Alan Shubrook


Sam Denham

When UFO entered production in 1969, Century 21 Productions' effects unit was one of the most productive and experienced in the world — largely thanks to the enthusiasm and dedication of its crew. One of its youngest members was Alan Shubrook, who'd joined the company as a teenager only a few years earlier. As a modelmaker and effects assistant Alan was involved with almost every aspect of the effects production process, and in this recent interview with author Sam Denham he recalls the pleasures and pressures of working for Derek Meddings' team.

I guess the first question is — How did you start with Century 21 and what was your background?

Really, I'd always wanted to work in the film industry' since the first time I can remember seeing a flickering picture on a wall, but my family came very much from a banking background, so when I left school I automatically went to work in the city for a leading government stockbrokers. That was about age seventeen and in those days you were basically there for life. I had a very, very secure type of job but it was totally frustrating. But one lunchtime I picked up an evening paper and saw a very small advertisement saying 'Scenic artist required by a film production company' – which of course was Century 21 – so I rang them up.

I had no experience, and though I thought I had some talent in that area, I'd no previous background whatsoever of working in the industry. I remember speaking to somebody and saying, "I'd like this job," and being given quite a lot of time on the phone, but being told quite politely that obviously without the experience, without any training, that thank you very much... But I didn't take that 'No' for an answer, and I rang up the next day and pushed my luck again. I think I called them three or four or five times, I was so keen to actually move in to something like this and ended up speaking to Bob Bell.

Bob was a very nice chap and that was probably the opening because I think in the end he got so fed up with me ringing him up and him spending his time talking to me on the phone, and telling me what they were doing and so on, to get rid of me I think they actually said come over and see what it's all about, so that basically we can tell you once and for all, "You can't do this job can you? So please go away." It was really in desperation I think. "Right, O.K. come over, look at what you've got to do and then please don't ring us any more."

Now around that time I met the actress Hayley Mills (Daughter of John Mills — SD.), who lived with her parents in a beautiful Georgian house called the Wick on Richmond Hill, and I decided as a birthday present to make a model of the house for her. I'd just about completed it when I set off for this socalled interview at Century 21. I thought I'd better put a few things in the car that might help – illustrations, designs, and various things – and of course in the boot of the car I had this model of a Georgian house.

I'll always remember being shown into reception at the studios – going in and seeing pictures of all the Thunderbirds round the reception area – and being taken through to the special effects set as it was in those days. Bob Bell met me and took me round the basic studio on a conducted tour showing me storm skies and various things and obviously at this stage I realised I was well out of my depth — this was nothing I'd ever tackled before. I ended up going into an office – probably Mike Trim's office then, I suppose – and somebody must have said, "Is there anything else you can show us?" They were obviously thinking, "When do we get rid of this one?"

So I brought in some illustrations and also this great cardboard box with this model inside. As soon as he saw it Bob Bell said, "Oooh, hang on a minute...," went out and came back about two or three minutes later with Mike Trim, who also looked at the model. Then he went away for five minutes and came back with Derek — although I didn't know at that stage who he was. He very briefly came in, had a look round the model and said, "When can you start?" I said, "As what?" and he said, "As modelmaker and special effects assistant." And that was it. I was offered a job there and then based on the model I'd taken in of the house I'd made for Hayley Mills. So I was in, and really in at the deep end, because although I'd gone into something that I wanted to do, and knew I was capable of doing, of course I hadn't come from a background that gave me any standing in it.

It was kind of a back door into the business ?

Yes, the unions were still quite strong and the problem was you couldn't get into the industry without being in the union and you couldn't get into the union without being in the industry. But there was a bit of a them against us situation at Century 21. When I was first shown into the studio on the very first day I remember Ken Holt saying, "These are your clocking in cards and there are new clocking in machines all the way round the studio. And you clock in and you clock out." So I said, "Fine, O.K.," but as soon as I went over into the special effects studio and said, "Right, what do I do with the cards?" they just took them out of my hands and tore them up! There was quite a lot of that going on.

