Bill Camp interview

Alan Shubrook

During the time that I worked in the special effects department at the Century 21 Studios I was fortunate enough to meet some amazingly talented colleagues and made some incredible friends. During the past fifty years many of them thankfully have had their experiences and memories documented for all to enjoy. There is however, one very important senior member of the special effects team that has always shied away from publicity of any kind. He has never been interviewed about his time at the Century 21 Studios, and yet he led an entire crew and directed the visual effects on over 30 different episodes, on several series, for many years. My own first few weeks at the studios back in the mid sixties were full of nerves, working with a team of young lads just like myself, none of whom I had ever met before. But it wasn 't long before I was made to feel welcome and part of a most special team of effects technicians. One of my very earliest recollections of such a friendship came from a young man who I have kept in touch with since the studios closed its doors for the last time back in 1970. I was determined to pay tribute to him, and recognise for the first time the masterly and proficient part that he played in the studios success. Although he has always been very reluctant to put his memories to paper, I recently made contact with him again at his London home, in an attempt to persuade him to recount his recollections and experiences of the time he spent at the Slough studios. Despite ill health, he kindly agreed to relate his memories and remarkable achievements to me, for which I feel most honoured. This then is the first, and as far as I know, the only interview that has ever been recorded with special effects director Bill Camp.

The most obvious first question to ask, is how did you first come to work at the studios?

I first joined AP Films, as it was known then, in 1963 after an interview with the Art Director Bob Bell, who gave me a month's trial period in the art department puppet workshop. lt was thanks to my old friend Ken Turner that I obtained the interview. I had known Ken since early childhood and he was already employed in the art department workshop. I was very fortunate as I had not been to formal art college, all I had was A level art. Maybe Bob was impressed by Ken's industry in his department, and hoped that I may be similar. Keith Wilson ran the workshop and he was our immediate 'boss'.

The work then consisted of painting, 'dressing' the wooden forms of the various Thunderbird vehicles, which came to us from the carpenter's workshop. lt involved creating viable looking control panels under Keith's watchful, yet benevolent eye. I also worked on other creative areas such as carving polystyrene figures and making live action inserts to match the puppet sized control panels, for an actual hand to press a button or operate a lever. The work was very varied, as each episode script would require its own puppet size props.

How long did you stay working in the puppet art department before you moved to special effects?

I continued working in the art department for some months, having by now becoming permanently employed at the studios. It wasn't until the making of the Attack of the Alligators! episode of Thunderbirds, which was full of special effects involving live three-foot long alligators, that things changed for me. This particularly famous episode was proving very time consuming to produce. Consequently, head of special effects at the studios, Derek Meddings, had to form a brand new scratch effects unit to try and keep the episodes somewhere near to schedule. I really cannot remember if I was told to or volunteered for this scratch unit.

Anyway, I found myself working in the special effects department with Derek directing this brandnew 'raw' unit. The first thing I had to learn was how to handle these three foot muscular reptiles which were very strong, and on the loose, after each take in a swamp set built in a large tank of water. Not something that can be found in any job description manual. Under the watchful eye of the RSPCA we would don our waders and attempt to recover these 'gators after each shot.

Special effects proved much more physically demanding than any previous work that I had undertaken at the studios. The sets were much hotter because of the need for more light to accommodate a greater depth of field (focus) for the high-speed cameras. So all in all it was quite an initiation. The scratch unit then became a permanent unit, presumably because of an increase in the number of effects shots required for each episode of Thunderbirds, which were now an hour long. The company was extremely helpful in allowing most individuals to move between departments and I toyed with the idea of joining the camera department, as my interest in cinematography grew, however special effects won the day.

What was the first programme that you can remember directing the special effects on?

The first programme that I directed the special effects on was an early episode of Joe 90, Three's a Crowd. About this time, a few of us who had gained some experience and a union card, were thinking of trying to find work in the outside special effects world and I had virtually secured a position on a feature film. So the offer to direct came as a bit of a shock, particularly as I was about to hand my notice in. Also I felt at the time that other technicians such as Richard Conway or lan Wingrove would have been in the queue ahead of me. However I did not question the decision too much and just got on with it. Although my salary increased, directing did not save me the dirt and dust, caused by cement and powder colours, which we used to portray distant hills and also the ever-present explosives, which also filled the stage with dust.

Of all the various episodes you directed the effects on, which were your most memorable?

That's very hard to say. As Joe 90 was set in the not too distant future we had to take extra care with all the set dressing. New methods were introduced to improve the look of trees for example, which now looked much more realistic. As did the landscapes, with new materials for foliage. Of course these improvements carried on into UFO.

How much did Derek Meddings influence your work and did you find his input very important?

Derek was not on the stage on a daily basis, but his presence was certainly felt, in fact we used to see Mike Trim more regularly. Derek had set the parameters from which you rarely wandered, for example one knew that the majority of camera angles would be as low as possible as sets and vehicles always looked more convincing from low with a 25mm wide angle lens. lt never occurred to me to want more of a free hand; after all Derek was the 'man' but he never rubbed your nose in it and I worked with him for long enough to know this.

