The hows and whys of

animated flamemarble column
animated flamemarble column
Supermarionation

– The lip-sync mechanism –

Marc J. Frattasio

The success of The Adventures of Twizzle led to another commission by Roberta Leigh in late 1958. Unfortunately, this commission was for a similar puppet television series called Torchy the Battery Boy. By this time, AP Productions had become resigned to the fact that they were stuck doing puppet work, at least for the near term. However, AP Productions resolved to produce the best children's puppet program possible in the hope that their high quality workmanship would attract 'better' classes of work.

Joy Laurie left AP Productions after The Adventures of Twizzle was completed and she elected not to return to work on Torchy the Battery Boy. Her old position as puppetry supervisor was assumed by Christine Glanville.

The marionettes built for Torchy the Battery Boy were more sophisticated and more finely modeled than those used in The Adventures of Twizzle. Although they were still made from the same basic materials, the eyes and mouths were now made movable by means of strings attached to a thumb control on the puppeteer's cross bar. Unfortunately, these puppets were still strung with highly visible carpet thread.

It was during the filming of Torchy the Battery Boy that AP Productions' John Read and Reg Hill developed a truly revolutionary process which automated the motion of the puppet's mouth. This development was called 'lip sync' (for lip synchronization). The lip sync apparatus moved the puppet's hinged lower lip in synchronization with a pre-recorded vocal track. It was actually a fairly simple apparatus. Basically, electrical signals from the vocal track were conveyed through steel control wires to a solenoid located in the puppet head which opened and closed the puppet's lower lip as the amplitude of the electrical signal varied through the course of normal speech.

Torchy & Cy.
Torchy [right] and friend in a forerunner of Fireball XL5[?] [note Torchy's open lower lip attachment]

The lip sync mechanism was a direct descendant of the simple manual mouth apparatus developed for the Torchy the Battery Boy type puppets. The manual apparatus consisted of a hinged lower lip which was secured in the closed position by a spring and opened by means of a string attached to a thumb control on the puppeteer's crossbar. The area on the puppet's face below the movable lower lip was cut out to provide clearance for the motion of the lip and this cut out area was filled with a flexible leather used to make fine women's gloves. Originally, rubber condoms were tried for this purpose but they proved to be too fragile! In a basic sense then, the automatic lip sync mechanism merely replaced the string that had actuated the manual lower lip with an electric solenoid. No other developments were required. Lip sync was an evolutionary and revolutionary process at the same time!

Lip sync presented several great advantages beyond merely making the puppet appear to mime dialog realistically. The thin metal control wires required to conduct the lip synch control signal were very strong. Made from a special high tensile wire coated with the same black substance used in camera housings, these wires proved nearly invisible under most filming conditions. Additionally, by freeing the puppeteers from having to memorize dialogue and deal with mouth movements, the puppeteers were now able to devote all of their attention to action and movement. Lip sync promised to increase the realism of marionette puppets way beyond anything that had ever been done before.

Two minor characters were introduced in later episodes of Torchy the Battery Boy to test the Lip Sync process under actual studio conditions. These tests proved to be a great success. The invention of lip sync presented the most important element of what would later become known as Supermarionation.

The sets and props build by Derek Meddings for Torchy the Battery Boy were largely made from painted wood and cardboard cut outs just like the items made for The Adventures of Twizzle. However, Derek incorporated a greater degree of sophistication to the set pieces, introducing an entire miniature town with houses shaped like pieces of fruit and interior sets full of realistic miniature furnishings.

Torchy the Battery Boy was also significant in that it was the first Anderson production to utilize a major pyrotechnic exhibition and a futuristic vehicle. The opening titles of Torchy the Battery Boy featured a rocket launching that used a large number of holiday sparklers to simulate the rocket engine! This crude rocket was the grandfather of all the explosions and futuristic vehicles to come. Another significant milestone in the direction of the science fiction Supermarionation series yet to come was the introduction of an alien character, Squish the Space Boy.

As with The Adventures of Twizzle a year before, Torchy the Battery Boy was fairly successful on British television. Indeed, Roberta Leigh commissioned a second season of Torchy the Battery Boy. For some unknown reason though, this work went to Associated British Pathe instead of AP Productions.

Unfortunately, the fine work that AP Productions had done for Roberta Leigh and Associated Rediffusion Network on The Adventures of Twizzle and Torchy the Battery Boy did not result in the flood of television and film production work that everyone had anticipated. Gerry Anderson and his associates decided that the time had come for them to take another great gamble and try to produce a television series on their own.

AP Productions had by this time developed a favorable reputation for making children's puppet films. Anderson and Provis decided that the company's best bet would be to leverage this reputation and the revolutionary lip sync process by producing another puppet television series. Musical composer Barry Gray came up with the idea of producing a western, as American westerns were very popular all over the world at that time, and he presented Gerry Anderson with the pilot script for what would be known as Four Feather Falls.

Arthur Provis leaves AP Productions

Around this time Gerry Anderson and Arthur Provis parted company. Provis would go on to produce a puppet series called Space Patrol with Roberta Leigh. AP Productions underwent a name change to AP Films or apf for short.

Four Feather Falls put nearly all the elements of what would later become known as Supermarionation into practice. The production was much more sophisticated than anything done before and more space was required than that available in the ballroom of the mansion at Maidenhead. apf moved out of the Maidenhead mansion and leased a large warehouse on the Slough Trading Estate a few miles away. This warehouse was about four times larger than the mansion and the spaces proved much more accommodating to the Four Feather Falls production crew as it had been previously occupied by Les Bowie and had been set up as a proper film studio.

