Kate Walshe (SFX producer) (I)


Prosthetic effects supervisor Kate Walshe of Millennium FX explains how it's her job to completely gross us out...

[Published in Doctor Who Magazine #491 (Panini UK Ltd, November 2015), pp. 46-52. Posted here by kind permission of DWM editor Tom Spilsbury.]

“The effects are fabulous,” said the Twelfth Doctor himself, Peter Capaldi, in July 2015 while on stage at the huge Comic Con International event in San Diego. “But... people say what was it like, when did you first feel like Doctor Who? I think it was when they threw a rubber spider in my face and said 'Fight it!'”

That delights Kate Walshe, SFX producer at effects company Millennium FX.

“Ah, that's great,” she says when she's finished laughing. “I'm very glad to have made him feel initiated into Doctor Who.” In fact, Kate's team provided several different kinds of giant spider for 2014 episode Kill The Moon. “We built a puppet version with a mouth that could open and close. There was a poseable version, and that floppy one that you could chuck around. There was one with these beautiful, diffuse red lights that ran through its legs – that was creepy. It was  funny trying to fit it into a box to fly out to Lanzarote [where the episode was shot] because that spider was enormous and needed to travel safely. I was measuring boxes and sawing apart a freight case while waiting for a taxi to show up to take this horrible thing to the airport. It's one of those things you don't think of when you're building a monster.”

We'll talk more about specific monsters shortly, but first, how did Kate end up in a job where she had to pack spiders into boxes for Doctor Who? Was she a fan of the show when she was younger? There's a pause. “I'm from Kildare,” she says. Growing up in the 1980s and 90s, “certainly for my generation in Ireland, Doctor Who wasn't a popular show. When it came back in 2005, I was 23, working too much and not watching television. I don't think I ever watched it at all.”

She also wasn't planning to work in prosthetic effects. Kate studied film at the Dublin Institute of Technology.

“I was basically learning how to shoot on 16mm film and edit using those old machines where you chop up the film and stick it together with bits of tape – that's how long ago it was. I directed a few short films there, and when I graduated I ended up being an editor for quite a while. I was quite good at that but didn't want to get stuck in it, so I went back to study and did a post-grad course at the National Film and Television School here in the UK. That covered post-production visual effects which is where I thought I'd end up.

“But it also had a short, two-week stint studying prosthetics. I had a bit of experience in that – I'd made weird little zombie short films and did one where we stuck two people's heads together. That was all basic stuff we learned how to do by looking it up on the internet. But I assumed all proper prosthetics, big monsters and stuff, were made in America and shipped around the world. In my mind, nothing big or interesting could happen in Europe. Little did I know that there were all these wonderful artists in the UK doing all this crazy stuff!”

Kate's teacher on her short prosthetics course was Neill Gorton, co-director of Millennium FX, Europe’s leading supplier of prosthetics, animatronics and special make-up effects for film and TV. “When I saw the quality of work that Neill, [Millennium FX co-director] Rob Mayor and their team were producing, I just knew I had to get more involved. It was a landmark moment in my life. So in any free time I had, I hung out at Millennium, offering my services for free. I'd do anything, like sweeping the floors. And when I graduated in 2007, Neill asked me to come on board.”

Millennium FX doesn't only produce work for Doctor Who, of course.

“At any one time I could be on four or five episodes of Doctor Who while also working on a couple of films, a few TV shows, commercials and other things,” says Kate. “I've had the opportunity to work with some really amazing people – a lot of them on Doctor Who. But we've also done things for the metal band Iron Maiden. The scale of stuff that they want for their live shows is really exciting. And working with Lady Gaga was really intense. She's very focused on visual and also supportive of artists. She allowed us to do some really interesting stuff. She's fantastic.”

Yet a large chunk of Kate's time at Millennium FX has been devoted to Doctor Who. She first attended the recording of Doctor Who in January 2008, during production of Tenth Doctor story Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead.

“We had the information nodes to do, and the Vashta Nerada – those zombie-skeletons walking around in spacesuits. That was an amazing story to start on. At that point I was very much an assistant to Neill really, keeping notes and ensuring everything ticked along.”

Wasn't it a problem that Kate had never seen any Doctor Who?

“Oh, once I got hired by Millennium, I borrowed their DVDs, and watched them in the evenings. So I'd seen it by then. Now I've seen so much and have worked on so many episodes I can hold my own with the fans. I'm so fond of the show now. Every time I go back to Ireland I'm always forcing people to watch it – it needs to get bigger love back there.”

