Supermarionation puppets on display at the National Media Museum in Bradford, UK

Supermarionation (a portmanteau of "super", "marionette" and "animation")[1] is a style of television and film production created in the 1960s by British production company AP Films (APF; later re-named Century 21 Productions). The electronic marionette puppetry was dubbed "supermarionation" by its creators Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, who used it extensively for TV series and a few feature films. Most of the marionettes displayed on screen had lip movements that were electronically synchronised with pre-recorded dialogue.

According to Sylvia Anderson, Supermarionation was created to "distinguish the pure puppetry of the stage from our more sophisticated filmed-television version".[2] The term "Supermarionation" was coined by Gerry, who regarded it as APF's "trademark".[3][4] Commentator David Garland believes that the term conveys Gerry Anderson's preference for artistic realism and his desire to make APF's puppet techniques "more and more lifelike".[2]

DefinitionEdit

When we got to making this better class of puppet film, I was looking for a more fitting way to explain how our productions differed from those of our predecessors. I wanted to invent a word that promoted the quality of our work, so we combined the words "super", "marionette" and "animation". It didn't mean anything other than that, and it certainly didn't refer to any specific process. It was our trademark, if you like.

— Gerry Anderson on the origin of the term "Supermarionation" (2002)[4]

Supermarionation is widely described as a production "technique" or "process".[5][6][7] Emma Thom of the National Science and Media Museum defines Supermarionation as APF's use of electronics to synchronise puppets' lip movements with pre-recorded dialogue.[5] Gerry Anderson denied that the term referred to a process, stating that he coined it for promotional reasons and likening it to a "trademark".[4] Lou Ceffer of the website Spy Hollywood calls it a "marketing term".[7]

A 1960s supplement of the British trade newspaper Television Mail described Supermarionation as a "technical process" whose main features, besides electronic puppet control, were the use of 35 mm colour photography, ​15-scale filming stages, back projection, live-action inserts and live action-style special effects, and video assist to guide the crew.[8] According to Chris Bentley, the term encompasses "all of the sophisticated puppetry techniques" used by APF – the foremost being the automatic mouth movement – "combined with the full range of film production facilities normally employed in live-action filming" (such as front and back projection, location shooting and visual effects).[9] The sophistication of the puppets and sets have also been listed as aspects.[10][11]

Development and use in Anderson productionsEdit

OriginsEdit

We were determined to break away from [children's puppet programmes], so we treated those programmes as if they were something really special and hoped people would see the effort we were putting in and offer use live-action films ... When we did those early things we asked ourselves what we could do to improve them. Christine Glanville, who was so important to us as we went on with the puppets, came up with improvements all the time.

— Sylvia Anderson on the production of APF's early puppet series (2001)[12]

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, the founders of APF, 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 puppeteers Christine Glanville and her colleagues operated the marionettes not from the studio floor, but from a bridge about six feet (1.8 m) above it.[13] Speech was indicated by continually 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.[14]

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 using a string.[15][16][17] In practice, jaw movement was difficult to control due to the bobbing of the puppets' heads.[18] Sets became more detailed, being made mostly of cardboard with fibreglass props.[12][18][19]

By the time APF's third series, 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. 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 their dialogue, since it was no longer necessary to learn the characters' lines.[18][19] Anderson also reflected that since exaggerated head movements were no longer required, the puppets "were at last able to speak without their heads lolling about a like a broken toy."[19]

The term "Supermarionation" was coined during the production of APF's fourth series, Supercar, whose final 13 episodes were the first to be credited as being "filmed in Supermarionation".[1]

OverviewEdit

Supermarionation used marionettes that were suspended and controlled using 0.005-inch-thick (0.13 mm) tungsten steel wires,[18][20] replacing the carpet thread and twine strings that had been used prior to Four Feather Falls.[21] To make the wires non-reflective, APF initially painted them black; this had the effect of thickening them and making them more visible to the camera, so the manufacturer, Ormiston Wire, devised a method of blackening them chemically to maintain their thinness.[20][21][22] During filming, the wires often needed to be concealed further by being sprayed with "antiflare" (grease mist) or painted various colours to blend in with the sets and backgrounds.[23][24]

