Tara Bennett speaks with Dave Houghton about raising the CG bar in the fourth season of Doctor Who.
With the recent conclusion of the fourth season of Doctor Who on SCI FI Channel, the series is riding high on a swell of praise from both critics and fans on the cracking good stories taking the venerable franchise to new heights. The cheesy sets and bargain basement production values of the past decades once synonymous with the series are now gone, replaced with Russell T. Davies' completely fresh approach. Along with new doctors (the current being David Tennant), Davies has also introduced new millennium visual effects to the series which finally match the franchises ever inventive storytelling.
Steering the path of the show's effects reinvention is Visual Effects Supervisor Dave Houghton. A fan of Doctor Who from its earliest incarnations, Houghton says he was thrilled to help contemporize the series. "I knew it was ripe for bringing back and I knew based on my work in this industry, it was possible to achieve what was necessary now."
"I think one of the reasons the show failed in the first place was because the technology available even in the '80s, was not as available to television as it was in film," Houghton continues. "It hit a point where [Who] couldn't catch up and was sort of waiting in limbo for technology to catch up with the kind of show people expected to see."
By the time Davies fired up the TARDIS again in 2005, CG and visual effects had matured by leaps and bounds. "Russell went through the scripts at an early stage to ensure that we could achieve the effects to a degree that were now acceptable. But at the same time, we had to keep it within a budget and in the time frame we needed to make the show. There were lots of conversations up front and we continue to do this with every block now, sitting down beforehand for a tone meeting. We go through the script and pick out where we think the effects are and work how much time we have based on the budget and how many we can shoot in the time."
"And really, by the time we got to the second series, we worked out how much it would cost to do a 13-part series," Houghton says. "So the budget did go up because it couldn't go down," he laughs. "The first series was trying to make it work with what was budgeted which was kind of impossible, maybe because a show like that hadn't been done before in Britain on that scale. There has been other stuff like Walking with Dinosaurs and one off dramas with a lot of effects but not a real series."
As a result, the new Doctor Who can actually razzle-dazzle its audience with its more mature visual style. Houghton says his team expects to create epic sequence for almost every episode now. "You want to blow people away at certain points," he explains. "There's generally a visual treat like the London Blitz in "The Empty Child" episode in the first series. All the way through a series there are built-in, cinematic moments. But there are other bits, where Russell has created some characters like the companions Rose, Martha or Donna, who are the family around the Doctor. It's an aspect of the show that is far more developed that in the past. So on one hand there is getting a sense of adventure and wonder into the show at some points and other points we are trying to make sure you don't see what we are doing. So you are trying to suspend people's disbelief but then in other places you are trying to blow them away with scale or a landscape or a spaceship."
Houghton says the expansion of scale has been particularly helped by visual effects. "In the original series if there was a Dalek invasion of Earth, it would be three Daleks going around the camera in a circle," he chuckles. "So we knew that there would be times we would create whole armies of Daleks and creatures from the history of Doctor Who that they could never achieve before. Now it's much more possible to achieve that and you can hammer it home more."
"And Russell squeezes as much as he can out of us with his ludicrous and unachievable scripts," he adds. "He knows he has to pull back with them but we work out what we can achieve to the greatest advantage. Russell's scripts are incredibly descriptive of what he wants to see and I find it quite easy to picture. It's seldom he is unhappy with the things we've done. It's a good working relationship."
With four seasons and several Christmas specials under their belts, Houghton says it's still exciting working on the show. "There are so many things we have done on the show in the last four years," he muses enthusiastically. "Every episode there is something different. The charm of working on Who for us is that every episode is completely different. A show like Battlestar Galactica, with their effects, it's brilliant but every week it's the same technique and models. On Who, it's always different environments and spaceships. In some ways it's difficult because your budget doesn't stretch and that's always why it's been hard to bring Who back because of that variety. One week you are on planet Zog and the next week you are on a space station somewhere else. It's expensive and it becomes more expensive. But that's exciting for us to have that variety as we've done a werewolf in the second series where we got to do hair simulations for the creatures that worked nicely, and we got to map things and project them on 3D geometry which is great. I love when we get to create an environment or a planet."
To create any given episode, Houghton says he has a team of 30 2D and 3D artists that have about four weeks to lock a show. "We have a tight team and everyone can do everything, so there is a lot of creative expansion in the team," he explains. "I think there is a lot of creative fun to be had in this team. It helps with the quick turnaround that everyone ends up designing little bits of stuff. And we have a really good pipeline that is run incredibly well. We run Maya and other extraneous software. We composite on Shake and we do a little bit of modeling in XSI. Our matte painters use Cinema 4D. In the first series, we did matte paintings that were paintings in Photoshop. We had a fantastic painter but we then started experimenting with projecting the matte paintings on 3D geometry and moving them around. Since then we employed another matte painter who worked on the Star Wars films. He's brought his Cinema 4D package so it's a whole new world for us."
"We have also created a facial mo-cap system because in the third series, the Doctor is turned into a shriveled, old character with a few lines of speech so we had to develop his helmet to track onto a 3D model. We're using it to pitch for films and other TV shows now."
Proud of this teams work, Houghton can't help but bring out his British reserve when asked to highlight their best season four work, "Well, we aren't ones to blow our own trumpets but we really enjoyed working on the first episode "Partners in Crime" where there are these little, fat monsters. We used technology from The Lord of the Rings to make thousands walk down the street of Cardiff Street in London. The second episode, "The Fires of Pompeii," we created ancient Pompeii and I think our rock creatures were splendid. It was a beautiful creature."
Tara Bennett is an East coast-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as SCI FI Magazine, SFX and Lost Magazine. She is the author of the books 300: The Art of the Film and 24: The Official Companion Guide: Seasons 1-6.