- Homage to the Space: 1999 science fiction series.
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Features: Ask Brian Johnson

Brian's responses

The following answers were posted 24 October 2001. Your questions can be sent here. Please take advantage of this unique opportunity to communicate with Mr. Johnson!

The "lunar soil" on Space: 1999 was uncanny and looked realistic, compared to the Apollo lunar landing mission photos. Can you comment how the dirt (I know this sound silly) looked so authentic?

I used fine casting plaster which I mixed and spread over an area about 8 feet wide and seven feet deep. The plaster had cement colour mixed in and I used a 6" wallpaper brush and flicked brushloads of water at the setting plaster to form the craters. I then used a flour sieve and added extra "virgin plaster to enhance the detail. When the plaster had set I photographed the result with a plate camera - Linhof - and an ultra wide lens - I used a Polaroid back with ultra fine grain black and white Pola 3000 negative stock. The resulting negs were enlarged to sometimes 20 feet across. The landscapes were nearly all photo cut-outs which could be assembled in many ways, thereby giving a range of locations without having to create new sets each time. Foreground dirt was simply cement dust or micro-balloons or both.

Since 2001: A Space Odyssey is being re-released in limited distribution around the globe this year (2001 A.D.!), would you care to comment on your contributions to the original film? Many of us are curious to learn more about what you did, what friendships, influences -- and/or lessons you learned -- during the making of the film.

I originally started on 2001 doing the wire rigs for the floating pen and was responsible for the design of all the projector rigs for the display screens, including the projection rigs for the rotating Hybernaculum. Doug Trumbull was shooting the actual screen animations at the same time. I was working for Wally Gentleman from the Canadian Film Foundation and Wally Veevers. Then I was given responsibility for preparing all the models and helping Stanley Kubrick shoot the large format stills that formed the basis for most of the 65 mm Model Photography. We used a black velvetted stage to shoot all the model stills which were then enlarged and stuck on sheets of glass for Wally Veevers to shoot the 65mm moves on models such as the Discovery Module, etc.

I also built the Tycho base set using a base 6 feet square. The trick of ultra wide lens still photography using a single light source and almost pinhole apertures with long time exposures gave the desired results of Moonscape.

Doug asked me to help him modify the Moonbus which needed additional plastic kit 'wiggetting'. I then was involved in the 'Slit Scan' sequence with Doug. Doug designed a real trick rig and we worked for about nine months in total on that aspect of the movie. I also worked on the 'Starchild' with Liz Moore the sculptress and added the moving eyes and built the rig to mover the child.

Douglas Trumbull should in my opinion have been nominated for an Oscar for his work on 2001. Stanley was very naughty to claim he was responsible for the effects. He could not have produced one shot on his own without Doug and Wally V. and G. The fact that Doug went on to make Silent Running without any input from Stanley speaks volumes.

I also moonlighted on the Dirty Dozen doing practical effects on the battle sequence at the Chateau which was on the MGM lot at Boreham Wood during my time [3.25 years] on 2001. I learned to always ask why we were doing a shot in a particular way. I learned to use lateral thinking to conquer problems. I learned that Stanley Kubrick was not always right in his judgement and I learned that Stanley who was a very charismatic funny man could also be extremely cruel verbally but never physically. I was fortunate to work with clever technicians like Doug Trumbull, Colin Cantwell, Richard Yuricich, Bruce Logan, Liz Moore, Wally Gentleman, Kelvin Pike, Tony Masters and Harry Lange and many more talented people.

Please share with us what you contributed to the forthcoming Space: 1999 Year Two DVDs! We want to know how the experience was!

I only added a voice-over to some documentary footage of my crew working at Bray Studios. It took about 20 minutes. Nothing exciting at all really.

I noticed that many sources show a very early piece of concept art for an Eagle-like vehicle lifting off a pad, with two astronauts watching. This artwork is credited to Chris Foss, and supposedly dates from a period when Space: 1999 was still seen as an offshoot of U.F.O., but every source I've seen has definitively credited you with the design of the Eagle. Was this artwork indeed produced first, and if so, did you draw inspiration from it? Or was this produced after you had come up with the basic elements (which are in evidence in the drawing, but way out of proportion to how they would ultimately appear)?

I had the basic design of the Eagle worked out long before Space was thought of. It was a result of me working on 2001 and photographing the Moonbus which I felt needed some reworking [arrogance of youth!] So, in my spare moments, I sketched an alternate design. It remained hidden in my office drawer till I left MGM and I binned it along with what would now be considered memorabilia. Chris Foss is a fantastic artist and I honestly cannot recall his painting anything on Space, so it might have been produced for a book cover or whatever, but the merchandising side was hardly ever involved in any day to day contact with the production.

The Eagle was in my head from 1965 onwards and Space: 1999 was the perfect vehicle for it to emerge. Michael Lamont did the draughtsmanship and turned my basic sketch into a realistic vehicle. We clad the prototype with plastic kittery ["wiggits"] and so the drawings were basic structure and fine detail was added on the models themselves. If you want to see serious detail look at the web site. It is the best I have ever seen.

I am a HUGE fan of the Eagle, and have collected many different replicas: the Dinky toys, the small Yot Toys diecast, the Airfix/MPC/AMT model kit, the more recent resin WARP kit, and many others including the large Mattel playset. I was wondering, when the series was in production, didyou receive any royalties from the licensing of your designs, or did the studio get all of the profit from marketing?

