What began as a novel idea with such puppet films as Torchy has now grown to an international series for viewers of all groups and ages, and if “astounding” seems too strong a ten-letter adjective to apply to a puppet film designed primarily for children, I justify this novel and entirely British TV-film development on the following grounds:
These are the first six reasons why I call Fireball XL5 astounding. The story of Supermarionation is no less astonishing, and it is a success-story which revolves around one man. A TV visualiser in a video world where the word "genius” is used all too often, but here you’ll think is surely justified. He is Gerry Anderson, the “A" of AP Films.
As it happens, I knew Anderson, now 32, when his five-year old company was just starting. He has never known any other life than the film and TV industries, having started in films at the age of 16, working in cutting rooms, dubbing for most major British studios. Later he turned to directing, and then had the gist of an idea for “small world" filming. He immediately realised entirely new apparatus and techniques are needed to handle puppet filming. No conventional film studio would do. Nothing suitable could be rented.
So, with not much more than £500 capital, he hired the ballroom of a hotel, rigged up lighting and installed 35mm cameras. With what now seems like prehistoric equipment – but was in fact even then in advance of its time for puppet filming – he did the Torchy series for ABC, and The Adventures Of Twizzle. Both had a gimmick — such as the torch in the head of Torchy the Battery Boy, but both were puppet films shot in the way Gerry Anderson believed possible, but other studios disagreed. Until then, all films of this sort were carried out with stopped motion.
Many BBC children’s films were made by the process now known as model animation, nicknamed the "Pack Shot" in our world of commercial TV because – as explained recently in Television Mail by Frank Hendrix (Special Animation Unit, Advertising Films Division of the Rank Organisation), winner of the Television Mail Lighting Cameraman Award, 1962 – it is the method so frequently employed to photograph the inevitable cigarette popping out of the packet.
This sort of filming is done by shooting one frame of film at a time, and was pioneered by George Pal for some of the first animation in advertising films made nearly 30 years ago. Model animation has improved greatly since then and, as Hendrix explained, it has peculiar advantages for filming certain inanimate objects. If there is a pack or object which carries important details, stop-frame photography is useful in that, because of the longer exposure time and small aperture, you get a "deep focus" effect which maintains a crisp, clear picture. However, for puppet and cartoon films there are obvious limitations when using the "Pack Shot" method and shooting has to be done to a pre-recorded track.
When the pendulum swings to the other extreme, and all filming is done live on puppets, a number of fresh technical snags become obvious. In early puppet films – pre-Anderson – the entire quest for realism was spoiled through failure to have any degree of synchronism between the dialogue and the movements of the figures’ lips.
The first real breakthrough came when AP Films Ltd shot Four Feather Falls, screened and marketed by Granada TV. For the first time Anderson used the novel process of “lip-sync" in a production of this kind. The essence of the system is that the dubbers make their soundtrack on standard tape, in a remote dubbing theatre. The tape is then run through what is called a “four-channel-natterer” at AP Films, and a resistance-capacity network takes peak pulses off the soundtrack, operating relays controlling a 50 volt DC supply fed by fine wires to the puppets themselves. In each figure's head a solenoid operates the jaw mechanism, so lips move in synchronism with recorded sound.
That, I say, is the essence of the system. Others had attempted lip-sync along similar and different lines, with only fair success because there was still a loss of realism. Anderson and his co-directors turned to two wellknown electronics concerns in the Midlands to iron out problems with lip-sync — to R.T.C. Wright and Co. Ltd, or Perry Barr, and Hollick and Taylor Recording Co. Ltd, Handsworth Wood, Birmingham. Wright's built the prototype of a control system to Anderson’s main theme, and Charles Hollick’s group gave invaluable aid in development. The system was perfected in time for Granada’s pilot on Four Feather Falls and has remained virtually unchanged since — except that the half-hour films take a fortnight each to produce, there are now three camera units at work, and two entirely separate lip-sync control panels.
On Fireball XL5, the whole lip-sync sequence is as follows.
