Supermarionation (a portmanteau of "super", "marionette" and "animation") is a style of puppetry devised in the 1960s by British television production company AP Films (APF). It was used extensively in the action-adventure puppet series produced by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, of which the best known is Thunderbirds. The term was coined by Gerry Anderson.
The term "Supermarionation" was expressive of Gerry Anderson's preference for artistic realism and his desire to make APF's puppet-filming techniques "more and more life-like". According to Sylvia Anderson, it was created "to distinguish the pure puppetry of the stage from our more sophisticated filmed-television version".
Development and use in Anderson productions
APF's first series, The Adventures of Twizzle, featured puppets made of papier-mâché with painted eyes and mouths. Each puppet was controlled using a single carpet thread. Gerry Anderson and Arthur Provis, the founders of APF, wished to make Twizzle like a feature film, with dynamic shooting and lighting. To this end, flat backgrounds were replaced by three-dimensional sets and the puppeteers operated the marionettes not from the studio floor, but from a bridge approximately six feet (1.8 m) high. The puppets of the follow-up series, Torchy the Battery Boy, were made of plastic wood and incorporated a moveable lip that was opened and closed using a string.
By the time Four Feather Falls entered production, the head strings had been replaced with thin tungsten steel control wires and the moveable lip with an electronic lip-sync mechanism. Pre-recorded dialogue was converted into electrical impulses that were conducted by the wires into the puppet's head; there, the impulses operated a solenoid that enabled the puppet's lower lip to open and close with each syllable. To accommodate the solenoids, the puppets' heads were now created as hollow shells. The heads of the main characters were made of fibreglass resin from a rubber mould, while those of guest characters – played by puppets known as "revamps" – were sculpted in Plasticine.
The system used marionettes suspended and controlled by thin wires. As the wires were visible to the camera, the puppeteers attempted to conceal them by spraying them with "antiflare" (grease mist) or painting them various colours so that they would blend in with the backgrounds. The marionettes' two distinguishing features were their fibreglass heads and the internal solenoids that formed the basis of their lip sync mechanisms.
Up to and including Thunderbirds, the solenoids were located inside the puppets' heads, which required that the heads be disproportionately large compared to the bodies. The bodies could not be enlarged to match, lest the puppets become too bulky to operate effectively. Garland states that the disproportion was influenced partly by "aesthetic considerations ... the theory being that the head carried the puppet's personality". This led to many puppets being given caricatured appearances.
With the advent of miniaturised electronic components in the mid-1960s, a new type of puppet was designed with the control mechanism located in the chest, connected to the mouth by narrow rods through the neck. As a consequence, the head was smaller and the puppets that appeared in Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons and subsequent series were of realistic proportions. In a 2002 interview, Gerry Anderson stated that it was his desire to move into live-action TV during the production of Captain Scarlet and that he endorsed the new, realistic puppet design as a compromise for his inability to use live actors. A disadvantage of the new design was that the smaller heads upset the weight distribution, making the puppets harder to operate.
Because the marionettes could not walk convincingly, most scenes depicted the characters either standing or sitting, or placed them in settings that allowed the use of vehicles and other mechanical transportation systems. Stingray's focus on a submarine, and its depiction of the character of Commander Shore as a "hoverchair"-bound paraplegic, are examples of the devices that were used to overcome this. Carolyn Percy of Wales Arts Review comments that using a "futuristic vehicle" such as Supercar as a centrepiece allowed the Andersons to "come up with more exciting and imaginative scenarios" and "work around the limitations of the puppets ... to give their 'acting' the integrity to match the material." David Garland, author of the essay "Pulling the Strings: Gerry Anderson's Walk from 'Supermarionation' to 'Hypermarionation'" (2009), calls character movement Anderson's "bête noire" and comments that the puppets' limited mobility resulted in "vehicle-heavy science fiction [becoming] Anderson's preferred genre". He considers the use of marionettes – "the type of puppet perhaps most unsuited" to an action format, to be "one of the most striking paradoxes" of the Anderson puppet series.
In many cases, the puppets were modelled on their voice actors. Two examples are Lady Penelope in Thunderbirds, who closely resembled Sylvia Anderson, and Captain Blue in Captain Scarlet, who looked like Ed Bishop (the similarity was reportedly coincidental). Other characters were based on well-known film actors: Troy Tempest of Stingray was based on James Garner, Scott Tracy of Thunderbirds on Sean Connery and Captain Scarlet on Cary Grant. Stingray also featured the only non-speaking Supermarionation puppet: the water-breathing woman Marina.
Occasionally, close-ups of a live actor's hand would be inserted to show actions such as turning keys and pressing buttons. This was affectionately parodied in the 2004 live-action feature film Thunderbirds, with a brief shot of a puppet hand, suspended by wires, operating the controls of Thunderbird 1.
List of Supermarionation productions
- Four Feather Falls (1960, TV series)
- Supercar (1961, TV series) [First identified as ‘Supermarionation’]
- Fireball XL5 (1962, TV series)
- Stingray (1964, TV series)
- Thunderbirds (1965, TV series)
- Thunderbirds Are Go (1966, feature film)
- Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967, TV series)
- Thunderbird 6 (1968, feature film)
- Joe 90 (1968, TV series)
- The Secret Service (1969, TV series)
- "The Investigator" (1973, TV pilot)
The term "Supermarionation" was not coined until during production of later episodes of Supercar. As a result, Four Feather Falls is often omitted from lists of Supermarionation productions.
Two feature films based upon Thunderbirds were also made with Supermarionation: Thunderbirds Are Go (1966) and Thunderbird 6 (1968). Numerous episodes of Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, and other series were also edited together (sometimes with the addition of new narration) to form movie-length features for VHS release and TV syndication in the 1980s.
