Doctor Who: Stargate’s adventures in time

Anticipation is building for the 50th anniversary special episode of the much-loved BBC series Doctor Who. Audiences will have to wait until November to see the ep, but in the meantime the series 7 finale has just aired, bringing with it some huge revelations about the history of the Doctor. Helping to bring the finale to life was Doctor Who newcomer Stargate Studios. We talk to visual effects supervisor Mark Spatny about resurrecting former Doctors, creating time rifts, animating Cybermen and crashing the TARDIS for the finale and two other episode this series.

***Warning: this article contains plot spoilers***

The series 7 finale

Of Doctors past

In ‘The Name of the Doctor’, the series finale, much is revealed about the Doctor’s companion Clara Oswald (Jenna-Louise Coleman) and the Doctor’s (Matt Smith) own timeline. At one point, Clara enters a column of light depicting a time rift – more on this below – and is seen interacting with various incarnations of the Doctor – literally other Doctor actors over the past 50 years. Spatny oversaw filming of the many and varied plates and setups for these shots. “That was actually the last thing we ended up filming and we weren’t fully aware of what footage was available from old episodes,” says Spatny. “But the director and editor were able to spend time at night piecing a story together.”

Jenna-Louise Coleman was filmed against greenscreen for some of the Doctor interaction shots.
Jenna-Louise Coleman was filmed against greenscreen for some of the Doctor interaction shots.

Actors William Hartnell (the first Doctor) and Patrick Troughton (the second) were cut out from old footage for their scenes and placed into new backgrounds. Other Doctor shots mostly relied on photo doubles and greenscreen or set piece shots of Clara. “They built what was supposed to be the TARDIS bay where Clara meets William Hartnell taking the TARDIS to the first time,” says Spatny. “They built a whole set for that so they could shoot Jenna-Louise Coleman in there over a photo double. For the shots where we were over William Hartnell we just shot a plate of the set piece and cut him out of the Aztecs.”

The interaction with Troughton in the park was a sequence that, according to Spatny, was almost dropped. “Originally it was going to be them in a futuristic space environment,” he says, “but when we got into post production, they couldn’t go all out on a 3D environment, but we said what if we didn’t build a 3D environment, what if we shot plates and put them in an environment where the show doesn’t normally go? So we suggested LA, where the show has never really been. I shot a few different locations and gave them some examples, and we ended up in Venice Beach on a grassy field because the original footage has Troughton running through a grassy field. There’s a big chunk of that footage where his feet actually disappear into the grass and it was going to be easier to fit him into footage that way.”

Clara in the time tunnel.
Clara in the time tunnel.

“Clara is on greenscreen from the set of Wales,” adds Spatny. “Most of the people in the background were from the plate in Venice but we also shot some extras in our parking lot just to fill in the park area and have crosses – we knew the roto on the Troughton footage was not going to be great, it was really, really degraded video footage bumped into HD. So the quality was super-bad. We just wanted to get glimpse of him for a few frames and know who he is, and the rest of the time we’re going to have crosses blocking him.”

Multiple facilities then worked on the final shots for the Clara/Doctor interactions, even adding some colorization to some of the original black and white footage.

The time rift

At one point in the episode, the characters face a pulsating column of light inside the TARDIS that represents the Doctor’s traversal of time and space. It becomes a way of venturing back into the Doctor’s timeline. Stargate produced the look and final animation of the time rift. “In the script there was a description that it was a scar in space left behind by his time travels and a map of every place and time he’s ever been,” recalls Spatny. “In my mind I was trying to think what that would look like with a bunch of intersecting lines and directions.”


“I was trying to wrap my head around it,” adds Spatny, “and I walked onto the set and saw they had decorated it with vines growing everywhere to indicate the passage of time and I realized it had to tie in with that. We’re seeing all these vines everywhere all through the episode, so I thought let’s play with that and make them an extension of the rift. So it became twisted vines – it’ll look like his past in space and time because it all intersects and goes in different directions but it’ll also feel organic to the rest of the production design. We played with glows and textures and a sense of energy for the final shots.”

When Clara jumps into the time rift she enters into time tunnel, an effect achieved in After Effects using the Trapcode Mir plugin. “We built a 3D tunnel in AE and then used the plugin to map the textures over it and had them traveling through the tunnel,” explains Spatny. “We added a bunch of cards with flame textures on them that fly through the middle at camera, so it didn’t just look like a hollow pipe.”

