As excitement grows around the impending 50th anniversary of Doctor Who it’s a great opportunity for people who worked on the series – who have become separated if not quite by space, then certainly by time – to recall their involvement.
Back in the late 1970s, early 1980s when I was a young cameraman working on animation and special effects I had the pleasure of working many times with graphic designer Bernard Lodge, whose name always seemed to be followed, when mentioning him to someone new, by “he designed the Doctor Who titles”. It occurred to me, however, that even though this was held by many to be his main claim to fame (a bit narrow-minded given what he achieved later in his career), I’d never really sat down and spoken to him about his involvement. So, a few emails later and I was at his beautiful Sussex home, where he still has a studio, to chat about his part in the birth of the series and where things took him in the subsequent years.
How did you come to be involved in the first title sequence for Doctor Who?
I was working in the BBC graphics department, which in those days numbered over a 100 people. It wasn’t initially my job, but a colleague couldn’t do it for some reason and so knowing that I was interested in science fiction, he asked me to take it on. I met with [producer] Verity Lambert and she said she wanted me to take a look at this process called “howlaround”, which had been developed by a technician called Ben Palmer. She thought it might be incorporated into the opening titles. Well, we went along to Ealing Studios and when they ran the film it was amazing. These shapes; magic, just magic.
(“Howlaround” is similar to feedback with sound. When a microphone is pointed at a speaker it creates feedback. Similarly when a video camera is pointed at its own monitor it results in an abstract pattern of shapes)
I came up with the title and we found that the symmetrical lettering, too, created its own howlaround and we used this along with a pen torch to create more pattern. I thought it would be good to have the Doctor’s face coming out of the pattern, but Verity thought it would be too scary and I think she was right because when my kids saw just the shapes they were scared. Later on though when Patrick Troughton became the Doctor we plucked up courage and used his face in the new title sequence. That was a combination of the howlaround and a crumpled piece of polythene to break up the face as the light passed across it. We were very inventive in those days, always messing around and experimenting.
Given the nature of the process, how controllable was it and did the sequence take long to shoot?
Not very controllable in the beginning. And in those days there was no shooting onto tape. The BBC graphics department shot everything onto film. Usually this would be 16mm, but for this we decided it needed to be on 35mm. We probably spent about half a day in the studio shooting so we had cans of the stuff. Then I was involved in the editing, working with the composer Ron Grainer saying, “The title comes in at 20 seconds, so that’s the point you have to hit.”
Looking at Doctor Who generally, was there a feeling at the time that this was a landmark series and that we’d still be talking about it 50 years later?
No, it was very low budget. I think there were some people within the BBC who didn’t really want it made, who thought that science fiction was rubbish. Verity was the driving force behind it. She was a fantastic producer, Verity.
By the time colour arrived, and for Jon Pertwee’s tenure as the Doctor, you did away with the howlaround.
Yes, we then started using the slit-scan technique, which is when the rostrum camera tracks while exposing just one frame at a time rather than shooting a series of frames while tracking. It’s a complicated process of time exposures to build up a final image. It was first used by Douglas Trumbull on the film 2001: a Space Odyssey. The Doctor Who titles continued with variations on that process up to the Tom Baker series.
And that became your final involvement with Doctor Who and indeed your time at the BBC.
I’d been wanting to go out on my own for a while and I’d put together a showreel of my work, so decided it was a good time to do so. I worked for about two years and was then joined by my old BBC colleague Colin Cheeseman. That was when we formed Lodge-Cheeseman Productions.
And that was when you really started working a lot with the slit-scan process.
Yes, along with a camera and optical company called Filmfex Animation – which, of course, is where you and I met, Tony – we made a lot of successful commercials and title sequences, mostly using “scan”.
How did that lead to becoming involved with Ridley Scott and your work on Alien?
Through Filmfex really, but I’d first met Ridley at The Royal College of Art years earlier. He was two years below me and I think I saw him one day inking up a woodcut or doing a bit of typography. Then he joined the BBC as a production designer.
He’d nearly finished the live action on Alien and was looking for some sort of different effect for these warnings that came up on the computer screens. They’d had it done in America, but Ridley wasn’t happy so asked us to come up with something. It was the same with the explosion at the end. They’d had it shot in America, but it wasn’t really what he was looking for. We looked at some old film of the atomic bomb tests in the 50s and that smooth movement that the explosion has. We rigged up a piece of glass raised up on film bobbins, some tracing paper and black card and produced the explosion, animating it with small movements on the rostrum camera. It was a bit of a lash-up, but when Ridley saw it he said, “That’s it” and apart from adding a little bit of slit-scan, our first go is what you see in the film.
(“It’s a bit of a lash-up” was one of Bernard’s favourite phrases. He would often come in with some black card, coloured gel and a few camera instructions apologising for it being a bit of a lash-up, but we learnt to trust that as long as we followed what he asked for something miraculous would come back from the lab the following morning)
And that led to the “Esper” sequence in Blade Runner
Ridley was in the UK shooting scenes that they couldn’t afford to do in Hollywood and asked me to direct the sequence where Deckard (Harrison Ford) uses this machine to actually get into and analyse a photograph. It was mainly set up by Ridley, but he wasn’t around much and so I spent about a week at the studio directing it. We had all sorts of problems trying to shoot at slow camera speeds, but we got there in the end.
All this technology-based work seems a far cry from children’s book illustration, which you later became involved with.
After Colin and I decided [quite amicably] to go our separate ways I spent five years at The Moving Picture Company, who were very much at the forefront of computer graphics at that time and were starting to produce fully-shaded images. I worked on some great jobs there (plus some not so great), but after five years I was becoming a bit bored.
Did you feel the craft had gone out of graphic design with the emphasis so much on computers?
I did a bit. I wanted to do something more creative. I was actually at a college in south London doing Italian lessons and I discovered they had a fantastic art department. I’d always wanted to try etching and they had a printing press, so I ended up going there one night a week while I was at the Moving Picture Company to do printing. You had to queue for the press though, so I decided to buy my own.
My wife [Maureen Roffey] was a successful children’s book illustrator so she was my contact into publishing. Over the next ten years I designed 12 books, illustrated mainly using woodcuts and linocuts, and wrote seven of them.
I’d enjoyed my time in publishing but decided that I wanted to produce editioned prints using woodcuts, linocuts and the Victorian printing press. So that’s where I am now.
And what do you think of the present state of television graphics and title sequences?
A lot of the good stuff now is coming out of America. HBO have produced some wonderful title sequences going back to The Sopranos, which was very slick. Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire are very good, and I think the opening titles of Six Feet Under are fantastic.