Welcome to Slough – dream machine '66

John Dickson PhD, finds that Thunderbirds are technically go!

John Dickson

this opening page of first TV script in the hour-long Thunderbirds series is a sharp reminder that if T-Birds' creator Gerry Anderson is, like super-villain Hood, not exactly 'the wealthiest man in the world,' he has nevertheless founded a million-dollar technical TV-film empire; the Thunderbirds series (following the success of Supercar, Fireball XL5 and Stingray) is now being TV-screened literally all around the world. And in one further technical respect Thunderbirds is unique as being the first adult puppet series to be shot in colour... currently colour screened on 525-line networks of Japanese television.

In Main Title Unit.

Fade Cut.

Fade in Asian Temple-like building.

Cut to MS "The Hood", incense burning in foreground produces smoke haze in front of his face.

Hood (to himself)

INTERNATIONAL RESCUE... If only I knew their secrets, I would be the wealthiest man in the world!

'Thunderbirds Are GO!' is the slogan launching International Rescue, the twenty-first-century organisation performing incredible operations which astound the world with their daring and ingenuity. Head of International Rescue is millionaire Jeff Tracy, ex-American astronaut, one of the first men to land on the moon. Whatever the hazard, in space, on land or under the sea, International Rescue are ready with their wonder machines dramatically named Thunderbirds, the creation (in the series, but not in real life!) of a young genius aptly named Brains.

Thunderbird 1 has a scale speed of 15,000 mph, is designed to get to trouble zones as quickly as possible. This craft has a length of 115 ft, wing span of 80 ft, and is 12 ft in diameter.

Thunderbird 2 is a heavy-rescue vehicle of enormous proportions, length 250ft, wing span 180ft, height from ground 60 ft, yet the maximum speed is 5,000 mph.

Thunderbird 3, 290 ft in length, is a space rocket, manned by a crew of two.

Thunderbird 4 is an ocean-going craft, 30 ft in length, in terms of ocean travel very fast, and this ship is normally carried to trouble zones by Thunderbird 2.

Thunderbird 5 is a space monitor, the all-seeing eye of International Rescue.

Jeff Tracy's five sons, named after US space astronauts, Scott, Virgil, John, Alan and Gordon, operate the fantastic organisation set up on a lonely island in the South Pacific, with the sole purpose of carrying out rescue operations when all conventional methods have failed. Week by week the main characters develop in this Space-age series, notably the glamorous and aristocratic Lady Penelope and her off-beat butler-cum-chauffeur who are the London agents for International Rescue. FAB 1, Lady P's exotic pink six-wheeled Rolls-Royce is not as innocent as it looks (every regular Thunderbirds fan from San Francisco and Tokyo now knows that!) since its sleek lines conceal built-in machine guns, oil slip jets and other secret weapons.

setting up a tank shot
Two huge 2,000-gallon tanks are used for ocean effects. Water is continually pumped in, overflow being arranged to pour out at the far end of the tank as in a weir, so giving a lifelike horizon line.

This, then, is the international theme created for television by the British group AP Films, a Lilliputian conception which has rapidly followed the success of former AP series.

A few years ago the revolutionary technique of this form of filming might have been lightly and wrongly dismissed as animation or puppet filming, but a world technical public has now come to appreciate that neither of these descriptions is correct. There is no animation, in the normal film sense of the word.

Says Gerry Anderson, the Walt Disney of this millionaire micro-miniature world: "The ingredients which go into the films, that make it possible for them to capture such a large worldwide audience, consist of tense stories, believable characters, and a technical process now widely known throughout the world as Supermarionation..."

Supermarionation is a new dimension in film and television entertainment. The process of Supermarionation is exclusive to AP Films Ltd.

Technically it includes filming in 35mm colour, using complete film stages about one-fifth live-action size, incorporating special effects which simply would be impossible in live-action, using a number of matching live-action inserts, using back projection (BP) and all the devices known to full-scale film production.

