Interview: Red Dwarf XII Graphic Designer Matthew Clark

The visuals in Red Dwarf XII were among the most striking for many a series. From the nostalgic props of Skipper to the Soviet inspired posters from Mechocracy, there are few shows that provide such a variety of challenges to the art department. Series XII graphic designer Matthew Clark is a veteran of science-fiction having worked on the recent series of Doctor Who as well as the Netflix runs of Black Mirror. We caught up with him to find out what it takes to put the design into Red Dwarf.

What was your knowledge of Red Dwarf before you arrived on set?

Well I’d watched it since the mid to late 90s which I guess was Series IV or V onwards.  I think the BBC were repeating it a lot in those days so I’d seen pretty much everything, apart from the new series, before I started working on it.

Does having a background working on Britain’s other long running sci-fi show help, or does Red Dwarf present its own set of challenges?

Red Dwarf is unique in how short the turnaround time is. On Doctor Who I spend nine months doing 12 episodes and on Red Dwarf we spent 10 weeks doing six episodes. On Doctor Who, you’ll tend to make a lot of stuff and about 40% of it will get on camera whereas with Red Dwarf, pretty much everything you do will get on camera because of the nature of the sets. There’s a lot more thinking on your feet and working out how to do things quickly. Really we only had about two and a half days prep each episode. It was taking what I learned on Doctor Who and doing it twice as fast.

So what is the process like for you from the point of getting the script, to getting sign off to getting the design on the set?

When I joined in January, I actually did have six scripts given to me for the series. They were all very much work in progress drafts and the scripts changed constantly through to the morning of the shoot. The best example of that would have been the episode called Kryticus which became Siliconia where it was the Mechanoid Liberation Front for about four days, then on the morning of the shoot it became the Mechanoid Intergalactic Liberation Front. So the posters we’d done couldn’t really be shown front and centre because we’d changed what was in the script. A lot of things changed like that.

Normally on the Friday when one episode was filming I would have time to start the episode for the following week. I would try and get Doug and Keith [Dunne], the production designer, some really rough ideas on a Friday afternoon. Then on a Monday I would start to flesh out the designs a bit more and refine them. If there were interactive screens, we’d start working on those and they’d get sent to the animators. Tuesday, we’d then send things to print at the in-house printers at Pinewood. On Wednesday, we’d then dress the sets in the morning and finish the painting so Doug could see the sets, they could rehearse in it, make notes and then changes to be issued on the Wednesday night to be actioned on Thursday morning so everything was in place for the record on Thursday into Friday..

Series XI and XII filmed back to back but the personnel changed in the art department. Was that a conscious production decision to change the look of the show between runs?

The bunkroom set was the Series X set which I guess makes it five years old now. So it had been in storage and sets, especially sets with complicated shapes like that, don’t survive very well. So Julian [Fullalove]’s team, they did the best to refurb it in the time they had to get it into filming shape and then Keith’s team came in for Series XII and because of the changeover in personnel. we were given a few weeks’ extra prep. So we looked at what they had done and looked at how we could finish off the little things. It wasn’t so much to make it different to Series XI, we were just given the space to finish it off.

Television has moved from standard definition to high definition and you can see that in the new Starbug set with the many panels.  Is it a challenge to provide that level of detail while staying true to  the original design?

I think Red Dwarf really suffered with the Series X era when it went to HD.  Not to criticise anyone but there was this feeling that what they’d done before, which was cludgey and wooden and dark, wouldn’t work in high definition so they chucked loads more detail and texture at it, which didn’t really work. It was almost too much information. It doesn’t have to be full of detail to be believable because it’s about the characters.

So when we did Starbug and we did these panels and there’s a lot of detail in there but it’s dots and gridlines which is what you had in the original sets. It’s supposed to glow and be, not a haze but fuzzy and warm rather than it being modern Star Trek-esque hyper-clean detail. I wanted it to be a colour palette rather than a detailed graphic, even though there are details in it. The job of those panels is to be a backlight rather than a detail to look at. These sets are very LED heavy but Ed Moore, the director of photography, was really good because at making sure that the colours were warm and there wasn’t too much in-your-face glare.

And talking about Starbug, there’s the new mid-section. Obviously it has echoes of the classic look but how do you go about dressing this new set?

Keith’s plan was to have it look as much like the old one as possible. The problem we had was space constraints. I think the original plans were to do the same size as the original mid-section. But there was no way of doing it without wheeling the cockpit out to where the audience are. The guest sets each week are built where the seating will go mid-week. So we shoot those first and take them down again. So there was no way of doing the midsection the way it was originally without making it a set that couldn’t be seen by the audience. The set that you have on camera is exactly what you’d get when you draw the original midsection and then shrink it down to fit within the constraints.