Puppets and sets were built to ​13 scale, the former being roughly 22 inches (1.8 ft; 56 cm) tall.[25] Balancing the weight was crucial: if a puppet was too light it would be too difficult to control; too heavy and the wires would not support it.[26] The puppets' eyes were moved by radio control.[27] Close-ups of live actors were used to show complex actions that the puppets could not perform, such as operating machinery.[28] 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.[28] As sets were built to scale, it was often difficult to maintain a realistic sense of depth.[8][29]

The puppets' distinguishing features were their fibreglass heads and the internal solenoids that powered the automatic mouth movement.[3] Each episode's dialogue was pre-recorded on two tapes.[18][23][30] One would form the basis of the episode's soundtrack and be played during filming to guide the puppeteers;[23][30] the sounds on the other would be converted into electrical signals.[18][23][30] Two of each puppet's tungsten wires were electrified and conducted the signals into the puppet's head; there, the signals worked a solenoid that caused the puppet's lower lip to open and close with each syllable.[18][30][31]

To accommodate the solenoids, the puppets' heads were made as hollow shells. 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.[32] Revamp heads were re-modelled after each use to create a wide range of one-off characters.[33]

The lip-sync mechanism dictated the puppets' body proportions.[34] On all APF series from Four Feather Falls to Thunderbirds, the solenoids were located inside the puppets' heads. As a result, the heads were disproportionately large compared to the bodies; the latter could not be scaled up to match as the puppets would have become too bulky to operate effectively.[34][35] Commentator David Garland states that the disproportion was influenced partly by "aesthetic considerations ... the theory being that the head carried the puppet's personality".[36] It resulted in many puppets developing caricatured appearances, though Gerry Anderson stated that this was not intentional.[36][37]

Puppet re-designEdit

Towards the end of the 1960s, the development of miniaturised components led APF – now renamed Century 21 Productions – 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 passing through the neck.[35][38][39][40][41] This allowed the head to be shrunk and the puppets of Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons and later Supermarionation series to be sculpted to realistic body proportions.[39][40][41] Around this time, Century 21 also tried to make the puppets' faces more lifelike by crafting them in a new, flexible material, but the results were unsatisfactory and the idea was abandoned.[38]

In a 2002 interview, 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.[42] In 2006, he elaborated that Century 21 had been "typecast" for its puppetry: "so, knowing it was the only thing I could get finance for, I desperately wanted to make the thing look as close of live action as possible. And I think it was that that drove me on to bring in all the improvements and techniques."[37] Thom believes that the re-design reflected Anderson's desire for greater "realism and spectacle".[5] Not all of Anderson's colleagues welcomed the change; puppet sculptor and operator John Blundall negatively referred to the new puppets as "little humans", stating that they had less personality than the pre-Captain Scarlet versions and that the increased emphasis on realism inhibited the puppeteers' creativity.[36] 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! ... There seemed to be a problem about enjoying puppetry ... I often wonder it if would have been better to make them more like puppets, not less like puppets."[38] One disadvantage of the new design was that the smaller heads upset the weight distribution, making the puppets harder to operate.[36]

Puppet movementEdit

In all the Anderson puppet series, a major limitation of the marionettes was their inability to walk convincingly.[5][17][43] 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.[44] According to Sylvia Anderson, the late-1960s re-design exacerbated the puppets' core deficiencies: "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."[45]

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.[46] Other scenes showed puppets standing, sitting or driving vehicles.[44] Tex Tucker, the hero of Four Feather Falls, avoids walking by riding a horse called Rocky, while the characters of Fireball XL5, Stingray and Thunderbirds achieve the same by use of personal hovercraft.[47][48][49] 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 other examples of devices used to overcome the puppets' lack of mobility.[5][24][50]

Because we had characters who couldn't stand properly without their knees sagging, and characters who had no expression, it was very difficult to play a love scene and impossible to have a fight. And so it seemed the way to go was anything that was fast-moving and had a lot of excitement, so it seemed that science fiction was the best option.