Later on, after I moved from Essex – I used to travel every single day to the studios to start at whenever it was, half eight in the morning, and when we finished in the evenings I'd have to go all the way back, so after a while I got my own flat at Maidenhead – I used to basically enjoy working there so much that when it came to the end of filming I was quite happy to stay on and do other things that I wanted to do there, ready for the next day's filming.

I remember one night I was making some trees. We'd had a lot of trees destroyed the day before with one of these fires that wipes them all out – sea moss goes up very, very quickly – and I was working away in the workshop at nine, ten o'clock at night, quite happily and Nick Procopides, who was the union leader, came in and said, "Hello, I didn't know there was any overtime tonight." I said, "No, I'm just making some trees," and the next morning I was up in front of the committee for working when you're not being paid to work. This was really my first introduction to unions as they were then, and I got really reprimanded for working for nothing, basically, which did really hurt my pride a little bit.

How did your career with the company develop ?

Well, I started with Brian Smithies in the dirtying down workshop, dressing and repairing models for the effects stages. By then we had three stages coming in with models that were falling off the wires to be being repaired and it was very high pressure work. I think we had stages five and six and the second unit with Peter Wragg. This was towards the end of the Thunderbirds series in '66. Of course, everything was still there for Thunderbird Six which was coming along and I worked all through Thunderbird Six. But it really was the tail end of Thunderbirds, and prepreparation for Captain Scarlet was now the main thing on everybody's mind, although I didn't know what it was at that stage. I thought Thunderbirds was all we were producing.

Eventually, after a time just working in the model dirtying down workshop area I was seconded on to the floor as special effects assistant, and ended up becoming a sort of general dogsbody for both. I'd still be in making models right up to the end with UFO but I still actually preferred being on the floor. But there was normally always something to be repaired or something to be dressed. We always had this situation where nobody really knew what a model was going to look like, or what it should look like. Although the drawings had been done and the storyboard was there it was still really down to the imagination of each person at various stages to come up with the end result, so there was a tremendous amount of your own imaginative input into things and nobody ever really queried what you did. The fun bits were when you did a street scene, say, and you'd go through cutting bits out of newspapers and little tiny reduced pictures of record albums or whatever to put into display cases that were only supposed to be an inch or so high on a street corner.

Most of the models would usually come in in their very sort of crude form from the main model workshop as a basic sprayed up shape, perhaps to me, and then you would get the job of completely dressing them. I suppose that probably 60% of the work I did was that type of thing, so a vehicle would come over, but it would literally almost be a block of carved wood, so you'd decide what panels, what numbers were going to go on the outside, what bit of chrome would go where, what sort of lights were going to go on it, and it was the same with buildings, really. But it was always interesting coming up with new ways to create an effect. For example, for something like a barbed wire fence where you needed a very, very fine mesh, we found a mesh that was encapsulated in a plastic that was used for some industrial process, and we'd actually buy this and then set fire to all the plastic so we could just get the mesh out of the middle of it. Once you'd discovered that, that was a new day. Great, we've found a new way of making a fence that looks more realistic than the mesh we had last week.

And, of course, we could adapt models that had already been built. In the main area I was working in we had a mezzanine floor above us with all the models from all the series, so I mean a two minute walk up there and you'd actually walk through virtually everything from almost early Four Feather Falls right through to the current work you were doing. You'd actually get four or five vehicles parked up against one another on a shelf with almost like a Thunderbird vehicle next to a Captain Scarlet vehicle next to a Joe 90 vehicle next to an XL5 sort of vehicle or something. That would have been worth a photograph! And it was really a case of having to repair a lot of models as well. We were always there as something fell off the wires and someone would come running in with the cameras waiting to go.

