Derek Meddings

Creating the future in miniature

Sam Denham

In 1993 Dragons World published 21st Century Visions, the first book to look in depth at the production of the Gerry Anderson TV series and films. Written by Derek Meddings and Sam Denham, it proved a fascinating insight into the methods of the AP Films/Century 21 model unit. At the time Derek did various promotional activities for the book, including the following interview, conducted by Sam Denham. Sam has kindly provided FAB with this fascinating, in-depth interview about the years from Thunderbirds to UFO, which has never been previously published.

How did Gerry and Sylvia present the idea of Thunderbirds?

Well, it was after we finished Stingray. They had to have a new idea with something that had more appeal to adults, so they came up with this idea for a rescue outfit with a series of great craft that could cope with any situation throughout the world. Whatever disaster happened, they could handle it. They wanted something that would appeal to the American market, so a lot of the characters were American. The first time I read the script I thought it was a great idea, it certainly had all that sort of appeal in it. My task was then to design the craft, which at that time were called rescue vehicles – Rescue 1, Rescue 2, right up to Rescue 5.

Did you have any input into the original concept for the series?

It's very hard to remember. I was asked to design and to do all the effects, because by then I'd joined the company full time, although I'd worked with them for many years and used to devote my weekends and evenings to doing their effects, but I think a lot of people put a lot of input into it once we had a sort of synopsis of what they had to do. Then it was quite easy to come up with good ideas and rescue missions that they should be involved in, and after that it was really down to Gerry and Sylvia and the scriptwriters to develop the ideas. My main input at that stage was to design the vehicles.

Why were you chosen to design the vehicles?

I think it was because I was going to do all the effects, so if I designed the vehicles I had to make them fly. I had to make them do whatever they were required to do, so it was better for me to design them, and also I think at this time, Reg Hill had taken more of an executive position in the company on the management side, so he couldn't really get involved in doing all the craft because we could see at the outset there were going to be so many. It couldn't just be a case of one episode having Thunderbird 1 and 2 in it, they had to bring in other vehicles, and these had to be designed during the whole period of the series.

Had you had any previous experience of this kind of design work?

My first job in the film industry was in an art department doing titles for major films. This required painting backgrounds so that the titles could be overlaid over the backgrounds. If they were translating an American film into Italian or German or Spanish, the background of the original film might show a stagecoach travelling through the Arizona desert, and the titles would be over that. When they translated the film, they couldn't get the original material, so I used to paint the background – realistically – but the coach wouldn't be moving.

I'd been to art school for five years and was trying to be a fine artist. I was interested in illustration, and when you're at art school you do all kind of things like model making and life drawing. My idea at that time really was that I wanted to be an illustrator. I suppose like most people at that age we were designing and doing all kinds of things we felt were exciting to do. I wouldn't say that I sat down and deliberately set out to design any particular vehicle, but I used to draw cars and aircraft and all that sort of thing.

Were you particularly influenced by the design work in science fiction films like Things To Come?

No, not really, although Things To Come was a great film and like a lot of people, to me going to the cinema and watching films was the best form of entertainment. As far as I'm concerned it still is. But I felt that there were a lot of things wrong with the ways things were done in those days. The vehicles didn't look convincing. On a rocket you didn't see the panels, and the decoration that goes onto rockets nowadays for various reasons. They also didn't have what I would call dirtying down. They didn't look totally believable. Thunderbirds gave me the opportunity to actually design the vehicles and do the effects in the way I thought it should be done. I had this feeling that if I was given the chance that I could do miniature effects and make them look very convincing.

Had you had any experience of creating miniature effects using these techniques before you joined AP Films?

Yes, when I was Les Bowie's assistant on the Hammer horror films. I used to be his assistant when he was producing matte shots (realistic paintings produced on glass that could be photographically combined with live action sequences). He'd got me into that department because of my experience with painting these title backings and I felt that doing matte paintings was something really fantastic because you could fool the public into believing that they were looking at a castle in Transylvania or wherever, and although it was all painted on glass and wasn't a real place, it looked totally convincing.

We used to get involved in doing miniatures, a few at that time, but the British film industry weren't making big expensive pictures so Les taught me to be very versatile. The reason for that was if you wanted to continue working it was no good just being good at doing matte shots, you had to be able to cope with floor effects and filming models, so of course I had a good grounding because Les used to get involved in doing everything. If you worked on a Hammer horror film, one day you'd be making a body dissolve, the next we'd be creating an extraordinary mountain with snow-capped mountains and a really weird castle. So he gave me that sort of feel for special effects. It was never actually my intention to go into special effects, I really wanted to be an artist. I thought at that time I just wanted to paint backings. To watch a scenic artist paint an enormous backing and for it to be totally believable when it's on the film, I felt that's the sort of job I'd like to do.

Was the opportunity to create your own world one of the attractions of Thunderbirds?

Well, it was. After we'd read the first script we could see that it certainly couldn't be done live action, partly because we didn't have the money. Even now it would be a horrendous task to try and create all those vehicles full size, so it had to be done as miniatures. Now at that particular time, I suppose because the main characters were puppets, it could be stylised and it didn't really have to look totally believable. But in my mind I always wanted to make it totally believable. I'd worked on miniatures and on pictures where the shot we did as a miniature had to be totally believable otherwise the film didn't work. So I now had the opportunity to do exactly what I wanted to do, and I was in command of it all — totally. It meant that I had a free hand to do whatever I wanted to do. Although Gerry and Sylvia, and Reg Hill, were experienced film technicians, the special effects side of it really mystified them, as it does a lot of people nowadays. It's a specialised side of the industry, people still wonder how you achieve a particular shot or sequence, and now I'm being given the opportunity to do it just as I wanted to do it.

Were you given any limitations as to what you could and couldn't do?

I had a totally free hand. Obviously I used to go through the script and work out with the director, whoever it was on that particular episode, what was needed. I used to sit down lunchtimes with him and do a storyboard. It would sometimes take a week of giving up your lunch hour, the two of you, to sit down and storyboard the film, but it was the only way it could be done. I had an office with a drawing board, and we used to sit in there and order sandwiches and tea, and then start going through from page one. I'd already marked up as to what would be effects, so that we wouldn't have to go through the whole script. I'd already read it. The director would say what he felt he would like to see, and then I would tell him what we could do within the restrictions of the budget.

What was your approach to creating the effects?

