Mr Flibble Talks To... Frequently X-plosive
The increasingly demanding Red Dwarf shoot has made use of every effects technique under the sun. Lucky for all concerned then that the FX boys are multi-talented - and none more so than Jim Francis.
13 April, 2001
Jim Francis
Mr Flibble's right hand provided by
Andrew Ellard

Mr Flibble showed his effects prowess by blowing up a bowl of fruit. Jim asked if Mr F had the necessary qualifications to do pyros. Andrew pressed on: Jim, you worked on HITCHHIKERS GUIDE before Red Dwarf - were you seeing similarities between the two?

Not really - they're both different in their own ways. Hitchhikers was a massive challenge, only because the technology was creeping up and we were able to shoot some things on bluescreen. Rather than going to expensive opticals we could telecine it, do electronic passes or mattes or whatever. But unfortunately the money ran out on that one and we ending up doing some dreadful shots on video.

We had some good successes early on with the Vogon ships - I was quite pleased with those. I even had someone phone me up and ask how we did that shot where the ship flies over the hedge. I told him the truth - that we were lucky enough to have a blue sky! (Laughs) It's a simple as that. The days we shot that, and the scenes around London, we had perfect blue skies. Put a filter on the camera and it keyed in straight away.

Apart from the spaceships, were you involved with the other effects - the puppets and special make-ups?

Yeah, we did Zaphod's wobbly second head. We did a lot of the creatures - all the puppets except for the Vogon characters. All the Dentrassi characters - that was a nice one. Quite a lot of involvement on it.

Do you approach comedy differently to other STYLES?

You've got to take them for what they are, really. There's a close similarity - if anything - to when I was doing The Young Ones, which is like Red Dwarf's sort of humour. Very rapid. I was doing The Young Ones when Paul Jackson first mentioned Red Dwarf and asked me about the opening shot (which they eventually did about ten, twelve years later).

I was due to do Red Dwarf but the BBC powers thought that I'd done enough science fiction. Paul tried his best, but the management had made their mind up that it was in my interest to do other things. I was pretty miffed at the time, because it looked like a very different type of programme. But Peter [Wragg] did a great job.

When did you finally make it on board RED DWARF?

I did last season, and we did some props on the season before. I can't remember what we did. There was going to be quite a lot, then it was cut down drastically. Then I got the phone call for series VIII, which was great. Good fun, good people as well.

I pulled in Bill Pearson, who I'd known since my Blake's 7 days. If there's anyone who could make a model or a prop look brilliant, Bill is the boy. It's good that he was available - along with some of the top model-makers he's got, as well.

What I'll do is supervise and help design. But certainly, on props and things, it's better to give Bill the idea and the functions, what it's got to do, and let him get on with it! I'd co-ordinate everything. Make sure the model sequences were co-ordinated between model and CG, the pyrotechnic work and rigs. And on the floor - although I'd have other people working on the floor for me as well.

It's not a management approach, it's more a supervisor. Deciding how things should be done...or offering up my suggestions about things. Knowing the process [really helps]. The Starbug blowing up, for instance - interacting that with live action and storyboarding that up. I really enjoyed doing that. That's how I think it should work, using every method to achieve the shots and trying to hide that join.

Do you find storyboarding helps?

Oh definitely. The only thing I've learned is [to use] storyboarding. Because you can't argue with them. Even on an explosion, for instance - because, say if it's a car [and] you want the bonnet to go this way and a fireball to do that, you can put in explosives to do all those rather than just blast it apart.

Did boards help with Cassandra's 'Heath Robinson' ending?

That was quite fun actually, because we had several meetings about that and no-one got their head around it. Well, I didn't. You can think of it and draw it up, but if you've got the set dressing there - as long as there are mechanical things like the lamp - [it's much easier]. It was only when everyone was standing around on the set that we worked a way out - the gum falling off, doink, doink...

Mr Flibble brought out his model aeroplane to show Jim, who was unfortunately not warned that the paint had yet to dry. Tell me about your company, SPECIAL EFFECTS GB - who replaced BBC FX when they became too costly...

I think that was the reason, yeah. I left the BBC - I hired some space for a commercial and ending up staying here [Shepperton Studios]; we've been here since 1986. But again, I tend to do what I always did at the Beeb - which is cover all areas. Which is a big help, because it means I can pick a script up and know the people to pull in - they're not necessarily all under the one roof. But again, it's about co-ordinating the different [roles] - whether it's creature work, animatronics, pyrotechnics, engineering, it's all basically the same as it was at the BBC. And it's always worked and kept us busy.

