Back in the days of my childhood, Sunday evenings were the domain of dinner, bath, bed, and the feeling of foreboding as another new week at school loomed. By the mid-1980’s I was aware that the end of weekend televisual offerings were often connected to science and natural history themes. It sometimes felt like an additional lesson prior to the weekly school timetable.
Science programming wasn’t new to my 8-year-old self. I’d been fascinated by the electronic breathy vocalisations of the Horizon theme (Barbra Flinder, BBC, 1982). The camera weaving through a large perspex ‘HORIZON’ felt very imposing but instructed me to keep watching and see what was ahead.
Then there was the sombre, clinical, synthesised theme of ‘QED’ (BBC1, 1982- 1999), which felt like it jarred with the programme’s more accessible approach to science documentary. Suddenly, science felt like it was something to fear.
More gentle was BBC’s monthly science exploration series ‘Antenna’ (Charles McGhie, 1987). This was an interesting mix of synthesised flute and vectors, suggesting data, outcomes, and conclusions. Oh, and it also reminded me of a certain, defunct, poster shop chain on the high street.
And Thursdays were reserved for ‘Tomorrow’s World’ – the live format bringing an air of excitement and unpredictabilty. The brain, and then the rotating head, became permanent notes in the ‘Canyons of my Mind’.
In a previous post, which also captured the Sunday evening blues, I dived into the work of graphic designer, Bernard Lodge, specifically his title sequence for ‘The World About Us’ (BBC2, 1967 – 86).
The natural history remit of TWAU found a immovable home on Sunday evenings at around 7pm. However, times change, and by 1986, ‘The World About Us’ was no more. But nature abhors a vacuum, and in July, Channel 4 launched its own brand new 7pm documentary strand, focusing on science and technology – ‘Equinox’.
Whereas ‘The World About Us’ instructed the viewer to join the filmmaker in discovering our planet, Equinox took a different route. Through the depiction of complex machinery accompanied by an unsettling industrial score, the audience was expected to sit up and take notice. And to ensure that they did, the show announced itself in a highly visceral manner, through a waspish voice, and a face ensnared within a laser beam – a climax that scared a generation!
So, put your fingers in your ears, and shut your eyes tight. This is the story of that title sequence.
From the get-go, ‘Equinox’ eschewed a uniform style, and in keeping with Channel 4’s remit of commissioning productions from independent companies, established a diverse approach to subjects and treatment.
The aim of Equinox was to place science in context, questioning it rather than marveling at the possibilities. The impact of design within science and technology was given prominence, with the very first episodes focusing on the construction of the Formula 1 engine, followed a few episodes later by an exploration of spaceships and the Citroën 2CV. Patrick Uden, previously a producer in the BBC science department, was in charge of the series, and was clear about its remit during the press launch.
However, Channel 4’s founding chief executive Jeremy Isaacs needed some persuasion regarding the name of the new documentary strand, feeling that ‘Equinox’ was too vague to communicate what the series was about. Eventually, he was convinced following a discussion about the number of television shows that had ambiguous titles, yet still became household names.
Bob English (pictured) from the design agency English Markell Pockett developed and directed the title sequence. English, previously a designer at the BBC (think ‘Life on Earth’) was part of Channel 4’s graphics department when it launched in 1982.
Below is Peter Truckel, who was the visual effects supervisor and Director of Photography. Truckel had collaborated with English many times and was instrumental in realising the concept behind the ‘Equinox’ titles.
The concept was based on the very mechanism used to create the eventual sequence itself – the mechanics of a motion control rig (pictured below.)
Truckel: “We built the rig in-house (at the production house, Moving Picture Company – MPC) between 1980 and 1982, using a combination of 1940’s technology, such as a Mitchell camera, and a Moy Head, all controlled by 1980s computerised technology.”
The final concept of the ‘Equinox’ title sequence centered on a complex alignment system that would track the sun and line up everything through a series of lenses and angled front-silvered mirrors, similar to the ones in a film optical camera.
Truckel notes that Bob English really liked the noises that the motion control rig made as it went through programmed moves, due to the stepper motors that controlled each axis of movement.
(Image from a prior shoot – Truckel on the left, English on the right)
Truckel: “Bob wanted to sample the sounds to create the base for the soundtrack. As we discussed things further it became clear that it wasn’t just the audio based on the rig he wanted, it was also the faux scientific gear that would help to create the laser effect.“
Filming commenced at the Motion Picture Company studio facility, on Eastman 5247 colour film. Truckel: “The main model set-up was probably about 6-8 ft across and all the elements were able to be moved and positioned separately to make the shot work. “
Designer/VFX specialist Steve Wilsher created the models making up the system. As per the concept, he drew inspiration from elements of the actual motion control rig, such as the lens which was a direct copy of the east/west pan head on the rig. Art imitating life!