So, generally, I saw a bit of everything, and worked on every single episode of Captain Scarlet, Joe 90, UFO, and obviously Thunderbird Six and the end of Thunderbirds. But I didn't go back for Space:1999, although I was asked to. And, of course, before long I realised that not only did we have a great team, but that Derek was somebody who I admired very much and that he was building this kind of school. It was an unwritten kind of thing, but he was putting together people that obviously became the best special effects guys in the industry for many years to come. There was a lot of respect for everybody there I think. I mean everybody, although it was all wires and little bits of string and nobody really knew any one day what they were going to be doing...

There was tremendous respect for Derek, and he always encouraged you. I mean, I hadn't been there long when he came into the modelshop looking around for somebody and said, "Alright Alan, you can come." "Where?" "We're going shopping." So off we went into Slough and did one of his famous shopping trips in one of the department stores. We just bought lampshades and weird cooking utensils and all sorts of things and took them back and they all became one of the Captain Scarlet Mysteron cities. Another famous time Derek said, "Alright we're going off on a longer trip," and put me in the car and we went over to the Airfix factory at Woolwich to look at all the kits that were in production. They were really proud of all these wonderful kits that they'd made that were on display, not realising what we wanted them for. All Derek was looking for was their lovely, intricate little cogs and wheels and things. He wasn't interested in the main bodies of the casting and, of course, yes, we'd buy hundreds and hundreds of these kits and take them all back, split them all open, pour them into these huge cardboard boxes into large bits, small bits, and they became the mainstay of the model shop.

How would you go about setting up a scene with an explosion, for example?

Well, say you had a vehicle coming along a road, crashing into a fence, and then rolling down an embankment and exploding, which was a typical sort of shot in any of the years' work from there. Firstly the vehicle would be controlled through a rod on the front suspension which actually went down through a slot in the road, and, surprisingly, was never really ever seen. It was really the crudest form of pulling a vehicle along. Just a simple rod that had a piece of wire on it. But, of course, that piece of wire then had to be long enough for somebody to be able to pull it the entire distance of the set which meant that they had to be running somewhere else, and it was always pretty funny that when you started pulling a vehicle along a road the person pulling it would have to start running down a corridor, normally past three or four offices, past the ladies and gents, past wardrobe at the bottom and at any one time somebody could come out of one of those doors and bump into them. The person couldn't actually see what they were doing either, they were just pulling a wire that was pulling the rod that was pulling the vehicle along the road and it always still sticks in my mind that you didn't actually have anything more sophisticated than that.

Once the vehicle had crashed, of course, nearly every time the camera would cut and then you'd go into an immediate second shot that was really the big explosion. The vehicle would then be detonated two or three times as it was supposed to be making the impact and again, if you were standing by as I often was you'd be thinking, "That's the lorry I made yesterday and they're letting it burn and that wasn't particularly a good shot." So everybody's standing around with the fire extinguishers and you're waiting for the director to shout out "Cut!" so they can go in with the fire extinguishers, and now you're thinking, "I hope they cut soon because I know he's going to want to do it again and that vehicle's burning like mad and I'll now be working until ten o'clock at night," and of course that was often the case. You would literally have to just paint one side of it up again overnight. One side would still be charred black but you'd just paint the side that would be seen.

How often would a shot go wrong?

On a typical car crashing explosion type of shot, one in three would probably be done again. But you wouldn't really know until you'd seen the rushes. That was always very exciting — seeing rushes every day. It was quite a set routine, actually. You'd sort of get settled in in the morning and almost... I think we used to have Radio Two on a lot and Jimmy Young's programme used to start about ten in the morning and almost on the count of starting the Jimmy Young programme's theme tune, the phone would ring and it was rushes and we'd go over to the theatre and view the previous day's work. And you'd sit there, although you'd probably worked through the night trying to get a model ready for another reshoot that day, hoping basically that the shot was going to be OK and often it was the case that although you had rebuilt something they'd accept the shot and not go ahead to refilm it. But it was frustrating that perhaps you'd sometimes spend four or five days on making something for the first shot, it would be destroyed to 75% of its original construction, and you'd then have to remake it overnight very, very basically, very sort of makeshift for the shot to be done again the next day, and all the original work would never be seen, all the detail, because you hadn't got time to redo it. Derek would normally be in on most of the rushes and it was fairly easy to pick out what was going to work and what wasn't.

