Niel Bushnell is an author and animator from the north-east of England. He has written science fiction, time-travel and fantasy novels, so he’s very much at home in the world of Doctor Who. He has worked in the creative sector for over twenty years, across film, TV, online, games, advertising and publishing. He ran his own animation studio for eleven years and has a long association with creating work for the BBC, including the sci-fi sitcom Hyperdrive, the Blake’s 7 DVD releases and, of course, Doctor Who.
We caught up with Niel recently to discuss his work on the new special effects on the Revenge of the Cybermen Blu-ray release.
Who FX: How did you get involved with the Doctor Who Blu-ray range?
Niel: I worked in the same building as producer Chris Chapman who slowly drew me into his evil plans for DVD domination. I began to produce titles and animation for his DVD documentaries, and eventually I co-produced the animated episodes of The Ice Warriors. Since then I’ve work on loads of TV shows, producing animation and visual effects, so when Season 12 got the go-ahead on Blu-ray, Russell Minton called me to talk about me updating some of the effects work.
Who FX: Why was Revenge of the Cybermen selected to receive updated special effects, rather than one of the other stories in Season 12?
Niel: That’s a good question, and one I can’t answer. When I came on board it had already been decided, so I didn’t have any input. I think it comes down to which episode needs it the most, and hasn’t already had some attention.
Who FX: What did you think of the original effects work in Revenge?
Niel: I have a lot of respect for the original effects work on shows like Doctor Who and Blake’s 7. It’s of its time, and it’s fantastic work produced by skilled artists and technicians working to tight budgets and even tighter deadlines. It’s easy to pick it apart decades later, but I’ve tried to approach my contribution to the show in a sympathetic way. The new effects have to sit alongside live-action shots of that period, so it’s critical to honour that original aesthetic.
Who FX: Can you tell me a bit more about the process you go through to create the new visual effects?
Niel: The first part of the process was to decide what we wanted to update. Russell had already done this and produced a list of about 40 shots. I (foolishly) went through and added about another twenty shots to the list. Most of these were monitors that suffered from bad in-camera compositing, resulting in jagged edges and fuzzy artefacts. Part of that process is deciding how to deal with each shot. Some are 2D effects that might require a more graphic approach. Others need a 3D solution, and might need models of spaceships built. Other shots require a lot of masking, rotoscoping and tracking – these are all techniques to isolate portions of the live-action footage so that new effects can be inserted.
The biggest problem with Doctor Who is that the majority of the effects work was done ‘live’ in the studio as they shot and edited, so I don’t have access to a clean plate – it just doesn’t exist. That’d make my life a lot easier! So I first have to remove or hide the original work before I can begin to add new work into a scene. Once we had a spreadsheet with the agreed shots I went through and clumped them into groups requiring similar work, like the monitors in the control room. I use After Effects for graphic elements, and for compositing new work into the existing footage. I have to try to match the video noise levels, as well as focal point and light sources. I also use 3DS Max for 3D model building and animating, and I’ve got a few other pieces of software I use from time to time for more elaborate tracking shots or other forms of animation.
Who FX: Were there any sequences that were particularly challenging to realise?
Niel: Tom’s hair was a challenge! When he walks past a screen the edge of his hair is lost because of the harsh CSO process they used to insert effects work. I’ve tried to soften that edge and, in some instances, I’ve rebuilt the edge of his hair from surrounding frames. It was very time consuming.
Who FX: Were you given guidance on how close you needed to remain to the original FX sequences and designs?
Niel: Not as such, but I was keen to keep it in the spirit of the era. I don’t feel that it’s my place to redesign things, but I’m able to embellish things with the tools available to me today. So the phallic Cybership is very similar in my version, but I’ve given it a few additional details. The same was true for the space station. I tried to rationalise the studio set with the model, and I added some exterior spotlights and lattice structure to tie in with what we can see outside of the set’s windows.
Who FX: If you could choose one Doctor Who story to get the ‘special edition’ treatment, which one would it be?
Niel: I know a lot of people would love to see Invasion of the Dinosaurs given a modern makeover, but anything with an organic character to animate is very time-consuming. Perhaps if we replaced all of the dinosaurs with robots? Speaking of machines, I’d love to do a Dalek or a Cyberman story. Who wouldn’t?
Who FX: Will you be working on future Doctor Who releases?
NIEL BUSHNELL, thank you very much.
You can order the Blu-ray release of Doctor Who: The Collection – Season 12 here: