Supermarionation
– The models
Marc J. Frattasio

everyone who has seen any of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's science fiction TV productions knows that the 'stars' of these programs were actually the miniature model vehicles. In this page I shall briefly discuss what I know about the principal craft featured in the Anderson's works. Of course, by 'principal' craft I mean the main vehicles around which a given series was based. For example, the Supercar, Thunderbird machines, etc. During the earliest years of Supermarionation, the major miniature models were usually hand crafted on an individual basis. The principal construction material utilized was balsa or juletong wood with other materials and commercial shapes added on for details. As time went on, wooden master patterns were fabricated from which rubber or plaster molds were made. These molds were used to cast parts made from polyester resin and fiberglass cloth. Many identical models could be constructed using these parts. This provided the effects crew with significant savings of time and effort compared to that required by hand crafting.

As far back as Supercar, it was decided that long-time Anderson special effects supervisor Derek Meddings' crew could not handle all of the model work required. Thus, a significant amount of model making was contracted out to companies or even talented individuals. Often, the studio would only handle very simple shapes or perform finish work to models partially completed by outside contractors.

Model aircraft and spacecraft were often fitted with one or more heat resistant metal tubes which were used to contain slow burning electrically fired pyrotechnic devices. Legend has it that many of the earliest pyrotechnic tubes used by the effects people were actually metal cigar containers discarded by Gerry Anderson! Later on they were produced en masse by Schermuly Pistol Rocket Apparatus Ltd., a company that manufactured flares for naval purposes. Ground vehicles were frequently fitted with an apparatus that used a CO2 cartridge or pyrotechnic 'Jetex' motor to direct a blast of air beneath the model to disturb a layer of fine powder (Fuller's earth) placed on the miniature roadway and thus create a scale cloud of dust. Some model ground vehicles were configured with a smoke generator to simulate 'exhaust' fumes. Other models were doused with Titanium Tetrachloride, a noxious liquid which smokes spontaneously upon contact with air.

In most cases, more than one model of each principal craft was built. Obviously, there were many advantages to having duplicate models available to the studio. Having several identical models around made it possible to film more than one miniature effect sequence at the same time. Additionally, a measure of insurance was provided in the event that an important model was damaged or destroyed during filming. Spare models were also occasionally sent out of the studio to be put on display for publicity purposes. Sometimes they were sent to major toy shops or department stores for merchandising promotions.

Size and detailing

Models made in different sizes and large scale partial sections permitted the production crews to create close up or distant effects which minimized depth of field and camera focus problems. Usually at least three different sized versions of each principal craft were constructed. In most cases the size of studio miniatures was dictated by filming requirements, not by any desire to work within a specific scale. Different sized versions of the same vehicle often varied to a great degree in contour and detail. Mostly, these differences were hard for TV viewers to discern but sometimes they were very obvious.

The level of detail incorporated into each studio miniature varied greatly. Obviously, later and larger models featured more detail than earlier or smaller ones. In general, the level of detail and standard of finish built into an original studio miniature was no greater than that required to be adequate for the specific purpose of the model. Since the TV camera tends not to resolve fine details, fine detail was usually left out. Conversely, some effects such as weathering or 'dirtying down' had to be overdone in order to appear on TV at all. As a result, many studio models on close inspection appear to have not been built with the same degree of finesse that a 'hobby' builder would use. I understand that studio models were often repainted or otherwise 'cleaned up' for TV21 and publicity still photo sessions so that they would appear presentable to the more discerning still camera.

Major studio miniatures were usually painted using cellulose based automotive lacquers. This type of paint dries very quickly and the resulting finish can be easily sanded down and removed for repainting. Letters and numbers were applied using 'Letraset' type dry transfers whenever possible. Thick automobile striping tape and even thin strips of shiny metal were often used for trim lines.

Most if not all of the models were 'weathered' in order to enhance their realism. A secondary benefit of this treatment was that it camouflaged finish and construction flaws. Generally, panel lines, color separations, and trim lines were highlighted on the model using black ink or thin striping tape. Certain panels were painted using a lighter shade of the primary color or with a shade of grey to represent replaced, retouched, or undercoated panels. Black paint was smudged or sprayed into right angle joints such as the connecting area between wing and fuselage to provide a shadow effect. Black paint was also used around exhaust areas and gun ports. Grimy colors were sprayed around wheel wells and other areas that would normally be subjected to filth. As a final touch, the entire model was frequently given a light overspray with a dusty color to subdue the finish and blend all details together.

Supercar

Supercar
Supercar

The Supercar was designed by long term Anderson associate and ITC executive Reg Hill. At least two different sized Supercar miniatures were constructed in-house by the modelmaking team. The 7 foot long puppet sized Supercar model was essentially a thin plywood shell formed over a hardwood substructure. This model featured a high-quality thermoformed plastic canopy that was reused later during the production of Stingray on the puppet sized 'Hepcat' submarine used in the episode Raptures of the Deep. The smaller Supercar miniature was carved out of solid balsa wood and used crudely folded translucent sheet acetate for its cockpit canopy.

The finish on the larger Supercar model was very well done. It included details like chrome metal trim and upholstered interior seats. The smaller model was not so well finished, however. For example, the red 'Supercar' logo on the small miniature was painted on adhesive tape and not applied directly to the model. Also, the smaller model was equipped with a crudely carved wooden figure of Mike Mercury that resembled him about as much as it resembled anyone else!

At some point during the filming of this series, the large plywood-shell Supercar model suffered some sort of accident during which it was crushed. Restoration work was contracted out to a company called Space Models. This job was the start of a long-term association between Gerry Anderson and Space Models which lasted through Terrahawks.

Fireball XL5

Fireball XL5
Fireball XL5

Fireball XL5 was designed jointly by Reg Hill and Derek Meddings. Gerry Anderson got the idea for the name 'Fireball XL5' from the brand name of a popular automotive lubricating oil, 'Castrol XL'. The ship's unusual launch sequence was lifted by Derek Meddings from a plan publicized during the 1950s by the Soviet Union. [According to Meddings, the inspiration came from somewhere else; see the previous link for more. – JLN2nd] Apparently, at one time the Russians seriously considered launching rockets into space by means of long inclined ramps. No doubt the Commies were laboring under the influence of some third string German 'buzz bomb' engineer that they swiped from Peenemunde!

At least four different Fireball XL5 studio miniatures were made. These models ranged from 5 inches to 9 feet long. These models were made for the most part from solid balsa wood. On the larger models, the wings and vertical stabilizer were sheathed with thin plywood and the end-of-wing booster housings, Fireball Junior cockpit, and auxiliary control canopy were made out of thermoformed plastic. Additionally, the recesses along the trailing edges of the wings and stabilizer were lined with a metal mesh material. For those models that had a detachable Fireball Junior, an embedded magnet and bit of iron were used to keep the nosecone attached to the main ship.

Space Models is known to have produced a 24 inch Fireball XL5 miniature.

Stingray

Stingray
Stingray

Stingray was designed by Derek Meddings. Studio models were made in 3 foot, 2 foot, 14 inch and 8 (or 6) inch sizes. Other sizes were probably made as well. Although the Stingray models were frequently filmed diving and surfacing in the effects tank (a 15 by 12 foot by 18 inch deep tank of water, dyed blue to simulate depth, laced with detergent to produce foam, and incorporating a spillway across the rear side to produce a false horizon) most 'underwater' filming was done dry with the Stingrays suspended on wires behind thin fish tanks.

The Stingray miniatures were carved out of solid balsa wood. All but the smallest models had their balsa hulls completely hollowed out for the installation of lights, motors, and other electrical equipment required to operate the rear rotor. An access hatch was fitted to the underside to facilitate servicing this operating gear. The cabin areas of these hollow models was formed from transparent plastic.

The smallest Stingray models had their rotors ('counter rotating eddy dampers') made from silver painted wood while the larger ones were machined out of transparent plastic. On one version of Stingray, the rotor is alleged to have been a store-bought transparent water faucet!

Some of the larger models were equipped with a retractable metal 'landing gear'. For some reason, this feature was not used very often in the series. In most cases when Stingray came to rest, it just lay on its belly.

Sometimes examination of 'disasters' can provide valuable insight into model construction techniques. What I mean here is that when a studio prop is destroyed or damaged on screen, the way it comes apart can present clues about the manner in which it was constructed. For example, in the episode Treasure Down Below, Stingray is caught in an undersea whirlpool which draws it into a cave. If you look closely at this model during the whirlpool sequence, you can see that the forward and rear hydroplane fins on one side were damaged, probably by a wire that got in the way. The damaged parts did not snap off as might be expected, but rotated on an axis instead. This demonstrates that these fins were not simply glued on to the main body of this model but were attached using dowels or some other kind of pin.

Space Models is known to have produced at least one 'hollow' Stingray as well as the puppet-sized Stingray interior set.

Thunderbirds

Derek Meddings designed all of the principal International Rescue craft. Apparently Gerry Anderson provided Meddings with a general idea of what each vehicle was supposed to do and Meddings provided Anderson with sketches. Legend has it that none of the principal Thunderbird vehicles Meddings designed looked anything like what Anderson envisioned!

