Science-Fiction Filme) Dear Mr Smithies. I don't know what to say. I am very grateful to you, as a living modelling legend, for taking the time to talk to me. If I am informed correctly, you worked for two seasons on Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's THUNDERBIRDS series. How did you get this job and was there anything you enjoyed most during that time? Was it difficult to develop your own angle for the special effects?
Bill Smithies) I worked with Gerry and Sylvia Anderson for about 6 or 7 years, although it was actually Derek Meddings who employed me, starting with THUNDERBIRDS, CAPTAIN SCARLET, JOE90, UFO and the feature films: THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO, THUNDERBIRD 6; DOPPELGANGER and CROSSPLOT.
Because of my artistic training Derek Meddings Asked me to set up and run the Model Finishing Department which I ran for 6 or 7 years. to dress, finish and do instant repairs on the models. Also preparing set dressing, trees and other model effects for the floor unit to use, also preparing pyrotechnic charges
We were a bunch of enthusiastic youngsters when we started and we had to learn the disciplines of film very quickly. In those days we had a script and storyboards and were required to attend 'rushes' to view the previous days work. One of the most important learning places was the rushes theater to see the results of the previous days shooting, our mistakes and remedies for them.
SFF) This series includes not only the grandiose technique of supermarionation but also (and this is where you come in) wonderful model effects, some with huge models. Can you tell us how the team (including Ian Wingrowe and Shawn Whittaker-Cook) went about building these models? How do you plan such models at that time and with which materials did you build them?
B.S.) The way we worked was mostly from story boards setting out shots on the studio floor and rostrums depending what was required often with False Perspective foreground pieces to hold depth of focus. We never had set drawings and very few designs on paper but we did get excellent sketches which we worked from. My department supplied the buildings,trees and set dressing and then the the floor crew laid them out to match the storyboards under the direction of the directors, the directors being , Derek Meddings,Shaun Whittaker Cook, Jimmy Elliot and Brian Johnson, all of whom were great to work with.
Ian Wingrove, Bill Camp and many others were employed on dressing the sets and looking after Pyro and effects(smoke ,wind ,water.) on the floor and did a great job, for filming obviously we had to shoot at high speeds as the scale we worked at was so small , and to help the sense of recession and distance, we worked with quite dense atmospheric fog on the set.
SFF) How should I imagine working on such a model set? I mean, you don't just have to keep to the scales. The stages also have to be constructed in such a way that the puppet show can take place without any problems.
B.S.) The scales we worked with were normally very small , being anything from 1-72, to I think the largest we went to was about 1-6 th scale. Even the Doppelganger rocket was only about seven feet tall.
SFF) How did you feel about working with these artists?
B.S.) THUNDERBIRDS was a brilliant training ground for a lot of people starting out in different department. I will say that. But Gerry Anderson I thought was a most objectionable man. He treated Derek Meddings absolutely appallingly and claimed the credit for all that Derek did. He was the moneyman. He was producer, executive producer, but had little to do with... Well Derek was the creative aspect, or one of the creative, there were other people too. When he started claiming credit for things Derek did I thought, "you little bastard." He was very mean to Derek. We thoroughly enjoyed those things. They were the most brilliant training ground, in all areas. Miniature effects, certainly, made a huge leap forward under Derek during Thunderbirds. A brilliant man, someone one I enjoyed working with, because he was creative.
There were some funny moments. We did things on the most extraordinarily small scale. But because of that we could do some things better for television than we could on the larger scale. For all the explosions we used to use a mix of things to give us the effects. We used bags of sawdust, petrol, naphthalene with gunpowder mixed into it. All quite illegal now - it probably was then - because you're basically manufacturing fireworks. We'd be doing that on set. We also used - to have those wonderful streamers with a tail behind - Titanium garniture and magnesium that we'd mix into the gunpowder and naphthalene, which you never see at all these days. Everything is black smoke and yellow fire from diesel. You don't get these white things mixed in. If you look at explosions in reality you should see other things happening in them. It makes it more visually interesting, I think.
There was one, Atlantic Inferno I think it was called, we had this oilrig. It had taken us about two weeks to set up so you cut one wire and everything collapsed. It was a huge set built in a water tank. As this wire was cut so contacts would happen between one bit of the girder and another which set off an explosion and moved something else and it would all set itself off as a chain reaction. All on the cut of this one piece of high tensile wire. On the day of the shoot - we had three cameras that day - it was a big shoot. So, we had it covered from every angle and we used to shoot at 120 frames a second.
SFF) Why 120?
B.S.) Normal film shooting is twenty-four, or twenty-five for television. We were shooting at 120 to slow everything down - what was a miniature poof at 120 was a slow motion effect and you put sound on that and, boom, bang, it looks wonderful. One chap, a dear friend until he day he died, was up there with a pair of wire cutters. All he had to do was, with the call of "action" was to cut this wire. The director… we were all there ready to do our bit, half of us with fire extinguishers ready to put it out and the director was going to give action on hearing that each of the cameras had reached speed. The focus-puller was supposed to shout "speed" and if it didn't he'd say "cut". Everyone understood their role: "Okay, turnover," "speed," "speed," and the other one said, "no speed,so the director shouted” cut.!" At that moment, the chap that had the cutters cut this one wire.! His queue was actually "action" but he heard cut, and was so keen that he cut! So the whole bloody thing went off, just as the cameras stopped. We had another couple of weeks to rebuild the thing. It was actually quite funny. You couldn't stop it. Once that wire had gone, everything collapsed.
SFF) So much work destroyed. Was that more common back then?
B.S.) We had a lot of moments like that - great fun. One day, Lew Grade, who was obviously the moneyman behind Gerry Anderson, brought a load of VIP people into see the sets. We were just about to blow something up. He said, "Oh, wonderful. Wait until we get there." So, the production manager brought this crew of VIP people in, all dressed in their camel hair coats and things. We used a lot of lamp black in mortar pots and dust and stuff with the explosions to make it look good. We were in this factory building, which had been turned into our stage. You had this apex roof on top and the explosions were on one side of the stage and all the VIPs on the other side of the stage with the production manager saying, "Oh, you'll be quite safe here." Of course, what he didn't think about was that all the stuff goes up into the apex around the top of the roof and come back down on the other side. We didn't get a bit of shit on us and we were quite close to it. These guys with their camel hair coats were absolutely black [laughs]. I don't think Lew Grade was very pleased; production manager rushing around dusting them all off.