Supermarionation also embraces the technique pioneered by AP Films of electronic control of realistic figures, whose lips and eyes move in a manner which simulates human movement yet is intriguingly different. Other technical facets of Supermarionation which are of striking importance to live-action-experienced film executives visiting AP Films stages at Slough, Bucks, include television monitoring direct off the Arriflex and other cameras, and methods of overcoming depth-of-focus problems when shooting on stages only eight or ten feet deep, yet where there has to be exciting movement over a wide range. Moreover, while pulses on the dubbed dialogue tape are amplified and used to operate the diminutive figures' lip movements, the overall picture is even more complex. Each picture is individually scored for music, and arrives at the dubbing theatre with some 12 sound tracks per reel!

Thunderbirds' heroes, heroines and villains are seldom more than 30" tall, and while they do not display temperament, nor have agents become more rapacious as they gravitate from bit-parts to stardom, Supermarionation is still an extremely complex world which neither the art-heavy studios of Western Germany, France and Italy, nor the dollar-laden studios of Hollywood want to enter in competition. Through the years, backed with courageous sincerity by Lew Grade and Associated Television, Supermarionation has become a revolutionary new technical process for producing filmed TV entertainment.

At Slough four stages, complex laboratories and workshops, a beautifully-equipped theatre, dubbing and cutting suites and other technical facilities have all grown as the result of team-work. Major members of this Thunderbirds team include:

Gerry Anderson – Producer and Managing Director
Reg Hill – Associate Producer and Deputy Managing Director
John Read – Director of Photography and Company Director
Sylvia Anderson – Character Visualisation, Voice Artiste,
Script Supervision and Company Director
David Elliott – Film Director
Desmond Saunders – Film Director
David Lane – Film Director
Alan Pattillo – Script Editor
Norman Foster – Studio Manager
Derek Meddings – Supervising Special Effects Director
Bob Bell – Art Director
Christine Glanville – Puppetry Supervision
Mary Turner – Puppetry Supervision
John Brown – Supervising Sculptor
Paddy Scale – Lighting Cameraman
Julian Lugrin – Lighting Cameraman
Harry Oakes – Lighting Cameraman/Special Effects
Michael Wilson – Lighting Cameraman/Special Effects
Brian Johncock – Special Effects Director
Shaun Cooke – Special Effects Director
Len Walter – Supervising Editor
John Peverill – Supervising Dubbing Editor
Betty Coleman – Wardrobe Department

"Creating the puppet characters in the first place," explains Gerry Anderson, "is a long and difficult task. Heads are sculpted in clay, then roughly painted so that final results can be judged... With luck the head goes to the next process, but more often than not it is scrapped and the whole procedure starts again. Heads which are accepted as sympathetic character visualisation are copied in the form of a fibre-glass shell... Puppet bodies are now produced in plastic, and these can be produced in quantity at very short notice because a library of male and female bodies has been built at Slough, so that a character can be made up from interchangeable components... The balance of a puppet is of great importance. The weight has to be just right, for if the figure is too heavy it will require heavy control wires which will be easily visible, and a strain on the operators, while a light puppet does not respond to control..."

sculpting a puppet head
Each charater in a Thunderbirds episode can be fitted with a selection of heads to simulate changed facial expression. 'Smilers', 'scowlers' and other heads are plugged in. Every head of a speaking character is fitted with a solenoid to operate moving lips, electronically controlled.

As puppets are completed, they are wired and tested from a 12ft high gantry. When satisfactory they are passed to wardrobe for dressing, and detail changes may be made in lip and eye action. Even when the figure is complete, the main job is only half over. As at least two complete units shoot simultaneously on the same series, an identical twin has to be produced. With the small-dimensional filming of Thunderbirds, this presents an unexpected problem, since the slightest variation in the mould, painting, cast of eyes or curve of lips gives the character a different appearance.

Explains Reg Hill, Associate Producer: "For this Thunderbirds series the size of the puppet heads has been slightly reduced to give added realism, and the figures are now perhaps more 'human', less a caricature.

Each main character is now given four or five different heads (plus their identical twins), these being fitted at various moment to simulate changed expression. We call them 'smilers', 'scowlers', and so on. And of course for the special-effects shots there are duplicates of many of the characters in quite different scales.

