Dick Mills Interview - Chicago TARDIS 2013

From Episode #022 Suburban TARDIS 2013

JB: It is my distinct pleasure to have on the WHO 37 podcast the sound designer for the Classic Series. Dick Mills, welcome to WHO 37.

DICK: Good afternoon, or good morning … whichever time zone you’re in over here.

JB: It’s just now noon. It still feels like morning to me. Is this your first time here at Chicago TARDIS?

DICK: Yes it is. I met Gene [Smith, chief organizer of Chicago TARDIS] at Gallifrey in Los Angeles. I asked him if he would like me to come to Chicago TARDIS. He said yes, so here I am.

JB: Very cool. I just have to say this is special for me to be interviewing you because last summer I was involved in a local Doctor Who theater production. I wore many hats in that production. I did voices, and I was on stage as a Cybermen, but I also did the sound design for the show. A lot of the visual aspect of the show was based on the new series, but I felt it was important to bring in the classic series, so a lot of the sounds effects that I made from scratch were based on the original sounds that you and Brian Hodgson made. A lot of the people who saw the show told me they appreciated the classic sounds and that it felt like they watching an episode of Doctor Who. The actors told me that they felt like they were in an episode of Doctor Who.

DICK: I think the secret of our so-called appeal is that the show was shot at a far slower pace than today. I was on a panel with Waris Hussein [director of “An Unearthly Child” and “Marco Polo”] last weekend, and he actually shot that half-hour pilot in three segments. So twenty minutes is a long time for a continuous take in television recording. He didn’t stop it at all. And, of course, in that episode, because it’s the very first one, the TARDIS takes off and you don’t know what’s going to happen. They actually played the TARDIS take-off sound for most of its entirety that Brian and I constructed it for. Nowadays the TARDIS take-off is just a shorthand or a soundbite. If you hear a [makes a creaking noise], that’s the TARDIS going. You don’t have to hear any more than that, which is a shame in some ways.

Apparently there’s a urban myth going around that youngsters have a very short attention span. Therefore the directors cut the adventures into short-attention-span scenes, which is a pity. I think if made it a bit longer, they would force the kids to pay more attention.

JB: That was one of my main issues about the last series [Series 7]. Steven Moffat felt that he didn’t need to do multi-part stories. He wanted to get everything into one 45-minute episode, and there’s only so much you can fit in there. So you were there at the very beginning.

DICK: I was. We went to a meeting with Verity Lambert, and she said, “Look, I really need the [BBC Radiophonic] Workshop to do all the peculiar sounds, but what I really want is a good signature tune.” I told her that we recently finished something with Ron Grainer and that she should ask him. So Ron gave us a sheet of paper and said, “That’s it. I’m off. I’ve got to go to Portugal on doctor’s orders because I must work in beautiful sunshine for health reasons. Have you any questions?” We said, “Yes, can you give us the name of your doctor so he can give us the same prescription?”

Anyway Ron left us with the music - literally a manuscript - and Delia [Derbyshire] and I got together and did it. Ron came back and said, “Gosh, did I write that?” And Delia said, “Very nearly.” And that’s the way the signature tune came about. Now the interesting thing is people have said to me, “Why is this theme tune special?” Well, it’s because you can’t identify what instruments you think are playing, and the reason for that is there aren’t any. There were no instruments whatsoever. There were no synthesizers, keyboards or anything back in 1963. We had to sample or record sounds over a microphone and then change the speed of the recording to get our two octaves of notes.

JB: You literally had to speed the tape up?

DICK: Yeah, and then we spliced every note onto three tape machines because we didn’t have multi-track. We had the bass line, the tune, and the “clouds” for the visual effects which were put on after we made the music. We hadn’t seen those effects because they hadn’t been shot. I don’t think they had any intention of doing that until they heard the tune. So we had three tape machines, and we said, “One, Two, Three - Go!” And then we found the mistake, didn’t we?

JB: [Laughs]. I suppose you had to do it at least 15 times to get all the tracks in sync?

DICK: Oh, no. We got it all in sync perfectly because we all worked at it. But there was a mistake. I won’t say it was a wrong note, but it was something that was out of place.

JB: I’ve never heard it.

DICK: No, you won’t because we found it. But how do you find a mistake in three separate reels of heavily-spliced tape going through simultaneously? You can’t play each one separately. You wouldn’t hear the mistake because it wouldn’t be in relationship with anything else. Fortunately there was a very long corridor outside, and we unrolled three reels of tape down the corridor. We walked along counting the joins, and where there was a splice that was obviously out of the visual pattern was where we found the wrong note.

