DON'T TRY THIS AT HOME!
DOCTOR WHO'S SPECIAL EFFECTS SUPERVISOR DANNY HARGREAVES EXPLAINS THE SCIENCE OF BLOWING STUFF UP!
[Published in Doctor Who Magazine #488 (Panini UK Ltd, June 2015), pp. 20-25. Posted here by kind permission of DWM editor Tom Spilsbury.]
We then cut to Danny in protective goggles and ear defenders, holding a yellow box of controls. “So without science, this wouldn't be possible – three, two, one...” He stabs his thumb on a red button and, across the room, the head of a Cyberman is blown to tiny pieces. Danny grins at the camera. “Science is cool,” he says. Job done, the end.
Except that Doctor Who Magazine can't leave it there. We want to know more about the practical side of Danny's job – how he devises ever more amazing explosions, puts them right next to the the actors playing the Doctor and his companions, and at the same time ensures that they and the production team just off-camera are kept safe. Where do you even start?
“It’s actually a Doctor Who link that got me into special effects,” Danny tells DWM. “My mum and dad ran a pub in Ickford in Buckinghamshire and there was a gentleman who used to come in, a guy called Jack Kine.”
Kine, who died in 2005, was a major figure in special effects. In 1954, he co-founded the BBC Visual Effects Department with his colleague Bernard Wilkie, and for decades their team produced props and explosions for a huge variety of BBC programmes. When Doctor Who began in 1963, Kine helped to build the interior of the TARDIS (designed by Peter Brachacki) and the original Daleks (designed by Raymond Cusick). The only time his name appeared in Doctor Who's closing credits was as visual effects designer on The Mind Robber (1968), but his face also appeared on posters seen during Inferno (1970), where he was the leader of a brutal regime on an Earth in another dimension – an in-joke by the production team.
“I met Jack through his son-in-law, Brian, who was a sound man for the BBC,” recalls Danny. “I didn’t really know about special effects, but I thought, 'Okay, that sounds interesting.' So I sat down with this gentleman who was blind in one eye and quite elderly. He told me stories about working on Doctor Who and it just flicked a light inside my head. After that, when I watched films like The Terminator or Aliens, I looked a little bit closer. I'd think, 'Somebody is there creating that action – how?' That was the catalyst. Jack made me appreciate special effects. So, yeah, Doctor Who got me into it.”
This new-kindled interest led Danny to work experience at a special effects company in 1994.
“I was only 15 but I lied and said I was 16,” he laughs. “I was very young – but very lucky, because I got to go on set and help prepare something for the very first episode of Bugs [the BBC's 1990s sci-fi adventure series]. That was my first taste of film-making.”
After that, Danny did odd days on various productions before, in 1995, joining the crew of London's Burning, an ITV drama series about a fire brigade.
“I did a huge chunk of that as a junior. I was 17 – just a kid really – but got exposed to great effects: big fires and explosions and some big set pieces. And I'm watching and learning all that. That's how I cut my teeth.”
London's Burning ran until 2002, but Danny had other work, too.
“Working in special effects, you can be contracted on different projects at once,” he explains. “The company I worked for, they'd just say, 'Today, you're doing this...' One day, it was 'Go to Ealing Studios [in West London] and drop off something at Stage B.' I didn't know what I was going to, but I got there, found the rest of the team and they said, 'You have to be careful, this is all really secret... because we're working on Star Wars!'”
Danny's clearly a big fan of the Star Wars movies.
“Oh yeah!” he enthuses. “So I was just like, 'What?' And then out the door walks [Star Wars creator] George Lucas and Anthony Daniels who played C-3PO. They were talking to us, and I was just...” He tails off, still not quite able to believe it. “Yeah, that was an incredible week of work. A real dream come true.”
Another good job, overlapping with the others, was ITV drama Hornblower (1998-2003), based on CS Forrester's novels about a naval officer during the Napoleonic Wars.
“That was a big period of my life, maybe five years. We filmed out in Minorca, and I was working with Paul McGann!” He laughs. “I was still quite junior then. Obviously, I saw Paul for [2013 Doctor Who mini-episode] The Night of the Doctor and he kept looking at me. So I introduced myself again and he said yeah, he recognised me – but I doubt he did!”