I wanted to do everything I could to create effects that were totally believable. Although you couldn't expect the audience to believe the puppets were real and human beings, because after all they had great limitations, I wanted the effects side to be good enough to go into a major film, and people couldn't say it doesn't look real. During the run of the show there are a lot of shots that don't quite work, but you know that happens because of the time and the budget, and we had a lot of shots to do. It started off as a half hour programme, and we had a lot of special effects shots to do. When it was turned into an hour programme we had to increase those to something like 200 special effects shots of different types.

Once it was all laid out how the Thunderbirds took off, I designed the craft and the places they were launched from. The script might have said the rock face opens and out comes Thunderbird 2, I think the palm trees might have been written into the script. But we were all so busy adding things. Once we had the outline of the script then we went crazy. We attempted to do things that at first I wasn't sure whether we could do. But we had the opportunity – when I say we, I'm talking about my crew of people – we had the chance to do whatever we wanted to.

I'd always been taught by Les that if you think of a way of doing something and it doesn't work, you've always got to have two other ways in your mind so that you don't say to the director "Can't do it". You've got to have an alternative. So having got that in my mind, I knew that if it didn't work this way I could do it another way like change the camera angle and cheat it. For instance when the rock face came down it left a gap, and Thunderbird 2 would come out over it and get stuck where it hit the gap where the rock had come down, so we'd have to change the angle and fill the gap in so that it had a nice smooth run coming out of the cave.

How did Thunderbird 2's telescopic legs work?

behind the scenes shot showing Thunderbird 2's hydraulic legs
a behind the scenes shot showing the telescopic rod beneath the set

That was a problem. I had the legs made telescopically, but in actual fact they had rods through them which went through the floor of the set, and underneath the rods were connected to a board – and I can't remember how we did that now, but I think it was some simple sort of hydraulic system – then the board was taken down and, as the rods withdrew, Thunderbird 2 sat down on the pod. It was always the problem of sitting Thunderbird 2 on the pod first, and then lifting it up to make certain that it didn't lift the back of the pod up, and often it used to get caught. We used to go through terrible agonies trying to get these things to work.

Was Thunderbird 2 the most difficult vehicle to operate?

Yes. But to me it was, and still is, my favourite.

How did you come up with the shape?

I don't know. I think it was just a case of doodling. I knew that this thing had to carry a pod, and again you'd have to go back to the original script and see how it was described, they were usually very, very vague descriptions, and sometimes I would think, that's going to take too long to do, and have to alter it.

Was a detachable pod written into the script?

I think the description in the script was that Thunderbird 2 lifted up on these legs and left the pod sitting there. Again it's hard to remember, I don't think the colour of the craft or anything like that was ever mentioned. I came up with that after I'd started to draw it. It was always difficult to come up with a colour for these particular vehicles. It's one of those strange things, you start thinking about airplanes that existed at that particular time, were they all silver or were they camouflaged. I think I sat down and mixed up a few colours and finally came up with the green, and it was a particular green, and that always gave us problems because if ever the thing crashed we only had a certain amount of that green paint.

There came a time when we had to remix the green paint, the model makers would go through traumas trying to match the colour, and then when we actually had to replace the model the model-makers couldn't even get the shape right, let alone the colour. It was very difficult, because I could look at it and see that it wasn't quite the right shape and, although they had one to copy, it was very hard for them to come up with an identical model. But I don't know exactly how Thunderbird 2 came about. I knew that it had to have engines and that it had to land vertically. If you actually built it full size it would be the biggest vertical take-off craft ever designed. It also had to have a good turn of speed, so it had to have powerful jet engines on it. I used to go through a lot of flying magazines and books with photographs of aircraft that were actually in, or might be going into, production. If I had to design it again now it would be very interesting as an exercise to see what I would actually come up with. I don't think it would be quite as smooth — I'm thinking of the Apache helicopter which is a great big ugly aircraft with a kind of mean look to it.

Was Thunderbird 2 intentionally larger than life?

Yes, and people keep asking, "Why were the wings on backwards?" When I designed it I put the wings on conventionally in the way they should be, but I just felt that all airplanes had the wings pointing back and would it be a good idea to have the wings pointing forward? That's how it came about. It wasn't through any knowledge I had that a fighter flew better with the wings facing forward. It was just to give it that extra different look.

As the series went on we then built in several different sizes, because when you started you couldn't anticipate what was going to be required for later episodes. There were times when I read the script and realised straight away that we would need a Thunderbird that was really very small because it was seen in the distance. Maybe Thunderbird 1 was in the foreground and Thunderbird 2 was way off in the background, then I would have one made which was six inches or three inches in size, and that's how we ended up with all the different sizes, because of the different programmes. During the series there were times when I would think 'Now I've got a six inch Thunderbird 2 I know how to do this shot to make it look quite dramatic', so I would put Thunderbird 1 in the foreground and the six inch model of Thunderbird 2 in the background to give it this perspective.

You used that technique to good effect in the bi-plane sequence in the Stingray episode Eastern Eclipse?

A lot of these shots work very well even today. People still ask me "We saw Thunderbirds and how did you do that particular shot?" I look back at it and I think 'How the hell did we do it?' But you picking out that effect — it was written into the script as a comedy sequence. I had a very small model of a bi-plane which took a dive down behind the sign, and sitting right behind the sign had a bigger one waiting to be pulled through.

Do you think the design of Thunderbird 2 has dated?

I think all my designs if I look back on them may now be a bit old fashioned, but maybe it doesn't matter. You could compare Thunderbird 2 with a 747, a great big craft yet so manoeuvrable, even though it's so large. Going back to Things to Come, where I felt the craft were all like the moon rocket, just a smooth silver craft which to me – like the rocket in Destination Moon, just a sleek silver bullet shaped craft – didn't look convincing, although when I first saw it when I was a kid I suppose I thought it was fantastic. As I was in charge of designing and directing I thought it would be better to make all these vehicles to look cluttered. A lot of bits and pieces on them that made them look good on screen. When you come to Thunderbird 3 a lot of things were just added to it.

How did that design develop?

I did a sketch of it and it looked a bit boring. It was just a simple type of tube so I sat down as I always did and still do, if I have anything to design, and started off with a basic shape and just began doodling. There are times when I might look at a magazine and see that a certain aircraft has a certain type of turret on it and think 'Oh, I'll just alter that slightly and use that'. Now I look back at it, having seen the Russian rockets, the ones that put the Sputnik into space, they were so different from the Americans'. They had a Russian look to them. Looking back to Thunderbird 3, I think maybe that had a Russian look to it.

