Welcome to Slough dream machine '66

Chauncey Jerome finds out why the stout party collapsed; and that Thunderbirds are tv-film go!

Chauncey Jerome

"how is Thunderbirds series put in the can? Short answer is on 35mm colour, shot with Arri's and R-35's. And as the result of over eight years specialized study of filming in Supermarionation miniature. "Your small-scale sets are realistic," conceded a No 1 Hollywood cameraman who visited Slough during shooting of Thunderbirds. "But where do you do your animation?" As Punch would say: "Collapse of stout party."

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From his own experience in cutting and dubbing rooms, and eventually in film direction, Gerry Anderson began to develop a philosophy of 'small-world' camera-craft. Most studios disagreed. Even Torchy, an early and successful series for ABC-TV did not give them a clue of the way Supermarionation could be developed to present T-Birds' international proportions. Until then, most filming of this nature was animated by stopped-motion. Indeed, the best BBC children's films were produced by model animation, nicknamed 'pack-shot' because it was the method so frequently employed to photograph the (then) inevitable cigarette popping out of a packet.

This type of shooting is done frame by frame, and is now just as successfully produced on video tape without the inherent processing delay of photographic film. Pack-shot by cinema camera is generally believed to have been developed if not actually discovered by George Pal about 35 years ago, for the very first animation in advertising films. It has special advantages for filming inanimate objects – but not moving figures of the sort needed for Thunderbirds – because where there is an object carrying important detail (the manufacturer's pack is the obvious example), stop-frame photography permits longer exposure time than continuous-action. This results in a smaller aperture and a 'deep-focus' effect giving a crisp picture.

Anderson and his associates were alone in believing that, despite this advantage, an entirely different technique could be evolved for full-length TV-films.

At times results from pack-shot filming are jerky, and artistically limited, but with models, puppets and electronic devices to move lips and eyes, a continuous-action shot of lifelike realism becomes possible, and the range of special effects is vastly increased over those possible in live-action. Scenes are shot with 35mm stock, although Kaye Laboratories prepare a 16mm master print for use in ITC marketing in circumstances where freight charges and other factors make it impossible to distribute 35mm prints. For ATV, who hold distribution rights, a fine-grain 'insurance print' and also a reduction dupe are usually made. Electronically the overall process of Supermarionation is complex, for there is electrical control of lips, and also CCTV monitoring off the cameras.

cutting film
Among the five-million feet of film processed every week at the Rank Laboratories, Denham are the colour masters of AP Films' 'Thunderbirds' series. Before each reel is handled by the patented Rank Control Matte process sections of the original negative are cut and assembled, as seen being done here.

All Thunderbirds main-stage shots are with Arriflex cameras, the Mitchell R35's being reserved as a rule for Special Effects work. The Arriflex, in particular, lends itself to the form of TV monitoring which Gerry Anderson and his technical advisers have developed themselves. It provides good mechanical and optical stability, essential with close-up shots, and the mirror shutter of the camera is convenient for coupling a CCTV camera. The Arriflex head incorporates a mirror reflex optical system comprising a glass shutter rotating at a 45° angle between the lens axis and the film plane. The 180° optically-flat surface coated mirror permits viewing and focussing through the taking lens, both for setting up and (via the CCTV network) in actual filming. This mirror reflex system does not split the light beam, but intermittently makes available all the light, transmitted by the lens, available both to the focussing-tube eyepieces (to which the CCTV camera is coupled) and to the film. This system avoids parallax error, and produces the image the right way up. For special work, the Thunderbirds team have used an Arriflex attachment comprising a prism and an objective lens, this being placed between the camera and the usual viewfinder channel.

The extra-long Arriflex gate is of stainless steel, precision lapped, and after chromium-plating is given a near-mirror finish. A side pressure rail is used, extending the whole length of the gate, this being spring-loaded for lateral stability. A balanced rear pressure-pad holds the film flat in the focal plane. Thunderbirds shooting is really looking at life through a microscope, so absolute camera precision is needed. A film transport claw with hardened-steel tips engages the film precisely one sprocket hole below the gate from the front, on the emulsion side. The register pin (this ensures steady film placement during exposure, and also correction registration for double exposure) enters from the rear cellulose-base side. All Arriflex equipment used on Thunderbirds is provided by The Rank Organisation.

Natural problems in Supermarionation dimensions come from depth of focus when working at average short distances. As Reg Hill explained to me: "Until they visit Slough studios, many film and television executives mistakenly believe we could make puppet films anywhere, and that our problems are less weighty than with live-action. This is not so. We have spent many years developing this technique. Stages are smaller and less costly than in live-action, but then everything is smaller, and that creates difficulties. It is rather like producing a beautiful precision watch movement instead of a large, cheap alarm clock. Even in fundamentals such as camera tracking, what would be a 9 or 10ft track at Pinewood or Shepperton is about 3ft track for us..."

John Read, director of photography, explained: "Our biggest sets are no more than 10ft deep, and with standard lenses this brings depth of focus troubles, so the only solution is to stop down and illuminate at high level. At the present state of the art, zoom lenses are no material help, although we are continually experimenting with zooms. There is a turret on our cameras, but rapid lens change are usually unnecessary in Supermarionation. At present we get better definition in a tracking shot with a normal TTH lens when pulling focus. Normally we may stop down to 9.5 even 16 for head and shoulders. As is well known in camera-work, the closer in one has to get, the greater the depth of focus you need to hold for a given distance. Our cameras are usually worked close down to the floor for these small stages, and the average point of focus is around 5ft 6in."