Dubbers – creators of the character voices – including David Graham, Sylvia Anderson, Paul Maxwell and John Bluthal, record their scripts at the Gate Recording Theatre of GHW Productions Ltd, Elstree. Recording is on standard 0.25 in, tape, from which several dupes are made. On the “control" dupe sound impulses can be artificially peaked if desired on a distorting network. The spool when completed is mounted on the control panel at one end of the Slough studio, and the replay head windings are connected to a network with diodes operating relays so that a 50 volt DC supply is switched on the puppet lines.
Up to four figures can be “fed" from any one tape, and although Anderson has experimented with automatic control tracks to pinpoint each individual figure (ultrasonic techniques have been used with fair success), in practice the best way of getting the appropriate speech pulses to the correct figure is by a bank of four quick-action switches. Each key is pushed forward to give an “OK Speaking" indication. Connection to the puppets is via an overhead set of cables parallel to the puppeteers’ gantry, then via a single pair each of the multi-cable net controlling the figure. Up to 12 strands are used for each figure, with many more for mechanical effects such as on the Fireball spacecar itself.
Specially-produced wire is provided by Ormistons, of Ealing, blackened by a photographic process. This dulling-off prevents random optical reflection, and helps to keep all puppet cables out of camera sight. Each cable is only some 0.003 in. in diameter. “Flare” is aerosol-sprayed on to other wires to minimise chance of puppet work being seen to such an extent that it spoils dramatic effect. As it happens, the tension and drama of Fireball XL5 are such that puppet wires are certainly the last things you are likely to think of.
Gerry Anderson and Charles Hollick worked together on a "retention" scheme which changed the whole aspect of lip-sync. It will be obvious that pulses taken from a soundtape do not automatically indicate duration of sound. A pulse may cause a figure's jaw to flip open, but true realism is not obtained unless you have some device which will keep the mouth open wide for long vowel sounds. Also there has to be a third network operating off the tape’s sensitivity level, so that the mouth opens only a little way for the “narrow" sounds like "he" and “me,” and much wider for the open, long-sustained sounds like “Go!" and “Ah!”
Puppetry supervision is in the hands of Christine Glanville and Mary Turner, and all operators are members of the Puppet Guild. Supercar was produced by a parallel team, comprising Christine Glanville, Mary Turner, Roger Woodburn and the Stavordales. They operate puppet wires in the conventional fashion from a set of gantries built of Dexion angle strip. But there the similarity with any other puppet operation ends, for a complex teleplay like any instalment of Fireball would be impossible without closed-circuit TV.
Anderson realised this during preparation of the Granada pilot, and formed his own scheme for coupling up a Pye camera to the 35mm Arriflexes, thus enabling the cameraman to use a TV viewfinder, and also punching the picture on to a series of monitors all around the Slough studios. One monitor is up in the technical operations gallery, where the lip-sync machines run. Another is on the puppeteers’ gantry. A third is in the Design department, so the special effects and puppet and set designers can see their results and check realism, detail, and such things as surface finishes, random light reflections and shading.
The type of camera used for the Arriflex is the Pye Mark IV, which weighs only seven pounds so does not affect panning or any operational facility of the film camera itself. It is 5 in. in diameter, and 11 in. long, and all supplies are fed through a 28-way cable just over half an inch in diameter. On this Pye circuit one camera-control unit serves several cameras, and this is a benefit at AP Films because two or even three cameras can be fed, for second and third unit working.
Puppet operation being by DC, of course there is no possibility of interaction with the CCTV system. In any case the CCU is placed well away from the Arriflex head, and it carries its own video processing amplifier, scan-generation circuits, binary-type timing generator giving interlaced scanning, as well as circuits producing synchronising and blanketing waveforms. The CCU also has air filtration equipment, is fan cooled, and carries all the operational controls for the system, including a switch for selection of automatic or manual sensitivity control.
Resolution on this Pye camera exceeds 600 lines at centre of picture to full 625-line transmission standard, so all in the AP studios really do see Fireball as it will be screened throughout Europe (but not, at present, the UK) on 625-lines! The Pye Mark IV is so arranged that it is held by a simple clamp fitting to the normal eye-piece of the cameras used.