The Secret Service was actually a hybrid of live action and Supermarionation, using footage of live actors from a distance to depict driving, walking, etc.
In 1973, Gerry Anderson produced a pilot episode for another Supermarionation/live-action hybrid entitled The Investigator but was displeased with the results, so no series resulted. This is the last known occasion in which a full Supermarionation production was mounted.
Supermarionation techniques were recreated and employed during the production of Filmed in Supermarionation, a 2014 documentary that told the behind the scenes story of the films and television series produced by AP Films.
In 1983, Gerry Anderson returned to puppetry with the science-fiction TV series Terrahawks. The characters of this series were realised as latex hand puppets, operated from the studio floor in a process known as "Supermacromation". This was similar to the techniques employed by American puppeteer Jim Henson.
In 2004, Anderson created a Captain Scarlet remake titled New Captain Scarlet, which was produced using computer-generated imagery (CGI) and motion-capture techniques. Motion capture was used heavily for action sequences as it provided more convincing character movement. As a nod to Supermarionation, the series was credited as being "created in Hypermarionation". According to Anderson, Hypermarionation was not simply animation, but a "photo-real method" of production combining CGI, high definition and surround sound. Garland suggests that through Hypermarionation, Anderson sought to achieve a "hyperreal simulation of his live-action film utopia".
In 2014, a Kickstarter campaign was launched to fund a remake of the anime series Firestorm, to be produced using a technique called "Ultramarionation". A predecessor of the technique had been used in 2003 for Thunderbirds: IR, a scrapped remake of Thunderbirds. As opposed to marionettes, Ultramarionation is similar to rod puppetry, and can be controlled by multiple puppeteers to allow more realistic movement.
Percy notes that Gerry Anderson would have preferred to make live-action productions rather than puppet series and argues that his style of filming was developed to "make the puppet film as 'respectable' as possible". She also comments that the Andersons' filming techniques "would not only result in a level of quality and sophistication not seen before in a family show, but also give birth to some of the most iconic series in the history of British children's television."
Garland describes the underlying theme of Gerry Anderson's work as a "self-reflexive obsession with an aesthetic of realism (or more accurately a surface realism often associated with naturalism) borne of an unfulfilled desire to make live-action films for adults", and further observes that "being typecast as a producer of children's puppet television led [Anderson] on a lifelong quest to perfect a simulation of reality". Garland notes that Anderson's involvement with puppets began at a time when Western puppet theatre "had become increasingly marginalised to a niche, to an association with children's entertainment", and that to ensure appeal to adults as well as children – a target audience described by both Gerry and Sylvia Anderson as "kidult" – APF's puppet TV series employed an "aesthetic of incremental realism". He suggests that the drive towards increased realism in APF's TV series echoed "19th-century marionette theatre's own attempts to distinguish itself from other forms of puppetry (especially glove puppets), which also involved a tethering to the newly-emergent realist aesthetic across the arts".
John Blundall, who built and operated puppets on APF series from Supercar to Thunderbirds, has criticised the naturally-proportioned puppets that first appeared in Captain Scarlet, claiming that the new puppets had less personality compared to their caricatured predecessors and that the emphasis on realism inhibited the puppeteer's ability to be creative. He has negatively likened the post-Thunderbirds puppets to "little humans".
Use in non-Anderson productions
The series was written and produced by Roberta Leigh, and the characters were (technically) very similar to those of Gerry Anderson' s work, as he had created The Adventures of Twizzle, and Torchy The Battery Boy - both based on Ms Leigh's stories.
•Refined Supermarionation techniques were used in the South African children's science fiction show Interster in the late 1970s.
- The 1980 Japanese TV series X-Bomber (also known as Star Fleet) was filmed with refined Supermarionation techniques, in a style dubbed Supermariorama by the crew.
- Japanese puppeteer Kinosuke Takeda produced three Supermarionation styled television series between 1960 and 1970 including Spaceship Silica, Galaxy Boy Troop and Aerial City 008.
- Super Adventure Team was an American comedy series shown on the cable television network MTV in 1998. It was produced in the style of Thunderbirds from 1964, with live action marionettes, but had more adult themes and suggestive situations.
- Team America: World Police, a 2004 film by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, is inspired by and uses the same style of puppetry as Thunderbirds. Stone and Parker, however, dubbed their version of the technique "Supercrappymation" since the strings controlling the puppets were intentionally left visible.
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- La Rivière, Stephen (2009). Filmed in Supermarionation: A History of the Future. Neshannock, Pennsylvania: Hermes Press. ISBN 978-1-932563-23-8.
- Hirsch, David; Hutchison, David (September 1978). Zimmerman, Howard, ed. "The Magical Techniques of Movie & TV SFX – Part XI: Supermarionation". Starlog. Vol. 3 no. 16. New York City, New York: O'Quinn Studios. pp. 58–66.
- Holliss, Richard (Winter–Spring 1999). Duquette, Patrick, ed. "The Worlds of Gerry Anderson – Part One: From The Adventures of Twizzle to Thunderbirds". Animato!. No. 40. Monson, Massachusetts: Duquette, Patrick. pp. 44–52. ISSN 1042-539X. OCLC 19081197.
- Peel, John (1993). "Supermarionation". Thunderbirds, Stingray, Captain Scarlet: The Authorised Programme Guide. London, UK: Virgin Books. pp. 16–21. ISBN 978-0-86369-728-9.
- "The Making of the Supermarionation TV Puppet Series", a lecture given by Gerry Anderson at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, UK on 14 April 1984