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Supermarionation puppets on display at the National Media Museum in Bradford, UK

Supermarionation (a portmanteau of "super", "marionette" and "animation")[1] 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 created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, of which the best known is Thunderbirds. The term was coined by Gerry, who considered it to be APF's "trademark".[2][3] According to Sylvia, Supermarionation was created to "distinguish the pure puppetry of the stage from our more sophisticated filmed-television version".[4]

Commentator Chris Bentley writes that "Supermarionation" refers to "all of the sophisticated puppetry techniques" used by APF (mainly the ability to electronically synchronise lip movements with pre-recorded dialogue), "combined with the full range of film production facilities normally employed in live-action filming" (such as use of visual effects and front and back projection).[5] David Garland believes that the term conveys Gerry Anderson's appreciation for artistic realism and his desire to make APF's puppet techniques "more and more life-like".[4]

Development and use in Anderson productions[edit]


When we got to making this better class of puppet film, I was looking for a more fitting way to explain how our productions differed from those of our predecessors. I wanted to invent a word that promoted the quality of our work, so we combined the words "super", "marionette" and "animation". It didn't mean anything other than that, and it certainly didn't refer to any specific process. It was our trademark, if you like.

— Gerry Anderson (2002)[3]

APF's first production, 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, APF's founders, wanted to make Twizzle in the style of a feature film with dynamic shooting and lighting. To this end, three-dimensional sets were used instead of traditional flat backgrounds and the puppeteers operated the marionettes not from the studio floor, but from a bridge about six feet (1.8 m) high.[6]

The puppets of APF's follow-up series, Torchy the Battery Boy, were made of plastic wood and incorporated a moveable lip that opened and closed on a string.[7] By the time Four Feather Falls entered production, the head strings had been replaced with tungsten steel wires and the moveable lip with an electronic lip-sync mechanism. Pre-recorded dialogue was converted into electrical impulses that the wires conducted into the puppet's head; there, the impulses operated a solenoid that caused the puppet's lower lip to open and close with each syllable.[8] To accommodate the solenoids, the puppets' heads were now made as hollow shells. Heads of main characters were made of fibreglass resin from a rubber mould, while those of guest characters – played by puppets called "revamps" – were sculpted in Plasticine.[9]

The term "Supermarionation" was coined during the production of APF's fourth series, Supercar, whose final 13 episodes were the first to be credited as being "filmed in Supermarionation".[1]


The system used marionettes suspended and controlled using thin tungsten steel wires, which were chemically blackened to make them less visible to the camera.[10] To conceal the wires further, the puppeteers also sprayed them with "antiflare" (grease mist) and painted them various colours so that they would blend in with the backgrounds.[11]

The puppet' two distinguishing features were their fibreglass heads and the internal solenoids that formed the basis of their lip-sync mechanisms.[2] This mechanism dictated the puppets' body proportions.[12] On all APF series from Four Feather Falls to Thunderbirds, the solenoids were located inside the puppets' heads. Consequently, the head of a puppet was disproportionately large compared to the rest of its body; the latter could not be scaled up to match as the puppet would have become too bulky to operate effectively.[12][13] Garland comments that the disproportion was influenced partly by "aesthetic considerations ... the theory being that the head carried the puppet's personality".[14] This resulted in many puppets being given caricatured appearances.[14]

Towards the end of the 1960s, the development of miniaturised components led APF to design a new type of puppet. The option to downsize the magnets in the head was rejected in favour of moving the entire lip-sync mechanism to the chest, where it was connected to the mouth by narrow rods passing through the neck.[15][13][16][17][18] This allowed the head to be shrunk and the puppets of Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons and subsequent series to be sculpted to realistic body proportions.[16][17][18] Around this time, APF also tried to make the puppets' faces more lifelike by crafting them in a new, flexible material, but the results proved unsatisfactory and the idea was abandoned.[15]

In a 2002 interview, Gerry Anderson said that during the production of Captain Scarlet he was hoping to move into live-action TV production, and that he endorsed the new, natural puppet design as a compromise for his inability to use live actors.[19] One disadvantage of the new design was that the smaller heads upset the puppets' weight distribution, making them harder to operate.[14]

