Michaeljohn Harris was a true giant in the world of TV visual effects. He worked on many iconic Doctor Who stories including The Evil of the Daleks, The Tomb of the Cybermen and The Three Doctors.
Michaeljohn Harris was born in 1925. After leaving school he became a chemical laboratory assistant for two years before joining the army. He served in South East Asia during World War II. When the war was over, Harris attended art college and later became a model maker for a scenery contractor called City Display. He joined the BBC Visual Effects Workshop in the early 1960s and worked (uncredited) on the first Doctor Who serial and a number of later William Hartnell stories.
When Doctor Who first began, Visual Effects was not an independent BBC department; it worked as an adjunct to the Scenic Department. The Evil of the Daleks was the first story where the BBC Visual Effects Department (now a department in its own right) took on full responsibility for the series. The Visual Effects Designer on this milestone serial was Michealjohn Harris.
THE EVIL OF THE DALEKS
This extract is taken from an interview with Michaeljohn Harris conducted by David J. Howe and published in The Frame, Issue 7 (1988).
“I know we had an absolutely marvellous time in that battle sequence, and we even had two radio-controlled model Daleks. We had a giant Mother Dalek in the studio, with all those hoses. We filled them up with all sorts of horrible mixtures so that when they flew apart, the hoses swung through the air spewing filth. I know it caused a strike among the studio hands afterwards, clearing up the mess.
In those days, we didn’t have a model stage, and all those sequences were set up at Ealing. There was a model of the Dalek city seen from the mountains above; we did that as well. The great advantage was that it was on 35mm film. And I remember we built the whole city in various sorts of balsa wood and so on, and flooded it with dry ice fog as an opening sequence. We got this sort of rippling effect.
Then the first explosions took place, and they were quite nicely sequenced using lines of running power. Considering the circumstances under which it was made and how early it was, I don’t think it was too bad.
All the ones for destroying were very cheaply made on a simple wooden framework and a vacuum-forming staple rod. The beauty of vacuum-forming is, of course, that if you put a fairly hot soft charge inside it, it collapses very convincingly because you’ve reversed the effect; and we used this technique to improve the killings. You have to keep the whole thing gentle. You don’t want the head of a Dalek smashing the lights overhead!”
Michaeljohn Harris went on to work on a further seven stories as Visual Effects Designer: The Tomb of the Cybermen, The Abominable Snowmen, The War Games, Terror of the Autons, The Time Monster, The Three Doctors and The Talons of Weng-Chiang.
Other BBC TV series worked on by Michaeljohn Harris included Out of the Unknown (1965-66), Colditz (1972), War & Peace (1972), BBC 2 Playhouse (1976), Anna Karenina (1977), Wings (1977) and many more.
Michaeljohn Harris became Head of Department for Visual Effects in the mid-1970s, and his involvement with Doctor Who continued. One example was when he formally wrote to John Nathan-Turner asking him to withdraw the Myrka from Warriors of the Deep as he didn’t feel the monster was up to the Department’s own standards. Michaeljohn Harris retired in 1984 and enjoyed a long and happy retirement. He passed away in 2008.
“Never forget – we are here to have fun.” Michaeljohn Harris