Mr Flibble Talks To... Flibble In A Green Blob
He's crashed Starbug more times than Kryten could calculate. Mike Tucker is the BBC effects whizz who can do anything for nothing. Mr Flibble focuses his hex-vision on the man who made the Camille blob dance.
19 January, 2001
Mike Tucker - No. 1
Mr Flibble's right hand provided by
Andrew Ellard

Mr Flibble checked the room for anything flammable or explosive before posing his first question through Andrew: You've worked on every kind of show - live TV, drama, comedy - do you approach them all in DIFFERENT WAYS?

Yeah, you have to. Because we [at BBC FX] do have this remit that we cover absolutely everything from the smallest live children's program to the biggest period drama, basically we will take in any sort of work. So you do have to have a slightly different approach to the way things are done. Obviously with shows like Noel's House Party and Live & Kicking things have to be geared up to go live and work one-off in front of an audience.

When you get to shows like Red Dwarf or Dr Who or some of the big dramas, it's obviously a little bit more controllable because you're not in front of an audience and you're not live. And then for my speciality, which is models and miniature work, you've obviously got yet more control again, because you're not tied to doing it at the same as time your actors and artists are there. You effectively operate as a second unit.

It seems to be a very 'Jack of all trades' kind of job...

Very much so. You need to know enough about all the disciplines to be able to work out the best way of doing it. You don't necessarily have to be good at doing all those things yourself - I'm pretty much across the board on knowing how effects go together, but I wouldn't say I'm necessarily the world's greatest sculptor or the world's greatest welder or engineer. But I at least know, 'Oh, that will have to be welded, or that will have to be sculpted.'

The same with CGI [Computer Generated Imagery] - I've started getting into computer graphics in the last three or four years. And even though I don't profess to be the best operator of Macs or PCs or Silicon Graphics machines, I can at least sit in front of a director and go, 'Yes, you could do that on CG.' Or, 'If you did that then you need to shoot this in a particular way.' So I keep up with the new technologies just as an extra tool.

Mr Flibble then asked about virtual technology: Have you been doing much CGI work?

We haven't done a lot, mainly because a lot of television budgets simply can't afford it. But as a department we handled some work on The Planets for BBC, we did a show called Mars: Death Or Glory for BBC, we did a few idents for Dr Who night, and at the moment we're talking to a couple of children's programmess about doing some little sequences.

Mr Flibble said he can't even programme his video. Having come from models, it must be interesting to do the CGI stuff...

I suppose I approach it in an unusual way [compared] to most CG artists. I come from an art background, and I build my models on the computer the same way as I would in real life - I model-up individual kit parts and then assemble them. So I think that the things I make, whether I do them on the computer or whether I do them in real life, probably take about the same amount of time and probably look very similar.

Obviously where computers have got the edge is that once it is modelled, you can do just about anything with it. Though once you're into anything that involves a certain amount of dynamics, whether that be an explosion or a crash, I still maintain that model work has got the edge over CG at the moment. There's a random element that comes into throwing a model at a landscape, where you can't honestly say what's going to happen. [It's the] same with letting off a pyro - until you get the film back, the rushes, you never know what you've quite got, and I've always liked that buzz of working on film.

You work with very low budgets, so does that force you to be more creative?

Yeah it does. We've always had a creative edge, I suppose, we try to say, 'Okay, that's what we'd like to do, that's the money we've got, how can we do it?' We got around an awful lot of problems by not shooting motion control, and shooting the old Thunderbirds technique, Gerry Anderson with Century 21, flying stuff on wires. And we were lucky in that Pete Wragg, who oversaw all [the] Red Dwarf [we did], had that background of coming from Century 21 and doing a lot of wire flying. He passed on a lot of techniques to the model crew. On the whole we pretty much rose to every challenge that was ever presented to us.

When FLYING BY WIRES did anyone every catch a flying 'Bug in the head during filming?

We tend to alternate between motion control work and wire work, and yes, over the years it has clouted a few people. The closest we ever came to seriously injuring somebody was for Rimmerworld - and it wasn't actually the Starbug, it was Rimmer's escape pod, which was christened 'The Clogg' by the effects crew, bright orange thing, quite heavy, a lot of batteries in it.

We had a wire coming out the nose of the model, going up to the ceiling though the middle of a large blue-screen which was suspended, and then there was a pulley and weights system - so the thing went away from you quite a long way and was able to spin as it went.

We shot this about three or four times, with a camera on the floor looking vertically up, and Pete Tyler, who was the cameraman on the miniature work, always insists on looking through the viewfinder. So he was lying on the floor looking up, and we let 'The Clogg' go and up it went - thirty feet to the ceiling - and as it hit the ceiling the wire broke, and a fairly hefty model came hurtling straight back down and literally just missed him, by inches.