Danny was learning his craft and in 2000 gained his first on-screen credit, as special effects technician on Shiner, a crime thriller starring Michael Caine.
“Yeah, I did a bunch of films. There were a few days as a 'standby' on [2002 sci-fi film] 28 Days Later. Like I said, I went wherever they sent me.”
In 2004, that meant heading to Cardiff for the first recording block of the revived Doctor Who.
“It was the first or second week, I think. We were doing the Autons [from opening episode Rose]. The thing is – this is quite a heartfelt story – I knew at the time that Jack Kine was on his deathbed. And I knew what it would mean to him, so I sent a message: 'Please pass on to Jack that I'm working on Doctor Who and all thanks to him.' I got a response back that he was very pleased and proud.”
Danny continued to work on Doctor Who throughout that first year.
“I worked on every episode, coming and going as we were needed.” Danny worked under supervisor Alex Gurucharri – but as production started on the 2006 series, Gurucharri decided on a change of career and left the special effects industry. “Alex is still a good mate of mine, and he'd helped build up my skills. So when he went, people felt confident I could continue in his place. Which meant I ran the floor. I think the very first thing I ran the effects on was School Reunion , when the car smashes into the side of the school.”
The following episode, The Girl in the Fireplace, saw Danny's first appearance in the programme's closing credits, as special effects technician. Since The Sound of Drums in 2007, he's been credited for the more senior role of special effects supervisor. As well as every episode of Doctor Who since its 2005 return, Danny worked on every episode of the spin-off series Torchwood (2006-11) and The Sarah Jane Adventures (2007-11).
“And every episode of [BBC One's] Sherlock, too. Yeah, it's been a busy few years.”
Before asking Danny about particular Doctor Who episodes and effects, what does it take to become a special effects supervisor? Not just anyone can work with explosives, can they?
“That's correct,” says Danny. “My business is regulated by [trade union] BECTU.” With the BBC, ITV and the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television (PACT), BECTU runs the Joint Industry Grading Scheme (JIGS) to ensure safety standards and provide accreditation for those working in the industry. “It means people making film and TV get someone who knows what they're doing. If you want to be a doctor, you need qualifications – this is the same thing.”
BECTU divides special effects into three distinct categories: physical, pyrotechnic and visual special effects. “Physical means collapsing sets, atmospherics – rain and snow effects – and mechanical systems and rigs. Pyrotechnics doesn’t just mean explosives but fire and smoke, and various other things.”
Danny is a graded supervisor in both these disciplines, which are produced live in front of the camera. Visual special effects, by contrast, tend to be added to a live image, and include 'blue screen', model miniatures and CGI.
“There isn’t anyone that’s a supervisor in all three. Maybe I should look at that and be the first! But it takes a minimum of something like 15 or 20 years to get a certain grading. Right now, I’m going for my Institute of Explosive Engineers qualification, which would mean I had some letters after my name – a sort of doctor of explosives!”
What does it take to gain these qualifications?
“I've done a number of courses. The beginner and intermediate ones are a mix of hands-on stuff and theory, whereas the advanced courses are only theory.”
He gives an example. “There's sympathetic detonation. Basically, if you put two explosives too close to each other, there’s every chance that one going off will set off the other. You could have a load of bullet strafes – a series of little bangs – in water. If you haven’t spaced the bangs out correctly, when you press the button instead of going off in sequence – bang-bang-bang-bang – they all go up at once. So you work out the spacing in accordance with the volume of high explosives used. It’s a real science.”
So does the job involve a lot of Maths and Physics?
“To be honest, I tend to stay away from the HE [high explosive] stuff unless I really need it, like when I have to blow up an aircraft hanger or some big building, or for a spaceship crash. But those big effects are expensive and come round maybe once a series. The main types of explosive I use are black powder, flash powder and titanium, that type of smaller scale product.”
Danny also works closely with the Firearms & Explosives Licensing Department of South Wales Police, and has an 'acquire' licence through the Health and Safety Executive that allows him to buy explosive materials.
“At the same time, explosives are very expensive so if I don’t need it, I won’t buy it. I don’t have a huge magazine of explosives because I don’t like the responsibility of keeping that type of product under one roof. I allocate appropriate explosives for each job and budget that accordingly. So I never really have excess around.”