As for Thunderbird 1 — I can't remember where I got the idea for the wings to come out, but maybe they were talking about a swing wing aircraft at that particular time and as it had to be a rocket which could fly in the Earth's atmosphere it had to have wings but for its take off it would look pretty ugly taking off with wings so I probably designed it that way because I knew it had to come out from this silo and if the wings were sticking out we were going to have problems. I had to work out how I was going to shoot these things while I was designing them, so in lots of ways I cheated and made it easier for myself. Then later on when I knew we could create almost any situation, I got a little more ambitious.

Was the swimming pool your idea?

I'm sure that was written into the script. I know that I drew out the island and made it as a miniature and I think we added to it. It was made out of polystyrene which had just come out then, it was a great medium to work with and so easy to alter.

How about the Roundhouse?

I think it was scripted that Thunderbird 3 came out from a building or a house. I designed the building to be round because it would be easier to get Thunderbird 3 out, but in actual fact if you look at it now, and you think how big Thunderbird 3 really was, the building was slightly out of scale! If we'd actually built it in scale with Thunderbird 3, it would have been so huge it would have taken up the whole of the island! But nobody ever noticed!

How did the design for Tracy Island develop?

I think I just drew it and knew where all these places had to be, but you never actually saw the island which showed where every craft was actually housed except for a very high angle shot for one of the feature films when Alan dreams he's falling towards the spinning island. We actually went on location to Portugal to get this shot. We'd found this island which wasn't really the shape of Tracy Island, but from 6,000 feet we thought it would look all right. We hired this helicopter and had a panel taken out of the bottom so we could fix the camera looking down, and the helicopter was going to contra rotate and drop. Alan Perry was camera operator and as he was looking through the lens at the last minute he had to zoom in to get the shot we wanted. So we went up and started to drop on this island which was like a spot, we were spinning coming down. Well it was bad enough for me, but Alan of course had a view through the camera lens, all he saw was the island, and when we got down to the point where we had to zoom, he passed out. I was holding his legs because we couldn't strap him in so that he didn't wobble all over the place, and I felt his whole body go limp! Of course I understood later why he did, because he was looking through the lens and when he did the last zoom, he got the impression that we were so low that we'd hit the island.

Then of course we came back and looked at the film and saw that it wasn't that good. It didn't seem to fit in, the island was the wrong shape. So we built Tracy Island in the studio. We used a lot of silver paper, which we crinkled up and sprayed blue and green while it was crinkled up to match the sea, and then flattened it out on the studio floor, so we had this vast area. I had aerial photographs of the sea so we could recreate that kind of pattern you get on the sea where some parts are darker, and we built the island out of polystyrene. We took a camera up to the ceiling; we had no way of getting the camera to descend on the island, because a camera crane didn't do that sort of action. So I had a cradle made with a hole in it and we fixed the camera facing down, it had a rope in each corner which we took up and joined to one rope. We wound the rope up and took the camera up into the roof, and then lowered it and let go of the camera, but before lowering it we waited for the camera to get a real good swing, and then lowered it onto the island. It gave us quite a spectacular shot.

Did you design the Tracy Island buildings?

The amount of effects required for Thunderbirds must have created a lot of extra work for your department...

My department grew and grew. Every time I said I needed another model maker, there was never any opposition although, bearing in mind that we had a budget, I couldn't just go crazy. People who were in the film industry in England at that time, which was thriving, didn't want to come and work on a puppet film, so I had to advertise for people coming out of art schools. A lot of these new recruits who worked as my assistants are still in the film industry today. They actually continued to follow that particular business, special effects. I used to interview a lot of people because so many used to apply for the jobs, but they soon got the hang of it.

They used to call me the White Tornado I found out afterwards. It was to do with the television commercial where this white tornado used to come in and zip through the whole place. But I had to work like a maniac — we all had to. We used to go in in the morning dressed in our jeans and shirts and come out in the evening looking like dustmen, or coalmen. We were black — well we weren't always black, we were different colours because we used to build the sets out of piles of sand and then sprinkled with coloured paint powder. Of course this powder used to get in the air, and your hair and clothes used to change colour.

It used to be really hot as most of the shots we had to shoot at very high speed and high speed filming required a huge amount of light. We had to shoot at 120 fps for most of the situations where things were exploding and vehicles were crashing. We never shot on 16mm, because even though there was a time when it was discussed, I said I'd still have to shoot on 35mm because there was no 16mm camera that would run at 120 fps. To give the explosions that authenticity you couldn't shoot them under 120 fps unless you upped the scale, and we had to keep the scale down because of the size of the stages. They were very small. If we ever did shoot anything at 24 fps, I always thought there was something wrong with the camera, because it didn't sound right. I was so used to hearing it wind up to 120 fps, that when it was doing 24 I thought there was something clattering around inside!

Which vehicles would you shoot at high speed?

The cars going down the streets — they all had to be shot at high speeds. They had to be pulled at such a rate. We had them on tracks, with a thin rod attached to the front wheels, and the suspension was always a piece of foam rubber. This was something that helped make it look totally believable. Most of the vehicles had a little Jetex motor underneath pointing down onto the road, which we used to sprinkle a light covering of dust, so that if a vehicle was going down a country road or desert road it always created this cloud behind it. One of the other things that made it look totally believable was that if the cars hit a slight bump, which while we were shooting looked like a really jerky movement, as we were filming at 120 fps it was ironed out into a roll or a bounce.

You developed new systems for filming vehicles on land in Thunderbirds by combining the rolling road and rolling sky...

behind the scenes shot showing Thunderbird 2's hydraulic legs
the aircraft from Alias Mr. Hackenbacker in front of the rolling sky backing

I think very early on in the series I realised that if you had an aircraft, and you were supposed to be tracking with it, if we tried to pull it on a wire in front of a very long backing and track with it, it was very difficult to stop the camera getting ahead of the aircraft, or vice versa. In the end I thought there must be a way to get over this, and I thought back to the old days when you used to have these big drums, which they would put outside the window of a train and revolve to give the illusion of movement. I realised that the kind of drum we would need would be too big and too cumbersome for the stage. We were always thinking if we build this, where are we going to put it? It had to stand in the corner of a stage which meant the stage got smaller because you ended up with all these bits of equipment, so I thought, what about a rolling sky on a band? So I designed this sky and had it built.