I did stray from the storyboard once when a SHADO mobile was required to drive up and past camera. I had the vehicle drive straight into the lens to blackout, then, using the rear of vehicle, to continue the blackout, pull it away from the lens to reveal where it was heading (something that I had seen in a feature film). Well, no one complained, especially as the editor cut the two shots together for rushes. What a naughty boy I was! In fact, although there was a storyboard to work to, there was always some latitude as building the set could throw up some new complications. Derek would nearly always be present for the daily 'rushes' which we viewed each morning. Often this would be the first time that he would see how I had shot a scene, and it was always 'interesting' to hear his comments. But everyone respected his input.

How important did you think the teamwork was at the studios in contributing to the programmes being so successful?

Teamwork was of primary importance, each department was well aware of each other and what limitations there might be. From the carpenter's workshop to puppet sized wardrobe they all played an integral part. A point in case is the storyboards, drawn by Mike Trim. The puppet director for Joe 90, the live action director for UFO and myself would meet in Mike's office and the director would explain his needs, then we would discuss the pros and cons. Meanwhile Mike would run off a sketch at some speed, which took us a step closer to the actual storyboard, which to my mind made things clear for all to see.

A lot of people thought at the time that The Secret Service series was a big mistake, and led to the ultimate closure of the production of puppet programmes. What are your thoughts on this?

I did not connect the The Secret Service series with the demise of the puppet series at the time. On reflection it is difficult to disagree, it was the beginning of the end for the puppets. After The Secret Service we went on to produce the UFO series with live action. The greatest shame is that UFO was not more successful in the American market. However, don't forget that none of us had any idea at that time that our work would be subsequently scrutinised.

Would you have liked to had the opportunity to direct live action on the UFO series?

Live action and special effects bear no relationship to each other, so it would have been difficult to switch directors hats. You could not readily step from one to the other. My friend Ken Turner took the step after directing the puppets for some series and also having a great deal of support from Dave Lane and guidance from others with live action experience. Ken actually went to Hollywood to watch and see how it was done. He was quite shocked to find out that artistes were more likely to be cast if they had their own car, saving the production company taxi fares. This was the reality of shooting a series in the States. I used to see quite a lot of Ken in those days and I have an idea of what he went through. The first thing that hits you is the difference in filming stages. The sound stages are enormous as opposed to the much smaller scale of the Sterling Road studios. New cameramen and crews can also be a problem, plus having to direct live artistes, which can be very intimidating for a new boy. So the short answer is no, I was not capable.

Looking back over your time at the studios how would you sum up the experience of working at the Century 21 studios?

The studios meant a great deal to me, for they were truly life changing. Initially I was driving every day from central London to Slough on the A4, which was a bit of a grind as it was long before the M4 motorway was built. Especially as I was heading for the rather dour Slough Trading Estate, but once inside the studio it was a different world. Good fortune had smiled on me as I entered an atmosphere of creativity and activity, meeting interesting people outside of my regular circle in London. As time went by I found myself spending more and more time in Maidenhead and Windsor where many of the crew lived. I was quite taken by the area, particularly socialising. lt was certainly a pivotal move for me as it gave me a flavour of the film industry and from there I knew which way I wanted to go.

How did you feel when it was announced that the studios were to close for good?

I was stunned by the news but the reality of the situation took a while to sink in. I had for some time been earning a reasonable income on a regular basis. This would have been nothing now for the average film technician who normally worked freelance, but for me it was a real shock. Fortunately I now had an ACTT union card, which would allow me to work on films or TV series. The problem was that I knew very few people who could help. One was Les Bowie (Derek's ex-employer) who did give me a few days work putting down background smoke in a forest for a feature film but the work was not regular enough for me as I had recently bought a property in London. So a very rough 18 months followed, but then I discovered the world of commercials in which I spent most of my time for the next 30 years. I was a very lucky boy yet again!

Were the numerous explosions as dangerous as they looked?

They certainly were, we always wore appropriate protective clothing, which in the heat and dust were not very comfortable. Each special effects stage had a lockable cabinet full of goodies in the form of gunpowder, petrol gel, magnesium, detonators and an impact explosive called cortex which looked like a white electric cable — innocent enough, except a small amount of this stuff taped to a 1" piece of block board could blow a hole straight through it! However, gunpowder was always our mainstay, the granules were wrapped in camera tape, experience helped here, for the tighter it was compressed the more violent the bang. An example of this was in my earlier days in special effects. I prepared a charge of magnesium which burns white hot. This charge was meant to create a trail of sparks, but I had wrapped it too tight and it exploded instead, and I ended up in the First Aid post on the trading estate. Amazingly, there were extremely few accidents, a few minor burns. Also, only senior technicians prepared the explosives, which were treated with some respect. The sixties were on reflection quite innocent, pre Health and Safety, and we certainly kept the local rep for fire extinguishers fully employed!

text originally appeared in Alan Shubrook's Century 21 FX special studios revisited edition