the twenty-first century revisited

Our occasional series reprints articles, ads and features which first appeared during the Golden Days of AP Films and Century Twenty-One Studios. Century Twenty One's time machine stops off in May, 1968 to bring you a generous helping of Anderson nostalgia courtesy of Meccano Magazine. Twenty two years ago the magazine went behind the scenes of the then-being-filmed Captain Scarlet series.

As so many readers watch television these days, and the Captain Scarlet series is so popular, we decided to find out just how the programme is produced. The technical aspects of production are highly creative and unusual, so read on for the 'low down.' For those who have not watched the exciting series on television, Captain Scarlet and the Spectrum organisation defend the earth against the attacks of the Mysterons an alien race from another planet determined to destroy the earth, after an unprovoked and accidental attack on their city complex by a Spectrum Space Probe.

Produced by Reg Hill, the series, whose Executive Producer is Gerry Anderson, is made by Century 21 at Slough, Bucks, and we were fortunate to be able to visit the studios, see the models, puppets and advanced filming methods used to bring this series to your screens. This is by no means the first venture of Century 21 into puppet films, they also produced: Four Feather Falls, Supercar, Fireball XL-5, Stingray and the recent Thunderbirds series. Captain Scarlet is unique, as it is the first series where the puppets have human proportions, whereas the Thunderbirds were caricature puppets and had enlarged heads.

Gerry and Sylvia Anderson created the Captain Scarlet theme from which the other departments designed the characters and vehicles. After the scripts are written, the Special Effects Department decide on the type of background to match the script and which vehicles are to be used. Derek Meddings, Supervising Special Effects Director, created the famous Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle as a pencil sketch, from which three-view model-making drawings were made to enable the Model Making Department to construct a whole range of S.P.V.s ranging from l/48th to I/I2th scale, the I/I2th. scale model being 24 inches long. Ray Brown, well known for his control line stunt and radio controlled model flying, heads this department, where every imaginable material is used for model construction. Most are carved from hardwood and balsa with rubber or nylon wheels. When models are required, of the same size, female moulds are formed and fibre glass duplicates reproduced. Whenever possible, commercial parts are used in their construction, i.e. rockets, wheels, etc., from plastic kits and keen modellers may be able to spot these.

Constructing and painting the basic model is only half the job, as they still look like models and not like a full-size machine - as is needed for the television series. The special Effects Department add an array of extra items and dirty the model up for realism . This dirtying-up procedure is in itself a very skilled operation. Paint is applied with an airbrush (a small airdriven hand spray used by artists) to simulate dirt and grime as it would really look, in just the right place s,i.e. aircraft jet exhausts, cannon slots, etc. Trim lines are added to complete the job. The finished model may look scruffy, but more important, it is visually correct when seen on the television. They also have to be of jus tthe right colour as the series is filmed in colour for television in the U.S.A. Some vehicles are run in a slot with a guide pin on their underside and some are pulled along to obtain movement. Six to eight models are made each week, in addition to the many background buildings and landscapes. Smoke is usually created with Jetex fuel pellets concealed inside the vehicle in a flameproof tube. Those tremendous explosions you see each week are a speciality of Century 21; the tongues of flame leap high into the air and the model explodes into fragments as Petrol Gel explosive is electronically detonated. Because highly volatile explosives are used, and the flammable nature of the background materials, all of the Visual Effects Team are required to have had fire-fighting experience; fire extinguishers and protective clothing are the order of the day when a large model is being exploded. Talking of large, the biggest model ever used by Century 21 was an 8ft. long car in Fireball XL5 - some model!

There are two types of puppet, the wire operated marionette and the glove puppet, either being used as film circumstances dictate. All of the Captain Scarlet puppets have human proportions and most are one-third life size, large enough to incorporate plenty of detail. Very skilled model makers create the puppets' faces, which are first moulded in plasticene or clay to the exact shape required, allowing a chin shape that lends itself to easy movement of the soft leather lower face. A rubber female casting is then made from the plasticene head and next a final male fibre glass mould which is painted and rubbed down until the final facial effect is obtained. A whole wardrobe of puppets is kept in stock, the 'stars' along with many standard puppets, which are used regularly for background work, by changing the facial appearance and adding glasses, hats, etc., so you will not recognise one from a previous episode. As many as 12 very thin high tensile steel wires are used to control the marionette puppets, operated by two puppeteers standing on an overhead gantry with a closed circuit television attached to the film camera so the puppeteers can see what they are doing, just as the camera sees it, and not in reverse as they see it from above. The high tensile steel wires are matched to the background by spraying them with colour paint to blend in with buildings, land scapes, and it's very seldom these are visible on television. Each puppet has a solenoid in its chest which activates an electric mechanism to move its leather lips by picking up the electronic impulses from the soundtrack recording, which is made before the film and is played back while the filming takes place; this is how the correct mouth movements to match the sound are obtained. Making the dressings for the puppets is no mean task, with wigs costing as much as £60 each, and eyes constructed in exactly the same way as human false eyes, shoes made from real leather and suits of exactly the right shape and size, creasing in just the right places. If a costume is damaged during filming, another has to be made to an exact colour match, as you can't have Captain Scarlet's suit changing colours if you are watching the series on a colour television!

The background sets are just as involved and difficult to produce. These nearly all have to be to the common one-third scale (except for large buildings, etc.) and everything has to be hand-made. Toy teasets for example may be of nearly the right size, but they do not look real enough to the filmcamera's critical eye. They also have to construct all the tables, chairs, control panels, radio sets, and glasses to one-third scale.

Unfortunately, not every movement or part can be fulfilled by a puppet and real hands and feet occasionally have to stand in for the puppets. This raises another problem clothing; this has to be scaled up exactly from the puppet as in the final film both puppet and actor will be the same size, so every button, badge and crease has to be exactly right.

With several sets being worked at once, filming proceeds at a rapid rate, even though each 30-minute episode takes approximately 150 hours to produce, and costs an astronomical amount of money! A new series is well underway, and this promises to be just as exciting as Captain Scarlet. Finally, we would like to thank Century 21 for their co-o peration which enabled us to produce this feature.

article originally appeared in Meccano Magazine, may 1968