And why was it Starbug 19?

I have no idea! It was Starbug 1 and then, as so often with Red Dwarf, there’s a panicked phone call saying Doug wants this to be this and you just run off and do it. The models all say ‘1’. I know the joke in Red Dwarf is that there’s lots of Starbugs but we always see the model marked  ‘1’.  It may have been a thing Doug thought of and didn’t go back to. It might have been room 19. I didn’t ask.

We mentioned the corridors briefly there and they’re so important in the show. What makes a good Red Dwarf corridor for you?

The backlit grating, which I guess came in around Series V or VI. It’s a good way of giving detail without much expense. Using light to make shadow is what makes it look good. To me, a good Red Dwarf corridor should be dingy. It should fade off into the darkness a little bit. It should be quite an oppressive space. So I quite like the Series I corridors – very grey and very top heavy with lots of pipes. We did do quite a lot of signs for the corridors but the shape of them means you don’t really see them because there’s a lot of alcoves and nooks.  Lots of cludge, lots of screens, definitely lots of pipes, random numbers and coloured tape – that’s what makes a good corridor for me.

The Eurostyle font set is crucial to the visual identity of Red Dwarf. Do you feel the need to be faithful or is that restrictive?

I like using it. It was designed as a typeface for signs because it’s wide.  But you see it a lot in Thunderbirds which is 1960s era. And a lot of the things that worked in Thunderbirds are things that work in Red Dwarf, especially in the model areas, where they would use rubdown lettering on the model hulls. And it’s obviously in 2001 quite a bit. The Enterprise has it for the numbers on the hull. It’s a bit of a default sci-fi lettering. It was nice to be able to use it without it being a cliché because it looks great  and it’s a really chunky and industrial font and Red Dwarf is chunky and industrial. In a lot of ways, especially with the sets rather than the models, there isn’t much continuity in Red Dwarf but that typeface has been there since day one.

Getting back onto Red Dwarf, we have those vending machines  and you’ve mentioned before that you took inspiration from British Rail.

Red Dwarf is very 80s and I think there’s something quite nice about the idea that it’s British Rail in space – that era of unionised, slightly socialist, heavy, long-life industrial feel. Everything should be a bit grotty and have layer of nicotine over it. Everything should be slightly yellow. You maybe wouldn’t want to have a JMC sandwich. It would not be something you’d look forward to; it should feel like a punishment.

You can’t make a sci-fi for 30 years and predict the future. We made a conscious effort not to put things like iPads into Series XII – they read paper magazines, and cardboard bound folders. So we wanted to use to technology that was there but make it fit. I think one of the things that Star Trek suffers with is that it always tries to be cutting edge at the expense of its own aesthetic. We don’t even try to compete with the real world. It should all be slightly rubbish and old tech.

Most science fiction fans will be familiar with the work on Michael Okuda Doug Drexler on Star Trek and you added them as chief engineers on your Red Dwarf graphics.  They put loads of in-jokes on their graphics.  Is that something you like to do?

I do what I do now basically because I read Mike and Rick Sternbach’s books back in the 90s. The things they did for Star Trek: The Next Generation back in 1987 – the photographic backlit panels, polar motion of making them animate without using computer screens – all their techniques were phenomenally clever and they’re very good at writing about it and explaining it. JMC feature on a list in Deep Space Nine and it was a way of returning the favour and also saying hello to Mike in a way and to thank him for his inspiration. I’ve often messaged him on Facebook and asked him how he achieved something and he always tells me and never holds back trade secrets. I don’t know if you know, but he was the graphic designer on the US version of Red Dwarf. It was nice to bring him into that.

We did chuck other in-jokes in the sets so screen graphics have messages from Rimmer or things like Latrine System status. A lot of that is that me entertaining myself when I’m doing those graphics. They’re not meant to be seen. The one panel they did a big close up on, you can see some typos on it.

Just to talk about a bit about the guest sets. So in Cured, you have United America. Is it challenging to do quite a bit of world building when what you see is quite limited?