The police and HSE only give permission to use explosives to what Danny calls “'responsible people'. You have to prove that's what you are. So being graded as a JIGS and BECTU supervisor, also being quite senior within the BBC or ITV, that helps. I’m running a business that uses explosives so I talk at length with the police. It’s important they know my team are in sound body and mind. But, for example, that means it's hard for me to employ people who have been in prison.”
“Yeah, you need a clean record. If I misbehave or don't keep up with local legislation, then it's easy for them to take my licence away. And my licence, and my public liability insurance and all those kinds of things, are really important. Productions take it for granted that I'm allowed to buy and transport explosives, and know how to store them and use them correctly. But that's how it should be. We're not playing with toys. These are proper big bangs.”
Danny's keen to stress that there's more to the job than having the right papers.
“It’s like learning to drive. You pass your test, you get your licence, but you don't really learn driving until you start out on the road on your own. You can’t learn what we learn from a textbook, you learn it doing the job. It's very hard to get that experience quickly.”
“Say we're on a shoot in a building. The camera is going to follow two actors, and then behind them there's an explosion. I work with the director and the camera team to set the frame and agree what we'll see in the shot. I have to be able to tell them where the fireball is going to go, how high it’s going to go, where it's going to reach to, where we can put the crew, and the Doctor, so it looks good but also so they're safe.”
And how do you know that?
“First, you calculate your environment: where you are, the temperature of the air, the location you’re filming in, the weather, the time of day, the wind. All of that comes before you even think what explosives to use. Then it's the amount of explosive – one gram, two grams, 10 grams, 100 grams... Or it can even be milligrams. Then you decide what fuel to use: will it be napthalene, petrol, diesel or kerosene? Then how much fuel – one litre, two litres, five or even 10. Those contributing factors make the difference between an effect not happening or it killing someone, or between it going well or it looking awesome. But the margin of error can be half a teaspoon or just a millimetre. All the time, you’re on set with a filming schedule and so many scenes to get done in that day. There's 50 or 60 crew around you, and some major actor in front of you and you've got about 15 minutes to set it up. You do that, you set if off, make it look amazing, and then it's on to the next scene.” He laughs. “It’s tough, but I love it. I absolutely adore my job.”
Let's talk specifically about Doctor Who.
“Okay. Well, one of the perks of this job is when we get scripts through. I get really excited reading them. It's like, 'What are we doing this time? Oh, multi-explosions in an urban area, then a tank fires at a building! Well, that's going to be awesome. So, how are we going to do it?'”
Danny works with the rest of the production and effects teams to work out the practicalities of who will do what and how.
“Yeah, and we divide it up – usually it's pretty clear.” Usually? “Sometimes things go to VFX I think we should have had.”
Can he give us an example? He considers.
“In Victory of the Daleks (2010), there's a bit where the super-Daleks turn on the ordinary Daleks and destroy them, and I remember we were talking about this in a meeting. I was all for big explosives, to show these new Daleks meant business.”
“But then the location was going to be quite tricky. It was a confined space and we couldn't damage it, and we wouldn't be able to rig the Daleks in position because of how we were going to shoot the rest of the scenes there. So when the super-Daleks blast the old ones, it was done in CGI. It looked fine, but you know, I was so gutted. We could have really done something there.” He laughs. “You win some, you lose some. And don't get me wrong, we work closely with VFX, we complement each other and between us we come up with the best option for any episode. There are always limitations – it might be monetary or the location or time. But just that once...”
Danny talked about the size and scale of explosions, but surely he also needs to consider other things – like the colour of the flames.
“Yeah, I've done a few TARDIS scenes where, when something's gone wrong in the story, we've had green or blue flames coming out of the console. If an alien has a particular laser gun, I can match that. I'll say to the VFX team, 'What colour are you doing the laser?' They'll say 'Pink,' and I'll see what I've got.'
DWM remembers a bit of GCSE Chemistry, and how different elements burn with different coloured flames. Potassium gives a bright pink flame, while copper burns blue-green and can give off flashes of white.
“Yeah,” says Danny. “I used to be in the back of my van, experimenting like a mad professor and mixing up stuff to create the right effect. But now, to be honest, there are so many products you can buy off the shelf for different coloured flames, it's pretty straightforward. They'll say a particular gun shoots a blue laser, and I'll find some explosive sparks to match that shade of blue. You can see that sort of thing through the course of the series.”