Jenna-Louise was shot on a turntable with a Technocrane, “so that she was spinning around the crane was zooming in and out and craning around her,” says Spatny. “We did that for 10 or 15 minutes letting the operators go wild, and they picked the pieces they liked to get the sense of falling.”

Crash of the TARDIS

Earlier, the TARDIS crash lands on the planet of Trenzalore. Exterior views of the world gave it a volcanic feel. “In the script it was described as the scariest planet you’ve ever seen and it looks like someone has taken a bite out of it like an apple,” says Spatny. “We started with that and took the look from the set. On the set, the DOP had the idea of just lighting with flame bars. I was say 50% of the episode was lit without any lighting instruments – they just had the special effects crew lighting with flame bars positioned off-camera everywhere during the filming so there was this flicking, subdued, dangerous, sense of flickering light. Everything was just falling into darkness with some pools of light. I thought that was really interesting and what would motivate that light? Well, it was really cloudy, some of those exteriors were in the graveyard. One on end there was an overcast orange sky. And I thought what might create that was a volcanic environment – with lava around reflecting off the clouds.”


So for the set extensions in the graveyard and the planet, Stargate conceived deep canyons and volcanic fissures to be scary and dangerous. “Then the surprise for me was,” adds Spatny, “in color timing, for the exteriors of the graveyards they actually went away from the red look and color timed it all blue! So the motivation for making the whole volcanic planet wasn’t actually visible in the whole thing but it still worked out really well. The shots from space were really interesting.”

These shots also depicted the movement of the TARDIS, animation that Stargate referenced from shots done by The Mill in other shows. “When there’s a moment where he says he’s going to turn off the anti-grav and it’ll fall, we wanted a little bit of a fight from the tardis, so you’ll notice it staggers, not just a freefall,” explains Spatny. “Since the tardis has a personality of sorts, we wanted to make sure if gives a little fight before it goes to the planet.”

Original plate.
Original plate.
Final shot.
Final shot.

A shot of the TARDIS plummeting to the ground in freefall made use of space capsule ‘reference’ in that a re-entry heat shield look was applied featuring fire and smoke. “And the TARDIS is sitting there and there’s a long slow crane move to get up to the door before the Doctor comes out of it,” says Spatny. “So we added the heat dissipating off the TARDIS. It starts out glowing at the head of that camera move and then gets cooler.”

The Great Intelligence

On Trenzalore, the Doctor and Clara encounter The Great Intelligence (Richard E. Grant) in the form of another. “The idea is that The Great Intelligence is this energy being – it’s just pure intelligence and has no body, so he has to inhabit other bodies,” states Spatny. Revealing himself to be a hollow man made out of paper, The Great Intelligence pulls back a layer of skin to show the empty insides. “We shot him with a prosthetic on his face that he could peel off that was a rubber skin flap, and underneath that was green. He pulls that off and then where the green was we built an interior of his head made out of paper to show he was hollow. Then for the scene where he reforms as one of the Whisper Men it was a standard morph where we lined up the actor and the guy in the makeup and did a morph between the two.”


The Angels Take Manhattan

For episode 705 (‘The Angels Take Manhattan’), Stargate recreated a 1930s New York city and brought to life a Weeping Angel version of the Statue of Liberty. The rooftop New York scenes were achieved as combinations of plates shot in the city and on-set foregrounds. “They were going to crush everything down in the New York plates so you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between modern and old buildings,” recalls Spatny. “We looked at that and thought we could amp that up. We came up with different views and kicking out modern buildings and putting in contemporary ones. We have a library of buildings from past projects, so we used some of those, and others used matte paintings.”

Original plate.
Original plate.
Final shot.
Final shot.

The challenge for Stargate was that, as originally conceived, the shots were only ever going to be straight out without looking at the ground. But once the director had boarded and planned the foreground shoot – long after the background plates were filmed – down angles and raking angles were required to provide a greater sense of danger. Says Spatny: “We didn’t want it to look like they were just standing above a dark street – that’s not going to communicate any scale or danger – so we put in some 3D traffic below to get a sense they were at least ten storeys up and there was danger there.”