We used to have all sorts of fun. We used to work with old nitrate film and you'd pull out one end. Nitrate film is terribly unstable and it's basically what they used as gun cotton in artillery shells. Nitrate burns very fast. We used to pull it out - make a telescope of film that had been used and exposed - we'd then bind it with gaffer tape, really tight and put a pair of wings on it and take it down to the local football pitch. Of course this made a fantastic rocket. We used to have fun.
There was a lighting cameraman on Thunderbirds Are Go. At the end of the day we had this big explosion set. We had buckets of naphthalene that we were pouring into mortar pots and we had buckets of water to douse anything that started smouldering and we had plenty of CO2 fire extinguishers to cope. This lighting cameraman was always the first out of the place, but today he was going to help. We did the bang and everything looked fantastic and Derek said, "Okay, cut." That meant we all dive onto the set and put it out so we were ready to do another take if it was needed. So he grabs a bucket of naphthalene! Charges onto the set and chucks the naphthalene on [Laughs].
Same chap had a lovely Jaguar and we jacked his car up whilst he was busy on the set. Jacked it up onto bricks just clear of the ground. He couldn't see anything. He gets into his car, when in those days they called it at five-twenty he was out the door and gone. We heard this car starting up just outside the sliding doors that were open and we heard this ‘vroom-vroom-vroom.' It all went quiet for a minute but then ‘vroom-vroom-vroom' and he kept accelerating the engine. We came out and around the corner. His rear wheels were spinning like mad but he wasn't going anywhere because his wheels weren't on the ground. Eventually we had to put him out of his mystery and tell him, "Well, you aren't going to go very far, your rear wheels aren't on the ground." He was about to call the AA and wondered what was wrong with his car.
In those days the film industry was great fun, you did pull pranks on each other but we also worked very hard. On Thunderbirds, we were all a bunch of youngsters having, a Great time.
SFF) What happened after that time?
I left at the end of 1969 to go to another company called Abacus to do art direction and special effects, working on films such as the: MacKennas gold, The Adventurers, The Body and many other small Films and commercials.
I left Abacus to go freelance on a film called Zeppelin to do the airship and then worked on the rocket and satellite for' Diamonds are Forever'. Then I rejoined Derek Meddings for The Land Time Forgot, where we had huge model set of the island and a German submarine . All great fun with pterodactyls and all sorts of creatures including neanderthals.
After that film we went on to 'Man with The Golden Gun'.
Derek sent me over to Pinewood Studios to build and dress the islands that blow up at the end of the film. I always looked after the construction of the models for on all the films we we together on with a crew mostly from Pinewood studios, carpenters and plasterers.
I think that after the 'Man With the Golden Gun', we went on to do 'Shout At The Devil' in South Africa and Malta. I didn't go to south africa, instead ,Derek sent me to Malta to build a 1st world war German battle cruiser called the 'Blucher' ,36 ft long and 9.5 tones .and other models with a mixed crew of Maltese and British technicians. About 8 in all.
I think the next one was 'Spy Who Loved Me', I was sent out to the Bahamas for seven months with a brilliant Pinewood Studios crew to build all the models for the film while Derek and the rest of the Crew did all the other locations.
SFF) Seven months in the Bahamas. You can do worse, can't you?
B.S.) Absolutely. I had a crew made up of plasterers, carpenters, riggers and a painter, all absolutly 1st class technicians. They made life a pleasure as well as being good company as we worked. We worked in an old tin shed by the sea and we called it 'Palmwood Studios'.
We had to build the 65 foot tanker (The Liparus) the submarines, the missiles for firing out of the water, the Atlantis sets ,and modify the Car bodies to perform their various functions (wheels folding up,fins coming out and other functions.) the underwater powered submarine car was actually built in Florida by a company who specialized in under water machines.
SFF) You have often worked together with Derek Meddings. Also on SPY. How was the collaboration on this film?
B.S.) SPY was great, it was a lot of fun. Again, the crew was headed by Derek and all went of to Sardinia and the other locations with the live action, and I was sent out to the Bahamas to supervise and work on the models .It was a wonderful location and I spent seven months out there, tough really!. We built all the models we needed. Down the line the crew arrived from doing the other live action effects on the film .We had a Sandy Barge, which was big and flat and towed around by a tugboat; it was a tiny tugboat with a Bahamian crew. It had a crane on board which we could use to lift models in and out of the water and gave us a little shed to keep all our equipment, tools, stuff like that. The Bahamian crew used to make wonderful Bahamian food, based on fish we used to catch when we were underwater. It was absolutely idyllic.
The tugboat was captained by a man called Captain Crunch, or at least we called him Captain Crunch because he had a string of minor accidents with the tugboat. We were based in a place called Cora,l Harbour, blasted out of the coral rocks into canals , Then they were to be covered with beautiful houses with yachts, but of course they ran out of money and then everything stumbled to a halt. There was one half-built hotel and a couple of sheds. We had a big sign painted that said, "Palmwood Studios" and put that up over the entrance to one of the sheds That was our workshop area. Captain Crunch used to have all the filming equipment on board and we'd go out to sea and drop us off somewhere and shoot with the tanker. At the undersea laboratory or lair was done the same way. We had a large section of the pontoon and then the full model. They were shipped out as a set of parts and Don Taylor [the plasterer from Pinewood] and a crew chippies and riggers from Pinewood did the remaining bit of assembly and plaster work. I had one other effects person .
Having assembled the thing we had to dress it and put the motors in all the controls and everything like that and hydraulics for opening the doors.
SFF) Tell us about the explosion. How was it prepared?
