Mr Flibble Talks To... Model Maker
You'll have seen more of Steven Howarth's work than you think - and not just aboard Red Dwarf. Steven's SF credits include Space Truckers, Star Trek and Men In Black - but sometimes, as he explains, it's a blink-and-you-miss-em appearance.
30 March, 2001
Steven Howarth
Mr Flibble's right hand provided by
Andrew Ellard

Mr Flibble started fiddling with an Airfix model of a Spitfire while asking Andrew to relay his first question: What do you remember about you time on SPACE PRECINCT?

Apart from Jaffa Cakes and eating a lot of those, (laughs) I remember really getting into the work, losing myself in it. It's not often you get so much artistic licence with what you're making. As well as the pre-designed hardware, we had to make up a lot of the stuff ourselves. We didn't get very much time for designing things, so a lot of us just made it up as we went along, which is great fun.

Lots of dirt and grunge too, on the vehicles and in the city streets; rain streaks, rust, chipped paint, laser blast scars, graffiti, I'm into all that. [It] adds an extra layer of detail to a model and makes it more realistic.

The downside (as with any job I think) was when you put a lot of effort into a model and it's only on screen for a nano-second, or it's so far away you needn't have bothered with all the fine detail, or it ended up on the cutting room floor and you needn't have bothered at all. Or it ends up in the show, looks good, but gets cut out by broadcasters so they can fit it into the TV slot they have allocated - which happens to be five minutes shorter than the actual length of the show! Precinct had its fair share of all that.

Just like the yoghurt - there's the pleasure... followed by the pain. Apart from that, and a distinct lack of fantasy babes in the workshop, I loved working on Precinct.

Was it odd to work on an Anderson project having grown up on Thunderbirds?

Unbelievable really, quite surreal... and a proud feeling too. Someone's got to do this job, why not me? I did have something to prove when I first entered this arena, and I'm sure that it pissed a few people off, but I was really just proving to myself that I belonged, that I wasn't barking up the wrong tree.

But, yeah, unreal. If somebody had whispered over my shoulder when I was small and watching Thunderbirds, 'You're going to make models for this Gerry Anderson guy one day,' I'd have shaken my head in disbelief.

Mr Flibble fixed the final piece of the model and proudly admired it - until he realised he'd glued it to his wing. Andrew rolled his eyes and asked Steven how he became involved with RED DWARF.

Bill Pearson gave me a call and asked would I like to work on series VIII. Is Rimmer a smeghead? (Laughs) I've worked for Bill many times in the past, including Space Precinct, which gave me a chance to show that I could 'widget' with the best of them!

Bill knew that I was into sci-fi and making things up, even before I went to college back in '84, because he was one of the judges at Wembley's Model Engineer Exhibition the year before, where he and Matt Irvine had argued about my entry - ooh err missus - 'OUCH'. (That's not another innuendo, it was actually called that!) So he knew of me before I knew of him. He first hired me on Crystal Maze - I never would have thought that I'd be working for the head of the Alien modelshop!

Tell us about the construction of the Loading Bay.

We piled on the detail with the loading bay, and I think it does contribute to the overall sense of size, but we'd never have completed the bay without Mike Shaw and his supply of bits and pieces. Well not never - it just wouldn't have looked as good. He always seems to turn up with the right bits at the right time. I wish I'd been around for the shoot, I think I had other commitments.

The explosion was spectacular...

That's when the hard work all becomes worthwhile. They used rubber dust mixed in with a bit of petrol I think, which gives a nice convoluted fireball and has good scale. It left a layer of the black dust all over the set, but that can be carefully cleaned off. Even if it had done a lot of damage, it wouldn't have mattered that much because it was a 'take' and it looked fantastic and it's committed to film - immortalised!

They were going to have the overhead crane try to catch Starbugs' head at one point, as a gag. If you look at the crane you can see that the head would fit through. It's nice that they could use the set again [for the dance sequence].

The dance sequence must be about the oddest use a miniature you've built has ever had?

Pretty much, though there have been a couple of others. I've had a duck land on a model runway for a BP commercial, and a Pterodactyl - or 'Crispodactyl' - made out of crisps chase a little boy down the street. Adverts tend to be the weirdest. I think its a tactic, a psychological trick to make you remember - the more bizarre the image, the easier it is to remember. Maybe that's why I like sci-fi, because its easy to remember!

Mr Flibble attempted to remove the plane and succeeded only in attaching it to his other wing as well. Despite this, he managed to ask: You've also worked on the PROPS - the time wand, hypo, etc. - how do these come to you? As concepts, as designs, or just as part of the script?

