Mat Irvine is truly a legend in the world of television visual effects. He worked on many classic episodes of Doctor Who, initially as VFX Assistant and later as VFX Designer. Mat also worked on Blake’s 7 and wrote the book Doctor Who: Special Effects (my ‘bible’ as a kid). Mat kindly took the time to talk to me about his early days in the Visual Effects Department and his first experiences on Doctor Who.
WhoSFX: How did you get the job in the BBC Visual Effects Department?
Mat: As with most of these things, by chance. I was always interested in the media, although we didn’t call it the media back then, but I was in amateur plays with my father so I was used to doing behind-the-scenes stuff and appearing on stage. I was interested in models and things.
I first joined the BBC in a holiday relief job. That was for television news. I lived in North London and the news was all done out of Alexandra Palace. By that time, everyone had moved out apart from the news. I went there with no idea of what I was going to do. I had a contact in the film library and thought I might go there. At the interview I was asked if I had an interest in photography and I said ‘Well, I’ve got a camera’ and that was enough to get me into the stills library! I stayed there and what got me into the effects department – although at that time I had no idea it existed – was my involvement with the news coverage of the Apollo 12 landing in 1969.
The pictures we had were from NASA and everybody had them, ITN, the newspapers etc. and I volunteered to make models of the module so we would have something different. I remember rushing home with a roll of film with my father’s old Voigtländer and set the pictures up. It included a picture of Apollo 12. The astronauts had taken a colour camera to the lunar surface but they accidentally destroyed the camera by pointing it at the sun, which burnt out the tube. I mocked it up using Airfix figures and got it extremely close to the actual pictures. Remember we had to wait until the astronauts got back and the film was developed.
This gave me the start of a portfolio so a year or so later, when I decided I couldn’t work in the stills library forever, I asked around and found out about the Visual Effects Department. I managed to get an interview with the head of the department, Jack Kine, and he gave me a two-week trial. And 25 years later I left!
I ended up back at Alexandra Palace because I helped to set up the Open University spin-off from the Visual Effects Department. I was working under Gerry Abouaf and he taught me a lot. I learned how to work fast but accurately because we were building demonstration models for the Open University. These were things that nobody really understood, not even the professors! It would be three-dimensional models of equations and things like that. It was definitely a useful learning experience. Then Jack asked me to move back down to the main Visual Effects Department and there I stayed.
WhoSFX: What was the working environment like back then?
Mat: By this time the department had grown and we had a reasonable space to work in. I joined at the same time as a number of others including Tony Harding, Richard Conway and Colin Mapson. We were the next influx, which really pushed that working space. The designer’s offices were halfway up the East Tower and no one ever bothered to go up there. Ian Scoones was a classic case. He’d come in in the morning, swing his bag and leave it under my bench and work on the corner of my space. So the assistants had proper working environments but the designers actually didn’t! This changed later when we moved to Western Avenue. Working at Television Centre was so convenient because the studios were just downstairs. If anything went wrong we were a flight of stairs away. And things did go wrong, frequently.
It was a health and safety nightmare. We had a machine shop at one end. There was even a pyrotechnic factory within the space, which was in a cage. At the time smoking was still allowed, so you’d see people walking around the pyrotechnics factory with a fag hanging out of their mouth! It was enclosed in a metal mesh. It didn’t last too long. Later we had a proper purpose-built pyrotechnics brick building built at the Scenic car park.
WhoSFX: Was this influx of new people due to more programmes being made by the BBC?
Mat: Yes, absolutely. They were making more programmes and BBC2 had arrived. We’d gone colour in 1969 and programmes were getting more artsy and clever which meant more effects were needed. Doctor Who was an important programme but it was only a tiny part of what we did. Even if you add in the other science-fiction shows, Blake’s 7, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Red Dwarf etc. they were only a small part. Most of our work was actually for the Light Entertainment department followed by the Children’s Department.
That is the art of effects. You shouldn’t notice they are there. We’re best known for Doctor Who and such like because you know that a monster or a spaceship is going to be an effect. We used to say; if you spot the effect then we’ve failed. The best programme I ever did was Edge of Darkness but no-one thinks of that in terms of effects. We didn’t even want people to know they were watching an effect.
WhoSFX: Your first Doctor Who story was The Curse of Peladon, what are your memories of that?
