The hows and whys of

animated flamemarble column
animated flamemarble column

– Pioneering new techniques –

Marc J. Frattasio

The greatest program of them all

Stingray was first screened in October of 1964 and it of course led to Thunderbirds. This program was arguably the best and most successful Supermarionation program of them all. Originally to be called International Rescue, Gerry Anderson changed the name to Thunderbirds because his older brother Lionel, who had been killed during the second world war flying Mosquito fighter bombers, once mentioned an aerobatic team that flew out of a place called Thunderbird Field in the USA.

Thunderbirds of course spawned several technical innovations. Mainly however, Thunderbirds elevated everything that had been developed before to a new level of perfection. In large part, this was because Lew Grade had arranged for much greater funding and a one hour format vs. the half hour format of the previous programs.

The first eight or so Thunderbirds episodes were actually scripted and filmed as half hour episodes. When Lew Grade saw the first Thunderbirds episode, Trapped in the Sky, he insisted that the program be made into a full hour series. This change forced the apf people to rebuild many destroyed models and add additional scenes to the existing episodes to pad them out to a full hour length.

APF becomes Century 21 Pictures Limited

At some point during the production of Thunderbirds Gerry Anderson changed the name from apf to Century 21 Pictures Limited. This may have been related to the Anderson's move from puppet television programs into motion picture work with their first feature film, Thunderbirds Are Go, in 1966.

The Thunderbirds character puppets were much less caricatured than those used in the previous series although they still maintained the same distorted large head with small body proportions. Few new puppetry innovations were introduced for Thunderbirds, however, one was developed that would greatly influence the way that later Supermarionation programs were shot. This innovation was the 'under control' puppet, basically a type of glove puppet that was controlled from beneath the set. These under control puppets dispensed with wires, making it possible to shoot extreme head and shoulders close ups without fear of unsightly wires intruding on the shot. One of the first applications of the under control puppet was the Hood character. The Hood's bald head made it very difficult to hide the control wires for the eyes and lip sync mechanism that emerged from the top of the head. In most other puppets, the anchor points of these wires were hidden by hair. Not so on the bald Hood! Another less noticed puppetry innovation introduced in Thunderbirds was that each character was provided with a set of miniature teeth. Allegedly, the puppet teeth were made by a dental firm which specialized in making human false teeth.

Atlantic Inferno
Filming the rig from Atlantic Inferno this illustration has a larger version

The format of Thunderbirds required a great deal of fantastic miniature vehicles and sets. The format of the series dictated that all of these miniature vehicles and sets had to be much more grand and realistic than ever before. A great deal of attention was spent on creating various scaled vehicles and sections of vehicles which could be used for filming different camera angles. Miniature road vehicles were fitted with sponge rubber suspension systems so the wheels would track properly when negotiating miniature roadways. Miniature rockets and missiles were often filmed upside down so that the exhaust would appear to go straight 'down' towards the tail fins in a visually correct manner and not curl 'up' towards the nose as so often happened when filmed in the normal direction as done in Stingray and Fireball XL5.

Thunderbirds was primarily about disasters. Thus, Derek Meddings was frequently called upon to create monumental explosions. Many of these explosions used a gelled gasoline similar to napalm which caused great fireballs. Meddings also got into the habit of packing his explosive charges with all kinds of small kit bits and Fuller's Earth to create incendiary projectiles and showers of dust when the explosives went off. A Meddings trademark perfected in Thunderbirds was the choreographed explosion. Derek Meddings would generally film a sequence of explosions instead of just one explosion. Each one would be more dramatic than the next, building up to a huge detonation at the very end.

The rolling road and rolling sky techniques

Of all the filming innovations that came directly from Thunderbirds, probably the most useful was the so called 'rolling road' and 'rolling sky'. These two devices were developed to meet a requirement in the very first episode of Thunderbirds, Trapped in the Sky, which called for a scene showing an airliner and several model ground vehicles running down the entire length of a runway. Meddings figured that there was no way this type of shot could be accomplished with a stationary model runway and the models pulled along on wires or by means of a slot in the roadway as was customary. Thus, he came up with a roadway and a sky backdrop that were fashioned as endless belts mounted on a pair of rollers.

the rolling sky
The skyship from Alias Mr. Hackenbacker in front of the rolling sky backdrop; note the roller at the right

