Planet 46

Marc J. Frattasio

fireball XL5 is about the adventures of the crew of the Fireball XL5, one of a large fleet of XL class spaceships operated by the World Space Patrol (WSP). Fireball XL5 was the Andersons second Supermarionation puppet television series, counting Supercar as an 'honorary' Supermarionation series of course. Technically, the term Supermarionation was coined to market this program and as such, the word post-dates Supercar. Fireball XL5 was introduced in 1962.

XL5 Takeoff
Here is one of the smaller Fireball XL5 models on its launch ramp. This was a very difficult shot to achieve as it required a great deal of synchronization between two technicians. One technician held the XL5 model on wires while the other technician operated the rocket sled. Both technicians had to walk the length of the launch rail on an overhead catwalk while holding the two moving models in perfect synchronization. Note the dark shadow of the exhaust plume cast on the painted sky backdrop.
Space City
The Space City buildings were made for the most part from balsa wood and cardboard. Various kits, such as the Kibri or Volmer HO/OO scale model railroad refinery tank kit seen here, were used too. The Space City Control Tower was mounted on a record turntable so it could revolve. The high contrast b&w film used to shoot Fireball XL5 permitted relatively sparse and simple exterior sets like this to be utilized in an effective manner. Note the sand and the vegetation made from colored bath sponge and model railroad lichen.
Space City Control
Take a very close look at the Space City Control Tower control room set shown here. Does it look slightly familiar? It should. This room actually started off in Supercar as the Black Rock Canyon base set. This is the very room that housed the Supercar lab. Note the overhead walkway on the far wall behind Lt 90. This can be considered a Supercar 'landmark' of sorts. Be sure to look for it in Supercar.
Space Fighter
Here is a Subterrain space fighter model approaching the planet Earth. The model spacecraft is a simple wooden shape with a plastic model aircraft kit's cockpit stuck to it. The planet, like most of the planets seen in Fireball XL5, is a painted ball. This is a very typical Fireball XL5 space shot. Both the rocket and the planet models are strung on wires, suspended in front of a black painted space background sprinkled with sequin stars. Both the camera and the spacecraft are moving towards the model planet as the camera 'tracks' the approach.
Fireball XL5
The Fireball XL5 was jointly designed by Derek Meddings and Reg Hill. There were at least four different sized models of Fireball XL5 built and they ranged in size from 5 inches to 9 feet long. All of the models featured removeable nosecones (Fireball Junior) which were secured to the main body of the ship by means of a magnet and piece of iron. As the World Space Patrol featured in the series was supposed to own many XL series craft, the Fireball XL5 models were often repainted to represent other XL class ships.
The Fireball XL5 puppets carried on the basic design tradition established in Four Feather Falls and Supercar. The puppet's faces were a bit less characatured but other than that, they were identical to those used in the earlier programs. Note Robert the Robot. He is made from a collection of transparent plastic shapes connected together with wire. Robert's voice was provided by Gerry Anderson, who spoke through an artificial larynx device. Legend has it that the Dr. Venus character was modeled on Sylvia Anderson's features.
Here is a Schermuly rocket being fired on the large scale model of the Fireball XL5. For Supercar, the APF technicians made their own rocket motors out of paper soaked in a solution of weed killer and sugar but these proved to be unreliable. The Schermuly Rocket Pistol Apparatus company was approached to produce an improved pyrotechnic charge made from compressed black powder and these were used in Fireball XL5. Often these pyrotechnics were encased in discarded metal cigar tubes to protect the models.
Interceptor Bay
The World Space Patrol's XL class ships were armed with an array of interceptor missiles. Here is an interceptor missile being readied for launch. This is a large scale section representing the side of the noscone of Fireball XL5 (Fireball Junior) with an operating hatch and missile launcher. These operating parts were operated by hand from behind the model.
Interceptor Missile
Here is one of the XL type ship's interceptor missiles in flight. The model missile was made using one of Gerry Anderson's discarded metal cigar tubes which has been detailed with various model aircraft kit bits and fins. It looks as if there is half of a plastic jet aircraft kit's external fuel tank attached to the top of the cigar tube. This model has a Schermuly black powder pyrotechnic charge inside of it and it is being pulled across the black painted space backdrop on a horizontal wire.
Rear Projection
Rear projection was used frequently in Fireball XL5. For example, the space scene shown here through Fireball Junior's cockpit canopy is on a rear projection screen that has been set up in front of the puppet sized set. Similar rear projections were often used in Fireball XL5 to simulate motion, particularly when the puppet characters were seated on Jetmobiles.
XL5 in Orbit
This is one of the smaller Fireball XL5 models suspended on wires in front of a painted planetary backdrop. Generally, painted balls were used to depict planets when the entire planet could be seen in the shot. Flat background paintings such as this were used to simulate planetary horizons as seen from orbit.
Fireball Junior
The nosecones of the XL class ships were detachable and could operate as small spacecraft independent of the main ship. Often they were used as landers while the main ship remained in orbit. The nosecone of Fireball XL5 was called 'Fireball Junior'. Here is one of the larger models of Fireball Junior with small plasticine models of Steve Zodiac and Venus on balsa wood Jetmobiles emerging from the top hatch. Note the alien terrain built up from sand, small stones, and carved styrofoam blocks.
Jetmobiles were introduced to minimize the amount of 'walking' that the puppets would have to do while on planetary excursions. The puppeteers were never able to make the puppets appear to walk in a convincing manner, thus each Supermarionation series had some mechanism in place that permitted the puppets to ride something rather than walk. All of the Jetmobile models were made from balsa wood with metal details. In most episodes, the Jetmobile sound was made by an electric vacuum cleaner.
Fire Set
Here is a fairly elaborate miniature set which features 'boiling' mud made from dyed oatmeal, titanium tetrachloride 'smoke', gasoline fed flames, and rocks made from carved polystyrene foam. In the center of the shot can be seen one of the tiny balsa wood and plasticine models of Steve Zodiac riding a Jetmobile. This model must have had a lead core as it is hanging from several feet of fine steel wire as it is being manipulated across the miniature set from above.
This unusual force field effect was created with a live pair of arc welding electrodes that were slowly brought together across the mouth of the cave.
Subterrain Base
The Subterrain aliens from Planet 46 were unusual in that there were at least four of them made. Normally, the APF puppet makers made only two alien characters at the most per episode in Fireball XL5 and Stingray. Note that the Subterrain characters seen in this shot are traveling on a moving platform. Once again, this is another trick to keep the puppets from having to walk. Also, notice the 3D (painted ball) planet outside the window of the control room set.
Note the bit of rope glued over this Subterrain puppet character's eyes. Guest star or minor character puppets like these which would probably only be used once were either hand carved from Juletong wood or made from what were known as 'revamp' heads. A revamp was a featureless stock puppet head with eyes and lip mechanism in place upon which a temporary clay face was built. Such clay faces could be painted for filming and then scraped clean for reuse in later episodes.
Live Inset
Here is a 'live insert' (a live hand) representing Steve Zodiac's hand grabbing a gun from a compartment in his Jetmobile. Live inserts such as this were frequently used to do things that puppets could not do like turn knobs or grasp objects. In the earlier Supermarionation series, such hands were often covered with rubber gloves so that the real hands would look 'solid' and puppet-like. Live inserts got the APF studios in trouble with the actor's union as the hands used were whoever was on the set instead of being 'proper' actor's hands.
This page published originally at the Supermarionation sfx WebSite
text ©1996 Marc J. Frattasio; not for reproduction for profit without his express permission