A few days before the broadcast of Silence in the Library in May 2008, it was announced that the episode's writer, Steven Moffat, would be taking over from Russell T Davies as head writer and executive producer of Doctor Who. The episode also introduced the character of space archaeologist River Song, who'd play a major role in the next years of the show. So while Kate was on set, did she get any hint of changes in the air?

“At that time, I don't think any of us quite knew what the next moves were. If Neill did, he didn't mention it to me. We were just heads down, getting the job done. But it's often like that – there's a silence around Doctor Who. People try to keep secrets, even among the production crew, as much as possible. Which is great because it means that when a script lands on my desk and I read it, it's a surprise for me.”

Kate has worked on Doctor Who ever since. “I've pretty much had a hand in every episode that's had a monster – and there's very few that don't.” The Internet Movie Database credits Kate with 36 episodes, charting her rise through the ranks from prosthetics crew on The Next Doctor (2008), to prosthetics studio co-ordinator from The Waters of Mars (2009) onwards, prosthetics supervisor from The Impossible Astronaut (2011) to special effects producer from The Bells of Saint John (2013). “Just 36?” she says. “Oh, it's way more than that, it must be into the 60s now. I mean, there are people I work with who've topped 100, which is wonderful, but I've still done my share. I started just helping Neill and Rob Mayor. As things progressed, slowly I've taken over the running of jobs for them. Rob and Neill are still very much connected with the show but more and more it's myself sorting everything out for it on the prosthetic and creature side.”

In 2012, Kate's work was rewarded with a 10% stake in Millennium FX.

“I guess over the years I've become part of the furniture – but Neill didn't want us being treated as furniture. He appreciated us being around and the sacrifices we make for the company so decided, very generously, to offer us part of the company. It means we're not just employees, we are part and parcel of this machine.”

Millennium now has six full-time members of staff. There are co-directors Neill Gorton and Rob Mayor, Kate and her fellow SFX producer Karen Spencer, administration handled by Martina Hawkins, and in-house design by Chris Goodman.

“Chris joined us in the last couple of years,” says Kate. “He's our full-time concept artist but also greases the wheels in terms of making sure we have photographs of everything and it's all well documented.”

But Millennium also employs a large number of freelance special effects artists for different jobs.

“The UK is pretty special. There are so many creature effects and prosthetic effects shot here – the Marvel superhero movies are one example – so we have a fantastic pool of artists to pick from. Some are really good at making character prosthetics for actors, others at sculpting big old creature suits, and there are people who do both. There are people who are really good at painting fantasy colour schemes, and people who can create beautiful animals with hair punching [the process by which hair is pushed into latex or silicone masks so it looks real - Ed]. So as soon as we hear anything about a possible monster coming up in an episode – often the producers will give us a heads up about a monster before we see a script so that we can prepare – we'll have a think about how we might approach that monster and who we might get on the team.”

How many freelancers are employed on an episode of Doctor Who?

“It varies hugely. For example, on the Foretold [from 2014's Mummy on the Orient Express] I think in total we had three sculptors, one fabricator and one mould maker. Five people working on one monster is quite small. When we brought in the new Cybermen [in 2013's Nightmare in Silver] we had close to 40 people working on them.”

To understand the creative process, we'll take the Foretold as an example. There have been plenty of mummy-monsters in films over the years, perhaps most memorably Jack Pierce's make-up for Boris Karloff in The Mummy (1932). Pierce later said he'd been inspired by photographs of the real-life mummy of 13th century BC Pharaoh Seti I. How did the Foretold come about?

“That's an interesting one. If we can get a sense of what the producers want beforehand, we'll do a mood board, drawing from other work we've done or reference from the internet. I'll then head to Cardiff to see producers Steven Moffat and [fellow executive producer] Brian Minchin to present that mood board. Sometimes, if we've had a good enough guide on what they're after, we'll do a design. So I'll have all that on my laptop, which I'll present face to face. Steven and Brian will go 'yes' or 'no', and through the discussion I'll take their ideas down.”

“With the Foretold, we knew it was coming. I think we'd been told the title of the script and that it was set in space. So we assumed it would be slightly different from that kind of classic, Hollywood mummy look, and we veered off in the direction of designing something a bit more alien. We took that design to the tone meeting for the episode – which is where the heads of department meet with Steven and Brian, who explain how we should approach the episode. And they said, 'This absolutely has to be the best of the best – the most traditional, proper, old-school horror mummy.' That was our lead, so we went back and started again.”

The Foretold was designed by freelance sculptor and designer Dave Bonneywell.