JB: So how long did it take to compose and record the signature tune from start to finish?

DICK: About ten days. Two weeks.

JB: Wow! And today you could probably do it in half an hour on a Macbook.

DICK: Possibly. Yes, you probably could. When I think that I’ve been retired for twenty years, a whole lot of hi-tech stuff has passed me by, or I was never a part of it. As far as we got was using sequencers tied to composer programs and software that was linked to multi-track tapes. My grandson is taking a music technology course, and I asked him, “What’s the difference in playing a sound or sequence backwards or in reverse?” And he came out with that classic teenager reply, “Huh?” So I said, “Look, if I record something on tape and make a loop of it and turn the tape over and play it backwards, everything is backwards; the order and also the sound on the track. If you playing something back digitally, the order of the events is backwards, but is each event in that order still the right way around?” If you record “1,2,3,4” digitally and play it backwards would it say “4,3,2,1” instead of something you can’t say physically?

JB: Exactly.

DICK: My grandson said, “Huh?!” I said, “That’s what you said last time!” He said, “Oh, come on, let’s have a go at it.” And you can do digitally what we did with tape. He asked me why I wanted to know, and I told him about one of the commonly used effects that we do on voice treatment.

Imagine that you’re in Egypt, and you find this wonderful unopened tomb, and you go in, and this voice from millions of years back comes to you out of an echo. “A curse on all your camels” or something like that. What we would do is to get an actor to say “a curse on all your camels” and record it. We’d turn that tape over and play it backwards into as much reverberation as we could find, like maybe the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s recording studio. We’d re-record all that complete with echo on it, and then we’d reverse that recording so that you got very tiny pre-echo, as it was. And then out of that would come this curse.

“Good grief,” my grandson said. “That was clever thinking.” I said, “Well, that’s the only way we could do it.” So I was pleased he could do it, because it’s one of the questions I used to put to the audiences at the conventions.

JB: You were involved with creating the TARDIS sound effect, is that correct?

DICK: Yes. Brian Hodgson and I worked together as a pair on Doctor Who. That was studio policy. Later on we split into solo units. We were given the insides of a piano. A guy who worked with us belong to a tennis club, and they were throwing a piano out. He said, “Don’t throw that out. I’ll have the frame with all the strings.” And all Brian did was to get his mother’s front door key and slide it down the bass strings a couple of times. That gave us our basic sound which we then treated with all the sorts of things I’ve been talking about it to turn it into the TARDIS.

JB: For our play, I didn’t have access to a piano, but I do have a bass guitar. I took a pick and went up and down two of the strings, recorded and made a copy of that sound, lowered the pitch of one of the tracks…

DICK: Yes, and played with it. The only thing we did that wasn’t quite the same was when we played it back to each other and our boss, we said this does a job for a dematerialization. But for something flying away there is always a rising pitch within it that suggests it’s going up. And that didn’t have it, so what we did was put a little bit of oscillator with it, blended it, and gradually increase the speed of the playback a bit so it sounded like it was going up. That was the only extra bit we did with it. Otherwise it was just the strings.

JB: And eventually the sound would be played backwards while the TARDIS was arriving.

DICK: Yeah, that’s right. But again tradition has it that there was a flashing light on the top of the box, and that always had a “BONG” - a separate sound. So there was either a “BONG” and then the take off, or, as you say, coming down and landing with a “BONG” as a final light-flash.

Now, let’s talk about flashing lights, because they have been a problem over the years. In “Death to the Daleks” they had the city with the big beacon on top, and as the beacon flashed there was a “BOING” sound. In that scene there were several cutaway shots to other people talking where [the audience] could still hear the beacon but not see it. So you have to keep the sound going. Now the director [Michael E. Briant] didn’t take into consideration the rhythm of the light flashing. So when they cut back to it, the flash of the beacon was out of sync with the sound. So what I had to do was measure time-wise from the last flash of the beacon in the previous scene into the first flash of the scene after the cutaway and divide that into equal spaces and gradually alter the speed of the “BOING BOING BOING” so it would fit when it came back. And the director asked, “Why would that matter?” I said, “If you don’t know, then I’m sorry, but…”

JB: He wasn’t doing his job!

DICK: [Laughs] I didn’t say that! But yeah, that’s one of the silly things you don’t think about.