B.S.) Well, I wasn't there for the final sinking because I'd been sent back to Pinewood to get something else ready. The final sinking was started - and you have metal pans, mortar pots, normally quadrangular, like a truncated pyramid, jam those up into holes or behind sandbags and you put charges of mixed naphthalene and petrol and gun powder. Gunpowder gives you a lot of white smoke but so often these days everything is black smoke. It's a bit boring, really so We also used to use things like magnesium turnings and titanium garneture ,it would come flying out with a bang and you'd have great streamers of white- or red-hot material and a trail of smoke. It was finally blown apart and filmed sinking. I believe it is now a sort of natural reef! I believe it is now a recognised place for divers to go and have a look at the model and the coral.
SFF) You also worked on the Lotus models. What did the work look like for this?
B.S.) The Lotus was great fun, the little Lotus wasn't able to go underwater the way it should. It's amazing what acting can do! They say the camera never lies, that was entirely what our job was about. We had two sizes of model, perhaps even a third smaller one. Call it two sizes, I don't think the third one got used. We had four or five full-size Lotuses. Of course you have different actions. You have a shot of the Lotus flying off the end off the pier and into the water, that's the proper Lotus. We had basic bodies that were designed to have the wheels folding up. Obviously you need the mechanism inside and there is no room in normal Lotus to do that. So you have the wheels folding up and panels coming over. You have shutters opening and various other things happening and all those things had to be done with a different car each time. So we had all these Lotus bodies that we dressed for each action that had to be performed. We had one with those battery powered underwater propulsions for divers. They're like a torpedo and you've got a handle at the back. We had four of those in the back of the Lotus and obviously somebody inside of it driving it. The Lotus was basically made as a wet submarine. There was a company in Florida that did the submersibles and they did the other submersibles for the sequence, a yellow submarine with a couple of divers. The little Lotus was basically a working submarine and we obviously had to take the drives out and charge them every night but we had one set of spares. We shot all of that in the Bahamas.
The raising and lowering of the laboratory out of the sea was just done with air floatation.
We also had a missile, a Polaris-type missile which fires out a submarine. I built three of those out of basic aluminium, they must have been quarter of an inch thick aluminium, rolled, with a fibreglass nose cone with a ring in it that must have been three quarters of an inch thick. Derek felt we'd have to have a crane to pull the missile out of the water; have a shot of it breaking the surface. I said, "I don't think so really. If you take the missile down empty…"
In the base of it we had rocket motors and magnesium flares which we had set in wax so they were waterproof until they ignited, and we took the missile down to the bottom full of water and we attached it to some concrete weights with a quick release. I suggested to Derek, that he would not need a wire to pull it up"Just put air into the cylinder of the rocket!". First of all he said, "Why did you make it so bloody thick and strong?" I said, “ trust me, !" He said, "Okay, we'll try it." I think the first time we might have had it on the wire - he insisted. The missile was filled with compressed air and the air decompresses as the missile goes up, it expands and gives you the effect you had with the Polaris missiles. You know, a lot of bubbles. It shot past the underwater camera and carried on going. Long before they could begin to wind it up [on the wire] it had cleared the water and shot up about forty feet [laughs]. It'd reached such an acceleration that we didn't really need anything. When it came to earth, one of them actually bent with the force of it all. That must have been at least forty-five feet, maybe sixty feet. That was just from the air decompressing in the shaft of the rocket. He [Meddings] trusted me after that.
After that I went on to 'Live And Let Die'. Aces high and many more films some of which are listed on my resume. Many I cannot remember the names of or the dates. Age related I'm afraid.
SFF) In the late 70s you joined Derek Meddings' team for the film SUPERMAN (1978). There you took over the supervised model preparation and post-production for Derek Meddings when he left the film. Why did he leave the production?
B.S.) We only had a small crew but we worked closely with carpenters and plasters who did a brilliant job for us. Derek did two thirds of the film and then left to do one of the other Bonds, and I stayed on to take over as director of miniature effects on Superman. I shot approximately a third of that as model unit director.
SFF) What were the model shots in detail and what challenges did you have to overcome?
B.S.) I had in the past worked on optical work, for other films and commercials, so I was very familiar with cameras and what cameras can do, what you could cheat with them. That became invaluable on Superman. There was one shot that Derek had started; it was the star ship that flies through space with baby Superman, and in those days you had none of the sophistication of digital effects you've have now. It all had to be a model and sometimes composited or matted with other elements and sometimes we did in camera composites. There was one thing, shooting this wrenched star ship tumbling through space, Dick Donner was always trying to push the envelope and he wanted this thing tumbling in every direction. When we went over to do it with Derek, the camera crew were tracking the camera in on the star ship using a very unsteady tube track and every day at rushes the starship was bouncing all over the screen If you think about it, and you're an engineer you'll understand fulcrums. Well, if your camera is the fulcrum, there's a tiny bit of movement it's a huge amount of movement twenty feet away. Whereas if the model is bouncing along twenty feet away from you, you'd never see it! Derek insisted on shooting it his way, and spent weeks on it.
When he left and I took over I was asked to reshoot it. I did a complete about face. One of my model effects crew come up with a brilliant scheme, which gave us full movement in all directions We used a garbage mat to take out all the extraneous material we didn't want on the screen and then we tracked the model toward the camera. It worked! We overlayed in camera with a lot of the shots to build up an image. I had quite a lot of problems with one camera crew because they didn't like to do that. They didn't understand the concept of actually doing a fifty per cent exposure and then winding back and doing two more at twenty-five per cent. That gives you a hundred perecent exposure. If you only expose fifty per cent and the other half is black, you still have all that element remaining on the film that can be exposed. Try explaining that to some cameramen! Don't mention that one, I'll get into trouble. But I did have a lot of arguments about that.
After Superman, I went onto Clash of the Titans to supervise the effects on that film and at the end of live action shooting I stayed on with Ray Harryhausen to do the models and optical work with him. A brilliant and charming man from whom I learnt so much.
After that I worked on ,”The Great Muppet Caper “followed by “The Dark crystal” again really enjoyable working with Jim Henson and his Company. I also did some work for Spitting Image and other television shows.