— Gerry Anderson on the necessity of science fiction (2006)[51]

In a 1977 interview, Anderson said that the steps taken to make the puppets more lifelike were an attempt to "make the [puppet] medium respectable". On the preparations for Supercar, APF's first science-fiction production, 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 "almost accidentally" ensured that all of APF's later series were science fiction.[43] In 2006, Anderson stated that the transition to this genre "wasn't a conscious move at all", but rather a natural progression given the deficiencies of the puppets. Sylvia said that the reasons were budgetary, due to the fact that APF could not yet afford to work with live actors: "... we were picking subjects that we could easily do in miniature scale."[51]

David Garland calls character movement Gerry Anderson's "bête noire" and states that the puppets' limited mobility resulted in "vehicle-heavy science fiction [becoming] Anderson's preferred genre".[24] 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.[52] 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."[3]

The final Supermarionation series, The Secret Service, used footage of live actors to such an extent that according to Stephen La Rivière, the result was "half-way between live action and Supermarionation". Its main character, Stanley Unwin, was modelled on the comedian of the same name, who both voiced the puppet character and served as its human body double in long shots and other sequences where the puppet could not be used. 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."[53]

List of Supermarionation productionsEdit

Title Year Type Notes
Four Feather Falls[28][54] 1960 TV series APF's first production to use electronic marionettes equipped with lip-sync mechanisms. First fibreglass heads and moving eyes.[23]
Supercar 1961 TV series First production to feature rocket effects, back projection effects and underwater scenes filmed "dry" through water tanks.[55][56] 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.[57] It also marked the APF's first use of a dedicated special effects unit, led by Derek Meddings.[58]
Fireball XL5 1962 TV series First production to feature puppet heads with blinkable eyes[59]
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.[60][61]
Thunderbirds 1965 TV series
Thunderbirds Are Go 1966 Feature film First production in which all puppets were fibreglass (previously, guest characters had been sculpted in Plasticine).[62] "Under control" (non-wired) puppets were introduced for scenes of characters sitting – for example, fighter pilots in aircraft cockpits.[63]
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.[63] Guest characters were now played by a "repertory company" of permanent fibreglass puppets whose appearances could be superficially altered for each new role.[64]
Thunderbird 6 1968 Feature film First production to feature extensive location shooting[65]
Joe 90 1968 TV series
The Secret Service 1969 TV series Included extensive footage of live actors
The Investigator 1973 TV pilot Unaired pilot. Featured both Supermarionation puppet characters and live actors.[66]

Successor techniquesEdit

SupermacromationEdit

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".[24] This was similar to the techniques employed by American puppeteer Jim Henson.[3]

HypermarionationEdit

In 2004, Anderson created a Captain Scarlet remake titled New Captain Scarlet, which was produced using computer-generated imagery (CGI) and motion-capture techniques.[67] Motion capture was used heavily for action sequences as it provided more convincing character movement.[68] As a nod to Supermarionation, the series was credited as being "created in Hypermarionation".[69] According to Anderson, Hypermarionation was not simply animation, but a "photo-real" production method combining CGI, high-definition picture and surround sound.[67] Garland suggests that through Hypermarionation, Anderson sought to achieve a "hyperreal simulation of his live-action film utopia".[69]

UltramarionationEdit

In 2014, a Kickstarter campaign was launched to fund a remake of the anime series Firestorm, to be produced using a technique called "Ultramarionation".[70]

Critical responseEdit

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."[3]

Garland describes the underlying theme of 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",[71] 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".[72] 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 series employed an "aesthetic of incremental realism".[73] He suggests that the drive towards increased realism in APF's 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".[74]

