Last month saw the release of The Web of Fear : Special edition (see my earler blog) which featured an animation of the still-missing third episode. I managed to speak to Adam Boys and David Devjak of Shapeshifter Studio, the Australian company working with Big Finish Creative, responsible for bringing that missing episode to life. Read on to find out how they did it.

Can you tell us a little bit about Shapeshifter Studio (formerly Thaumaturgy), your role in it and where we might have seen your work?
Adam Boys of Shapeshifter Studio
Adam Boys

Adam : Shapeshifter has been operating for over 10 years here in Sydney, and has developed an amazing core team of multi-disciplined post-production and animation specialists. Our main goals are to keep work here in Australia, stay creative with our partners and have fun along the way. I came on board to assist David, the Managing Director with the company’s development into production and for The Web of Fear, I took on the role of Director while David focussed on the animation development. I also performed the motion capture for the 14 or so characters in the episode!

David : I set up Thaumaturgy about 12-years ago when we started providing Colour Grading and Visual Effects work. We grew fairly quickly to cover all of post-production and then more gradually the entire production process. 

The team has worked on over two thousand episodes of Home and Away along with hundreds of other episodes of Australian television including Packed to the Rafters, Allsaints, Playschool, Giggle & Hoot, Australian Story and more. 

Today I mostly take on our development work – like setting up new Visual Effects, improving our animation pipeline, or trying something quite different like AudioBooks. 

David Devjak of Shapeshifter Studio
David Devjak
How did you get involved in animating Doctor Who?

Adam : The company has been lucky enough to work on several of the Doctor Who animated episodes, mainly in a post-production capacity. We have provided compositing services and created some really cool FX over the years. But we also worked with Big Finish on another animation a few years back, Prisoner Zero, which aired on Netflix. David directed several episodes of this and it was a great opportunity for us to show our dedication to taking on more of a production role for Doctor Who.

David : Big Finish set up an animation company in Australia to work on the animated Reign of Terror and they were based quite close to Thaumaturgy on the Central Coast north of Sydney. We helped out on a handful of shots for The Tenth Planet (including the regeneration scene!) and when Big Finish created an original animated show – Prisoner Zero – we had a large role in the animatics and compositing. 

We’ve had a great relationship with the Big Finish team ever since and when Web of Fear came up, we were lucky enough (and extremely grateful) that they and BBC were willing to explore a new approach to the character animation.

Were you familiar with Doctor Who before you were involved or were you new to it?

Adam : The team are massive sci-fi nerds – and we all love various shows in the genre, including Doctor Who. I was brought into the new Who by a friend I had a crush on, which ended up being a great gateway into the show. She moved on, but my love of Doctor Who didn’t. I was such a huge fan of Christopher Eccleston’s performance, too. But as far as classic Who goes, it was not hard to jump right in, as I’d already been a big fan of sci-fi from the era, The Twilight Zone, for instance. And in Australia, we grew up on a lot of British television, so I found no barriers to falling in love with the charm and creative ingenuity of the teams making classic Doctor Who.

David : Big ‘Yes’. 

I watched every rerun of Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker as a kid, and I can remember reading about the missing episodes for the first time in a special magazine that was published for the 20th anniversary. 

I’m lucky enough that my daughter now enjoys watching new Who with me.

This animation is more 3-Dimensional than previous stories - how did that decision come about?

Adam : Having worked on many of the previous animated episodes, we’ve seen the success of that style and all the pitfalls. The 2D vector animation is a great way to manage a budget and scale, but can’t manage simple things like the checkered pattern of the Troughton’s pants, for instance. More importantly, our episode needed to fit in the middle of 2 live-action episodes on either side, so we really wanted to bring some unique physical characterisations to the animation style. As well as creating some dynamic lighting and environments that would match with the sets being seen throughout. For me, the actors in this show are so charming in their physical performance, that I really wanted to make sure we carried that through, and honoured them, despite it being animation.

David : The first episode I worked on was The Tenth Planet where we did effects and compositing. We learned a lot from the animation team and the episode was well-received due to the lifelike character motion. Unfortunately, the animation process used – rotoscoping – was extremely time-consuming and expensive and I don’t believe it has been used on Doctor Who since Moon Base was animated. 

We wanted to see if there were new ways to achieve that lifelike performance without becoming quite so expensive and after a lot of tests, we settled on motion capture and using 3D characters. 

What were the particular challenges of doing this animation?

