Set to Stun – Designing & Filming Sci-Fi in West London

Images above: Gunnersbury Park Museum exhibition Set to Stun exhibits from Doctor Who

West London’s rich history of sci-fi TV and film production

If you live in Scunthorpe or Sheffield you might find yourself living next door to a retired steel worker. In Chiswick it could be a retired Doctor Who set designer or model maker.

The creative hub that was BBC Television Centre in White City, combined with the film studios at Shepperton, Pinewood and Ealing attracted a population of artists, actors and writers, but it also gave rise to a whole range of craft specialities – costume, prosthetics, make-up and model making based in west London, some of which continue to thrive here supplying the film and TV industries.

On the 60th anniversary of the BBC’s drama series Doctor Who – the longest-running science-fiction television series in the world, now on its 15th actor in the lead role – Gunnersbury Park Museum has put together ‘Set to Stun‘, an exhibition about the science fiction television and film programmes made in west London and some of the creative talent behind them.

Image above: Star Bug used in Red Dwarf seasons 3 – 7 and season 10. Designed and made by Alan ‘Rocky’ Marshall at the BBC VFX Department (1992)

Starting with the 1936 film ‘Things to Come’

“West London has an incredibly rich history of creating iconic sci-fi TV and film. From Things to Come (1936), one of the first sci-fi movies ever made, to trailblazing digital effects studios we’ve led the way in imagining the future” says curator Tom Crowley.

Things to Come, based on the book The Shape of Things to Come by HG Wells, with a screenplay by him, is considered to be one of the first great sci-fi movies, ending with a futuristic vision of the world in the year 2036.

It was made at the Isleworth Studios, (1913 – 1952), where silent film star Buster Keaton made The Invader and sequences for Cold War thriller The Third Man and Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn’s romance The African Queen were also shot. At the time it was made, Things to Come was the most expensive British film ever shot.

Images above: (L) Jeremy Bear’s original 1972 concept drawing of his design for Jaeger’s Laboratory in Skybase in the story Doctor Who – The Mutants and (R) Jeremy’s photograph of the actual set during rehearsals.

The BBC’s ‘Golden age’

The BBC’s Visual Effect (VFX) Department operated between 1954 and 2005. It was based at a series of West London locations (White City, Windmill Rd, Western Avenue and Kendal Avenue). By the early 1980s it was the largest permanent visual effects unit in the world.

Two of the creative artists who worked for the BBC in those days, whose work is shown in the exhibition, have spoken to The Chiswick Calendar about their careers – set designer Jeremy Bear, whose curator wife Griselda first suggested an exhibition to the museum, and Mike Tucker, who was for many years a visual effects designer at the BBC.

Jeremy told me: “I have lots of my work stored away from those days – drawings, slides, photographs and models.  Set to Stun is a wonderful opportunity to show some in an exhibition as part of a bigger story.”

Images above: (L) Photograph of set of Skybase corridor using NASA inspired panels; (R) Jeremy Bear working at drawing board, BBC Television Centre in 1970s; photographs Jeremy Bear

Doctor Who

Jeremy joined the BBC in 1966 as a trainee design assistant and lived in Chiswick for many years. His first Doctor Who was The Savages, an episode of the third series with the original actor William Hartnell as The Doctor.

As an experienced set designer, he created the set for the six-part story The Mutants, (1972), set on a space station from which earth overlords ran things on the planet of Solos, inhabited by insect-like creatures. Jon Pertwee was by then The Doctor. The exhibition has his original concept drawing for the space station in coloured pencil, alongside a photograph of the actors on the finished set.

He wanted his Doctor Who sets to be light and futuristic, unlike other Sci-fi designs at the time, and researched plans in development for the appearance of NASA’s International Space Station.

“I talked to NASA about the International Space Station. I had access to the mock up for it and found that in reality everything was very light.”

The development of a production like this is a collaborative endeavour.

“As a production designer you start by developing ideas from the script and brain-storming with the director and as your ideas move forward you work closely to expand the overall concept with special effects and costume designers.”

The passionate commitment of Doctor Who fans is legendary. Until very recently he has taken part in events around the country, autographing various bits and pieces of merchandise which fans brought to be signed. Recently Jeremy was invited to take part in an autographing event in Chiswick where hundreds of fans came from far and wide.

Image above: Mike Tucker building a submarine; photograph Mike Tucker

Making models to be destroyed

Visual effects designer Mike Tucker also worked at the BBC in what he describes as its “golden age”. He grew up watching Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker’s incarnations as The Doctor and worked with three Doctors: Sylvester McCoy, Colin Baker and Matt Smith in his last episode ‘The Time of the Doctor‘. He also worked on Red Dwarf.

Mike’s models were always being destroyed, which you would think would be heart-breaking.

“I am always telling students that if you are really a model maker, you may not be suited to special effects because you are very often making models to be destroyed. The model is just a means to an end. What matters is how its destruction looks on film.”

