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Digital Subscriptions > Doctor Who Magazine > DWM Special 43 – Special Effects > Picture Perfect

Picture Perfect

Dave Houghton was the visual effects supervisor of Doctor Who from 2004 to 2010 – a period that would revolutionise the appearance of the series.
Composite concept art illustrating the Doctor and Donna’s departure in Planet of the Ood (2008).

"It was incredibly exciting. We were making stuff for TV that hadn’t been done before. Making stuff for Doctor Who – my favourite show.” That’s how Dave Houghton looks back on his time as the visual effects supervisor of Doctor Who. He worked on the series from 2004, as it was being readied for its return to TV, up to the end of Matt Smith’s first year in 2010.

Dave Houghton pictured at Stonehenge during the recording of The Pandorica Opens in February 2010.
Photo © Dave Houghton

Having grown up in Norfolk, Dave moved to London in the mid-1990s with the intention of seeking work in the special effects industry. He found his opportunity at The Mill. The company was creating digitally rendered visuals, predominantly for commercials, but was also taking on feature film work.

“With a man called Dave Throssel, I started up a little department within The Mill dedicated to TV shows,” says Dave. “It was off the back of a feature-length documentary about Ancient Egypt (the 2002 BBC-Discovery co-production, Pyramid). There wasn’t really tons of cash around, but that was fine by me.”

As the television industry woke up to the benefits of CGI, the unit took on more jobs, including the BBC One drama Sea of Souls (2004-07), which Dave worked on alongside colleague Will Cohen. “One day we got a call from [producer] Phil Collinson to go to a screening of an episode. When we got there he said, ‘Guess what? I’m doing Doctor Who!’ And he was very keen for us to pitch for it.”

In discussion with the team at BBC Wales, Dave made it clear The Mill could do the job if a large part of the consultation process was kept in-house. “There’s a lot of noodling that goes on in visual effects, things sent back and forth, and money is wasted on this,” he explains. “So we worked on the premise that we’d be our own critics, and get everything to a good quality. Obviously, we’d address any major issues the BBC might have after that, but we couldn’t afford to do any massive changes.”

As production commenced on Doctor Who, The Mill got to grips with what would become a bugbear for the next five years. “They were shooting on DigiBeta, which was an awful format. It’s PAL resolution, which is very low in comparison to HD. It meant when you were keying off those green screens, there’d be a very nasty edge you’d have to fix.” Although Dave concedes the format was chosen for budgetary reasons, he points out that it was “quite restrictive in terms of what we could achieve. We couldn’t really go for realism, so it was a kind of comic-book look.”

The purpose of the Daleks’ globes revealed at the end of Dalek (2005).
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About Doctor Who Magazine

Special effects can transport audiences to alien planets, render familiar surroundings unrecognisable and bring terrifying monsters to life. Doctor Who has been at the forefront of such television trickery for more than 50 years. This richly illustrated publication celebrates the series’ greatest effects and meets the people who created them. From the trailblazers of the 1960s to the digital artists of today, here is the story of Doctor Who’s journeys into the impossible.