Supermarionation (a portmanteau of "super", "marionette" and "animation") is a style of puppetry created in the 1960s by British television production company AP Films (APF). It was used extensively in the action-adventure puppet series of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, most of which used electronic marionettes. The term was coined by Gerry, who regarded Supermarionation as APF's "trademark". According to Sylvia, Supermarionation was created to "distinguish the pure puppetry of the stage from our more sophisticated filmed-television version".
Emma Thom of the National Science and Media Museum defines Supermarionation as a single "technique": APF's use of electronics to synchronise puppets' lip movements with pre-recorded dialogue. According to Chris Bentley, the term encompasses all the "sophisticated puppetry techniques" used by APF (mainly lip-synching), "combined with the full range of film production facilities normally employed in live-action filming" (such as visual effects and front and back projection). David Garland believes that the term expresses Gerry Anderson's preference for artistic realism and his desire to make APF's puppet techniques "more and more lifelike".
Development and use in Anderson productionsEdit
APF's first production, The Adventures of Twizzle, used puppets made of papier-mâché with painted eyes and mouths. Each puppet was controlled using a single carpet thread. Gerry Anderson and Arthur Provis, APF's founders, wanted to make Twizzle in the style of a feature film with dynamic shooting and lighting. To this end, three-dimensional sets were used instead of traditional flat backgrounds and the puppeteers operated the marionettes not from the studio floor, but from a bridge about six feet (1.8 m) above it. Speech was indicated by repeatedly nodding the puppets' heads. The puppeteers' movements were guided by a rudimentary form of video assist: a TV camera mounted directly behind the film camera, which relayed footage to various monitors around the studio.
The puppets of the follow-up series, Torchy the Battery Boy, were made of plastic wood. Their hollow heads incorporated turning wooden eyeballs and a hinged jaw that was opened and closed with a string. In practice, lip movement was difficult to control due to the bobbing of the puppets' heads. Sets became more detailed, being made mostly of cardboard with fibreglass props.
By the time Four Feather Falls entered production, the head strings had been replaced with thin tungsten steel wires and the hinged jaw with an internal solenoid-driven electronic lip-sync mechanism. Dialogue was pre-recorded onto two tapes – one to be played during filming to guide the puppeteers, the other to be converted into electrical impulses that were conducted down the wires into the puppets' heads to operate their mouths. Lip-syncing was a key step in the development of Supermarionation and made it easier for the puppeteers to operate the marionettes in time with dialogue, since they no longer needed to learn the characters' lines. Anderson also reflected that since it was no longer necessary to nod their heads, the puppets "were at last able to speak without their heads lolling about a like a broken toy."
The system used marionettes suspended and controlled using thin tungsten steel wires that were chemically blackened to make them less visible to the camera. Though only 0.005 inches (0.13 mm) thick, the wires often needed to be concealed further by being sprayed with "antiflare" (grease mist) or painted various colours to blend in with sets and backgrounds. Puppets and sets were built to 1⁄3 scale, the puppets being roughly 22 inches (1.8 ft; 56 cm) tall. Finding the right weight was crucial: if a puppet was too light it would be too difficult to control; too heavy and it would not be supported by the wires. The puppets' eyes were moved by radio control. Close-ups of live actors on full-size sets were used to show complex actions that the puppets could not perform, such as operating machinery.
The puppets' distinguishing features were their fibreglass heads and the internal solenoids that formed the basis of their lip-sync mechanisms. Dialogue was pre-recorded rather than spoken live. Each episode's dialogue was recorded on two tapes: a master tape to be used for the soundtrack, and a copy to be played during puppet filming. When played in the studio, the dialogue was converted into electrical impulses. Two of the head wires were electrified and conducted the impulses into the head; there, the impulses powered the solenoid that caused the lower lip to open and close with each syllable. To accommodate the solenoids, heads were made as hollow shells. The heads of main characters were sculpted in clay or Plasticine, then encased in rubber or silicone rubber to create a mould; fibreglass resin was then painted into the mould to produce the finished shell. Guest characters were played by puppets known as "revamps", whose heads were Plasticine sculpted on a blank fibreglass base. The heads were re-modelled after each use to create a wide variety of characters.
The lip-sync mechanism dictated the puppets' body proportions. On all APF series from Four Feather Falls to Thunderbirds, the solenoids were located inside the puppets' heads. As a result, the head of a puppet was disproportionately large compared to the rest of its body; the latter could not be scaled up to match as the puppet would have been too bulky to operate effectively. Garland comments that the disproportion was influenced partly by "aesthetic considerations ... the theory being that the head carried the puppet's personality". This resulted in many puppets being given caricatured appearances. Towards the end of the 1960s, the development of miniaturised components led APF to design a new type of puppet. The option to downsize the electronic components in the head was rejected in favour of moving the entire lip-sync mechanism to the chest, where it was connected to the mouth by narrow rods through the neck. This allowed the head to be shrunk and the puppets of Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons and later series to be sculpted to realistic body proportions. Around this time, APF also tried to make the puppets' faces more lifelike by crafting them in a new, flexible material, but the results proved unsatisfactory and the idea was abandoned.
