Coined by British filmmaker Gerry Anderson and his wife, Sylvia, while making the series Supercar in 1960, “Supermarionation” was the name given to a technique through which marionettes (string puppets) achieved locomotion through electronic means.
A combination of the words “super”, “marionette” and “animation”, the technique was used by Anderson’s production company AP Films (later Century 21 Productions) in television series in the 1960s, including Supercar (1961); Fireball XL5 (1962); Stingray (1964); Thunderbirds (1965); Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967); and Joe 90 (1967).
Some sources consider Four Feather Falls (1959) to be the first Supermarionation series (although it was not billed as such) because it saw the introduction of the electronic lip-syncing mechanism. The final series to be “filmed in Supermarionation” was The Secret Service (1969), although the series used extensive footage of live actors.
The feature films Thunderbirds Are Go (1966) and Thunderbird 6 (1968) were also produced in Supermarionation. All the productions were filmed at APF’s studios on the Slough Trading Estate in Buckinghamshire.
Voice artists created the voices of the main and peripheral characters for each episode, with the recording then edited to remove pauses (particularly where an artist was playing two characters in one scene).
The marionette heads were initially sculpted in clay or plasticine and then formed as fibreglass shells with provisions allowing for eyes and mouth mechanisms.
An electronic solenoid, controlled by the prerecorded dialogue, was inserted into the head and enabled the puppet character to “speak” in direct synchronization with the recorded voices by moving the puppet’s lower lip with each syllable.
The eyes, constructed by optical experts, were capable of movement and expression through electronics.
Male figures were fitted with wigs with human hair used for the female figures (each strand separately fixed to the head, gradually building up the tresses).
Produced in plastic, the puppet bodies – between twenty-two and twenty-four inches in height – were constructed in the correct human proportion, dispensing with the tradition that puppet heads should be bigger than bodies.
Clothes for the marionettes were hand-made using the finest lightweight material to prevent bulkiness and weight.
Completed marionettes were wired with 0.005-inch-thick tungsten steel wires, coloured matte black so as not to photograph or reflect light. Each figure was controlled by nine twelve-foot-long wires fixed to a control and worked by a human manipulator who stood on a bridge above the set.
Electric current was passed through the control wires to activate the puppet’s lip-sync mechanism.
Sets were constructed at one-third the normal size and made extensive use of scale-model special effects, directed by Derek Meddings.
Because five camera crews and two sets were constantly used, an identical twin to each character had to be made. When the film was completed, the editorial department added the music score and the twelve tracks of sound effects and dialogue were blended to form the soundtrack.