Dissecting a puppet head

Marc J. Frattasio

on September 19, 1995 Phillips of London auctioned off the private Supermarionation collection of Sylvia Anderson, John Read and Mary Turner. Sylvia and her ex-husband Gerry were the co-creators of some of the best loved science fiction television programs of the 1960s. The collection included actual Supermarionation puppets used in the production of Stingray, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, Joe 90, and The Secret Service. The London auction attracted hundreds of people including bidders from as far away as Japan, Australia, and the United States.

Phillips catalogue cover
the Phillips auction catalogue cover
Doctor Fawn
The good Doctor Fawn from the Captain Scarlet series...

Although most of the media attention surrounding the collection auction was centered upon the puppets, many other items of Supermarionation memorabilia, such as various hands and items of clothing were also available. The most numerous items in the collection were disembodied puppet heads in various conditions ranging from 100% complete to near wrecks. About one hundred of these puppet heads went under the auctioneer's gavel at prices that started in the low hundreds of Pounds and finished in the low thousands of Pounds.

I was extremely lucky to have been able to participate in the Sylvia Anderson collection auction through the efforts of my good friends Steve Kyte and Helen McCarthy. They obtained lot number 17 for me, a Dr. Fawn puppet head from Captain Scarlet. The puppet head I purchased was one of three different Dr. Fawn puppet heads available at the auction. Mine was the only one that was in complete condition. The other two Dr. Fawn puppet heads were incomplete to varying degrees. One was missing the back of the head (lot 12) and the other was missing both eyes and an ear (lot 16).

The puppet head I have is in good condition and complete in every way. It has the original wig, eyes with internal turning mechanism, and moving lower lip with lip-synch solenoid. It would be possible to hook the solenoid up to a suitable power source and connect the eye mechanism to fine wires and the head would work just as it did during the late 1960s. Considering that it is nearly 30 years old, the puppet head is in excellent physical condition with the exception of a few minor paint chips and scratches that are mostly located on the neck.

the puppet head
and his disembodied head.

The head is about 4¼" high from the bottom of the neck to the top of the highest part of the head and is about 2½" wide across the ears. It is made of glass fiber reinforced polyester resin which is about a sixteenth of an inch thick or a bit thicker. It is hollow of course, and was molded in two parts. The parting line is centered down the middle of the ears and there is a thick resin join line visible inside the head. The ears appear to have been molded separately and glued to the head with resin.

The original basic construction method was to sculpt a master out of plasticine modeling clay. This plasticine master was used to create a two part plaster of Paris mold corresponding to the front and back of the puppet head. Production heads were made in these molds by laminating many layers of glass fiber cloth which were soaked in Bondaglass brand polyester resin.

The resin was formulated in such a way that it dried to the touch in 30 minutes and became completely cured in an hour. The color of the part when removed from the mold was a light translucent beige color. Openings for the eyes and mouth had to be cut out of the front shell and a removable hatch was made in the rear shell. Surface imperfections were smoothed out using a putty-like material called Bondapaste.

The exterior of the head is finely finished with small details like creases, etc., which are very subtly done. The hair and eyebrows are made of a fine brown mohair material which closely resembles human hair. This is securely glued into place and does not appear to have ever been removable. The eyelashes appear to have been cut down from standard cosmetic eyelashes or a similar material. The eyes are made of transparent plastic hemispheres which have reduced color photographs of an actual human pupil glued into the center from the inside. The interior of the eyes behind and around the pupils was painted white. Over time the pupils have faded from their original color to a strange shade of pink. The lower lip is hinged and held in the shut position by a strong spring. The surface directly below the lip is covered by fine leather to provide flexibility.

The head is painted a dark flesh color on top of the original lighter color for use as an extra in the Joe 90 episode King for a Day. The type of paint used was flexible enough to permit the leather under the lip to move without cracking. The head was primed with a gray primer paint below the surface coats. The lips are pink, the teeth are white, and there is a subtle black beard stubble painted on the head.

The eye mechanism

eye mechanism front elevation
Front elevation
eye mechanism bottom elevation
Reverse plan
eye mechanism side elevation
Side elevation
the interior with mechanism the interior without mechanism
and without
the eye mechanism.
The interior with...

The back quarter of the head is removable for access to the head's interior mechanism. The toleran­ces are very tight and the joint is hidden by the hair. The back panel is secured to the bulk of the head by means of a magnet and a strip of steel. The interior mechanism is made of finely crafted brass and steel wire. The eye mechanism is a wire rocker assembly that pivots from side to side to move the eyes. I have not been able to determine where the eye mecha­nism wires came out of the head. Normally they extended from the side near the corners of the eyes. It is possible that my head was part of an under-control puppet and if so, the eye control would have come from below. There are still two very fine steel control wire remnants attached to the eye rocker mechanism. The eye mechanism is attached to the inside of the head by a brass hand screw.

The movable lower lip is secured to the inside of the head with a strong spring wire which keeps it in a closed position. The actual lip-synch mechanism is a metal wire loop that is connected to a solenoid by means of a long length of nylon string. The metal lip-synch solenoid extends about 4" below the neck. It is marked with 50vdc in black pen. [probably the solenoid's control voltage: 50 volts DC — JLN2nd] The solenoid is connected to the head with a ball and socket joint. Obviously, the solenoid was the point of connection between the puppet body and the head.

photos ©1995 Bill Earle, courtesy of Theo De Klerk
This page published originally at the Supermarionation sfx WebSite
text ©1996 Marc J. Frattasio; not for reproduction for profit without his express permission