In the first episode, when we had the Fireflash, we also had to track with the vehicles that had to catch it and I thought, we're never going to do this, pulling them on wires across the studio floor, trying to get all that lot in sync. So I came up with this idea – roller sky, roller road. So I had this roller road built and it had three different moving surfaces. There was a very small strip and then the very large strip, which would be the runway, and then this foreground strip. Because of the depth of focus problems I had it designed so that we could actually angle it so that it was a little further away from the camera, so because of the angle we had a better chance of holding focus on it. I then had a controller for each of the different strips, so the background strip we used to put little bushes on, that could move slowly, then the road part would move reasonably fast, and the foreground piece would be really whipping by as it would in real life. If you're running along, things in the foreground appear to go past faster and things in the background appear to be quite lazy, then the roller sky would be just trickling along with mountains painted on it.

Of course when we were shooting Trapped in the Sky Fireflash was held on wires above the road, and the vehicles were on the road held by a wire front and back because somebody had to hold onto the wire at the back and somebody had to hold onto the wires at the front. So we had them on like a little bar. The person at the front could actually control the direction by just easing the bar. Then the vehicle would either remain in one position or it would wander across the road, and we could actually position it as Fireflash came into land, with the person holding the wires holding the vehicle back. As you can imagine with the road going around at that speed the vehicle always wanted to go backwards, so it was a hell of a job actually keeping it in the right place. Now the person that had the wires at the back of the vehicle, he had to ease it off, so there were all these commands being shouted by the various people – 'Give me some more slack, give me some more slack!' There was such a row going on. I'd be screaming 'Lower! Lower! Faster! Faster!'. How we managed to shoot it I don't know, with all the commands we were shouting at each other. But this worked very well, and this then became part of any episode we did where there was a car chase. Then the roller road really paid for itself.

And the rolling sky?

The rolling sky was designed so we could use it with aircraft, the trouble with that was joining the canvas. First of all we had a backing that had a vertical join and it didn't matter what we did, you could always see that join. You couldn't just frontlight it because you had a craft in front of it which gave you a shadow, so it would always have to be side lighting and this would show up the join. Eventually we put this diagonal join in which I thought you wouldn't be able to see and that more or less worked.

But the backing also used to drop on the rollers and it would get lower and lower until the bottom of the backing started to get terribly frayed where it hit the stop mark. Later on we actually attached it to a motorcycle chain that kept it in position. The top part of the backing had a chain on it and there were cogs at either end on the rollers. Of course occasionally the backing would jump from the cogs because of the speed we were going and we'd end up in a terrible mess. The rollers were metal and had adjusters on them and we used to run it for five or six minutes trying to get it to run horizontally without dropping or climbing. So I had this bright idea to cover the rollers with sandpaper, but unfortunately it still had a tendency over a period of time to get lower and lower.

The join was always a problem and if you were doing an extended shot with an aircraft the same clouds would come round. After a while it became quite noticeable, so I used to have someone positioned with a smoke gun and we used to have a fan and he used to watch and as soon as he saw a certain cloud appearing, or the canvas join, a quick blast of smoke would obliterate it.

One of the most famous shots in Thunderbirds was the launch of Thunderbird 2, and the folding palm trees. Was this difficult to shoot?

The palm trees were quite simple really, they were on little wooden cams – most of these things were done in wood, we couldn't afford to get into metal work. I think we just had a rod through the palm trees and because I could bend the rod so that the palm trees didn't stand up perfectly straight they had that slight bend to them. The rod went through the floor, the palm trees were on a little pivot. Attached to the bottom of the palm tree was a little rod at 90 degrees so that they were all connected to one bar and one person just pushed that bar or pulled it and all the trees went back. We also had someone on the other side, and they were always crammed under a set to do this kind of thing. We then had the problem of getting them in sync so that both sides went down together at the same time. Of course when the trees went back they always bounced, but at 120 fps they looked quite convincing.

Did you worry whether shots would work?

When I look back on it, most things worked first time and we got very blase about it. It actually got to a point where it got boring. At the beginning of the series we did so many shots of the Thunderbirds taking off from various angles which went into a library, but after we'd got into the series the directors would say to me "Can we do something different?" They always wanted to have something different for their film that hadn't been shown in any of the other episodes. Of course I was more than willing to go along with them because I wanted to get away from all the boring shots as well. We've seen it in all these cheap movies where they cut to the same shot, the same aircraft in the same piece of sky, so I was quite happy to go along with it as long as I had the time. Each director would covet their particular shot and didn't want it to be used in any other episode.

The biggest problem of course was flying these vehicles because they all had to be flown on wires and that used to take up so much time. That still strikes a note of fear in me because I remember Thunderbird 2 being the biggest problem of all, because of the weight. Although I had built it as lightly as it could be – originally the first one was made out of balsa wood – every time it came off the wires it ended up with a great big dent, so I had them made out of fibreglass so they didn't suffer so much. But of course fibreglass made it heavier, so we had to use a thicker wire. We used a company called Ormistons who would send us down all these different thicknesses of steel wire and we used to have it coated. Of course that was another problem, being steel, we had to put voltage down them to fire the rockets. We used to start off with 12 volts and when we found that didn't work, we would step it up to 36, and then eventually we used to go to 110 DC and the wires used to glow! If you turned on the juice and the rockets fired, you had to turn of the switch quickly otherwise you had this smoke coming from the wires, they then weakened and broke and down would come the craft.

Lots of times of course you couldn't put a catcher underneath because it had just lifted off from the runway. If it broke it hit the runway and there was no way of putting anything underneath to support it. Then the first thing you had to do if it ever hit the ground was rush in and grab hold of it as quickly as possible and lift it off because the rockets blasting down to give the impression of vertical take-off would hit the ground and bounce back and set fire to the underneath of the craft. Even if it was fibreglass the paint used to blister, so two people used to be positioned to rush in and pick up this thing before it caught fire! It seemed to happen every day, very seldom would you be able to get it off the ground without a wire breaking. There was a lot of strain because of course I was using the thinnest wire. To lose them was a real pain.

What techniques did you develop to hide the wires?

Harry Oakes dulls Thunderbird 3's wires
Harry Oakes uses a puffer to hide Thunderbird 3's wires

We used to have to cover the craft with tissue paper and then the wires were anti-flared. We had little puffers with blacks, whites and blues and we used to puff the wires. At first I used to look through the camera, but eventually I had to stop doing that because I found I couldn't see them, so then I would stick my head right in front of the lens and go and puff the wire, then go back to the lens, then go back again and keep puffing because a part of it hadn't disappeared. Of course a lot of it was down to the lighting.

