on here. Is that even what it’s doing? At least with the bad effects listed here, I see what they were going for. (And in the case of the Rimmer coffins being aware of the intention earns it at least a little bit of a pass.) But I have absolutely no idea what the fuck the microbe was doing.

    It was on the list… and just got edged out. It’s especially annoying because the actual escape pod model is really nice. But yes, it’s appalling.

  20. I’d fight a case for Ackerman’s eye-socket/eye patch if I could work out which of those it was actually supposed to be.

  21. Just because I know from the doc what the effects team had to go through to fix it, I nominate the asteroid field with a Blue Midget shot from The Beginning in X for honorary #11 in the top 10. The difference between the absolute shit the original “asteroids” were going to be and the final effect is night and day.

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