Gaspode Chats Up A DOCTOR WHO Production Designer!!
Published at: Nov. 18, 2006, 2:10 p.m. CST by hercules
I am – Hercules!!
Our man in Britain, “Gaspode,” continues to indulge his freakish “Doctor Who” obsession. This week he interviews the show’s production designer:
How to build a better TARDIS and other challenges
[Before we get started with this week’s Doctor Who interview, a few people have asked why I’ve been concentrating on behind-the-scenes folks, as opposed to some of the show’s principal cast members. Well, there are a couple of reasons for that. For one thing, when I proposed a series of interviews to Herc that would coincide with Sci-Fi’s airing of season two episodes in the States, I thought it would be fun to try and give a bit of attention to some of the people who don’t normally get as much coverage. For those who feel that some of these choices are too ‘obscure,’ feel free to line up your own interviews; I’m sure Herc will be delighted to post them here.
But the other reason for not focusing on some of the Doctor Who actors is that frankly, the publicity folks at the BBC are just not that interested in doing much for the American market, which is a bit mystifying considering the number of potential viewers that are watching the series here between Sci-Fi’s initial airings and the subsequent DVD releases. To be fair, the BBC couldn’t be having an easy time of it publicity-wise, considering Christopher Eccleston had already quit the show before his first episode had aired, and in season two Billie Piper had made up her mind to leave before Christmas, making interviews a bit problematic; just try and find the live interview that Eccleston on BBC Radio where he talked about his reasons for leaving, which was subsequently not repeated or referred to again.
At any rate, I hope AICN readers will continue to tune in for these weekly interviews, including this conversation with production designer Edward Thomas, which took place at the end of season two and just a couple of weeks before shooting began on the first season of Torchwood. Having seen the first handful of episodes from the latter series, I’m not all that overwhelmed so far, but I think Thomas and his team has done a superb job with the sets, particularly The Hub, which acts as control center for the Torchwood team. Sharp-eyed viewers will doubtless have noticed all sorts of nods to Doctor Who, including the Doctor’s disembodied hand (severed in ‘The Christmas Invasion’) floating in a jar, to a chunk of coral-like material on Captain Jack’s desk, which Thomas claims is a TARDIS in the early stages of growth. Whether or not these objects will ever become story points remains to be seen, but they certainly reflect the art department’s eye for detail, not to mention a very dark sense of humor…]
Is it manageable to design Doctor Who and Torchwood two simultaneously?
Edward Thomas: I think it is. The way I’ve come about it is that when they made the decision to make Doctor Who here in Cardiff, there was no infrastructure here for this sort of programming to begin with. We weren’t geared up to do it yet, so there were really no concept artists or specialist prop makers. There may be individuals, but there hadn’t been a project on this sort of scale in Wales, so when I got the job, the first thing I had to do was put the department together. That meant advertising all over the place, because with Doctor Who, word gets around and suddenly there’s no shortage of people that want to work on it, which is a good thing, and by putting that team together, it enabled me to design Torchwood as well. All it really means is expanding the team, so what I’ve done is taken some people off the original series one Doctor Who art department and moved them to the Torchwood art department. All I’ve done is shift the talent, and by doing that, I’ve been able to take people who came on as concept artists and now they’re associate designers and I’ve been able to take stand-by art directors who joined us as art directors on Doctor Who then went on to an episode set decorating, and now they’re going to be designing Torchwood. From my point of view, I’ll be overseeing the design of both productions, and rightly or wrongly, I’m just treating it as if it’s another block of episodes, so I’m doing 26 episodes instead of 13.
It must be nice to be able to keep all your people working.
Thomas: Exactly, and what we can do now is build an infrastructure that allows up to use the creativity across both programs, so from a materials point of view, we’ll be able to buy in bulk, which keeps the costs down, and with my set decorators and model makers and fabricators, I can bring in more to work across the two productions, so both productions will benefit. Whereas in series one of Doctor Who we had one person in our props fabrication department and we had to hire in freelancers, going forward now, we’ll have five full-time staff and that’s happening across the board. And when one show is quiet, we can bolster the other.
What kind of overall look are you trying to create for Torchwood?