All shooting is done on 35mm standard, using a trio of Arriflex cameras. Director of Photography John Read and associate producer Reg Hill use FP3 stock, processed by Kaye Laboratories Ltd of Oxford Road, N4, and Soho Square.
Gerry Anderson says: “We obtain finer definition on 35, and for Supermarionation this is essential. There are practical laboratory reasons too, for if you use 16mm film in a project of this kind the dubbing facilities (and to some extent processing) are limited.
“When you make on 35, you can easily get a reduction print on 16 — as of course is essential for overseas TV marketing, 16mm still being the international medium for selling a TV series. For ATV we take a fine-grain ‘insurance print’ and also a reduction dupe."
Arriflex cameras with TTH lenses were chosen quite early in the AP Films equipment, partly because of the fine mechanical and optical stability of the camera gate, because of the wide choice of lenses necessary for filming small-set puppet shots, where average work is done at a shooting distance of 3 ft. 6 in. to 5 ft., and where “CU" means move up to four inches! And the mirror shutter layout of the 35mm Arriflex (and for that matter the 16mm Arriflex) lends itself to the coupling of a TV camera.
This camera head incorporates a mirror reflex optical system comprising a glass shutter rotating at a 45 degree angle between the lens axis and the film plane. The 180 degree optically flat surface-coated glass mirror shutter permits viewing and focussing (and TV camera eavesdropping) through the taking lens both for setting up and while the camera is shooting.
The mirror reflex system does not split the light beam, but intermittently makes all the light transmitted by the lens available to both the focussing tube eyepiece (to which the Pye camera is clamped) and to the film. Such a system avoids parallax error, and produces the image right side up. For certain jobs, AP Films use a special Arriflex attachment consisting of a prism and an objective lens, this being placed between the camera and the regular viewing finder. There is an elbow joint to allow for adjustment of angle, and the Mark IV CCTV camera clamps to this adaptor when required.
If 16mm work in colour is needed, as a result of pressure throughout the United Kingdom to stockpile colour in this gauge against the great day for the introduction of 625-line colour, it is a facility of economy that the lens mounts on the 35mm Arriflex are identical in all respects with those on the 16mm cameras.
Absolute precision at the film gate is essential with Supermarionation, the average “studio set" being not more than 8 ft. across, and a “long shot" is probably about the same distance. On two or three first editions of Fireball XL5 I have seen in the Slough viewing theatre, the precision, fine-grain filming and optical quality are even better than with Supercar.
In the cameras used on this sub-miniature work, the extra long film gate is made of stainless steel, precision lapped, and after chromiumplating is given a high polish finish. A side pressure rail is also incorporated, extending the whole length of the gate, which is springloaded to give added lateral stability. A balanced rear pressure pad holds the film flat in the correct focal plane.
A film transport claw with hardened-steel tips engages the film one sprockethole below the film gate from the front of the film on the emulsion side, and the register pin (ensuring steady film placement during exposure, and correct registration for double exposure) enters from the rear cellulose base side. All Arriflex equipment used on Fireball is supplied by Rank Precision Industries Ltd, GB-Kalee (Studio) Division.
Supercar, introduced in February, 1961, was science fiction. So is Fireball XL5. There any similarity ends. The new 26-week series, of which the first half and the first three of the second series are already in the can, is much more adult and broader in story appeal.
Lew Grade, when he backed Supercar, took the sane view: “We decided to make the 26 half-hour episodes of Mike Mercury in Supercar because we feel confident there is great scope in a series which combines humour, excitement and educational values. We are confident that parents will find Supercar an ideal series for the amusement and education of their youngsters.
“In the series, Jimmy, the young boy, is a ward of two old scientists, Dr. Beeker and Professor Popkiss. Jimmy and Mike Mercury (the pilot) have many adventures involving space flight, underwater exploration, and visit foreign lands. These are among the reasons why we made Supercar…"
Fireball XL5 is a spaceship cruising among the planets and stars. But the time is 100 years hence. Everything is in the future. Very little is seen of action on Earth, except at an exciting centre known as Space City, and assumed to be on an island in the Pacific. The chief feature of Space City is a revolving skyscraper, with radar and TV aerials scanning space.
