Interview: Billy Hanshaw on Series 8’s Title Sequence

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Connor Johnston sits down with Billy Hanshaw, the designer behind Series 8’s new title sequence.

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The evening of the 23rd of August 2014 not only saw the official debut of Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor, but also of what will come to undoubtedly become one of the most striking and iconic additions to his era: the brand-spanking-new title sequence. What makes this title sequence so brilliant is the peculiar and unique story of its origins, and more importantly that of its primary designer: Billy Hanshaw. With over 27 years of experience as an Expert 2D/3D Graphic Designer, Animator and Illustrator; funnily enough it was not his professional portfolio but rather his fan-made Doctor Who “Original Concept” title sequence that caught the eye of Steven Moffat and landed him this ‘dream gig’. The fan video in question which first appeared on YouTube last September, and in a mere 5 months achieved over half a million views, with the “1 MILLION” views milestone being reached only a few weeks ago– Aavideo shared by Doctor Who TV within the first few days of publishing on “Weird and Wonderful”. You can watch the original concept video below.

Having the absolute privilege of sitting down with Billy over the magical capabilities of the internet earlier this week, it was so refreshing to discover that the only aspect of his character that outweighs his creative genius is his genuine humility. Billy himself is a perfect example of how being a fan of Doctor Who can, through one’s devotion, achieve quite a substantial amount professionally. It really shows how important it is that we have such an invested and appreciated fan base, so much so that people like Billy take to various platforms to share their creations and now have a real chance of such works making it into the show’s history! So join me as we, in the same fashion as the new title sequence, enter through the ‘mists of time’ and discover what really makes the mind of Billy Hanshaw tick…. Pun intended.

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Plans for the New Sequence. Image Courtesy of Billy Hanshaw

First off – Congratulations on your recent step into fame! When you first started to develop and create your original fan work that landed you the gig – did you ever imagine at all that you’d be sitting here today with something so huge like THE DOCTOR WHO SERIES 8 TITLES connected to your name?

Actually no. 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.

How did you first get into Graphic Designing – was it a passion you’d always had since an early age or something that sparked your interests later in life?

When I was a kid, I wanted to be an artist. It seemed like I had a natural creative flair. The only way to earn a good living wage as an artist would have to be in graphics, I was advised by the careers teacher at school. So that’s the route I’ve taken. I’ve worked in a number of roles as a graphic designer working purely in art direction, but also as an illustrator. I had an appreciation of visual arts of all kinds from a very young age, but getting this gig feels like real recognition for long hours of hard work over the years.

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Screenshot of the BBC Submission Sequence. Image Courtesy of Billy Hanshaw

Tell me about the moment that you were contacted by the BBC – how did they get in touch? What was going through your mind the second you realised that the big names of Doctor Who had seen your video and had loved it so much that they’d tracked you down to help them develop the new titles for Series 8?

It was actually Brian Minchin (Steven Moffat’s co-Executive Producer) who got in touch first via LinkedIn. 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 he 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.

Screenshot of the BBC Submission Sequence. Image Courtesy of Billy Hanshaw

Screenshot of the BBC Submission Sequence. Image Courtesy of Billy Hanshaw

What were your main inspirations for the style and content of the sequence? From the fans there have been comments describing it as a “steampunk” feel and ones drawing direct links to the “Classic Era of Doctor Who” – would any of these be accurate?

I think the whole concept of time travel is surreal. The new titles 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. 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.

I’ve heard the comment that the use of clockwork is wrong because it is too ‘human’ a way to represent time travel. My answer to that is that as far as I’m aware, humans make up the entirety of the viewing audience, and so will immediately understand the analogy. After all, a title sequence is meant to reflect the show’s core themes.

How much did the BBC’s brief differ from the brief you set yourself when creating the original fan video?

The brief was very open. The only mandatories were the omission of the fob watch and the seal of Rassilon. I had to keep the look of the original intact but finds a new way of progressing the visual narrative. So we start with the “mists of time” through which the cogs start to appear.

