See caption
Supermarionation puppets on display at the National Media Museum in Bradford, UK
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Supermarionation (a portmanteau of “super”, “marionette” and “animation”) is a style of puppetry created in the 1960s by British television production company AP Films (APF). It was used extensively in the action-adventure puppet series of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, most of which used electronic marionettes. The term was coined by Gerry, who regarded Supermarionation as APF’s “trademark”. According to Sylvia, Supermarionation was created to “distinguish the pure puppetry of the stage from our more sophisticated filmed-television version”.[1]

Emma Thom of the National Science and Media Museum defines Supermarionation as a single “technique”: APF’s use of electronics to synchronise puppets’ lip movements with pre-recorded dialogue.[2] According to Chris Bentley, the term encompasses all the “sophisticated puppetry techniques” used by APF (mainly lip-synching), “combined with the full range of film production facilities normally employed in live-action filming” (such as visual effects and front and back projection).[3] David Garland believes that the term expresses Gerry Anderson’s preference for artistic realism and his desire to make APF’s puppet techniques “more and more life-like”.[1]

Development


QuoteWhen we got to making this better class of puppet film, I was looking for a more fitting way to explain how our productions differed from those of our predecessors. I wanted to invent a word that promoted the quality of our work, so we combined the words “super”, “marionette” and “animation”. It didn’t mean anything other than that, and it certainly didn’t refer to any specific process. It was our trademark, if you like.[4]
— Gerry Anderson

APF’s first production, The Adventures of Twizzle, featured puppets made of papier-mâché with painted eyes and mouths. Gerry Anderson and Arthur Provis, APF’s founders, wanted to make Twizzle in the style of a feature film with dynamic shooting and lighting. To this end, three-dimensional sets were used instead of traditional flat backgrounds and the puppeteers operated the marionettes not from the studio floor, but from a bridge about six feet (1.8 m) above it.[5]

The puppets of the follow-up series, Torchy the Battery Boy, were made of plastic wood and incorporated a moveable lip that opened and closed on a string.[6] In practice, lip movement was difficult to control owing to the bobbing of the puppets’ heads. The sets were made of cardboard and the props were fibreglass.[7]

By the time Four Feather FallsFour Feather Falls was the third puppet television show produced by Gerry Anderson for Granada Television. It was based on an idea by Barry Gray, who also wrote the show's music. The series was the first to use an early version of Anderson's Supermarionation puppetry. Four Feather Falls was the third puppet television show produced by Gerry Anderson for Granada Television. It was based on an idea by Barry Gray, who also wrote the show's music. The series was the first to use an early version of Anderson's Supermarionation puppetry. entered production, the head strings had been replaced with tungsten steel wires and the moveable lip with a solenoid-driven electronic lip-sync mechanism. The latter was a key step in the development of Supermarionation and made it easier for the puppeteers to move the marionettes to match their dialogue.[7] Character dialogue was pre-recorded on two tapes – one to be played during filming to guide the puppeteers, the other to be converted into a series of electrical impulses to open and close the puppets’ mouths.[8]

The term “Supermarionation” was coined during the production of APF’s fourth series, Supercar, whose final 13 episodes were the first to be credited as being “filmed in Supermarionation”.[9]

Technical overview


The system used marionettes suspended and controlled using thin tungsten steel wires that were chemically blackened to make them less visible to the camera.[10] Though only 0.005 inches (0.13 mm) thick,[9] the wires often needed to be concealed further by being sprayed with “antiflare” (grease mist) and painted various colours to blend in with the sets.[8][11] Puppets and sets were built to ​&third; scale, the puppets being roughly 22 inches (56 cm) tall.[12] Close-ups of live actors on full-size sets were used to show intricate actions that the puppets could not perform, such as pressing buttons.[13]

The puppets’ distinguishing features were their fibreglass heads and the internal solenoids that formed the basis of their lip-sync mechanisms.[14] Dialogue was pre-recorded rather than spoken live. Each episode’s dialogue was recorded on two tapes: a master tape to be used for the soundtrack, and a copy to be played during puppet filming.[7] When played in the studio, the dialogue was converted into electrical impulses that were conducted by the wires into the puppet’s head; there, the impulses powered a solenoid that caused the lower lip to open and close with each syllable.[15] To accommodate the solenoids, heads were made as hollow shells. The heads of main characters were sculpted in clay or Plasticine, then encased in rubber or silicone rubber to create a mould; fibreglass resin was then painted onto the mould to produce the finished head. The heads of guest characters, which were played by puppets called “revamps”, were Plasticine sculpted on a blank base.[16]