For the most part, the Thunderbirds main craft appear to have been constructed principally out of some kind of wood, probably balsa wood. Many different sized versions of each Thunderbird craft were made and some of them differed quite a bit in contour, markings, and detail. Lettering size, typeface, and position varied greatly from model to model. Some Thunderbird models appear smoothly finished and almost featureless while others were provided with great weathering effects and intricate panel detail.

Thunderbird 1

Thunderbird 1
Thunderbird 1

Thunderbird 1 was Derek Meddings' least favorite design. He said that it had only one good photographic angle. Nevertheless, several different sized Thunderbird 1 models were built for the series. One general purpose version featured a large hatch on the top half which apparently allowed servicing of the model's swing-wing mechanism. [Note: I understand that the wings were made to sweep in and out by means of stop-motion animation, not by wire or mechanism.] This hatch had some very complex curves and appears to have been attached to the model using very small screws. It is possible that this hatch was made from thin sheet metal or thermoformed plastic.

At least one Thunderbird 1 model used a single screw to attach each stabilizer wing to the rocket housings. This model appeared in several still photographs near the Thunderbird 1 launch site.

Two different types of removable wire based landing gear were used on Thunderbird 1 miniatures. One version, possibly used on early models, featured small dolly wheels. The other version replaced the wheels with short skids.

The various Thunderbird 1 models differed greatly in the size and placement of markings. Some versions had a small 'tb1' on each side of the cockpit area while others did not. At least one model had small 'tb1' markings on the wings and another had the letter 't' in 'thunderbird' overlaying the red nose. Also, some models featured cockpit side windows and others did not. It is unclear to me whether all Thunderbird 1 miniatures featured 'thunderbird' lettering on both the top and bottom surfaces of the fuselage.

Thunderbird 2

Thunderbird 2
Thunderbird 2

Thunderbird 2 was Derek Meddings' favorite design. Initially he designed it to have conventional swept-back wings, but decided that sweeping them forward would produce a more dramatic effect. Incidentally, the forward sweep is currently being applied to several U.S. advanced jet fighter research designs. With computer stability augmentation, this wing configuration permits a high degree of aircraft controllability over a wide range of airspeeds.

Several versions of Thunderbird 2 were fabricated out of wood. The Thunderbird 2 pods were made from thermoformed plastic. A partial model of the front of Thunderbird 2 used only for close-up camera shots in conjunction with large scale rescue vehicles was also made from thermoformed plastic. On some of the larger Thunderbird 2 models a perforated metal material was used to line the rear of the craft's engine exhaust pipes. This material surrounded the metal tubes used to contain pyrotechnic charges. Large hexagonal bolts were used to attach the perforated metal to the tubing.

Some Thunderbird 2 models were fitted with working landing legs made out of telescoping sections of brass tubing. Although the initial model specifications required that these legs be fully retractable into the main body of Thunderbird 2, the modelmakers were never able to achieve this. [Note: Thunderbird 2's vertical thruster pyrotechnics were always placed in the brass landing leg sockets even though the design suggested separate VTOL ports fore-and-aft of the pod!] It has been reported that the Thunderbird 2 models required frequent repairs because of their large size, heavy weight, and ungainly shape. They tended to be prone to drop. Also action scenes in which a pod was dropped often weakened Thunderbird 2's side frame members to the extent that they snapped in the middle.

Thunderbird 3

Thunderbird 3
Thunderbird 3

Several Thunderbird 3 models were made including one used for launch site interior shots that was over five feet long. This huge model featured very intricate surface detail that included exterior piping not seen in other versions.

The triple rocket booster supports on the smaller models appear to have been made out of wooden dowel stock. On some photos I can see file or sanding marks near the top ends! The cooling fins at the top of each Thunderbird 3 rocket support arm appear to have been made out of a very thin metal strips which were folded in half.

Some of the models used what appear to be store-bought metal clothing grommets for retro rocket orifices on the angled grey rim at the center of the rocket body.

The wooden construction of Thunderbird 3 shows up very well in some still shots taken of one of the smaller models. If you look closely at certain still photographs you can see that portions of the lower surface of the rocket booster pods have been burned away by the pyrotechnic devices used in launch sequences.

Thunderbird 4

Thunderbird 4
Thunderbird 4

Several Thunderbird 4 miniatures were constructed. These models differ mainly in the shape of the nose, cockpit canopy, and rear fin.

The illuminated lighting trough at the front of the larger Thunderbird 4 miniatures utilized tiny quartz halogen lamps. The Space Models modelmaker who constructed one of the illuminated Thunderbird 4 models expressed a great deal of reservation about the design of the operating electrical apparatus since he assumed that the model he was constructing was to be filmed underwater!

