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The whole of the moon

12 October 2010

Behind the scenes of actor/writer Mark Gatiss's HG Wells adaptation for BBC4

Can Do Productions, the indie set up by writer/actor Mark Gatiss and director Damon Thomas didn’t take the easy route for its first project, a vfx-heavy sci-fi/costume drama on a BBC4 budget

BBC4 has commissioned some award winning dramas in its time, but it’s not known for having the most luxurious budgets in the genre.

So a period adaptation of HG Wells’ The First Men in the Moon, in which the main characters shoot off to the moon in a Victorian spaceship and encounter an extraterrestrial race of insect-like beings, required some serious budgetary ingenuity from new indie Can Do Productions.

But, says Mark Gatiss, who set up the indie as a vehicle for his and co-founder Damon Thomas’s pet projects, that’s sort of the idea of the company. “We’d had fantastic experiences with likeminded crews of a can-do nature. It’s amazing what you can do on a BBC4 budget if everybody is up for it.”

The pair met while working on the incredibly tightly-budgeted docu-drama The Worst Journey in the World and went on to make ghost drama Crooked House for BBC4 that involved “three different time periods, shot in 15 days. Incredibly ambitious,” says Thomas. So the pair, it’s fair to say, had previous. But The First Men in the Moon was to be of a different order of budget squeezing.

As it was their own indie making the film, some of that squeeze came from ploughing the production fee back into the budget. “If we’d done it with another company, the fee would be split and money would go out of the production and it wouldn’t have been achievable,” says Thomas. And “when you’re small, you can ask people for favours because you’re not seen to be a big company with a massive turnover.”

Potentially the most difficult aspect to achieve on such a tight budget was, of course, the extensive vfx necessary for a trip to the moon and alien characters. Luckily post house Rushes stepped in. The company agreed to create the 312 vfx shots needed along with the creation and animation of the film’s alien race of Selenites for the “challenging budget” that was available. Vfx artists “get into that business to create alien creatures on other planets,” says Thomas. “And most of them end up taking spots off models in commercials or animating crisp packets. This is their opportunity to make talking moon creatures.”

But despite Rushes excitement at the project, it still needed to plan carefully to make the job financially viable. Rushes first created an extensive animatic for all the big vfx scenes. “We blocked out all the scenes in complete to-scale detail,” says vfx producer Louise Hussey. “Often people bring you in halfway through a shoot but we saved so much time because everybody knew what needed to be done. It was a joy because the vfx team was immersed in the process” right from the beginning. Director Damon Thomas agrees that preparation is the key. “You've got to move so quickly to achieve the schedule. You can’t just say ‘I want to shoot this five ways’” and decide which was best afterwards.

It’s also important to be able to quickly adapt and that becomes easier when the writer, lead actor and director are also the exec producers, says Gatiss. “If you’re up against it, as the writer you can say ‘that’s fine, we don’t need that bit.’ It’s easier. You can work your way around [problems] because you’re there all the time.”

Another major money saver was creating a script that didn’t throw up ruinously expensive scenarios. Gatiss’s astronauts are strapped into their seats and wear magnetic boots, for instance, so there’s no need to show them floating in zero gravity. He also had to strip aspects out of the original story. “In the novel the moon has a massive jungle that grows and withers within the space of a lunar fortnight, we couldn’t do that. There were also gigantic moon calves that we couldn’t afford.”

“When you’re producing it as well [as writing it] you end up having arguments with yourself,” says Gatiss. “If I was just adapting it I might say ‘we’ve got to go for it and see what we can afford.’ But I’ve done enough lower budget things to know what’s feasible and what’s artistically viable.” And a low budget can’t justify a poor product. “If I thought it wasn’t going to look any good I would have said ‘I don’t think we should do this.’”

The Selenites
Initial designs for the Selenites were created by artist Carim Nahaboo. “They were really interesting,” says Rushes vfx supervisor, Hayden Jones. “But when we discussed with our lead animators about how they’d walk and move, because they were quite long limbed we were concerned about getting all of the different plot points out of the way they looked. So we started sculpting with Damon and Mark . We kept a lot of the feel of the original design. We kept it alien but with enough of a human feel so they could communicate and you could feel emotional about them.

Size Matters
“Quite often films feel small on a low budget,” says director Damon Thomas. And with the action set on the moon, that was something to be avoided. But scale costs and the set wasn’t huge. “Because of the size of their set they couldn’t get the scale of exterior shots that they wanted,” says Rushes’ Hayden Jones.  “So naturally everyone’s first assumption was to hang a blue screen up” behind the set and create vfx backdrops to be composited in later. “But on such a challenging budget, 50 blue screen shots eats up a massive portion of that.” The solution was to create matte paintings and turn them into huge 120 foot backdrops to hang behind the set. “I then put the camera right up in the top corner of the set and did some long lens shots of the characters walking along” with the backgrounds out of focus, says Thomas.

The Big Finish
“There are a lot of fantastic shots in terms of the quality of the grade,” says Damon Thomas. “I worked on that for a long time to perfect it. You have to have that attention to detail in the finishing processes. One of the things I aimed for was consistency across the whole film.” And that involved pushing Rushes to spread their efforts evenly across all the vfx shots, not just the hero ones. “Quite often people get obsessed with one creation, my job is to keep the consistency right through.”

Channel: BBC4
tx date: 19th October 2010
budget: Tight - even for BBC4
on screen talent: Mark Gatiss, Rory Kinnear, Alex Riddell, Peter Forbes, Katherine Jakeways
cameras: Red One
post production: All vfx shots completed at Rushes with Ascent 142 completing post and sound design
studios: Pinewood Studios
locations: Ad director Howard Guard’s estate in Hertfordshire

Key credits
Commissioning editors:BBC drama controller Ben Stephenson and head of BBC4 Richard Klein
Production company: Can Do Productions
Executive producers: Mark Gatiss, Damon Thomas, Jamie Laurenson (BBC)
Director: Damon Thomas
Writer: Mark Gatiss
Producer: Julie Clark
Editor: Liana Del Giudice
Composer: Michael Price
VFX Producers: Louise Hussey, Warwick Hewett
VFX Supervisors: Jonathan Privett, Hayden Jones
Compositors : Dan Alterman, Noel Harmes, Anthony Laranjo, Simone Coco, Barry Corcoran
3D Animation: Andy Hargreaves, Craig Travis
Lead TD: Mark Pascoe
Sequence lead: Seb Barker
Matte Paintings: Matt Lawrence,Brad Le Riche

This article originally appeared in Televisual's October 2010 issue

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