SERIES A VISUAL EFFECTS 'POST MORTEM'
On 29th March 1978, frustrated Visual Effects Designer Ian Scoones fired off a memo outlining some of the insurmountable problems he had faced during production of the first series of Blake's 7.
BLAKE’S 7 Re Visual Effects
From Ian Scoones VIS/FX Designer
Now that the first series of thirteen episodes has been completed and transmitted I feel it is my duty to itemise certain difficulties, problems and frustrations which have been experienced by both the visual effects designers and their teams of assistants.
There was no doubt that originally Blake’s 7 offered a huge potential to boost the importance through contribution of excellent effects both in the miniature model area and the live action action sequences on film and in the studio. What happened however, as the series progressed, or rather regressed, and the studio dates got nearer and nearer the transmission dates was compromise - which left a lot the effects - unconvincing and much to be desired.
Our team of effects started off trying to service the commitments of four production teams which was virtually impossible. We eventually found ourselves required on location by one director, in the studio for another, at Ealing by a third, and also trying to obtain complicated model shots for the fourth; all in the same week, and sometimes on the same day!! By episode four, a second team was formed which solved some of the problems, but not all.
Blake’s 7 could have been an effects vehicle - instead, we became the least important area of contribution, with the directors giving least thought to our effort as they thought themselves lucky to even get their own commitments in the can, often with pages being dropped, or changed at the last moment.
So tight was the schedule, that some of the artists were being filmed at Ealing, while other members of the cast were on location while the third director would be at outside rehearsal. All this led eventually to effects props being designed, constructed and either never used, as artists hadn’t rehearsed with them, or there was no recording time left to use them, or ‘one take’ explosions - unrehearsed. Not a professional way to carry on.
My assistants have had to work weekends in order to complete special props - only to find that on the day they were not ‘seen’ by the camera, or used in a way not intended, or worse still, not used at all! This has, apart from a demoralising effect, a hidden worry to the department as a whole. Compulsory leave is accumulated on such shows due to the overtime involved which eventually grinds our man-power to a halt, so other show either suffer or can’t be accepted, as there is literally no-one to do them.
My biggest complaint must be directed towards programme planning who presumably had no conception of what extra time, money and expertise a science-fiction series needs in order to lift it out of the common place television serial which does not have ‘hidden areas’.
We no know that Blake’s 7 was planned and given allocations as another police series - initially visual effects was budgeted with just £50 per programme!! Audiences are getting more and more sophisticated with such epics as Star Wars and Close Encounters on the big screen, and TV series backed by the US on the competitive channel. The planning logic of the BBC is just not good enough, and unless the budget and time is increased for visual effects, we cannot even attempt to compete.
The availability of scripts was another problem. We had to design from original drafts so that work could be started - things were subsequently changed adding extra problems. This was also a headache to directors - working sometimes to a new draft, read at breakfast time, yet we were filming it at Ealing that morning!
This unsatisfactory way of working also led to a terrible lack of continuity by the four directors, all working independently to each other which often involved visual effects. I give for example the call by one director: that every time our Liberator gun blasts a piece of masonry (missing its victim) the wall or pillar should be half-demolished. Fair enough, but when the same gun finds its victim; instead of being spread to the four winds - he falls with a little groan, clutching a small smoking shoulder or stomach!!
For my part, the worst let-down to Blake's 7 was the total lack of understanding where model shots were concerned which led to the eventual loss of exterior model shots, both spaceships and establishing planet terrains - ever necessary to good science-fiction series.
After episode 3, no model shots were cut together to build up a sequences, instead we just had the odd isolated shot or take used here and repeated there; and as little as possible, with graphic shots often chosen in preference!
Directors when editing never had time to see or select everything that had been shot on the effects rolls, cut together for this very purpose. The first likely shot, and certainly not the best arrived at, would be used, and this usually was an ungraded rush print, with the odd wire or model support rod still showing through, often going out like this on transmission - not even being ‘tweaked' down electronically.
Indeed, certain improved re-takes of the Liberator, were never included on the original effects roll, and therefore never reached the directors in time for inclusion into their particular episodes.
Personally, I’ve never been so frustrated on any programme made by the BBC, by the ‘corner-cutting’ and lack of sympathy in the effects area, in order to get the programme out in time.
As there is another series I hope these points will be noted so that things can improve to make Blake’s 7 a successful hit series instead of middle of the road ‘cardboard space filler’, as one critic called it.
The production and vis/fx achieved a lot more only because of dedicated enthusiasm - which was luck y for the programme - but with more planning, time, money, it could have been so much more commercially slicker.
I know I speak for my co-designer and assistants.
Vis/FX Designer “Blake’s 7”
29th March 1978