The ingredients that go into the films that make it possible for them to capture such a large world-wide audience consists of tense stories, believable characters and a technical process now widely known throughout the world as Supermarionation. With the opening of the new Slough Studio, AP Films ensure that its Supermarionation process will not be rivalled by imitations.
In the very near future now, finished film will be emerging from the new studio at the rate of half-an-hour a week and, to give the reader some idea of the hive of industry that exists there, I will describe briefly the technique of Supermarionatlon.
Dialogue for the picture is pre-recorded. Six artists are used and between them they create all the character voices and, taking into consideration that each film in the series has between 10 and IS characters, the artists have to be pretty versatile.
The recording is edited to remove pauses, particularly where an artist is playing two characters in one scene; retakes and wild tracks are cut in and the episode is brought down to suitable length for filming.
When the film goes on the studio floor the pre-recorded dialogue is used as play back with the puppets miming to the pre-recorded voices.
Creating the puppet characters in the first place is a long and difficult task. The heads are sculpted in clay and then roughly painted so that the final result can be judged before too much work has been done to them. With any luck the head goes on to the next process but, more often than not, it is scrapped at this stage and the whole procedure starts all over again. Heads that are accepted are copied in the form of a fibre glass shell. Inside the shell provision is made for eye and mouth mechanisms and finally the head is painted and fitted with a miniature wig.
The mouth operation is automatically controlled by the pre-recorded dialogue so that the puppet characters talk in direct synchronisation with their recorded voices. This system, created by AP Films some five years ago, has now been modified to the point where it is almost a hundred per cent foolproof.
The puppet bodies are now produced in plastic and these can be produced in quantity at very short notice because a library of male and female bodies has been built so that now a male or female body can be made from interchangeable components so that any height or stature can be readily assembled.
A similar situation exists with the puppets' hands. Different types are kept in stock and can then be bent into any shape or made to hold objects or make gestures.
The balance ot the puppet is of great importance. The weight has to be just right, for if the puppet is too heavy it will require heavy control wires which will be easily visible and be a great strain on the operator, while a light puppet will not respond to control. Distribution of the weight is equally important if the puppet is to move accurately.
As the puppets are completed they are wired and tested from an overhead gantry. If they successfully complete their trials, they will then proceed to the wardrobe department for dressing. Their clothes have to be made from fine material to prevent them from becoming bulky. The dressmaker has to obtain a good fit and yet, at the same time, allow sufficient freedom for the various components in the body to move.
The puppet is now complete, but that is only half the battle. Because two complete film units shoot simultaneously on the same series, an identical twin has to be produced.
To ensure that the twins, when complete, are identical is perhaps one of the biggest headaches we have. The slightest variation in the mould, painting, set of the eyebrows, cast of the eyes, curve of the lips, can give an entirely different look.
The puppet is operated by wires that are only 0.005 in. thick. They have to be straight yet strong enough to support the weight, black enough not to photograph, matt so as not to reflect light, and yet not brittle enough to break too easily. We now have such wire, but one can imagine the trials and tribulations before success was finally achieved.
The puppet, now ready for its first day on the stage, walks on to the set and, of course, this has to be scaled to match. The sets are in fact, one-third life size. Assembled on movable stages they are wheeled under the gantry from which the puppet operators work.
Lighting miniature sets is a problem in itself. Imagine using a 5-kW light, which may well be nearly a quarter of the size of the setting that it has to light. To get the right quantity of light on the right part of the set is an art that has been perfected by my business partner, John Read, and has now been acquired by the rest of our photographic team.
Things are not made easier by the fact that large quantities of light are required in order to get sufficient depth of field which is restricted in the first place by the size of the characters and settings.
The property department in the new studio is a sight that would delight any child and indeed, any adult. It contains thousands of properties and includes a full range of vehicles, television sets, books, furniture, telephones, ornaments and the like — all one third life size. It even has its own armoury where every type of weapon, from the bow and arrow to the space age ray gun can be found, again, of course, in miniature.
The special effects department, under the control of Derek Meddings, turns out daily the most remarkable model shots which, I think, are the finest examples of special effects shooting that appear on television screens anywhere in the world.
The staff are the "backroom boys" of AP Films and we do not like to discuss details of their work since the ingenuity that enables us to obtain such wonderful screen value is something we wish to retain.
The new studio offers to Supermarionation some unusual aids:
Electronic viewfinders on the cine-camera enable the crew and puppet operators to see the camera point of view on a television monitor.
Giant aquariums, fitted with half-inch armoured plate glass, hold hundreds of gallons of water.
Mobile tanks that hold 2.000 gallons of water with automatic pumps that keep the water flowing over the horizon line to ensure perfect exterior model sea shots.
Giant metal gantries that offer the operator 25 ft. unrestricted span and yet can be pushed from place to place by one man.
Back projection with fully remote controls.
Modern workshops where puppets and sets can be created quickly and efficiently.
As the films are completed they go to the new editorial department comprising six units. Each picture is individually scored for music and arrives at the dubbing theatre with approximately twelve sound tracks per reel.
And so another picture filmed in Supermarionation starts its long journey around the world to entertain and fascinate millions of children and adults for a long time to come.
The word "puppeteers" no longer covers the job of making and working the complicated figures that are now in the AP Films tv series. Each 20-in. figure or character is controlled by nine 8-ft. long wires fixed to a control and worked by a human "manipulator" standing on the bridge above the set. Electric current is passed to the puppet's lip sync mechanism by means of its control wires, which enables the character's lips to respond directly to impulses from a pre-recorded tape.
The first series required only three puppeteers, but as the company has expanded and developed in technique and method, a whole new form of puppetry has evolved, requiring a larger team of "Supermarionators." Gradually, such a team has been recruited from puppeteers formerly engaged in the theatre and arts, each person contributing in his or her own way in helping to build up AP Films. Now, in order to continue progressing, the firm has had to move to larger premises with better facilities.
Christine Glanville and Mary Turner were the two original puppeteers. Their job has been to model the heads of most of the main characters for "Four Feather Falls," "Supercar" and "Fireball XL5", and to be chief manipulators throughout.
During she preparation period for each series all puppeteers are engaged on constructing the new characters. Once shooting starts, six become manipulators, the rest remain in the workshop to make additional characters.
Eddie Hunter and John Blundall make the puppet bodies, with John Blundall and John Brown making additional characters during shooting. Yvonne Hunter and Phyllis Fisher are manipulators, who also help in the workshop, and Elizabeth Coleman is responsible for the wardrobe. Judith Shutt is floor manipulator — this consists of mending broken wires, keeping the puppets clean and tidy and a large number of other things.
Newcomers are Carolyn Turner, who is modelling additional heads and will be a floor manipulator, and Wolfgang Manthey.