It's a very 'Jack of all trades' position...

Particularly now as we get more understanding on the CG side of things. We're just doing Jack and the Beanstalk at the moment, which has got a huge CG [workload], it's got Henson's CG unit on it - we've got about 40 units up there! Again, it's good to be able to work with those guys on the physical side of things, suggesting rigs for them for interaction, stuff like that.

Are you looking to do more computer generated stuff?

I'd rather keep it that I get more knowledge - just so I don't drop CG people in it when I say, 'Oh we can do that' and walk away from it! (Laughs) I play around with my own [CG effects] but only so I've got an understanding - I just know enough.

Have you ever doubled for actors during effects scenes?

I have yeah, mostly for rehearsals. The most embarrassing one was on The Young Ones when Jennifer Saunders wouldn't get on a horse in Bristol Park. The dummies that we had were rubbish, so my assistant Patrick [and I did it]. He looked more like Nigel Planer than I did - I don't look anything like Jennifer Saunders, but I lost the toss - I had a blue dress on. I was slung over the horse, and Jennifer Saunders came up and shouted, 'This is not on! My arms are nowhere near that size!' (Laughs)

Mr Flibble finally attempted to create a CG version of himself. But, with the expected mix-up over equipment, he only succeed in running himself through the fax machine. TENTH KINGDOM seemed to use every technique going...

There wasn't one thing we didn't do on that. That was just short of a year [of filming] and it was just incredible. I had great leeway to do whatever I liked - especially when I got told I could do that big, or 'large' as they called it. It's not cartoon, but it's sort of like a cartoon. Just slightly 'bigger'.

There's a scene in that where a fridge replicates a load of beer. We built a rig where when you closed it and opened it, another ten bottles would appear. But without telling the director I added a load of gas coming out and the door bulging. And he actually said, 'This isn't Disney!' (Laughs) I said, 'Watch the rushes first - you've got talking frogs, you can have what you like!'

He watched the rushes and he came back and said, 'If ever I tell you not to do something again, totally ignore me.' It was great. If we did explosions, instead of having just a puff of smoke, we'd have a massive flame. It's almost like a comic strip.

There was a really scary one which was in the hall of mirrors, where the dwarves are making these magic mirrors. There were 40 in a semi-circular rack, and the lead artist accidentally hits one, so it's a domino effect. It was incredibly nerve-wracking, because I was trying to work out mechanical rigs - 'It's go to hit that, and then it explodes to shatter the glass.' So I'd got to do the pyrotechnics in 40 mirrors! Unbelievable. They got to about a 12-foot mirror at the end.

To do it mechanically there's a risk there that something might not go, or that the pyrotechnics might go early - so I had to grab the bull by the horns and go back to old fashioned dominoes. We just balanced everything and pushed it! (Laughs) Fantastic.

What do you have COMING UP? You've been working on a Steve Coogan movie - The Parole Officer. What have you had to do for that?

There's a Porsche explosion. That was great fun. We had two cars - one we blew up, and the other (an XR3) we cut in half. As it's going along it splits in half. There are some good one-offs in that.

We're also doing Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), we're half-way through that. And that is brilliant - they've got some really good gags in it. Every episode is totally different, and there's some very good stuff in it. I must admit when I first started watching the last season, I wasn't too enamoured, but towards the end it got very good. This has just gone on from that - it looks great. There are some good stunts in it, and it's great working with Charlie Higson the writer, because he is very flexible. Open to ideas.

It used to be like that on The Young Ones - 'What do you think you can do to us?' So we'd come up with the ideas; and when Rick [Mayall] and Ade [Edmondson] went on to do The Dangerous Brothers, we did that. 'Stick some dynamite down your trousers, Ade...' (Laughs)

Tell me about Jack and the Beanstalk...

It's a modern day version of Jack and the Beanstalk, but it's got flashbacks into the classic storyline. It's got Matthew Modine in it, and Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Attenborough and the lovely Darryl Hannah, who plays one of the giants. It's looking very good - Brian Henson's directing it. He's another very, very appreciative director, willing to listen to ideas, and also very quick on his feet, always on the floor.

Mr Flibble enjoyed talking to Jim Francis, and now that it's over...Mr Flibble is very cross.