I was working on a dreadful film called Gun Bus directed by a director who had no visiono of what the production designer had designed .he also insisted that a colleague of his also without vision was model director I just supervised the models and was not director of the shoot, such a pity the potential of the film was never realized. we had just finished when I was asked to take over the direction of the model shooting unit on Aliens ,with Brian Johnson taking over the visual effects side.
SFF) You took over the model department of the LA Effects Company for ALIENS. What exactly did you do on that film?
B.S.) LA Effects had started the film and were way out of their depths and after few months had shot hardly anything so were sacked by the production. They did have two good technicians with great ideas, the Skotack Brothers. But apart from them, it was not good. There was no Direction at all on the set. The first thing I did was take over the direction and set up the camera shots to maximize the effects and bring some drama to the shots. Jim Cameron liked the shots and suddenly we were in business which was good for moral.
SFF.) You continued with JAMES BOND 007 – THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS (1987). How was the filming of this first Bond with Timothy Dalton?
B.S.) That was the one that went to Morocco, doubling for Afghanistan with the Mujahedeen. We had quite a few models there: the aircraft just missing each other on take-off, the Hercules-type aircraft taking off. I think it wasn't actually a Hercules but it was very similar. It was taking off and just missing a smaller plane.
We shot that up at a place called Quarzazate. We also had some Hercules-type transports, or maybe Russian Antonov or something. We had four radio-controlled models, which we took down to Quarzazate in Morocco, and we did the crash into the cliff down there. All the planes blowing up were obviously done with models [laughs], quite large scale.
SFF) Give us an example of the art of model making and miniatures with this film.
B.S.) Okay, let´s take the scene were the Mujahedeen being chased across the bridge by the Russians. The bridge was actually a foreground miniature that they appear to ride across. And so was the gorge they were underneath. You have a combination of live action on the bridge (which is model in the foreground) and a full-size plane coming in and dropping bomb on the [Russians] when Bond throws the device out of the plane. All the expiations, the plane, the troops were all full-size but basically the entire bottom half of frame was a foreground miniature. In fact they were riding over a bridge but we had that hidden.
The bridge was about fifteen foot high over a little wadi. It wasn't worthy of calling itself a bridge. So, we built this foreground miniature that gave this ravine deep with this bridge that is later blown up. We had all that in miniature and that was really quite a small scale.
That just shows how you can make these things work by really cheating, heavily, in camera, perspective and editing too! You see the Mujahedeen go onto a bridge, and that was the little bridge that meant nothing. You didn't see over the edge of it so you didn't know where you were. You see them ride onto it and then you cut to this long shot of them riding on the foreground miniature bridge and there they are, on this high bridge above the ravine. You then cut to a model we built back at Pinewood to blow up
So, going from Morocco in the Atlas Mountains to Pinewood in mid winter, Morocco in mid summer. We then had to match the bridge on a much larger scale - quarter scale I think it was - we had to match the weather too, which of course is rather difficult in January. We got away with it. It's all about editing, really, brilliant editing. You really believe the whole sequence. It's shot all over the place: different countries and different scales.
That's what makes it interesting. And that is when miniature effects become interesting and challenging is when you're cheating perspective and scale and making it look absolutely one hundred per cent believable. The light moves with the live action and the model is experiencing the same light as the live action. It just pulls itself together very well. It is nice when it all falls into place. And, it's a hell of a lot cheaper than doing it all in post production. Every time you say, "Oh, we'll do that in post," it's another hundred thousand pounds on the budget.
SFF) You worked on SHADOWCHASER (1992). Did you have to be more creative on such a production because you didn't have such a big budget?
B.S.) SHADOWCHASER was an extremely low budget film, which was produced when the film industry was at alow ebb, and it was the biggest film produced that year, $2.000.000 or there abouts. It was directed and produce by two very Ambitious young men, who also put the money up for the film. My company at the time was based in Pinewood Studios and we provided much of the production facilities and help that they needed. I was model supervisor and second unit director. We had a very hectic schedule of about four weeks of shooting and only 2-3 weeks of preparation. On one of the shots on location, we ran out of light for the last shot of the day, along shot of a vehicle arriving at a factory unit and we had no lighting to use to illuminate it , so to get the shot I had the camera crew line up their cars and use their lights to illuminate the scene and shot at twelve frames per second, making sure all the action was adjusted to the shutter speed. It worked and we got our shot. The camera man was ready to call it a day because he didnt have any lights. There is always a way around a problem, you just have to think outside the box.
Out of that we ended up with quite a presentable film for the money. We also had a very good experienced crew,and although the director had never done the job before he did very well, helped by the experience of the crew.
SFF) Let's get back to the JAMES BOND franchise. You were on board again for JAMES BOND 007 - GOLDENEYE (1995).
B.S.) It was hard work! GOLDENEYE was very challenging in many ways. When we did the huge areal dish in the ground at Leavesden Studios, when I had a look at the drawings and details and the site out in Puerto Rico, it was going to be absolutely impossible to work with coppying the wire mesh structure of the metal reflector dish In fact what I advocated was building it in concrete , and Micheal Lamont the art director with the miniatures,agreed it had to be the best way , so he had the plasterers spin it in concrete This was where the skill of the plasterers came in - they did a perfect job. Micheal then had the scenic artist Brian Bishop paint the mesh Again he did the most incredible paint job ,and the whole thing was totally convincing . The towers that come out of the ground were on hydraulics.
We obviously had the exit hole at the bottom to pump the water out. All this was built into this huge hole that was dug in the ground and we had reservoirs built where we could store all the water and huge pumps so we could move it in and out quickly. Then all the aluminium we needed for the gantries and everything else, I had to get made by a small aluminium extrusion company up in the West Midlands as nothing was available as stock extrusions. They did a fantastic job; they made the dies for me and kept us supplied with all the metalwork. Then I had a crew of about four people, maybe six, concentrate on making up all the metalwork gantries. That was quite a demanding job. It was big, it was heavy and very fragile.