Harry Oakes, who was lighting a lot of my miniatures at the time, used to backlight the set wherever possible so it gave us a good chance to lose the wires. But there were times when I still couldn't get rid of a wire and poor old Harry used to have to move all his lights. Then if he moved his lights the wire I could see disappeared and the one I couldn't see appeared! We used to go through hell. I mean you had to be young, enthusiastic and mad to work there. But Harry was someone who always had a good joke and never let anything beat him and I think he's still the same! You could move the craft and shuffle the set around and it never upset Harry. He would be relighting it while you were moving it. When I was building a set I used to say to him, start lighting this right away. You can't often say to a lighting cameraman start lighting something when it's not there but if we built the set and then waited for an hour for Harry to light it we'd lose valuable time.

I'd set the standard of trying to do eight shots a day and it became a competition. When I ended up with three special effects miniature stages we used to have this competition at the end of the day. I'd say to each stage "How many shots did you do?" and they'd say "Ten". "Great! How many did you do?" "We only got five". "Five? Oh yes, because you had to move the tank out, OK, fine." I always tried to get as many as I could. Of course I had an advantage, because I was the real film technician and these boys were just learning. I could do anything and get away with it if I changed the angle and of course there was no one to tell me off.

Did you have a second unit right from the start on Thunderbirds?

Yes, right from the start. There were lots of shots to me that wasted my time. They were simple ones like a close-up of something touching down, all kinds of little shots that prevented me from getting on and doing the master. Brian was the second unit director on Thunderbirds when we started. He used to work for Les Bowie. He was a 'little boy' when I was a matte painter, like a general dogsbody and he was very bright. He couldn't draw, but he was one of these people who could stick bits and pieces together and make a squeezee bottle look like a spaceship. He had this ingenuity and as he wasn't an artist it was quite unusual, in some respects — well I thought it was. I mean I could do it because I had this picture in my mind and I could say to Brian 'Jazz that up'.

We were the first people to actually use what I would call 'gubbins'. We used to go down to the local toyshop or model shop... or Woolworths... We used to raid Woolworths and go to the counter that sold pots and pans and anything that was plastic or metal that could be turned into a spaceship. Brian and I would stand there picking up a pot and then finding a metal salt pot and sticking it on the end and the girls behind the counters used to look at us as if we were crazy and ask us what we were doing. We used to then start to explain that we were making a spaceship and in the end they got used to us and in toyshops they used to greet us as their best customers. We used to go in there and buy all the Aurora and Monogram kits and never make the kit up.

We would spend hundreds of pounds on these kits and then somebody would break all the pieces off and put them into boxes. Usually the main body of an aircraft would be thrown away because we couldn't use it as it was a shape that was too recognisable. We started all this and we did it because it was an easy way of making an aircraft or a vehicle look interesting. If we'd had to make all these pieces in the workshop it would have taken hours and hours and it would have meant I'd have to draw every one of them in detail. So once I'd decided on the shape and designed it, the model was made by the model makers either in wood or fibreglass, depending on how long it had to last in the series and then it used to be handed over to someone who'd sit there and stick all these bits on and make a really good interesting model. Of course it all looked terrible until it was then sprayed one colour, then it looked fantastic.

Is it true that Brian Johnson introduced this technique to American effects technicians when he worked on 2001?

the Airfix kit referenced in the text
the Airfix girder bridge kit, parts of which were used extensively to dress many a set in Thunderbirds

Yes, Brian left Century 21 to work for Kubrick. I was actually asked to work on 2001, but I was under contract so I couldn't go. So Brian left and Gerry was at that time very annoyed because Brian had become a very important part of my outfit. I wasn't pleased, but I understood that people had to go forward and he had the opportunity to go and work on a big major film. So he left and took this idea with him and Doug Trumbull, the American who was working on this film, took the idea back to America. Of course all these Star Wars films and all these pictures ever since then, the aircraft are dressed up with all these pieces which actually they make it sound as if it was an American idea and it wasn't. We did it because we had no money to create models. As I say we used to go down to Woolworths or a hardware store and buy any unusual plastic container, empty all the liquid out, wash it out, stick all these bits on it. We used to have a hell of a job trying to find a glue that would stick to plastic or to polythene! Sometimes we had to pin things on – there was no superglue then! Then once they'd been sprayed we could pick out certain parts like an engine intake would be painted red for danger and we got some great shapes out of these things. In this one particular shop we'd go in and spend a hundred pounds in an hour, which was more than they'd take in a week. We used to like the Monogram and American kits because the parts were so well turned out.

We also used to raid the younger kids department because the Tonka toys there had great wheels. We used to take them back to the studio and spray them khaki instead of yellow, and stick all these bits on, or we'd rip the wheels off and put suspension on them by putting a bit of sponge rubber between the body and the axle and got some great looking vehicles that way. The toyshops would also quite happily rip the cellophane and open the kits for us to look inside. The Airfix girder bridge was one of the main models we used. Wherever we went we'd go to the shelf and empty it of girder kits, and you could see the fellow behind the counter rubbing his hands. There were engine shed kits which had corrugated roofs that could be part of a cladding for something or other. But yes, Brian joined Kubrick and became a great asset and that's why Gerry was so cross with him when he left to work on 2001. But Brian went from strength to strength. It's one of those things that if someone gets cross with you, you go further ahead in your career than you would if you'd just stayed there.

Did Brian work on the storyboards?

I used to do all the storyboards, but then it got too much for me because I found that I would spend half a week or a week giving up my lunch hour and the next director would be chomping at the bit because he'd got his script and he wanted to get on with it. So I then had this great artist Mike Trim. I don't know how I found Michael, but I think he appeared one day on the doorstep with a portfolio of drawings and I thought, 'Wow, this kid's good'; and took him on. So I would do a week of storyboards and halfway through the week Michael would start with another director and he would do a week and we'd work it out that way, but we used to give up evenings too, because sometimes a script was so complicated you couldn't get it done in a week of lunch hours and you had to spend your evenings doing it and we used to work terrible hours without any extra pay!

Mike later became involved with designing vehicles...

That's right. I used to give Michael a lot of things to design that I didn't have time to do, he came up with some great ideas, but I used to give him things that I didn't think were that important. I didn't want him to get all the credit! So often I would design the main vehicles and he would design the support ones. I think sometimes his support vehicles would look really good. He used to design and draw every hour of the day. You could never stop Michael from drawing. He became a permanent member of the staff and my right hand man when it came to drawing storyboards and designing vehicles. He had a good visual sense and would draw comics just for his own amusement. He had a good filmic sense which he got from comics, so when he did storyboards they were as good as mine and he knew how to do nice dramatic shots. I always used to say to him do really good angles and sometimes I would say do an angle on this set so we don't have to show all the set because we couldn't afford to build the set or we didn't have time to. So we might do a really low shot, which meant you only had to have a building in the background and the craft took up most of the screen.

