The hows and whys of

animated flamemarble column
animated flamemarble column

– Special effects come of age –

Marc J. Frattasio

Using model kits for realism and economy

The large number of miniature spaceships required during the production of Fireball XL5 brought about yet another practice that would be used time and time again in the future in other Supermarionation series. As a cost saving measure, Derek Meddings began to construct his miniature spaceships using toys, model kits, and other store bought shapes. Even essentially scratch build models were detailed using model kit parts. Many of these store bought items came from the Woolworth store in Slough. This was a purely time and money saving strategy which proved very successful from a design standpoint. Such miniature vehicles were heavily detailed with striping tape panel lines and dirtied with paint to break up their shapes and present a true scale appearance. This was the beginning of the practice of making super realistic studio miniatures, a practice that was eventually raised to a zenith for 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars.

It is quite ironic to note that as nice as these models may have appeared on the television screen, they often looked much cruder and less finished in real life or in still photos. This was because the apf model makers were true professionals. They knew that truly fine details, such as those that would be incorporated into a display model, would never be seen at typical television set resolution. Thus, the model makers only incorporated the level of detail that would be noticed on the television screen. Sometimes this labor saving practice was carried to an extreme. Some models were only finished on one side, the side that would be filmed! Another factor that governed the often strange 'live' appearance of the studio models was the fact that frequently what should have been a subtle detail in a display model had to be overly exaggerated to be resolved by the television camera in a studio model. Because of this, panel lines, wear effects, stripes, and other such details were often dramatically overdone on these models.

The miniature spacecraft in Fireball XL5 were either filmed stationary in front of a moving star background of sequined velvet or they were pulled along a line. For the latter situation, a small tube was attached to the model and the line passed through this tube. One of the more difficult effects in Fireball XL5 was the launching of the spaceship on its long track. This was filmed live with at least two operators, one controlling the spaceship and the other controlling the rocket powered trolley. Both operators had to carefully synchronize their motions for this shot. Fireball XL5 introduced the technique of high speed filming for effects shots. Filming at much higher than normal speeds smoothes out the appearance of the action when the film is run at a normal speed. After a great deal of experimentation, a speed of 120 frames per second was established for most miniature effects shots.

Many new techniques were developed during the filming of Fireball XL5 to enhance the realism of miniature vehicles. Model roadways were covered with a fine granular substance called Fuller's Earth. Model vehicles filmed moving along these roadways were fitted with a downward pointing Jetex Motor which would disturb the Fuller's Earth, simulating a cloud of road dust or exhaust. Another common trick was the use of a chemical called Titanium Tetra Chloride which smoked spontaneously in contact with air. This was often used on model missiles to give the appearance of volatile fuels boiling off prior to launching.

Fireball XL5 was designed as a two part ship. Separation and docking were always a problem. Fireball Jr. was secured to the main ship with a magnet. Upon separation, the lighter weight Fireball Jr. would wobble. Even high speed filming did not smooth this sequence out so what the apf people elected to do was utilize the docking footage for both separation and docking. The reason for this was that there was less wobble when the magnet pulled the Fireball Jr. into place on the main ship than there was when the two parts were wrenched apart. For separation scenes, the docking footage was of course reversed!

As has been mentioned before, the word Supermarionation was coined by apf during the production of Fireball XL5. Gerry Anderson had decided that apf had sufficiently advanced the puppetry state of the art to the point where some kind of trade name was needed to differentiate their work from the more mundane children's puppet productions. Thus Filmed In Supermarionation was coined as a sort of trademark and affixed to the titles of Fireball XL5 and all the other marionette programs which followed. The word Supermarionation of course stands for 'Super', 'Marionette', and 'Animation'. These three words summed up the process that apf had developed. After viewing Fireball XL5, any kid would immediately know that spotting the words 'Filmed In Supermarionation' in the titles of any new TV program meant that he or she was not going to be sitting through something stupid like 'Kukla, Fran, and Ollie'!

Fireball XL5 was a huge success when broadcast in October 1962, in large part, this was because it was purchased by the large American nbc television network. This particular network sale facilitated itc funding for the next Supermarionation series, Stingray.

Into the realm of color television

Stingray built upon the techniques developed up through Fireball XL5 and introduced several new ones too. However, the chief difference between Stingray and everything that had come before was the fact that Stingray was filmed in color. This fact created a totally new crop of technical problems for the apf people to deal with as they had to learn from the bottom up how to deal with color when filming miniatures. Frequently, colors appear quite different on film or on television than they do in real life. Additionally, the bright lights required for filming miniatures under proper focal conditions tended to contribute to color distortion as well. Quite a bit of testing was required before good results were achieved. Initially, all the colors used on the first Stingray sets proved incorrect for color television and everything had to be repainted. Eventually, apf came up with a standardized color chart which was utilized to ensure that only approved colors would be used behind the cameras.