Basically, a stationary vehicle could be secured on the rolling road by wires and when the rollers were started up, it would present the illusion of motion as the roadway rolled past the vehicle. The rolling sky provided the same illusion of motion to model aircraft that were filmed in front of it. Derek Meddings actually used three different moving elements on his rolling road to provide the proper illusion of motion and depth. He used a near rolling road for the foreground, a middle rolling road, and a background rolling road. The three rollers moved at slightly different speeds to provide an illusion of depth. (a similar approach was used in Francis Coppola's One From the Heart; to my knowledge, Meddings was not involved with this film and was certainly not credited for the use of his 'invention' – jln2nd) One trick often used with aircraft filmed in front of the rolling sky was to blow an occasional puff of smoke between the model and the camera. This not only provided a convincing three dimensional cloud illusion, but if timed correctly, the smoke would hide the join line on the sky backdrop as it passed into view of the camera! The rolling sky basically took the place of front and rear screen projection in Thunderbirds and beyond.

Model road vehicles filmed in motion were either pulled along stationary roadways by wires, moved from below with a stick in a slot, or were held securely in one position by a pair of wires (front and back) on the rolling road. Occasionally, wires would break while a model vehicle was being filmed on the rolling road. Sometimes, the motion of the rolling road would throw the model vehicle violently to the floor. This happened in Trapped In The Sky when the radio controlled elevator car crashed during the first Fireflash rescue attempt. Basically, the wires broke while this scene was being filmed and the crew liked the effect so much that they had the script rewritten to include the accident footage!

By the time the Thunderbirds television series had come to a close in early 1967, the Andersons had an unqualified hit on their hands and had expanded into a feature length motion picture version of Thunderbirds called Thunderbirds Are Go. The work of the Andersons came to the attention of director Stanley Kubrick who was at that time working on 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick contacted Century 21 Productions with an offer for them to do the miniature effects for his space epic. The Andersons turned Kubrick down as they were busy on their own projects. Kubrick, however, managed to steal some of the Anderson's model makers and other miniature effects people away to work with him. One of the most important of these was Brian Johnson. If you look very closely at still photographs of the miniature spaceships built for 2001: A Space Odyssey, you can see the Thunderbirds touch. For example, the Moonbus model used several Airfix SRN1 hovercraft duct parts on the side of its landing legs. These same parts are used extensively in Thunderbirds and once you have seen one of them, you see them everywhere.

A radical change in puppet style

two different puppets side by side
A puppet from the Thunderbirds era next to a perfectly proportioned one from Captain Scarlet

Captain Scarlet followed Thunderbirds in 1967 and this program provided a definite point of departure between all that came before and what would come in the future. By the time Century 21 began to plan Captain Scarlet, much smaller electrical solenoids were now available. As mentioned before, the size of the puppet heads was primarily dictated by the size of the solenoids that had to be fitted into the heads to actuate the lip-sync mechanism. The new smaller solenoids could be fitted into the puppet's bodies, thus, permitting the use of perfectly proportioned heads for the very first time. It was decided then that the new Captain Scarlet series would use puppets with true to scale human proportions.

The decision to use accurately proportioned puppets was revolutionary and the entire format of Captain Scarlet was organized to take advantage of the new puppets. For one thing, the new accurate puppets would require a corresponding overall upgrade in the realism of miniature sets and vehicles. A conscious effort would be made to make everything as realistic as possible. The plotlines and screenplays would have to be a bit more serious too. In the main, Captain Scarlet would be played straight without any of the frequent 'cute' hijinks incorporated into the earlier Supermarionation programs.

The realistically proportioned puppets had one major problem. The new proportions tended to restrict their range of movement. Unlike the situation in the past, where the puppets were occasionally seen to walk, no effort would be expended to make the new Captain Scarlet puppets walk. Indeed, in many cases, they would be shown only in head and shoulder shots using the new under control puppets developed for Thunderbirds. Although this decision enhanced the realism of the puppets, it did restrict the action a bit and many complain that the puppet scenes in Captain Scarlet tend to be a bit static and 'boring'.

Captain Scarlet made extensive use of the new under control puppets. These were actually stringless head and torso puppets that were controlled by an arrangement of levers and wires from beneath the sets. Such puppets could be placed in enclosed aircraft cockpits, such as the Angels in their interceptors, without the wire hole commonly seen in Stingray and Thunderbirds. Such stringless puppets could also be filmed in close-up without any wires showing.

One minor additional advantage of using the wireless under control puppets in Captain Scarlet was that for the first time, a puppet character could be made to appear as if it was walking under a doorway. In the past, shots either ended on one side of a doorway and cut to something else or the tops of doorways were removed as the puppet walked by to clear the wires. In Captain Scarlet, the usual technique was to move the under control puppet's shoulders to simulate walking and either pass it through a full doorway or move a wheeled set incorporating the doorway and a section of wall past the stationary puppet.

