Neill Gorton is the man behind the amazing creatures we have seen in Doctor Who since its rebirth in 2005. The Moxx of Balhoon, the Slitheen, the Cybermen – they’ve all been created by Neill and his team, and have imprinted a very distinctive look on Doctor Who in the twenty-first century. Neill took some time out from his busy schedule to speak to Kasterborous about his work both on Doctor Who and some other projects – I began by asking him the obvious question – how did he get he Doctor Who gig?…
"I’m not quite sure actually. I remember hearing it was announced and thinking I’d love to do that job. Next thing was a friend of mine was being interviewed for the job as production designer and he said he’d make sure he’d put my name forward. After his interview he called to say he didn’t think he’d got the job and also it looked like Davy Jones was going to be doing the prosthetics. In addition a make-up artist I knew had also interviewed for the make-up designer job and put my name forward.
Next thing I’m getting a call from Phil Collinson saying would I like to come down for a meeting. Turns out Davy has looked at the prosthetic workload and also recommended the production speak with me as it’s clearly too much for a one man operation like Davy to handle and he’s happy just to be the make-up designer along with his lovely wife Lynn.
My first meeting was at the BBC in White City with Phil and Russell in the smallest office I’ve ever seen. One of those – step outside to change your mind – size of spaces. Being a Doctor Who fan I then begged for the job in an embarrassing fashion and they gave it to me out of pity ……..the job that is!"
So did you go to college to learn your trade, or were you self taught?
"I was mainly self taught. Being part of the ‘Star Wars’ generation I grew up with those movies as well as a great passion for the films of Ray Harryhausen. My first passion actually was stop motion animation. I had a super 8 camera and would animate short films. A school metalwork project aged 14 was to build myself a ball-and-socket stop motion armature of the Cyclops from ‘The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad’. Fortunately, Mr Booth, my metal work teacher turned out to be a closet sci-fi fan and model maker and ultimately borrowed a number of books from me.
I continued my studies in my garage and discovered that I had a liking for prosthetics and animatronics. I suppose it was the fact that it was just so much more instant than animation where I had to wait weeks for the film to be processed before I could see the results of my endeavours. By the age of fifteen I already had a portfolio of prosthetics and started approaching make-up artists looking for feedback. Eventually, aged 17, Chris Tucker (Elephant Man, Company of Wolves) gave me my first break. I did a few weeks with Chris and learnt a ton of stuff. I headed back to Liverpool and spent the next few weeks updating my portfolio based on what I’d learnt with Chris. On my next visit to London I met Bob Keen who ran Image Animation, the company responsible for the prosthetic FX on the ‘Hellraiser’ movies and the ‘Highlander’ series. Bob took me on and I worked for him for several years."
I’m a fan of "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen", and was interested to find out the extent of Neill’s work on the movie.
"When "LXG" came around it was obvious that the big showpiece creature FX would be handled by a big American company. In this case it was Steve Johnson’s XFX. What came to us was then a mix of providing practical help for XFX such as life casting on actors such as Richard Roxburgh and Tony Curran. Basically Steve then started punting all the odds and ends that XFX didn’t have covered by their contract. These included an animatronic invisible man costume worn by a midget, a full size Mr. Hyde arm for whacking stunt men and a three day thrown together white tiger puppet! If anyone is getting the wrong impression here let me get it straight – I’m very grateful to Steve Norrington for all the work. I know Steve and he would have brought all the work to the UK but studio pressure on a £100+million dollar movie meant he didn’t get a choice. Instead he found as many morsels as possible to chuck to his old mates and, to be frank, it ended up being quite a lot of work for us."
The Moxx of Balhoon, the Face of Boe and the Slitheen were all very different from anything seen on British television prior to the 2005 series. Was there a conscious attempt to create creatures that could be seen as iconic, identifiable only to Doctor Who?
"I think we were just the first people stupid enough to build such bonkers stuff and hope we’d get away with it! I have my reservations about the Slitheen, just because they were built under a great deal of pressure and there’s a lot of technical things I’d do differently, but The Face of Boe is one of my personal favourites. I love Boe as it really could only exist in the world of Doctor Who. He was one of those things that you read the script and he’s just this background throw away character with a one line description but the idea was so clear in my mind when I read it. I then did a single doodle which Russell saw and said ‘that’s it!’ The fact that from having such humble beginnings as a kind of throw away line background character to being front and centre means I did something very right with designing and creating Boe. The fact that Russell has now embraced him the way he has and imbued him with this great mythological history makes him very special to me."
You’re going to be known for a long time for your work on Doctor Who – but of course you’re a veteran of many television shows and movies. How does your Doctor Who work compare to your other work, such as "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen"?
They’re very different things. If you’re fishing around for things to compare work with I’d rather pull up a comparison with ‘Saving Private Ryan’ which I had a much bigger role in. The deal being the fact that I did something that many people still talk about years after its first showing. This goes for both ‘Who’ and ‘Ryan’. Sadly not many people talk about LXG because not many people have either heard of it or remember it!
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.