Thunderbird 5

FAB1

FAB1
FAB 1

Lady Penelope's pink Rolls Royce, fab1, was built in at least three different sizes ranging in length from 6 inches to 7 feet. Although Derek Meddings was responsible for the design of fab1, the Rolls Royce motor company played an active role in its development and insisted upon approving the final design.

The smaller fab1 models were made out of solid balsa wood and had thermoformed plastic canopies. The undersides of these models was removeable to allow the miniature driver and passenger figures to be changed.

The 7 foot puppet sized fab1 was made mostly out of plywood sheet with hardwood used for the curved sections and framework. This model was engineered to come apart at the front, rear, and sides to allow the interior to be filmed. The thermoformed plastic canopy was completely removeable to clear puppet wires. The puppet sized fab1's wheels were remarkably complex. Each wheel had a wooden disk core surrounded by a thermoformed plastic 'tire'. This assembly was then covered by a rubber bag. The hubcaps were turned on a lathe and made out of aluminium. The characteristic Rolls Royce grille at the front of this model was fabricated out of brass and then chrome plated. Bicycle lamp reflectors were used for headlights.

Rolls Royce provided a full sized automobile radiator grille on permanent loan for use in the Thunderbirds series. Since the studio intended to use this item for close-up filming work showing a protruding cannon, an older grille with open radiator slats was provided. The studio kept this valuable prop under close security when not actually in use.

Space Models produced many of the principal Thunderbirds vehicle miniatures.
These include at least one Thunderbird 2, several Thunderbird 2 pods,
the large Thunderbird 2 front section shown on TV whenever a pod was being opened,
an 18 inch Thunderbird 4, and several fab1 models.

Captain Scarlet

All of the principal vehicles from Captain Scarlet were designed by Derek Meddings. Many of the larger principal models from Captain Scarlet including the Angel Jets spv msv and spc were probably made out of fiberglass using the molding technique described earlier. Also, it looks as if some of the spvs, msvs, spcs, and Spectrum Helicopters were made to the same scale.

Road vehicles

SPV
Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle

In the two episodes where spcs are destroyed, The Mysterons and Seek and Destroy, you can clearly see that the models used were hollow shells. This is consistent with fiberglass construction. Some of the spc models had an opening door feature incorporated on one side.

Several different sized spv models ranging in size from 6 to 24 inches long were made using a variety of construction materials. The larger models used the metal tracks from a Japanese tin tank toy. Some spv models were made to have an operating sliding door on one side. In certain still photos you can see that a strip of blue painted adhesive tape was used to keep these doors closed. These model road vehicles were made to operate in three ways: by way of a bottom mounted pin that fit in a slot on the model roadway, pulled by strings over a stationary roadway or held by strings over a 'rolling' canvas roadway.

SPC
Spectrum Patrol Car

The spc, spv, and msv models each utilized machined metal wheel hubs. Tires were made out of rubber or nylon. Some of the larger vehicles (most certainly the spv models) had functional suspension systems. It has been reported that many of these vehicles incorporated some kind of mechanical device that caused the front end of the model to dip down when the 'brakes' were applied. Radio antennas were made from lengths of fine gauge wire. These models used thin strips of reflective metal for trim lines. The metal strips did not adhere very well and many still photographs show them peeling off the models.

Angel jets

Angel Interceptor
Angel Jet

Angel jet models were made in at least two sizes, 7 inch and 26 inch. At least three models were made in each size with spares apparently being used for the Mysteronized examples in Seek and Destroy. Some of the Angel jets may have been finished on the camera side only. In night scenes where wing lights were used you can see that wires were taped to the underside of the models leading from a battery or other power source. Several studio models had a pair of Spectrum logos applied to the lower surface of the wing.

I suspect that only two or three Spectrum Helicopter models were built and that they were probably made by hand out of wood. These models had black electrical tape wrapped around their landing floats. The rear stabilizer ring appears to have been made out of a cardboard tube. In some still photographs it appears as if plasticine or some other putty-like substance was used to attach the pilot's windscreen to the model. I assume that this was done so that the windscreen could be removed to change pilot and passenger figures. Adhesive tape was used for trimlines and striping. Painted adhesive tape was used for serial codes so that they could be changed on occasion.

Cloudbase

Cloudbase

One several foot long Cloudbase model was made from wood. Many still photographs of this model show electrical wires taped to various parts of the craft leading into the interior to power lights. Large scale sections of the flight deck were created for aircraft take-off and landing shots and a large hollow model of the Cloudbase control tower was made for close up filming.

Space Models produced many of the models and sets used in Captain Scarlet.
They also printed most of the Spectrum logo decals or stickers seen on puppets and vehicles.
This page published originally at the Supermarionation sfx WebSite
text ©1996 Marc J. Frattasio; not for reproduction for profit without his express permission
Edited and limited to Supermarionation