Cinematography: What changed on Doctor Who between Davies and Moffat?
August 22, 2014 3:03 PM   Subscribe

This week I watched a Doctor Who episode from the Russell T. Davies era with David Tennant as Doctor 10. I cut my teeth on the Matt Smith episodes, so I always find the older episodes so different in terms of production quality. But what am I seeing, exactly? What were the technical changes in production between the two series?

Specifically, I've noticed that in the older series the lighting looks harsher (way harsher, actually). Also, the sets look cheaper, the green screening looks lower quality, and the overall effects are cheaper. But why? What changed? Was it purely budget to buy nicer, more expensive things? Or was it a change to a different approach to filming and editing? Newer technology? All of the above?

I'm interested in how something can visually change so dramatically from one series to another. Did someone sit there and say "the lighting is too harsh!" and then buy new lights? Why didn't they do that at the start?

Note that I'm not asking about the plots, acting, or anything else. That discussion has been rehashed many times elsewhere. I'm specifically interested in the technical aspects of the production.
posted by fremen to Media & Arts (5 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
One thing I've noticed is that the color palate of the Eleven years has been different from the 9/10 era. Much brighter, creamier, and light-soaked. I also felt like basically every Eccleston/Tennant episode took place outdoors at night, and in gritty urban landscapes, whereas the Smith episodes I've seen are more likely to take place during the day in bucolic rural areas. RTD is London, Moffat is the Scottish countryside. (This obviously won't be true for every single episode, of course.)

A lot of shows retool the overall aesthetic -- especially approaches to color, lighting, and visual mood -- between seasons. It's very common throughout TV.

Re sets looking cheaper, there was probably a budget increase after the show became a huge international hit. Re visual effects getting better, that could be budget oriented as well, or it could just be better tech.
posted by Sara C. at 3:26 PM on August 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

Moffat shot it like a movie, Davies shot it like TV. (Well, at least early Moffat, you see laziness creeping in at the end of the Matt Smith era) Moffat used specific lighting and framing for each shot or scene. Davies lit things for evenness and clarity. Moffat carefully storyboarded, while Davies probably planned the shoot by getting "coverage". For most of the Davies era, episodes were shot at a video-like 30fps, while all of Moffat's episodes were shot at a film-like 24fps. As far as effects go, you also have to realize the amount of computing power that became practical to use on television shows over the course of New Who. The first Eccleston episode with the CGI blob monster is almost hilariously bad to watch today, but better stuff wasn't really something you could do on a television budget and schedule in 2005.
posted by the jam at 4:03 PM on August 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

Doctor Who went HD in between the 10th and 11th doctors, so my guess is there was a general uptick in production values in part because HD is less forgiving of cheap sets, etc., than SD. The quality of the HD image in general is also going to outstrip PAL, so that might be part of what you're responding to when you describe "harsh lighting" and such in the earlier seasons. And as Sara and The Jam mentioned, some of it is just going to have to do with the sensibility of the show-runner.

(Incidentally, I think the pre-Moffat Who would have shot at the PAL frame rate of 25 fps, not NTSC's 30 fps, unless there's something I'm not understanding about that era of British TV production.)
posted by Mothlight at 4:08 PM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

The show didn't start filming in HD until late in Davies' run (Planet of the Dead). They also apparently blew a big portion of the first series' special effects budget on 'The End of the World'.

The budget of the show wasn't increased much until this upcoming series. Moffat recently said that they were still using money budgeted for mini-episodes and web extras for production of S7 shows and then doing the minisodes on the cheap.
posted by plastic_animals at 4:18 PM on August 22, 2014

The changeover from Davies to Moffat was really the start of a new show - pretty much the entire production team regenerated (apart from Murray Gold's music) including the departure of Ernie Vincze the director of photography who established the look of the first 4 seasons. Vincze is a pretty good TV DP but he's very old school unflashy British TV.

The switch to HD digital cameras brought a much younger crew to Who more used to a modern film like look with shorter depths of field and more aggressive colour grading. Added to the fact that sets had to rebuilt to exacting HD standards it created a much more cinematic Who.
posted by brilliantmistake at 2:47 AM on August 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

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