Supermarionation for Thunderbirds

G. Anderson

During the last year, great progress has been made in the technique of Supermarionation — AP Films, or Century 21 Productions as it is now known, has made its first full length feature for the cinema screen entitled Thunderbirds Are GO!. It is strides ahead of its television forerunner Thunderbirds. In the New Year production commences on a new television series which it is hoped will be an advance on the technique used on the feature film and it is the intention of this paper to describe some of the developments that have taken place in the last year and to discuss our plans for the future.

Century 21 Studios

Extensions to the studio in Slough have now been completed and offer the following facilities for the Supermarionation process five stages are now ready to receive new television series two will be devoted to the puppet side of the shooting and three to special effects two more stages are ready to receive the new feature films, one for puppets and one for special effects. A new construction department has been opened and the model building facilities have been extended.


Thunderbirds Are GO! was the first film to be shot with the new Livingston Electronic Viewfinder Unit known as Add-a-Vision. Century 21 were fortunate enough to be able to use the prototype of this equipment throughout the production and worked in close co-operation with Livingston during its field test. Since this equipment is already the subject of a BKS paper the technical specification will not be considered in detail basically, it is an electronic viewfinder which can be used in conjunction with the Mitchell BNC Camera. The television picture is taken by a Livingston Plumbicon Camera from a beamsplitter positioned in the Angenieux lens, enabling the staff of the entire unit to watch the scene being filmed on television monitors with a crisp clear image. The advantages of this system far outweigh its initial cost and the overall quality of the productions has risen considerably. Two further sets of equipment are being delivered this autumn. Having had some 20 weeks of practical floor experience with this equipment the advantages it offers can be summed up as follows:

  1. All members of the unit can study the set-up and watch rehearsals without having to move the camera operator there is a considerable time saving here because the operator can concentrate on his job without continual interruption from the director, continuity girl, art director and other technicians wanting to look through the camera.
  2. The monitored pictures can be recorded on tape and when the director considers that he has a satisfactory take he can request play back and within 30 seconds watch the scene being replayed with synchronous picture and sound. This means that the first complete take is very often printed, because on play-back it has been perfectly satisfactory. Often, one gets the correct result shortly after rehearsal but if there is any doubt (and there usually is), the director may go for a 'safety'. This could be the very next take but, more often than not, means another half a dozen attempts. During the course of shooting one knew what to expect when viewing rushes because they had really been seen the day before.
  3. The Add-a-Vision equipment includes an oscilloscope which gives the cameraman an electronic graph showing the make-up of his picture This item was of tremendous assistance and once we were able to interpret its pattern we were able to film with much greater certainty than ever before. The oscilloscope would tell us immediately if there was any uneven illumination on our sky backings and the balance between two types of lighting conditions on the same scene could be judged exactly. It was possible to stop down whilst looking at the graph and obtain the precise exposure without any reference to light meters or conversion tables. One very important advantage Add-a-Vision offers is in balancing back projection. Assuming that the composite scene to be photographed is a television set standing in a room, the procedure adopted would be as follows:

    All foreground lights illuminating the set would be switched out, the BP picture would be projected and the oscilloscope would be studied. Next, the BP picture would be cut and the cameraman would now light his foreground until he matched the conditions exactly. Having gone through this simple procedure, he would be able to film with the knowedge that the plate and foreground would be in balance every time.

  4. We have been using electronic viewfinders for many years as it is essential in our type of filming. However, until Add-a-Vision arrived we had been working with very poor quality television pictures and, of course, found the operation very much simplified using the high definition pictures of Add-a-Vision. It is fair to say that there has been a tremendous improvement in the overall quality of the production due to the facilitics that Add-a-Vision provides. It will surely not be very long before the electronic viewfinder becomes standard equipment on all types of filming.

Special effects

This department has grown in 5 years from a two-man operation into a department which now occupies an entire building. The advent of our first feature production has afforded the opportunity to use a lot of know-how that had previously been impossible to apply to television pictures because of limited budgets. The special effects department is a department where new ideas are being tried out daily and at the end of a year's filming one notices that the overall quality and credibility of the shots have risen considerably.

