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Supermarionation (a portmanteau of "super", "marionette" and "animation") is a puppetry technique devised in the 1960s by British production company AP Films. It was used extensively in the company's numerous Gerry and Sylvia Anderson-produced action-adventure series, the most famous of which was Thunderbirds. The term was coined by Gerry Anderson, possibly in imitation of "Dynamation", Ray Harryhausen's stop motion technique.
Development and use in Gerry Anderson productions
The system used marionettes suspended and controlled by thin wires. The fine metal filaments doubled as both suspension-control wires for puppet movement, and as electrical cables that took the control signals to the electronic components concealed in the marionettes' heads. Although efforts were made to minimize this, the strings used to control the puppets are often visible (more so on high-definition sets), though the production teams' ability to mask the strings (and the fineness of the strings themselves) noticeably improves through the various series.
The heads contained solenoid motors that created the facial movements for dialogue and other functions. The voice synchronisation was achieved by using a specially designed audio filter, actuated by the signal from the pre-recorded tapes of the voice actors; this filter would convert the signal into a series of pulses which then travelled down the wire to the solenoids controlling the puppet's lips. These control mechanisms were originally placed within the puppets' heads, which meant the heads had to be disproportionately large compared to the bodies; the rest of the body could not be sized up to match, otherwise the puppet would become hard to operate.
Since the production of the second season of Thunderbirds, the AP Films puppet workshop had been experimenting with a new type of puppet in which the solenoid was relocated to the chest area. Combined with the advent of miniaturised electronic components in the mid-1960s, a new type of puppet was designed, with a correctly proportioned head and control mechanisms in the chest, connected to the mouth by narrow rods through the neck. This resulted in a far more realistic appearance for the puppets, first appearing in Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. In a 2002 interview, Anderson revealed that it was his desire to move into live-action television during the production of Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, and that he endorsed the new, realistic design of the Supermarionation puppets as a compromise for his inability to use live actors.
Because the marionettes could not be made to 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. The personal hovercraft used in Fireball XL5 and Thunderbirds were one of the devices the producers used to overcome this problem.
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.
In many cases, the puppets were modelled on the actor voicing the role; two good examples are Lady Penelope in Thunderbirds, which closely resembled Sylvia Anderson, and Captain Blue in Captain Scarlet who looks like his voice actor Ed Bishop (although the latter was reportedly coincidental). Other characters were based on well-known film stars, such as Captain Troy Tempest in Stingray who was based on James Garner, Scott Tracy in Thunderbirds, who was modelled on Sean Connery, and Captain Scarlet in Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, whose voice and appearance were modeled on Cary Grant. Stingray also featured the only non-speaking Supermarionation puppet: the water-breathing woman Marina.
Anderson's 'Supermarionated' television shows:
- Four Feather Falls (1960)
- Supercar (1961)
- Fireball XL5 (1962)
- Stingray (1964)
- Thunderbirds (1965)
- Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967)
- Joe 90 (1968)
- The Secret Service (1969)
The term "Supermarionation" was not actually coined until during production of later episodes of Supercar. As a result, Four Feather Falls is often omitted from lists of Supermarionation productions.
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. Production was cancelled by ITC owner Lew Grade before the pilot episode aired; the 13 completed episodes aired sporadically on ATV and other British broadcasters beginning in 1969. Despite the poor reception, Anderson has been quoted as naming The Secret Service as his favorite Supermarionation series.
In 1973, 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.
Two feature films based upon Thunderbirds were also made with Supermarionation: Thunderbirds Are GO (1966) and Thunderbird 6 (1967). 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.
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 the early 1980s, Anderson returned to puppetry for the science fiction series Terrahawks. In this show the characters were realised using hand-controlled puppets, mostly controlled from beneath using a system called Supermacromation, which was broadly similar to the techniques developed by Jim Henson.
In 2004, Gerry Anderson produced Gerry Anderson's New Captain Scarlet, which was rendered using computer-generated imagery (CGI) and motion capture techniques. As a nod to Supermarionation, the show is promoted as being produced in Hypermarionation.
Supermarionation in non-Gerry Anderson productions
- 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 movie 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. Coincidentally that same year, a live-action Thunderbirds movie, directed by Jonathan Frakes, with computer effects was made, attempting to mimic the popular children's movie Spy Kids. The live-action Thunderbirds film was met with poor reviews, and Team America: World Police creators Stone and Parker slated Frakes's live-action approach as "a terrible miscalculation": "I mean, if you aren’t using puppets, then you ain’t got nothin’. They sure didn’t have a story."
- "Toonhound.com entry". Archived from the original on 3 May 2008. Retrieved 26 November 2009.
- Wickes, Simon (29 December 2003). "The Hows and Whys of Supermarionation — Part 4". tvcentury21.com. Archived from the original on 13 December 2009. Retrieved 26 November 2009.
- Marcus, Laurence; Hulse, Stephen (2000). "Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons: A Television Heaven Review". televisionheaven.co.uk. Archived from the original on 29 June 2008. Retrieved 1 October 2009.
- Wickes, Simon (2 January 2004). "FAQ — Puppets". tvcentury21.com. Archived from the original on 13 December 2009. Retrieved 1 October 2009.
- Anderson, Gerry (25 April 2002). The Godfather of Thunderbirds. BBC News. Interview with Bill Turnbull and Sophie Raworth. BBC Breakfast. London. Retrieved 3 December 2009. (Archived 1 July 2004 at the Wayback Machine)
- Trey Parker and Matt Stone talk Team America: World Police