AN INTERVIEW WITH
When did your interest in model making begin?
I know that from a very early age I knew I wanted to be an artist – certainly as a youngster I was always drawing. I’d spend hours doing it. I suppose by the time I got to about nine or something like that I was convinced that was what I wanted to do. I was very fortunate in the sense that in the junior school I went to there was a very enlightened teacher who ran an art club after school hours and encouraged us to come along and do things above and beyond the normal stuff you’d do in class. It was he that steered me towards my secondary school which was one that really was slightly different. They really used to steer their pupils towards the building and craft trades or towards art, so obviously this was the place for me to go. He was right in that sense, it did give me that opportunity to move on and develop.
How did you get started at AP Films/Century 21?
When I arrived at the company, I thought I was going to go straight into the model workshop because that was the job that I'd been given, but when I came to my interview I had taken along some drawings that I had of cars that I was designing and they were quite elaborate. So on my first day arriving at the company I was greeted by Derek Meddings who immediately said to me, "You can draw plans, can't you?" and I said, "Yes, I can." And he said, "Right, come with me" and so I was sidelined off into his office and worked with him for, I think, about two or three weeks drawing up the visuals that he created of all the major craft of Thunderbirds and turning them into plans and elevations that would then be sent to an outside model-making company. At that stage, they didn't really have the skills within house to make them there in the studio. I didn't actually get into the model shop until quite later. It was a nice time because I got to know Derek quite well in those few weeks and I wouldn't have known him quite so well, I don't think, if I'd have gone straight into the model shop.
What was the atmosphere in the studio like at that time?
The atmosphere in the studio wasn't formal at that time. It was quite casual in a way, but Derek had the capacity to be able to put his foot down if need be. Everybody was working hard. We all knew what we'd got to do. Perhaps when we started we weren't working quite hard enough because I remember that I got a bit of a lecture from Derek when he came back off of his holidays because we hadn't achieved quite as much as he thought we should have done. But most of the time, that sort of slightly casual attitude carried on – which was nice. It was quite a nice company to work for at that stage, certainly.
Were you on first name terms all the way up and down the company?
I think pretty much so, yes. I don't think that one was ever introduced to Gerry as Mr. Anderson. It was always Gerry and it was first name terms. And most people used to call you "mate". I mean that was the word that was used more than names, probably! It was that kind of relationship, really.
How did your role change once you moved into the model shop?
Well, my first job was to actually assist another model maker; a chap by the name of James Channing who was also a new boy and who was working on Lady Penelope's house. I helped work on that for a while, but then the first sort of model that I made completely myself was The Hood's temple, which was quite good fun. And after I'd finished that, I can't remember exactly what it was, I think it was building Airport buildings. That's right, I was, yes. Airport buildings for the London Airport scenes in the pilot. And it was there that I think Derek and Brian Johnson first realized that I was reasonably good at what was known as "Gubbins" which was the art of making something out of bits and pieces that, when they were separated, didn't look like anything, but hopefully when you put them together resembled something important. Slowly, from that start, I began to do more and more of that side, rather than the pure model making. Because we had people like Ray Brown coming in to make the models and I was more in charge of dirtying them down and detailing them, which was the area really I enjoyed most, I think.
Can you tell us what the process of detailing entailed?
The process of detailing was evolved over the years, but when I first went in it was the business of adding all those bits of information to a model that would be on a real thing. They didn't necessarily have to be overstated; they just had to be there. If they weren't there, you missed them. And they were things like panel lines where doors shut or where panels would be removed to get into various bits and pieces. They were things like oil stains and dirt streaks and scuffs and scratches and little bits of detail, which were stuck on the outside of the model using bits of plastic kit. You didn't really have to know what they were, but you just sort of added them until you felt you'd got the right look.
Probably, if someone said to you, “What's that bit there, Mike?" you could have said, “Oh, it's a vent for this, that, or the other,” which was total nonsense but it had to look as if it might be a vent for this, that, or the other and that was the whole process. It was that level of detailing – along with the lettering, the little no step warning signs and things of that nature – that did add a whole veneer of complexity and reality to our models that I think was missing from a lot of, at that time, even mainstream film models. And that was really something that Derek and Brian had started to generate much earlier and I was just picking up what was already there and running with it.
Is it right that you often used household objects when building and detailing models?