There were a few blue-screen shots: the fight on the point that hangs down under the main gantry. They built full size. They obviously weren't aloud to do anything like that on location. They did it all back in Leavesden. Peter Lamont, who was the production designer did a fantastic job of re-creating basically ninety per cent of that film was shot on the back lot at Leavesden. It was really quite an achievement. A lot of the Russian stuff [was shot on the black lot]. He built a street on the back lot and had all these Russian cars, tanks, etc. Some of this was shot second unit in Russia but much of it was shot back in England. Quite an achievement from a production design point of view,. One of the people with whom I had great working relationship was Michael Lamont, who was Peter's brother. He was always brilliant at solving artistic problems. We worked very closely together.
SFF) The satellite control centre in Severnaya looked quite imposing. How was it built?
B.S.) The radar Dish itself was again made by one of Michael's contacts. He'd had a lot of aluminium rolled by this chap in Old Woking in the past. He used to make racing car bodies when they were aluminium. He was the most incredible craftsman. He rolled this fifteen-foot dish. It was far too big to transport in one piece. He made it up in segments. These were hand rolled by eye and you wouldn't expect it to work. Everything slipped together and was absolutely perfect. You would not know it was not one big dish - I was so impressed with that! I was envisaging all sorts of problems, but no, it was something Michael had the confidence to do and it was a real success.
We used the extruded metal to match the stuff the art department were using. We built supporting structures at the back and receiver at the front. The main building we had to experiment with breakaway plaster to try and get it to shatter when we blew it up. We were using all sorts of experiments with plaster, we arrived with something that was reasonably good… in the dry. But of course we had had one of the wettest winters in a long time and it wasn't very easy to protect. We had a huge shelter to go over the main set on the airfield runway- it was canvas - and you're on top of a hill and the winds come from the southwest strait up the runway -it was last seen hundreds of meters away heading for freedom like a sort of land yacht. WE had to re-dress the set with magnesium sulphate every day ,Magnesium sulphate is Epsom Salt, which is a laxative. I had this terrible guilty feeling about all the voles and mice that lived underneath where we were working.
When we came to shoot the Mig 29 fighter crashing into Sevrenaya, the third take was the one we finally used in the film, but the director [Martin Campbell] kept wanting to try something else! Of course every time we blew this bloody thing up - I had a crew of sixteen - we had to rebuild it over night and get it out on set for the morning. I must admit the crew were absolutely worked to frazzled. It was quite a relief when he finally went with the third take. We all knew the third take was the one. It worked perfectly. We're dealing with variables, so when you see one that works you normally stop there. Maybe do a safety [take]. I think we did about sixteen rebuilds of that set. It was the third one we used.
SFF) After this Bond came JAMES BOND 007 – TOMORROW NEVER DIES (1997) right? Again there were numerous miniatures and explosions. Again with your help?
B.S.) Yes. Carver was based on a media baron who is, well, still with us. It was very thinly veiled but nobody says anything. It was rather funny. Everyone on the crew knew who it was, and I think most people who saw the film knew who it was.
They started off with the arms base up in the Pyrenees. Most of it was shot, obviously, live action. There was this little airfield up in the mountains - middle of nowhere - that was apparently extraordinarily difficult to take off and land on. But it was there, so they used it. When the aircraft takes off, it was all done with real aircraft up there, live action, full-size aircraft. Then we did the scene where it flies out the explosion; as it takes off the explosion happens and it comes out of it.
We did that up at Radlett, Hertfordshire with a model. That was actually shot on wires running overhead between two gantries. We had God knows how many gallons of petrol for each shot in these huge mortar pots in the ground. We used the petrol in black polythene bin liners. Then we had large maroons which were acting as igniters and lifting charges of cortex underneath each petrol bag to vaporise the petrol upwards.
The amount of heat generated from this! We built a hide a hundred and fifty feet away - I forget the exact distance, basically a safe distance away from any pyro stuff and splash and we set the plane off and I was in this hut with someone else, igniting the charges and the first lot went up and then the second and the third. As the plane flew towards us the charges were going off underneath it. The plane never made it, I don't think. The heat was so great it melted the stainless steel wires sixty foot above with the plane hanging on it. The explosion caused the wire to snap and the plane was, of course, a write-off. So we did it again. I couldn't actually watch, because, well, it was too dangerous. You shouldn't be facing it, nor have a window, because of the heat. I noticed, suddenly, the ground went from being green grass to brown [laugh] as I watched: one, two three, it just went brown. The second shot we actually didn't use all the charges, fortunately, the plane survived and we managed to get the shot.
We had a BWM jumping from a car park to a hire car rental place - Avis sponsored that one. We built the balustrade at the top of the car park. Everything was shot actually on the car park in Germany… until you reach the balustrade and then you shot looking up at the balustrade and you see the BWM come flying through and then you cut to a top shot looking down at it going into the Avis car place. That was shot at Radlett again with, I think, a quarter scale model.
We had fun and games shooting that. We'd actually built the model to exact specifications to line up with the art department set and the the post production optical perspective wise so that we knew exactly where the camera had to be. We'd done all the tests of the thing coming over, flying, crashing into a catch net on the other side, where the camera couldn't see it and it had worked fine. Then, come the day of the shooting the cameraman wasn't going to be told where to put his camera, We spent a whole day, or maybe two days, whilst the camera was moved about. I finally said, "Well, if you'd put it here, it'll work!"we new the height it had to be, the lens and the position to match the perspective of the main unit shot. In the end he did something approximate to the design requirments and we shot it. But what a waste of time.
SFF) Tell us something about the stealth boat.
B.S.) We built that up at Radlett again by a team led by Jim Matchin and some plasterers,Then it was shipped over in pieces and reassembled. It was shipped to Rosarito in Baja California which is where that they had just finished shooting Titanic (1998) so they had this wonderful, brand new tank that they'd lined up with the horizon - the natural horizon - so you were looking across the tank and then out to sea and at the natural horizon. It was quite a large tank but we did have one major problem when we were filming it: bloody pelicans. They would fly along the cliff just the other side of the edge of the tank and come up just before the tank and fly through shot! You would see them hundred yards either side - they'd look absolutely clear and then they'd pop up just where we were. I think they were doing it just to be bloody-minded. These pelicans actually provided a bit of a problem. They actually had people saying, "Okay, cleared to shoot, no pelicans coming! Turn over."