Other elements included the rotating screw thread based on one of the rig’s drive shafts, and the orange computer screen which was the plasma screen of the Interactive Motion Control (IMC) system that controlled the rig – you can see the relevant filmaking terms – focus, East/West, North/South, pan, tilt, roll, track etc.
Wilsher: “The fine detail and finish in the models required a clinically precise feel reflecting equipment used in scientific experimentation. The component parts were designed to be arranged and adjusted to suit each individual shot against black, affording us flexibility.“
Truckel: “I’m not sure whether we used a snorkel lens (pictured below) on this shoot – we may have used it, but I think we probably went with a conventional prime lens for most of the setups. The snorkel certainly let us put the lens much closer to the action without the body of the rig causing shadow problems, so we may well have used it. There would have been a repeater lens in the middle to get the image to the film plane.“
Truckel: “A small, tilting front silvered mirror attached to the bottom lens was used, so that we could hang the camera vertically and weave between objects.”
A real laser was used – a low power model due to the length of exposure required for each shot, and the limitations of studio space at MPC (35ft x12ft x 10ft high). This caused some headaches.
Truckel: “It actually burned a hole in one of the black velvet drapes we had surrounding the set. The laser shots needed smoke so we used a beekeeper gun, burning charcoal to heat small bricks of incense. The smell was intense!“
Truckel: “I guess that Bladerunner was, for many years, a major influence. Also a lot of TV designers loved using complimentary colours BBC was very blue/gold for a while. One of main driving forces though was the way film was actually made, and this meant that blue, which was the top layer was always sharper than red which was the bottom layer. So, when using smoke we always went predominantly blue.“
To create the shot where the sun hits the target and activates the laser, a simple black cardboard gobo cast streaks of light onto a piece of glass with the target rings printed on it.
Truckel: “The model was laid down at an angle for the shot, so we didn’t have to suspend the glass/gobo from the ceiling, it was simply held in place vertically with two lighting stands and some Italian clamps.“
A blast of white was added as a video effect in post-production.
Perhaps the most memorable element of the sequence is the final shot of a face within the laser beam. This shot was filmed separately a couple of days after the model shoot.
Andrew Fowler, the producer of the sequence for English Markell Pockett, was the face in question. Truckel: “It was a simple shoot, one small light beneath his chin, filmed against black velvet then put together in post with the other shots.”
“EQ-QUEE-NOX” No title caption. Genius! How to terrify a generation of children and adults.
With production completed, celebrated electronic musician David Vorhaus (of ‘White Noise’ fame) was commissioned to create the intricate and increasingly layered soundtrack. Vorhaus was also responsible for the ‘Ghosts in the Machine’ theme, which was another Channel 4 production.
Vorhaus often worked with “no basic rules on recording methods”. However, he clearly remained faithful to the concept established by Bob English, focussing on industrial sounds similar to the motion control rig itself, alongside subtle vocal enhancements.
The theme starts off with the sounds of motorised whirrings, sound percussive samples, and low down in the mix, some whispered vocalisations. Within seconds, there is a faint, yet menacing hint of a repeated note – the bassline.
Industrial and electronic noises are added to the multitrack mix, and by the time the theme reaches critical mass, a synthesiser sting represents the laser. The “Equinox” uses a ‘flanger’ filter on top of a final sting.
Vorhaus noted that the theme “had to tie in with the graphics and hit certain cue points. Everything was very mapped out”.
Wilsher (pictured below): “We did so much stuff with EMP and others in that small studio. I must admit they were the best times and working with Peter was always inspirational.”
Channel 4 must have been proud of the title sequence, as demonstrated by this trailer from early on in the series run in 1986. This uses the theme music and visual elements as the basis of an intricate and carefully considered trailer promoting an Equinox Special FX…special!
And in 1998 electronic duo ‘Orbital’ took the theme and made it their own.
The title sequence is a highly memorable element to many. For me, there was a delicious trepidation between the moment the Channel 4 logo gave way to the first percussive sounds, as the model tracked into view. I always anticipated what was to come, and feared the ultimate resolution of the piece.
The face that mouthed “Equinox” was usually a cue to put my fingers in my ears, and close my eyes shut for a few seconds, establishing a ritual that would continue on successive Sundays. But even then, I knew the sequence was special.
With grateful thanks to Peter Truckel – https://www.youtube.com/@thehumancartoon. Huge thanks also to Steve Wilsher and Andrew Fowler.
References and acknowledgments.
Merritt, D (1987) Television Graphics – from pencil to pixel. Trefoil publications: London.
P. Bonner, L. Aston (2002) Independent Television in Britain: Volume 6 New Developments in Independent Television 1981-92: Channel 4, TV-am, Cable and Satellite. Springer.
Collection of Peter Truckel.