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Supermarionation

The Rise and Fall

the rise

J. Lester Novros II

the Sixties was a turbulent decade in many respects. If the Fifties were known as the Atomic Age, this was definitely the Space Age. For the first time in more than twenty years people could look toward the future with unbridled optimism and look toward the future was the one thing they did. It was a time when technological innovation confronted us with one miracle after the other, rocketry was firmly on everybody's mind and man would set his first faltering steps on another celestial body. It was also a time when the Red Menace seemed to be lurking in every corner, nook and cranny and when spies and secret (especially secret) agents were part of the daily newsfare.

AP Films team
The AP Films team on the Supercar Black Rock laboratory set; left to right John Read, Gerry and Sylvia, Reg Hill

As always, the global state of affairs was mirrored by the entertainment industry. Think only of the enormously successful James Bond series – the first Bond movie, Doctor No, premiered in 1962 and caused quite a stir – and its many successors and imitators on both the big and the small screen. Especially television, that new companion in every home, knew its bane of spy series: I Spy, Get Smart, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Mission Impossible, The Avengers, and as unchallenged pinnacle of course Batman.

There was, nevertheless, one series among all these that was quite different in format, approach and appearance. Firmly anchored in the futuristic and technological trend of thought of the times, Thunderbirds was set in 2026 and centered around an American millionaire philanthropist (alleged to have been one of the first men on the moon!) and his five sons, every one of them named after an American astronaut. No doubt due to both this and the Mid-Atlantic accents of the voice-over artists it was generally thought to be just another US produced, animated series but, in fact, nothing turned out to be further from the truth. The programme – which, incidentally, had its world premiere on September 5, 1965 on Dutch television – was the seventh in a series of ten puppetshows made by the Britain based AP Films, a production company helmed by the Andersons, Gerry and his wife Sylvia.

The Rise

Torchy and friend
Torchy [right] and friend

The Andersons never intended to make puppet films. They started out in film production in the mid Fifties when they teamed up with Arthur Provis to start AP Films and the first assignment they landed was for a 52-episode children's series commissioned by one of the newly formed itv Network companies. The intrepid threesome fully expected to do a live-action production but, to their dismay, itv specifically stated it wanted marionettes. Undaunted by this prospect however, the Andersons and their staff set about producing The Adventures of Twizzle about which little more can be said but that it used the most basic of puppet techniques.

A year later, in 1956, itv asked them to produce another puppet series, Torchy the Battery Boy, which again used rather straightforward string puppets although they now had the ability to 'talk'. The puppeteers could move the puppet's lower jaw in synch with pre-recorded dialogue, a practice held over from Twizzle. Nevertheless, it proved to be very difficult to control the puppet during dialogue sequences: not only the jaw would move but also the head. Besides that, the shot had to be a static one since the puppets could not walk and talk at the same time. Anderson and Provis decided to invest in an attempt to free the puppeteers from having to control the dialogue mechanism. In cooperation with the British electronics company R.T.C. Wright & Co. AP's resident technician John Read developed a technology which has since become known as Supermarionation.

Tex Tucker
Tex Tucker, sheriff of
Four Feather Falls
Supercar cast
Supercar's main characters clickable map
hanging out between takes

Nothing less than a true breakthrough in string puppet technology, it involved a small solenoid placed in the puppet head which carried an electrical impulse from the pre-recorded dialogue so the puppet's lower lip would open and close in sync. The technique was first employed in their third programme, Four Feather Falls, and not only enabled hero Tex Tucker [left] to talk, the new fibreglass heads also left room for a mechanism to move the eyes. Also, the all too visible wires with which the puppets had been manipulated thus far were, by this time, replaced by ultrathin, tungsten steel controlstrings, specially developed for the studio by the Ormiston company.

Nonetheless, the Andersons still were not satisfied with the results since they could not get the puppets to walk properly, a virtual impossibility with any string puppet technique since the puppet's leg is lifted at the knee so it can never throw it's leg forward at the foot like a human being does. This prompted them to turn toward the realm of science fiction for their next series, reasoning that in the future – or at least their version of it – everybody would use either futuristically designed vehicles or rolling chairs to move from one spot to the other, thus effectively eliminating the need for characters to walk. And indeed, Supercar (produced in 1959), not only had a machine as one of its main 'characters', foreshadowing the important role hardware would play in the Anderson's later series, but also featured atomic trains and the like.

Fireball XL5

Steve and Venus
Robbie, Steve and Venus
in the cockpit of Fireball XL5

AP Films started the next decade with a production that was firmly seated in the future. Fireball XL5 was produced in 1961, purportedly set a cool 106 years later, and highlighted the adventures of the crew of a rocket called Fireball XL5, hence the series title. With the advent of this show the Andersons for the first time tried to create a complete 'universe' as a background for the characters' actions and motivations, just as George Lucas would do years later for his Star Wars series: Fireball XL5 is but one of a fleet of rockets under the command of the World Space Patrol, a global military organisation, and hero Steve Zodiac "patrols sector 25".

Another aspect of the studio's idiosyncratic approach that began to emerge at this time was the practice of modelling the puppet faces on the faces of their voice artists. Venus, the female lead in the series, was voiced by Gerry's wife Sylvia just as Thunderbirds' lady Penelope would later be and the similarity between the two characters' heads, which were sculpted by puppeteer Mary Turner, is indeed obvious. Another trait that began to show was the increasing quality of the special effects – and more specifically the model work – a factor that would lead to a constant quest for ever more convincing realism. In its own way AP was making live-action productions (as they had originally set out to do), only they did not hire their actors, they created them and the locations they populated.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely the author's
and do not necessarily reflect those held by other involved parties.