Wednesday, April 16, 2003

End of an Era

Somebody forwarded this article to a mailing list I'm on, and I thought I'd pass it along. Maybe it's just me, but, you know, as cool as modern CGI technology is, I kind of miss those cheesy old BBC special effects.

Tuesday April 15, 2003
The Guardian

Exterminate, exterminate

"Kenny Everett's giant hands are still knocking about." Nick Sainton-Clark, BBC special effects post-manager, racks his brain. "And there's an animatrated phoenix somewhere."

The remnants of almost 50 years of the BBC's special effects department are now seeking new homes after the BBC announced that the department is to be tailed off, with no new projects commissioned. Nowadays, demand is for digital effects - actors prancing about before blank screens with the wizardry inserted afterwards by computer.

The glory days of the special effects department were the late 80s, when more than 80 people were employed to craft finely hewn props out of balsa wood, plastics, fibre-glass and resins. Their creations graced all the big programmes: Doctor Who, Blake's Seven, Day of the Triffids, Red Dwarf, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Today the department has dwindled to 22 special effects creators occupying three large bays in what used to be a lorry transport depot.

The department was founded in 1954 by Jack Kine and Bernard Wilkie. Their early work appeared on programmes such as Quatermass, a science fiction series which required elaborate special effects scenes such as monsters crawling around St Paul's cathedral. People always want to talk about daleks, says Sainton-Clark. They forget that they don't just make robots and monsters. "Every time you see rain or snow, that's our guys. And we made all the bodies for Silent Witness," he adds, proudly.

"The gelatin material feels like real skin, and each hair is punched in individually."

The staff will be moved elsewhere, as will Marvin the Paranoid Android, from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, who for many years stood guard over the department kitchen. "We'll make sure he gets a good home," says Sainton-Clark.

Laura Barton

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