And it's a great shame that a lot of those shots – rushes type shots – weren't saved because they were real 'It'll be alright on the Night' type shots. You were seeing it all in slow motion — the people running away from the actual vehicle, it blowing up, then them running back in to put out the fire or whatever. There were some hilarious scenes on rushes specially because they were shot at 120 frames per second. So everybody would be moving really, really slowly and the expression on somebody's face when you're slowing them down five times and they're running away from perhaps a spaceship at eye height that's just about to explode is really quite funny.

In the early days as well there wasn't a lot of precaution taken on safety. We all thought it was just part of a day's work to set fire to something and then blow it up. Later on there was a lot more care and attention taken and we were given goggles and helmets and things because I think the explosions got bigger and more dangerous, and a few accidents had happened. I remember we had one situation where one person was sacked by Derek on the spot from the special effects department. He'd only been there a little while and in his lunch hour, probably in an effort to learn a little bit about explosions, he took some explosives into the middle of a football pitch – we had these football pitches behind the studios – and dug a hole about a foot deep, covered it with bricks and earth, and then ran back and detonated it to see how big the bang would be. The only thing was, he didn't realise was how big the bang would be! By that time we were already filming and the bricks came through the ceiling of the studio! He was obviously fired there and then. On the spot. Derek didn't take that very lightly whatsoever, but even then, I can't remember him ranting and raving, as somebody else might have. It was a case of, "Who did it? Right, you're out."

Mind you there was one occasion when I went off with Derek to get some Cortex when it first came out and it wasn't until after we came back that somebody said Cortex could be detonated by radio waves and I'd had this huge chunk of it sitting on my lap. Nobody really realised how dangerous it was in those days. But it was a good thing the safety precautions were introduced because later on we nearly had a bad accident with a shot we had to do of a helicopter crashing into some pylons [for the Roger Moore film Crossplot — SD.] We had this helicopter built, which had to explode, and we used to detonate the charge by running a current down the wires that were used to fly the models. It was all wired up and ready to go on set when the effects assistant setting it up touched the wires together while he was holding it. If he hadn't been wearing all the protective clothing he'd have been badly burned.

Did you look at other films to set standards to aim for?

Well, special effects were still fairly in their infancy in the sixties and even stop frame animation was pretty basic. People still saw models as models. I don't think they were taken that seriously in feature films but when anything did happen it was always drawn to everybody's attention. If somebody did see something in a film or if something was going to happen like a real space launch we'd all be told to watch it and try and remember what it looked like – which sounds crazy now in the days of video – but in those days you couldn't record anything and there wasn't a situation where you can go to the cinema three times a week now and see major special effects. Special effects were very very few and far between in films and it was only things like 2001 that stimulated the idea that special effects could be taken into a totally new league. But I think Derek was ready for that. He was ready for that challenge, definitely.

What was the reaction to 2001?

Oh, I think we all thought it was fantastic, we really did. Because of the sort of pace we were working at and the sort of scale we were working at we'd used the same clouds over and over again on thousands of shots, really, and we knew that a spaceship was against the same cloud that Thunderbird 2 had gone past and that Joe 90's vehicle had gone past, so when you saw all that taken away and mattes and things being tried in a different way and a whole new set of techniques being used that we obviously didn't have in our studios for straightforward television productions, I think we all stood back and said, "Wow! Give us the chance and we could have done that."

Of course Kubrick originally wanted to headhunt Derek to work on the film.

I can remember that. I can remember people coming into the studios in the early days and being shown round and then them following us and catching up with a group of us in a pub after work — in Maidenhead, I think. They sort of followed us in and we thought, "This is strange, we saw these people earlier," and the conversation went something like, "We need to recruit x number of people for two months' work in America..." – of course, two months became two years or whatever – and I was sort of all ears listening, "What's all this about?" People were saying, "Well, I'm contracted for this," and, "I can't get away because of that," and there was a lot of that sort of talk going along at that time. No idea, really, then what it was going to lead to, but that was the hunting that was going on then.