The lip-sync mechanism dictated the puppets’ body proportions. On all APF series from Four Feather Falls to Thunderbirds, the solenoids were located inside the puppets’ heads. As a result, the head of a puppet was disproportionately large compared to the rest of its body; the latter could not be scaled up to match as the puppet would have been too bulky to operate effectively.[17] Garland comments that the disproportion was influenced partly by “aesthetic considerations … the theory being that the head carried the puppet’s personality”. This resulted in many puppets being given caricatured appearances.[18] Towards the end of the 1960s, the development of miniaturised components led APF to design a new type of puppet. The option to downsize the electronic components in the head was rejected in favour of moving the entire lip-sync mechanism to the chest, where it was connected to the mouth by narrow rods through the neck.[19][20][21] This allowed the head to be shrunk and the puppets of Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons and later series to be sculpted to realistic body proportions.[20][21] Around this time, APF also tried to make the puppets’ faces more lifelike by crafting them in a new, flexible material, but the results proved unsatisfactory and the idea was abandoned.[19]

Thom believes that the re-design reflected Anderson’s desire for greater “realism and spectacle” in his TV series.[2] Not all of Anderson’s colleagues welcomed the change; puppet sculptor and operator John Blundall negatively likened the new puppets to “little humans”, claiming that they had less personality than the caricatured versions and that the emphasis on realism hampered the puppeteers’ creativity.[18] According to director Desmond Saunders, APF was trying “anything to get [the puppets] to look like ordinary human beings. But they are not ordinary human beings! … I often wonder it if would have been better to make them more like puppets, not less like puppets.”[19] A disadvantage of the new puppets was that the smaller heads upset the weight distribution, making the puppets harder to operate.[18]

In all the Anderson puppet series, a major limitation of the marionettes was their inability to walk convincingly.[2][22] According to Sylvia Anderson, the new puppet design exacerbated this: “The more realistic our puppets became, the more problems we had with them … It was just possible to get away with the awkward moments in Thunderbirds because the proportions of the characters were still caricature. It was later when we had developed a more realistic approach … that the still imperfect walk was [all] the more obvious.”[23] To reduce the characters’ need to move, many scenes showed them standing, sitting or driving vehicles. Supercar and Stingray’s focus on their eponymous car and submarine, as well as Stingray’s depiction of Commander Shore as a paraplegic confined to a futuristic “hoverchair”, are examples of devices used to overcome the puppets’ lack of mobility.[2][11][24] The cast of Fireball XL5 avoid walking by riding personal hovercraft called “jetmobiles”;[8] similar vehicles are seen in Stingray and Thunderbirds.

In a 1977 interview, Anderson said that the steps taken to make the puppets more life-like were part of a general effort on APF’s part to “make the [puppet] medium respectable”. On the preparations for Supercar, the first of APF’s science-fiction series, he remembered “[thinking] that if we set the story in the future, there would be moving walkways and the puppets would be riding around in the car for much of the time, so it would be much easier to make them convincing.” According to interviewer Kevin O’Neill, this “moving into the future” for greater realism meant that it was “almost accidental” that APF’s later series were all science fiction.[25] David Garland calls character movement Anderson’s “bête noire” and states that the puppets’ limited mobility resulted in “vehicle-heavy science fiction [becoming] Anderson’s preferred genre”.[11] He regards the use of marionettes – which he considers the kind of puppet “perhaps most unsuited” to an action format – as “one of the most striking paradoxes” of the Anderson productions.[26] Carolyn Percy of Wales Arts Review comments that the inclusion of “futuristic vehicles” like Supercar allowed APF to devise “more exciting and imaginative scenarios” and “work around the limitations of the puppets … to give their ‘acting’ the integrity to match the material.”[14]

The final Supermarionation series, The Secret Service, used extensive footage of live actors to a point where, in the words of Stephen La Rivière, it ended up “half-way between live action and Supermarionation”. Its main character, Stanley Unwin, was modelled on the comedian of the same name, who voiced the puppet character and served as its human body double in long shots and other sequences where the puppet could not be used. Gerry Anderson explained that this was another way of circumventing the puppets’ lack of mobility, commenting: “I came up with the idea of getting Stanley Unwin to do all the walking shots, and driving shots in this Model Ford T [sic] [the character] had. If, for example, you had a sequence where Stanley Unwin would arrive at a building in his model T, he would … get out, walk down the path, and as soon as he opened the door, you’d cut to the reverse angle and that would be the puppet of Stanley Unwin … I used Stanley Unwin, married to his own puppet, to enable him to do all the things that the puppet couldn’t do.”[27]