Yes – they were very often a quick way to arrive at something that, if you decided to try and make it from scratch using raw materials, would take you forever. A classic example of that would be when you read the words ‘Atomic Power Station’ in a script and the idea of trying to build an atomic power station or an oil refinery with all its attendant pipework and things like that from bits of rod and detail… it would take you forever. Whereas you could go down to a hardware store and you'd come out with a lot of plastic boxes, beach balls, salt and pepper sets – anything really that we thought might be useful. And you would use these as the basis of your model and then you would detail on top of those shapes and try and disguise them so that people wouldn't look at them and say, “Oh yes, there's a beach ball!” If they were doing that, you'd failed miserably, but normally we got away with it.
We carried that process right the way through. Wherever you could find some ready-made thing that you could perhaps adapt, hack about, add other things to and then detail over the top of, it that would give you something that looked believable. It was a far easier than getting out a block of would or sheets of Perspex and trying to create it from the word go.
Do you ever look at the episodes and find yourself going, "Oh yes, that's a beach ball"?
I think if I looked at the episodes, which I don't very often these days, I probably would know quite a lot of what I was looking at and say, "Oh yes I remember that quite well". But some of it I probably would have forgotten because hopefully we'd been good enough to disguise what it was we were looking at. I know it drives the fans up the wall because they desperately want to know what these things are and where we got them from and that sort of thing.
It didn't always work. Sometimes we got it wrong and sometimes we used things that we shouldn't and there is one thing that haunts me and that is a lemon squeezer which was stuck on the wall at the back of Thunderbird 1's set. And every time I see that I shudder and think that we really should have disguised that or done something else with it. But we didn't and you win some, you lose some.
You eventually moved on to the designing of the guest vehicles for Thunderbirds. How did that come about?
It started out quite cheekily because I picked up the script of ‘Pit of Peril’ and I looked at it and I saw the word ‘recovery vehicle’. I decided to take a chance and, quite uninvited by anybody, went home over a weekend and came back on a Monday morning with a design which I showed to Derek. Derek, much to my surprise, said, "I like that. We'll build that." So we built the recovery vehicles and I think he was quite pleased with them. They looked reasonably OK on the set.
Then when we got to the episode ‘End of the Road’, the scripts had just come out and Derek came into me and he said. "Look, I'm far too busy to do everything. Do you fancy having a go at Eddie's Truck?" And I said. “Yes I'll have a go at Eddie's truck” so I did that and it worked alright. Then, gradually – because Derek was so snowed under with trying not only to direct and oversee things but also storyboard the whole thing – more and more he would come to me and say "Do you fancy having a go?" or sometimes I would go to Derek and say "Do you mind if I have a go?"
Slowly, I was drawn into that side of it. Then, about a year after I joined, Ray Brown, head of the model section at that stage, and myself were called over to Derek's office. I think both of us probably thought we'd done something wrong and were desperately trying to work out what it was, but Derek asked me, "Would you be happy to come out of the model shop and join me to take over the storyboarding?" So I did. We were given an office that was a converted ladies toilet and Ray and I set up camp in there. I storyboarded, but also more and more the design side was creeping in.
Do you remember shooting the pilot of Thunderbirds?
The shooting of the pilot was hectic. We'd had this sort of three months before to prepare everything and you're not just preparing neccesariy for that episode, you're preparing for the series. So we were working on things that would feature much later in various bits and pieces. What people don't appreciate, I think with Thunderbirds, is the sheer shortness of time. We had really, I think, a 14 day schedule. That was what it should have taken us. Now whether that was true right at the beginning, I don't know because as you probably know we started out on half hour episodes, but certainly by the time we'd stretched to the hour it was a fourteen day schedule and that meant really burning the midnight oil quite often and trying to get things done because it wasn't a big crew. There were not huge numbers of us working on it and the demands for a lot of it was quite excessive. But we got it done and we throroughly enjoyed it and one has to say that although we were working hard I think all of us were enjoying it. It's just great to have that opportunity to be as creative as you can and not really neccesarily have too many boundaries put in front of you.
So when you say you had fourteen days, that means you had half the time that the puppet unit had, then, because they were on a month schedule?
Were they? Well that's something I didn't know. But then again what you've got to remember is that on a lot of the episodes we would have something like a hundred and twenty something special effects shots. Now some of that material, obviously, would be library material. But a lot of that would be new shots and while some of them would be perhaps quite simple, a lot of them were quite complex and when that meant rejigging sets, churning out quite a considerable number of models, dealing with all the various breakages, which were inevitable.
