Peter Mckinstry was a concept artist on four series of Doctor Who, starting with Tooth and Claw for Series Two and finishing with The Big Bang for Series Five. Since leaving Doctor Who, Peter has worked on a variety of huge genre movies including Harry Potter, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Pan, Snow White and the Huntsman and Wonder Woman. Peter also worked on 20 episodes of Game of Thrones. We recently spoke to Peter about his early days on Doctor Who.
WhoSFX: How did you get into this line of work? What had you worked on before Doctor Who?
Peter: I grew up drawing. I would draw what I saw on tv, or what I’d just seen at the pictures. My mum enjoyed painting, and often my dad would sit me on his knee and draw things for me while I watched. He’d be drawing Superman or Batman and talking about what he was doing all the time as he drew, explaining about proportions of the body, light and shade etc. He would then get me to copy what he had done. I’d then take my drawings back to him and thankfully he was very encouraging; although he’s told me since that was quite hard to do with a straight face! He was a great teacher. I grew up in a sleepy Last of the Summer Wine type village so there weren’t many distractions. Drawing became my favourite hobby and the thing I was known for at school. I started to notice that there was an improvement very occasionally and that was very exciting, I could tell I was getting better, very very slowly. I would try to draw a face from Doctor Who Weekly, be happy with it, return to it the next day, see all the faults and throw it away and start again!
At secondary school I eventually started making money from it, there were a couple of local businesses I designed logos for and I painted album covers onto the backs of people’s biker jackets, which was a nice little earner. Still at secondary school I applied and was selected to join a very elite ‘ junior life drawing class ‘ at Glasgow School of Art. it was a big deal for me as kids from all over applied to get into it. I then later did 4 years at Glasgow School of Art and spent most of that period in the life drawing rooms drawing and painting. I was being pushed down the fine art road, but really my interest wasn’t in the great masters of the history of art but the artists in the comics I read and the ‘art of’ books I had. I had The Art of Star Wars books which were fantastic because, not only did they have all the great artwork by Ralph Mcquarrie, but they also showed me that there were people out there who got to draw spaceships and aliens for a living, and that these drawings were used as a vital part of the process to develop what is finally seen on screen.
Now ‘concept artist’ is a job people have heard of and there are lots of online communities aspiring young artists can join and become part of, but back then it was a little known kind of career. I had no idea how any one would get to do something like that as an actual job. I did eventually find a job which seemed at least slightly in that direction, doing artwork for mobile phone games. I wasn’t there long as I went onto games company Acclaim, which was my first concept artist job, and then to Rare, again as concept artist. They are a UK games developer with a back catalogue of classic SNES and Nintendo 64 games like Goldeneye and Perfect Dark. It was a really exciting prospect as I loved their games. I was there two years drawing concepts for a game that got cancelled, but I did get to build a good portfolio as a result.
WhoSFX: How did the job on Doctor Who come about?
Peter: I wanted to work on the new Doctor Who as soon as I heard it was coming back, but didn’t know how to go about it. I was working at Rare and I didn’t know anyone who worked in TV and film so it seemed very far away and unlikely. I had by then put together what I thought was a half decent portfolio so I just sent it to BBC Wales, not expecting anything to come of it really. It was like sending a message in a bottle; no hope whatsoever of a reply! Series One came and went and I thought I’d probably missed my chance. But in August 2005 they got in touch and asked if I’d be interested covering for Matt Savage while he went on a fortnight’s holiday. I was so over the moon to get just two weeks on it.
I had to tell my bosses at Rare, which I was dreading, but it turned out they were as excited as I was, and gave me their blessing to go and have my two weeks working on Doctor Who. They knew I was going to do it anyway whatever they said! So I went to do the two weeks in Newport, which is where the production was based then. I packed up my equipment and got on the train to Wales not knowing what to expect. I got there and the first thing I’m given is a bunch of Series Two scripts to read, in order to get up to speed with what they were doing. This was late August 2005, the Ninth Doctor had only just regenerated on TV, and here I was reading the scripts for Series Two. I couldn’t believe it was happening.
Later that morning I was shown around the studio. the art dept then basically looked down onto the area the sets were built. Almost directly below the art dept was the TARDIS set, which was so amazing to find yourself standing on, having just watched Series One. To be there in person was really a dream come true. I was there to work though and I was very keen to get started, and there was loads to do. It was a busy fortnight where I think I was designing the Pompadour spaceship amongst other things, but it was so enjoyable I felt like part of the team right away. The work was exactly what I had been hoping it would be. But before I knew it, my time was up as Matt was due back from holiday. I was so grateful for the time I’d had but sad that it had come to an end. Very late on, I think the day before I was due to finish, Ed Thomas the production designer took me down on to the TARDIS set and thanked me for the work I’d done. Then standing there on the TARDIS set, he asked me if I’d like to come and do the job full time. It was a very happy moment to say the least!
WhoSFX: Clearly you were a fan of the series before you started working on it. But just how big a fan were you?
Peter: I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a Doctor Who fan. My older sister had been a huge fan of the Third Doctor and had a shelf of Target novelisations. I liked looking at the cover illustrations. My earliest memories watching the actual show are being terrified by Destiny of the Daleks and Nightmare of Eden, sitting between my parents peeking over a cushion when I could bear it.