Use in non-Anderson productionsEdit

  • The Associated British Corporation puppet TV 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.
  • Between 1960 and 1970, Japanese puppeteer Kinosuke Takeda produced three Supermarionation-style TV series: Spaceship Silica, Galaxy Boy Troop and Aerial City 008.
  • The 1980 Japanese series X-Bomber (also known as Star Fleet) was filmed using refined Supermarionation techniques in a style dubbed "Supermariorama".
  • In the early 1980s, refined Supermarionation techniques were also used to create the South African series Interster.
  • The American comedy series Super Adventure Team (1998) was produced in the style of Thunderbirds, with marionettes, but had more adult themes and suggestive situations.
  • Team America: World Police, a 2004 marionette puppet film by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, was inspired by Thunderbirds and has been described as an imitation or spoof of Supermarionation.[75][6] Stone and Parker dubbed their technique "Supercrappymation" in acknowledgement.[76]
  • In 2006, the live-action sci-fi series Stargate SG1 featured a self-parody using Supermarionation-style puppets for the episode 200.
  • The 2014 documentary Filmed in Supermarionation uses specially-filmed Supermarionation puppet footage for its linking sequences. These are presented by Thunderbirds characters Lady Penelope and Parker.[77][78][79]
  • In 2015, Filmed in Supermarionation director Stephen La Rivière oversaw the production of three new crowdfunded Thunderbirds episodes adapted from tie-in audio plays from the 1960s. These episodes, collectively titled Thunderbirds 1965, were purposely made using the techniques employed in the heyday of Supermarionation.[78][80]
  • "Apollo", a 2019 episode of the crime series Endeavour, is set partly in a film studio that is seen shooting a puppet series called Moon Rangers. The Moon Rangers scenes were written and filmed as a tribute to Supermarionation.[81]

ReferencesEdit

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Works citedEdit

BooksEdit

  • Bentley, Chris (2008) [2001]. The Complete Gerry Anderson: The Authorised Episode Guide (4th ed.). London, UK: Reynolds & Hearn. ISBN 978-1-905287-74-1.</ref>
  • Garland, David (2009). "Pulling the Strings: Gerry Anderson's Walk from 'Supermarionation' to 'Hypermarionation'". In Geraghty, Lincoln (ed.). Channeling the Future: Essays on Science Fiction and Fantasy Television. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press. pp. 61–75. ISBN 978-0-8108-6922-6.
  • La Rivière, Stephen (2009). Filmed in Supermarionation: A History of the Future. Neshannock, Pennsylvania: Hermes Press. ISBN 978-1-932563-23-8.
  • Peel, John (1993). "Supermarionation". Thunderbirds, Stingray, Captain Scarlet: The Authorised Programme Guide. London, UK: Virgin Books. pp. 16–21. ISBN 978-0-86369-728-9.
  • Rogers, Dave; Marriott, John; Drake, Chris; Bassett, Graeme (1993). Supermarionation Classics: Stingray, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. London, UK: Boxtree. ISBN 978-1-85283-900-0.
  • Sellers, Robert (2006). "Puppet Master". Cult TV: The Golden Age of ITC. London, UK: Plexus Publishing. pp. 77–115. ISBN 978-0-85965-388-6.

PeriodicalsEdit

  • Hirsch, David; Hutchison, David (September 1978). Zimmerman, Howard (ed.). "The Magical Techniques of Movie & TV SFX – Part XI: Supermarionation". Starlog. Vol. 3 no. 16. New York City, New York: O'Quinn Studios. pp. 58–66.
  • Holliss, Richard (Winter–Spring 1999). Duquette, Patrick (ed.). "The Worlds of Gerry Anderson – Part One: From The Adventures of Twizzle to Thunderbirds". Animato!. No. 40. Monson, Massachusetts: Duquette, Patrick. pp. 44–52. ISSN 1042-539X. OCLC 19081197.CS1 maint: date format (link)
  • O'Neill, Kevin; Gosnell, Kelvin (Winter 1977–1978). O'Neill, Kevin (ed.). Just Imagine: The Journal of Film and Television Special Effects. 2. London, UK: O'Neill, Kevin.CS1 maint: date format (link)

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit