The Catacombs Catacombs Credits Guide
Brian Johnson

Comments from talks at RAF Cosford on 17th and 18th May 2014

Q: What would have been your priority coming into Space: 1999?

BJ: The first priority was to try to get Gerry to spend money on the special effects. Because he didn't really want to spend very much. And after that, design the Eagle. I used my experience on 2001. The Moonbase was a homage to 2001 in a way, but different. And the moonbus in 2001, when Doug Trumbull and I were working on it, way back in '64, '65, I decided that it should look nicer if we had bits of plastic kit and girdering stuff all over it. But I hadn't designed it, that was somebody else's job. So I just mentally made a few notes, and sketched something. It actually had big round pods on the side, not the octagonal jobs. And then when we got on to Space: 1999, I remembered that and thought, I know what I'll do. Girder work and all the other stuff. The big mistake was that it wasn't deep enough. It should have been deeper in my opinion. But other than that...

Q: How did you work out what sizes (of models) you would need them in?

We knew that we needed a big one, so that was the 44 inch. And then progressing going down in scale, to see how we could get away with using the smallest one, which I think was 11 inches.

Martin Bower: We did actually do a 5 inch one, to be swallowed by a shuttle.

BJ: So it was just sort off 44, 22, 11, 5. For some of the landscapes, you didn't want a 44 inch Eagle when it had to go a long way away, so used the 22 or the 11. To get the perspective pushed. The stage we were on was actually an old ballroom, I think, in the old Georgian house. There wasn't much room. Because we were doing multiple exposures, we could afford to shoot part of the shots with a wide angle lens, and other parts with a longer focal length, depending on what we needed to do. We had to do between 5 and 6 shots a day. We couldn't use motion control. Dennis Lowe was working on it, somewhat in it's infancy, whereas in America you had all that space technology, and stepper motors and drivers and everything else, that you could just pick up for a few bucks. We didn't have any of that really. I decided the only way we could do it was to use 35 mm film, which Gerry was against, wanted to use 16, and do multiple exposures, so everything was rock steady and sharp.

Q: Some of shots of Moonbase Alpha, the moon mountains in the background are flat photographs.

We didn't have any space. And anyway, I wasn't going to sit there making moon dust, having done it for donkey's years on other projects, when we could photograph it in high resolution, then just have these cut-outs that we could put up. Looked good enough, didn't it?

Martin Bower: I had been to see 2001 when I was 16. This was the Casino Cinerama in London. I immediately went home and built myself a version of Discovery, the great long model, with the engines at the back, the long thin backbone, and then the ball on the front. I made it for myself. When I eventually saw an advert in the paper which said Thunderbirds-man to make new TV series. So I wrote to Gerry, and it came back and said 'try Shepperton'. And I rang Shepperton up, and they said no, they're at Bray. So I rang Brian and he said come down and bring some of your photographs and models with you. I was still living with my parents back then, I was about 40 miles from the studios. The battle cruiser, as it became known, was so long... I had an old Jaguar at the time, one of these things on the Sweeney that they used to drive off the cliffs because there were so many of them. I turned the back seat out, and put the battle cruiser right the way through. I drove 40 miles, I was coming towards Bray studios. Next to it, now is a hotel but was then Oakley Court, where Hammer used to make use of. A guy pulled out right in front of me, and I braked and the model went into the dashboard, bits were ping, ping, ping...

BJ: He always had trouble with his glue, by the way.

Martin Bower: Brian looked at the model. I showed him the book that I have of photographs. Brian said to me the most amazing thing, he said, I'd like to shoot some test footage on it. We got the model out of the car, pieces were falling off of it. It was 7, 8 years old by that time. It was shot by you. I never saw... I don't think you ever used any of those shots in the series. Brian was very interested in it, and he said to me, when I get a script that requires models, design what you think would be the ideal alien ship, which was the Alpha Child ship. I drove home in a state of elation. Still with the battle cruiser in the car. I phoned Brian up, I said I've got these drawings, I went back to Bray, gave Brian the drawings, and he gave me the okay. I remember driving back thinking 'this is great' and then thinking 'did he say I've only got 3 weeks to make 2 of these?' And one was 5 feet long, and one was 2 and half feet long. There were a few nights spent working. Actually quite a lot.

