The Catacombs Catacombs Reference Library
Brian Johnson interview

Interview with Brian Johnson


by Doug Murray and Tom Rogers

Fantasy Film Preview Book (1977, p22). Includes photo of Johnson in Metamorph graveyard.

When Space: 1999 was conceived, it was Brian Johnson who was asked to be creator and director of visual effects. On 2001, you could spend weeks talking about a problem before doing anything in it. On Space: 1999, we've had to produce five shots a day, every day, for two and a half years. And what's more, we have had to produce results that are acceptable to a very analytical audience. We're not showing his to people who don't know anything bout space, because the entire American public is involved in space exploration. If you look at earlier science fiction series, they had very few special effects. Star Trek, for instance, often just had a standard planet, and a standard shot of the Enterprise, and that's it. We've had to create a new spacecraft every episode, and a new planet nearly every episode. And they all have to tie in with the art department, and the main unit shots, and everything else. It's just one long struggle.

One long struggle, perhaps--but a struggle that made Space: 1999 both plausible and entertaining to millions each week. Brian Johnson was the man for the job, even though his biggest obstacle was one that seemed insurmountable: When you see an Eagle landing at Moonbase Alpha at least three times in every script, you go mad. After two and a half years, repetition is inevitable, and it ends to produce low-key solutions to problems. You have to force yourself a lot to do this.

And Brian Johnson succeeded. His effects are always interesting, always a joy to watch--and the man himself is he same way--interesting, humorous, and a joy to talk to, as the following interview proves.

What exactly is meant by the claim that you create and supervise the special effects?

I'm responsible for designing all the models. Because it"s a TV series, I have to shoot 5 days a week, 10 days each show. You just can"t do any animation- it"s just out.

What about Magicam

Well, I suppose we could use Magicam if they can afford to add it on top of the budget that they"re spending already. Magicam is not a cheap system. The logistics of bringing it over to England to shoot all the stuff would be highly expensive. Since the system is different, it's going to make things very awkward. There are no spare parts, and we would need about eight electronic freaks to keep the thing going. I would very much doubt if we could use Magicam.

Why, in particular, are special effects so costly?

Well, that's a debatable point, really, It depends upon what you mean by "costly". They say that they're the most costly special effects that have ever been included in a production, it's the number of shots per episode, and that sort of thing. But I don't think they're that costly. The publicity leads you to believe that the special effects take up a major portion of the budget. I don't think that it would be unfair to say that I doubt whether it's above the 25% mark. It might even be an low as 10%. I really don't think that it's the most expensive section of the filming.

Are you taking into consideration the salaries of the personnel involved, also?

Yes. I'll give you an example, which has nothing to do with Space: 1999 I did a show for NBC-TV, called The Day After Tomorrow. I did all the special effects for $35,000, which was about 25,000 pounds. The total budget was 105,000 pounds. There was a very high special effects content in that film and I shot the whole thing in three weeks.

I enjoyed that program very much, and I was hoping that it was a pilot. Was the series sold?

Well, they're still talking about doing a series of thirteen episodes.

Do you take part in the actual construction of the Space: 1999 models?

Ho yeah. The way we build models in very simple. We just get a shape, which we make out of pressed wax, or whatever, tubing and stuff. I use a little architectural plastic tubing, which comes from Germany. You buy them in standard sizes, which are about a meter in length, and you have a complete range of diameters. You have tubes which slide inside of each other, and square sections, and we use a form of special ether glue, which sticks in five seconds. You can therefore build these things up very quickly. We bought hundreds and hundreds of dollars worth of plastic kits. We just take them out of the boxes and peel off the bits we want, getting buckets and buckets of bits and pieces--tray after tray of stuff

Did you design moonbase alpha?


What did you use for reference? In 1969, NASA was planning a moonbase alpha, and that's exactly what they were calling it.

Well, that may have been a sort of psychological, subliminal thing. I didn't really copy anything specifically. Incidentally, somebody told me that Isaac Asimov thought that my Eagle was the best thing he had ever seen, with regard to a lunar rover-type ship. I'm quite flattered by that. I'm one of his biggest fans.

Do you take part in the actual floor effects of Space: 1999?