Adam : We loved the process and were met with challenges all throughout. Most of these we were able to learn from and solve without too many issues. David will most likely agree, but the one thing we would love to have had more time to work with is the overall look. If we are lucky enough to continue working on these awesome stories, that’s where we know we can improve. Especially with the advancements in programs like Houdini and Unreal Engine, we want to find that perfect balance that takes full advantage of 3D and motion capture but delivers a final look that has more of that charm and nostalgia of the 2D process.

David : The whole team took really well to the 3D workflow and we are really happy with the character performances we have been able to get this way. The main struggle we had was getting the look and feel of the animation right and have the style sit nicely alongside other animated Doctor Who series. I would like to push any future work we do with this approach to feel more like traditional 2D animation.

How did you make Directing decisions - did you work from the Telesnaps?

Adam : We absolutely took advantage of the telesnaps and existing episodes of The Web of Fear, some of which we endeavour to re-create perfectly. We also had the ability to reach out to the great Frazer Hines, through our stunning producer, Gary Russel, for things like the colour of Victoria’s dress. And of course, there are camera scripts that have survived which help to clarify all kinds of things. But for me, the biggest directorial tool I had was the audio itself. Maybe it’s due to a background in performance, but I loved being able to imagine the actors’ physicalities as they said their lines, interpret all their little motions and interactions – like how Chorley and the Doctor pass each other towards the end of the ep, the audio generated all kinds of nuance and imagination.

David : We looked at every piece of reference we could find.  

Gary Russell and the BBC team were able to provide us with all of the behind-the-scenes and publicity photography from the series and of course we have the existing episodes to work with. This was a fantastic resource for matching things like the sets – we built them to match as closely as we could.  

However, we did learn that some of this material isn’t quite as useful as we expected. 

For instance, how many fingers does a Yeti have? It was quite late in production when we were checking our renders against some of the photographs that we learned there were both 3-fingered and 4-fingered Yeti suits built. 

The Telesnap recreations of the episodes also include a lot of photos that were made especially for the recreation. For instance, when Driver Evans buys a chocolate bar, we built a perfect match for the chocolate bar wrapper in the Telesnap recreation only to learn later that this photo was staged for the recreation and there isn’t any reference for the original prop.

What were your sources when putting the episode into colour, and did you start with the widescreen colour version, or the 4:3 monochrome?

Adam : We worked with 16:9 frames that had 4:3 overlays throughout the entire process. We had to consider the main action being visible in the 4:3 at all times, and then offer extra things for the viewers of the 16:9. These were simple, like a background actor having a private moment or reaction to something. For me, this is what the actors on set would have done.

As far as the colourisation, we used colour references from the time, where we could find them – modern images of army uniforms, images of the types of lights that were used in the Tube, things like this. Having colour graded previous episodes of animated Who, we were familiar with how to maintain that classic BW televised feel and not lose any dynamic elements.

David : BBC was very clear from the outset that they wanted both versions so we had both in mind throughout the project. We ran tests throughout the process of what all of our character and set designs looked like in both colour and monochrome and all of our test renders used a 4:3 frame so we could try to judge both versions. 

When it came time for the final renders, we started with the 16:9 colour, and then we did a lot of reframing and colour grading to produce the 4:3 version from that.

Any upcoming projects you can tell us about?

Adam : We are finishing up the post-production on a teen drama that David is a co-producer on, and we are in development for an original animation – a kid’s sci-fi comedy/adventure. 

Unfortunately, I can’t name names, but it’s been great getting to write jokes for kids and apply all our animation experience to something of our own. We also have support from some really prominent names in the Australian animation scene, such as Scott Edgar and Dwayne Labbe, the latter of whom was the lead animator on one of my childhood favourites, Darkwing Duck. Excited to see where this one goes! 

David : We’ve got a real mix of live-action and animation projects coming up. We’re just finalising a six-part Australian drama (which is a little tricky during lockdown!) and we’re in the early development stages on some original sci-fi animation. I’m hoping we’ll be able to use everything we learned on Web of Fear.

Thank you. Also if there's anything else you'd like to mention that I haven't asked about please feel free to add that in.

Adam : I truly hope the fans can see what we were aiming to bring forth with this new approach and trust that we are dedicated to refining and improving this so we can hopefully take this series to some really special places! But most of all, and as cheesy as it sounds, I hope they have as much fun watching as we did making.

David : It has felt like a real honour every time we’ve been able to work on Doctor Who. BBC and Big Finish have been fantastic to work with and we’re very excited by everything that comes up next.