The Weeping Angel/Statue of Liberty creation came from reference of angels in past episodes and particular characteristics that Stargate picked up on. “We looked at the style to the teeth, the fangs being a certain way,” says Spatny. Their mouths in an attack mode have that grimace on them. We wanted to see that but also communicate that it’s the Statue of Liberty so we had to frame it in such a way that you’d see the crown – we had to lower the arm to see the torch. To be honest we lowered her size a lot. She’s not really that tall – she is because of the pedestal but the actual statue itself is not as tall as the building that they were intended to be on. So we had to cheat her size and scale to make it a little more scary.”

Original plate.
Original plate.
Final shot.
Final shot.

Nightmare in Silver

For series 7’s penultimate episode, ‘Nightmare in Silver’, Stargate had to create a futuristic alien theme park and deliver CG shots of the iconic Cybermen. The studio conceptualized the theme park – 250,000 years in the future – featuring rides that soared high into the sky and with futuristic architecture. “It also needed to look run-down, which we got reference for from abandoned amusement park for the right level of decay,” notes Spatny. “Also, we had originally done concept art as day shots, but they wanted to make the backgrounds quite spooky, so it was made all night. We made it more alien with two moons to tell people we weren’t on earth.”


The Cybermen were required for a range of shots, including swarms of them on the attack. Spatny took hundreds of on-set photographs in various lighting conditions and with costumed actors in multiple poses. “Also,” he says, “Millennium FX were kind enough to give us scans of the costumes they’d done for themselves. They had designed some of it in Z-Brush and then scanned it and so had those models for their workflow, so they gave us parts of it – the chest plate, the helmet. We just built the rest from photo reference in Maya.”

“The biggest challenge we had was getting their movement right,” adds Spatny. “One of the notes we kept getting was that they were moving too robotically. I had done a lot of video of the guys practicing. We were using that as a guide. As it turned out later, we kept getting these notes, ‘Too robotic, too robotic’, but we were doing exactly what they were doing on set with the real guy! I found out later that they actually thought the real guys were moving too robotically, and had never given us that note that we shouldn’t be matching that! So we had to break up their walk patterns and move them around so they weren’t as synchronized and not matching each other and not feeling like robots – they wanted them to feel more like they were people taking big strides.”

Cybermen test still.
Cybermen test still.

In some scenes, the Cybermen are shown moving incredibly fast, a look Stargate referenced from earlier visual effects done for the TV series Heroes, with its own unique Doctor Who feel relying on hundreds of layers of motion blurring and rotoscoping in After Effects. For a ‘bullet time’ look showing the Cybermen’s speed, in which everyone else freezes, production looked to a relatively low-tech solution. “It was the standard poor-man’s bullet time where everybody’s holding their position and we just added some 3D objects into the room,” explains Spatny. “We set up the choreography where a guy would throw a chair in normal time and then in frozen time we’d put the 3D chair in the room floating in the air. And we’d have laser blasts going that were moving very slowly.”


For the frozen people, production had at first considered putting people on wires so they could hang in the air. “We were building armatures for different people so we could hold them really off balance,” states Spatny. “On the day at the location there was just no place to do any of that. We couldn’t hang anybody on wires – the idea of the armatures, they were all set to go but we were running behind on shooting time and we thought if we do that we start getting things too complicated. So on the day the director and I went to everybody and said, ‘Let’s see your blocking and we’ll tell you when to freeze.’ We’d see if they could hold their position – if they were really off balance and were wobbling and knew that would show up, then we’d adjust their position.”

The frozen time shot.
The frozen time shot.

A team effort

“Definitely one of the more interesting challenges for me,” recounts Spatny, “was working with the directors and producers to design and plan all the effects, and then having the work split up among different facilities. It’s a different paradigm for me – working for a facility, but planning and shooting effects for different facilities as if I was an independent supervisor working for the production. That’s a model that isn’t used here on American television, but seems to be more normal in Europe.”

The result was that for this series, several studios shared the work – Stargate Studios, the BBC Wales VFX Department, The Mill, Space Digital, Molinaire and VFX editor Joel Skinner. “It has very much been a team effort,” says Spatny.

Key credits





712_0059-01aEPISODE 705: The Angels Take Manhattan


EPISODE 712: Nightmare in Silver


EPISODE 713 (Series 7 Finale): The Name of The Doctor