In Part One we touched upon Neill’s early career and some of his non-Who work. I couldn’t resist however to brooch the matter of CGI…
Much of your work in recent years has been enhanced by CGI. There’s always been a debate about CGI and its place in visual effects – how do you feel it benefits the finished production? Is there any of your Doctor Who work that you would have preferred remain 100% man in suit/prosthetics, etc?
"Actually only a fraction of my work in recent years has been enhanced by CGI. You’re basing that on Doctor Who and even then only a fraction is enhanced by CGI. From memory there’s one CGI Cybermen shot in eps. 5&6 and that sticks out a bit. I love reading forums where fans constantly say…
‘ah yes but The Mill will fix it with Digital!
…. with almost everything! It does get a little boring as I want to know what exactly is wrong with the Moxx or The Sycorax or the Cast Nuns or the Clockwork robots or the Cybermen that could have been improved with CGI?
Recently in ‘The Idiots Lantern’ we did ten people with faceless prosthetics but Billie was done CGI. The reason Billie was done CGI wasn’t because we couldn’t do it. This is shown by the room full of people we did change. The reason was because you need to optimise your time with your actors on a TV schedule. It made more sense to do Billie CGI because it didn’t involve losing her for an hour of prosthetic application and then another hour of prosthetic removal, clean up and re-application of her regular make-up.
Back to the original question – CGI is just another tool and, despite the fact that on ‘Doctor Who Confidential’ it looks like it takes just seconds to whip up a creature or some amazing digital extension to a set you’ll find it actually takes a lot of time and a lot of time equals a lot of money. With that we’re back to the realities of budgets that I mentioned earlier. George Lucas has Squillions of quid and years to cobble together a Star Wars movie. The Mill have mere weeks and a TV budget in which to bring you vistas of far flung galaxies. As far as CGI enhancement to creatures go (and, by the way, the cat nuns had no CGI enhancement!) the last time The Mill and myself had to blend a physical and CGI creation (On ‘Hex’ not ‘Dr Who’ I might add) it took twice as long to build the CGI version of the monster than it had taken us to build the real one!
There are so many realities of production schedules, time constraints, money constraints and technology constraints that dog us throughout the production of Doctor Who that it does get frustrating when so many armchair critics and technologists armed with ‘a little information’ start making judgment about our hard work and the choices we make. Believe me we do the best job we can given what we have to work with and if an armchair critic believes the job would be better done by doing XY&Z well, trust me, we looked at it and for reasons that you’re clearly not up to speed on it just wasn’t practical. I’ve never know a show with so many die hard fans involved in the production of it so, trust me, it couldn’t possibly be any better."
And how does working on Doctor Who and the timescales and production methods differ to working on a movie?
"Same shit, different day!
I find telly easier because I don’t have 11x producers to deal with. With ‘Who’ I can speak to Russell and get a simple yes or no within minutes."
Which Doctor Who story of the last 2 years has had the most input from your team?
"New Earth – we had 3 x cats, 1 x face of Boe, 1 x Duke of Manhattan fat suit and prosthetics and more diseased patients then I care to remember. Closely followed by the Cyberman episodes – all of them!"
Of the Slitheen, the Sycorax and the other 21st century Doctor Who monsters which do you feel will have the longer lifespan?
"Face of Boe as it looks like he’ll be appearing in series 1, 2 and 3."
The job of bringing back the Cybermen seems to have been a success. You must be very proud of those episodes?
Can you talk us through the process of designing and creating 20-odd Cyberman suits, and the timescales involved?
"I’m going to decline the chance to answer this one here as the last time I did it took 17 pages, all of which can be found in Sci.fi and Fantasy Modeller Volume 2.
If you’re really interested you’ll buy the book and support a brilliant British publication. You’ll also find great behind the scenes stuff from Mike Tucker our miniature FX supervisor. "
(Sci.fi and Fantasy Modeller Volume 2 is a superb publication and is available online and via stores such as Forbidden Planet.)
How important is Doctor Who to your industry?
"That’s a very odd question. I don’t think it’s important to my industry. It’s fun to make aliens and obviously there’s a great buzz creating classic creatures like the Cybermen but as far as being ‘important’ to my industry it’s only as important as any other job. I know ‘Doctor Who’ fans will assume that it’s the most important job in the world ever but the truth is it’s still a job and our budget is similar to other BBC projects such as ‘Silent witness’. A lot of ‘Who’ fans assume the budgets we have to work with must be must be much bigger than any other BBC show or somehow ‘Doctor Who’ is exempt from the rules that apply to the rest of the BBC and how they spend your licence fee. Our budgets are not special and it takes a lot of imagination and creativity on the part of all the departments to stretch the budget to create the visually stunning show you see on a Saturday night."
There’s just time to ask a few quicker questions – so I had to ask about classic series monsters…
Do you have any particular favourite classic Doctor Who monsters that you would like to bring back with a 21st century redesign?
"Davros followed by the Zygons with the Sontarans coming a close 3rd."
Do you have any words of advice for someone interested in or starting out in your field of work?
"Buy a computer and learn CGI. Seriously!"
How long to you expect to be involved with Doctor Who?
"Hopefully as long as it’s on TV or as long as they’ll have me."
Finally, is there any episode in particular that should we look out for in the remainder of Series 2 that features yours and your teams work that you consider particularly outstanding (or indeed any upcoming films)?
"I’m very proud of the whole of series 2. I feel the prosthetics work in series 2 goes way beyond series 1. In addition the stuff we’re doing for Torchwood is a whole other story."
Our thanks go to Neill for his time in doing this interview. Don’t forget, if you want to read more from Neill, or discover more about the Cybermen design, Sci.fi and Fantasy Modeller Volume 2 is available from all good sci fi and fantasy retailers.