The bodies of the Captain Scarlet puppets were constructed from plastic 'kits' that were molded by a contractor. The contractor provided parts for large male, large female, small male, and small female puppet bodies. A large 'cast' of main character heads and minor character heads were produced. The old method of using temporary clay features to build 'guest' characters was scrapped in favor of building a large 'library' of minor character heads which could be adapted through new wigs and other minor features to 'create' new characters. An interesting idea which was unfortunately never carried out, was to model a different guest star character in each episode on the features of a famous actor, who would also provide the puppet character's voice.

One element of the enhanced realism of the new Captain Scarlet type puppet was the fact that the eyes were produced by a revolutionary new process. As even the smallest artificial human eyes used in the Thunderbirds puppets were far out of scale for the smaller heads of the Captain Scarlet puppets, something new was required. The solution was to build the eyes using clear plastic hemispheres into which was glued a reduced color photograph of an actual human eye's pupil. When the surrounding clear plastic was painted white from behind, the effect was of a perfect glossy human eye.

Although Derek Meddings had essentially perfected miniature vehicle photography by this time, one new innovation was introduced in Captain Scarlet. This was a tiny mechanism which caused the nose of miniature motor vehicles to 'dip' when stopped to simulate the application of brakes at high speed.

Captain Scarlet was followed in 1968 by Joe90, a very similar series which essentially recycled many of the props, puppets, and sets that were built for Captain Scarlet. By this time, Century 21 was thinking in terms of dumping puppets and moving into live action, as Gerry Anderson had always wanted to do. Few if any technical innovations came out of Joe90.

The final Supermarionation Series, The Secret Service, was introduced in 1969. Basically, the end of Supermarionation was rapidly approaching and The Secret Service provided a transition between the Anderson's puppet and live action eras. The Secret Service used the same type of realistically proportioned puppets that were used in Captain Scarlet and Joe90. Indeed, once again many members of the puppet cast and props featured in The Secret Service had originally started out in Captain Scarlet and Joe90.

What made The Secret Service different from all that had come before is that, for the first time, the Andersons combined live action and puppets in one program. Although the Andersons had been shooting hands and other minor human body parts for some time, this was the first time that entire human beings (not exactly true as an episode of Fireball XL5 and Stingray each used live actors to portray gigantic characters in conjunction with the puppet characters but this was exceptional) were used as part of a puppet production. This is hard to describe as it really has to be seen to be believed. Basically, in The Secret Service, one character is a spy who can be shrunk down to one sixth normal size to go on missions. Close-up scenes of the program's characters were all shot using the puppets. Far off scenes, and those scenes featuring the shrunken character, Matthew, were all shot live on location. It was a very strange concept which did not prove acceptable to Lew Grade of itc. He ordered production terminated after only 13 episodes had been shot.

The end of an era

This was basically the end of Supermarionation as Century 21 immediately moved into live action with the cinematic feature Doppelgänger and the television program ufo in 1969 after The Secret Service was cancelled. There was a half-hearted attempt to bring Supermarionation back during the early 1970s with a TV pilot for a series concept called The Investigator which got no further than an unscreened pilot episode and a pair of uncredited Dinky Toys. This strange production used Captain Scarlet human proportioned puppets in conjunction with The Secret Service styled live action scenes on location. The basic concept of The Investigator was very similar to that of The Secret Service in that the main characters could be shrunk down to one sixth their normal size to go on special covert missions.

The only real innovations introduced in this pilot were the use of radio to control a puppet sized boat and automobile. Although radio control was used to operate a miniature Model T Ford in The Secret Service on full sized roads, this feature was not often used. The radio control apparatus proved equally difficult to operate on location in Malta during the filming of The Investigator pilot. Spurious radio signals from RAF Nimrod ASW aircraft and other sources constantly interfered with the operation of the large scale model vehicles and actually made them dangerous to the crew.

Other than a short commercial made for Jif Dessert Toppings during the mid 1970s, The Investigator was the end of Supermarionation. A subsequent puppet effort by Gerry Anderson and partner Christopher Burr in the early 1980s called Terrahawks discarded all ties to Supermarionation with a totally new 'Muppets' like process that Anderson called Supermacromation. Terrahawks was a flop and it is safe to say that there will be no further Supermacromation efforts in the future. Gerry Anderson should have stuck with Supermarionation!

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