Yes, I have a go at everything. It depends on how the time is though. I have somebody who's resident floor effects man, who does all the smoke and that sort of thing. This is because my studio is ten miles away, which I did deliberately. If you work on a television series, and the directors of the live-action side know that the special effects crew is just around the corner, you find them popping in while you're shooting. It's very difficult to stop people on the set from coming in. You can't have the doors locked with a guard by the door all the time because that creates a very bad impression. So I just moved my crew away. We're at Bray Studios, which is the old Hammer movie area, and in that way nobody sees what we're doing. When we shoot rushes, we shoot the clapper board so that nobody sees behind the models--that is, people walking about and things. They just see a black screen on the wall, with the numbers up, and then they set the shot. This is because of the illusion that we create. We've got just as many critics in the business as you have for other things. If you showed the general public the shot with people standing on the set, the illusion is lost. It's because they cannot relate the scales to the big things that they believe what they're seeing. If you suddenly put someone halfway down the set, standing behind a row of buildings or something, they've got that in their minds from then on, and when they see the shot they relate it to what they saw before. This gives the game away just the same as if a matte artist showed the actual glass shot, and he might show a few gradings of color, and whatever. They sometimes show producers things like that, and that's the worst thing that they could possibly do. We made the mistake of doing that in the beginning with Stanley Kubrick--showing rushes, showing the components--and then the thing matted together. For Stanley, that was out because as soon as be knew where everything was, he didn't like the shot. So we have to do it over again, and it would be very frustrating. I think there's a great psychology involved in doing special effects. The less you show people on the screen how you do it, the better it is.

Occasionally, the wires on the Eagle models are clearly visible on the film. Whose fault is that?

Well, I'm afraid that's our fault, but very often we don't have time to go back and shoot it again because of the time element. That really is bad news, and I fight to get to redo the shots. If we have spare time, we do them over, but very often we're so pushed that we can't afford to. Sometimes, it's the gradings. When you do shots, you have them graded the way you want to see it, and you can't see any wires. And then, for some reason or other, they do the release prints and they alter the gradings, and they put everything up a few points lighter, which is just enough to bring out the wires. You'd be surprised at what little difference in lighting it takes. Sometimes, they muff it up so much that you can see the wires. Hopefully, it doesn't happen too often.

What about optical effects? Do you take part in those, also?

We have an optical house, and I just give them instructions, and they go ahead and do it.

Are you usually pleased with them?

Not always. I really want an optical printer in the studio, but it's too expensive. It costs about $75-$1OO,O0O per device, and then you need an operator for it. With all the things involved, it becomes very expensive.

Can't one be rented?

We don't have facilities for renting anything. Maybe over here you do, but in England you have to buy one. Then you"ve got to sell it at the end of the series. I may well be buying one myself shortly, but it's a question of raising more money, plus a few other things involved.

What happens to the marvellous models, and the props from Space: 1999 after you use them?

The models are stored, and some-times we revamp and repaint them--change the colours, alter their con-figurations, put new front ends on, change the thruster tubes, or whatever--to make another model. We cannibalise all the time.

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, you actually created some of the aliens for it.

I did, but they were never used.

I've always had a lot of complaints about the film.

If you speak to Arthur Clarke, you'll find that he gave up in the end because it was a long, hard struggle. In his book, there's almost no relation to what we shot. Stanley Kubrick had a man come over from New York, with a very striking voice to do the narrative--the whole movie originally going to have a voice-over narrative from end to end. The narrative was marvellous. It really explained everything, and it answered those great, gaping questions that people wondered about. Some critics didn't know quite what to do, so they said that the film was brilliant, but as a matter of fact if the truth be known it was a terrible compromise. They had run out of money.

I've always loved the effects, but I don't like movies without stories.

I couldn't agree more. It's just a collection of beautiful shots. But then, Stanley tends to be like that, doesn't he? He does tend to jump around. He's very confusing, and the interesting thing is that he will not have what we term a rough cut. He cuts the picture once, and that's it. And he very rarely trims it up.

I guess that he believes if you don't do it right the first time, you shouldn't redo it.

Well, then he should do his special effects the same way, because the number of times we reshot things is unbelievable

Is this business very frustrating, as a rule?

It can be very frustrating. It's an art form, but it's dictated by monetary considerations to such an extent that people will be very idealistic in the beginning. However, when it comes to you saying that we're going to need a bit more money to do this, they'll say, "We can't afford it--this is a TV show, and we've got a budget." So you have to compromise.

Are you are under contract with ITC entertainment?

I'm not under contract. I'm on a two-week hire and fire basis. While I remain working with ITC, I'm not supposed to do anything else, but I'm lining up a feature film called The Return Of The Mekon. It's based on Dan Dare, who's a British comic strip hero. I imagine that it will be as good as 2001. It's going to be like 2001, if I have anything to do with it. I hear that it's going to be a really fun movie. I was asked to do Superman, but I turned it down because Guy Hamilton is the director, and he's bad news. I foresee a lot of trouble for that movie, production-wise.

What do you think of Star Trek?

I like it, but the special effects are very repetitious. I mean, they're basically just a few colour changes. It's a different show from Space: 1999. They made each episode of Star Trek in six days, and I don't really like the way they optically shot it. Take that annoying distance shot of the spaceship, Enterprise. It doesn't change direction or anything. But I think the show is great, and the good scriptwriting in line with very good direction more than make up for inadequate production systems.

Space: 1999 copyright ITV Studios Global Entertainment