Mat: I’d just gone down to the effects department from the Open University side and I got to work with Ian Scoones who was a great guy. He was the best mentor I ever had, closely followed by Bernard Wilkie and Gerry Abouaf. Ian taught me the most about various effects techniques. He was a brilliant designer but he would have been the first to admit that he was completely useless at technicalities. So he’d design something and it would be down to his assistants, including me, to get them to work. Which is fine because that’s what we were there for. When I was designing I had to think about the technicalities involved but Ian would just say, “If that’s what you want, we’ll find a way to do it”. He wanted the TARDIS light on the miniature to flash fast because we were doing high-speed filming so the miniature would look more realistic. If the camera is turning three times normal speed then the light needs to flash at three times normal speed as well. Then when it’s shown at the normal speed it will flash at the correct rate. Although there were so many variations on how the TARDIS works, how often the light flashes, does it rotate etc. there were no hard and fast rules. It’s the TARDIS; it does what it wants to do.
I used a speed controller I’d used on an Open University project and put it in the TARDIS to make the light flash. It all had to be self-contained because it was falling off the cliff with the light flashing as it fell. That was the first story I was involved with but it was fairly minimum. The first story I was heavily involved with was Frontier in Space. Bernard was the designer, Ian was the senior assistant and I was the junior on that one.
WhoSFX: You worked with Ian Scoones quite a lot. Was that planned?
Mat: That was down to Bernard (Wilkie). Being head of department he could pick and choose. Strictly speaking you couldn’t. It was always the case where you’d go into the office and you’d get what you were given. If you tried to inveigle your way onto a particular show they would put you on something else! They could be a bit contrary about that. “Who’s best for the job? I know, let’s put them on something else!” That wouldn’t happen these days. They realise there’s no point giving someone a job that they’re not great at. I can’t sculpt to save my life. I can build models, I know sculpting techniques but I never trained to be a sculptor. When you’re the designer you have the option of building your team based on the requirements of the script. Mike Tucker’s a great sculptor, John Friedlander was a great sculptor, get them to do that. I can make models, I’m OK with electronics but if it involved integrated electronics I’d get an expert involved.
We did sort of end up with our own specialist areas even though you were supposed to have a general grasp of everything. Bernard would often pair me up with Ian because we had complimentary skillsets. Michaeljohn Harries would have his favourites as well. There were people you’d get used to working with. You knew what they were good at and what they weren’t so hot on. In the later years of the department we got much better at playing to people’s strengths.
WhoSFX: By the time you came to work on The Face of Evil, you were a fully-fledged Visual Effects Designer. Was this something you were itching to do?
Mat: I suppose. I know I was the youngest designer at the time, though Mike Tucker beat me in later years, and I was the youngest assistant before that. You get to the point where you’ve been working as a senior assistant for long enough. I was already a designer by the time The Face of Evil came round. It was a fairly gentle one to start with. There was nothing too extreme in it. No creatures per se. The creatures were humanoid, thank goodness. There was a little bit of model work. There were a lot of video effects, which I didn’t really like. Filming was done at Ealing on the film stages for the forest scenes. Filming was always built into the schedule because there was usually too much for studio time. Filming didn’t just mean OB work, it could refer to filming on the film stages.
I remember we had to provide invisible footprints during the Ealing shoot. For that we created a separate piece of raised set about ten feet wide. We used cantilevers to hold up the footprints, which dropped down when released. We slowed the whole thing down using video-disc because the effect only lasted for about a second. We also had to show an alarm clock being crushed. We did this by placing a stage-weight inside the clock, which was a made of very thin vacuum-formed plastic, which was attached by a nylon line attached to a bomb-release mechanism. Sometimes old-fashioned methods are the best.
WhoSFX: What was the main difference between being a designer and being an assistant? Were you still quite hands-on?
Mat: The buck stops with you. You got the blame even if it was the assistant’s fault. And of course it wasn’t the assistant’s fault because you’re the designer. The big difference is you are credited. Every now and again a senior assistant would get a credit but generally it was only the designer who would be on the end titles. The BBC never credited assistants. I would push for a credit if an assistant had really played a big part in the production. But who watches the credits any way. It’s you and your mum!
WhoSFX: What roles did your assistants play?
Mat: My main assistant was Steve Drewett. He built all of the Horda creatures and also built the miniature landscape featuring Tom Baker’s face. You always knew you could just let Steve get on with it and the end results would be great. I also used Charlie Lumm. He did all the working guns, which had practical flashing lights. Charlie was absolutely brilliant at electronics. If he built something you knew it wouldn’t go wrong.
WhoSFX: Were there any particular challenges during the making of The Face of Evil?
Mat: I was never happy with the model spaceship because this was the first time I’d done miniature work in a television studio. I’d always worked on filmed model sequences but I was told that there wasn’t the budget available for more filming. The model was good but we ended up shooting it in studio through a cut-away window using CSO. I thought the end result looked inferior.