In a 2002 interview, Gerry Anderson said that during the production of Captain Scarlet he was hoping to move into live-action television and that he endorsed the new puppets as a compromise for his inability to use live actors. Thom believes that the re-design reflected Anderson's desire for greater "realism and spectacle" in his TV series. Not all of Anderson's colleagues welcomed the change; puppet sculptor and operator John Blundall negatively likened the new puppets to "little humans", claiming that they had less personality than the caricatured versions and that the emphasis on realism hampered the puppeteers' creativity. According to director Desmond Saunders, APF was trying "anything to get [the puppets] to look like ordinary human beings. But they are not ordinary human beings! ... I often wonder it if would have been better to make them more like puppets, not less like puppets." A disadvantage of the new puppets was that the smaller heads upset the weight distribution, making the puppets harder to operate.
In all the Anderson puppet series, a major limitation of the marionettes was their inability to walk convincingly. This was due to their low weight and the fact that the legs of each puppet were controlled by only two strings, which made complex articulation impossible. According to Sylvia Anderson, the re-design exacerbated the puppets' immobility: "The more realistic our puppets became, the more problems we had with them ... It was just possible to get away with the awkward moments in Thunderbirds because the proportions of the characters were still caricature. It was later when we had developed a more realistic approach ... that the still imperfect walk was [all] the more obvious." To limit the need for leg movement, many scenes were filmed from the waist up, with a puppeteer holding the legs out of shot and bobbing the marionette up and down to imply motion. Other scenes showed puppets standing, sitting or driving vehicles. Supercar and Stingray's focus on their eponymous car and submarine, as well as Stingray's depiction of Commander Shore as a paraplegic confined to a futuristic "hoverchair", are examples of devices used to overcome the puppets' lack of mobility. The cast of Fireball XL5 avoid walking by riding personal hovercraft called "jetmobiles"; similar vehicles are seen in Stingray and Thunderbirds.
In a 1977 interview, Anderson said that the steps taken to make the puppets more lifelike were part of a general effort on APF's part to "make the [puppet] medium respectable". On the preparations for Supercar, the first of APF's science-fiction series, he remembered "[thinking] that if we set the story in the future, there would be moving walkways and the puppets would be riding around in the car for much of the time, so it would be much easier to make them convincing." According to interviewer Kevin O'Neill, this "moving into the future" for greater realism meant that it was "almost accidental" that APF's later series were all science fiction. David Garland calls character movement Anderson's "bête noire" and states that the puppets' limited mobility resulted in "vehicle-heavy science fiction [becoming] Anderson's preferred genre". He considers the use of marionettes – the kind of puppet "perhaps most unsuited" to an action format – to be "one of the most striking paradoxes" of the Anderson productions. Carolyn Percy of Wales Arts Review comments that the inclusion of "futuristic vehicles" like Supercar allowed APF to devise "more exciting and imaginative scenarios" and "work around the limitations of the puppets ... to give their 'acting' the integrity to match the material."
The final Supermarionation series, The Secret Service, used extensive footage of live actors to a point where, in the words of Stephen La Rivière, it ended up "half-way between live action and Supermarionation". Its main character, Stanley Unwin, was modelled on the comedian of the same name, who voiced the puppet character and served as its human body double in long shots and other sequences where the puppet could not be used. Gerry Anderson explained that this was another way of circumventing the puppets' lack of mobility, commenting: "I came up with the idea of getting Stanley Unwin to do all the walking shots, and driving shots in this Model Ford T [sic] [the character] had. If, for example, you had a sequence where Stanley Unwin would arrive at a building in his model T, he would ... get out, walk down the path, and as soon as he opened the door, you'd cut to the reverse angle and that would be the puppet of Stanley Unwin ... I used Stanley Unwin, married to his own puppet, to enable him to do all the things that the puppet couldn't do."
Many of the special effects shots were filmed at a rate of 120 frames per second with lighting five times as strong as that normally used on a live-action production. As sets were built to scale, it was often difficult to create a realistic sense of depth.
