Doctor Who titles 2014: exclusive interview with the animator behind this year's title sequence

We interview the animator whose home-made Doctor Who intro lead to him working on the title sequence for the new series starring Peter Capaldi.

It’s the dream of many creatives: you self-initiate a personal project involving a much-loved character or TV show, post it on social media, receive plaudits and lots of attention, and out-of-the-blue you get approached by the makers of the real thing to work on it.

This is what happened to Leeds-based motion graphics artist and animator Billy Hanshaw, who worked primarily on corporate and TV spots. He created an animated title sequence for Doctor Who, which has been seen over 700,000 times since he posted it to YouTube last September – and which led to him being contacted by the show’s executive producer Brian Minchin and asked to help develop into the titles for the 2014 series, which sees the debut of Peter Capaldi as the eponymous Doctor.

While newspaper coverage has portrayed him as a Doctor Who superfan who produced the sequence for his own please, Billy actually created it as a way to showcase his skills and to show to potential clients to pitch for titles work.

Billy developed his sequence to be more in line with the plot and graphics language of the new series of Doctor Who, which was then built by BBC Wales’ own VFX team using Maya (Billy created his versions in Cinema 4D and After Effects).

I caught up with Billy by email on a rainy Bank Holiday Monday, two days after the first episode of the 2014 series debuted on TV. Read on for our exclusive interview.

NB: Why did you choose Doctor Who as the basis for your original personal project?

BH: "It was designed as a portfolio piece – even though it's a bit rough round the edges. It was created in downtime and spare time. Corporate presentations and TV spots often don't allow you to craft something like this, so if you don't go ahead and create personal work, you'll never be able to show what you can do.

"Sites like YouTube are a great platform for creative expression. There's a massive audience out there and if you can tap into something which is already huge in terms of followers, then you stand a chance of getting noticed."

NB: How did you come to the concepts for the titles?

BH: "I think the whole concept of time travel is surreal. The titles – which aired [on Saturday], still evoke that feeling – which was very much a core concept of the YouTube version I posted online last September. It seemed to me that the Steampunk aesthetic really chimed with the way the show was progressing and I wanted to hint at that with the creative approach. [Doctor Who producer] Steven Moffat calls it a radical change.

"I know that the show has a long history of tradition, especially when it comes to the title sequence.  Sometimes, holding on to this can stifle creativity as there's nowhere else left to go. So I went ahead and did something outside of those boundaries.

"The technique used for the spiralling clock faces is known as the droste effect. The appearance is recursive: the smaller version contains an even smaller version of the picture, and so on.  The thought behind it is in part a homage to the video feedback, howl-around technique used in the very first sequence [for the William Hartnell-starring first series]."

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NB: How long did they take to create?

BH: "The original piece was storyboarded, designed and built over the space of four weeks – in evenings and spare time, when I wasn't preparing TV spot work or corporate presentations). But in reality there's probably about 10 days work in it, including render times."

Image: Billy Hanshaw's original title sequence in Cinema 4D

NB: How did you create the spiral clock faces?

BH: "After much deliberation with this part, I found a wonderful plugin for After Effects called Pixel Bender that allowed me to do just what I wanted.  The final version – built by BBC Wales' VFX team – visually recreates this is Maya."

NB: Were you surprised by how popular your original titles were on YouTube?

BH: "I'd say.  As a portfolio piece with little to no promotion it went crazy.  In the space of a weekend, it had exceeded 60,000 views. It just goes to show that if you choose something with a huge following and a captive audience, if it resonates with the viewers they will share it it with friends and associates."

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NB: How did you react when you got the initial approach from Brian Minchin?

BH: "To be honest I thought it was a wind-up.  So I asked him politely via a message if there was anything I could help him with, knowing full well who he was.

"He said that both Steven and himself were huge fans of the YouTube sequence and would I like to help them out with the Series 8 titles. Well, if you're steering your business more in this direction, it's the kind of offer you don't think twice about. I had joked with my writer/producer colleague about whether Steven Moffat would have seen the initial concept before they got in touch.  Apparently the fans inundated the BBC office with emails drawing their attention to it."

NB: What brief/feedback did you get from BBC Wales?

BH: "We just had to ensure that the Seal of Rassilon and the fob watch were gone. As far as the rest of the narrative was concerned that was down to me initially.  

"Although a full build of the sequence wasn't required at this stage, I took the opportunity to build it anyway.  The result being that I could show the execs the level of work I could turn around and also stills from this would then be used to create the concept storyboard. It also helped the BBC Wales team with timings."

NB: What online tools did you use to collaborate with them and how did this work in practice? 

BH: "I love Pinterest!  It's a great collaborative tool.  First I use it as a brain-dump,  a visual scrapbook which then gets filtered to only show viable concepts that help move the narrative idea on.  

"I also used Skype a lot.  With me up here in Leeds and the Wales team in Cardiff, getting everyone in a room at the same time often proved difficult.  Especially with the punishing filming schedules."

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NB: How was your personal project turned into the final broadcast sequence?

BH: "The final piece was built by BBC Wales's VFX team.  Although it's something I'm very used to doing – building and delivering work like this – I had to put away any personal vanities and work as part of the team. 

"There were some inconsistencies with software – primarily that I use Cinema 4D and the BBC Wales team use Maya.  Getting exports from C4D in Maya proved very problematic.  I'd used Mograph module for the cogs section and even after baking this out and exporting the FBX version – there will still problems.  I'm sure someone reading this will have a better solution, but when you're close to the wire you need to make decisions fast."

NB: How did it feel to watch your work as part of the complete episode?

BH: "I was at the premiere in Cardiff [on August 7].  That's where I saw the final version.  Tweaks were being made right up until the last minute.  The Cardiff premiere was the first time I'd heard Murry Gold's new arrangement [of the score] too.  We used the Ecclestone theme from series one to time everything.  

"It was a weird feeling see it on the big screen for the first time.  You're so close to the project, that what you feel is markedly different from what the rest of the audience feels and how they appreciate it. You still view it with a critical eye, but it's much more personal. But overall there's a huge sense of achievement and an opportunity gained that would have been difficult to attain without the upload to YouTube last September."

Image: Billy (right) with Doctor Who producer Steven Moffat (left)

NB: What’s next?

BH: "The last few weeks have been a really crazy time – but what a ride! I work with a colleague who is also a writer/producer. We're working on a couple of pitches for more titles work.  They're shows that have just gone in to production. So with the added kudos of my association with Doctor Who added to our creds, we're feeling hopeful!"

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