That was quite a big boat, and we had the frigate, which was made in America, but I can't think of the company that made it. A special effects company in America that John Richardson had close ties with made it. They built it and shipped down to Rosarito.
We finished the boats down there - they came with basic structures and hulls but we finished them off down there. Because of their size, particularly the stealth boat, we wanted the natural horizon in the background. John Richardson was directing miniatures on that. We did have to apply the breaks hard at times on the big model. We got all the shots and they worked very well, and also some beautifully timed shots. John had three jet propelled, proper miniature turbo-jet planes. MiGs, which had to fly over the model as it was being shot. Timing was good. We got some good shots with that.
SFF) What about the torpedo drill?
B.S.) I think there were about three scales of the torpedo drill. That was made back in England and shipped over - made by someone called Terry Bridle- that performed very well and they had a full size one that came smashing through the set and everything. I think we also had a smaller one for surface shots .
SFF) Also the huge picture Bond jumps into was a model, wasn't it?
B.S.) Yes! That was a model. We had sides of a skyscraper built on the back lot at Radlett. You see the stunt people jumping - they had a large section of the banner built out on the back lot for the live action. Stunt people grab it, jump over and start the slide down. Then we had to pick up on the long shot to see them coming down the rest of the banner. I mean, we had the banner printed up onto fabric and we pre-cut it and then we reassembled and touched it up so it looked absolutely integral and put it up the side of a skyscraper front. We had the miniature Bond and Wai-Lin coming down; they were on wires with an electric motor pulling them so that they could actually drag the banner down with it.
We did that sequence and it was quite successful really, I was surprised it did as well as it did. Potentially quite a difficult one to get it looking right, with the speed and everything. But John did a good job on that.
SFF) Was the motorbike jumping over the helicopter also a model?
B.S.) The only sequence where we built a model was the street that finally blows up and the helicopter ploughs into it and blows up. That street's a model. Again, I think, it was eighth scale. Eighth or quarter. John, when he is directing, he tends to go for quarter. I don't think it was that big a scale, probably eight. We had little bicycles made and wheelbarrows and all the dressing of that nature. It kept a few people quiet for a few days. Again, I think we were probably shooting in January to match Saigon in midsummer [laughs]. It cut together so well that you wouldn't know! As I say, all the motorbike stuff was shot on location.
It all worked well, but so much depends on the skill of the editors.
SFF) The next film was JAMES BOND 007 - THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH (1999). What was it like working on this Bond?
B.S.) As I have said, we work closely with the art department on these things. In the early days we were looking at locations for shooting some of the pipeline stuff. I wasn't really involved very much but I did get involved in a setup in Black Park. Michael Lamont (Peter's brother) had suggested this place; Michael and I had looked at this area to do the pipeline going through the woods. In the end we did two bits of pipeline - one where it blows up and Bond comes out of it. That was done there, as a foreground miniature with the live action set behind.. To do that we cheated perspective quite heavily. It's one of those situations and it's the same camera man who refused to put his camera where it was supposed to be on the previous film,He was a pain. But he spent hours whilst they moved the camera about. I kept saying "It's exactly here, we have got the spot marked with an X to suit a particular lens so the perspective works, that is where it should be to line up with the background live action set." "No, no, no, I want it over here.,why doesn't it line up ?"
What Michael and I did was have a tube platform set up in Black Park to work out all the camera and set requirements for both the full size set and the foreground miniature.I did three cut-outs showing the full size pipeline, standing ten foot high. We had one set up over there, and one over there, and another somewhere else so you could imagine the pipeline . We'd set these things up in the morning and I was just doing some painting to make sure they were presentable to photograph and these two ladies came through with their dogs. They came up to me and said, "What are you doing here?" And I said, "Oh, don't worry, we're from TransGas and we're just checking the layout here for our new pipeline through Black Park." Of course, Black Park is sacrosanct to people of Slough [laughs]. They said, "Oh really? That's terrible, isn't it! Are you going to paint it green so it blends in? At the moment it's silver and red." I said, "No we decided we need to make a statement about the pipeline as it rolls through the woods here. You can't really disguise it by painting it! It'll look like a green blob going through the forest. So we thought we'd make it look obvious and people would appreciate the beauty of it!" They said, "Oh dear! This is terrible." They were getting most upset so I said, "No, no, no, I was joking." They said, "Oh, why? What are you doing then?" So I responded, "This is for a Bond film." And they said, "No! Stop pulling our legs!" They wouldn't believe that. They'd believe the pipeline, not the Bond film. We had fun with the comments of people coming through and a bit of bullshitting. The one thing people wouldn't believe was that it was a Bond film.
SFF) What happened with the pipeline?
B.S.) We had a very large model built on the back lot. It was a pipeline coming through hills in the background. Beyond that we had a cut-out painted mountains. It was quite a big set: two hundred feet across and four hundred feet deep. There was a high bank where the camera was supposed to be and looking down on the pipeline and the vehicles driving around. In fact, one of the art department's mothers came on set and we had everything set up and ready to shoot and the mountains were pained and looking wonderful - absolutely perfect. The sky was just right. Everything matched. We stood there for a long time and then she said, "You know, I've lived in Gerrards Cross all my life and I've never seen those mountains!" We had a similar thing with another of the sets too!
SFF) You also built the oil field, didn't you?
B.S.) Yes, we built the oil field through which the BMW drives on the back lot behind the Bond Stage and we were up on the gantry to build it and film it, looking down on the set as the car drives through.
That was fun, an interesting set and very effective. The BMW - as it went through - you could have used a cardboard cut out or even a rabbit chasing a carrot and you wouldn't have known the difference. We had this miniature replica - museum quality - built by one of model makers. It even had the Michelin-X on the tyres, the right tread to match the live action. It goes through in a cloud of dust and you never saw the wheels. That's a waste of time. The set looked great and it worked very well, again.