For United America it was all just vinyl stickers really. At that point I was playing a lot of Alien Isolation which has a lot of red and black Helvetica labels and I just lifted that wholesale and stuck that onto United America. Red Dwarf often references Alien and Aliens, sometimes obliquely and sometimes directly, so I think it was okay to carry on that affectionate theft of the signage types and labels. I designed a basic screen interface which was an octagon shape with loads of blinking numbers. We also printed it on vinyl and stuck it on panels. A lot of the set of the week, you’d design five key elements that you could repeat as much as possible and work into the set in different. These vinyl numbers were stuck on bulkheads and pipes and had a few basic symbols which we stuck everywhere. We had it on walls as a real screen, we had it on hired props, we had it on the table top. You spend about a day designing the key elements that fit that aesthetic and then spend the following day working out where to put it on the set and reproducing it hundreds of times.

Moving onto the SS Vespasian in Siliconia, you’ve got a more steampunk aesthetic and combined with the propaganda is an interesting mix.

That was the first thing we shot. Because we were going to Kempton Steam rooms, it told us everything we had to do visually. One of my interests, because I’m really cool this way, is old transport stuff so when I knew we were going to the steam museum, and it’s that real golden age of steam, I thought let’s not do steampunk in that sense of being cogs and Victorian and wood, let’s go luxury. So I used lots of gold lettering, lots of nice typefaces. I thought the Vespasian should feel like a grand steamliner. It wasn’t really the look that ended up being the ship itself but for the interior we thought, let’s make it feel like a nice ship that’s been the subject of a revolt. I based a lot of it on old 1920s steam trains which have nice elegant bits of brass. All the labels on the set were that kind of etched metal look to feel quite premium and grand. It was the kind of ship you would like to see in a museum rather than being a fancy ship.

And I guess a lot of that very deliberate styling is just thrown out the window when it came to working on the Encomium. Is it hard to forget all you know about design?

I had to do those little kids illustrations and I actually can’t draw to save my life so for me it was quite easy to do something as rubbish as that. And things like the screens on the Encomium was great because you just got to chuck every filter you could find in After Effects and see what happens. Normally you have an idea, you have a skill set and you have a certain set of tools and the job is to try and squeeze those things together to get the result you want. Whereas with the Enconium it was like, what can I do? Let’s just chuck a flare in here or a glow here.  It was nice to kick free really and not be overly sci-fi and just chuck colour at things.

In Mechocracy, you have those election posters which I guess is something relatively atypical for sci-fi?

When I watched that, I was struck by how much like a Series IV and VI episode that looked. I think it was the lighting. There are two real different looks in the episode. One was the JMC vending machine stuff and one was the political stuff. It was nice to have something that was parody rather than having it feel that it belonged on a spaceship. I had an assistant that episode, Jack, who did the Rimmer stuff and I did the Kryten stuff. It was nice for two people to do the different sides of it so we got two really different designs. Broadly speaking, Jack went down the American Republican style for Rimmer and I chose something a bit more, not really socialist communist, but that kind of chunky, blocky, functional design because Kryten is a robot. And we had these slogans about making difficult decisions for the long term good and pragmatic sort of things whereas Rimmer’s were very much more based on what the script said like ‘I believe the same things you believe’.

That clean space in M-Corp, that’s almost like the anti-Red Dwarf. Was that difficult to achieve?

In terms of the graphics, I didn’t really have to do much because they wanted the set to be quite minimal. But doing minimalism on a budget is really hard. On Red Dwarf, you can hide the woodwork and hide the joins on the set. The paint itself has a way of catching the light and reflecting the light. Keith and the construction team did such a good job of making it look well finished.  Even on Doctor Who, you don’t do Apple style minimalism of a sci-fi TV show because it’s so expensive to do so I think they  did a really good job of pulling it off on the budget that we had.

And talking of pulling something off successfully, there was the recreation of the Series I sets for Skipper. Did you have much in the way of reference materials for that recreation or was it just a case of watching the episodes?

It was a lot of squinting at screens. Actually if you try and look at those episodes to try and forensically break down what’s in a set, it’s horrible. Things the size of an apple become four pixels and you have to figure out what it is. Keith the designer and Emma [Wicks] the props buyer did an amazing job. They found the same table as Series V and VI for Starbug. But in the bunkroom for Series I, they found the same lamp above the beds which I think is some old military explosion-proof lamp. They found the same space helmet I think.  They had to remake the little chairs, which I think were Series II-era ones. They did an incredible job by just staring at these pictures to figure out what it was. In the exam room and Hollister’s office, there’s those coloured tape-spools and we figured out roughly what they were made from and we managed to work out that it had the word ‘Start’ written on it. To my eternal shame, it took me about a day and a half to realise that funny red lump on Hollister’s desk was Red Dwarf. I couldn’t figure it out for ages until I watched the episode where it gets knocked off the desk. It was just so fuzzy, it didn’t occur to me it was that.