BJ: The paint was still wet when he handed the models over.

Martin Bower: You also said to me on the phone, I'll buy that battle cruiser off you as well. I bought it down, and I think it got used in about 4 episodes, and then it got changed around a bit.

BJ: I'm going to tell you something about Martin. When Martin showed me his photographs, it was a long time since I had seen something that actually took care, with focus and presentation and everything else. I just knew he was a talented man. I had lots of people come up and ask me for jobs, and they produced a matchbox with a couple of plastic kits on it, saying 'what do you think of that then?' They'd show me a picture, and the front of the model would be out of focus, and you knew they wouldn't stand a hope in hell's chance. But Martin's stuff was always crisp, professional, and he's always been like that.

Martin Bower: Thank you.

Q: When it came to commissioning Martin to do models, how did you go about that?

BJ: You'd be in a state of panic because the script had turned up late. I had a director who at the time would be saying 'what am I going to get, what am I going to see?' So I would give Martin, I think I would give you scripts, and we'd talk about what the thing should roughly look like, and Martin would go away. In the end I could trust him to come up with something. Which was a great help to us because we were absolutely up against it with the schedules and everything else.

Q: So Martin you actually had quite a lot of freedom?

Martin Bower: One of the things I was especially grateful to Brian for, obviously this was my first venture into films, but to be given the amount of freedom that Brian gave me was fantastic. I've never had that amount of freedom on any film or TV series since. Essentially I'd get the scripts, I think actually you'd underline, with a highlighter, the SFX shots, the special effects shots. It would say for instance 'giant spaceship lands on planet'. I'd go away and build this funny straight thing with four... I think it was the Satazius, also made in the same way as the Alpha Child ship. And it was realised that there were actually two ships in this TV series, and so Brian said to me we need to change the colour of it after we'd shot it in its silvery green colour. And you shot it in yellow, and then, I don't know who it was, somebody pointed out that most people still had black and white televisions then. So it looked like it was shooting at itself.

BJ: Not in America, though.

Martin Bower: Says it all. In America they may have seen the difference. In the end they got my battle-cruiser, ripped the front off of it, and stuck a space station on the front of it, and got a ping pong ball satellite that I'd made when I was about 15, and stuck that on the front, and sprayed it yellow, and then blew it up.

BJ: Best thing for it.

Martin Bower: I was actually really pleased to see it go.

BJ: You got paid for it.

Martin Bower: I did indeed.

Q: Quite a lot of your models got blown up.

Martin Bower: Actually very few got blown up. I'm trying to think of one you did blow up, apart from the one I've just mentioned. It was shot in the ceiling. The thing that was great about the explosions that Brian did was that previously, in Thunderbirds, explosions were done looking at the camera straight on, and things would fall down. Brian put a box in the roof, with black velvet all over it, and a hole and a whole bag of little kit bits crammed in there, with a bit of explosive behind it, and then a photograph of the spaceship in front of it. You'd come to the explosion, you'd cut to the shot of the ship, bang, filming five times normal speed, and this thing would spread out in all directions, and it looked like it was weightless. And a bit of Airfix girder bridge kit would go flying past.

Q: Gwent from Infernal Machine ended up getting thrown across the studio, didn't he?

BJ: The giant panjandrum twice over. We had problems with that. It was a on a pole. It was okay, it did what we wanted it to do, but it was a bit fiddly. The mechanisms were ...