Thomas: In Doctor Who, we’ve been very strict with the look we established on day one, which is very bright colors and nothing is ever too dark, so you don’t want to be sitting there flipping through channels and all of a sudden you’re on Doctor Who and it’s very heavy and dowdy. We wanted splashes of color and with Torchwood, while retaining that sort of approach we are able to go a little bit darker, just as the stories may be a little darker. It’s still beautiful but darker, and use elements that we wouldn’t normally be allowed to use in Doctor Who. For instance, we can use cigarette smoke to give us an atmosphere; not necessarily seeing people smoking but to have a smoky atmosphere. We can also do a lot more shooting at night, a lot shooting wet-downs so we can get all the reflections of the practical lights. We can have different elements in the background and push things a bit. We can have posters on the walls that are maybe a bit more adult than you would be allowed to do in Doctor Who, so it’s pushing those elements to be slightly darker, but beautiful darker not physically blacker.
Should the audience be able to tell right away they’re watching two different shows?
Thomas: Definitely, but hopefully have a tie-in at the same time, which is why I think Julie and Russell asked me to do it, was that they did subliminally want a tie-in between the two shows and maybe the style of things I brought to Doctor Who they wanted to continue forward.
What sort of themes could you use to suggest these two shows are linked?
Thomas: Without giving too much away, we’re definitely going to make every effort to make sure there is a definite subliminal link between Captain Jack and his world and the Doctor and his world. There will be certain physical elements that you’ll see, whether it’s toolboxes, wall coverings; there will be tie-ins all the way through. In Doctor Who, we started inventing things very early on, like Dalek graffiti and things like that, where the Daleks would be sending messages out to each other, and we used it in all sorts of places like window decoration or vandalism on walls, and I’m hoping to do little crossover elements and be able to do little things that link the two shows together, only subliminally. It’s nothing to do with the scripts to begin with, but knowing Russell, normally when we introduce these things and explain it to him all of a sudden it gets introduced. One of my proudest moments in one of the last episodes of Doctor Who was where I conceptualized the TARDIS as being an organic being that wasn’t built, it was grown, so that was lovely when Russell actually said in the script, ‘TARDIS’s aren’t built, they’re grown.’ That was a really nice proud moment for me, because it was something that I had conceptualized.
That was an interesting moment, when Rose says to the Doctor, ‘Can’t you just build another one?’
Thomas: Exactly, I wanted to make sure that in the world that I was creating, the TARDIS had arrived at this moment in time and it had grown to look like this. Hopefully in series 40, another production designer can take it further and suggest that it’s grown into this, so that was my thought process behind it. I had this vision of Gallifrey as a beautiful place that was all of those things: coral, glass, timber, so that’s how we arrived at that.
But the original series was designed by a number of different people, while this one is done just by you.
Thomas: I suppose the only constant was the TARDIS. I looked at the first TARDIS, and I thought I’m not going look back at the old series, but I did look at the first of the William Hartnell’s and I liked that TARDIS and thought it was probably a very popular design of the time. It was that sixties architecture and it worked for then but I wasn’t keen to bring it forward, but I was keen to retain what drove a TARDIS, which in my opinion was the roundels and the time rotor and I liked the idea of the coat stand, but other than that, from that point on, it was an open book.
Where do you draw some of your artistic influences from?
Thomas: It comes from everywhere and everything. I say to the concept boys, the one thing that really annoys me is when they sit down and start to draw and they haven’t done any research. They’re very clever guys, but when they start to draw, they are only drawing information from their life. They go to school and college, and then they come to work and that’s the limited experience they have, whereas if they look at a book or do a mood board, they’re gathering other people’s reference. Then and only then should they sit down and start drawing, and I think I do exactly the same thing. You get the script, you read through it, and then you go to the tone meeting and we take along a lot of reference with us that we gathered before the tone meeting to show where we are and what we feel are the colors of an episode. We sit down very early on with the series synopsis and straightway we’ll make lists of colors that we think are relevant. Some scripts are easier to give colors to than others, so in the case of the Cybermen, you know it’s going to be silvers and black, it’s going to be quite regime-heavy colors, and then you know that something like Madame Du Pompadour is going to be the golds and the lavish colors. And then of course you’ve got to put an element in there that will juxtapose against those colors. But I gather my reference from everywhere really.
One illustration when I did had some time off for Christmas, I went on holiday to Mauritius and my fiancé’s mother who recently passed away had a shell collection because she lived in Mauritius so she had an incredible shell collection and I was sitting there one day looking at the shells and she had one tiny little shell and when I picked it up- I had read the Sycorax episode [‘The Christmas Invasion’] before I’d gone on holiday, and I picked up the shell and it was the Sycorax ship. It was beautifully formed as a spaceship, so I brought that back to the tone meeting and stuck it on a cocktail stick with a lump of Blu-tack and I pulled it out at the tone meeting and said, ‘Here’s the Sycorax spaceship!’ and everybody sat thinking, ‘He’s on drugs!’ and Will from The Mill thought I was taking the piss, but that’s what it ended up being as our starting point, and from there, we decided how the Sycorax would live and work and how they would maneuver this lump of stone through space, so it’s everywhere and anywhere.