As in standard practice, the AP Films camera teams use the Kelly calculator. Of course there is a set formula for any given lens, and with the aid of the calculator the technicians on the Thunderbirds sets measure the nearest and furthest points from the optical plane, then they can see from the scale how much light is needed, and where to focus.

Mole-Richardson lighting is the main source in the studios here, and every type is used from pups up to 10K. On a medium Thunderbirds shot it is usual to illuminate with fifteen 2K's, one or two 10K's, and a huge bank of 1,000 watts in the backing. This degree of lighting usually astonishes the 'full-size' studio lighting camerman, but is essential because of the stopping down, the colour stock used, and (as explained in the feature on Special Effects) because of higher frame-rate to get realism.

Back Projection (BP) plays a big part in Thunderbirds photography, and AP Films use the Ernemann X Special BP projector supplied by Walturdaw Cinema Supplies, this machine incorporating the novel Zeiss automatic phase-sync device.

It will be appreciated that when a BP film is projected, the shutter must be in synchronism with the mirror shutter of the camera, otherwise the complete back-projected picture will not be 'seen' as a composite of the TV-film image.

It has been a great aid in speeding Thunderbirds production to have the Ernemann X as the gate has a rocksteady intermittent unit, with forward and reverse running. The phase-sync facility is remotely controlled, so both the BP projectionist and the cameraman work in unison without the usual complexity of a studio talk-back network, or electrical interlock.

This automatic phase sync consists of a servo drive which revolves the stator windings on the synchronous projector motor. This little 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 through a 'resting circuit' relay system, and this comes into operation each time the projector is run. Thus the only link between projector and camera is a cable carrying a small 24 volt supply. The remote control consists of a multi-cord cable feeding a single-unit mobile control box with controls for forward-start/stop, reverse-start/stop, are light on/off, and focus (mag-slip system). Shooting a Thunderbirds BP scene can take place when a small control is turned, and both cameraman and BP operator can see the 'in phase signal.' Shooting can then start at once; and should a partial retake be needed, the cameraman can run the projector in reverse until the desired sequence is viewed on the screen, at full brilliance.

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Although this is an Eastman colour job, and Kayes make a B/W 16mm copy, it is nevertheless also necessary to produce a 35mm pan master for use in those countries (Britain included) where they have not yet the blessing of colour television!

"It was decided not to use a colour print for B/W TV," I was told at Slough. The television reason for this decision is interesting. Television is fundamentally an orthochromatic process. Reds tend to show dark on the TV screen, and blues may disappear entirely. Transmission quality is improved if a proper B/W print is used in telecine, and in the masters provided by the Film Processing Division of The Rank Organisation the tones are truly represented. Where a medium is red it transmits as an optically-understandable grey, not a dull black.

The six cutting rooms at Slough are completely equipped by Photographic Electrical Co, who have provided all the cutting and editing equipment for preceding Supermarionation series. It is all 35mm. The Ciniola 35mm editing machine is the basis in each cutting suite. This can handle optical and magnetic sound, having a retractable magnetic sound-head. There is a free-wheeling sound sprocket for manual sound track scanning, and the Ciniola sound unit has a reversible constant-speed drive; there is a reversible variable-speed picture driving motor. Sound and picture can be run coupled or independently, with hand and foot control for Thunderbirds editors, and a transistorised audio amplifier is an integral unit.

Four-way synchronisers (automatic lock on first sprocket, available for use with a magnetic pick-up head), and both two- and four-way film rewinders are also installed by Photographical Electrical. As so much cutting needs to be done with Thunderbirds (dramatic effect being maintained by a high proportion of short-duration scenes, plus intricate cutting to Special Effects), it is a real advantage to have rapid splicers and re-winders. The latter chosen for the Slough cutting-rooms are fitted with locking snick ends on both spindles, an adjustable friction clutch, and enable spooling-on and spooling-off to be carried out with the new film keep and plate.

On the Premier automatic tape splicer there is no loss of frame when joining a picture, and splices are made with Mylar perforated adhesive tape. This gives a one-perforation diagonal splice (butt or overlap) as well as a standard straight splice. This American-produced tape has a base of a new polyester, 0.0015-in thick, and is virtually untearable. It is resistant to all normal cleaning agents such as Freon 113.

Thunderbirds colour stock is processed at the Denham laboratories of The Rank Organisation, which have over 30 years' experience of precision processing. Not only have they processed all major TV series including Ghost Squad and The Invisible Man, but great motion pictures such as The Cruel Sea, In Which We Serve, and Hamlet.

This huge processing centre was conceived by Sir Alexander Korda in 1936 (the year in which Britain started the world's first public TV service), and everything was done regardless of expense. Korda flew over Walter Gropius, one of the world's leading architects, to design the building, he also induced Bill Harcourt to come over from Paramount. Today W. H. Harcourt is still director of the Denham laboratories, and ten other senior executives intimately concerned with handling Thunderbirds colour processing also share the distinction of working at Denham since the day the laboratories first opened.

While much B/W TV film is processed by Rank under the Cinex system (this uses a test strip to give automatically correct grading) Eastman colour stock is handled by the unique Rank system known as control matte. This is an automatic process for controlling processing during colour printing, and is not to be confused with the travelling-matte technique used to create special effects.

Thunderbirds runs for approximately 52 minutes per episode. It is carried on five or six reels, 35mm. At the moment, with four stages working simultaneously, roughly 13 or 14 days go to the making of a single episode, but this will be speeded after January when the new studio opens to give an additional two stages. So far as the cameramen are concerned, Thunderbirds are Non-stop Go.