– The puppets

one of the things that always fascinated me about the Supermarionation series were the puppets themselves. When first confronted with Thunderbirds at the tender age of nine, my friends pointed out the word 'Supermarionation' to me to prove these were marionettes but, at the same time, they were clearly different from your everyday run-of-the-mill string puppet that could be seen on the box at the same time. How different I didn't find out until very much later when I had ample opportunity to examine a number of them at length and at close quarters, not to mention query their 'parents' [in casu John Read, Mary Turner and, at a later stage, Christine Glanville] extensively.

the puppets at Blackpool
the puppets at the Blackpool exhibition this illustration has a larger version

The puppets are assembled by the puppeteers from prefabricated parts supplied by an outside company. The masters are designed and modelled beforehand and the final result is a large and medium male and female puppet. The puppets have plastic arms and legs, mostly joined together with threaded rods. Hands are screwed on to the end stubs of the arms, and are made of a type of rubber with a wire embedded in each finger, so a puppet can grip or point, an innovation first suggested by Mary.

The anatomy of a puppet

front side back
Poor Alan disrobed for all the world to see

Stringing a puppet

a collection of 26 puppet heads arranged in a roughly circular formation
Group of heads gracing the back cover of the Phillips auction catalog this link has a popup

The main weight of the puppet (ca. 7lb) is supported by three tungsten steel head strings, specially drawn by the Ormiston company, with a thickness of about 0.0005" each whereas the strings on the arms are just 0.0025" thick. Two of the head strings are attached at the back of the head, below the ears and slightly towards the back of the head, while the third runs through a hole in the forehead, just above the hairline. The three strings form a triangle and are connected to a control frame with a part facing forward to support the string which goes to the forehead. Contrary to traditional marionettes, the puppets have no shoulder wires but thanks to the three head wires subtler head movements can be effected. Also, each string is adjustable for height at the control to get the head exactly level. For scenes that are situated under water or in space, the strings are attached in a different way: two at both shoulders, two at the hips, one in the back and two at both knees and ankles. Usually, such a scene is shot in slow motion with a fan blowing air along the costume to simulate swimming under water.

A puppet is strung by taking the string through the hole in the head and then knotting it to a washer. Great care must be taken when knotting the strings as, if it kinks over itself and the puppet's weight is put on it, it will break. The current for the lip-sync mechanism runs through the two back head strings, the washers of which are soldered to the solenoid controlling the mechanism. The head strings carrying the current cannot be allowed to touch the metal hand rail of the bridge since this causes them to short out and disintegrate. This problem was solved by covering all exposed metal parts of the bridge with camera tape. Between takes, the puppeteer can hang the puppet on a 'gallows', affixed to the bridge.

eye mechanism looking right
The eye mechanism revealed

The strings are blended out by spraying them with Anti-Flare to make them dull and, if that is not sufficient, black, grey or white powder paint is puffed on them from a hand-held sprayer. If the background causes difficulties the puppet is moved slightly or the camera angle or the background is changed. Getting rid of the strings is especially difficult when the puppet moves out of shot from a light to a dark background. Sometimes this problem is solved through tight editing.

The strings that move the eyes have a thickness of 0.0036". They are connected to a wire rocker mechanism inside the puppet head which in turn moves the eyes and emerge from the sides of the head. On the other end they are connected to a see-saw mechanism on the control frame — if you look closely, you can see a puppeteer holding it in the top left of the picture below; the puppeteer uses his thumb to manipulate the see-saw and thus has the puppet look left or right.


puppeteers on the bridge
Pulling the strings for a living room conference in Tracy villa this link has a popup

Responsibilities are shared between floor puppeteers and bridge puppeteers. Those on the movable bridge manipulate the puppets during shooting, the other category, necessitated by the fact that the bridge is about 10 feet in the air, positions the puppet for the camera, ensures that the strings cannot be seen on the Add-A-Vision monitor and keeps the puppet clean and tidy.

The floor of the bridge has an elevation of nine feet above the studio floor, the hand rail is about a foot higher. In some cases the puppeteers climb onto the hand rail to gain height, or a plank is laid across the hand rail so the puppeteer can reach over the set.

The length of the strings varies between eight and twelve feet; this length does not really cause any problems. When fast movement is required, the floor puppeteer takes care of that, using a shorter string. The bridge puppeteers are not concerned with the strings since they refer constantly to the image on the monitor rather than to the puppet on the studio floor.

The puppets are hardly able to walk; they are about two feet tall, are too heavy and are not properly balanced. It is almost impossible to have a string puppet walk convincingly anyway, unless it concerns a heavily caricatured puppet. When a puppet has to walk out of the shot, it is done in medium close with the floor puppeteer holding the legs and physically moving the puppet out of shot at the right moment, giving it a movement to simulate walking.

The perfectly proportioned puppet is more difficult to manipulate than its predecessor, due to the improved lip-sync mechanism which is placed in the chest, rather than in the head. The lip and the solenoid are connected with a thin nylon wire, running through the neck. This causes head turns to be slightly difficult and sometimes the floor puppeteer has to hold the strings somewhat lower down as well to guarantee the right head movement.

Shooting a gun brings its own set of problems. It usually involves two or three characters with guns and each puppet needs to have a special hand with a gun attached to its arm with two tubes and wires coming from the gun which have to be threaded down the costume's sleeve, body and trouser leg to come out by the puppet's foot. The tubes are attached to cylinders of gas and the wires connected to an electric power source. When the gases are fed to the gun and the power is actuated, the gun fires. The puppet's hand is strung separately to bring the weapon up into the right position.

The puppet heads

example of a frowner
Example of a 'frowner' – frame blowup of the first episode of Captain Scarlet, just before he falls off the CarVu this link has a popup

The puppets can be fitted with different heads to make them frown, smile or blink their eyes. This last category, the so-called 'blinkers', can no longer move their eyes, however. The puppet's eyes were painted wood at first but for Stingray plastic is used, the Thunderbirds characters have glass eyes and for those in Captain Scarlet the plastic eyeball has a photograph of a human iris and pupil glued into it by hand.

The heads of extras and incidental characters are ready-made shells with eye and lip-sync mechanisms inserted which are then built up with plasticine since there is simply no time to build a whole new puppet. Care has to be taken, though, since it is quite easy to slice off the nose when one of the strings is brought across the face.

The puppet's wigs are made of mohair which is about half as fine as human hair. The loose bits are brushed off and the rest is cut up into pieces of the right length. It is a very time consuming process, especially if a straight hair style is involved. In that case the mohair is wetted and put around thick rollers which straightens it out. Short ordinary hair styles are taken straight off the length.

This text is based on interviews with John and Wanda Brown, and Jan King
published originally in Supermarionation Is Go!, #s 5, 6, 14 and 15
as well as extensive conversations with John Read, Mary Turner and Christine Glanville.