I was given very loose briefs - and you need them after so many Jaffa Cakes! - where you can do more or less what you want. Bill always has a great selection of pre-machined aluminium pieces in stock that you know you're going to end up using, so there's little point in drawing it all up first when you've got the piece in front of you. You don't have the time. It's down to your own sense of what looks good. You juggle the pieces, different configurations, thinking of ways to tie the pieces together visually. If something sucks, Bill will tell you. Luckily, that hasn't happened too often.

The time wand has a Dr Who in-joke doesn't it?

Yes, I think its the rhythmical 'in-out' action the prop had - that referred to the Tardis' console - more than the shape of it, which is more like the head of a Dalek. But unfortunately the action was never seen.

Even though Red Dwarf is a comedy, I always try and make the prop as believable as possible, lots of movement hints at lots of power. Lots of light would have done the same, but there wasn't any time for that. As it happens, the 'in-out' movement of the wand could have had comedic potential - [it] would have made a hilarious willy for Kryten! (Laughs)

You also built an axe that wasn't eventually used...

Yes, I actually did draw that one up first, but in my spare time. The production felt that the audience wouldn't know what the object was. It looked like a futuristic axe to me! I hope its in storage... maybe it'll turn up in the movie!

Aside from Red Dwarf, you've made props which have turned up all over - in movies and on TV. Are they just 'RENTED' to save production time?

Yes. I worked in Los Angeles for a company called Modern Props, who are one of many large prop houses in LA that rent out props of all kinds. But 'Mopro' have cornered the market where futuristic props are concerned, I'm sure they must have the biggest selection of futuristic props in the world. There's a warehouse about the size of a football field full of gadgets of all kinds. If you see a funky device in a film or TV show, chances are its one of Mopro's.

With that kind of choice, productions can hire props with or without specific functions, without having to design and build them themselves. Every so often Mopro will top up the selection with new items, things that they get asked a lot for - like safe cracking devices, virtual reality headgear, medical instruments that kind of thing. Non-specific items that just look cool and that could be whatever the hirer wants it to be. I mean, who can say what a 'gravity disrupter module' will look like? Could be any size, any shape.

Modern Props was a while back. I was in-between jobs so I made a prop on spec - just like they do - and hoped that they would buy it off me. I shipped one item out to them, but I'm still not really set up to do business with them as they'd like - which is to send m-pegs of the prop in action (and/or the best way to disassemble) via the internet. I have the computer now, but I don't have a digital video recorder. Yet.

Isn't it odd, to make something with no idea of the show it's for - or even, sometimes, what the device does?

No, I think that makes it exciting. You can let your imagination run wild when you're making a prop, as I said before, its not often you're allowed so much creative input. If I still worked there, I'd get to find out what appeared where and when. But stuff I've made pops up on the screen from time to time and takes me by surprise... which is nice.

One thing CAMEOED on Star Trek - The Next Generation, Deep Space 9, Batman Forever, Men in Black and Voyager. What was that, and can you pinpoint where it showed up?

That was the 'Dodotron'. That's what Mopro called it. A huge aluminium free-standing prop shaped a bit like one of those novelty dipping birds with the red fluid inside. People from Paramount pictures had been to Mopro and said they'd be looking to hire some larger pieces in the near future. So John Zebrucki, president of Mopro, went out and bought some old defunct dental equipment, which was stripped down and then refitted with a ton of turned aluminium pieces. I was responsible for all those pieces. I was knee deep in swarf for about eight weeks!

It was first hired for TNG for the episode 'Attached'. DS9 I'm not sure about - I was told it was in it somewhere. In Batman Forever it's in Bruce Wayne's Laboratory getting trashed by the Riddler's little bug bombs. In Men in Black it's sitting in that room where Will Smith's character knocks the plasma ball off its stand. And in Voyager it's in an episode where they do a spoof on Flash Gordon, it's in 'Ming's' palace.

After a while, when a prop has had a few outings, Mopro will often bring it back into the workshop and try to modify it in some way - adding more shapes to it, having it anodised (a process that colourises aluminium), turning it upside down, whatever - before people start to recognise it. It hasn't really taken centre stage yet. It's been pretty much in the background, so I don't think Mopro will be too worried about that; and it is a very distinctive prop, not an easy one to change. But once someone decides to bring it into the foreground, Mopro might have to change it because it is so distinctive.

Another appeared in Demolition Man briefly and possibly Men In Black - does that mean you've watched the video but never seen it, even though it was paid for?

The small hand props that I'd made, which were my first pieces for Mopro, were originally supposed to be in Cyborg II, but ended up as background pieces in Demolition Man as wall ornaments. They only make a brief appearance. I think only one was used - and I'd made two identical 'weapons', would have made a nice duelling set.

