Supermarionation is a puppetry technique devised in the 1960s by British production company AP Films and developed by Gerry Anderson and other contributors. The name is a portmanteau of "super", "marionette" and "animation". The term was coined by Gerry Anderson, possibly in imitation of "Dynamation", Ray Harryhausen's stop motion technique.
Supermarionation combined the use of one third scale marionette puppets with an innovative Auto-Speak system which animated the character's mouths. Supermarionation shows typically used live action footage for some close-ups and smaller scale models for long shots, although the final Anderson Supermarionation program The Secret Service (1969) used live action for the long shots. The first show to utilize the technique was Four Feather Falls (1960), though the label was first applied to Supercar in 1961 and the technique was used in Anderson's shows throughout the 1960s, with many show utilizing the technique as affectionate imitations inspired by the Anderson series.
Star Fleet utilized refined techniques of Supermarionation, canned similarly as "Supermariorama" (スーパーマリオラマ). Due to the lack of Anderson involvement, the series though is not officially recognized as being Supermarionation.
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.
During late 1956 or early 1957, Gerry Anderson and a friend from Polytechnic Studios by the name of Arthur Provis pooled their meagre financial resources to form a film production company which they named Anderson Provis Productions or AP Productions for short. AP Productions started on a shoestring. The company set up operations in cheap quarters located in a flood prone converted mansion on the banks of the Thames River in Maidenhead.
After nearly six months with no business, the money began to run out and AP Productions seemed likely to follow Polytechnic Studios into oblivion. Then, just as the end seemed imminent, a children's book author by the name of Roberta Leigh approached the company with a job. Gerry Anderson and Arthur Provis's great relief turned into equally great disappointment after they discovered that Roberta Leigh did not want them to produce a live action television series or film but instead wanted a series of 15 minute puppet shows based upon her popular 'Twizzle' book character. Desperate for income and hoping that Roberta Leigh's The Adventures of Twizzle television series would keep the company solvent until something better came along, AP Productions took on the job.
This fateful decision put the Andersons on the path that would lead to Supermarionation. Indeed, the entire Anderson marionette empire of the 1960s grew out of this one 'temporary' measure that was only intended to keep AP Productions in business until something better came around. Nobody associated with the company ever thought that The Adventures of Twizzle would ever lead to anything other than a short-term paycheck.
The budget of The Adventures of Twizzle was so low (about $800 per episode) and the production schedule so tight that the scenery and props often had to be built in the same converted ballroom where the filming took place. As this was only a part time job for Derek Meddings, he usually performed his work at night or on weekends. However, filming often dragged on through the night so Derek frequently had to work on building scenery and props while filming was going on all around him.
Although everyone at AP Productions was concerned that The Adventures of Twizzle would prove to be an embarrassing flop, it actually did pretty well when introduced to British television during November 1957. In large part, this was because AP Productions had elected to use the more realistic marionette puppets instead of the simple glove puppets typically used in competing children's television programs.
The success of The Adventures of Twizzle led to another commission by Roberta Leigh in late 1958. Unfortunately, this commission was for a similar puppet television series called Torchy the Battery Boy. By this time, AP Productions had become resigned to the fact that they were stuck doing puppet work, at least for the near term. However, AP Productions resolved to produce the best children's puppet program possible in the hope that their high quality workmanship would attract 'better' classes of work.
It was during the filming of Torchy the Battery Boy that AP Productions' John Read and Reg Hill developed a truly revolutionary process which automated the motion of the puppet's mouth. This development was called 'lip sync' (for lip synchronization). The lip sync apparatus moved the puppet's hinged lower lip in synchronization with a pre-recorded vocal track. It was actually a fairly simple apparatus. Basically, electrical signals from the vocal track were conveyed through steel control wires to a solenoid located in the puppet head which opened and closed the puppet's lower lip as the amplitude of the electrical signal varied through the course of normal speech. This apparatus was unfortunately not used during the series, other than on two single secondary characters.
Whilst working on Roberta Leigh's series, Gerry and Arthur wanted to branch out and work on their own puppet based series using this technique. With £6,000 in the bank and an idea given to them by their music composer, Barry Gray, they set about making a pilot episode for a western series - this series which would become Four Feather Falls. However, fearing that Leigh would find out and cancel their contract for Torchy and withhold payment, they began creating the puppets and sets for their new series under the utmost secrecy.
Four Feather Falls proved to at that point become the most ambitious series to date that AP Studios had worked on. Much more detailed sets and sophisticated solenoid puppets proved to bring in a whole new style of puppetry - one canned as "Supermarionation" by Gerry Anderson only one series later.
Use in Gerry Anderson ProductionsEdit
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.
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.
During production of Stingray in 1964, the advancement of giving the puppets different heads to show a variety of facial expressions -- all previous series had one static facial expression. For more realism, genuine prosthetic eyes were used on the puppets and the wires propelling the puppets were painted during each scene to help disguise them in the background. Following Stingray came Thunderbirds, which is still today the most infamous of Supermarionation productions and Gerry Anderson productions all together.
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.
