Merlin: The special effects

Thursday 6 December 2012, 15:12

Colin Gorry Colin Gorry Director, special effects

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I’ve been interested in films and effects since I was a child, coupled with an obsession for knowing how things work.

Deconstructing things and making something else from the pieces often led to trouble from my parents.

I’d pull something apart (for that vital cog!) to the point where the item in question was broken beyond repair, generating a corresponding animated reaction from my father.

So to end up in special effects, I suppose was inevitable.

Effects are in essence all about creating an illusion, crafting the image of something happening for real when in reality it’s a manufactured event, like a cave wall collapsing or a building bursting into flames.

Of course the effect you see on the screen has to be controlled and happen without damage to the surroundings, cast or crew so safety is also one of our primary considerations during design and planning.

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First look at The Kindness of Strangers.

Working on Merlin was a delight and a privilege.

It was a rollercoaster script full of magic and natural effects (like rain, mist, wind, fire, a net trap etc) - a lot of which could be shot front of camera.

On occasion I had a team of up to six technicians depending on the complexity of the effect.

We’ve had many diverse challenges over the five years of filming from the very simple, such as extinguishing or igniting a burning torch on cue to the more complicated set-up of controlling a boat’s direction and speed around a weed-filled moat.

Earlier effects involved arranging a mattress to move independently around a room, to stop under a falling actor, breaking his fall.

We incorporated a hidden system of wires and pulleys into the set, and the mattress had to change direction too, so some lines needed to be released or extended during its travel.

It was basically a puppet moving on the horizontal plane.

We created a radio-controlled rolling barrel which chased some guards as a diversion, by using an adapted remote control car with a very lightweight barrel fitted to the front on a small universal joint.

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Skeleton hands: series three, The Tears of Uther Pendragon - part two

To get these skeleton hands smashing out through stone tomb lids [above], the lids were copied from the originals and made from soft lightweight material which closely resembled stone.

The hands’ movements were operated from beneath.

And of course for the dragons breathing balls of fire in the clip below, we specially constructed pressure vessels to hold propane gas.

The gas was released instantly by a timed valve and ignited, giving precise control over the distance and size of the flame.

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From series two, The Last Dragonlord

Whatever the effects, they were always an immense amount of fun to work out, work on and produce.

The snow in this series was one of our biggest setups.

We had the weather to consider when choosing the material as the more economic ‘snow’ was not weather-proof enough to endure a week’s filming in Wales.

The greater challenge, however, was the brief to construct the safe and fast-moving sleigh driven over rough, undulating ground by the lovely Morgana.

20622-morganna-1024x576.jpg Morganna (Katie McGrath) on her sleigh, with Gwaine (Eoin Macken)

We wanted to use the actor (Katie McGrath) and not a stand-in, so for stability we chose to build it on three wheels with the front free steering.

We angled the rear two at 45 degrees to spread the footprint. An advantage of this was a softened, very realistic movement. We avoided using a rail which was both difficult to hide, expensive and also inflexible.

Instead, we pulled the sleigh over 30 metres on a hydraulic winch which, in the end, we had also built as there was not one in existence fast enough for our needs.

The end result was a perfect blend of safety and stable movement matching that of a sleigh at speed.

Colin Gorry is director of Colin Gorry Effects, the company which produces the special effects on Merlin.

Merlin continues on BBC One and BBC One HD on Saturday, 8 December at 7.55pm. For all programme times, please see the episode guide.

It's been announced that the current series of Merlin will be the last. See the official press release on the BBC Media Centre.

More on Merlin
Digital Spy: Merlin news and spoilers
Den of Geek: Merlin

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Merlin Is a children's programme that should be filled with wonder. Why destroy the wonder by telling how the special effects are achieved?

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    I am also very disappointed to discover that Merlin is ending with this series. I have enjoyed watching it with my son (he is now 14) since it started - It is one of few offerings on TV that we have looked forward to each year. Paper dolls I've made based on Morgana and Gwen and posted on a blog have proved to be amongst my most popular entries with 1000's of page views so I know I'm not alone in being a fan of the show.

    Arthur was the heir presumptive for most of the earlier season's. It hardly feels as though his reign has started. To end the series now (especially if Arthur is killed at Camlann) gives little indication of why his rule has echoed and resonated down the ages. Merlin has also had no opportunity to become the wise old advisor of legend. It does really feel as through the story is being cut short before it gets into full stride.

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    Comment number 18.

    wow what a disapointing last ever episode, i was expecting so much more but for me it was a massive massive let down, my ideal last episode would have been for the battle to rage for half an hour of the episode then to have merlin swoop down finally showing and unleashing all his magic (the guy desearves at least one balls out, fury, rageing, no holds bar'd magic spell), riding the dragon and sweep away morgana's forces then a showdown with morgana showing everyone he was a sorceror and a hero and saving the day, throw in arthur defeating mordrid, accepting merlin etc perfect ... instead we get mordrid killed ever so easily (no realisation of merlins vision then!) a wound to arthurs chest when clearly he is stabbed in the stomach, the pathetic death of morgana, gawain confiding in a woman hes shagging and discovering shes betrayed him all within 2 episodes bah! gaius amazingly discovering merllin and arthur in the forest somehow, merlin going from old merlin to young merlin with no explanation, merlin telling arthur he had magic when he easily could have covered it up like every other episode (there was no need to tell arthur he had magic.. no compulsion) and then a flash forward to the present ... why? this episode could have been so much more, but instead it felt rushed, disjointed and lacking in real ambition .... ive loved every season and nearly every episode of merlin .. but not this one!

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    When I wrote comment 8 I was just disappointed. Now I'm gutted. You wrecked it. I don't suppose any of us will get any sort of response (or if these comments are even read) - but thanks for letting us say how we feel!

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    What a fantastic final show . I as a 60 year old just sat and cried all through the end of the show . I am so glad that Morgana got killed off , as i never like her character . It was fantastic how Merlin was telling Arthur when he was dying that he was a wizard and the ending was brilliant when the lorry drove passed Merlin and you just realize its present day . What a great shame it had to end , saturdays wont ever be the same .Maybe it could come back again .


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