The Mat Irvine Interview – Part 1

Mat Irvine began his career with the BBC working in the “Stills Library” from where images to accompany BBC TV news items were assigned. When Apollo 12 Lunar Module pilot Al Bean damaged the camera that would have filmed images to send back to earth, Mat’s model work for BBC News closely illustrated the events of the moon landing, and he was soon taken on by Jack Kine in the BBC Visual Effects Department, producing models and props for the newly founded Open University, for which the BBC did the broadcasting side of things.

“During this time I was seconded for about two weeks to the ‘main’ FX Department. The job I did during most of that time was to assist Ian Scoones with a Doctor Who he was doing on his own – unthinkable and virtually impossible in later years! I helped him with a miniature filming set-up, making the TARDIS fall down a cliff – which I only later found out was for the story ‘The Curse of Peladon’. I also made the TARDIS light flash at the correct speed as the whole set-up was being filmed high speed, (as was usual with miniature filming), and electronics was a – slight- speciality of mine.”

I assumed from this that Mat and the rest of the team got to choose what they worked on – not the case, it turns out: “Although most of us had particular skills – model-making, electronics, sculpture, pyrotechniques, most of us didn’t specialise – we certainly didn’t get to choose on what we worked. Basically you did what you were assigned to work on. There was a perverse logic in this, in that it did give you a wide range of tasks to perform, which could develop skills you were not necessarily so good with. These days, things have changed considerably with all aspects of FX – and not just computer-based ones – becoming more and more specialised, that you have to, well, specialise.”

Mat has worked across a wide variety of shows, from Doctor Who and “The Sky at Night” to “Rentaghost”. “There were considerably more than those – so much so that I’d be hard-pressed to remember them all – or even probably half of them now! Yes some are unforgettable, but even now people say, ‘Tell us about when you worked on xxx…’ I can sometimes have a job to remember the programme, let alone what I did on it!” So you were kept pretty busy then?

“You have to remember that the Visual Effects Department was unique in the whole wide world of special effects, as it existed within the BBC. All other FX organisations were – even then – freelance companies. Also we didn’t specialise – we weren’t a model-making department, or a prop making department or a floor effects department, we did everything. “Jack of all trades…” as was often commented, though maybe I will leave out the continuation of that saying which is, “… and master of none…”. But that was the situation. One couldn’t be an expert in all fields, but you could turn you hand to most, and I suppose the one word that described all of us that went through the breakaway balsawood and shatterglass glazing doors of Visual Effects, was ‘adaptable’.” I suggested to Mat that the demands of these shows must have differed widely.

“Considerably. If you were working on an established show – such as Doctor Who – you obviously knew the type of stuff that would be wanted. New shows could be a surprise – though here being brought in early enough was always the main key. There were many occasions when you found yourself put on a show at the last minute – they were in studio the next day! – then, having gone through the script, you felt there was a lot you could have done – if only you’d been asked earlier…”

I’m the owner of a couple of “Multi-Coloured Swap Shop” books, based on the Saturday morning show hosted by Noel Edmonds and Keith Chegwin. In one of them is a picture of Mat making models on the show. These were appearances that I used to look forward to as a child…but were they just filler? “When I worked for TV News and we moved to TV Centre, the Stills Library combined with an existing photo library. This library was headed by Hazel Gill, the sister of the Deputy Editor of Blue Peter – Rosemary Gill. It was Rosemary who started Swap Shop and, through her sister, remembered me and that I’d gone to Visual Effects, and asked me to appear on the new programme. So I did. I also expected it was a one-off, and when they asked me on the second time, I said ‘Why not use someone else…?’ to which they replied, ‘But they [the viewers] now know you…’ I still get people coming up to me saying they’d watched me on Swap Shop and it inspired them to get into some aspect of the media – awesome responsibility…”

That brings the conversation nicely to the more modern techniques. I’m curious to know Mat’s opinion of CGI techniques. “It’s another tool, and should only be that, but like many tools, it can be dangerous if misused! I do have this feeling that many producers think that it’s the be-all and end-all and can solve any problem. However the problem is that it probably will come to this – if it hasn’t already…”

Was there any hint of the possibilities of CGI back in the days of Doctor Who and Blake’s 7? “Interestingly Ron Thornton saw the beginning of the ‘new fangled’ way of doing things, as he was talking about ‘CGI’, (early stage of…), while working within the Department. This he did for about 18 months, which included building the Blake’s 7 Scorpio. Then of course he went off and did the first three seasons of Babylon 5 – all CGI.

However my overall views on the technique is that it is just that – another technique, another way of doing things. Unfortunately it can do whole sequences – and arguably whole movies, so it’s not just a matter of replacing miniatures and effects sequences, but whole sets and actors as well! Nothing wrong with ‘cartoon’ stories – movies such as Monster Inc. and Shrek show that a good script works however the imaging on the screen is achieved – but whether it will eventually take over completely, in the long run I have to say, ‘I hope not…’”

Could, then, have any of the shows that he’s worked on have been improved with CGI?

“Difficult to say really! I’ve always been generally content to work on what came up… I – sometimes – look back at something like Blake and think, “Be nice to do it with the benefit of CGI…” – though purely as an additional tool not as a replacement. Then again there was a factual series I did called ‘Spaceships of the Mind’ around 1978, which I’ve always thought it would be nice to re-visit with a) the update of the scientists and engineers thoughts and b) modern miniature effects techniques.”

Mat’s book “Creating Space” covers the history of the space race and NASA. What are his thoughts on the current status of the exploration of space? “It does appear to be a bit in disarray… I’m not sure if the idea of the abandonment of the Shuttle approach and the re-introduction of ELVs (expendable launch vehicles) for manned flight is a good idea. I still have this nagging feeling that President Kennedy’s speech in 1961 when he stated, “We will put a man on the Moon, by the end of the decade…” was the wrong way to go. What should have happened is what Werner von Braun and the others were saying in the 1950s – build a space station first – THEN go to the Moon and planets… and we’d have probably been on Mars by now…”

We’ll leave it there for now, check Part Two to find out Mat’s tips for staying within budget on visual FX projects and what he thinks of the return of K9…


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