That made Mr Flibble very nervous. While he checked the ceiling for potential missiles, Andrew pointed out that there have been a lot of IN-JOKES in RD's effects sequences. Psirens was filled with derelict ships making cameo appearances...

A lot of in-jokes there. There's an Eagle transporter from Space 1999, there's the Narcissus shuttlecraft from Alien; there's one of Bill Pearson's spacecraft from Blake's 7, the Space Princess; and there are two spacecraft that Pete Tyler and I had built when we were kids for our Super 8 films. (Laughs) And all of those made appearances in Psirens.

The season VI Psi-scan had 'Tucker Instruments' written on it...

If you look at season three of Red Dwarf, in the Starbug and Blue Midget hangers there's a TARDIS in one scene; a tiny little in-scale police box tucked into a corner. Also, all the crew have lockers - you can't see them, but there's a locker room on part of that set [and] all of the FX crew have their names on the locker doors.

In-jokes are intrusive if they scream out at you, off the screen. But if it's a little something that you have got to really, really look for and the general public are never going to see, then you get away with murder. It's when those in-jokes start to interfere with the look of the shot that you need to worry - but nobody ever spotted the police box.

Mr Flibble checked his behind for witty logos. Finding none, he asked what Mike was CURRENTLY working on.

At the moment I've got a number of bits and pieces - I've just done a model shoot for The Harry Enfield Show for Sky. I've done a lot of work over the last two or three years with a company called Pioneer Productions who specialise in shows for the Discovery Channel and the Learning Channel. We've done a tornado hit on a house, a tidal-wave going through a car-park, and a building in Japan being hit by a tidal-wave!

You worked on the Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy Dr Who series. Do you ever long for a revival - ten years on, the chance to make use of new effects technology?

I'd love a crack at doing it, because I'd love a crack at putting to rest the [myth of], 'Oh, it had wobbly spacecraft and wobbly sets and all the spacecraft were made out of yogurt pots.' We had spectacularly low budgets on Dr Who. The way technology stands at the moment - with what you can do with computers, and generally how we've come along with effects work - I think you could do something quite spectacular.

Whereas Red Dwarf's been able to track the development...

Yes it has because it's still been going, and it has made use of all the new technology, and it's evolved as a result. I mean, up to the point where series eight has got CG dinosaurs in it - which, back in series three, we actually didn't even bother trying to do. There was a script that needed some stop-motion dinosaurs and it's just, 'Forget it.' All the monsters that ever appeared in Red Dwarf were people in suits.

Peter Wragg was always keen that the effect shots should never look funny, they were never going to be comedy effects. We would make the ships quirky - I mean Starbug is a very quirky looking thing - but it's flying along was not going to be [on] obvious wires and very wobbly. It looked quite slick. And I think that helped an awful lot in the look and the feel of the show. Whereas I think if there were stupid looking spacecraft wobbling around with obvious wires, I don't quite know if it would have had the same effect.

So did you spend much time in the famous BBC RUBBER SUITS?

In Camille I was the blob! It was hot, it was uncomfortable - and I made it to the out-takes tape. (Laughs)

It was never my intention to be inside Camille. There had been a team of us building props for that series, it got to the studio, and it was, 'Okay effects, you're going to operate it.' At this point I knew roughly what it had to do. Then suddenly there was a disco-dancing scene (laughs) - and before you know it you're trying to pull round several hundred pounds of latex and make it dance!

Mr Flibble scoffed at the notion of a character being operated by another person. The show does seem to utilise every kind of effect - and for comedy purposes, too...

Quite often one of the things that I think people forget is that as well as operating and building these things, if you don't have a good sense of timing [it won't work]. Anyone can turn a switch on and off and make something move, make something drop off a wall; but occasionally you've just got to watch the rehearsal and work out the comedy pause before something happens - the sense of timing is as much to do with the effects guys as the guys who are performing it. And if you get your job right, they're much more comfortable because they see stuff's happening that's funny. It's a nice, creative, collaborative process.

Does that collaboration begin before the SCRIPT STAGE?

We used to have quite a nice process where Rob and Doug and the entire effects crew would go out for a beer a couple of months before Red Dwarf started. We'd basically find a pub in London, sit down and they'd ask us, 'What would you like to do this year?' And we'd all pitch ideas in.

Mr Flibble never managed to get the writers to buy him a drink!

They were always very receptive. I'm fairly sure that's how Back to Reality came about, because we all said, 'Let's do something underwater,' and suddenly we got to do a nice underwater sequence - which, again, we'd not done, so we were learning on the job. But it worked a treat.

Mr Flibble enjoyed talking to Mike Tucker, and now that it's over... Mr Flibble's very cross.