– The technology –

basically, Supermarionation is a combination of techniques devised to advance and improve the art of string puppetry. For a start, the puppets are strung differently. A SuperM puppet's main weight is supported by three head strings (as opposed to the more traditional shoulder wires) connected to a control frame, two of which are attached at the back of the head while the third runs through a small hole in the forehead; each string is adjustable for height at the control to get the head exactly level. Next to these differently strung puppets, SuperM involves the use of specially drawn metal control strings (varying from 0.0005 to 0.0036 inch in thickness so as to be all but invisible on the small screen) in combination with an electrically activated solenoid in the puppet head which moves the lips and is driven by pulses generated by a pre-recorded dialogue tape through a converter, the socalled 'lip-sync box' [or, as John irreverently referred to it during my visit to Pinewood, the 'natterer'].

the SuperM mechanism
the Supermarionation mechanism this illustration has a larger version

Here, Supercar's Mike Mercury uses an unsuspecting friend to show off the lip-sync mechanism. The fat grey cylinder positioned vertically between the two eyeballs is the solenoid. As current is applied to it through one of the metal strings, it pulls on a small metal thong, thereby opening the puppet's lower lip which is attached to the chin with a small piece of pliable leather and is closed again by means of a spring. [If anyone can tell me who the hapless guy in the chair is, I would very much like to know so I can add that little bit of trivia].

In his New Scientist article of December 1965, John Read wrote: "Our 'actors' cannot talk so we must record the dialogue – usually in a civilised Bostonian accent – before we shoot the film. The sound-track is played back as the film is being shot and in order to synchronise the movement of the mouth with the words, we had to devise a method of electrically connecting the puppets' heads with the tape-deck amplifier and also, of course, a means of ensuring that the right puppet 'speaks'. This was accomplished by assigning each puppet one of four separate channels which were fed back into the lip-sync machine through a neutral line. As the pre-recorded dialogue was sent through one of the four channels, the right actor would speak."

In the middle Sixties, when Thunderbirds had just had it's seventh episode broadcast on Dutch TV, several Dutch newspapers published a short article on the Supermarionation technology, illustrated by a small diagram. I saw both at the time and now, thanks to digital printed media archives that have sprung up all over the place in recent years, I managed to locate a copy of the article and the diagram. Curiously, the drawing implies that the solenoid is activated wirelessly whereas, as we now know, the technology used two of the puppet's tungsten head strings to transport the controlling signal to the solenoid.

Twentsch dagblad Tubantia 12-03-1966

In de wereld van de televisie baart de serie poppenfilms van Thunderbirds veel opzien en de serie is in verschillende landen erg populair. De poppen bezitten voor de verschillende gelaatsexpressie afzonderlijke hoofden en voor de gewenste expressie krijgt de pop steeds weer een nieuw hoofd. De poppen kunnen echter praten. Om dit te bereiken heeft men een heel systeem nodig. In de tekening geven wij een doorsnede van het hoofd van een der poppen uit Thunderbirds. De tekst wordt eerst opgenomen op de band. Vervolgens wordt de scène door de poppen gespeeld en gelijktijdig wordt de band afgedraaid. Met "bevelen" via een schakelbord laat men de poppen de vereiste mondbewegingen maken. Het geheel is een secuur en geduldig werk. De speciale effecten en het spel van de poppen worden afzonderlijk opgenomen. Zou men dit niet doen, dan was men gedwongen om alles in gelijke verhoudingen te bouwen als de grootte van de poppen vereist. Nu kan men b.v. gebouwen en vliegtuigen laten exploderen die in werkelijkheid niet groter zijn dan ca. 15 cm.

diagram from a contemporary Dutch newspaper
diagram explaining Supermarionation from a contemporary Dutch newspaper article

In 2003, the Dagostini publishing company issued a short series of magazines devoted to Thunderbirds. In the 4th issue they published this drawing of the lip-sync mechanism. I found it particularly enlightening so when I could lay hands on a scan I took the opportunity to make a web version of it.

Dagostini lipsync illustration 1
To synchronize the movement of a puppet's lip mechanism with an actor's dialogue, voice tracks were recorded on ¼ inch magnetic tape. The sound frequency of the spoken words was then converted into an electronic impulse that operated an electromagnetic switch (or solenoid) in the puppet's head. This controlled a lever mechanism that opened the puppet's lower lip in synchronisation with the dialogue — resulting in a system known as 'Lip-sync'. A simple spring caused the mouth to shut once the voltage was turned off.
Each eyeball was pivoted at the top, where it was attached to a bar. At the rear of each eyeball was an eye-hook; these were attached to a joining bar by press–studs (for easy removal). This bar had string attached to each end — as the string was pulled by the puppeteer, the bar moved from left to right, pulling the eye-hooks and thus turning the eyes. The eye-hooks only moved horizontally because of the slotted guide bar, which was glued to the inside of the front of the face.
Dagostini lipsync illustration 2
guide bar
left string
joining bar
press stud
right string
Dagostini lipsync illustration 3
bottom lip
mounting bracket
The voltage running from the wires on the gantry to the coil in the solenoid turned it into a magnet, pulling the central bar backwards. As the bar moved back, it pulled on a wire, attached to a thin rod at the rear of the bottom lip. The rod and lip were pivoted at the ends. As the bar was pulled, the rod rotated clockwise and the lip moved down, opening the mouth.
When the power was turned off, the spring at the rear of the solenoid forced the bar forwards, which rotated the rod anti-clockwise, closing the bottom lip.

The magic box explained

One of my international correspondents :), Israel based Mickey Raphaelovich (an electronics engineer himself), eMailed me the following technical explanation and diagram of the lip-sync box.

lip-sync machine
The lip-sync machine: a fairly ancient [1964] Brenell Mark 5, Series 3 tape recorder coupled to John's magic box

This modern-day version of the lip-sync machine was used during the puppet demo at the Andersons Are Go! event. One wire connects the tape recorder to the lip-sync box on the right, the two wires coming out of the box ran up to the puppeteers' bridge and were connected to the back headstrings of Penny and Virgil.

During the demo, Sylvia, keeping a close eye on the scripted dialogue, used the row of black switches seen on the lefthand side of the box to switch between channels and thus have either Virgil or 'er Ladyship 'speak' (which, by the way, makes a very loud 'clacking' noise each time the solenoid is activated – a rather strange phenomenon as this is obviously never heard on television).