Supermarionation productions


TitleYearTypeNotes
Four Feather FallsFour Feather Falls was the third puppet television show produced by Gerry Anderson for Granada Television. It was based on an idea by Barry Gray, who also wrote the show's music. The series was the first to use an early version of Anderson's Supermarionation puppetry. Four Feather Falls was the third puppet television show produced by Gerry Anderson for Granada Television. It was based on an idea by Barry Gray, who also wrote the show's music. The series was the first to use an early version of Anderson's Supermarionation puppetry. 1960TV seriesAPF’s first production to use electronic marionettes equipped with lip-sync mechanisms. First fibreglass heads and moving eyes.[8]
Supercar1961TV seriesFirst production to feature rocket effects, back projection effects and underwater scenes filmed “dry” through water tanks.[7][28] The 13-episode second series was the first to be “filmed in Supermarionation” and the first for which puppets were duplicated to allow episodes to be filmed in pairs by separate crews.[29] It also marked the APF’s first use of a dedicated special effects unit, led by Derek Meddings.[30]
Fireball XL51962TV seriesFirst production to feature puppet heads with blinkable eyes[31]
Stingray1964TV seriesFirst production for which puppets’ facial expressions were varied: main characters could now be fitted with “smiler” and “frowner” heads. For greater realism, poseable hands and glass eyes (bearing miniaturised prints of real human eyes) were also introduced.[7][32]
Thunderbirds1965TV series
Thunderbirds Are Go1966Feature filmFirst production in which all puppets were fibreglass (previously, guest characters had been sculpted in Plasticine).[33] “Under control” (string-less) puppets were introduced for scenes of characters sitting – for example, fighter pilots in aircraft cockpits.[34]
Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons1967TV seriesThe lip-sync mechanism was moved to the chest, allowing the puppets to be redesigned in realistic body proportions. Eyes were once again plastic.[34] Guest characters were played by a “repertory company” of fibreglass puppets whose appearances could be superficially altered for each new role.[35]
Thunderbird 61968Feature filmFirst production to feature extensive location shooting.[36]
Joe 901968TV series
The Secret Service1969TV seriesIncluded extensive footage of live actors
The Investigator1973TV pilotFeatured Supermarionation puppet characters and live actors[37]

Critical reception


Percy notes that Gerry Anderson would have preferred to make live-action productions rather than puppet series and argues that his style of filming was developed to “make the puppet film as ‘respectable’ as possible”. She also comments that the Andersons’ filming techniques “would not only result in a level of quality and sophistication not seen before in a family show, but also give birth to some of the most iconic series in the history of British children’s television.”[14]

Garland describes the underlying theme of Gerry Anderson’s work as a “self-reflexive obsession with an aesthetic of realism (or more accurately a surface realism often associated with naturalism) borne of an unfulfilled desire to make live-action films for adults”,[38] and further observes that “being typecast as a producer of children’s puppet television led [Anderson] on a lifelong quest to perfect a simulation of reality”. Garland notes that Anderson’s involvement with puppets began at a time when Western puppet theatre “had become increasingly marginalised to a niche, to an association with children’s entertainment”, and that to ensure appeal to adults as well as children – a target audience described by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson as “kidult” – APF’s puppet TV series employed an “aesthetic of incremental realism”.[39] He suggests that the drive towards increased realism in APF’s TV series echoed “19th-century marionette theatre’s own attempts to distinguish itself from other forms of puppetry (especially glove puppets), which also involved a tethering to the newly-emergent realist aesthetic across the arts”.[40]

Citations



Bibliography


Archer, S., & Hearn, M. (2002). What Made Thunderbirds Go! The Authorised Biography of Gerry Anderson. BBC Books.
Bentley, C. (2008). The Complete Gerry Anderson: The Authorised Episode Guide (4th ed.). Reynolds & Hearn.
Garland, D. (2009). Pulling the Strings: Gerry Anderson’s Walk from .Supermarionation’ to “Hypermarionation.” In L. Geraghty (Ed.), Channeling the Future: Essays on Science Fiction and Fantasy Television (pp. 61–75). Scarecrow Press.
Hirsch, D., & Hutchison, D. (1978, September). The Magical Techniques of Movie & TV SFX – Part XI: Supermarionation. Starlog, 3(16).
Hollis, R. (1999, Winter-Spring). The Worlds of Gerry Anderson – Part One: From The Adventures of Twizzle to Thunderbirds. Animato!, (40), 44–52.
La Rivière, S. (2009). Filmed in Supermarionation: A History of the Future. Hermes Press.
O’Neill, K., & Gosnell, K. (1977). The Anderson Tapes: J.I. meets Gerry Anderson or: Get Plastered To Make IT Into Movies. Just Imagine, 21(13).
Peel, J. (1993). “Supermarionation”. Thunderbirds, Stingray, Captain Scarlet: The Authorised Programme Guide. Virgin Book.
Percy, C. (2017, April 5). The Life and work of Gerry Anderson: Anything  can happen in the next half hour! Retrieved from https://www.walesartsreview.org/the-work-and-legacy-of-gerry-anderson/
Thom, E. (2012, December 27). Supermarionation: Gerry Anderson, a like in puppetry. Retrieved from https://blog.scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk/gerry-anderson-1929-2012/
Wickes, S. (2013, August 5). The Hows and Whys of Supermarionation – part 4. Retrieved from http://www.tvcentury21.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=81
Wickes, S. (2013, August 5). The puppets look different between THUNDERBIRDS and CAPTAIN SCARLET. What Happened? Retrieved from http://www.tvcentury21.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=112:the-puppets-look-different-between-thunderbirds-and-captain-scarlet-what-happened&catid=122:faqs&Itemid=179