I was very keen to sometimes do things that weren’t asked for. On “Vengeance on Varos” there was something nasty down in the tower with big eyes, and it turned out to be a little fly. And when Colin Baker opened his hands up showing it was just a harmless fly, I just got a little paperback book and ruffled the pages to make little tiny flutterings, and off it went. Now I found out that it had a spinoff because Graeme [Burk] and the other guy [Robert Smith] who wrote that wonderful book “Who’s 50” picked up on the fact that in the episode, the Doctor’s character not very nice. On one hand he had murdered anybody who got in his way - for the sake of humanity, you understand. But on the other hand he took loving care over that little fly. And I don’t think they would’ve picked up on that if I hadn’t made that sound effect.

JB: It’s very subliminal. So am I right in assuming that the sound effects were played live in the studio recording session? There was no post-production or post-dubbing back then?

DICK: Yes, you got it in one. And there again there were unforeseen things. We would get a script which would say “large, green monster attacks the Doctor.” So we would do “large green” sounds, and we’d ship it over to the studio prior to what we used to called “tele-recording”. And the sound would be played in as would any background or ambience that they would ask us for. Well, between the script coming out and the actual recording, sometimes the script might have been a bit over-adventurous and it couldn’t be filmed. We would be on the cutting room floor, except we would keep that sound until there was another green monster coming up in another episode.

If they didn’t play it in during the tele-recording, the sound would be played in at a post-production. But, again, it was very primitive. On the day, the video of the edited episode would be fed to this dubbing studio from downstairs. We would be standing by with reels of our special sounds and also the music that an outside composer would have done. We would play in the sounds and the music in a live capacity again. And if it went wrong, guess what? Back to the beginning again, because there was no stop-start recording. There was no rollback and mix. There was no drop-ins. But after a while it got a bit better. We were actually able to do a dubbing session where we’d put all the backgrounds in, and then run the playback again and put in all the individual spot-effects in. And afterwards we run the playback and put all the music tracks in. And then all the sound supervisor had to do was just sit down and mix it artistically, bearing in mind that [the audience] had to hear my sounds and the atmospheric music, and both the sound designer and music composer had to leave gaps for the dialog to come in. But it meant that I could, by means of a sequencer, put my sounds where they ought to be. I could spool that back and then play it through again to do the dynamics. Of course, we were in stereo by then, so I could do the positioning. The sequencer would remember all of those commands, and then all I would do would be to take a master copy of that track on a separate quoter-inch tape and take it to the dubbing theater to put it together properly. It did get easier, but you didn’t have much time. I’d say it would be ten days maximum between seeing the edited episode and putting the soundtrack together.

JB: I think I have time for one more question. One of the most memorable sound effects that you created was the cloister bell. It was originally used in “Logopolis”, and it’s still being used to this day. Can you tell us how you came up with that and what is it that’s making that sound?

DICK: I only found out last Sunday. [JB laughs]. Really! We were talking about the beacon earlier, and I couldn’t remember if I made the cloister bell out of that beacon with something else added or the other way around. But it’s not. At the BBC’s big weekend [during the celebration of Doctor Who’s 50th Anniversary], they built what they thought was a replica of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and it was full of old junk. There was this collapsed copper water storage cylinder, and it was in the way. I wanted to move it. I picked it up to put it somewhere else, and as I put it down it went “BOING!” And I said, “That’s the cloister bell!”

So I actually took a still photograph of this cylinder, and I also have a couple of shots of me banging it on the carpet. And then I put that together with the real cloister bell sound and mixed out of me going “BONG BONG BONG” into a picture of a huge Oriental bell. And I’m going to show it here at the convention tomorrow. But that is the cloister bell. I don’t know why I’m remembered for it.

JB: It’s.a unique sound.

DICK: It’s a doom and gloom signal.

JB: Well, yeah! It means things are bad because the TARDIS is about to blow up.

DICK: I’m happy that I was able to find out how I did it in time for last weekend and, of course, this weekend. So now I have it on video and I can always refer to it. It’s funny how these things come around, but I’ve enjoyed every time zone of it! [Laughs]

JB: Very cool! I don’t know if the BBC now make their own sound effects to supplement the classic ones you created, but I’ve heard other sounds in the new series that I’ve also heard in Hanna Barberra cartoons. It seems that they have not built their own library of sounds like you and Brian did back in the day.

DICK: It’s a totally different approach because of how fast the pace is on the current series. They don’t need to do too much. With CGI these days they can do a lot more realistic backgrounds that don’t need too much sound support because they’re so visually good as backgrounds and your mind fills in what you think the atmosphere ought to be. That’s why people prefer radio because the scenery is so much better. Because every listener provides their own scenery.


Special thanks to the staff at Chicago TARDIS 2013 for arranging the opportunity for me to speak with Dick Mills backstage at the convention.

No comments:

Post a Comment