Did he ever come up with any shots you couldn't do?

No... I didn't believe, and still don't believe that there's anything that can't be done. Even at that early stage because I'd been given a totally free hand I had to come up with a way of doing everything that was written into the script. The challenge was to do everything that was written into the script and not to throw it out because we couldn't do it. Sometimes the directors would come up with ideas and I used to say "We're going to have a hell of a job doing that" and they used to beg me "Please try". It was going back to their desire to have something special in their picture. I used to say to them "It's going to take so long to do that, can't we just..." and then we'd find some sort of compromise, but we would still get a very dramatic or unusual shot for their particular film. Michael knew that because sometimes he would come to me while I was directing as he was going through the storyboard, he'd come to me after lunch and say to me "Look, I've drawn this – Can you do it?" and I used to say "Yeah, we can do it, but it's going to cost a fortune". We would just juggle it around a bit, if there was a building that he'd drawn that we didn't have time to make, I'd say go and sort one out from our props store because we had all these broken craft that had crashed or been blown up and buildings that had been set on fire.

One of the early vehicles that you designed was FAB 1. Was it originally intended to be a key vehicle?

Derek's sketch for FAB 1
an early sketch for FAB 1

From what I remember it was one of the key vehicles. Once they'd developed Lady Penelope she had to have a car and for prestige it had to be a Rolls Royce and Sylvia came up with the idea of it being pink. Then it was a case of designing a Rolls Royce. Apart from having the radiator, I had to do something that was totally different. So I had this idea to put four wheels on the front, like a lorry, two wheels on the back, so that's how it ended up with four wheels on the front. Again it was just a case of sitting down and starting with the radiator and doodling until I came up with a shape that I thought was quite pleasing.

Was the transparent roof to help film the puppets?

Yes it was, but I often used to fall out with the art director Bob Bell. His task was an unenviable one because he had to create whatever I did, so when you saw Parker and Penelope sitting in the Rolls Royce I hadn't given any thought as to whether it could be made full size. I knew it could be made as a miniature. The same thing used to happen with aircraft, I'd design a canopy which fitted my design and Bob used to go crazy because it meant that he'd have to have a compound curve on the Perspex and he couldn't do it, he couldn't get a company to do it, or it was going to cost a fortune. He used to put supports in where it spoilt my model, so we used to have a go at each other – in a friendly way – and he used to say "It's alright for you, you only have to make it six inches long – I've got to make it four foot! How am I going to do that?" and I'd say "You've put this terrible strut in that looks like an iron girder". "Well how else can I do it?" But in the end I realised his problem, so I used to try and design something that made it easier for him to come up with this shape. But the Rolls Royce had to have something like a canopy so that you could see the puppets, so I had to come up with something that was more like a cockpit.

The miniature looks quite different to the puppet scale car.

Yes, I think somewhere it went slightly wrong. When they built the puppet version something changed that didn't look quite right, a lot of it had something to do with the cockpit. Then of course we had the car built full size and it went out of control. It just became a big ugly pink brute. When I was doing the effects and shooting the miniatures I knew the best angles and I knew the best angle for the Rolls Royce — it was always three quarters. That didn't often happen when they put it onto the stage. They were so busy worrying about the puppets looking right they didn't bother whether the car looked right.

But I designed it and we then had to send the design to Rolls Royce for them to approve before they would let us have a radiator on permanent loan. We wanted the radiator of one of the Rolls Royce cars that actually had an opening grill – one that you could open in the summer, then in the winter shut it down – and we needed that because the machine gun came out through the radiator. The scriptwriters would come up with other gadgets. In one episode it went on water — it shot off the end of a jetty and landed on hydrofoils, so we had to add those sorts of things to it. It was never originally intended to do that. Then we also had a gun coming out from one of the lights on another episode. We probably got bored with having the gun come out from the radiator. It went into the library and could be re-used.

What was the main problem with shooting road vehicles?

an example of a slot driven car
an example of the slot driven technique from a Secret Service episode

The difficulty was always to get them to travel. I originally thought they could be radio controlled. Radio controlled vehicles were available, but they weren't as sophisticated as they are nowadays. They seemed to run all over the place and you couldn't put them in a specific shot without them wrecking half the set. We did some experiments with very simple systems, but it just didn't work. So I thought we should go to this slot racing idea so each vehicle was built with a pin, in the case of the Rolls Royce it was a flat steel piece that went through the set. The biggest problem was to cut a slot in the set that was really smooth on both sides. That was always the problem because the floor of the set was made out of chipboard and when you cut a slot that just parted.

If the vehicle had to do a tight turn – remember the chase in the car park in Thunderbirds Are GO! when the Rolls Royce has to go after The Hood's getaway car — it used to do great things because we used to have to pull it at quite a speed to be able to shoot it at 120 fps. Because the bar was connected to the front wheels when it turned a corner then the wheels turned, so it looked very convincing, and as there was nothing holding the back, often when the car came round a tight turn the back would slew which made it look as if it was actually skidding, like a four wheel drift. But the big problem was trying to get the side of the slot smooth and we did everything — we put camera tape down the side, but it wouldn't stick to it, or wouldn't stay on for any length of time. The next time you got out that particular piece of road the camera tape had come off and you'd have to put it back on again and then you'd pull the vehicle through and it would catch on something. Apart from flying a craft on wires that used to be the other headache. I think in the end we used to get a fine piece of curtain track and edge the side of the board with it.

The other thing was that you couldn't come up too high because you could see the slot. So if you notice all the roads were very dirty and you know, if you're driving down the motorway, you always see there's this dark line where after a period of time tyres and drips from engines have created a black line so of course we always used to put a black line or a black mark on the road where the vehicle used to travel and then use a low camera angle so you couldn't see. If we put a white line down the centre of the road it was always to the camera side so it would conceal the slot on the other side. Then of course it was getting the wires attached to it. The wire was attached to the shaft beneath the set and here we could use strong wire, but if a car had to go round a corner then it had to be set in the slot or just underneath so that it could go round the corner and we used to have guides so that the wire was straight and you could pull it and it would be pulled round the guide on the corner. But we had to solve these problems very quickly because we'd have to shoot it the following day, or the next.