Does it make a difference to Danny's choice of explosives what format the programme is shot in? Since Planet of the Dead (2009), Doctor Who has been made in high definition, while The Day of the Doctor (2013) was recorded in 3D. Surely an explosion is still an explosion however you record it?
“Absolutely, but there are things you have to consider. With HD, you need to be more careful there aren't firing cables in shot. When we shot in 3D, production moved slightly slower than normal. I mean, 3D has been used for years, but the cameras we used on The Day of the Doctor are normally reserved for film-making, which moves at a much slower pace and has a lot more money behind it. So it was very demanding, with more pressure because scenes took longer to set up. The longer that takes, the less there's time to shoot it, which meant you really had to nail all the effects first time.”
But once the decision has been made about which effects Danny will work on, he's pretty much left to get on with it, he reveals.
“The production team trust me. I don’t have to present mood boards or examples of what we're going to do. Even Steven [Moffat, head writer] now sometimes won't really describe an effect in the script. It's just, 'Spaceship explodes – Danny.' So effectively what you see on the screen is what I thought of on the day.”
That trust was certainly evident in 2008 when the special effects company Danny had been working for disbanded.
“That wasn't a great time. Everything was very uncertain – but you just try to keep on with the job. Then the team at Doctor Who approached me. They said, 'Look, we know you're thinking of starting up your own business' – which I had been, but only a bit. They said, 'Would you consider Doctor Who as your first contract?' They took a massive risk on me. I mean, I was 29. They knew I could deliver the effects, but could I run a business?”
How long did Danny have to consider?
“Are you kidding? They were giving me this incredible opportunity, of course I’m going to grab it!” Danny's company, Real SFX, has been working on Doctor Who ever since. “I’m not going to say it’s been easy. God, no. There's been a lot of sleepless nights. But I’ve built up a world class team and I’m immensely proud of them. We’re working on some incredible jobs now. We’re obviously with Doctor Who, but there's also Sherlock and the rest of the BBC dramas, and then films come forward as well.”
So Danny was in the right place at the right time?
“Yeah, but because I put the hours in. I lived in London and worked in Cardiff for nearly 10 years, travelling up and down the M4 all the time. Then I started my business here in Cardiff – I moved here three years ago. Yeah, I was lucky, but I'd also earned my stripes.”
Okay, we have to ask: given how risky some of his work is, have there ever been any accidents while Danny's worked on the show? He sighs.
“I can tell you a couple of incidences. Oh God, I'm going to regret this. In A Christmas Carol (2010), there's the bit where the Doctor comes down the chimney and bursts out of the fireplace. You watch it: before he appears, this great fireball comes out of the fireplace. Well, that wasn’t meant to happen.The fire was lit, and before the stuntman in the chimney jumped down and rolled through it, I was meant to drop a product on to the fireplace that would extinguish the flames. Well, there wasn't enough of that product, so it turned the flames into a huge fireball. Still, it looked awesome and they kept it in the programme.
“Another time, when David Tennant and Billie Piper were in the TARDIS and something happens, and I'd put a big bang up above them. And it caught David's hair and singed it. Yeah, you shouldn't set the Doctor on fire.” In fact, says Danny, “David Tennant always got closer to the effects than I ever wanted him to. He loved it, he loved it all, but I was constantly going, 'David, come away!'”
How does it work – is there a ratio, where for every X grams of explosive, the actor must keep Y metres away?
“Yeah, absolutely. And that means I rarely need to use a stunt person instead of the actor. I think it’s important that the viewers at home get the opportunity to see their hero right in there as it's blowing up.”
Why's that important?
“An eight year-old watching Doctor Who is also watching films like The Avengers or Captain America, and he or she demands exactly the same level of special effects. Now, I can't compete with a $300 million film like that – I've probably only got the money they spend on their paninis. But there are things we can do that will grab you. For example, a lot of the time an effect comes at the end of a scene. You could film the action, then stop and set up the explosion and shoot it separately. But it's much more effective to run the whole scene and go straight into the explosion, all in one take, so you know it's real. I call them trailer moments – they're always used in the trailers, these big special effects with the Doctor right at the centre. They’re the effects I love.”
Danny's has worked with several different actors playing the Doctor over the years. Do they all approach effects in the same way?
“They all want to make it look good, and they all listen,” says Danny. “Some are more confident than others. Matt Smith could be jumpy around bangs and whizzes. He was always, 'Let's do it, big as you like!' But I know it sometimes made him nervous. Still, look what he did – he built that into the character of the Doctor and it really works!”
Do any actors not even flinch when the room is exploding around them? Danny laughs.
“Mr Capaldi. He’s a tough cookie, I can tell you. He’s Scottish. It’s very rare to get him psyched out. I've got to try harder, haven't I?”
How does Danny prepare actors for a big explosion?
“I'll take a moment before we set up to have a conversation with them. I might not talk about the effect we’re doing, I’ll just talk about anything. From that, it’s a bit of a psychology. I need to know how they’re feeling. Are they nervous? Are they going to listen or are they distracted? You can tell a lot from just watching them: do they seem engaged with what's happening around them or are they looking at their phone?”
“I'm trying to gauge their mood because the things we do can be tense and scary. I’ve just done a huge action sequence on [ITV soap opera] Coronation Street, where we set fire to a block of flats. We had actors in a room which was on fire, and one of those actresses was 12 years old. It’s my job to make sure that that person – and everyone on set – is safe, but I've also got to be confident that they'll do what I want them to, that they're paying attention to what I say. Some people freak out. They might not go wild, but they kind of stop listening – and of course that can be dangerous. So it's important we take our time. We chat, I put them at their ease. I react to how they are, and if they're nervous I'll work with them a bit longer until everyone's okay.”
On the website of Danny's company, Real SFX, a video showreel boasts highlights of the company's work. There are examples from a lot of different TV shows and films, with plenty of explosions, burning buildings, car crashes and gun fights. There are also lots of clips from Doctor Who, but it's striking how many of those are examples of effects on a smaller scale. There's Sarah Jane Smith pointing her sonic lipstick at a padlock – which sparks and pops open. There's the spooky, smoky forest from Hide in 2013, and the Doctor being dipped in red goo in The Crimson Horror from that same year.
“Yeah, there's definitely more variety on Doctor Who,” agrees Danny. “Big stuff, little stuff, stuff that's really mad. Those smaller, weirder effects, they can be tricky to do. But we wanted the showreel to show the variety. I could easily have made it 90 per cent explosions, but that isn't what special effects is about.
“Like I said before, a lot of the time you learn to do something by doing it – because you get requests for things that've never been done. Like dipping Matt [Smith] in the red stuff. I had to build something for that, and build it to a specification that’s safe for an actor to use. You build it, you take it to set, you rig it up – and all of a sudden you're the world authority on this thing. You have to be, because you're the one that the actor – the main actor if it's Matt – needs to have complete confidence in. You're playing with his life, or you can do him serious damage. So yeah, you've got to know what you're doing. And you do, and you execute the effect, and then you get rid of that rig and it's on to the next thing. That's how it is all the time, and it's what we tried to show in the showreel.
“Aside from the big, close proximity explosive stuff, rigs like that are the hardest things we do. Building stuff that's safe for an actor to use and play with – and let me tell you, actors play. I have to treat actors like children. We did a story with swords, Robot of Sherwood (2014), and I'm thinking, 'Would I give my own child this sword?' If not, I can't give that sword to an actor. They'll want to play, or they'll get bored or they'll be clumsy, and before you know it they'll have cut off their own fingers. So what I can do to make it safe? I blunt the sword, or make a plastic version, something they can't damage themselves with – or break. That's the kind of thing we do day to day.”
But it's the larger scale stuff that tends to stick in the memory and, asked what effects he's most proud of, Danny cites those 'trailer moments' that we spoke of before. “There's that bit from Voyage of the Damned (2007), with David Tennant walking towards camera as it's all exploding around him. That was my first big sequence to put together as supervisor, where I laid everything out myself. The boys stayed late that night to help make it look really good – which it did. I was really proud of that, and you still see it all the time.
“There's another in the same episode, with Kylie Minogue. We were in this deserted or derelict steel plant. I had one of the world’s most famous women in the middle of all these explosions and I just had to be sure that she was going to be safe. And she was, and it looked great and I'm really proud of that, especially because it was so early on into my supervisory career.”