No, I did not receive any royalties for the Eagle from any source. [Gerry Anderson told me that there was little revenue gained and it all went to ITV!] Other than late on in the Second Series when, after much hassling of Gerry I managed to be tied in with a deal with Hornby/Airfix in the UK. They promptly went bust so I received virtually nothing and I had to keep hassling for that payment, too. The combination of Century Twenty One [Gerry] and ITV [Lew Grade] took everything as they had done with ALL Derek Meddings designs on so many productions.

Incidentally, I was told Eagle Diecasts were not selling well anywhere, so when I popped into FAO Schwartz in New York and saw a stack about seven feet high in the middle of the entrance area and was told by their Manager that it was the best selling Diecast for over 18 months, you can imagine how I felt! Gerry incidentally relinquished his rights to Thunderbirds to Lew Grade for personal reasons and then bleated like a stuck pig when Thunderbirds later became popular again, I never shed a tear, why would you bleat if it wasn't making money?

It's great to have your participation. My question is a hypothetical one, namely, if a decision was ever made on a new Space: 1999 movie or tv series and you were hired for the special effects work; would you be inclined to use eagle models that are basically the same as the originals, or would you wish to change/update them and if so for what changes would you make and why?

The reason I ask is that I personally find the original models just about perfect and would prefer to see them as they were (perhaps allowing for the landing pads to retract to the bottom of the landing pods during atmosphere re-entry). Of course, this all assumes the opportunity to have such a decision to make.

Same as original if the scripts called for that otherwise whatever the script defines. I cannot ever imagine another series of Space "as is" because it would fail as surely as the original did. I think my Eagles were amongst the good things to come out of the Series, but the whole idea of the moon blasting out of orbit on a few nuclear bangs defies belief. I always wanted the thing to be set on a large asteroid amongst the Asteroid Belt. I also wanted to retract the legs but we had no time or money to do it. Although it was apparently the most expensive series of its time, the money was not allocated to my visual effects department!

I would like to personally congratulate you on some wonderful ground breaking Special Effects of it's time. My question is more of a technical "how-to" question. When an Eagle model was sitting on the launch pad and it suddenly lifts off, how did you ignite the freon bottles to spray out the bottom. I assume you mounted two on the cargo pod, but how did you puncture them at the right time to get it on film and time it properly for the lift off.

The freon bottles were controlled by 12Volt solenoid valves which were actuated by passing the correct voltage down the wires that were used to lift off the Eagles from wherever. They could be switched on and off at will.

What do you think about models being replaced with modern Computer images? Do you think there is room for both techniques?

I would, without hesitation, use Digital Images. There is room for both techniques integrated in a way that uses the best results from both concepts, ie. Enhancing crashes, adding motion control passes of real 3D objects with "real" lighting amongst Digital 3d imaging.

Are you aware that Space: 1999 is many times dismissed as the "black sheep" of sci-fi? What do you think of it?

I hated the whole concept of Space 1999. I did not like the idea of Martin Landau and Ms. Bain and their wooden acting, I thought the costumes unrealistic, and the "Monsters" an utter joke, but Keith Wilson had no money to produce anything else. It was the second series that made me feel like I was on the Titanic! The scripts were at times banal, and the great Director, Charlie Crichton, used to puff on his pipe and say to me, "If we have any more crap like this to work with, you might as well just stick a load of effects shots together and forget the rest." He always worked hardest to turn out a good show. Black Sheep? There was hardly any "Sci-Fi" in an episode.

Do you see sci-fi in the movies or TV? What do you think of it? Do you think Space: 1999 could compete with those shows nowadays?

I see lots of Sci-Fi, always have done, but it was never my favourite genre, I just got sucked into it. Space: 1999 would need to be completely rethought, but I am sure it would work given the right scripts.

Scripts are THE most important item to achieve success in Film or TV Production. Funnily enough I have a script called "Eagles", but it is a feature which begins the RAF and the American/Canadian pilots who flew in "Eagle" Squadrons in WW2 in Europe, a sort of Top Gun gung-ho shoot-em up based on true stories from the RAF and the 4th Fighter Group of the USAAF. No Sci-Fi, just historical facts and a load of action.

There are a lot of different opinions about which of the 44" Eagles came first. Of the three you finally ended up with, did the steel framed or the brass framed Eagle come first? Due to the crash sequences you filmed starting right from "Breakaway", I would think the steel one had to be made first.

Brass first, then because we found a little distortion after months of "crashing" I had a steel tube /silver soldered version made. The "crashes" were always made in special soft areas, little damage being done other than touching up chipped paint, etc. So brass until series 2.

Are you still active in the film and TV industry? What projects would you like to do?

Yes, I am at present involved in kids TV shows [residuals at last!]. I have directed 52 episodes of Dream Street for an ITV [UK] commission. I am in preparation for a Movie called Biggles flies North, based on a best-selling kids adventure book series [106 titles] but with world-wide appeal as a different sort of Indiana Jones movie. Squadron Leader James Bigglesworth and his two cohorts are always pitted against the Nazi swine Eric Von Stalhein! Always with assorted aircraft as a backdrop it is right up my "Strasse" with a combination of Digital and Practical/Model effects.

I would like very much to Direct my own "Eagles" WW2 Movie. I just am in need of the funds.

(Answers to your questions for Mr. Johnson will continue to be posted. You can submit them here.)

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