Main characters, such as Jeff Tracy, his four handsome sons, Kyrano, Tin-Tin, Hood, Brains, Lady Penelope and Parker are mostly built up of fibre-glass. But the "Re-vamp" puppets (those playing bit parts!) are constructed from plastic shells. During the making of a series like this, characters change. Parker, the impassive chauffeur and perfect butler, was not originally envisaged as a main character, but the critics liked him... Well, the same thing happens with live-action!"

Bondaglass has revolutionised the making of characters for this Gulliver-like microcosm.

Mrs. P. Smith, wife of the creator of one of the techniques used, says: "For the creation of Thunderbirds characters we supply AP Films with special glass fibre cloth and a polyester resin, similar to that used in the automobile industry for glass-fibre car bodies. However, a 'mat' is used for coachwork, whereas the glass-fibre cloth is smooth and suitable for modelling. A plaster mould is made, as described by Mr. Anderson, and then the constructor of the figure starts to laminate, putting on various layers of cloth, each of which is soaked in the resin. It becomes touch dry in 30 minutes, completely dry in an hour. The final colour is a natural beige; the resin itself is merely translucent. There is no special call for fireproofing for the Thunderbirds characters, but for other theatrical purposes (as with the glass fibre and other materials Bondaglass supply to the Royal Opera House) a fire-resistant resin is available. Thunderbirds figures also involve the use of a material known as Bondapaste, a putty-like filling compound which is used to fill cracks and contours, although it is not intended to be a moulding medium."

With Fireball XL5 and earlier Supermarionation productions, puppets were in colour, chiefly because of the difficulty in obtaining dress fabrics in the greys, whites and blacks in which the earlier stories were actually visualised; and also because Plasticene modelling naturally results in a coloured head rather than in shades of grey. With Thunderbirds, absolutely correct and precise colour matching is essential, since everything is shot 35mm Eastman Kodak, in true colour.

As these colours cannot yet be seen on UK TV, it can be explained that the five boys wear a mid-blue uniform with sashes of various colours, and matching tops to the flying-boots.

Before NTSC TV/hue controls give this a twist, the fundamental shades are: Scott (pilot of Thunderbird-1), silver-blue; Virgil (he pilots the heavy-rescue T-Bird 2), bright yellow; John (controller of the space monitor), mauve; Alan (chief pilot of the space rocket), light gold; Gordon (pilot of the ocean-going T-Bird 4), bright orange.

Tin-Tin generally wears a gold jacket and boots, and red pants, while Hood has a light blue silk jacket and rose-like Oriental patterning. The turtle-neck sweater and matching jacket worn by Brains are in Cambridge blue (no scholastic significance, I am told), who also favours orange pants. Lady P's trouser suit is usually in eau-de-nil, while Parker's livery is in rich chocolate. What a tragedy that in the United Kingdom, where this amazing Supermarionation process was born, it is necessary to explain the colours for Britain's colour-unconscious monochrome viewers...

On great 25ft-wide steel gantries, puppeteers (Gerry Anderson and the other VIP's of AP still use this theatre-hallowed expression, rather than the official term 'Supermarionators') operate the figures. Each 20 or 30" character is controlled by (usually) nine long wires fixed to the conventional form of 'X' control bar. Explains Gerry Anderson: "The first series required only puppeteers, but as the company has expanded and developed in technique and method, a new form of puppetry has evolved, needing a larger team of Supermarionators. Gradually, such a team has been recruited from puppeteers formerly engaged in the theatre and arts... Christine Glanville and Mary Turner were the two original puppeteers. Their job has been to model the heads of most of the main characters... During the preparation period for each series, all puppeteers are engaged on constructing the new characters. Once shooting starts, at least six become manipulators, the rest concentrate on the workshop aspects, developing the 're-vamps' and making additional characters..."

Many – but not all – the Thunderbirds figures move on wires. In Thunderbirds, these control wires are very seldom to be noticed; and though the rare appearance of a wire, or the shadow of a wire, aids the psychological enjoyment of the programme (as a periodic but timely reminder that, after all, these ARE puppets and not super-humans), technicians of AP regard this as a 'black' to be avoided.

