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The Man Who Makes Miracles

Brian Johnson, Special Effects Director of TV's Space: 1999.
The Man Who Makes Miracles

The Man Who Makes Miracles

Photoplay - Vol. 91, No. 1, January 1977 p42
Article Source Provided by: Curt Duckworth

Did you ever wonder where science fiction specialists get the inspiration for their far-out visions of the future? Well, hold onto your hat! Brian Johnson, the special effects director of TV's Space: 1999, got the idea for the Eagle (the jetcraft that transports people on Moonbase Alpha) from looking at a grasshopper. Yes, a grasshopper! "I often base my designs on insects," says Brian, who is an engineer as well as a special effects expert. "Insects have such interesting shapes. I live in the English countryside and my house is in the woods, so I'm constantly aware of insects and birds, and all that sort of thing.

"I think I designed the Eagle in a couple of minutes. I had been reading a book about insects and I had this rather large-headed thing, with ponderous folded-up wings, in my mind. Then I thought, "It needs modular fuel cells," and it all came together very quickly. I did a fast sketch and I didn't modify it very much after that. Of course, I took actual engineering realities into consideration. I was the one who suggested that the show have some kind of transporter that carried people around the Moon's surface. For that you'd want something that just sort of pops up a bit and then throttles along, lifted by little thruster jets underneath. And then, for when you are in space, it might be handy to have different segments that you could lift up and put other things in."

It all sounds very technical doesn't it? Well, it isn't as complicated as it sounds. Brian Johnson has been doing special effects for several years and dreaming up spacecrafts and trick explosions in his everyday job. "For Space: 1999, I was right in from the beginning, when we wrote the format of the show -- which is very unusual for a special effects director. But it was necessary in this case because there is such a high content of special effects. I am responsible for all the explosions, all the visual trickery that goes on. I'm not responsible for props, make-up, or the interior sets. However, if the writers dream up something for me to do that I think it can't be done, it's scrubbed out."

One of the things that sets the limits on what is possible to do and what isn't is the time factor. Brian and his crew of builders and craftsmen have only three weeks to get the models designed and built for each episode. Then, the special effects crew has ten days to shoot 50 shots of special effects, the optical tricks that make Space: 1999 so interesting to watch. Also in the same ten days, the main unit shoot their 48 minutes of film. "Each special effect has to be worked out step by step," Brian explains. Because of their complexity, some shots take several weeks to film, shots that are only a few minutes out of a total episode.

Since work began on the series, in 1973, Brian is happy to report that there have been no accidents. "We can't afford to have accidents. Occasionally, you have a minor mishap, like a wire not working properly. But we've never lost a man, or any equipment. We still have the original Eagle."

"The Eagle is only 44 inches long. To get the illusion of flying, we move the camera while the Eagle is resting on black velvet. Then we fill in the background later. You wind the film back into the camera, then you line up the planet, or whatever it is that you are filming, and shoot again. Sometimes we take as many as 17 shots, which are used simultaneously to create a certain effect on film. Once I had to have an exodus of 15 Eagles in motion. Since we only have one model of the Eagle [Note: Of that size, at that time], I had to reshoot the one jetcraft over and over again, relapping images on a single negative of film."

Brian's other special effects credits include many TV projects and feature films, 2001 and The Day the Earth Caught Fire among them. But Brian finds that his success with Space: 1999 has made him a kind of celebrity. For Brian, it's "overwhelming but fun." It sure has had a "special effect" on him!

Space: 1999 copyright ITV Studios Global Entertainment
Thanks to Robert Ruiz