There was actually a scale you could use to judge how fast you'd have to pull a miniature of a certain scale and using a certain camera speed to make it look right, but I didn't have time to work it all out so it was just a case of doing it by eye. I did it so often that I just knew. We couldn't afford to buy motors for all these things. It was always somebody pulling them on wires. It was easier to do that because if you had to do a retake somebody just climbed on the set and they got hold of the car or whatever it was and they gently fed it back along the track and the person pulling it walked back towards the set letting out the wire. It was not put on a roller or anything like that, it was just pulled and the person had to run. We had to have a stop, so he knew where to stop. We used to put a mark on the floor, so we'd take it up to the end position and say that's where you stop, then we'd take the Rolls Royce back and he would walk towards the set and then on action he would run or walk fast towards that point. I just could tell that it was right by eye; I found that there were very few people who could actually do that. So there was often the case of them saying to me "Could you come onto the stage and show us how fast the car should be going?" I think because I'd done it so often I just looked at it and said "That's fast enough", or "Go a little faster".

And caterpillar tracked vehicles?

They were done the same way. They were always pulled on wires and never had any motors. Well, there might have been one that had a motor, but I can't remember. We used to cannibalise. If there was a toy out which had tank tracks on it then you could build it with them. There were a lot of clockwork toys that you could actually wind up. We used to buy those and strip the whole thing to pieces and build the tracks into our particular vehicle. But the big problem there was, if you were pulling them on wires and if it was going across the desert, of course the tracks used to pick up sand and then it would jam and you'd be pulling it and it would be running perfectly and then all of a sudden the track would stop and you'd be dragging it through the sand and then you'd have to take it off the set and blow it all out and start again. We didn't even use clockwork motors because there was no way of controlling it and there wasn't the time or money to do it. It had to be done as simply as possible. The tracks were always very loose on the wheels so that you could actually pull them. If the track was too tight then the wheels wouldn't go round. When you pulled it, it would just skid across the set, especially if it was running on sand.

You never seemed to feature many hover vehicles in the programmes...

Occasionally we did, but they were always on concealed wheels. I think some of the fire engines turned out to be hover vehicles, and that was another thing. Every vehicle had a Jetex underneath it, we used to use thousands upon thousands of pellets for these Jetexes. They were little capsules that you could put into this little tiny metal container, there was a hole in the end and you fed this Jetex fuse into it. They were built for these jet planes they used to make at that time and you'd have these spring clips to fit them underneath the vehicle. We used to have these two spring clips – like you use for holding tools – built into the underneath of the vehicle. We used to fit them into that and then have a long length of Jetex fuse which used to protrude out of the back of the vehicle, so I'd say "Alright we're going to shoot, light the Jetex fuse". We would light the fuse and as soon as I heard the fizz they used to make, I'd say "Turnover. Action!" and sometimes it would burn through and wouldn't ignite it. It happened so often. You'd have to take out the Jetex motor, replace the fuse and put it back in again.

A lot of the vehicles also incorporated rocket charges...

They were all made of gunpowder by a company called Schermulys, who make all the lifesaving gear like Verry Pistols and Beecher's Buoys. From the very early days I went to Shermulys and told them I needed these little rockets that created a lot of fire and had to be really powerful — not a lazy flame, they had to be really fierce. They were a company the film industry used a lot. I brought them in from my days of working with Les Bowie. I knew that they made rockets, gunpowder, bullet hits and God knows what. I got them involved and told them the length of rocket and the burning time and they used to make these things out of compacted gunpowder. They were made down near Stonehenge. I used to go out there every so often and they developed a new type of rocket for longer burning. They used to make thousands of these things and we had boxes of them.

We also used to buy the fuses from them. They were little electric squibs that used to set them off. We'd put them over the top of the gunpowder tube and then put a piece of Sellotape over the top to keep the squib touching the gunpowder. But on odd occasions they didn't fire or there might be a dud. Thunderbird 2 was always a real pain sometimes because you'd get three rockets to fire and one wouldn't and – sod's law – it would always be the one nearest the camera. If it was one of the other one's that didn't go off, the foreground rockets and smoke would obliterate the background, but it was always one of the front ones that wouldn't go.

We had different sizes as well ranging from two inches to five-inch metal tubes. The models would have either an asbestos sleeve, before we knew asbestos was dangerous, or a metal sleeve because they used to be red hot; they used to glow — you couldn't have them touching the body of a craft otherwise the whole thing caught fire. Schermulys used to do a good job, because I didn't want them spitting out bits, although sometimes they did, but only very occasionally.

The smoke of course was always a problem because it would sometimes obliterate something you didn't want it to, so we'd tape one to a stick and put it on the set and fire it and then have a wind machine blowing and then just turn it down so that it didn't blow the smoke away too fast, or if we wanted the smoke to billow up but not obliterate certain parts of the shot – we didn't want it to obliterate the craft for a start – it would always be put at an angle so that it blew away from the craft. If we wanted to make a lot of smoke we'd use one of the biggest ones. The main thing though was to try and get this fiery bright sharp flame. Not what I'd call a lazy flame that just came down and bent at the edge. It had to have a lot of power in it to give the impression that it was a real jet lifting off. As it turned out of course, jet planes don't do that. In the later shows we just used to use a straightforward Jetex that just blasted air down and not flames. I did that when the jet came in to land for Doppelgänger.

The effects seemed to increase as the shows went on...

I think Lew Grade saw the early shows and his stipulation was "More effects, more effects".

I believe you had a device to create a car's braking effect...

the underside of the FAB 1 model
the underside of FAB 1 showing the suspension mechanism and Jetex tubes

Yes we did. It was a wedge under the stage that would force the front wheels down. In fact their suspension was so soft anyway that when they did stop they were inclined to bounce anyway. I think that's why a lot of people were convinced that a lot of these things were full size, because of the action of the car itself. Like I said with the Rolls Royce, it used to come round the corner so fast, the back end used to break away. You see, in all my life doing what I've been doing, I've always enjoyed doing scenes that are as close as possible to real life. For instance, if people see an aircraft flying and they say to you it doesn't look real, and you say "Well, why?", they don't know why, because what their eyes see and register, they're not conscious of. Say if it's a plane made out of metal and it's silver, not every panel is the same colour silver. Something may have discoloured one panel, and if you look at a full size aircraft there are dirty marks where the jet's been blasting away and where the rain has taken the air pollution and made dirty marks on it. These are the sorts of things that I always insisted were done.

To me and to everybody there working on my side of it, that was the most important thing — that the vehicles were all dirtied down and a car had what a car would really have. If it had run through a puddle during its journey you got this sort of spray mark on the side of the car where it's dirtied the body. We used to go for all these details. It was always of paramount importance to the whole series that everything looked totally believable, and that when a vehicle stopped the front would go down when it braked hard, the wheels would bounce up and down under the wheel arches like a car would do if it was going over rough ground.

