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It was back in 2014 that freelance graphic designer Billy Hanshaw made the headlines, when a video he had uploaded to Youtube landed him the job of the designing the title sequence for Peter Capaldi’s tenure in Doctor Who.

With Doctor Who entering an exciting new era under Russell T Davies, and Billy launching a new motion design venture in MotionWorks, we decided there was no better time to look back at how a speculative animation became the official opening titles for one of the BBC’s flagship shows. Billy, along with MotionWorks producer Jonny Butler, sat down to reminisce.

Q: To begin, let's recap how you first came to the attention of Doctor Who's show runner and executive producer Steven Moffat

B: Basically, I posted a video online of a new idea I had for the Doctor Who titles. It was only ever meant as a portfolio piece to test some novel concepts and help promote my work.

J: It was my suggestion that we had a crack at Doctor Who during a discussion about possible subjects for the piece. When the story broke, the general misconception was that this was a fan video, but the truth is that it’s me who’s the Doctor Who fan. Billy agreed it would be a great challenge to bring something different and unique to such a well established show.
B: It became obvious pretty quickly that the reaction to the Youtube video was very positive, but even at that point we didn’t think about it ever being seen by Moffat. We found out later that lots of fans had been contacting the BBC with the link to the video, but the first we knew about it reaching the production team was when executive producer Brian Minchin sent me a message on Linkedin.

Q: That must have come as quite a surprise. What did he have to say?

B: He came straight to the point. He said that Steven Moffat had seen the video, loved the concept, and felt it would fit perfectly with his vision for Capaldi’s upcoming series. He asked us if we would be interested in designing the official title sequence based on my original concept.
J: Doctor Who is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, show on British television. It was a fantastic opportunity, and of course it was a fanboy dream for me!

Q: Can you tell us a bit about the working relationship you had with BBC Wales?

B: Initially we were commissioned to take the design forward, incorporating changes the executive producers wanted to make. The final sequence would then be built in-house by BBC Wales Graphics. I was given a contract with the BBC to last the duration of the project, and we worked closely with Nerys Davies (post-production supervisor) and Sue Land (BBC Wales VFX Supervisor).
J: It was amazing to find myself in my first Doctor Who production meeting. Unfortunately everyone there was full of cold at the time, so my over-riding memory is one of snot and tissues.
B: I remember Sue walking in and asking Nerys if she had any drugs in her bag. I was quite relieved when she pulled out the paracetamols!
J: I also recall a discussion about whether the Doctor’s face would feature in the titles. We actually designed a sequence with the face, and one without. I was always in the pro-face camp, so was happy with the ‘attack eyebrows’ compromise.

Q: Were you disappointed that you didn't get to build the titles yourselves?

B: Of course. It would have been fantastic to have had total creative control throughout the whole project. We knew we could deliver, but we were only ever offered a collaboration.
J: It seemed that internal BBC politics were at play, but we didn’t get involved in any of that. Nerys did a great job of keeping things on track, and even arranged time for us to go on set and watch some filming. Spending time chatting with Peter Capaldi was brilliant.

B: We always had the intention to revisit the project down the line and develop the original ideas as a studio piece. We never seemed to find the time until the pandemic hit. Lockdown was hard, but at least we got the opportunity to revisit a few projects with total creative control.

Q: What do you remember of the PR and media reaction surrounding the announcement of your involvement?

B: That didn’t go as expected. The initial plans were for an official press release, approved by the BBC, after the World Tour event promoting the first episode. Unfortunately the cat got out of the bag long before that.
J: It was the summer that Doctor Who had been plagued with leaks. Scripts were posted online months before broadcast, with Billy’s name in the credits. That had started speculation in fan circles. In the weeks leading up to the premiere, videos of unfinished episodes from the upcoming series were leaking online too.
B: I remember it well. When I was down in Cardiff approving the BBC’s final sequence, security was extremely tight. BBC Wales was in full lockdown to try to stop anything else getting out. It was all a bit crazy.
J: We still had a press release ready to go, but then Steven Moffat name checked Billy at the New York premiere during a Q&A session. The media went full throttle with it after that.

B: Requests for interviews were coming in from all over the place. I was on BBC radio and the TV news. My original video even got a full airing on Look North, the regional news programme for the Leeds area. The views on Youtube went through the roof, quickly hitting the million mark. Jonny even penned an article about it all for Doctor Who Magazine.

J: To be honest, we were a little unprepared for the level of interest the story got. The ‘fan video made official’ story that became the accepted narrative really got people interested.
B: I actually felt a little uncomfortable being known as ‘the fan’ rather than the ‘motion designer’, but ultimately you get swept up in the media circus, and they seemed to love the rags to riches angle.

Q: How did the fanbase react to the news?

J: Very positively, on the whole. Steven Moffat had warned us not to go on social media, and to avoid feeding the trolls at all costs. Neither of us could resist having a browse through the comments though.
B: One of the oddest things I saw people complaining about was our use of cogs and clocks to represent time. They were arguing it was too ‘human’ a concept for a show about an alien. They were missing the point that the titles are there to let the audience know what kind of show they are sitting down to watch, as as far as I’m aware humans make up the entirety of that audience. I think that’s part of the reason Steven went with my concept, aside from the steampunk aesthetic. It really was ‘a journey through time and space’, which sums the show up perfectly. The clockwork also gave this era of the show brand assets to work with. A lot of publicity and merchandise that came out during Capaldi’s run featured cogs as part of their design, giving cohesion to the brand.

Q: So why haven't we seen any more title sequences from you guys?

B: Working on Doctor Who definitely opened doors for us, but not necessarily the doors we were anticipating. Around the time we started work on the titles, another unexpected opportunity came our way that was too good to pass up. Providing reconstruction animations for global law firms is something else I never imagined we would be doing, but that side of the business has really taken off under the name Incident Films. Initially, the demanding nature of the work was time-consuming due to our unfamiliarity with the legal sector. Now, with years of experience behind us, and a bigger team, we’ll certainly be pursuing title sequence projects again.

J: We love working on the legal projects, but we’ve never lost our collective passion for film and TV titles. That’s what MotionWorks is all about. We’ve combined the legal side of the business with Billy Hanshaw Studio, and as MotionWorks we’ll forge ahead with our hunger to work with TV and film production companies, while continuing our successful legal and advertising work. We’re confident we can offer a fresh, unique alternative to the current players in title sequence design.