“It wasn't his first mummy. As you say, it's one of those things that pops up quite a lot in horror films and things. Dave had a wealth of experience and references from all the other jobs he'd built mummies for. He presented a couple of ideas which we shared with Steven – which he really liked. They were just so classic and spot on. But the other wonderful thing about the Foretold is the performer inside it, Jamie Hill, who worked with choreographer Ailsa Berk to design the movement. You can sometimes build a creature suit and put it on someone and it looks flat – just someone in a suit. But we put it on Jamie and he really brought it to life. There was a little tremble of the hand and the drag of one foot. All that stuff takes time and effort, and I'm sure they must have worked with the director, Paul Wilmshurst, to bring it all together. And they really did us proud. It's possibly my favourite thing from last year.”

“So yeah, that's how it works. I come away from my initial meeting with Steven and Brian, and then we work with our designers, artists and sculptors to figure out the best ways to get the producers' ideas across. Or we'll come up with new and interesting things. Often, characters come with interesting visual problems that we have to solve so we may come up with something fun and different, and then see what they think. That's done over email. So we have an initial meeting to get the basic idea, then we hone it down and hone it down, getting closer to something everyone's happy with. Steven and Brian must get 10,000 emails a day from everyone working on the show, wanting their opinions or the right steer. So we're really grateful that they get back to us so quickly, that they're so on top of everything. I don't know how they do it.”

What's the atmosphere like in those meetings when Kate presents her designs?

“Oh, you kind of hope they'll look at it and just go, 'Argh! Disgusting! And exactly right!' But yeah, they're always very professional, and respectful of anything put in front of them. If we've gone completely off in the wrong direction they never throw their arms in the air. It's 'Yes, I don't know, I just feel, what about...' They'll take on board what we have to offer and they're receptive to new ideas that are different to what they imagined.”

Does that mean Kate and her team can suggest designs themselves? “Absolutely. The Teller, the big straight-jacketed creature [from 2014's Time Heist] is one example. We were sat in a meeting and the way the creature is described in the script was interesting and weird, but we couldn't all get our heads round it. As we were talking it through, Neill did this little sketch of a creature that had two tentacles with eyes on the end. He drew one with the tentacles apart and one with them together to make a loop, and said, 'What about this?' They were all just really excited about it. It was so completely different from what we'd been talking through but they were just, 'Yeah, that's weird, that's great. Let's do it.' I think we'd been designing for that episode for quite a while and we had these beautiful finished sketches. But Neill just draws something in Biro on a script and that's what we take on.”

Kate is credited on Doctor Who as a prosthetics effects producer, but what does the word “prosthetics” mean? In medicine, a prostheses is something used to replace a missing body part – such as an artificial limb – and gets its name from the ancient Greek for addition or attachment. We generally think of prosthetic special effects as something similar: stuff added to an actor's body to turn them into a creature. Is that right?

“Well, yes, we do prosthetic make-up effects which could be foam latex or silicone added to  an actor's face. But it can be more than that.” Before we get on to the other stuff, how much do the designers need to think about the comfort of the actors wearing the prosthetic make-up? For example, in the most recently broadcast episode of Doctor Who, 2014's Last Christmas, stars Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman both end up with Dream Crabs clinging tightly to their faces.

“Yeah, making sure the actors are comfortable is a big consideration,” Kate nods. “The Dream Crabs look really thick and firm and tight to the face, but actually that skin wasn't very thick. Underneath that squishy, soft latex skin, we had a vacuum-formed visor that kept the skin away from the actor's face so they could breathe. Seeing was a different question. We made the mouths of the crabs with a little bit of flexible armature wire so that we could pop the mouth open between shots so the actors could see more, then quickly close them for the shot. The visor inside is blackened down with mesh, so you couldn't see the actor's face anyway if the mouth was open, but the actor could still see out. We had something like that with the new series, too...” But we'll cover that next issue.

Last Christmas also including a striking make-up for Jenna Coleman, so she looked 62 years older. Neill Gorton provided this and the ageing make-up on actress Keeley Hawes in Time Heist – as well as ageing make-ups in Doctor Who dating back to 2007's The Lazarus Experiment.

“Neill is a man of many talents but his ageing work has garnered world renown,” Kate enthuses. “He makes it seem effortless – you forget it's a make-up. So any time something like that pops up in the series, of course we make sure that his schedule is cleared so he can do it. He's very busy on other projects and the schedule on Doctor Who tends to be demanding, but he loves the show and doing those.”