APF becomes an ITC property

Stingray was of course a much more elaborate production than Fireball XL5. Thus, apf soon found themselves hunting again for more space. Just before Stingray went into production, Lew Grade offered the Andersons about $5,000,000 to buy apf outright. The deal struck between itc and the Andersons kept them in charge of the company and provided sufficient funds for larger production quarters. A larger premises was leased in another part of the Slough Industrial Estate not too far from the present apf facility.

Although the basic puppet design used in Stingray was for the most part identical to those used in Four Feather Falls, Supercar, and Fireball XL5, there were some subtle enhancements. For one thing, the puppet characters' faces were modeled a bit more realistically. Indeed, the puppet sculptors began to base some of their puppet characters on real live actors. For example, Troy Tempest bears a fairly close resemblance to actor James Garner and X20 looks like Peter Lorre!

Two very important puppet innovations were introduced in Stingray. The first was the use of glass eyes instead of the painted wooden eyeballs used in the earlier puppets. These eyes were actually false human eyes and of course they looked very realistic. The other innovation was the introduction of interchangeable character heads modeled with different expressions. Each main character head was provided with a 'normal' head, a 'smiling' head, a 'frowning' head, and a 'blinking' head (with eyelids that could be closed and opened). By using these interchangeable heads, puppet characters could display simulated emotions instead of the same fixed expression.

The Stingray submarine was the first major or 'star' craft to be designed by Derek Meddings. Derek Meddings' only direction, from Gerry Anderson, was that Stingray should be atomic powered, carry a crew of three and fire torpedoes.

Derek Meddings and his crew had to learn to cope with the problems of filming on and under water as Stingray involved the adventures of a submarine crew. Originally, Gerry Anderson actually planned to film much of the program under water in a custom built glass walled tank. This however, proved to be unfeasible so an alternative had to be found.

behind-the-scenes shot
Filming a fire in the watertank this illustration has a larger version

It turned out that filming the underwater scenes was fairly easy. Derek Meddings chose to handle them using larger versions of the special thin cross section glass dry filming tank developed for Supercar. For Stingray, small air hoses were added to the bottoms of these tanks to provide the occasional tiny air bubble. Additionally, overhead lights mounted behind revolving filters provided the illusion of sunlight streaming through the depths.

Surface filming took some research until a proper method was perfected. The basic problem was that tanks of water tended to look like tanks of water. Derek Meddings's solution was to build a special shallow water tank which had a long 'water fall' at the back. Blue dyed water was circulated in this special tank to create a gentle wave motion and the water streamed out the water fall along the entire back side of the tank to create a convincing horizon line. A different painted background was placed at the back of the tank as filming requirements dictated. Derek Meddings painted a series of different backdrops which depicted a sunny sky, a night sky, a cloudy sky, etc.

Filming the miniature ships and submarines in the special tank and getting waterborne explosions to look correct required filming at very high speeds. Detergent was added to the water to simulate foam and often tiny air lines were fitted to the bows of model ships to create a proper bow wave. Ship models were usually attached to small trolleys running on subsurface tracks and towed across the tank using thin cables.

One particularly clever visual effect done for Stingray was the famous scene that shows the Stingray submarine emerging from the Marineville ocean door in a cloud of bubbles. This effect was accomplished using the standard dry filming method of having a thin fish tank between the camera and the 'underwater' set. For this scene, however, it was necessary to have Stingray emerge from the ocean door in a cloud of bubbles. This was done by running an air line up the side of the fish tank and painting the glass over the air line so that it matched the appearance of the plaster rock face surrounding the ocean door. The aperture of the air line was positioned in the camera's field of view right next to the ocean door so that the burst of bubbles appeared to be coming out of the ocean door well behind the air line.

Another very popular effect sequence in Stingray was the scene of the Stingray submarine being chased up out of the water by a mechanical fish. This scene, which was shot for the second episode, Plant of Doom, proved so attractive that it was edited into the series titles. Although it looks like it was a very complicated shot, and it probably was, it was done in only one take. Basically, one of the smaller Stingray submarine models and a mechanical fish were attached to wire harnesses and positioned under the water in the positions that they would emerge. When the director called 'action', the puppeteer handling the Stingray submarine jerked it out of the water followed by the puppeteer handling the mechanical fish. Derek Meddings reportedly could not believe that the shot went as well as it did and he filmed the sequence several times just to make sure. At the end of the day, much to everyone's surprise, the first shoot proved to be the best take.

Scenes of puppets floating in the water were of course done with the puppets actually in the water, though supported by wires as they were far to heavy to have actually floated. Underwater scenes of the puppets swimming were filmed dry behind a fish tank just like the submarine scenes were filmed. Filming the Marina puppet under water was a chore, as she had long hair which had to stream behind her in a convincing manner. This effect was done by filming the 'swimming' puppet with an electric fan or two blowing the hair backwards and upwards.

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