Everyone’s favourite Timelord is back, with a new BBC series and a huge array of effects created by The Mill. Digit bagged the first look…

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It’s been a long time – even for a Timelord – but the wait for the new series of the cult science-fiction drama Doctor Who has been worth it. 
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After a break of 16 years – the last TV series episode aired in 1989 – the BBC is set to play-out a revitalized, revamped, and stunningly realized series that features richly detailed plots, fine characterization, and a level of visual effects that simply haven’t before graced British TV screens. In a word, the new Doctor Who – starring Christopher Eccleston, Billie Piper, and a dizzying array of alien creatures – is amazing.
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Since the announcement that Doctor Who will see his Tardis materialize on our screens, speculation over the series has been rife. Who fans have filled Web sites with gossip and snatched on-location photos. 
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Even national newspapers have joined in the guessing game as to how the series will pan out. Will the Daleks return? Will the Cybermen make an appearance? Can Billie Piper fill the shoes of previous Doctor Who assistants?
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With this level of pre-season hype edging towards fever pitch, the pressure has been on – not just for the BBC – but also for The Mill, which has been slavishly working on creating, honing, and polishing a level of effects that will compliment the return of the series, since it won the pitch for producing the visual effects.
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For the London-based VFX house, the series represents a milestone. Already renowned for its work on a vast output of effects-heavy commercials and features, including bagging a Oscar for its work on Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, The Mill has had its work cut out in order to meet an exacting schedule.
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It’s big stuff. The music has been subtly updated by Murray Gold, while the timetunnel title sequence is a modern take on the classic. In the series, it’s coloured red when the Tardis is travelling forwards through time, and blue when heading back. 
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The logo – set on a gold oval with plenty of flare and corona detail – has been crafted for widescreen viewing.
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Will is instantly onto the detail as first the teaser, then scenes from the first few episodes, play out. “It’s all about detail,” he enthuses, as a snow-bound Tardis disappears from view. “Look at the snow flakes that fall from the Tardis’ window sills as it disappears – it’s all subtle particle effects that we just keep layering onto the scenes.” 
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Indeed, it’s a fleeting effect, but one that adds to an almost subconscious level of realism. The Tardis itself was rendered with multiple passes, including one specifically for paint chips and scratches that it has picked up on its adventures.
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What is obvious during the viewing is the sheer range of effects The Mill has created. From fully rigged CG characters and aliens – themselves all different – to fluid and water effects, to a fantastic scene in episode one that features a fully CG earth that positively glows against the backdrop of space. 
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And as for episode two – which mixes in greenscreen work, complete CG scenes, and a parade of CG characters and effects – “it’s like nothing that has before been seen on British television,” says Will.
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<h2>Because we want to</h2>
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Yet, in true Doctor Who style, in order to get to here, we need to travel back a year to when The Mill first pitched for the project. “We pitched for the project roughly a year ago,” says Will, “and we knew from April 2004 that we had got it – and we’ve been planning and working on it since then,” he says. 
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“We knew the pitch would be fierce – and we had to make an impact at the pitch. A pitch is a lot about trust, and with the series there were a lot of detailed, varied scripts involved that meant a huge range of effects. 
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“What the BBC needed was a commitment to communication from us so there were no surprises, especially in terms of the schedule. From there, it all organically developed.”
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The pitch itself was based on the scripts for the first two episodes – “I remember reading them and blocking out the number of effects. And there were a lot of effects – it did make me sweat a bit,” says Will. 
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From there, the team created some examples of the type of effects that they felt would work with the scripts, plus drafted out a series of concept artwork and created a few test shots. They also went armed with animatics of some of the scenes to show an idea of pacing, and how completed shots could work.
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With shooting pencilled in for the end of July, and the cast on board, The Mill and the BBC held a series of production meetings from June 2004: “Basically, we locked the meeting room door for ten hours and went through everything,” says Will.
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The meetings reviewed production design and models, looking at which scenes would work best with physical models, and which would look better as CG. “It also gave us and the BBC a chance to lay down some ground rules for the production, to ensure the schedule was achieved.”
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“It means people own the shot they’re working on and sometimes you’re working on a new shot every day. There’s tons of creative scope for the team – someone won’t just work on a shader – it’s very collaborative.”

For communication, The Mill made use of BeamTV – a broadband, hack-proof closed network that can literally squirt HD footage (Doctor Who is shot with Beta SP) to members.
"BeamTV was great. It meant that we could work on an effect, or composite a CG character into a live-action scene, and then the episode director could complete a day’s filming in Cardiff, go home and over broadband download and view the scene,” says Will.

“It made for instant feedback on our work – decision making and sign-off was much quicker. With so many shots, the ability to decide on a shot, then move on, is vital.”

Feedback on the project has obviously been limited: “security reasons,” cites Will. It means that peers have not had a chance to evaluate the project, but Will beams when we start talking about feedback from the BBC. “When the client sees it, it’s a nice experience – you can sit back and enjoy it. Julie and Russell were like kids in a sweetshop when they saw the completed episodes.”

So, with the clock counting down, and the Tardis confined to the small screen, the only way for The Mill is to head into the future. With the expectation of the fans, the BBC, and the viewing public, the prime-time series will no doubt be a major water-cooler topic from the end of March. Touch wood, of course.

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Billie Piper becomes the latest to try to better Bonnie Langford’s performance as the Doctor’s assistant.
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IT’S LIKE NOTHING THAT HAS BEEN SEEN BEFORE ON BRITISH TELEVISION<BR>
Will Cohen
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