Can a director boil give you a visual shorthand that boils down what he wants for his episode in a few words? For example, Graeme Harper said he wanted his Cybermen to be art deco, while Euros Lyn mentioned an Edward Hopper painting when talking about ‘Idiot’s Lantern.’ And I think James Strong mentioned Alien as a starting point for ‘The Impossible Planet’ and ‘The Satan Pit.’
Thomas: I could see that, yes. The shorthand tends to come from the scripts or from Russell straightaway, and that’s what the tone meetings are all about. A lot of it is written in the script, and then it does come down to personal choice about what we do with that episode. When you read the scripts, those films and those artists come up. We use Edward Hopper a lot because of the extraordinary use of light in his paintings, so we would use him as a reference. The deco world [in the first Cybermen two-parter] came from that, the world being very stylish and smart and minimalist in its structure. What would happen if the Germans had won the war? What would our engineering and our architecture be like? From my point of view, we potentially get the scripts before the directors even come on board, so if we’re waiting for a director, or a director’s pre-production, we’re able to get started on them. We get a very early draft so that we can get the concept designs underway so that when the director comes onboard, there’s a discussion document, and whether the director likes that or wants to go another way or flip things on its head, so we’re usually one step ahead of the game so that the directors can come in and start working with us and start guiding things.
But are you all in accord? It sounds like you would want everybody to be of one mind.
Thomas: Yes, absolutely, and the scripts are very specific. The writers don’t leave anything to chance. If it says that Rose picks up a red balloon and we provide a blue balloon, God help us! It says red on the page, so it will be red. They’re very specific. Each script is more like a feature film script, so there’s a lot of explanation in them of how things should be and screen directions; we’re not dealing an awful lot with scripts that leave an awful lot to the imagination, although there is room for interpretation. Russell’s first explanation of the TARDIS in the first-ever episode was, ‘This cathedral-like space,’ and that was it, that was enough for us to go on, so from that point of view, you’re left with a huge amount to the imagination, but screen directions and those sorts of things; it’s all there. And then it’s all about creating the world and the architecture of that world, which definitely comes down to those points of reference.
Is there a certain pressure if you bring back, say, the Cybermen, knowing that A) they have to look iconic, and B) there’s probably going to be a ton of merchandise based on them?
Thomas There are a couple of ways to look at it. When you’re designing, you don’t think of the marketing side of things. I certainly didn’t on the first one, although I probably subliminally do a little bit more, because they make toys out of everything now. But even when they designed the first Cybermen or the second or third or however many, they were all trying to make it as realistic as possible for the time, and I think something becomes iconic, and I think we were trying to do the same thing. We were trying to make our Cybermen fit with the period, which is why we made a conscious decision to go art deco with the zeppelins and the props and definitely with the Cybermen, and I think you also try and keep it as real as you possibly can. I think that’s what we’re really good at, is that we keep it feeling real not sci-fi if you like. I think Russell used the expression that he pinched from somewhere else, ‘science fact’ not science fiction; just keep it real and make sure it looks as real as it possibly can. And don’t give things too many buttons because if there are too many buttons, things go wrong, so if it’s going to be made out of metal, make it feel as though it’s metal and metal rusts, so don’t be scared of having rusty metal. Don’t be scared of having all those elements that make things look as real as possible all the time, whether it’s a space station or a rocket or a cage that holds a werewolf; just try and make it real.
Finally, do you find that most production designers try to throw things in just for the fun of it, hoping that viewers will spot them?
Thomas: Absolutely, and they’re always looking for them, as well as the continuity mistakes. I came across one website the other day where they had broken down the episodes into such find detail, but that’s brilliant. But those fans are one small part of the whole plan. The series is made for kids; that’s what it’s for. It’s to frighten children and educate them and it ticks all those boxes. Whether the Doctor enters Queen Victoria’s life or whatever, they see a bit of the period and that makes it exciting for them, and I think that’s what it’s all about: when we have visits from schools and kids that come around, they’re all very brave until the minute they see a Dalek, and all of a sudden the bottom falls out of their world and they won’t come near that Dalek!