The puppets used in Four Feather Falls were an order of magnitude more sophisticated than the ones that came before. They had carefully formed and balanced bodies that were carved from a close grained patternmaker's wood called 'juletong'. The heads were finely featured and made from fiberglass castings. Wigs were made from human hair and fine mohair. Naturally, each puppet used the new lip sync mechanisms to simulate speech and they were strung with the nearly invisible black steel wires.

All of the main character heads were carefully sculpted in plasticine clay from which a plaster mold was taken after the character's appearance had been approved. Hollow fiberglass heads were then made from these molds in two parts which were glued together. A removable hatch, secured by a hidden magnet and a piece of steel, was cut into the back of each puppet head to permit access to the eye and lip mechanisms.

Several blank, featureless fiberglass head shells were made up which consisted of a smooth egg shaped head with eyes, mouth, and lip sync mechanism installed. These blank heads were used to make minor 'extra' characters who would only be used once or twice. When an extra character was required, a blank head would have temporary plasticine facial features built upon it. These plasticine features, when painted, looked just like any regular member of the puppet cast. Because these features were made of soft plasticine clay, the extra heads could be scraped clean after filming and resculpted for use as a different character later on. Unfortunately, this clever feature made the extra heads rather delicate and great care had to be exercised when filming them. Common problems experienced with these extra heads included clay features which melted under the heat of the bright stage lights and noses or ears which got sliced off by control wires.

The technology evolves

By now carpet thread had been replaced by fine black colored steel wires which not only controlled body movement but also carried the electrical lip sync control signals. Strings were always the most critical part of these puppet productions as their appearance automatically destroyed all illusion of reality. Although the blackened steel control wires proved nearly invisible under most filming conditions, under certain circumstances individual wires were actually painted to better blend them into whatever background the puppets were being filmed against. This was done by coating the wires with a clear flat lacquer spray paint and then puffing powdered paint colors on to the wire before the sticky lacquer dried.

Small television cameras were mounted on the film cameras used on the sets. The video output from these television cameras was routed to small television monitors that were placed on the puppeteer's bridges for the puppeteer's to watch while they manipulated their puppets. Among other things, these cameras permitted the puppeteers to get a camera-eye view of the action below and revealed any control wires that needed to be painted out as described above.

Although a few simple fireworks effects had been accomplished in The Adventures of Twizzle and in Torchy the Battery Boy, Four Feather Falls required a much greater sophistication of pyrotechnics. One particular innovation developed for Four Feather Falls that would see greater application in the many Supermarionation television programs to follow were miniature gas guns that would fire by means of a command activated electrical spark.

Four Feather Falls also introduced an extremely high standard of realism in the design and construction of miniature sets and props. No longer mere cut outs, the sets used in Four Feather Falls were truly miniature film stages with realistic buildings, terrain, and foliage. Lumps of coal were used to make rocks, broken glass would be used to make chunks of ice and real plant cuttings (particularly Juniper) were often used to make miniature trees. Realistic model props were constructed, as in the case of guns, trains, and wagons, or bought from toy stores, as in the case of dollhouse utensils and various furnishings.

A scale of about one third life size was adopted for the puppets and their puppet sized environment. The scale adopted for Four Feather Falls was retained throughout the Supermarionation years. Although the puppets and their props were built to a common scale, the puppets themselves were caricatured with large heads and undersized bodies. Although this scheme appealed to the cartoonish tastes of children, the real reason for the strange proportions of these puppets was that the larger size of the head was dictated by the size of the lip sync solenoid that had to fit in the head to actuate the movable lower lip.

A very successful visual trick that was introduced in Four Feather Falls – and later carried through all the other Supermarionation programs – was the practice of filming actual human hands in close up to represent the puppet character turning a knob or otherwise manipulating objects. Such scenes were called 'live inserts'. Usually, the hands filmed in a live insert were covered with a tight fitting rubber glove and painted to more closely match the rigid carved appearance of the puppets. Although these live inserts were very effective, the practice caused apf some trouble with the actor's union as the people whose hands were captured on film were ordinary workers available on the set instead of properly accredited actors and actresses.

Four Feather Falls was sold to Granada Television in 1960 and proved to be a great success. As the apf team considered their next move one thing was certain, for better or worse they were now firmly locked into producing children's puppet television programs. Unfortunately, Granada decided that one puppet series was enough for them and they turned down all offers from apf to produce additional programs. Just as apf was about to go out of business again for lack of work, Lord Lew Grade of itc came to their rescue.

Lord Grade had been most impressed by Four Feather Falls and he wanted to know what apf had in mind for their next series. Gerry Anderson told Grade about a concept he had developed concerning a team of researchers who worked with a prototype flying car called Supercar. Sylvia Thamm was in the process of developing this concept into an illustrated children's book. Lew Grade told Gerry Anderson that he thought the Supercar concept would make an excellent puppet television series. He then promised to arrange full financial backing from itc under the condition that Supercar be produced with an eye towards the US market. Thus, the new puppet series was set in the American southwest and apf went to work on Supercar.

This page published originally at the Supermarionation sfx WebSite
text ©1996 Marc J. Frattasio