If I stepped on to the SFX stage / unit, and you took me on a tour, what would I see?
A mess, mostly. I think that would be the main thing. If you were going around the studio at that time looking at the special effects side, it would probably look pretty messy. Certainly the workshops were pretty messy, because we didn't neccessarily have a huge amount of time to be tidy. We didn't have time to tidy everything up and sweep it away and make it look nice before we started the next thing. It was quite usual for people working in what was known as the dirtying down shop, which is where all of the detailing and the plastic bits and pieces were added. When that was done, as one model would come out of there and go onto the stage for shooting another one would arrive from the workshop to be dealt with. And we didn't have time to pick up all the plastic bits we'd sorted out so you would put a cardboard box at the end of the bench and you'd take a piece of two by one and you'd sweep it down the bench and tip the whole lot into the cardboard box and start again. And then you probably would go back to that cardboard box to find various bits and pieces, but the idea of putting it all immediately away didn't happen.
So you would have noticed a lot of mess. On the actual shooting stages I think that the thing that would have probably struck you is how small they were. Certainly in the early days, when we were still shooting on the original site at Stirling road, where we shot all the early Thunderbirds, it was an incredibly small space and even when we got into the other buildings later on and had the facility of taking over whole buildings, it was still not very very large.
Tell me about what you do to make models fly.
The way we made models fly varied depending on what the model had to do. We had shots where you would perhaps be seeing an aircraft or a spacecraft or something just side on, and the background was passing by and that would be acheived by what was known as the roller sky. That was, as its name implies, two rollers and a large belt of canvas painted to represent the sky. And the model would simply be hung off of a lighting stand, probably, from above on very, very thin tungston wires. The wires would then be sprayed with a substance called anti-flare which is sort of a waxy substance that stuck to the wires. And then we would use powder colour in plastic bottles that you could puff gently on to the wires to try and match them into the background as best as you could. And the technicians and the camera crews got very skilled at being able to do this. If the craft had to pass through shot then you were in to more dangerous territory because either you had to rig up a wire going across the set from which the model could be hung on a crucifix to be pulled across, or you had to have someone actually physically holding the model from above which required putting up gantries and things. Very dangerous builders boards that were just sort of stuck out into space.
We had one special effects technician by the name of Peter Wragg who was a young chap who did ballroom dancing. He was very light on his feet. Very nimble. And he had this wonderful ability to be able to walk along a plank, quite often not really holding on to anything other than the model in his hand, which would be dangling down above the set, and he would be stepping over all sorts of obstacles on that plank and yet when you see the rushes the model flys across quite easily and then he would very, very gently take it in and land it - or do whatever it had got to do. We knew him as the Najinsky of the boards, because he was so light on his feet. Quite balletic to see him in operation. Yes, that was the most dangerous thing. And when I look now at some of the stills of those days and I see Pete, usually Pete, dangling above the set, and he's quite high, he's unsupported, he's maybe got a bit of rope to hang on to with one hand, and you just think of health and safety now. They'd have a fit. I'm sure they would! I know they would! And I don't think in all the time that he did it he ever fell off or had a serious accident. But those were the usual ways of making a model fly.
One of the problems that we had when we were flying models was that quite often we were doing landing shots like with Thunderbird 2. And in the bottom of TB2 there were four tubes set into the balsa wood body and these were to take what was known as the Schermuly charge which was just like a little rocket charge which would provide all the smoke as the craft came in to land. The only problem with these was, while the craft was in the air the charge could actually pour the smoke downwards towards the set, but the closer you got to the set the smoke and the flame would have a tendency to start going upwards as it bounced off the set. And all the models in those days were sprayed with celulose paint, which is highly flammable and so it was not unknown for some of the flame to just touch the celulose and for the celulose to ignite. And then you would have a problem. If the shot was over then people would rush in with fire extinguishers and try to douse it before it got too bad. But I do remember one occasion where one of the assistants walked into the model shop just before lunch with TB2 cradled in his arms and said with great understatement, "We've had a bit of an accident." And when he turned it around the side that was towards him had completely burned. It was charred to a crisp. And so my friend Ian Scoones and I spent the entire lunch hour taking green plasticine, which was fortunately not too different from the TB2 green, and remolding the site. And then I very crudely painted TB2 on the side of the plasticine. It weighed an absolute tonne when it went out of the workshop and when they redid the shot, we didn't see any of the side that we created so we really could have just left it charred and gone again with the side that was OK, but that's the film business for you, isn't it really?