Because the puppets could not walk convincingly, most scenes showed characters standing or sitting, or driving vehicles or other, more futuristic means of transport. Stingray's focus on its eponymous submarine and its depiction of one of its main characters, Commander Shore, as a "hoverchair"-bound paraplegic are examples of devices used to overcome the puppets' lack of mobility.[11] Carolyn Percy of Wales Arts Review comments that the inclusion of "futuristic vehicles" like Supercar allowed the Andersons to devise "more exciting and imaginative scenarios" and "work around the limitations of the puppets ... to give their 'acting' the integrity to match the material."[2] David Garland calls character movement Anderson's "bête noire" and states that the puppets' limited mobility resulted in "vehicle-heavy science fiction [becoming] Anderson's preferred genre".[11] He regards the use of marionettes – which he considers the kind of puppet "perhaps most unsuited" to an action format – as "one of the most striking paradoxes" of the Anderson productions.[20]

Close-ups of live actors' hands were inserted to show actions such as pressing buttons.

List of Supermarionation productions[edit]

Title Year Type Notes
Four Feather Falls 1960 TV series APF's first production to use electronic marionettes equipped with lip-sync mechanisms
Supercar 1961 TV series First production to be "filmed in Supermarionation". Also the first to feature back projection and underwater scenes filmed "dry" through thin aquaria, and the first for which puppets were made in duplicate to allow episodes to be filmed in pairs by separate crews.[21]
Fireball XL5 1962 TV series First production to feature puppet heads with blinkable eyes[22]
Stingray 1964 TV series First production for which puppets' facial expressions were varied: main characters could now be fitted with "smiler" and "frowner" heads. Glass eyes and poseable hands were also introduced for greater realism.[23]
Thunderbirds 1965 TV series
Thunderbirds Are Go 1966 Feature film First production in which all puppets were fibreglass (previously, guest characters had been sculpted in Plasticine)[24]
Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons 1967 TV series The lip-sync mechanism is moved to the chest, allowing the puppets to be redesigned with realistic body proportions.
Thunderbird 6 1968 Feature film
Joe 90 1968 TV series
The Secret Service 1969 TV series Incorporates extensive footage of live actors
The Investigator 1973 TV pilot Features both puppet characters and live actors

Successor techniques[edit]


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".[11] This was similar to the techniques employed by American puppeteer Jim Henson.[2]


In 2004, Anderson created a Captain Scarlet remake titled New Captain Scarlet, which was produced using computer-generated imagery (CGI) and motion-capture techniques.[25] Motion capture was used heavily for action sequences as it provided more convincing character movement.[26] As a nod to Supermarionation, the series was credited as being "created in Hypermarionation".[27] According to Anderson, Hypermarionation was not simply animation, but a "photo-real method" of production combining CGI, high definition and surround sound.[25] Garland suggests that through Hypermarionation, Anderson sought to achieve a "hyperreal simulation of his live-action film utopia".[27]


In 2014, a Kickstarter campaign was launched to fund a remake of the anime series Firestorm, to be produced using a technique called "Ultramarionation".[28] A predecessor of the technique had been used in 2003 for Thunderbirds: IR, a scrapped remake of Thunderbirds.[29] As opposed to marionettes, Ultramarionation is similar to rod puppetry, and can be controlled by multiple puppeteers to allow more realistic movement.

Critical response[edit]

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."[2]

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",[30] 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".[31] 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",[31] 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".[14] 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".[32]

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".[14]

Use in non-Anderson productions[edit]

  • In 1962, Associated British Corporation (ABC) brought the series, Space Patrol to the screen. 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.
  • Japanese puppeteer Kinosuke Takeda produced three Supermarionation styled television series between 1960 and 1970 including Spaceship Silica, Galaxy Boy Troop and Aerial City 008.
  • 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.
  • Refined Supermarionation techniques were used in the South African children's science fiction show Interster in the early 1980's.
  • 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.


