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Doctor Who: Exclusive Interview With Effects Master And Writer Mike Tucker
By James Whittington, Monday 21st April 2014

Mike TuckerMike Tucker is one of the heroes of Doctor Who and during the pogramme’s classic and recent runs has helped bring to life some of the show’s most special effects. Here he talks about his work on the series, his writing career and about his company, The Model Unit.

HC: Did you know from a young age that you wanted to work in effects?

MT: Actually, I originally wanted to build models for the Natural History and Science Museums in London – I was fascinated as a child by the forced perspective dioramas. Then I discovered this amazing industry called special effects and the focus of that interest in models changed.

HC: Did anyone’s work influence you?

MT: If you’re around my age and into miniature effects then there’s no chance that you won’t have been influenced by the work of Derek Meddings and Ray Harryhausen. Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, UFO, the Sinbad films – all huge influences.

HC: How did you become part of the BBC’s famous Effects Department?

MT: I saw an edition of the BBC magazine programme Pebble Mill At One that featured an interview with Bernard Wilkie who was the head of the VFX dept. I got hold of a copy of his book The Technique of Special Effects in Television and that was my career path set. My parents arranged a visit to the VFX dept in the early 80’s, and I had a long talk with the guys there. I followed their advice on what courses to take, then joined as a trainee the day I left college.

HC: Your first work on Doctor Who was for The Trial Of A Time Lord, were you nervous?

MT: Excited more than nervous. To finally get to work on a show that I had loved since a child was quite a strange feeling. And to get to build the TARDIS as one of my first jobs, too.

HC: From the classic series, you’re best remembered for the work you did for the Seventh Doctor adventures. What was it like working on those stories?

MT: A lot has been written about the ‘family’ feeling that classic Doctor Who had, and it’s true, it was a very close knit team. A lot of that came down to producer John Nathan Turner setting up a kind of rep company of people he trusted, and then letting them all contribute to the final programme. The whole BBC worked in that manner back then, you were part of this very special organisation. TV Centre, Lime Grove, the BBC Film Studios at Ealing were all magical places to work.

HC: What sort of budgets did you have to work within?

MT: Very small! I was never involved in the actual budget side of the classic series as I only ever worked on it in an assistant capacity, not as a designer. But we’re talking thousands of pounds as opposed to tens of thousands.

HC: What did you learn from working on a show like Doctor Who?

MT: The challenges were always producers and directors sitting down and showing you an effects sequence or model from a film like Star Wars or Alien and saying ‘I want something like that’, and then having to go away and create a similar effect for a fraction of the budget. The melting face effect in Dragonfire is a great example. We were shown the sequence from the climax of Raiders Of The Lost Ark and then had to do something similar in a matter of days. We were always looking back at how effects were achieved in early B&W features. Some of those early FX pioneers were very clever, and the methods they created still valid.

HC: Are there any stories you wish you’d worked on?

MT: I’d have loved to do a Dalek story for the classic series, and if I’d been around in the department in the 70’s then I’d have loved to have worked on something like Seeds Of Doom or Pyramids Of Mars – a proper Tom Baker horror story.

HC: Why is it do you think viewers still prefer model shots to CGI effects?

MT: I think people like the tactile element of models. On screen I think it’s because you are intrinsically hardwired to know that the physics and dynamics of what you are seeing is correct. Also when those models and props are actually there in front of you, and you can touch them and examine them up close, then I think there is an admiration of the craft that went into their construction. It’s tricky to get the same sense of wonder when you’re looking at a wireframe model on a computer monitor, even though there’s the same level of skill that goes into its creation.

HC: What’s your proudest special effects moment from the classic series and what’s your fondest memory of working on classic Doctor Who?

MT: I’m very proud of being part of the team that did the big motion control shot for Trial Of A Time Lord, but I’m also proud of my work on Greatest Show In The Galaxy because its seamless with the live action. In terms of favourite stores then The Curse Of Fenric was a hugely enjoyable experience, both in terms of the fantastic time that we had on location as a crew, but also the quality of the end result.

HC: You’re a multi talented person who has also carved a very successful career in writing, how did that come about?

MT: I’d always had a hankering to write, and when Sophie Aldred (Ace) and I collaborated on a behind scenes book about our work on Doctor Who it allowed me access to an editor and a publishing house. That led to me doing a short story, then a novel. From there it’s just kept going as a second career running alongside my work as an effects designer.

HC: Could you tell us about your company, The Model Unit?

MT: I set up The Model Unit following the closure of the BBC VFX department in 2005. At that point I had specialised into being a designer who purely did miniature effects and wanted to continue doing that kind of work. We initially set up shop at Ealing Studios to handle the miniature effects for the BBC Krakatoa documentary and were there for the next 8 years, working on a huge variety of different projects. We’re currently at Wimbledon Studios and our work on the most recent series of Doctor Who has been handled from there.

HC: So what are you working on at the moment?

MT: We’re in discussion about a number of projects - some TV, some film, some exhibition - but I’m afraid that I can’t be any more specific than that at present!

HC: Mike Tucker, thank you very much.


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