For 2001...

Yeah. A couple of months' work in America! That's what it was going to be.

And most of it was done over here.

I think it was in the end. Actually, do you remember the shot in UFO when we pulled back to the planets, one planet and then another planet, that looked very impressive? Obviously we were used to seeing the rushes without any sound at all, but I actually brought in music the day we saw it in rushes – nobody knew about it – the Stanley Kubrick music from 2001. I had them put the sound on as the shot started pulling back and everybody sat there absolutely amazed. It sort of made the shot.

Were you surprised when the company moved into live action?

Yes, because I always felt it was a mistake. It's a bit like saying, great, Micky Mouse works as a cartoon, now let's do Micky Mouse as live action, but I'd say no, Micky Mouse only works because it's a cartoon. So I never saw the need to go to live action. I thought what we were producing was ideal for what we were selling. Thunderbirds as a children's series was probably the most successful children's series ever produced. It appealed to children and adults alike. People were glued to the television sets four o'clock on a Sunday afternoon for an hour's viewing that captured the imagination in a way that I don't think actors would have done, or would do today. So I didn't see the need to go over to actors.

But what it did do, I noticed dramatically, was cut down the number of special effects shots. Probably because live action allows a lot more time to be taken up with conversation and the interplay between actors, less effort was put into the script in creating special effects scenes. So we seemed to have a lot less work on the special effects side once we went over to live action. I know one or two people said everybody yearned for the day when the puppets finally had their strings cut and actors took over, but that to me was never a problem, and certainly lots of the lads I worked with were quite happy being associated with a children's television puppet series. But really, I suppose — I didn't know Gerry that well but from what I heard, I think he just saw it as an end to get into live action.

Did you see much of Gerry and Sylvia in the studios?

I suppose when I first went there I expected Gerry Anderson to be looking over your shoulder every two seconds. I was horrified when I realised I'd been there something like two or three months and I hadn't even seen or heard of Gerry Anderson. Then I imagined him to be locked away in one of his rooms with his head down, but people said, "Oh no, you don't see Gerry Anderson, he's never here." and in all the years I was there the I'd say half a dozen times you saw the Rolls Royces pull up for the odd press call if we had a new series coming out and the national press wanted some pictures, but he never seemed to be there at all really. Creative input from Gerry, actually in the studios, all the time I worked there, through Captain Scarlet to the end of UFO was zero, really. Whether he had more input in post and preproduction is another matter, but he was never there in terms of what physically went onto the celluloid. It was very, very much down to the hands on team, and that did surprise me.

How about Sylvia?

I can't really remember seeing Sylvia more than about twice in four years or so. Never there at all.

Did the atmosphere at the studios change when the puppet unit closed?

Yes, it did. It became a little bit more of a ghost city, really. It wasn't quite the same I didn't think. It was the beginning of the end, though I must admit the special effects on UFO became more realistic than ever, perhaps because we had more time. There wasn't the pressure. Perhaps we were able to put far more attention to detail and get back a little bit of enthusiasm into what we were doing.

And now that you were working with live action did you find you had to improve the effects because you were having to compete with the real world ?

I think so. I think the car that swung round the corner at the wrong speed that bumped up and down the pavement in a puppet series was quite acceptable but put that into a live action series and everybody would fall off their seats laughing. So I think yes, we tried to now say, "Look what we can do." I think perhaps because it may have been that the writing was on the wall a little bit and we were actually trying to show that we could actually produce special effects in a way that was almost competing with the big studios. We'd now filmed things like Doppelganger which we'd filmed outdoors. We built the set outside, and did the rocket launch and everything outdoors, and actually tried to do it in a totally different way to anything that had ever been done indoors. It was a totally different sort of experience filming a rocket launching outdoors as opposed to having all the fans and extractors and everything to control the problems of smoke and flames. So we were moving in that direction.