  1. ^ a b La Rivière, p. 67.
  2. ^ a b c d e Percy, Carolyn (5 April 2017). Raymond, Gary; Morris, Phil (eds.). "The Life and Work of Gerry Anderson: Anything Can Happen in the Next Half Hour!". Wales Arts Review. Archived from the original on 6 October 2017. Retrieved 1 July 2018.
  3. ^ a b Archer, Simon; Hearn, Marcus (2002). What Made Thunderbirds Go! The Authorised Biography of Gerry Anderson. London, UK: BBC Books. p. 69. ISBN 978-0-563-53481-5.
  4. ^ a b Garland, p. 65.
  5. ^ Bentley, Chris (2008) [2001]. The Complete Gerry Anderson: The Authorised Episode Guide (4th ed.). London, UK: Reynolds & Hearn. p. 48. ISBN 978-1-905287-74-1.
  6. ^ La Rivière, pp. 15-16.
  7. ^ La Rivière, p. 19.
  8. ^ La Rivière, p. 29.
  9. ^ La Rivière, pp. 32-33.
  10. ^ La Rivière, p 28.
  11. ^ a b c d Garland, p. 70.
  12. ^ a b La Rivière, p. 150.
  13. ^ a b " entry". Archived from the original on 3 May 2008. Retrieved 26 November 2009.
  14. ^ a b c d e Garland, p. 64.
  15. ^ a b La Rivière, p. 151.
  16. ^ a b Wickes, Simon (29 December 2003). "The Hows and Whys of Supermarionation — Part 4". Archived from the original on 17 July 2011. Retrieved 26 November 2009.
  17. ^ a b Marcus, Laurence; Hulse, Stephen (2000). "Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons: A Television Heaven Review". Archived from the original on 29 June 2008. Retrieved 1 October 2009.
  18. ^ a b Wickes, Simon (2 January 2004). "FAQ — Puppets". Archived from the original on 17 July 2011. Retrieved 1 October 2009.
  19. ^ Anderson, Gerry (25 April 2002). "The Godfather of Thunderbirds". BBC Breakfast (Interview). Interviewed by Turnbull, Bill; Raworth, Sophie. London: BBC News. Archived from the original on 1 July 2004. Retrieved 3 December 2009.
  20. ^ Garland, pp. 70-71.
  21. ^ La Rivière, pp. 56, 61 and 65.
  22. ^ La Rivière, p. 103.
  23. ^ La Rivière, pp. 97-98.
  24. ^ La Rivière, p. 132.
  25. ^ a b Garland, p. 71.
  26. ^ Garland, pp. 71-72.
  27. ^ a b Garland, p. 72.
  28. ^ "Firestorm Aims to be 21st-Century Thunderbirds with Next-Gen Puppets". CNET. CBS Interactive. Archived from the original on 5 March 2016. Retrieved 23 June 2018.
  29. ^ "YouTube". Retrieved 17 July 2019.
  30. ^ Garland, p. 62.
  31. ^ a b Garland, p. 63.
  32. ^ Garland, p. 66.

Works cited[edit]

  • Garland, David (2009). "Pulling the Strings: Gerry Anderson's Walk from 'Supermarionation' to 'Hypermarionation'". In Geraghty, Lincoln (ed.). Channeling the Future: Essays on Science Fiction and Fantasy Television. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press. pp. 61–75. ISBN 978-0-8108-6922-6.
  • La Rivière, Stephen (2009). Filmed in Supermarionation: A History of the Future. Neshannock, Pennsylvania: Hermes Press. ISBN 978-1-932563-23-8.

Further reading[edit]

  • Anderson, Sylvia (1991). "The Characters in Action". Yes, M'Lady. London, UK: Smith Gryphon. pp. 28–42. ISBN 978-1-856850-11-7.
  • 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.CS1 maint: Date format (link)
  • Marriott, John (1993). "Supermarionation and the Strings behind the Spell". Supermarionation Classics: Stingray, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. Rogers, Dave; Drake, Chris; Bassett, Graeme. London, UK: Boxtree. pp. 160–176. ISBN 978-1-85283-900-0.
  • 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.
  • Sellers, Robert (2006). "Puppet Master". Cult TV: The Golden Age of ITC. London, UK: Plexus Publishing. pp. 77–115. ISBN 978-0-85965-388-6.

External links[edit]