There’s no reference elements at all as far as I can tell. There’s no continuity pictures and no one photographed the set just for the fun of it. So when we did all the posters for Lister’s bunk, we had to recreate those from stock imagery and try and to make it look right. Obviously, the benefit of it being 30-year-old graphic design is that it’s all quite simple block colour panels or stock photographs so we got reasonably close but nothing exists. The end of every series of Red Dwarf is like fleeing a hotel without paying the bill. Nothing is really archived or set aside or saved.

It seems a shame that it was such a fleeting glance of these lovingly recreated sets. We had the resurrection in the Series VIII but it wasn’t done as accurately with the uniforms and posters.

When they did it in Series VIII, the look of the show was the whole look of their show so they had to make it work. Even though they were making the old sets, they made the effort to make it look good whereas when we did this, we were going for the nostalgia feel and we could embrace the flat walls and the grey paint and handwritten signs. Enough time has now passed since Series I where recreating it, people don’t go ‘oh that looks rubbish’; they go ‘oh, you’ve faithfully recreated it’.

We mostly didn’t go onto the floor to watch the recordings because we were doing other things or panicking or sleeping. It was really lovely to hear the reaction to the room. It was a shame we couldn’t have it there for people to look at but it made the surprise quite nice. It was a shame to see it come down. The thing with sets is, they take a week to go up and come down in half an hour. You get there in the morning and go down to the stage and half of its gone and it’s being crowbarred apart and thrown in a skip.

The thing that caught my attention the most was the font on the confidential report. It’s the same one we saw in the first series and it’s such a lovely, obscure detail.

When I read that prop was in there, I knew it should look like old Red Dwarf. That is not a font you would ever use now on a sci-fi show. Before you had computers and desktop publishing, it was done with Letraset – the rub down lettering. I’ve got a friend called Gareth who is a corporate graphic designer and he’s got a really encyclopaedic knowledge of typefaces. I sent him a screencap of Toddhunter and asked what he thought it was and he dug it out. Emma the buyer managed to find the correct clipboards, these plastic 80s chunky ones. I had to mould paperwork from a factory that had gone bankrupt in the 80s and it was all hand typed and blurry and photocopied. You stick them together and suddenly you’ve got the original look.

And the other element that got many fans happy was that recreated miniature from Hollister’s desk. Can you just tell us a little bit about that?

A surprising amount of engineering work went into that. The old model on the desk is not an exact replica of the large scale Peter Wragg film model. It’s a different set of proportions. Because there’s not much in the way of decent shots of that model in the archive, I found the special effects reel on YouTube showing all the shots of the ship moving along. We freeze framed that and screencapped the different bits of the ship moving across screen to create a composite image of what we thought was an image of the right proportions of the ship. We printed that out on paper and did a really rough mock-up and realised it wouldn’t fit the size of the dome on Hollister’s desk. The model on the desk must be stumpier in some ways or shorter in the nose. I’ve got a friend who’s a prop maker by trade and he does a lot of replica props from the 80s. And he’s really into that 80s style of model making which is: you scratch build stuff, you buy the model kits, you put bits together, you texture paint them and layer things up to get the effect. So when you’re making a model of Red Dwarf, that’s exactly what you should be doing. We sent a very basic set of measurements and templates, he ran to Hobby Craft and bought two Tamiya tank kits and in two days he managed to put it together from scratch. It’s a really beautiful little model but we couldn’t find a dome to fit it in because we’d taken the proportions of the original ship which is why it’s sitting slightly upright in a tall jar rather than a perfect dome. To me, it’s the centrepiece of that set. I’m not sure who ended up with it but there was a bit of a fight to keep it.

And finally, would you want to come back to Red Dwarf again?

In a heartbeat. Having grown up with the series, the second I walked onto the set, I knew what I had to do. A lot of jobs, you get the script and try to imagine how it’s supposed to look. With Red Dwarf, I knew what it should be, and this sounds incredibly arrogant, I knew what they had tried to achieve in the original ones but were constrained by the budgets so I knew where we could take things without losing the feeling of the old ones. It was like putting on an old pair of shoes in a way even though I hadn’t worked on it before. Craig, Danny, Chris and Robert are all lovely people. A lot of actors who do shows for that amount of time get the sense that it’s a bit of a weight round their neck but they love doing it and they’re great to work with on set. A lot of shows can be quite stressful and Red Dwarf is quite manic but the actual sensation of doing it is lovely. It has a real family feel to it.

All images courtesy of Matthew Clark. You can see more of Matthew’s work on his website. Look out for more of his graphics on Jed Mercurio’s political thriller Bodyguard, coming soon to BBC One.