Paddy Seale

Simon Archer

"Stay on. A lot of things are going to start happening here," Gerry Anderson advised camera operator Paddy Seale back in 1962. And he was right. The new recruit to the recently formed special effects department at AP Films was not unhappy with his job, it was the 15-mile journey to and from his home in Chalfont St. Giles, 15 miles away, on a scooter that was getting him down. In the event, Paddy took his boss's advice, a decision that he was not to regret as he went on to become an important member of the Supermarionation production team. I met up with him recently at The National Film and TV School, Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire where he is assistant to the head of camera.

Paddy Seale
Paddy Seale checks the lightning on the puppet scale FAB1 for Thunderbirds Are GO!'s dream sequence

Prior to joining AP Films, Paddy had worked for an advertising company in Central London producing some of the first independent television commercials. His introduction came via one of the editors whose son Dave Elliott was production supervisor on Fireball XL5.

No newcomer to effects, Paddy already had three years experience working on feature films at Pinewood Studios. "I joined AP Films' special effects team in April 1962, working with Derek Meddings, Brian Johncock (Johnson) and Ted Wooldridge. The good thing about it all was that we were encouraged to throw in our own ideas. It was very open ended."

For Paddy, above all, the memories of those early pioneering days were ones of hard work made all the more enjoyable by many a fun moment, such as the time a model of a volcano was exploded on the set of Fireball XL5. "The stage was very small and when the 'volcano' blew everyone present got covered in Polycell paste from head to foot!"

Despite the hint of what was to come from Gerry Anderson, Paddy, along with his colleagues, had little idea of the exciting developments that lay ahead for the small, but flourishing film company. "I don't think many people knew what was to come."

With Stingray following hot on the heels of Fireball XL5, Paddy continued working on as a camera operator on the special effects unit with occasional stays with the main unit. He also inherited the nickname Oink after the pet seal that made the guest appearance in the adventures of the super sub.

With the increase in demand for special effects, an extra unit was formed and he became involved in lighting the special effects too. "I then worked as a camera operator on the main unit with one of the directors John Read. As the company expanded, he spent more and more time in his office, which provided me with the opportunity to take over from him as lighting cameraman. Gradually, he moved out, although he still kept the title of director of photography."

One of Paddy's main preoccupations was concealing the wires suspending the models on the set of Stingray. "This involved quite a lot of tricky work, particularly as we were now working with colour film. We had a set of bottles of powder paint and we sprayed the wires with anti-flare and then puffed some of this powdered paint on to them to try and match in with the background."

Paddy developed a technique for using lights in a certain way to keep them off the strings. "There was no pre-ordained method. As Stingray was the first colour TV series to be made in Britain, we had received a lot of advice on how we should handle colour, which seemed a bit contradictory at times. We had generally been told that we shouldn't light with a high contrast ratio." Kodak recommended a one-to-one balance of light culminating in a flat result.

"I remember on Stingray, when we shot candle lit evening scenes, some directors were saying, 'Make it look more like night. Keep it down low', while others would say 'Don't make it too dark'. So we had quite a dilemma, especially as most of us had not seen colour television before. We didn't know what to make of it. I remember saying to Reg, 'What's going to happen when Wimbledon goes in colour, because they can't take the contrast — the players in white ouffts against the shade of the stand in the background. You couldn't get a higher change in contrast and that's from nature. If they couldn't record that, how is this television system going to work?' As it turned out, the PAL system adapted in the U.K. was a much higher quality than the NTSC system used in America."

Working with AP Films provided the young cameraman with the kind of break he may not have found at a larger studio. With production underway on Thunderbirds, Paddy had become full-time lighting cameraman.

The cost of working with colour film meant that each day's rushes were in black and white, with only one colour print arriving each day. "The great disadvantage was that a great number of the sets were lit by coloured lights and the film was not as equally sensitive to all the different lights. For instance, a flashing red light would not show up because the print film was not sensitive to red. It must have been quite a job for the editor. Today, I don't think anything is printed in black and white for editing purposes and in fact technology has changed so much that now they go straight from neg on to video. There are so many diverse combinations now, it's quite different."

Working with puppets was more difficult for the lighting cameraman than working with live action. "One of the main problems for the puppeteers was that they couldn't hit their marks very easily because when they were looking at the monitor, if the puppet head was in the middle of the screen, they may not have appeared in the right plane. If they were six inches nearer or further away from the camera, it made a big difference to the lighting. We had to work on a high intensity of light and I followed the technique of using one key light, as in a feature film, to hit the puppets and build up from there."

Paddy was very conscious that the puppets' eyes should have a sparkle to them, so he introduced an eye-light, once again following the logic of live action studio lighting. "I had gained some experience of this on Stingray, but did not have the confidence to risk too much then, although when Alan Pattillo was directing Stingray he encouraged me to try things differently and would stand by me if questioned by others."

Paddy went on to work on the feature film Thunderbirds Are GO! filming in Techniscope, a new half-frame system developed in Italy. It meant a great saving as only half the amount of negative was shot from which Technicolor made an anamorphic print.

Paddy was among the team who travelled to Portugal to shoot several scenes including the view of the ground rushing beneath the stricken Zero X craft as Alan Tracy attempted to save the crew. "I hated the helicopter we used. It had a huge hole in the floor to allow the camera to point straight down. It was a horrible feeling!"

Paddy Seale takes a light reading on Sam Loover and Shane Weston
Paddy Seale takes a light reading on Sam Loover and Shane Weston for an episode of Joe 90

Paddy worked on the pilot for Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, a series that he has less fond memories of. "The puppets were beginning to look more and more like real people but were becoming less animated, more like robots, and less interesting. There was little humour in the dialogue too. I felt that puppetery should have been used for what real people couldn't do."

On hearing that he was not going to be working on the feature film Thunderbird 6, Paddy handed in his notice in May 1967. Now freelance, he worked with 16mm film for the first time in his career producing footage for ITV's World in Action, This Week and other documentaries that took him all over Britain. "I really enjoyed this as I was given that much more freedom. To leave the puppet studios was the best thing I could have done, not because I was badly treated, but because I would never have got this extra experience." He worked right through the summer and made a lot of new contacts in the process, until November, when the pound devalued and his diary became quiet. A few weeks later he met Century 21's Dave Lane who invited him back to join the team working on the Joe 90 series. Keen on the fantasy element behind the storyline, Paddy even wrote an episode for the series, but it was never used.

He worked on The Secret Service too, prior to the Slough studio's closure. Breaking from the team once again in October 1968, he went to Mexico to shoot the Olympics. Returning to Gerry Anderson's team soon afterwards, he worked with the second unit at the MGM Studios, Elstree on UFO. "I shot the whole sequence in the opening pilot, at the then offces of ATV. The Straker car was dreadful to work with. The steering was awful, in fact I remember one time when we were shooting near Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire. We had taken a shot of the car turning through some wooden gates and on the second take it hit the fence and the whole of the light cluster was smashed! How that car ever worked I will never know!"

Years later, Paddy worked with Steve Begg on the special effects for Terrahawks followed by the pilot for Space Police and more recently in 1991, the animated sequence of the Mark Knopfler puppet for the Dire Straits pop video Calling Elvis.

Recalling those hectic but pioneering days from the sixties he adds "As well as giving me continued employment, it gave me very good money because, although it wasn't as big as the feature film industry, while we worked on Thunderbirds, the amount of overtime we did was phenomenal. It was big money."

"It was a great experience. A great opportunity to learn lighting. I enjoyed it very much, appreciating the opportunity that Gerry gave me, but in return I contributed as much as I could, carrying forward the lighting and the camera operation, evolving it into a good technique which others took up."

article originally appeared in Century 21 magazine #14