Martin Bower: I was given a five inch diameter aluminium tube. I think Nicky Allder had put gearing in it, so the ends went round. Build me a spaceship that size. I built the spaceship, I think it was probably ten days to two weeks to do it, coming up with the quickest, most unusual design I could. I was told, to give me an idea of the scale, that an Eagle would go into the feet in one of these shots. And then Brian rang me up and said we also need one half the size for when we see it flying on its own. I hadn't taken measurements of it, so I went down and I had to measure the large one, go home, make another one and bring it down, really quickly.

BJ: That's why we gave him the job, because he could do it.

Q: There was a problem at the time with explosives, because it was in the middle of the trouble with the IRA.

BJ: We used to use a particular type of black smoke made by Brocks. It was a little can, and you lit the end and black smoke came out. The Ministry of Defence found that if you stuck a proper detonator in the end, it went off like gelignite. They changed the composition of what went in there, so instead of getting black smoke we got grey smoke, which we didn't like, we wanted black smoke. There were all sorts of problems like that. We used to get all our detonators, and then suddenly we were being checked, because those little detonators could be used to trigger a massive explosion.

We only used proprietary gunpowder from Brocks and places like that. We used measured amounts wrapped up in plastic with a little detonator inside. The effects of the rockets was some form of liquid CFC, it vaporises as it comes out of the jets. We didn't have rocket-type rockets as we did on Thunderbirds. They were steel tubes with a clay base and gunpowder rammed in with the pressure of about ten pounds per square inch, so when you lit it, it only burned from one end, it didn't go off with a big bang. We'd had enough of that when we got to Space: 1999. It was just liquid Freon.

Q: The launch pads and Moonbase Alpha, how much was made in the studio by Terry Reed?

BJ: We built all that stuff in the studio, Terry Reed and Cyril Forster.

Q: Did he have much time to do it?

BJ: We didn't have time to do anything. It was always a scramble. That was the whole point. We had to subcontract stuff, we couldn't possibly do it all in house. Unless I had a huge team, which they couldn't afford to do anyway. That's why I farmed it out.

Q: Were you generally running in front of the live action or behind the live action?

BJ: Always behind. Except for times when there were some shots when we had the effects camera on the main set at Pinewood studios, to do forced perspective stuff. Other than that, we were behind always. The editors could put stuff together and see where all the gaps would be. Sometimes in the script you'd get an effects shot, then live action, then another effects shot. When you'd look at the show, there'd be too many space shots of the Eagle just travelling through space, so you'd cut those down. That would save us a bit of time.

Q: Did the concept of Space: 1999 appeal to you?

BJ: Oh yeah, the idea of something on the moon, and I'd been there on 2001, and Moon Zero Two for Hammer. When Doug and I were working on the moonbus, we'd sort of said we could have changed this, make it look a bit more interesting photographically, because it was quite mind. In my mind, I remember doing a rough sketch, I had a bit of girder work on my moon bus, and some extra bits of plastic kit and so on. Then time went by, and when Space: 1999 came up, I saw the Eagle not as it finally wound up, but pretty well, with an escape capsule on front, and all the other pieces. So I went ahead and did some sketches for that. Then I got Michael Lamont, who was a really exceptional draughtsman at the time, production designer later, no longer with us. He drew out a rough sort of thing of the Eagle. It wasn't long enough, so we added sections, made sections bigger. Until it finally wound up the way it was.

We were at Bray Studios, and a bunch of people from 20th Century Fox came along. Peter Beale who was the head of 20th Century Fox, and bunch of other people, asked to see if they could see what we were doing, in terms of how we shot our things for Space: 1999. I explained we weren't using motion control, they asked why. It takes too long. We have to shoot 5 or 6 shots a day. (Of motion control) It's where the computer controls the movement of the camera and the shutter. As opposed to animation, like a Disney animation, where you have a series of sharp images, 25, 24, sharp images. When you see it on the screen you notice it jiggles very slightly. Whereas with motion control, you do the basic same move on a model, but the shutter is open when the camera is tracking, and you get motion blur on the model, which makes it smoother to the brain. We couldn't do motion control, because it was just not the time. We were way behind the Americans anyway. We didn't have the surplus space kit that the Americans had, all these stepper drivers and motors that you could buy second hand in a local shop.