By this stage, what had happened was, we had merchandising that had cottoned on to the idea that miniatures were exhibit-able. Rather than making the models for the shot, the models were beginning to be made for exhibition. That's why the quality of the BMW was such as high standard. It was a museum model. I'm not sure the cigarette lighter worked in the dashboard but I believe it probably would have done [laughs]. It was beautifully made. In the past, we though, "Nobody will want to look at this after we're done,so we did what was needed for the shot and no more;it always worked.
Often when we'd done a shot, well, there was an example on GoldenEye where we'd had a train in the tunnel and that blows up.
SFF) The tank was also yours or only a part?
B.S.) We'd built the tank and it was the same chap who built the BMW, and we had this replica tank and we crashed a train into it! There were all these bits collected up and put into a box. I walked into the workshop with this box of bits and Derek had said he'd wanted to shoot it again at three o'clock and it was basically a pile of rubble. I said that we'd have a go, but I couldn't guarantee it. I showed it to the chap who'd built it and he was heartbroken. I said, "Well, we've got it get it ready! How long to repair it?" I expected him to say, three or four hours and he said, "Three or four weeks." [Laughs.]
I said, "We're shooting it at three, I'll give you a hand." He said, "Oh no, you're joking, aren't you? It's impossible." I said, "No, we're going to be ready at three." I gave him a hand and we lashed it all together with gaffer tape and plasticine - an enormous amount of plasticine. (My training was originally as a sculptor.) Gave it a quick spray and a quick dirty-down and it was back out on set at three o'clock. And, you know what, it actually looked better having been blown up and reassembled than the original did because, one thing, if you're looking at a model, then so often the finish is so perfect.
If you look at the real thing, there are a lot of deviations on the surface. If you stand at the bow of the ship and look along the side of the ship it is dented and buckled all over the place. That's a full-sized ship. On a model, they always look absolutely smooth and perfect. You fool the eye by playing with the light and using matte and gloss to degrees. You fool the eye into thinking you have these imperfections.
So, what happened with this tank was that it had those imperfections on take two because it was imperfect. It looked fantastic, and that was the shot we used.
SFF) The Q-boat is supposed to have "spun around" a bit, isn't it?
B.S.) Oh you mean that thing that was totally uncontrollable? I think it was used to great effect. It was actually, virtually uncontrollable. It used to do all sorts of things. Having tested it they thought, "Wow, great!" Because it could do things that any normal boat wouldn't dream of doing. It really did them. That was built by someone who specialised in boats. He had a team building that and I'm not sure who designed it. I know Peter Bohanna was tied up with the boat at one stage. I'd thought he'd have had something to do with designing and developing it. It had a lot of surprises in it, which were brilliant for the film. If it wasn't someone who knew a lot about marine design it might not have been that successful. It had a life, and a character, all of its own. It worked brilliantly for the film, it really did. I had nothing to do with that one, the only models we had of the Q boat was one to fire out of the hole in the wall of MI6 .
SFF) What about the submarine in the film. What were the special features?
B.S.) Anything you do on the surface has to be as big as possible. And quarter scale is a manageable size. The underwater one was very big. And it had to be shipped over to the Bahamas and the shipped back for shots on the surface in the tank.I know they had a lot of problems with it.
The end result is all that matters and it did work in the end. I think that's where the compromise was. They used one submarine for the surface shots - that was quarter scale - and they used the same submarine for the underwater shots.
I love water, I love boats, but they can be very tricky to make look real. That's why the decision came about that we'd build one submarine rather than a surface one and an underwater one. That was for the quarter scale water effects.
SFF) Besides the submarine, they were also involved in the helicopter, if I remember correctly.
B.S.) I was involved with the shots where it sawed the trees, building the set. That was the only shot with the saw that was done as a model. Everything else was done for real on the full sized set.
I think, frankly, the set that Peter Lamont did down on the paddock tank was absolutely beyond belief. You really were there in the real caviar factory And yet, it was such a contained area. They did some incredible stuff on the full-sized set. They did the saw blade sequence cutting through planks of wood on the walkways and racing toward the car, all of that was actually done on the live action set. It went outside the area of the paddock tank a wee bit but not very much.
We had a smaller scale set of the caviar factory where specific night shots of the helicopter being hit by a missile and crashing into the factory were done .The set was build up on the back lot, toward a road, so John Richardson who directed the miniatures on that film used to have to time shooting to avoid when there were vehicle headlights going through. We had assistant directors with radios to control traffic saying when it was OK to shoot.
The cameraman said "We can put up a line of containers and drape some black cloth over them or pain them black or something." Of course if they'd just left them open at the back, toward the open horizon, you'd have seen nothing. In the event, if you look at the film carefully you can see containers stacked on top of each other! when the bangs go off you can definitely see the containers.
SFF) After that came JAMES BOND 007 – DIE ANOTHER DAY (2002). What did you mainly do there?
B.S.) I was mainly tied up with the landscape where the death ray that is coming down from the satellite and sort of sweeps across the landscape [The Korean DMZ]. The set was very large, 200 ft front to back and 400 ft and built in false perspective with four different scales of dressing and trees, that all had to be made.
We had a model of the complete ice palace and that was looked after by Fred Evans, a sculptor. It was quite a task, as it had to be weak enough to collapse
I was mainly tied up with the landscape where the death ray that is coming down from the satellite and sort of sweeps across the landscape [The Korean DMZ]. The set was very large, 200 ft front to back and 400 ft and built in false perspective with four different scales of dressing and trees, that all had to be made.
I had a mixed crew. Jason [McCameron], he was a New Zealander. My unit was concentrating purely on [the DMZ]. We had earth-moving equipment. We needed the back lot but we had to build up high enough to hide the hedge at the back and hide the lorries and cars going past on the road. We also had a painted cut-out there. It was supposed to look like no-man's land with a few trees and observation towers etc. We had to hide some of the live action sets - so we had foreground trees to hide some of the live action sets. You look back toward the no-man's land to the other side of the fencing and that's where all the explosions were done.
We had this backing painted. The chap did an excellent job and we were all standing up there one day as they showed a teacher, who lived in Uxbridge ,round with a group of schoolchildren. And he came up and was showing the kids around the set and asking questions and he stopped and he looked for a long time at the set and he said, "I didn't really realise you had such a good view here, out over the countryside." Of course, just the other side there's houses, but you couldn't see them, they're all hidden, and what he was looking at was the painted backing. He said, "I don't understand what we're looking at here!" I said, "Oh that's Uxbridge moor." [Laughs.] He said he'd lived in Uxbridge all his life and didn't know that there was a moor. So I took him around the back and showed him the back of Uxbridge moor, which was a bit of hardboard and scaffolding.
SFF) You have left your mark on so many films. When you compare the working conditions on earlier films with those of today, what are the biggest differences in terms of creativity? Has it become easier today, also in relation to CGI, or has the pressure increased? Maybe everything is in balance?
B.S.) When I started in the Film Industry. The way of learning your skills was to start as an apprentice, learning every thing about cameras and lenses and in camera matts and effects,engineering ,sculpting ,pyrotechnics, set and model making,and all aspects of film making, and one of the best ways of doing this was attending 'rushes', seeing yesterdays footage in the rushes theater. You could also go to the editors who were most helpful and 'rock and roll' the piece of film you wanted to see to correct. The industry was a bit of a Cottage Industry, everybody knew each other and were very helpful and supportive if you had a problem.
Everybody on the unit worked as a team and joked and laughed together. It made it possible to work at great speed and remain relaxed.
SFF) For many decades, handmade, practical special effects in films were an integral part of the fantastic field. Then, at some point, CGI took over. Do you think there's a film that represents a kind of end of the line in classic modelling? If so, which one and why?
I think that is very sad that today's film crews are to tunnel vision with their little bit and don't have the enjoyment of working with a small team on all aspects of the film. It can't happen because of the size of the crews and productions, but also because of the secrecy surrounding film production. Most technicians from those olden days lament the change to factory filming, sad.
CGI is a wonderful additional tool for the Special Effects arsenal but should not replace all the other tools that are available from traditional effects work. In camera effects. Foreground miniatures, hanging miniatures,and matt and model work. Used properly in the right hands, traditional effects can save a fortune for film productions and can be seen the next day , not done in 'post production.' as soon as you hear the phrase ,don't worry we can do it in Post , you know that is another $100.000 gone from the budget!!
I Don't think there was really any one film that I can think of that was the turning point for CGI to take over , It sort of crept up on us, but it does have a different discipline and look , personally I prefer the old look. But if used as an additional tool only then CGI is great. There is no simple solution to any creative work , and Film is certainly one of the art forms of the Twentieth and Twenty first centuries.
SFF) Do you have any favorite work of yours?
B.S.) It is difficult to isolate one film as a favorite of the ones I have worked on, as I have enjoyed working on most of them and they all have different demands and challenges.
Doppelganger was interesting as it was the first major feature film I was involved on with huge challenges,the previous films being Thunderbirds are go and 6, were fun but nothing else except useful experience. Superman one was important for me as it was my first big Model Unit direction.
The ones I had great satisfaction from meeting the challenges from are, Dark Crystal Dune, Aliens, Clash of the Titans, the Dracula directed by John Badham, Octopussy. All really because I had a great input and many challenges, much of it directorial.
On 'Dune', I was asked to take over from John Dykstra and Apogee, who had found it impossible to work in Mexico because their needs were for high tech equipment and vast crews so they fell out with the Producer Raphaella de Laurentis and had spent most of the budget with little result. Raphaella asked me to set up a crew to take over. I was allowed 6 Europeans and the rest made up from Mexican workers. I couldn't have wished for a better crew, which I think we ended up with about ten Mexicans who were marvelous and quick learners. Raphaella was a wonderful producer to work for ,very Human extraordinarily clever and artistic, but clear visioned . She could speak several languages fluently and in meetings she would translate between English ,German ,Spanish, Italian, because that would be what the meeting required for the international talent employed on the film, I Swear I thought she even took a phone call in Russian on one occasion. But, above all she had a very clear vision of the film and its needs and how to achieve them. Brilliant lady, you just had to love her.!
One of the problems we had in Mexico was that we couldn't import anything so we had to improvise and make it all. I had a great camera crew to work with run by Jimmy Deavis as lighting cameraman and a very primitive motion control system supplied by Van De Vere run by a young lad called Eric Swanson. It had no computer with it and relied entirely on stepper motors and drivers which gradually burnt out during the course of the shoot so we had less and less axis of movement and had to use more and more ingenuity to create a shot. One of the reason the stepper motor drivers burnt out was ,all the ovens in Mexico city were switched on at 12.30 to cook lunch, and the normal 120 volts dropped to 60 and at 2, they wer all switched off and the voltage soared up to three or four hundred volts before the supply was brought under control! So we hired a generator to keep our equipment running but we had the same problem at lunch time--- we found that the reason was to save diesel fuel, the generator supply was actually connected to the main supply!
One highlight of Dune was meeting Emilio Ruiz Del Rio, the Spanish matt artist and foreground miniature expert. The man who produced the foreground miniature used in the film of the Atrides and the Harkonnen space craft with the people coming out, shot at the Aztec Stadium brilliant shots, what a lovely talented man.
I also always enjoyed working on the Bond films as it was like a family. And I ended up working on about 11 of them., directing the model unit on Octopussy and supervising the model workshops on many others including Golden Eye where we had to reproduce the Arecibo Radio telescope which was a huge set Spun unto a hole in the ground ,concreted and painted with the detail to match the original. It worked so well, that all the optical plates were shot on it and not in Arecibo.
Peter Lamont was the production designer and did a brilliant job as most of the film was in fact shot in the studio and the back lot. I had also the services of Micheal Lamont who was the Model unit Art Director, A great help with a vast fund of experience in SFX model work. We always worked very well together.
SFF) I held up with the most important question at the end: What was the most difficult effect you were working on and why?
B.S.) I think Dune was the most difficult film to work on because of its immensity and lack of time and money, but very rewarding working with David Lynch and his vision. Wonderful imagination that I was able to she share.
SFF) Dear Mr. Smithies. I thank you immensely for taking time doing this interview and wish you all the best for your future.
B.S.) All the best to you and great questions.