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Film Focus

Bangs for Bucks! by Peter Findley


I am very much aware that I am part of an organisation that contains many talented designers who are fortunate to have budgets running into the millions. Of course a budget is always relative….but this is a tale of the ridiculous…..

“We would like you to visually recreate the memoirs of one of the most decorated pilots of the Second World war including the Battle of Britain as a 78 minute drama documentary, 70 minutes full scripted drama, for BBC 2 for £28K including staff costs, less your fee of course’,  Oh ,and by the way. You have only 4 and a half weeks prep and a 9 day shoot”.

I dragged myself from a crumpled heap off the floor, trying hard to suppress my laughter and then, with visions of my children crying at night from empty stomachs, I said ‘Oh, ok then’

…and so began a labour of love, no budget, no time, no assistant until the shoot…. but a fantastic and extremely moving script by Director, Matthew Whiteman.

We lucked in with a terrific location, Twinwood, a former RAF air-base which had some empty billet huts still standing and a control Tower but no longer had a taxi-way. The Empty Dispersal huts were fully fitted out, decorated and fully dressed by design. I then built a small exterior of the hut with additional dressing, vehicles, tents etc in a nearby field where we could get the plastic Spitfire’s to and created the exterior to the dispersal.


Dispersal Hut Interior and Geoffrey Wellum’s bedroom © Lion Television

We made excellent use of the enthusiasts who looked after the former base to track down people who had any relevant equipment and vehicles. We even found one guy who had a set of browning machine guns from a Spit ! We managed to hire period furniture, from several sources locally to create Geoffrey Wellum’s bedroom in a run down out building.

To complicate matters Wellum flew MK1 and MK9 Spitfires which not only had different profiles, props etc but flew with different coloured camouflage, hence the need for a Mk1 and Mk9. Armed with one flying MK9 spitfire, two full size plastic fantastic mock up Mk1 and Mk9 spits scrounged from enthusiasts we took on the might of the Luftwaffe. Combat damaged aileron and flaps were constructed so we could add them to the plastic Spitfires as required.

One of the plastics had a jaguar V12 engine fitted which promptly snapped its drive shaft on the first take.

Much beer was drunk that night !

Both replicas had no cockpit interiors as such so we had to partially fit out the cockpits with a few items such as reflector gun sights, harnesses etc so they could be shot reasonably close from the exterior. The plastic Mk 9 (The only one we could find that was available), was to be frank, poor and we had to add some exterior detailing and cowlings to hide up the “pimp my spitfire” look which the owner had added (He hired it out for weddings ! The mind boggles).


Vehicles and Spitfires © Lion Television

Both Spitfires had to be weathered although the poor Mk9 was effectively brought back to combat readiness ! Full detailed interiors were shot with the real spitfire and we fitted out a 2 seater YAK trainer with a spitfire cockpit bulk head, control stick and harness and mini cams so we could do aerial shots with the lead actor strapped in position in the rear seat.

Matthew (Director) was very keen to take the actor up to get some of the flying sequences and it payed off with some very realistic footage. This was then supplemented with addi- tional footage with the actor in the real static Spit with the tail mounted up on a stand.

We had so little money to work with, it was a case of constantly juggling what we had, moving Spits and vehicles into precise positions to give as much depth as possible to exterior scenes. We shouldn’t use negatives but I was fully aware this was a production of massive compromises but I really believe we achieved “bangs for the bucks” and helped to paint a convincing background to the extraordinary story of these young pilots as they battled fatigue and stress.

FIRST LIGHT was a guilty pleasure. I was extremely proud of what we had achieved on what seemed like less money than a line producer goes to the bar with. But equally I was concerned that the combined abilities and professionalism of the behind screen talent are becoming under ever increasing pressure to deliver with unrealistic funding…………That is the conundrum of the art department, we never want to say no and we never want to give up. It is just not in our DNA.

FIRST LIGHT: Production Designer, Peter Findley.  First Transmission Date: 14th September, 2010 9pm, BBC 2

Images supplied by Peter Findley © Lion Television

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