On Location with Spawn of the Deep: Days 1 & 2

Spawn

Spawn of the Deep has now ceased production. This post dates from October 2019.

Spawn of the Deep is the first TimeBase Doctor Who fan video in over 15 years, produced to celebrate the silver anniversary of the company. Principle photography (videography?) started on the 8th October 2019 with a 2-day shoot at Blackhall Rocks, near Hartlepool. The beach at Blackhall is famous for its black sands, caused by decades of industrial pollution from the nearby Blackhall Colliery. With coal production long-since ceased, the blackness of the sand has been gradually diluted and it’s now a deep brown colour that looks like an alien planet. A couple of very famous films were shot at Blackhall, namely 1975’s tough Michael Caine thriller Get Carter and David Fincher’s Alien³ (although much of that footage was cut from the final edit). TimeBase considered using Blackhall Beach for the weird Dimension 2 in our first production Regenesis back in 1994, but decided against it; so, it’s fitting that it gets to appear in Spawn of the Deep 25 years later.

In Spawn of the Deep, the Doctor is played by Paul Ferry (me), alongside TimeBase stalwart Steve Palace as Mark and a talented young actress called Amber Jessop as Emily; a pair of marine biologists who are called in to investigate a mysterious ‘pod’ washed up on a beach in the North East of England. The other main character, Gill Myerson, was much harder to cast; no less than three actresses dropped out on the role – one of them on the morning of the shoot (but let’s not talk about her)! Luckily, one of the Sea Devil actors Danial Nattress was able to step in at short notice as ‘Gill’ became ‘Gil’ in an on-the-spot rewrite. Danial and his brother Adam, who was also helping out on Day 1, are from a family with a long connection with TimeBase: their father Peter Nattress was a Cyberman in 1996’s Phase Four and their uncle Graeme Nattress played Bev the Tramp in Regenesis, as well as being a founder member of the group.

Monster-maker supreme Philip T. Robinson supplied the Sea Devils for the production. Phil has also been with TimeBase from the very beginning and he had been working tirelessly on the magnificent Sea Devil masks for Spawn of the Deep. His masks were so authentic that some people seeing pictures of them on the internet thought that they were from the TV series, which is rumoured to be bringing back the Silurians’ fishy cousins in the forthcoming Series 12. Enduring the hot and uncomfortable task of being inside the Seas Devil costume was Glenn Kirk-Hailey, who deserves some kind of a medal for his work on the film! Fortunately, although the rubber mask was very hot, the robes kept the ‘string-vest’ them of the original Sea Devils and let in a lot of cool sea air.

Neil Johnson, who directed TimeBase’s last completed film The Hidden Face, was directing and he had a whole new box of tricks since the old days. This time he was bringing along a drone camera, which could give us glorious sweeping shots along the beach. Sometimes these were a bit low and it’d be a disconcerting experience to feel this thing buzzing over your head. Still, I’m sure the finished results will be absolutely spectacular. Producer Richard Knapper provided the second camera and the twin-camera set-up will provide coverage in a way that we could only have ever dreamed of in the days of the original TimeBase.

The long-range weather forecasts for Blackhall had not been promising, but at the very last moment the meteorologists proved to be wrong and we had surprisingly good weather on both days. On Day 1, while we were waiting for Phil to pick up Steve from the bus station, the rest of us set to work on the ‘pod’. It’s a long and treacherous walk down to Blackhall Beach, and there was no way we’d have been able to carry a bulky prop, so I had this idea of building the thing on location from chicken wire and plastic sheeting. We found an old tractor tire embedded in the beach and used this as the basis for our bizarre creation. Layering semi-transparent white plastic over black plastic bin-bags gave the pod a translucent quality, which looked even weirder when the wind caught it and caused it to ripple. The wind often caught it a bit too much on more than one occasion and almost blew it away.

Phil and Steve arrived and filming got underway, starting with the pod scenes. When the pod is punctured, it has to bellow smoke and Neil – who has a history with pyrotechnics of all sorts – had brought along a big bag of coloured smoke bombs. He triggered an orange smoke bomb and bunged it inside the pod. It started to ooze orange smoke from the holes we had put in it and, as the vapour seeped between the two layers of plastic, it looked more alien than ever before. We eventually had to dismantle the compromised pod before the wind took it away and it was last seen in a large carrier bag, being loaded aboard a metropolitan dust-cart. Bye bye, pod! We were at the mercy of the tides on that first day and the encroaching sea cut us off from the cave where we planned to film the big Sea Devil scenes, so we packed up for Day 1 and headed home.

Day 2 started bright and early and we headed straight to the caves for the Sea Devil scenes. Poor old Glenn had to spend what felt like hours pretending to be unconscious on the floor of a damp cave, sometimes with rocks piled on him. I had difficulty remembering my lines a lot of the time and I felt very conscious that shooting was dragging on and on while the poor soul was lying there shivering. He got his revenge though, ‘cos he had to throttle me in the next scene! The nature of the Sea Devil mask meant that he could barely see what we was doing, so I had to guide his hands whilst trying to look like I was fending him off – a tried and trusted monster-fighting technique from the classic TV series which still holds good today.

The Doctor was originally supposed to have a walking cane and I’d invested in a lovely wooden cane with a telescope built into the hilt, but somehow in the mad scrabble of Day 1, I had forgotten to bring the cane to the shoot and we had to replace it with a piece of driftwood. This became known as the ‘continuity stick’ when we realised I’d have to take this tatty old piece of wood home with me and bring it again on Day 2. In one scene I have to get angry and throw the continuity stick at a cave wall; well, I threw it a little bit hard, of course, and the end snapped off. So much for continuity! Hopefully, no-one will notice.

We got a hell of a lot done on Day 2, but as the skies began to darken, we realised that we were never going to get everything in the can; so, we stood down for the time being and plan to relaunch in a couple of weeks. I really didn’t know what it was going to be like; revisiting TimeBase after all these years, but it was a fun and rewarding experience. We’ve had a lot of attention online and I’ll join those fans in saying that I also can’t wait to see the finished product. Spawn of the Deep is on its way; get behind that sofa.

Photographs by Neil Johnson, Steve Palace & Philip T. Robinson (c) 2019

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