"Frankly, wire is a terrific problem for us," explains Reg Hill. "A puppet weighs seven or eight pounds, and has to be moved, and although it is possible to use steel wire only 0.003" dia for arms, the main wires which take the weight need to be at least 0.005" dia. Now this is much thicker than a human hair (around 0.002), and of course on a good domestic TV receiver it is frequently possible to distinguish a hair standing out. So you will see the problem we have in concealing wires. It has to be steel, and although there are alloys of greater tensile strength than we customarily use, at present these cannot be drawn finer than 12 thou or so. Copper can be drawn incredibly fine, but unfortunately this stretches and – worse – stays stretched. Our special steel wire is drawn by Ormistons of Ealing, who also have developed special treatments for non-reflection. We initiated a technique of blackening by a photographic process, but this has now been improved, and the process is confidential. On many occasions we use Anti-Flare, in aerosol spray form, this being excellent for minimising reflection. In Thunderbirds' special effects, where cameras have to be in as close as two or three feet to the subject, we sometimes paint the wires to match the backgrounds..."

Complex sound tracks for T-Birds (typical script instruction: Cut to Jeff Tracy's house. He is playing grand piano. Quiet melodic jazz composition. Camera tracks round room... sound of door opening... dialogue... Orchestra joins piano music as we track towards him and close on a CU...) use every form of sound effect which Beaconsfield and Soundefex Ltd can provide. In addition to providing effects for Fireball XL5, Supercar and others in the AP series, Soundefex have supplied effects for Taste of Honey, Saturday Night Sunday Morning, Lawrence of Arabia and other majors. Of great assistance to Thunderbirds has been Soundefex mobile film reference library based in Boreham Wood, Herts.

In the same organisation is the Gate Recording Theatre, Elstree, GHW Productions Ltd. There the T-birds tracks are handled, the Gate having complete dubbing and scoring facilities to supplement those of AP's own at Slough. The Gate can handle dubbing from eight channels, scoring from ten, and also Westrex loop-post-syncing. Transfer facilities available include FCM on to 35mm FCM and there are two 35mm projectors in the theatre.

advert for Barry Gray's Supermarionation compositions

When Barry Gray, working on Fireball XL5 was musical director of AP, this was his fifth tv series. His work with Supercar also showed how electronic music can be used to heighten dramatic effect of action. Gray has used a battery of tape machines, mixer units and echo machines, plus two mixed inputs from entirely separate electronic music devices. One of these is the French Ondes Martenot, and Barry spent a considerable time in Paris with the inventor, Mons. Maurice Martenot, studying develop­ment of sound effects. The other instrument is British, the Miller Spinetta. This has dual keyboards, and can produce somewhat piano-like percussive sounds of varying tone colours.

At AP Films they use no fewer than six cutting rooms.

"We must do three or four times the amount of cutting as in live-action," explains Reg Hill. "This is made necessary, for instance, by the fact that you cannot hold the interest of a scene for more than a few seconds since a puppet's facial expression cannot be altered... Except by cutting, of course, to a different strip, shot when the puppet is fitted with a different head. In live action you can hold a scene for an appreciable time, getting continuity of dramatic effect by an actor's changing expression, or perhaps by moving up from a mid shot to a CU of the actor's hand. With puppets this can be done, but it involves cutting... Cutting, in many cases, from a CU of the puppet's head to a live-action shot of a gloved hand..."

All this must be pre-viewed, and the latest projection theatre at AP is equal to the best in any American studios. Mercury Films & Equipment Ltd, of Wardour Street, have provided all the 35mm projection equipment, including Super-Simplex and Monarcs, and RCA sound.

"Although this is Lilliput," says Reg Hill, "we are completely equipped for live action. On special effects it is frequently simpler to shoot full-scale, live-action. For one thing, it is not so difficult to light the scene. Any one of our units can move immediately into live-action, although I suppose we do get typed as working in a sort of micro-miniature world."

Joke dies hard of the micro-miniature computer firm doing so well they had to move into smaller offices... So far as AP Films is concerned, the coming expansion in Supermarionation involves the construction of a new studio adjoining that now housing four stages. This will come into action in January, providing two large additional stages.