Kate is also keen to praise the actors.

“Creature performance and wearing prosthetic make-up are not easy at all. Actors have to arrive very early, sit in the chair for three hours having gooey make-up stuck to them, and then when it's on they might find it distracting from their performance. It can be stressful. You hear about actors who find it difficult but we've been incredibly lucky with everyone on Doctor Who. We're obviously very concious of them and try to make it as easy as possible – but there's sometimes not much you can do because it is what it is. The stars have to take it as much as the normal creature performers. One example is turning Danny Pink into a Cyberman for Death in Heaven [2014]. Poor Samuel Anderson had the double whammy of hours of prosthetic make-up being applied before he had to get into a hot, tight-fitting Cyberman costume. Then he had to shoot his scenes, remember all his lines and play all that emotive dialogue with Clara. That would have been hard anyway without what we put him through. But Samuel was fantastic – an example of how lucky we've been with our wonderful actors. They're so generous and patient. We could do almost anything to them.”

“But,” she says, returning to the original question, “our work is much broader than simply prosthetics. We do creature suits and costumes, which could fit in with the costume category, and we also do rigs and puppets. For example, the Half-Face Man in Deep Breath [2014]. We built a puppet version of that which had all the working cogs and everything inside. That's neither prosthetic nor creature costume, that's a standalone puppet rig. So we do all sorts of things.”

Another example is the Skovox Blitzer in 2014's The Caretaker.

“Yes, we made that,” Kate Smiles. “That was a wacky creature. It was part costume, part puppet, part rig. Yeah, it was quite taxing. We had a couple of different ways of making it move. There was a version with wheels – which meant you had to shoot it so you couldn't see them. And there was a version where a connection came out the back to a weighted gimble, so it could be pushed from a distance with nothing underneath, so you'd just see it running along on its legs.”

With both versions, the creature would only look effective if shot in certain ways and from particular angles.

“That comes down to making sure that the directors know what they're getting on the day, so they can make sure that it works with their shots. Paul Murphy, the director on The Caretaker, was off shooting other bits of the episode and we had the Skovox in our workshop, so we had a little Skype session where he could see it all working and what angles he'd have. We're really grateful that directors take the time to learn about what's coming up on the shoot because the schedules for Doctor Who are really intense. They need to shoot so much per day, and something like the Skovox needs set up time and to be seen in certain ways. All those things can slow the process down. That wasn't a standalone creature, it needed post-production work done to it to make it work. So we then have the wonderful post-production team at BBC Wales VFX and Milk VFX who help remove the wheels and connections at the back, and make sure it works for the audience.  A good team effort.”

It's not just big, animated creatures that need some practical thought. Kate's team also provided the Cyberman head wielded by UNIT's Kate Lethbridge Stewart in Death in Heaven – designed to match the look of the Cybermen that battled UNIT in 1968's The Invasion.

“That was built by this wonderful model maker, Pete Fielding,” Kate tells us. “The script has Kate chuck it on the ground outside St Paul's Cathedral – where it's all stone pavement. Obviously, there are in existence original Cybermen heads from the 60s, but you wouldn't be able to chuck them on the ground like that. So we had to build one that would serve that purpose. And we made it slightly weighted so it would always land face up. I had to chuck it around the workshop to see if it would break.” She laughs. “It's applied science, testing Cyberheads. The thing is, when you give a prop to an actor you let them know what it can do and what it can withstand but at the end of the day they've got so many other things on their mind. They have to remember God knows how many lines and cues. Anyway, the spur of the moment may require them to be more forceful. So you have to build these things expecting someone will chuck it really hard. But I think I broke Pete's heart as I chucked it around the workshop as hard as I could.”

“I love being hands on making and testing things, but it's not often practical any more, just because I need to be in 16 places at once. I'm much more management, making sure things get to set okay. I try as much as possible to be there on the first day any creature is on set so if there are problems or questions I can tackle them. Being on set isn't frivolous, we're not just hanging out. People work incredibly hard when they're on set, it takes up all of your time and it's quite exhausting. As much as it's great fun and rewarding, this is work and it's about getting the job done.”

As part of the management of the company, does Kate have to take responsibility for the scariness of her team's creations? She considers.

“At the end of the day, it's up to the directors and producers to figure out a tone in which they won't psychological traumatise too many people. They could ask us to tone things down, I suppose – but they never have. Sometimes we make things and go, 'God, this is pretty scary.' But I don't know, there's a thrill about that. You think, 'Will this be the one that scares kids so much they'll still be talking about it in their 30s?' This is legacy stuff. The Foretold – we knew that was scary. We might affect someone's personality by making them afraid of Egyptian artefacts. The Dream Crabs as well, they are quite wacky and colourful but they are really scary and disgusting.” She laughs. “The whole concept was wonderful!”

