The hows and whys of

animated flame marble column
animated flame marble column

– The birth of Supermarionation –

Marc J. Frattasio

Supermarionation gets underway

Tex and Cy.
Tex Tucker and company
fLtR Nicholas Parsons, Dusty, Tex and Rocky this illustration has a larger version

The new type of marionette puppet with lip sync mechanism in combination with realistic miniature sets and props had proved very successful in Four Feather Falls. Unfortunately, for all the advances that had been made towards making the marionettes more realistic, one serious problem still remained. The puppeteers were unable to make the Four Feather Falls puppets 'walk' in a convincing manner. Gerry Anderson attempted to minimize this problem by putting the Four Feather Falls puppet characters on horseback but animating the puppet horses proved as big a technical challenge as animating the puppet humans. The Supercar concept solved this problem very nicely. Gerry decided that the puppet characters would spend most of their time riding in the Supercar vehicle. By scripting most of the action around the vehicle, the puppets would not have to walk around so much and a greater illusion of realism could be maintained. Thus came forth another important element of Supermarionation, the concept of the super vehicle as the true star of the show.

Supercar is widely considered to have been the very first Super­marionation production because it was the first Anderson puppet series to incorporate all the recognized elements of Supermarionation. This is true even though the word Supermarionation was not coined until the next series, Fireball XL5, was produced. What exactly are the elements of Supermarionation? Well, they are:

  1. Realistic puppet characters which use lip synch
  2. Futuristic setting
  3. Secret organization
  4. Super vehicle(s)
  5. Sophisticated and realistic miniatures
  6. Explosive special effects

Realistic special effects

The first truly realistic miniature vehicles ever made for TV or film were used in Supercar. If you don't believe me, check anything else done before Supercar and compare. Standard miniature model vehicles used in contemporary television programs and films, such as those used in Captain Video and The Conquest of Space, all looked like fakes.

In Supercar, various photographic and design tricks were adopted to make things look much larger than they actually were. Tricks like breaking up the otherwise smooth surface of a model with lines, panels, and hatches to eliminate fake looking straight shadows and light reflections. The Supermarionation models were also dirtied up and dented to make them look used. Such attention to detail made these models look real.

The Supercar itself, as the real star of the program, was made in several different sizes as filming requirements dictated. The largest model, which was puppet sized, was made of thin plywood with a molded perspex plastic canopy. Although the large puppet sized Supercar was designed and built by art director Reg Hill, it was damaged at some point during filming and it was repaired under contract by a company called Master Models. This was the Anderson's first contact with this company, which later changed its name to Space Models.

Space Models remained associated with the Andersons through the end of the Supermarionation years and they produced many fine models under contract when schedules were tight. Generally, Space Models produced the more complex shapes for the Andersons or basic shapes that the film studio people would later paint and detail. Often, Space Models was called upon to perform 'while you wait' repairs to important models which had been damaged during filming. As these repairs were hurriedly conducted, everyone at the studio stood by ready to commence filming once the model returned. This practice resulted in the decision to use cellulose based automobile paints on most studio models. Such paint could be sanded down easily if damaged and it dried to the touch almost immediately.

Supercar introduced many new techniques which were carried forward into following Supermarionation programs. Chief of which were the novel pyrotechnic devices used to create Supercar's rocket engine effects. Derek Meddings had worked with fireworks and various home-made explosive mixtures in the previous puppet programs. Early on, Supercar's rocket motors were made from bits of paper that were soaked in a mixture of weed killer and sugar. When the treated paper dried out, it was stuffed into one of Gerry Anderson's discarded metal cigar tubes to make a simulated rocket engine. These home made rocket engines were not entirely successful as they tended to produce a weak flame, spit out bits of flaming paper and were unreliable. Later on, a pyrotechnic company named Schermuly Pistol Rocket Apparatus Limited was contacted and asked to produce a reliable zero thrust rocket motor that could be command activated by an electrical impulse. The cylindrical compressed gunpowder devices which Schermuly developed for apf would release a vicious tongue of flame and smoke for a somewhat predictable interval of time. Schermuly produced these special rocket motors for the Andersons through the end of the Supermarionation era.

behind-the-scenes shot
Setting up the dry-for-wet tank this illustration has a larger version

Certain episodes of Supercar required underwater filming. As this proved expensive and technically difficult to do, Derek Meddings came up with an inexpensive and very practical alternative. Meddings had a thin–profiled glass tank built which was filled with water and small tropical fish. By placing this thin tank between the camera and the model being filmed, the illusion of the model and set being underwater was achieved. This technique was called 'dry filming'. Dry filming would of course be carried into the future beyond Supercar and achieve great success with Stingray a few years later.

One common visual effect used in Supercar which was not used much in following Supermarionation programs, for reasons that will be revealed later, was rear screen projection. Rear screen projection of moving cloudscapes and landscapes were used whenever the Supercar miniatures were filmed in flight. Such moving backdrops presented the illusion of motion even though the model remained still. The sweeping landscapes and cloud vistas featured in Supercar were actually filmed by Gerry Anderson during a trip around the UK in a light aircraft.

When Supercar was released in January 1961, it proved to be a much bigger success than Four Feather Falls. More so, it was a truly international success in that it was broadcast all over the world. It was the first Anderson production broadcast in the USA. About this time, Gerry Anderson married Sylvia Thamm. With Supercar such a great success, Lew Grade stepped in with financial backing for another puppet series and Fireball XL5 came about. (Where did the name Fireball XL5 come from? Well, the story is that Gerry Anderson was inspired by the name of a popular brand of motor oil, Castrol XL!)

Fireball XL5 built upon the technical experience in dealing with miniatures gained with Supercar. The new puppet cast's features were a bit less exaggerated but other than that, they were constructed essentially the same as they were in Four Feather Falls and Supercar. Indeed, several old Supercar puppets were later recycled in Fireball XL5 as minor 'guest' characters. Flexible rubber puppet hands were used for the first time in Fireball XL5. These hands incorporated a stiff wire core in each finger. Such hands could be bent and made to grip small objects like ray pistols.

One innovative Fireball XL5 puppet character deserves special mention. This was Robert the Robot. What made this character different was that it was constructed out of clear plastic tubes, a clear plastic drinking glass (for its head), and clear plastic sheet. All of these parts were linked together with rubber coated electrical wire and the transparent body was filled with various radio innards. The puppet robot was configured with eyes that would light up in time with the voice track as it was not fitted with a lip sync mouth mechanism. Robert was a visually interesting character but a problem to operate as it weighed only a fraction of what the normal puppets weighed. The voice of this character was Gerry Anderson himself, speaking through a home-made electronic voice-box patterned after the devices used by people who have had their vocal chords removed because of throat cancer surgery.

As Fireball XL5 was more heavily miniature and effects oriented than Supercar, Derek Meddings was offered a generous salary to quit his job at Anglo-Scottish Pictures and work full time with apf. One of Derek's first jobs as apf's full time effects supervisor was to scour England for talented model makers to build all of Fireball XL5's miniature space vehicles. Many of the model makers that Meddings hired came from the British aircraft industry and they brought with them knowledge of many advanced aircraft and spacecraft prototypes which they incorporated into the miniatures developed for apf. The launch ramp, for example, came from someone's knowledge that the Soviet Union originally planned to launch their first rockets into space in this manner. The basic design of the Fireball XL5 rocket, with separate orbital and descent modules, was based upon Reg Hill's knowledge that the United States had decided to go to the moon in a two part spacecraft.

This page published originally at the Supermarionation sfx WebSite
text ©1996 Marc J. Frattasio