The thing I remember is that feeling that there was really nothing like Doctor Who on TV. TV in our house was mainly Swap Shop, Crossroads, Coronation Street or The World at War. Compared to those, Doctor Who seemed genuinely alien. It was incredibly exciting. I loved the TARDIS and I always wanted them to spend more time in there; it made me want to actually be there and explore it. There were so many aspects of the show that excited me, the fantastically original concept of the TARDIS interior being larger than the exterior, but you also had all the monsters and spaceships and the fact that it was properly dark and scary too. It was irresistible. So it was a family routine, certainly during the Tom baker era, that Saturday night we watched the show, and afterward I would draw what I could remember from the episode.
In terms of outward displays of fan credentials, I had my mum knit me a scarf, then a burgundy scarf, and then a Fifth Doctor cricket jumper. I had my TARDIS pencil case, and I had paper plates on my bedroom wall which were my TARDIS roundels, and an old fashioned type wooden school desk in my bedroom with an angled top which was my console with controls scratched into it with a compass and coloured in with felt tip. I still have a scar on my left wrist from trying to cut open my big toy Dalek with my mum’s big scissors. I wanted to see the creature inside, the scissors slipped and went through my wrist! I begged to be taken to Longleat and we spent hours queuing to meet Tom Baker only to be dumbstruck when I was standing in front of him. I remember getting the first issue of Doctor Who Weekly and making a nuisance of myself at the local newsagent by constantly going in and asking if the new issue was out. The thing I liked best was the comic strip, specifically Dave Gibbon’s artwork which had a huge impact on me and I spent hours doing my best to copy them.
WhoSFX: How much direct contact did you have with the various departments who were responsible for bringing your concepts to life?
Peter: On Series Two whilst we were still based in Newport, the art department was upstairs from the main stage where all the sets would be built, so you could literally put your head out of the internal door and see the sets going up. At that point I think the prop makers and everyone else were based somewhere else. It wasn’t till we went to Upper Boat Studios that everyone was all under the one roof. Generally the process began with us all reading the most recent draft of the script available. I’d go through mine making a list of the things that would need a concept, whether it was a prop, VFX shot, creature etc. Then we’d have an art departmeny meeting where we would all go through it together and these jobs would be allocated. Once we each had a list of concepts to work on we would start with rough prelim versions, often a few different versions, which would then be sent by email to RTD, who would very quickly give us his feedback and we’d carry on from there. Approved concepts were then sent to the relevant deptartment. When we moved to Upper Boat the contact with the prop makers was everyday as they were basically just a few minutes walk away, but at Newport it was a bit more compartmentalised for us.
TOOTH AND CLAW
WhoSFX: What was your input into the design of the Werewolf?
Peter: I only really did one or two sketches. It was very early on, there were no concepts of any kind of the wolf at that point. More than anything it was done so the art department had something to take into the tone meeting as a means to start the discussion, which is often where these early concepts come from. As I was drawing it I just wanted to quickly get down this suggestion that if the human character had a facial scar as a distinguishing feature, when he transformed the wolf would still have that scar. It reinforced that this was the same person. They liked the idea but decided due to time and how hard the CGI wolf was going to be anyway, they didn’t have the time to match scars and the idea was dropped.
WhoSFX: Apparently there was a lot of debate at the tone meeting about how the Werewolf would be brought to life. Do you remember this?
Peter: I went to a few later on, but I missed that one. The tone meetings would go on for hours and hours and hours; Matt and I were too busy with the concept list. As far as I can recall it was always going to be CGI. Others who were in the tone meeting may be able to give you more information.
WhoSFX: Were you given guidance on how scary it could or should be? Was Russell T Davies heavily involved?
Peter: Russell was absolutely heavily involved in every aspect of every episode. He was great to work for. He always gave really good insightful feedback and he always did it with a lot of enthusiasm He’s very good with a pen himself and always seemed to really enjoy the concept development process.
The only time I had feedback from him about gore was the eye camera from The Girl in the Fireplace. The way it was written in the script was quite graphic, this hunk of flesh with the eye looking up with loads of wires attached, so I did a version to that brief. Russell responded to it very quickly saying that it was ‘very nice but completely untransmittable.’
WhoSFX: Can you tell us about the telescope in Tooth and Claw? That must have been quite a challenge!
Peter: The telescope was really exciting rather than a challenge. I couldn’t wait to get started on the concept. It was one of the first things I designed when I joined the art department. It’s still one of the largest things scale-wise that’s actually been built that I’ve ever concepted. When I started it had already been decided it was going to be this big centrepiece of the whole episode, so large that it would have to be partly CGI.
My approach to it was to give the slightest of storytelling clues in the design. It had to have the appearance of a telescope, when in fact there was more to it, the truth of it would be revealed later in the episode. So overall I gave it this slightly Heath Robinson look, slightly eccentric, to signify this is a one of a kind. The inclusion of the large decorative crescent moon, which looks like it might be part of the mechanism, was there purely as a way to tie it in visually with the idea of the werewolf. It’s a small extra layer of detail so its not just a big telescope; there is something of the story in its design. That way when the end comes and the nature of the telescope is revealed there’s hopefully a sense of it all tying together visually.
Seeing the telescope take shape in the workshop was an eye-opener as it became apparent how massive it was going to be. When I actually saw the finished telescope on set it was brilliant. To actually go from a drawing on a page, to this huge great prop within the space of a couple of weeks was very exciting to see and gave me a a good introduction as to how the process would work from then on.
Peter, thank you very much.
We hope to speak to Peter again about his massive contribution to Doctor Who in the near future. You can see more of his stunning work here: