Animator and visual effects man Rick Skelton chats to SteamTeam about his (sometimes very messy!) work on Sooty, offers his advice to anyone who wants to break into the industry and much more!
1. How did you first break into the visual effects industry?
It’s been a gradual process, more of a side-line for a few years. I've always been interested in TV and film 'behind the scenes' since I was young. (I’m the sort of person that buys a DVD, and watches 'The Making Of...' before the film itself!) I worked for a company that provided big visuals for shows on stage, but my dream was to own my own visual effects company. So I took a big leap and did just that – and not looked back since!
2. How did you first become involved with Sooty?
I've known Richard for about 7 years from a time I worked in Brean. I produced a video for one of his rides, Astrotours at his Fun City park (this is where I met Wink Taylor and Wendy Abrahams who feature on the video). I love the whole experience at Disney and Universal and wanted to recreate this. Richard, Wink and Wendy were on a tight schedule, and the only place to get this done quickly was by setting up the green screen in my dining room. I think they were a bit dubious at the time, until the completed video.
Since then I’ve moved away from Brean, but always kept in touch with Richard, and worked with him on some great projects. I remember a time where Richard wanted to produce an April fool’s gag a few years ago that involved Soo being a new member of the Sugababes. (it was 2010 when they looking for a replacement band-member). The only problem, was that it was March 30th, and the video needed to be sent to the PR company the next day!!! We filmed Soo against green screen and I worked overnight to try and get her to look like she was the replacement in the video 'Wear my Kiss'. The results were a little rough around the edges, but funny none-the-less. And I made the deadline!
3. What does your job on Sooty entail?
I started a few weeks before the main shoot started on anything that was artwork or effects related. I, along with a great graphics designer who works for me created all the signs, posters, labels etc. I had the scripts, and Richards vision of what the final design needed to be and set about making all the concept artwork, then getting them produced and printed on big foam-ex type material. At the same time I produced some video playback to be used on the set. Such things as the Inventions Game intro and 'computer screens' for inside the rocket set. Before the main shoot as well, I filmed and produced an old fashioned 'Silent Movie' that would be used on a screen during one of the episodes. (Look out for a cameo of the series director, Adrian Hedley, and (yet another) appearance of Wink Taylor looking very ‘old fashioned!’)
After the filming wrapped, there were a few fx to get done for the editors. The caravan which was used for the external shots of Sooty in series one, was no longer there, so we had to re-use the shots of series one. There were a couple of additions that needed to be digitally created. These were a nigh-time version of the exterior of the caravan, as well as a version that looked like it was raining.
4. What’s been your greatest challenge or proudest moment on Sooty?
Well let’s cross off what is probably the worst… It’s not all glamour when making a TV show. The episode Cow Capers, as you can probably tell was filmed on a real farm. As usual, Richard HAS to get messy (it’s the rules you know!) by falling into a manure heap. When he gets messy, the radio mics are taken off so as not to get broken..and here comes my second job, the Boom Mic. Although the manure that Richard fell in was our fantastic Props Man, Peter Moran’s creation, the rest of the heap wasn’t, and because of the angle of the shot there was only one place I could stand – Not to go into detail, but Richard got the good deal that day! Not exactly the proudest moment, but one that makes me chuckle to myself. For 'The Black Hand' episode, we needed a bank for the Black Hand to run out of with his bag of loot. The building we used is in fact a laundrette which we dressed up to make into a bank…including a life-size picture of a cash machine. This is a bit of TV trickery as it looks real on screen, but it seemed it looked a bit too real on set too – We had 3 people walk over to try and use it (and walk away very quickly with embarrassment when they realised it was just a picture!)
5. What’s your favourite thing you’ve made for Sooty?
By a million miles, the inside of the portaloo which we turned into a space rocket! This was a combination of great artwork, video playback and flashing lights(!). It looked fab on screen. We actually made it to fit inside the portaloo, however when the inside with Richard, Sooty and Sweep was filmed, we did that with a bit of TV magic in the studio. Both myself and Paul spent a lot of time with minute details, most of which we knew wouldn’t even be seen on screen, but we had lots of fun adding them in, both on the video screens and the panels themselves. There’s also a little visual effect on the same episode. When filming the rocket taking off from the Garden Shed, we had to do a few takes, unfortunately we ran out of pyros to make the sparks in the jet engines. Instead of being four, there were only 2. I digitally added an extra 2 jets to make it look like all four fired as was the original intention.
6. Have you worked on many other big name television shows?
Once you have worked with Sooty, there’s really no other BIG TV series to work on! There are some exciting projects for 2014 – but none I can give away yet.
7. Are you ever on set for the filming of Sooty or seen any finished episodes? If so, do you have a favourite episode of the new series?
I was there everyday, for the last minute posters, labels, signs etc. For this series, there are a few more effect shots than series one, so some of the time I was used to mock up an effect to see if it would work. An example of that would be the episode Sooty Takes Off. We shot that against Green Screen in the morning, and by the afternoon I would bring back a mock-up of the scene for the Director (Adrian) and Richard to look over.
There were times when on the day it became apparent a visual effect would be a better choice. An example is during the Fireworks episode. There's steam that needs to come out of peoples ears. We could have spent a long time creating special props with elaborate tubes etc, which probably wouldn't work as we planned and take many takes to get right – or we can do it digitally – so we did!
For the rest of the time on set, because of the fast-paced shooting schedule, we all work as a big team and help each other out. Therefore whenever there was a need to use the Boom mic instead of the hidden radio mics, I leant a hand (It's a good way of building up those muscles too!)
8. Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to break into the visual effects industry? Is it a job you would recommend?
It’s something 10 years ago I never thought I would be doing. (I wanted to be a radio host of all things!). It’s something that started as an interest, and developed into me owning my own visual effects and design company! It’s a great job though, when you see the end result and where it’s ended up being shown. Knowing that some of my work is on TV, on stages and venues and even in Las Vegas is really rewarding.
There are some amazing sites around the internet which give some really great tips, advice and tutorials. I have a little visual 'toolkit' for any new project I start. It’s a collection of little visual tricks and effects I have collected and keep altogether, so when starting something new I can grab them and use them as a starting block – It really helps.
Any other advice? I can imagine this cover all 'creative' people – Sometimes you get a creative block (I wonder if there is a medical term for it!) Taking a break, and doing something else then come back really helps, otherwise you can sit all day and get NOTHING done. (I've literally sat in front of my studio computer for a whole day and night, and produced – ZERO before. My long term plan is to produce a drink – It’s like Red Bull, but instead of keeping you awake, it gives you inspiration! I’ll be rich!
9. Did you watch Sooty when you were young?
I did, and loved it (And still love it!) I was brought up in the Matthew Corbett era. It was a surreal moment when I interviewed him on behalf of Richard when he did his cameo on series one's Chocco Chimp episode.
Ironically too, my wife’s first teddy bear she saw – at less than one day old, was a Sooty puppet.
10. We have to ask you: Who’s your favourite Sooty character???
The strange thing about working with all the puppets, is that you actually start seeing and treating them as real characters – I remember a surreal day halfway through the shoot, I just stopped, and stared at Sweep and remember being a bit star-struck! I totally admire Brian Sandford who is fantastic at bringing Sweep alive and making him very funny.