Flash Gordon Behind the Scenes

Bill Pearson reveals what it was like to work behind the scenes of Dino De Laurentiis's 'Flash Gordon.'

Working on Dino De Laurentiis's multi-million dollar epic, Flash Gordon, was quite an adventure for the British FX team Of Martin J. Bower and Bill Pearson, two of the most talented and prolific model makers in science fiction film. Together, they have tackled the making of Alien and The Medusa Touch, and their separate credits include Space: 1999, Doctor Who, and Blake's 7. In December of 1980, theater screens exploded with the film that became their most demanding project to date—Flash Gordon—a comic strip that lives on the screen and one of the best sci-fi cult classics of all time.

Bill Pearson Discusses Flash Gordon

"Martin and I went straight on to Flash Gordon from Alien, as both films were made at Shepperton Studio. This was the first time, however, that we built the models in the same studio that the live-action unit was working at. Alien was done at Bray Studios. During tea breaks on Flash we would rush down to the stages to watch the Emperor Ming and his bevy of beauties (which we watched most of all) being filmed.

Our first job was to build and detail a 2' 6" miniature airplane for the crash sequence at the beginning of the film. The job included the manufacturing of countless "breakable" propeller blades. Miniature Effects Supervisor Richard Conway and his assistant John Bunker then rigged the plane for radio control. Their control box operated the props, external lighting, and the mechanisms that would release the wings on impact. The plane was flown by the Lydecker method, the same technique used to fly the Jupiter 2 in Lost in Space and the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea Flying Sub."

3" long Aura shuttle used for the cloud effect sequences

Designing Dr. Zarkov’s Greenhouse

"As everyone familiar with the Flash Gordon story knows, Flash and Dale meet Dr. Zarkov when their plane crashes near his laboratory. Martin and I had to construct Zarkov's greenhouse and the grounds around it. Richard Conway wanted us to build the miniature trees from scratch, so we went all around the studio grounds in search of the proper foliage. We found these amazing bushes outside this producer’s office. Armed with a pair of sheet-metal cutters, we just snipped away at these bushes for about half-an-hour... The producer certainly had a less obstructed view of the studio when we finished!"

"Martin and I had a lot of fun designing and building a variety of discarded Zarkov inventions to litter the landscape around his house. We thought the terrain was rather sparse and decided to dress it up a little. A favorite was Zarkov's jet cycle. The most frustrating experience on this miniature was cutting and fitting special break-away glass into innumerable balsa wood replicas of the greenhouse launch tower where Zarkov's rocket is kept. After that, we found the manufacturing of Princess Aura’s shuttle craft a welcome relief. A full-scale mock-up was built by the live action unit and we had to construct scaled down versions—the smallest being only about 2 ½" long!"

Ming's Lander made from wood and vacu-formed in plexiglass

Building the Spaceships

"The only thing that really disappointed us concerning the spaceships in general was the fact that no "dirtying down" was allowed—orders from high up—so the models went out pristine clean. We then built a series of satellites and space probes that Zarkov's ship passes on its journey through the universe. This sequence was later dropped. They also scrapped the scene where Zarkov's ship crash-lands in a spaceship graveyard. For this scene, Martin and I designed and built 10 wrecked spaceships!"

"Much of our time on the film was spent plotting and drilling thousands of rivet holes into the 7' models of Ming's and Klytus's cruisers. We also built each of the seven-footers with detailed interiors. Klytus' ship had an entire docking bay in miniature. Another job we had on the film was adding additional surface detail to the "Mongo City" buildings. We accomplished this by applying colored and patterned graphic tapes and specially manufactured etched-brass motifs and symbols. The brass pieces were attached with superglue, so hardly a day passed without at least one model maker attempting to become an inseparable part of the workshop. Martin’s wife Inma did a lot of the detailing on the city. She also worked on a version of Arboria that didn’t make it into the final film."

"We were asked to build some 2-3' ships that would be seen flying around Mongo City. Martin built one which was a tribute to Gerry Anderson’s Fireball XL5, but they never even filmed them. I built one as well. They decided instead that they wanted a couple of tiny miniatures built for the landing pad, but you can’t see them. It’s a bit of a shame that about 60 percent of the work we did on Flash Gordon didn’t make it into the final film. Things just happened that way."

Zarkov's ship in a never filmed graveyard set

Finishing Touches

"During the production, Martin was asked to build a prototype spider-like creature, the Empyrogen, the creature inside the tree stump in Arboria. It was only 1' high and designed by a guy in the art department named Simon Merton. It was only supposed to be a prototype for a 4' high creature, but they eventually decided against the larger one and went with Martin's miniature. They made a mold off of it and created a mechanical job out of latex. Our last job on the film was to build a miniature replica of Flash's jet sled, for which Peter Voysey sculpted a 12" figure of Sam Jones in his Flash Gordon/Mongo costume. (Voysey was the man who sculpted the derelict spaceship for Alien.) By then it was Christmas, 1979, and Martin and I were looking forward to a long break as we had finished Flash Gordon. Then Peter Hyams contacted us and asked if we would be interested in working on a film entitled Outland... But that’s another story."

Build Your Own Miniature

Whether the works of Martin J. Bower and Bill Pearson intrigue you, you are simply a die-hard fan of Flash Gordon, or both, your collection is sure to be improved by a Flash Gordon miniature of your own. Explore model building and the Flash Gordon universe alike with the Flash Gordon Figure 1:8 Scale Model Kit.

Flash Gordon Figure 1:8 Scale Model Kit

These models of Flash Gordon and The Martian were last issued over 65 years ago, but are still just as enjoyable to build. Made with original tooling and molded in white, the detailed assembly instructions will help you soar through your project. The limited edition kit features retro box art, and Flash comes with a clear plastic "bubble" helmet and Disintegrator Ray Gun. 

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