A question I’m sure all aspiring graphic artists have been dying to know the answer to: On the more technical side of things, what programs and methods did you use to create what would become the near-to-finished product you presented to the BBC?

series-8-title-sequence-tardisI use a range of software at my disposal. My main tools of choice are Cinema 4D, After Effects, Photoshop and illustrator. If you have an idea, but you don’t know how to create, I start looking around the ‘net to see if anyone’s created something like it before and try to deconstruct what they’ve done. None of us in this industry ever stop learning so there is always something new to discover in online tutorial sites. I love Pinterest for sorting ideas. It’s great for creating a general collection of imagery, which you can refine. It helps you shape ideas before you even start your own designs, and acts as a reference point too.

And what were the limits of your involvements after that point – did the BBC keep you updated on their alterations to your final submissions?

I provided the BBC team with a full concept storyboard and a fully finished video to help the VFX team time their final animation. I visited Roath Lock (BBC’s Studios in Cardiff) a number of times to see progress of the titles. It’s a pure meeting of ideas. The BBC graphics team pulled a master stroke with the unravelling clock-face. I love that bit.

Looking at purely the last few days, the general reaction for the visuals has been one of praise and all round satisfaction -- something I’m sure you’re very chuffed about! One aspect that has been divisive among the fans however has been the new revision of the theme music that accompanies the titles. Were you at all given any prior knowledge to the changes musically while creating your submission and do you feel it’s an arrangement complementary to the visual design?

series-8-title-sequence-capaldi-eyesI was briefed to work with the Eccleston theme. The progress of the arrangement follows a similar pattern in all the NuWho pieces by Murray Gold. Actually the new theme was as much as a surprise to me as anybody else at the premiere in Cardiff. I know it polarises opinion, but personally I think it’s fabulous, a real hark back to the classic days. Any creative route is subjective; you just have to stay true to your own ideas. You are never going to please everybody, especially on a show with a huge vocal fan base like Doctor Who.

Speaking directly to the fan inside you – Excluding your own, what has been your favourite version of the opening credits in the show’s history?

The Framestore one. Although it’s a fairly simple concept, it looks stunning. You’d expect that from Framestore though wouldn’t you. (CJ: Indeed! Less technical fans will know the “Framestore Sequence” more commonly as the “Matt Smith Titles” first used in Series 5)

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Billy Hanshaw with Louise Jameson. Image Courtesy of Billy Hanshaw

On that note, where does Doctor Who fit into your life? Have you always been a fan or is it a passion you’ve recently come across?

Haha! People expect me to be one of those SUPER fans. Don’t get me wrong -- the show has a huge place in my heart. It’s something I loved watching as I grew up. Tom Baker was my favourite. The icing on the cake at the premiere was that I was sat next to Louise Jameson (Leela) and she whispered in my ear “well done” after the titles finished. Special moment that.

Has the reveal and the reception of the new title sequence overwhelmed you at all? Are there still those “pinch yourself” moments when you realise you will forever be attributed to such an iconic part of Peter Capaldi’s era on Doctor Who?

You know, I don’t think it will ever sink in properly what’s happened. I heard today that on the “TARDIS Data-Core” site that the titles have been named the Hanshaw titles -- now that’s really surreal.

Finally: Will we be seeing anything more emerge from the brilliant mind of Billy Hanshaw in the future? What’s next for you now?

I’m working on a number of creative proposals for shows that are in pre-production. Previously I’ve worked on TV commercials and high level presentations. The Doctor Who gig came at a time when I wanted to steer my business towards the film and TV industry. It came at just the right time. Watch this space.

Thank you Billy for your participation. Check out more of Billy’s work at Billyhanshaw.co.uk.

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series-8-title-sequence-colemanAs for the verdict? Personally, the ‘Hanshaw’ Title Sequence is quickly climbing the ranks on the way to becoming my favorite of all time. The concept and direction is without fault – The emphasis on the smoky cogs and gears are such a fresh, new and welcome idea – but without doubt the highlight of the new sequence for myself has to be the stunning transition from the spiralling clock face, unwinding and travelling down the rabbit hole into the breathtaking blue vortex – riddled with all kinds of Easter eggs including glowing Gallifreyan symbols and spinning planets – It truly is a work of art.

The new updated theme admittedly took a few plays to get used to – but now I am convinced it’s easily Murray Gold’s best. The balance between the electronic classic arrangements and the epic new who arrangements is spot on, leading to a result that is both innovative and completely complementary of the revamped sequence. The final product is more than deserving of a massive congratulations to the entire team at BBC Wales VFX, Murray Gold, and of course the man of the Twelfth hour: Billy Hanshaw.

Step back in time...