During Captain Scarlet, Joe 90 and The Secret Service in certain scenes, under-control puppets were utilized for waist-up scenes of the characters, as a way to disguise the puppets strings and be able to have them walk through doorways.
The Secret Service in 1969 was the final Anderson production, which utilized a combination of Supermarionation and live-action as Anderson started departing from puppets into live-action. Live actors were used for distance-shots to depict driving, walking, etc. Unfortunately, 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. The series used two puppets for the characters of John and Julie who were shrunk by an alien being known as "The Investigator" to help better the world. Apart from those two characters, everyone else in their world are played by live action actors.
Anderson primarily departed into live action with series such as UFO, The Protectors and Space: 1999 through the 1970's. During financial difficulty, Anderson and his new business partner Christopher Burr opted to make another puppet series, Terrahawks in 1983.
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.
Similar techniques for certain characters were utilized in the 1986 pilot by Anderson and Burr; Space Police, which was the precursor to Anderson's 1994 series Space Precinct. It was utilized for certain characters, mostly alien characters. From shots requiring characters to communicate with human actors, they are people in costumes. No Supermacromation techniques were utilized in the resulting series unfortunately.
In 2014, hints have been made by Anderson Productions to a new series produced in Supermarionation, this time canned as 'Ultramarionation'.  The series, called "Firestorm", is a re-imagining of Gerry Anderson and John Needham's anime of the same name from 2003. The difference, however, is that this series will take up original Anderson notes, scripts, synopsis' .etc and redevelop the show from those original Anderson elements.
A kickstarter to help finance a pilot for the show was launched on September 30th, making its first minimum £49,000 target on October 6th. The fundraising closed on November 2nd, with a total of £88,931 pledged to the project.
Use in non-Anderson ProductionsEdit
- In 1962 , Arthur Provis and Roberta Leigh, defectors from the Anderson studio, staged their own characters in a series of 39 episodes, called Space Patrol.
- Leigh and Provis attempted another puppet series called Paul Starr, which starred Ed Bishop (who would later play the role of Captain Blue in Captain Scarlet). Though only a pilot was made, the puppets were highly intricate, with realistic mouth movements, something that Anderson wouldn't be able to accomplish until Terrahawks in 1983.
- Japanese puppeteer Kinosuke Takeda produced three Supermarionation styled television series between 1960 and 1970 including Spaceship Silica (1961), Galaxy Boy Troop (1963) and Aerial City 008 (1969). Most of these productions are lost, with only few episodes in existence.
- X-Bomber was filmed with refined Supermarionation techniques, similar to Terrahawks the puppets were controlled via rods underneath the sets. Despite Japan's love of Anderson series, the show itself failed to thrill Japanese audiences, though it's English dub ended up being a sleeper hit.
- Refined Supermarionation techniques were used in Dirk De Villiers' South African children's science fiction show Interster in the early 1980's. The series was created as a result of the restrictions set by apartheid boycott through the 80's as a substitute for Thunderbirds. The puppets were wired internally, and movable in a large range of motion, provided by Apple II Computer programmed and controlled servos. The models had a level of intricacy rivaling those in the Star Wars films, with the pyrotechnics requiring a special permit from the production crew.
- In 1991, Supermarionation versions of the Dire Straits band members were made for the music video "Calling Elvis". This music video utilized many scenes from the original Thunderbirds series and was produced by Gerry Anderson.
- Super Adventure Team was an American comedy series created by comedian Dana Gould 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. The series was cancelled after 6 episodes, an infamous rumor being that Carlton Inc. (the owners of Thunderbirds) had lashed at the series' crudeness and bought the rights, then burying the show.
- Brats of the Lost Nebula was a sci-fi puppet series created by the Jim Henson Company. It used a combination of puppets and CGI as a replacement for miniature model shots. The show was cancelled after 13 episodes; it is not very well known and the Henson company only recently placed it online on Hulu.com.
- Team America: World Police, created by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone was made utilizing Supermarionation techniques. Parker and Stone were largely inspired by Thunderbirds and affectionately imitated the style, but the movie itself was made to parody high budget Michael Bay-esque films. The style utilized was dubbed "Suppercrappymation" by Parker and Stone, as the strings controlling the puppets were intentionally left visible.
- In 2006, the 200th episode of television show Stargate SG-1 includes a segment in which SG-1 and crew are featured as puppets in this same style. This itself was done as a nod to both Thunderbirds and Team America, the puppetry being done by the crew of the latter.
- The 2008 movie Agent Crush was made using refined Supermarionation techniques. Former Thunderbirds designer Mike Trimm worked on the crew. Originally slated for a release in 2008, as of 2014 the movie has unfortunately not seen a release.
- The 2010 comedy film Jackboots on Whitehall was filmed using a style similar to Supermarionation with animatronic puppets, with most of the puppets in a fairly realistic-proportioned style.
- A documentary on Supermarionation, Filmed in Supermarionation, was released in Autumn of 2014. It showed newly filmed scenes with Lady Penelope, Parker and Brains along with demonstrated miniature effects. It included many interviews with Anderson alumni, including voice actress Denise Bryer.