If the team makes a lot of creepy, unsettling stuff, does Kate need a strong stomach to do her job?

“I've learned to have one!” she laughs. “But then, while some of Doctor Who is creepy, there's such a level of fun in all the stuff we do as well. It's other-worldly. We also work on medical shows, making up prosthetics to show things doctors and surgeons do to keep people alive. There's reference online, videos of operations and things, and that stuff's intense. Real life is shocking. Doctor Who is super fun.”

Even so, she takes great pride in grossing out the crew on Doctor Who.

“There's been a few where we hear back from them saying, 'God, that's disgusting!'” she beams. “When we did the Crooked Man [in 2013's Hide], that freaked everyone out. There was the nicest guy in the costume, he was all 'Oh, hello!' to everyone. But people couldn't bear it. They found it so creepy and they kept away. So we must have done a good job there.”

Kate's team continues to strive to make ever more disgusting creatures. Next issue, she'll tell us in detail about their work on the brand new series. Until the episodes have been broadcast, it's all top secret – but we've already glimpsed some of that work in the trailers for the new series.

“Yeah, so you've seen the Zygons. I can talk about those now because they were in The Day of the Doctor [2013].” Originally designed by John Friedlander and James Acheson for the 1975 Fourth Doctor story Terror of the Zygons, how did Millennium FX update the creatures? “Gary Pollard resculpted them for the 50th anniversary episode. I think he did a really faithful but interesting interpretation of the classic Zygons. He's a massive fan of the show and was really honoured to get the chance to do that. We retained as much of the classic look as we could but made them a little bit meatier.”

We've also glimpsed a character with ridges running across his face, and something with a head like a mantis, and what looks like an army of green robots. Did Kate's team make those?

“We did indeed.” And what can she tell us about them? “They were fabulous to work on. Those robot things, we're really excited about that episode.” And? She smiles. “Wait and see.”

But DWM wants to know about a character from the very first episode of the new series. Just who - or what - is Colony Sarff?

“Oh yeah,” Kate enthuses. “That was hard work. But he's really going to horrify people. It's going to be great.”

Sarff is a creature so complicated that all the different departments had to work together to bring him to life. And next time, Kate will tell all...

2013's The Rings of Akhaten presented a challenge for Millennium FX: a whole world of different alien creatures...

“Budgets being what they are, we knew that it wasn't going to be possible to populate an entire planet or big town. At the end of the day, it's TV not a massive Hollywood production, so it had to be a smallish group of aliens that we could swap around and make look larger. The deal was that we'd provide the aliens but we could reuse them afterwards – which means they pop up again in other episodes of Doctor Who, and some other things, too.”

“So we assembled a team of great sculptors, fabricators and painters and just let them sculpt away and build suits. We re-purposed some costumes from other productions. And yeah, it was great fun. We had a lot of new sculpts but we also cast from our moulds and stuck things together. Yeah, it was make and do. In fact, we produced far more creatures than ended up on screen. We had 28 or so in the truck that went down to the studio in Cardiff, and they used maybe 18 of them.

When designing monsters, how much does Kate worry about cosplay potential?

“It's not something we consider too much,” admits Kate Walshe. “We're usually looking at the shooting schedule, going, 'Oh my God, how are we going to get this done in time?' But I know that Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin and everyone high up at the BBC must have that at the back of their minds. It might be more of a consideration for the costume department:  how the Doctor dresses and how easily people will be able to copy that – and whether or not that's a good thing – is tricky.”

“I've been to events and conventions, and am just flabbergasted by the quality that people are able to produce. We've had people show up who've built entire Ood heads, which is really complicated. I was looking at one lady's Ood head at an event and just couldn't get over how wonderfully accurate it was. That must have taken some time. It's really admirable – and I think it would be cheating if we made it too easy for them. So yeah, we'll keep it tricky so they have to learn more!”

If the quality is so good, would Kate ever be tempted to invite cosplayers to be part of the programme, such as on an episode like The Rings of Akhaten which called for a whole planet of monsters?

“Oh, I think that would be wonderful. Yes, they're certainly good enough. And it  would be a fantastic thing to do for those fans. But then there's the question of whether that would let out sneaky spoilers, and probably contractual things and all of that. So yeah, in principle, but it's a question the producers would have a think about.”