List of Supermarionation productionsEdit
|Four Feather Falls||1960||TV series||APF's first production to use electronic marionettes equipped with lip-sync mechanisms. First fibreglass heads and moving eyes.|
|Supercar||1961||TV series||First production to feature rocket effects, back projection effects and underwater scenes filmed "dry" through water tanks. The 13-episode second series was the first to be "filmed in Supermarionation" and the first for which puppets were duplicated to allow episodes to be filmed in pairs by separate crews. It also marked the APF's first use of a dedicated special effects unit, led by Derek Meddings.|
|Fireball XL5||1962||TV series||First production to feature puppet heads with blinkable eyes|
|Stingray||1964||TV series||First production for which puppets' facial expressions were varied: main characters could now be fitted with "smiler" and "frowner" heads. For greater realism, poseable hands and glass eyes (bearing miniaturised prints of real human eyes) were also introduced.|
|Thunderbirds Are Go||1966||Feature film||First production in which all puppets were fibreglass (previously, guest characters had been sculpted in Plasticine). "Under control" (string-less) puppets were introduced for scenes of characters sitting – for example, fighter pilots in aircraft cockpits.|
|Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons||1967||TV series||The lip-sync mechanism was moved to the chest, allowing the puppets to be redesigned in realistic body proportions. Eyes were once again plastic. Guest characters were now played by a "repertory company" of fibreglass puppets whose appearances could be superficially altered for each new role.|
|Thunderbird 6||1968||Feature film||First production to feature extensive location shooting.|
|Joe 90||1968||TV series|
|The Secret Service||1969||TV series||Included extensive footage of live actors|
|The Investigator||1973||TV pilot||Featured both Supermarionation puppet characters and live actors|
In 1983, Gerry Anderson returned to puppetry with the science-fiction TV series Terrahawks. The characters of this series were realised as latex hand puppets, operated from the studio floor in a process known as "Supermacromation". This was similar to the techniques employed by American puppeteer Jim Henson.
In 2004, Anderson created a Captain Scarlet remake titled New Captain Scarlet, which was produced using computer-generated imagery (CGI) and motion-capture techniques. Motion capture was used heavily for action sequences as it provided more convincing character movement. As a nod to Supermarionation, the series was credited as being "created in Hypermarionation". According to Anderson, Hypermarionation was not simply animation, but a "photo-real method" of production combining CGI, high definition and surround sound. Garland suggests that through Hypermarionation, Anderson sought to achieve a "hyperreal simulation of his live-action film utopia".
In 2014, a Kickstarter campaign was launched to fund a remake of the anime series Firestorm, to be produced using a technique called "Ultramarionation". A predecessor of the technique had been used in 2003 for Thunderbirds: IR, a scrapped remake of Thunderbirds. As opposed to marionettes, Ultramarionation is similar to rod puppetry, and can be controlled by multiple puppeteers to allow more realistic movement.
Percy notes that Gerry Anderson would have preferred to make live-action productions rather than puppet series and argues that his style of filming was developed to "make the puppet film as 'respectable' as possible". She also comments that the Andersons' filming techniques "would not only result in a level of quality and sophistication not seen before in a family show, but also give birth to some of the most iconic series in the history of British children's television."
Garland describes the underlying theme of Gerry Anderson's work as a "self-reflexive obsession with an aesthetic of realism (or more accurately a surface realism often associated with naturalism) borne of an unfulfilled desire to make live-action films for adults", and further observes that "being typecast as a producer of children's puppet television led [Anderson] on a lifelong quest to perfect a simulation of reality". Garland notes that Anderson's involvement with puppets began at a time when Western puppet theatre "had become increasingly marginalised to a niche, to an association with children's entertainment", and that to ensure appeal to adults as well as children – a target audience described by both Gerry and Sylvia Anderson as "kidult" – APF's puppet TV series employed an "aesthetic of incremental realism". He suggests that the drive towards increased realism in APF's TV series echoed "19th-century marionette theatre's own attempts to distinguish itself from other forms of puppetry (especially glove puppets), which also involved a tethering to the newly-emergent realist aesthetic across the arts".
Use in non-Anderson productionsEdit
- The Associated British Corporation puppet series Space Patrol (1962) features marionnettes technically similar to those of the Anderson productions. It was created by Roberta Leigh, who had previously created The Adventures of Twizzle and Torchy The Battery Boy and written the stories on which those series were based.
- Japanese puppeteer Kinosuke Takeda produced three Supermarionation-styled TV series between 1960 and 1970. These include Spaceship Silica, Galaxy Boy Troop and Aerial City 008.
- The 1980 Japanese TV series X-Bomber (also known as Star Fleet) was filmed using refined Supermarionation techniques in a style that the crew dubbed "Supermariorama".
- In the early 1980s, refined Supermarionation techniques were also used to create the South African children's science fiction series Interster.
- The American comedy series Super Adventure Team (1998) was produced in the style of Thunderbirds, with live-action marionettes, but had more adult themes and suggestive situations.
- Team America: World Police, a 2004 film by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, was inspired by and uses the same style of puppetry as Thunderbirds. However, Stone and Parker dubbed their technique "Supercrappymation" as the Puppets' strings were intentionally left visible.
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- "The Making of the Supermarionation TV Puppet Series", a lecture given by Gerry Anderson at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, UK on 14 April 1984