Supermarionation

From Academic Kids

Supermarionation (standing for super marionette animation) is a puppetry technique devised by the British production company AP Films and used extensively in its numerous children's action-adventure series, the most famous of which is undoubtedly Thunderbirds.

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.

The heads contained solenoid motors that created the synchronized mouth movements for dialogue and other functions. The puppets' eyes were also controlled in this way. The voice synchronisation was achieved by using a specially designed audio filter which was 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, creating lip movements that were precisely synchronised with the dialogue.

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 Thunderbirds were one of the devices the producers used to overcome this problem.

Occasionally, close-ups of a real actor's hand would be inserted to show actions such as turning keys, pressing buttons, etc. This was affectionately parodied in the 2004 Thunderbirds live action feature film, in which director Jonathan Frakes included a brief shot of a puppet hand, suspended by wires, operating the controls of Thunderbird 2.

The control mechanisms were originally placed within the puppets' heads, which meant the heads had to be disproportionately large compared to the bodies, like many comic strip characters. The advent of miniaturised electronic components in the mid-1960s meant that, beginning with Captain Scarlet, a new type of puppet was designed, with a correctly-proportioned head and control mechanisms in the chest, connected to the mouth and eyes by narrow rods through the neck. This resulted in a far more realistic appearance for the puppets.

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. Other characters were based on well-known film stars, such as Capt. Troy Tempest in Stingray who was based on James Garner, and Captain Scarlet, who was modelled on Cary Grant. Stingray also featured the only non-speaking Supermarionation puppet - the mermaid, Marina.

The term was coined by Gerry Anderson, possibly in imitation of Ray Harryhausen's stop motion technique, Super Dynamation. The term predates and is unrelated to Super Mario.

Anderson's 'supermarionated' television shows were:

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 calling The Secret Service his favorite Supermarionation series.

In 1973, Anderson produced a pilot episode for another Supermarionation/live action hybrid entitled The Investigator but is 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).

A later show, Terrahawks, used hand-controlled puppets, mostly controlled from beneath using a system called Supermacromation, which was broadly similar to the techniques developed by Jim Henson.

A recent US television advertisement for the Orbitz online travel service is styled to suggest supermarionation, though whether it could correctly be called by the term is open to question.

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 "Supercrappynation" since the strings controlling the puppets were intentionally left visible. Coincidentally that same year, a Thunderbirds movie was made, loosely based on the series. It was shot entirely in live action with computer effects, and attempted to mimic the popular children's movie Spy Kids. It was met with poor reviews.

As of 2004, Anderson was producing The New Captain Scarlet, which is to be rendered using computer-generated imagery techniques. As a nod to Supermarionation, however, the show is promoted as being produced in Hypermarionation.de:Supermarionation

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