The spaceship Fireball has a detachable nosecone nicknamed “Fireball Junior”, which can be separated on release of a magnetic lock from the main ship, leaving it encircling a planet, for example, while the crew take “Fireball Junior" for a surface visit. All travel on the surface of the Moon or other planets is by ingenious scooters known as ‘Jetmobiles.” These are carried by the crew in the nosecone, and in practice are animated in the same fashion as the puppets themselves.
The main characters of the series are the hero Steve Zodiac and his blonde girlfriend Venus. The co-pilot in most of Fireball's journeys is a robot known as Robert the Robot — a figure made largely of transparent and translucent Perspex, with actions and a dubbed voice which are a credit to the AP Films’ Special Effects branch. In place of the rather eccentric Dr. Beeker of Supercar days is Professor Matic – Matthew Matic – a more kindly and understanding figure, who peers out into space through his “astrascope,” and figures out Fireball’s orbit on portable computers.
Other regular members of the team include Commander Zero and Lieut. 90, both generally seen in spacemen’s kit. New members of the cast occur in every episode, for each story is entirely separate, and indeed the scripts and story treatment differ widely throughout the run, ranging from drama and stern science-fiction to kindly space-comedy. In one forthcoming episode we are introduced to Saucer Man, a figure travelling through space (on a saucer, of course) from a doomed planet known as Membrono, and to a curious space animal, a Lazoon… “a largish, shaggy beast" (I was told by Gerry Anderson) “which comes from another planet. Its eyes are large, like a bushbaby’s. All in all it is a pleasant, cuddly creature, and completely stupid. That's why we named it Zoonie the Lazoon, a completely stupid lazy pooch."
How do you visualise a Saucer Man? The puppet designer on the AP lot told me: “He is a medium-sized man, dressed in silk clothes of fine texture. He has white hair falling down to his shoulders, and a long white beard that reaches his chest… in many shots we get a grotesque chin shadow in silhouette.
“On his back, part of his uniform are two Perspex discs. These give the impression of wings but in fact are just decoration. He wears a skirt like a tunic with silver silk stockings that cover normal legs. He wears ornate shoes, with a large V cut out for style. He has no deformities, and is very straight and upright. He wears a conical hat like a wizard. He is very old indeed, but does not show his age in his bearing or stance… only in beard and lined face."
Steve Zodiac has the conventional spaceman's kit, and is an uncommon denominator of every schoolboy’s conception of what the perfect spaceman ought to look like. As for Venus, the blonde girl friend, I can only say she wears tight pants, is even more cuddly than the Lazoon, speaks with a sexy “Common Market" intercontinental Dietrich-cum-Bardot accent (the voice is that of Sylvia Anderson), and is the sort of doll any viewer would get the urge to date up… handicapped, however, by the fact that in real life Venus is chiefly of wood and plastic, and only 20 in. tall. Which does make a difference.
Each puppet possesses a character of its own, and the aim of Supermarionation is to get realism whilst still retaining the larger-than-life characteristics of the puppet itself. There were seven main figures used on Supercar, all with heads and hands made by Christine Glanville and Mary Turner, and with bodies by Roger Woodburn. A much larger team has been recruited for Fireball and many of the puppets have different heads or masks. A number of interesting optical devices are used to get expression in extreme CU.
In full scale, Fireball XL5 is about 300 ft. long. In the AP studios there are in fact four different Fireballs, ranging from 9 ft. in length to only 5 in. for CU flying shots.
A textbook could be written on props and special effects used in this Lilliputian filming, but as few of the processes can be patented, AP Films obviously do not want to disclose the results of five years’ experimentation. Nevertheless, it is obvious that some of the special volcano and “boiling space" effects are obtained by ingenious use of trick photography with Polycel products, special paints and plastic. Carefully trained ferns are used for scrub and bushes. Lumps of glass taken from the bottom of glass furnaces are used as ice. Coal, sprayed grey, is used for moon mountains.
Much care is given to the miniaturised electronics — to the tiny TV sets on which a spaceship picture is actually seen (not by TV, however, but by a film projector with a long-focal-length lens to give a tiny picture), to Professor Matic's astrascope, the computers, and of course to the jets.
Experiments have been made in shooting Supermarionation in colour, but no full-length pilot has yet been prepared, nor – strangely – is there any United States demand.
At present the puppet characters are in colour (chiefly because of the difficulty of getting dress fabrics in greys, whites and blacks in which the stories are actually visualised), and because one can naturally create a puppet face in colour rather than in shades of grey. The sets are prepared in colour (with flats seldom more than 5 ft. high) and of course the back projection plates are also in colour.
At a time when Gerry Anderson had the first 16 of Supercar in the can, he told me: “We did not even know what our problems would be, at first. One proved to be back-projection.
“While most BP problems in full-size working have been solved, we began to discover unique problems when we applied BP techniques for the first time to Supermarionation for “Small World" scale filming. Problems which might have cropped up, such as the screen mesh showing in close-up, did not in fact materialise.
“When photographing puppets, however, you need to get right in close, and of course this reduces the depth of focus. It also becomes most difficult to light small figures properly against the back-projection.
“Walterdaw helped us to overcome teething problems, and have made a really great contribution to the scope of BP in this specialised sphere. Mr H.E. Driscoll, managing director of Walterdaw Cinema Supplies (1952) Ltd, at Kingston, has helped us enormously. We use the Type 5 Walterdaw equipment, but have developed our own lighting scale."
In Fireball for the first time AP Films are using Xenon cold lighting in Walterdaw BP.
This new space series is also remarkable for the fact that in puppet filming on TV for the first time the Alekan-Gerard process of composite photography (front projection) is being used. This is the Alekan-Gerard Axial Projection process, protected by British Patent No. 768.394 although developed by two French cinematographers, and marketed in the UK by Rank Kalee. The first complete description of the process was given by Rank Organisation’s L.F. Rider at a meeting of the British Kinematograph Society, and I am indebted to him and to Mr T.W.L. Perkins of the Rank Kalee Division Studio Department, for this explanation as it concerns the TV-studio application of the process.
Composite photography for TV can make use of a number of technical tricks, ranging from simple expedients such as life-size photo-backing, to rear projection, travelling matte and Schufften shots, to mention but a few. Because of space, rear projection often has to be ruled out in smaller studios.
Front projection takes up no extra space, and depends upon a combination of optical devices, one old, one new. The old feature is the semi-transparent mirror, a logical descendant of the popular "Pepper’s Ghost” illusion of Victorian days. In its present form, using an untarnishable coating of titanium applied by vacuum deposition methods, its efficiency has been improved out of all recognition.
The new part of the process is the self-collimating or reflex screen whose surface consists of millions of tiny glass beads of high refractive index. Of course, there is nothing new about the beaded screen as such, except that it has the unusual property of returning a high percentage of the projected light along its own axis, straight back to the source.
In the cinema this can be a disadvantage, in that only the projectionist sees the brightest picture, and for this reason beaded screens in the cinema have been used chiefly in theatres which are long and narrow, and where the audience is contained in a small angle relative to the screen. This feature has been developed in the Alekan-Gerard process by "tailoring” the polar diagram, with the result that when the projected picture is viewed from its apparent point of origin (which is the front nodal point of the projection lens), then an image of phenomenal brilliance is seen.
The camera looks at the reflex screen through the semi-transparent mirror, which is disposed at 45 degrees to the optical axis. From one side, the projector throws a background image on the screen, using the flat-surface reflection from the mirror. In this set-up the projected beam emerges – to all appearances – from the camera lens. Thus the lens is axially coincident with the virtual image of the projector lens as seen in the mirror. It is essential that the coincidence relates to the front nodal points of the respective lenses rather than to their front elements.
Happily, there is a simple method of detecting and correcting errors. A piece of screen material about 9 in. square should be mounted on a thin, stiff board of the same size which, in turn, is fixed to the end of a cane or rod. This device is used as a probe, to be inserted into the camera field approximately where the foreground subject is to be located.