These bunch of people from Fox came round Bray Studios. I had just the previous day signed to do the second series of Space: 1999. They came round, and two of them came up and said 'we're making this picture called Star Wars, and we'd like you to be involved'. I said 'I've just signed with Gerry Anderson to do another series of Space: 1999, I can't do it, I can't go back on that.' One of them said, 'that's alright, we're going to make 6 of these movies, we'll get you to do the second one.' They went off, later on Star Wars came out. The two guys I'd be talking to were George Lucas and Gary Kurtz.

Q: Keith Wilson was the production designer on that show.

BJ: He was also on Thunderbirds, and at AP Films. He came from the Medway School of Art, along with Ian Scoones. Keith's thing was, he was a great artist, but he had a really shaky hand. I'd watch him painting, he'd hold a brush until he got right to the paint to go on the artwork, it would completely stop shaking, until he took his hand away, and it would shake again. He was a really talented guy. We got on really well on Space: 1999. We both had this idea of modular stuff, so I had a modular Eagle that could take extra bits and pieces. And he designed the main set with all these sections, that could be put together with just a few changes. It made perfect sense. Because they had whole sets waiting to be put up, they could just make them how they wanted.

Q: Apart from the Eagle, did you take anything else from 2001?

BJ: Well, the Moonbase. The Moonbase was an homage to the base on 2001, with additional elevations. Not the same shape exactly, but still radiated out from the centre, then I put the Eagles on the pads that I had.

Q: From your point of view, how did Space: 1999 change from series 1 to 2?

BJ: I had a problem with the scripts anyway, in the first series. They were okay, but they weren't mind numbingly good. Star Trek had really good scripts. You did get involved with the characters in Star Trek. You didn't really get involved with the characters in... That's the key to everything. I liked the scenario, but the actors didn't get their teeth into the parts in the way they were allowed to in Star Trek, they were better written scripts, I think personally. And then the second series, the scripts were a disaster. We kept getting changes made all the time, I don't know where those changes came from. Some of the scripts had 6 different colours in them, where they'd changed.

Q: Did the departure of Sylvia Anderson have a profound effect?

BJ: Sylvia was the key to lots of everything working properly. I have to say that Sylvia was magnificent, we all did. Sylvia was the only one who ever visited us from the production office at Bray. Gerry never came. Well, he did in the end when he noticed my secretary. Then he married her.

Q: Why did you choose to locate yourself at Bray?

BJ: Because it was cheaper. Pinewood was really expensive. The stages they wanted to be us in were astronomic compared to Bray. And Bray being away from the main unit was brilliant. It involved me travelling backwards and forwards a lot, but it meant that we were our own little unit, and we didn't have people coming round every 5 minutes.

Q: You mentioned earlier Freddie Freiberger, the producer of the second series.

BJ: Well, he was a good writer, I'm not damning him for that. Gerry went to the states, in the course of getting the second series to go, and Abe Mandell was like the Lew Grade, the ITC guy. I don't think he wanted it to happen unless there was more American involvement in it. And Gerry met, I think, Gene Roddenberry, and said 'do you know any good script writers?'. And Gene said, 'yeah, Freddie Freiberger, he's really great'. Gene had fired him because he didn't like him. So Gerry got what Gene Roddenberry didn't like. That's the way I was told, anyway.

Q: Even though you shot it on 35mm, I guess you were taking into account that televisions certainly aren't as sophisticated then as they are now.

BJ: One of the things about making a movie is the resolution you finally get on the screen. You can shoot something in 35mm and it will be ultra-sharp, and then if it's going to go on television with 405 lines or 425 lines, the resolution isn't as great, you know there are certain things you don't have to do. That's why, when we were shooting, Derek and I, we'd say, not that we'd get away with that, but that won't show up on television, which was what we were aiming for. Little realising that later bloody blu-ray would come in.