Foam rubber was the cheapest way to do this. I think one of the model makers came up with the idea. I said that all these models had to have suspension on them and they've got to bounce up and down independently. We couldn't have them on fixed axles because it doesn't look right and they used to put a shim so that the foam rubber was held between two very thin pieces of metal. They were quite complicated little things, but that was probably the only metal work we got involved in — making the axles and suspensions for the cars. I remember many years ago building a house for a commercial I was doing with Les Bowie that had to have a back yard. Something that I did which convinced everybody that it was a real house – although the house looked real – was to put a dustbin in the backyard with the lid laying on the ground, and rubbish lying around as if the dustbin had overspilled and a ladder lying in the garden — that made people think it was a real house. We used to go for all those kinds of things when we used to do miniatures on Thunderbirds.

As the shows went on the models became larger – was this a conscious decision?

It just happened. Wherever possible I tried to make the vehicles bigger and of course that used to give us problems because the trees had to be bigger. In a series like UFO where we had the SHADO Mobiles, they were quite large and the wood was from real trees. We used to scour Black Park when they cut down the trees and I used to send my lads to the woodcutter to pick out branches that had bark on them that looked as if they were full size trees when they were cut. Trees were always a problem. We used to get a special fern and stuff called statice that we used to buy and then we'd get the comment that we still get when we're doing a miniature scene. People always think the trees should be moving and I keep saying to people trees don't always move. Unless it's really windy you're not aware of the trees moving.

The biggest problem was getting scaled down leaves and we found that this stuff statice, which was a dry flower which we used to buy in boxes gave us the best result. It's a tiny little flower, but it's on a stem that has a lot of different offshoots from the stems, and we still use it. That was the nearest we got to getting really good believable trees. In later days some of our trees turned out to be five or six feet high depending on the vehicle, but it was always a case of scaling the tree to the size of the model, because after all it was the model that was important.

I also wanted the sets to look totally believable and everybody working there would always be on the lookout for something that was convincing. Sometimes people would come in with bits and pieces and say "Look, we found this over the weekend". Another thing we used to do later on was to go and buy plants, and we'd keep them in the pots and bury them in the sets in the pot so that they would continue living. But there would come the time that you would want a plant/bush that was the right shape and you couldn't bury it in the set, so we used to take it out of the pot and bash all the earth off the roots and stick it on the set. I used to say "That's got to go back in the pot afterwards", so we could use it again. Of course it never got back in. Next time we went to use it, it was dead. Then there was a trick that Les Bowie taught me and that was that lots of plants had roots that were better for us scale-wise, so I used to go and dig up plants where I could and shake all the earth off, and look at the roots. If we were doing undergrowth we would do that, and it would look very convincing.

You moved away from landscapes built on rostrums with Thunderbirds...

I found that because we had to build sets on rostrums so that the camera was two foot off the ground. The trouble was, we'd get the camera set up and we'd start building the set, throwing down barrow loads of sand all over, kicking it around, and then covering it with paint powder – greens and browns – because the rostrums were a certain size and you had to put three or four of them together. There was always a crack where they joined and of course then some of the set used to slide through the hole. Then we'd have to tack brown paper down over the crack very loosely, but somebody walking on the set to dress it would kick the brown paper and rip it and there was always the problem of the set shaking. If you had a vehicle landing or travelling, it would shake the set. It wouldn't be the weight of the vehicle, it would be the person pulling it and if the wires were directed round a corner it would put pressure on it and the set would shake, so I thought we had to get away from this.

Nine times out of ten I'd lay the camera down and put the rostrums up and find that we needed an extra piece — but by then we'd run out of rostrum, so we had to put board down and prop it up, and then usually just at the time you didn't want it to happen, it would fall down! So I thought if we're always needing this vast area, why don't we lay it all out on the floor, so even if we were doing roads we would lay a black board on the floor and that would have the slot in it for the road, and there would be just enough room to be able to have the wire underneath and then we would build a set as large as we wanted.

As the backings were from twenty to sixty feet long you could build quite a big set and it was very easy to just throw things on the floor. We'd use sand and a lot of rocks that we'd buy from the garden centre that were real garden rocks. We used to pile those on top of each other and then pour bags of cement over the top of them and spray it with one of these hand pumps. That would just wet the surface and it would dry and go crusty and then if it broke away it would always look very convincing. Then we had a lot of polystyrene rocks, but the trouble with polystyrene was that when they were stored they always got chipped and then the white would show and then we'd have to respray them, but the floor became the set more than anything.

Then we discovered very quickly that we couldn't get low enough, so I went to Gerry and asked him if we could have pits built and told him why. It was just a case of "Right", so they would be done over a weekend. They'd get a pneumatic drill and a digger in and dig up the floor. I'd mark out on the floor where I wanted it and they'd chip through the floor of the studio and dig down about four foot and then cement it and then we had a camera pit. I soon realised what an advantage it was because it meant that people weren't in awkward positions laying all over the floor trying to get the camera positioned and the crew could work comfortably at a reasonable height, so then we had another one built.

I had to stay there until sometimes three o'clock in the morning painting the backings for the next days shooting that one of the stages had to do and this was becoming a bit wearing. You'd go in at eight o'clock in the morning and I'd think 'Christ, I'm going to be here until three in the morning painting another backing'. I had this idea which Gerry liked, which was to have steel frames made about twenty foot long by twelve high onto which I painted a day sky and a night sky, a storm sky, a desert scene and a plain sky. We then spent ten thousand pounds to have part of the roof taken away and a tower built so these backings could actually be lifted on ropes and a tackle, which you could just pull, and the backing went up revealing another sky. This was great if we had a situation where you had a set laid out and part of the sequence would be day and part of it would be night. Originally we used to have to schedule it so we went onto something else while I repainted the sky, but this way I had about twelve backings flown into this tower, and you could change them very easily. Like so many of the techniques we introduced, it was all done so that we'd be able to do more shots in a day.

Having personally created many of the techniques used for decades in the cinema special effects industry, Derek found himself without a regular job when Century 21 studios closed down in 1970. He worked as a freelance on films such as ZPG (1972) and Fear Is The Key (1973) before getting his big break in movies, being hired to create in miniature the blowing up of Kananga's poppy fields for the 1973 James Bond movie Live and Let Die. Derek went on to provide the model effects for each subsequent James Bond film up to 1981's For Your Eyes Only in a stellar career which included the Superman movies, Tim Burton's Batman and his final film, the 1995 James Bond film GoldenEye, released after his death that same year.

text ©1993, 2012 Sam Denham
article originally appeared in FAB magazine #71