If the optical alignment is correct, then the probe target as seen through the camera, will merge almost indistinguishably into the background and will be free from shadow fringing. Should an all-round shadow fringe be seen, then either the camera is too far back along the common axis or the projector is too near the mirror. Should the camera be too far forward, then a fringe will be seen on that edge of the target which is nearest the optical axis, but this effect is only observed when the target is wholly off-axis.
For motion-picture or TV application, the projected picture has to fill a definite frame size. This could introduce an error if there is a fault in the optical alignment. The focal length of the projector lens should be a little shorter than that of the camera lens to produce a slightly oversize background, and this was always done in shooting Fireball. The difference in focal length was kept to about ten per cent.
AP Films found, as Mr L.F. Rider had suggested, they could get unusual effects by careful attention to perspective matching. For instance, it is quite possible for a person (or puppet, in the case of Fireball) who is actually part of the projected background, to be apparently nearer to the camera than is the studio subject. Other trick effects can be obtained: in routine filming with the Alekan-Gerard process, for instance, if a street scene contains some static object, such as a parked car, then that object may be picked up on an appropriately shaped cut-out screen mounted on hardboard and located just in front of the main screen. The subject may then walk behind the selected (projected) object and thus appear to be participating in the projected scene instead of merely being located in front of it.
It is obvious that, since the subject must unavoidably cast a shadow on the screen, some of the background lighting is being interrupted by the subject. What, then, happens to Steve Zodiac or Venus in their white spacesuits? Will not part of the background be seen to be projected thereon?
“The answer," explains Mr Rider, “is 'Yes’ — until we light the subject. The screen, by reason of its phenomenally high luminance gain, provides a good, bright picture from only a low-powered source. So brilliant is the reflectivity that a piece of clean, white paper held against the screen and viewed back through the camera, appears to be relatively quite black."
With this Alekan-Gerard process, AP Films have been able to overcome some of the trouble of spill-light experienced when puppets are illuminated against a BP screen. With front projection, provided the lamps are situated reasonably well away from the common optical axis, a surprising quantity of spill light can fall on the screen without visibly degrading the finished picture.
Tracking of the camera (and background!) appear to be out of the question unless elaborate and continuous compensation is made for focal length and aperture of the projector lens. On the whole, the Alekan-Gerard process appears to be best suited to a static camera set-up as used in Supermarionation. There are many ways of using the process for live studio TV, and those interested in technical development of the novel optical layout should contact Mr T.W.L, Perkins at Rank Kalee Division, Woodger Road, W12.
A comprehensive merchandising scheme in the American pattern was first devised by AP Films for Four Feather Falls, the puppet Western; Granada screen helped to popularise Tex cowboy outfits, games and other items. With Supercar a completely new merchandising system was devised, which has culminated in toys, outfits, books, serialisation, 8mm films, a 45rpm “Twist” recording, and a full-length LP. A similar merchandising scheme is now under way for Fireball XL5.
Some of these items have been made possible by the special sound effects created for Supercar by Soundefex Ltd, of Slough, and by the original music and electronic music composed and directed by Barry Gray, musical director for AP Films.
Gray uses three professional tape-recorders, mixer units, electronic echo, together with two electronic musical instruments. One of these is the French Ondes Martenot, and Gray spent some time in Paris with the inventor, Mon. Maurice Martenot, studying special effects. The other instrument is the British Miller Spinetta, which has twin keyboards, and produces rather piano-like percussive sounds of varying tone-colours. The noise of the flying Supercar was produced by superimposing the Martenot and the Spinetta, and a totally different set of four sound-tracks is being used for the sound of Fireball XL5 and Fireball Junior.
Supercar was actually launched by marine-type rockets built into the rear end of the projectile, real-life rocket effects being created by the Schermuly Pistol Rocket Apparatus Ltd. A similar system is used for Fireball launchings, with steam and smoke effects — some of them on Alekan-Gerard front projection.
This new space series is a certain money-spinner, and is a credit not only to Gerry Anderson but to associate producer Reg Hill, production supervisor David Elliott, Barry Gray, Charles Blackwell (composer of the title music), to Christine Glanville and the entire puppetry team — and not least to Lew Grade who had the vision to make the series possible, and to sell it throughout the world in an ITC worldwide distribution.