Images above: One of Mike Tucker’s spacecraft, from initial concept sketch to the model being used  for filming; photographs Mike Tucker

Not all Mike’s work was for science fiction dramas; he has worked on docu-dramas about the Krakatoa volcano erupting and the bombing of Hiroshima as well as one on the space shuttle Columbia exploding.

“Very random acts of destruction are something that model making is very good at showing. People have lots of pictures of something before and after it has been destroyed but rarely do they have footage of how it looks as it is being destroyed.”

Images above: (L) Mike Tucker with his quarter size model of the TARDIS for the Doctor Who story ‘The Time of the Doctor’ (2013). The model was designed by Mike, made by Nick Kool. (R) Gaffer Alan Graham and Nick Kool setting up the TARDIS model for filming; photographs Mike Tucker

One of Mike’s jobs on Doctor Who Mike was to make a model of the TARDIS:

“They get knocked about as they are loaded on and off location when they’re being taken to filming locations, so every couple of years there is a new TARDIS created.”

As well as the full-sized versions the production team also needs miniature versions to shoot different scenes.

“The model stage at the BBC was about 60 by 80 feet, so the models are quite often a lot bigger than people imagine they are.”

Images above: Moon Buggy from Star Cops (1987) designed by Mike Kelt and made by Melvyn Friend, BBC VFX Department. Exhibition ‘moonscape’ and photographs by Mike Tucker

Developing new technologies

The exhibition shows how special effects for film making have developed. The BBC’s VFX unit used state of the art digital technology and were always on the lookout for new materials which were lighter and more flexible to help actors express their characters.

The 1984 series The Tripods featured three teenage boys battling alien creatures which had colonised the earth. The producers used Paintbox, then a new digital tool, which enabled them to combine footage of model Tripods with footage of landscapes.

Davros, the creator of the Daleks, is one of Doctor Who’s greatest enemies. The BBC’s VFX team created a mask for Davros from foam latex, which would be responsive to the facial expressions of the actor wearing it.

Images above: Screen grabs from the interactive ‘motion capture’ experience

Interactive motion capture experience

In the digital age animators can now give drawings the features and characteristics of real actors and make them replicate the facial movements of the actor. Digital artist Olly Walton has created an interactive experience for visitors to the exhibition to try out ‘motion capture’.

Using the face recognition tool on an iphone, the interactive experience maps your face, takes the signal from the phone and applies it to a character on screen.

Older people are interested to see the characters they remember from TV programmes they watched as a child, Tom told me, but I am guessing children will enjoy the interactive exhibits more, such as the motion capture experience and a box which you can open to smell what space actually smells like (horrible – like burnt metal, as described by astronauts).

There is also an opportunity for children to design their own sci-fi models.

Image above: Andrew Ainsworth’s shop in Twickenham with Imperial Storm Troopers’ helmets piled out outside; Set to Stun exhibition

How a kayak designer in Twickenham became the supplier of Star Wars Imperial Storm Troopers’ helmets

I was amazed to discover it was a craftsman who made kayaks, Andrew Ainsworth, who supplied the Imperial storm troopers in Star Wars with their armour. George Lucas was filming the first Star Wars film, Star Wars: A New Hope, at Shepperton in 1976.

‘A few miles away at his Twickenham workshop Andrew Ainsworth was trying out vacuum form technology to make kayaks. Soon he was using his vacuum form equipment to supply George Lucas’ storm troopers with their armour’.

Nor was I aware that Jedi Robe, based in Ealing, is the biggest supplier of Star Wars merchandise in the world.

Creature Bionics, set up by Ace Ruele in 2021, is also featured in the exhibition. ‘One of many trail-blazing practical effects companies based in West London’, the company develops creature-shaped rigs, which help performers to become different creature characters by moving in the way they would move, making digitally created creatures in films and video games more realistic.

West London also boasts one of the prestigious schools in the world for teaching makeup and hair design. Delamar Academy of Makeup and Hair, established in Ealing in 1986, ‘is the only Makeup & Hair School in the world with graduates who have won Oscars, BAFTAs, Emmys, Vogue Make-up Artist of The Year, Indian & Italian Academy and Guild Awards’.

Images above: Advanced prosthetics by the Delamar Academy of Makeup and Hair

Monsters in the drawing room

Delamar Academy’s tutors and students’ credits include Stranger Things, The Last of Us, The Witcher, Game of Thrones, Star Wars, Guardians of the Galaxy, Chernobyl, and Harry Potter.

Gunnersbury Park Museum used to be the private home of the banking family, the Rothschilds, in the nineteenth century. The work of several of Delamar Academy’s graduates from the specialist course in Advanced Prosthetics is on show in what used to be the Rothschilds’ drawing room.

It is the room where Nathan Mayer Rothschild’s granddaughter Leonora’s marriage to her cousin Alphonse de Rothschild took place in 1857. If they and their guests are looking down, I would love to know their thoughts on the present occupants.

Set to Stun opened on Friday 20 October and will be on show (in various parts of the museum on several floors) until June 2024.

Open Tuesdays – Sundays (closed Mondays) from 10am – 4.30pm, booking not necessary; entrance free.

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar