Monday, November 09, 2009

Blake's 7 Visual FX : Part 1 - The Liberator

What struck me a long time ago while watching Blake's 7 as a kid was how the FX were no were near as good as those from Space 1999 or any of the other Gerry Anderson shows, it was only from reading magazines such as Starburst with interviews with people who helped create the FX work like Mat Irvine, Ian Scoones, Martin Bower, Jim Francis that I found out that the BBC Visual Effects Dept had a fraction of the money to work their wonders than the likes of Derek Meddings and Brian Johnson had over at Gerry Anderson's production studios.

The main problem with the Liberator for many people is it's scale, how big it's meant to be in the show. Martin Bower has recounted in several interviews how he was handed an already built 3 foot white spaceship model with a green ball stuck on one end, a ball which Bower originally assumed was the ships cockpit, which Ian Scoones Blake's 7 FX supervisor told him was actually the engine.With any lack of surface detail the ship looked like it could be maybe around 10 foot in length, not a huge spacecraft like it was meant to be.
Bower's main problem while adding detail was due to the small nature of the actual miniature, but the fact it was meant to be such a large ship, was every time he added a kit part as detail it looked completely out of scale, thus most of the surface detail was painted on with panel lines added in ballpoint pen, Bower also added the lines onto the green ball to break up it plainness.
The first appearance of the Liberator in Episode 2 of series 1 (Pic A) was an impressive shot, a photographic cut out used to nice effect. After this initial shot we were given a very inconsistent array of shots, the quality of lighting, scale, focus altered from shot to shot. Shots such as A,D and G work really nice, on the other end of the scale B,E and F are either blurry or look like the Corgi die-cast miniature hung on a wire. (Pic I) also uses the photographic cut out technique, but due to the background it gives the shot a more stylised almost cartoon appearance. There are also a number of very wobbly fly-by's were the ship can be seen to sway as the starfield goes by.
As I said at the top, the BBC were doing their FX work on a much smaller budget than a show like Star Trek or Space 1999, and to many including myself the Liberator became the British USS Enterprise, a really iconic ship design.

One thing I think gives the ship it's lack of scale is the fact it doesn't have any windows or running lights, though in some episodes the crew are in rooms that have small windows, ships such as the Enterprise, the Battlestar Galactica and the Star Destroyer from Star Wars, all big ships, have one thing in common, they have visible windows, and a window gives us a point of reference for the scale. Now I did mention above that the studio miniature for the Liberator was 3 feet in length, not a huge model, but when we take into consideration that the Imperial Star Destroyer that races over our heads in the opening moments of Star Wars was only a 3 foot model, it shows what can be done with superior equipment to what the BBC could afford, many Blake's 7 shots have problems with Depth of Field, and in any miniature shot this can really destroy the scale of an object and make it look nothing more than what it is, a model. See picture below.

ILM had lenses that could handle the depth of field even on a miniature as small as the Star Destroyer, though for The Empire Strikes Back a larger 9 foot miniature was built to replace the original, as it appeared in more shots. I always wondered what studio miniature of Liberator would have looked like had they being able to shoot it with the motion control technology they had back when they made Star Wars, it would have probably looked spectacular. As it is despite it's shaky FX there's something very endearing about the BBC Visual FX departments work, and it's efforts to overcome lack of budget and high tech.

Regarding the scale of the Liberator, I've talked about this over at Niel Bushnell's Small Spaceships blog, now using a plan of the prison ship the London, I worked out using it's scale chart that it was 180 feet in length, approx 54 metres, which would make the Liberator, scaling the London to the size it's seen next to the Liberator in Episode 2, 2005 feet in length, approx 611 metres, this does put it up there in the USS Enterprise C type of size from Star Trek: The Next Generation, though not quite as big as Picard's ship. Although the London in picture F at the top looks huge, it is meant to be in the foreground, though the shot doesn't really sell that idea too well.

Something else that really throws the scale of the Liberator is the close ups of various Airlocks, Escape Pod hatches and Docking Ports that have a very high level of detail and don't appear to have any curve to them, like they're a flat wall, but seeing as though the Liberator is mainly curved surfaces it's hard to tell just exactly where these areas are meant to be on the ship.
I'll be looking into some of the other craft and miniatures used in Blake's 7 in other posts soon.


Gordon Fraser said...

I piggun love the Liberator and I'll fight anyone who doesn't think its the most beautiful ship out there!...Put some Qurios shots up will me old fruit bat!...Uncle Niel might even put up some of his concepts as well!

Niel Bushnell said...

Thanks for doing this, great fun!

Fraser Lovatt said...

Fantastic post, Andrew -- thanks for a great read.

Michael Grant Clark said...

I always thought the Liberator was massive, like 'small moon' massive. That may have been because it was filmed so badly, in front of a small moon.

I did like the ship, but even allowing for no money the effects were terrible. It's like when they cam to film the models they just said, 'sod it, just chuck it past the bloody camera.'