When one tries to analyse what it is that has brought about these improvements one finds it difficult. There have been so many innovations, each one contributing just a little to the quality of the shot. For example, our miniature vehicles are now built with a full suspension system so that when the vehicle hits a bump on the set the wheels move up and down naturally. A device has been developed which automatically makes the bonnet of a car dip down when it brakes, as would happen with a full sized vehicle when its weight is thrown forward as the brakes are applied. Some of the miniature vehicles, no more than six inches in length, now contain a full suspension system; head lamps; a flashing beacon and the new device for dipping the bonnet when the car stops. Miniature transistors play a large part in enabling us to provide these facilities in such a confined space.

A new 'roller road' has recently been brought into service and has proved of great value. On the horizontal plane, it offers a moving foreground, a moving roadway and a middle distance all driven by separate motors so that variation of speed from foreground to background can be achieved. The vertical plane gives a moving sky background. This equipment enables the photography of vehicles travelling along roadways or aircraft taking off from runways to be shot with a greater degree of realism than has previously been possible.

The use of the explosive Cortex has provided a number of interesting effects. The explosive is supplied in a strip which can be laid across any surface, once covered with adhesive tape it immediately becomes deadly. At the touch of a button it is possible to cut off an aircraft's wing in flight, cut a set in two or puncture a hole through a wall provided the material it is used on is not too thick.

One of the biggest advances planned in our special effects department is the design and construction of a radio controlled model jet aircraft. The aircraft, made of fibre glass, has a wing span of just over five feet. Its motors will develop ten horse-power. It is hoped that the aircraft will take off, retract its landing gear, fly at approximately 200 miles an hour and have an altitude capability of at least 20,000ft. On command from the ground it will be able to issue forth black smoke from its tail as though it had been hit in a 'dog fight' or, on another command, fire machine guns from the leading edge of its wings. On landing, its undercarriage will lower before making perfect touch down. The whole operation is radio controlled from the ground. Soon we will be experimenting with this model by taking over its radio control with another unit installed in a hovering helicopter so that air-to-air shots may be obtained. It is our intention to build a squadron of these jet fighters, all of original design, and to use them extensively in our next feature film. If the test flight of the prototype is successful it will, to the best of our knowledge, be the first such aircraft to fly. Radio controlled model aircraft are, of course, already in existence but they still rely on the air screw. We are by no means certain that we will succeed, but we are going ahead with the experiment on the basis that we always work on; if we can do it, then it must be old fashioned — the fact that we are not sure makes it an exciting project.


In this department tremendous strides are being made towards improving the medium. In the past, one of the greatest problems has been that the size of the puppet's head has been out of proportion to its body. This has made it extremely difficult to create strong and believable characters. Progress has been difficult in view of this restriction. In order to produce a perfectly proportioned puppet it would be necessary to do one of two things; either make the body very much larger or the head very much smaller. A larger body would mean that all sets would have to be scaled up. The overhead gantries that carry the puppet operators would need to be raised and the stages would have to be enlarged. Obviously, the answer was to produce smaller heads. This proved to be difficult because the head carried an electronic mouth movement and mechanical eye movement so there was precious little room. However, an entirely new type of automatic mouth movement has now been designed. Instead of the mouth snapping open and closing in time with the prerecorded dialogue, the new system enables the mouth to open and close a varying amount depending on the performance of the pre-recorded artist. It is a very much more efficient system and increases the credibility of the puppet's speech. During the course of this development, it was found that it was possible to place the controlling solenoids in the puppet's chest, the movements of the solenoids being transmitted through the puppet's neck by cable to actuate the mouth movement in the head. This has now enabled the size of the head to be reduced for the first time to a correct proportion. The result of this development is a puppet which is more believable, easier to model and easier to dress.

In the past new characters were designed and built for each television series. Once having established the permanent characters, then week-by-week as many additional characters would be created as the script called for. Since these additional characters only appeared in one film, they were then revamped for the next production. The new puppet, however, is an extremely complicated affair and, because of this, we have decided to build an extensive repertory company comprising 100 characters, male and female, covering an enormous range of types. Once the repertory company is built these puppets will then be cast in much the same way as live artists are cast. The creation of the new lead characters and the repertory company, which will be used for the first time in the new series next year, is an enormous task. It involves producing no less than sixty-six heads for the permanent characters alone, the reason being that each character has three or four heads enabling it to have a variety of expressions. However, when the work is finally completed it will represent the biggest single advance made in technique since filming began some nine years ago. The improvement will not only be seen in the characters themselves but will reflect in the sets and properties. In the past our art director has been faced with the almost impossible task of building sets and properties to match in with characters that were themselves totally out of proportion. A typical example of this problem was the construction of Lady Penelope's Rolls Royce for the film Thunderbirds Are Go!. The problem — how do you build a car with proportions to look correct when characters are seated inside with only their heads and shoulders visible, yet look correct when characters are standing alongside it. Clearly, with the puppet's head built to one scale and the body to another there was a problem; a problem this new development has overcome.

Art department

A puppet can only move in one direction, backwards and forwards along the gantry from which they are operated. When a puppet character has to cross a set, the set has to be revolved under the gantry until it is in exactly the right position. The flats are restricted in height so that they can move freely under the puppet gantry. Tops of doorways have to be removable to enable a puppet to pass through because of the control wires. Backgrounds have to be carefully chosen so as to assist the puppeteers in their efforts to ensure that the control wires do not show.

Because of the nature of the films, most sets have many working parts. Moving walkways; chairs which appear through the floor; pictures that revolve and turn into radio transmitters and ash trays that spring up revealing hidden microphones. In addition to these complications we are continually striving for improvements. Nevertheless, in the last year there have been considerable advances in the settings of the films. We have brought this about by splitting our art department into a number of functions all under the control of the supervising art director. Once again the big step forward came on the feature film Thunderbirds Are GO!. The problems of the department have been helped by the introduction of a design team which itself is split into two categories, aesthetic design and technical design. Once the rough designs are approved a visualiser presents them to the producer in artwork form. The sets are then discussed with the director and if all parties concerned are satisfied the sets go into the construction department.

In the past, many of the sets had to be built by subcontractors because our facilities were inadequate. This made control extremely difficult but now a new machine shop has been installed and in future all television series sets will be completely built in the studio.

A new mechanical property department has been formed and, as its name implies, properties that have to be mechanized are built here. This department has brought a greater degree of reliability to the mechanical aspect of the settings.

New and original pieces of equipment are constantly being designed and manufactured. Most of them are simple in concept but difficult and costly to make. For example, a machine has recently been built which simply tows things along at pre-determined speeds. By wheeling this machine into position alongside a set, sliding doors can be made to move accurately and smoothly. By attaching the tow rope to the camera dolly the camera can be tracked at a precise speed, synchronizing its movements with the playback track exactly. New uses for this equipment are being found daily.

Because we operate on such a small scale, all movements have to be carefully controlled. When the final result is presented, in what appears to be normal scale on the screen, any jerky movements are greatly accentuated.

A new piece of equipment is at present being built for the art department which will enable it to produce a moving walkway on futuristic sets. The machine 15ft. in length will, in fact, produce on the screen – in terms of normal scale – 45ft. of moving walkway. It sounds all too simple; an endless belt on rollers driven by an electric motor but, in order that the machine can be used for other purposes, the manufacturers are providing varying speeds from zero to 4ft. a second. The movement of the belt must be absolutely precise and completely free from vibration otherwise it will affect the operation of puppet characters standing on it whilst it is moving. The machine will also have pre-set devices enabling the belt to be stopped automatically at any point so that once a scene is rehearsed the same action can be copied precisely for shooting. Generally speaking, the trend in the art department is to produce bigger and better sets using modern materials as they become available and introducing more and more mechanical components — some of the results obtained recently have been quite outstanding.


As the medium becomes more realistic and the techniques more complicated, the job of scripting is a greater challenge than ever before. It requires a complete understanding of the medium and a more complete visualisation than the more conventional production. In order that scripts should keep up with the progress being made in other directions, a script editor has been appointed. Scripting of the new television series is under way and the progress being achieved will enable the stories to be as believable as the results we are now obtaining on the screen.


A policy of producing greater realism is being pursued, many people insist that the puppet should not be realistic. If you want the real thing they say — why not use real people! I believe that the fascination of our pictures is created by the realism and believability of the characters. A beautifully made scale model of an ocean-going liner will always attract a crowd at an exhibition and, in the same way, the more accurately we copy life on a miniature scale the greater will be our success. Our history has shown that every move made in this direction has produced a greater appreciation of our films and so, despite this view point, I will continue to move in the same direction believing that I am right — only time will tell!

article originally appeared in British Kinematography Sound and Television, volume 48, #12, december 1966