Producer Gerry Anderson, originator of the Supermarionation process, recently showed me over the new £75,000 plant at Slough and explained why a three–stage studio was necessary. Each of the company's films runs for 28 minutes, and each has a three–week production schedule: they are required to be delivered at the rate of one a week so there must always be three in production at any one time.
Each of the three stages measures 40ft. x 45ft. with a height of 12ft. 6in. to the eaves — tiny by ordinary film standards, but a size that has been found ideal for puppet films.
I saw Stage I being fitted up for the start of the "Stingray" series. The puppets are operated from a mobile bridge. The sets are built on rostrums and wheeled into position underneath the bridge. The camera is an Arriflex fitted with a Pye transistorised tv camera which enables the view seen by the camera to be reproduced at various points.
Most important of the monitor screens is the one hanging up just in front of the bridge from which the puppets are operated, enabling the puppeteers to see the results of their work. Because the camera is looking in the opposite direction, the scanning controls are reversed to produce a mirror image.
Mechanically there are two factors that have made the films so outstanding: first, that everything actually works as it might work at some future date; secondly, that the puppets actually appear to speak the dialogue. Their lips move in precise synchronism with the speech, and this without any difficulties of rehearsal. The whole thing is done electronically.
First. the dialogue is recorded on an EMI TR90 tape recorder; the actors become very proficient in the various voices, and one person may take four characters. The tape is edited and cut to length and is transferred to magnetic film.
On the studio floor is a tape play-off, the tape carrying the dialogue for four characters. There are four tone controls and four gain controls which control the action of the puppets' mouths. The dialogue is converted into DC pulses of 50V maximum amplitude, which are fed to copper wires over the bridge — four lines and a neutral. The puppets are connected to these wires, through the operating wires, which are actually specially made to a diameter of 0.005in., treated to make them virtually invisible.
I saw a number of sets for "Stingray" nearing completion — highly imaginative concepts of future construction, built with immense skill to present realistic appearance. The scale is 8ft. to the inch.
The "Stingray " itself is a submarine, embodying a method of propulsion not yet known to our shipbuilders. The film is based on a town, Marineville, which is the headquarters of the World Aquanaut Security Patrol — the WASPS. All the buildings are built on hydraulic ramps, so that they drop below ground for security.
Much of the action will take place on water, and a large tank is under construction, built in two sections and capable of holding 2,000 gallons of water. The usual problem of concealing the far edge is overcome, not by the usual backing but by forming it as a weir, the overflowing water forming the horizon.
For underwater shots there is an aquarium measuring 8ft. x 4ft. — built of ½in. plate glass since a previous aquarium collapsed!
The realism which is such a feature of the company's films owes much to the imaginative use of special effects. Back-projection is widely used an Ernemann X projeotor is provided with remote control from the camera of trucking and focus.
The use of puppets has many advantages over live actors. They don't demand fabulous salaries as they graduate to stardom — they never have displays of temperament.
But they have their limitations.
If for instance a character is required to do some simple action such as picking up a phone, it will be fitted with a special rubber hand capable of gripping the model phone; this will be filmed in mid-shot or long-shot; then in close-up there wilil be a flash of a real hand, wearing a leather glove, picking up a real phone.
I saw the workshop where the puppets were being made. The design of puppets for the new series has taken four months. The character – exaggerated but none the less human – which inspires every figure is secured by sculpting model heads in clay. When the character is finally approved, heads are moulded in fibreglass. The lower jaw is cut out and hinged, the joints being covered in soft leather. The back of the head is cut away for insertion of the operating mechanism — a simple electro-magnetic device which operates the lips in accordance with the control instructions.
Arriflex, Auricon, Bolex, B & H, Cameflex, Mitchell & Newall Cameras
Blimps, Lenses, Zooms, Geared Heads, Cranes, Dollys & Hydraulic Columns.
EMI, GBK, Leevers, Nagra, Perfectone, Westrex recorders, and transfer.
Editing equipment, Cutting rooms, Transport, Portable lights, Production facilities.
A former objection to puppets is that, no matter what they are saying, grave or gay, their expressions have remained unchanged; one might see Venus imparting the gravest news, still with her habitual simile. This is now being remedied. Each puppet will have a number of heads, and so that their attitudes may be more natural, they will have several bodies.
Every puppet has its sets of clothes, all hanging on tiny hangers in a wardrobe.
The property department presents a difficulty not found in the ordinary film studio: everything. however ordinary, has to be made to scale. The AP Films property room contains miniature furniture. tiny telephones, books — even ashtrays have to be made to one-third scale.
Every half-hour film of course has its own director. There is a comfortable room in which four directors can work in peace. The electricians' store is equipped chiefly with babies and pups.
Once the film has been shot, the procedure is no different from any other type of film. There are six cutting rooms, equipped with Ciniolas and Films & Equipments synchronisers. Dubbing and track-laying are carried out in the usual manner, and final prints are produced on 35mm. Processing and reduction to 16mm. are carried out by Kay's.
There is a comfortable preview theatre, with good acoustic treatment. Its projection room is equipped with Super-Simplex projectors and Monarcs, RCA sound, and in addition a Pye telecine channel, enabling the films to be shown on tv receivers.
Back projection has played an important part in the succcssful production of "Supercar" and "Fireball XL5." For this, Gerry Anderson has used the Ernemann X Special BP Projector.
This projector has a specially designed gate assembly with rock-steady intermittent unit, forward and reverse running, automatic phase sync device between projector and camera, and remotely controlled so that both projectionist and cameraman can work in complete unison without the complications of talk-back systems, electrical interlock, etc.
By merely turning on a small switch, both projectionist and cameraman can see when projector and camera are in phase by a signal light, and the usually cumbersome method of checking back is dispensed with.
Shooting can take place immediately the cameraman sees his signal, thereby saving a considerable amount of film stock and, should a partial re-take be required, the cameraman can run the projector in reverse until the desired sequence is viewed on the screen at full brilliance.
The automatic phase sync device consists of a servo drive which revolves the stator windings on the projector motor (synchronous). The servo motor is automatically switched off when phase coincidence is reached. Both projector and camera are fitted with a commutator which operates the servo motor via a resting circuit relay system, and this system comes into operation each time the projector is run — it is a fully electrical and novel device, the only connection between projector and camera being one pair of wires carrying 24 volts.
The remote control consists of a multicord cable of any desired length feeding a single unit mobile control box which embodies forward-start/stop, reverse-start/stop, arc light on/off, and focus (mag-slip system).
The Ernemann X is entirely mobile and can be transported from one stage to another in a matter of minutes.