As for the same props appearing in Men In Black as well... have you seen that room where the plasma ball is knocked off its perch?! Its crammed with Mopro props, of the aluminium kind. I have to assume its in there somewhere.

When I get the DVD, I'll no doubt do a bit of freeze-framing. They could be on the weapons trays as they flip over in the alien's shop too, but the trays flip so fast, and then the camera cuts away so quickly, it's hard to see. The impression was made, there's a lot of funky ray guns on these trays, and that's all the director was interested in. I don't think it would have hurt to have a long lingering pan across the trays though...

Mr Flibble would have asked another question, but by this point had managed to get the model glued to his beak. Andrew continued, unsurprised. How did you find working on SPACE TRUCKERS, which seemed a bit Red Dwarf-esque in a way?

You mean 'cheap and cheerful'? It was similar to Precinct in as much as there wasn't the money to have every single thing designed by the art department. So [we had] more creative freedom to make things up, which I never expected I'd be able to do on a movie. So I was having a great time, enjoying my work and getting paid as well.

Looking forward to seeing my work on the big screen was quite exciting too. There's that slightly surreal feeling again, working for Brian Johnson. This guy got a special effects Oscar for The Empire Strikes Back didn't he? You do tend to ask yourself once in a while: 'Do I belong here?' That passes, then I get my head down and get on with the job at hand.

There were some seriously crazy ideas in that movie...

Are we talking about robotic willies again here? Yes, pretty crazy stuff, crazy and ludicrous! But that's what made it funny. This Macinudo character [played by Charles Dance] can make himself a robot willy, but can't make himself a decent leg?! Definitely the 'take your brain out' variety of sci-fi.

The anti-gravity beer cans were good. And what about those square pigs! Utterly absurd! (Laughs) I laughed with incredulity when I saw that concept. Living things need to move around or they get 'bed sores' - not nice to eat. And living so closely gets them stressed out, which makes the meat tough. I should know - I used to be a butcher many moons ago - [I'm a] vegetarian nowadays though.

So unless in the future they've got some miracle drug (not nice to eat either) to counteract these problems, it just wouldn't happen. If people are going to insist on an animal based protein then they'll probably genetically engineer and grow huge slabs of pure muscle - but then that's probably not going to happen either, because it takes on average ten pounds of vegetable protein to produce one pound of animal protein. But then most people wouldn't know that, or even believe it.

Was there anything made for the film that the audience didn't see?

One of the best ideas (not the craziest) didn't make it to the final movie, and that was the CGI portrayal of this particle weapon that the warriors possess. I saw some test footage, complete with the warriors and background plate and it looked fantastic. It was a beam that distorted the background, so it had a kind of watery effect. Up until Dark City, I'd never seen anything quite like it done before, with regards to beam weapons.

It would have made a lot of sense to the line in the film 'There's no-one within 5 years of having anything remotely like it'. But, as usual, budget restrictions meant it couldn't be done. The warriors do fire their weapons a lot. There is kind of a gap in the film for me, as you don't see anything at all for the beam, just a noise.

Andrew tugged the model plane from Mr Flibble's beak - causing a massive (and yet very quiet) penguin yelp. What have you been doing RECENTLY?

I was working for Bill again recently on a French movie - I'm not sure whether it will ever be seen in this country. That was making a 30 foot long model of a railway station, into which a model helicopter would be crashed. I was involved with the station side of things, making a lot of the detail on the front of the station, hanging the glazing, making illuminated letters, etc. I've got a cousin who lives in France, so I'll try and get a DVD of it when it comes out.

And you got to meet Syd Mead, who's a bit of a legend...

That was way back. I was touring L.A. looking for work. Just thought I'd hunt down Syd's offices and use the old 'I've come all the way from England' line. Works every time. I was granted a visit to his studio, where I spent about half an hour with the man himself. I've got a photograph to prove it too! It was Syd who pointed me in the direction of Modern Props in the first place. So if I'd never... I never would have... and all that. I was a bit star-struck and didn't ask half of the questions that I should have asked. It was nice of him to see me though.

What have you got coming up at the moment?

I'm glad you weren't doing your Julian Clarey impression when you asked me that! Hopefully, Red Dwarf The Movie! That's the phone call that I'm waiting for.

What do you do when you're not making props and ships?

I usually fall back on architectural or product modelmaking, but I'm doing some sculpture at the moment - a full size bronze bust of a lady's eight year old son. If the TV and movie work dries up, I'd like to do this full time if possible.

Mr Flibble enjoyed talking to Steven Howarth, and now that it's over... Mr Flibble's very cross.