“More recently, there's the biggest explosion we ever did, on [2011 Torchwood series] Miracle Day. Gwen is on a motorbike and she blows up an aircraft hanger. It’s a huge explosion which looks like the building is exploding, but it’s not – the explosion is in front of the hanger. It was only meant to be half that size but I’d got all the product there in the van so we could try it twice, and because of time we were never going to have a second go. So I thought, 'Why not use everything?' Yeah, that was pretty impressive.”
But Danny's proudest of his work on The Day of the Doctor, the special episode made in 3-D that marked Doctor Who's 50th anniversary in 2013.
“Compare Voyage of the Damned, when I was just starting, with the 50th and you can see how far we've come. It's really the crowning point of my career. There's that sequence early on, the fall of Gallifrey, where we had all those explosions and Daleks blowing up. And running in between them, we had children! That was super, super hard to achieve, what with the 3D. We had ash, we had explosions, we had fire, we had smoke, we had Daleks, we had all sorts. And we only had two nights to do it. I'm immensely proud to get that sequence. And [director] Nick Hurran bought me a bottle of Champagne afterwards, he was so happy with the way it looked.”
So what changed between Voyage of the Damned and The Day of the Doctor to make such a difference?
“It's purely my experience,” says Danny. “I've used different techniques, I've experimented with new things, I've learnt my craft and we've pushed what we can do. It's not just me – all of us, in all the different teams.”
Last year, the team again pushed what could be done to launch the new incarnation of the Doctor, as played by Peter Capaldi.
“There was a special promo we did for the first look at Mr Capaldi as the Doctor [prior to his first full episode, Deep Breath, in August 2014]. It was a trailer and some short idents with him at the TARDIS console, an explosion and a flash where you see through his chest to the skeleton.”
“We filmed that with a camera called a Phantom, which shoots at 2,000 frames a second. We very, very rarely use this camera on Doctor Who but I scream for it all the time. Because it shoots at such a high frame rate, you see all the detail of the flames.”
But the special camera wasn't enough for Danny.
“I've been linked to this show for so long,” he says. “I've done events and things to promote it, I've been to America and seen the fans out there. I see the love that this show gets. And I knew these particular shots for the trailer would be shown all over the world, probably more so than the scene we were going to shoot for an actual episode later that afternoon. So I decided to go hell for leather with big fireballs on the console, in close proximity to the Doctor. I figured it was essential to get something that visual and dramatic. That was the idea.”
Danny laughs. “Oh God, I always get in trouble for this. Because they were filming more stuff that afternoon, I promised [Doctor Who's production designer] Michael Pickwad that I would not damage the TARDIS. It looked great when we did. But I, um, well... We melted the TARDIS console.”
“If you look at it now, you can still it's a bit scorched,” he confesses. “But it’s okay. When we worked on the previous consoles, there were all these bangs and they left their marks. I could pretty much identify which scorch mark in the TARDIS came from which scene. And I think it makes the TARDIS look a bit more experienced. I had to do that to the new TARDIS, or it looked too clean. I guess it's what we do: try and add texture to make it a little more interesting. And you know what? Fans come and see the TARDIS set now, they'll see that scorch mark and they'll know it's real.”
HE'S NO SWEETIE
“I was deprived of Doctor Who when I was young,” says Danny. “I watched the end of Sylvester McCoy [in the late 1980s], and then it wasn't on screen for so long – and when it returned with Christopher Eccleston, I was working on it.”
What does he remember of the Doctor Who he saw as a child?
“I remember one particular episode, with Sylvester McCoy being chased round some vat of something by the Kandyman.” He shudders at this thought of The Happiness Patrol (1988), and a diabolical robot who looked as if he'd been constructed from liquorice allsorts. “The Kandyman just freaked me out. As with episodes now, it's really scary if you take something in everyday life – an object, a person or even a sweet – and turn them into a monster that people can relate to. Doctor Who does that so well.”
Danny notes that it's more than the costume and effects that make the Kandyman scary.
“Totally. There's the way he's played, the movement, all of that. Yeah, it's really weird. To be honest, if they ever bring him back, someone else can do it. I'm not going to be on set.”