But we had lots of new problems. You could see all the time that Derek was saying, "Well, I think this is going to work, but if somebody suggests something else we'll give it a go," and I think that's what we all admired, really. You didn't have to stand back and be frightened of saying something. You could happily say to Derek "Let's put a couple of fans over there and see if that'll help because the wind's come up from the other direction now," and he'd say, "Yeah, O.K. let's do that." You could talk to the man. It was quite nice. I think a lot of people in the industry you can't talk to or will always pretend to know better. I admired him tremendously. But he was somebody who just could look at you and you could tell that you weren't pleasing him, but that you could if your heart was in it and you got on and did the job properly again. He didn't shout and he didn't raise his voice that much — although obviously he did when things went really wrong.

You came to the end of UFO... How did it stop ?

I think when it got to the point that it sunk in that the studios were not only being closed down but they were being almost gutted it was something that hurt I think everybody there. It was a case of we're bringing in outside people to clear everything out, to break it all up and throw it all away. We thought what we've got here – we're building pieces of equipment that have never been used before, we had things that weren't being respected at all – and the day I remember walking out of the studio and seeing the actual skips in the front loaded with all the broken up sets from the special effects department, and props and things, and cockpits of Angel aircraft, I thought this is not just three or four or five years of your life gone, on a skip, but it's that somebody isn't realising what they're doing. They're actually not in control of what's going on here, but there's nothing you can do to stop it and there were a lot of us who thought that way. There were the handful that were quite happy just to go on to the next job, but the majority of us got that lump in our throats and we just really were quite shattered. I think that's really what hurt most. I thought if this is how the industry can treat something so unique, then what future is there, really? It was a very, very emotional time. Very, very emotional.

I remember walking round some of the skips at the back, not just seeing the stuff smashed up, but seeing the way that it was just being totally disregarded. Now we know that museums and collectors would have given their right arms for most of it. It was the end of an era that came twenty years too early, really. We knew it but nobody would listen and that was a great, great shame, and I was very disillusioned because I really believed in what we were doing. I loved it and would have worked there for nothing, basically.

So I came back over to this side of London and gave up my flat in Maidenhead. I then answered an advertisement from a group of newspapers being set up by Rupert Murdoch. His nephew had come over from Australia and wanted an assistant. I replied to this ad just for something to do, went along and saw this chap and was asked if I would be his right hand man setting up a chain of newspapers around London as a designer and layout artist. I thought, "Oh well, I've nothing to lose." I took the job and within a week Ken Holt rang me and said, "Are you coming to Pinewood? We're doing Space:1999." It was only for three or four weeks work, tests, and I thought, "Oh." Deep down of course, yes, this is what I wanted to do, but this is a new venture and if the film industry is going down the pan, what do I do? So I actually said no to him, which is probably the worst decision I ever made because it was something I always wanted to stay with and I would probably have gone the route that a lot of the others had gone. So that was basically the end at that point.

If the studios had stayed open, do you think Derek would still have moved on to make big budget movies?

I think so. I think the day to day vehicle left to right had been done so many times, I mean hundreds of times, basically, that the idea of trying to emulate a real space flight became more exciting. To say "There you are. Was that the real thing or not?" And this was obviously long before the days of digital effects or anything like that. It was far more of an achievement to try to create the real thing on a piece of concrete in Slough. So I think, yes, he was looking for that new challenge which obviously with Superman and things like that he found. To try and make the impossible look real. I think he was looking for new areas of a challenge and I think they were the sort of films that stimulated the idea that special effects could be taken into a totally new league and Derek was ready for that challenge, definitely. It wasn't whether he wanted to — you knew he had to. You could see it in his eyes that he was looking for something a little bit special. He was striving for something out there that he wasn't being given perhaps the time and equipment to do at Century 21. You could see it in his eyes that he'd say OK, but that could be done a lot, lot better, and the Superman and Bond films gave him the opportunity to actually achieve those higher standards.

text © Sam Denham 1999, article originally appeared in Sci Fi & Fantasy Models issue #53