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All under-control – Supermarionation without strings!

1983’s Terrahawks saw Gerry Anderson return to television puppetry with Supermacromation – his first style of puppet to be fully operated by hand, as opposed to the string marionettes he was most associated with. However, few people realise that several of those earlier Supermarionation puppets had also been worked by hand from below the frame from time to time!

“I say, pilot, I’m…getting rather chilly…” Supercar’s canopy remained open for the puppets’ wires no matter what the weather!

For Supermarionation shows up to and including Thunderbirds, in scenes featuring a puppet character flying an aircraft in which said aircraft’s canopy was visible, room would have to be made to allow their wires through. It didn’t matter that Supercar’s canopy was wide open to the vacuum of space or the ocean depths – viewers just accepted that Mike Mercury and co would be okay!

With 1967’s Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons however came a new style of Supermarionation puppet, with heads now sculpted in human-like proportions. With this increased realism came the realisation that it would be undermined by still having the wires of the Supermarionation puppets poking out of the tops of canopies when they took to the skies. A solution was needed, and it came in the form of a technique that had been devised for the 1966 feature film Thunderbirds are Go; operating puppets by hand using mechanisms worked from below the frame.

An under-control Melody Angel puppet; torso, arms, and head – but no wires!

Devised by puppeteer Mary Turner, these ‘under-control’ puppets did away with the problem of wires sticking out of aircraft canopies, and so for almost all shots in Captain Scarlet featuring the Angels in the cockpits of their interceptors the puppets would operated from below. It wasn’t only the Angels who were shot in this way; guest characters who were pilots (such as Major Gravener, Major Reeves and Mervin Brand) were also all operated from below when shown flying their planes.

When it came to other methods of transportation however, it was still rare to see characters operated by anything other than wires. Spectrum Captains in their SPVs and Spectrum saloons were generally operated from above, while many guest characters drove convertibles with the top down to allow room for their wires. However, there were several noticeable exceptions, including the three bank robbers (and Captain Black) in the grey saloon in Heart of New York and the Mysteronised truck driver Eddie in Avalanche.

The under-control technique was retained for 1968’s Joe 90, where many of the guest aircraft piloted by Joe in the series were specifically designed to re-use the reliable Angel interceptor cockpit set! It also now began to be more frequently used in cars such as Sam Loover’s, plus the ambitious chase scene at the start of Double Agent. Colonel McClaine also contains a notable sequence featuring Joe, Mac, Sam and Shane in Sam’s car, all operated from below, which hints at unrealised advantages of the under-control mechanism. In a confined space such as the interior of a car, being operated from below allowed the characters to react to each other’s statements and turn their heads to look at each other with a greater sense of immediacy and naturalism than might have been possible if operated on wires from above. The technique would also be used infrequently throughout The Secret Service, most often to animate the Stanley Unwin puppet as he travelled around in Gabriel.

Under-control Scarlet and Blue in Winged Assassin.

While the under-control experiment certainly helped bring the Angels and other pilots to life, it was certainly not a complete success on the few occasions it was used to animate puppets who were not in vehicles. The most notable example of this comes in the control tower scene of the Captain Scarlet episode Winged Assassin, where under-control Captains Scarlet and Blue are seen alongside regular ‘wired’ airport personnel. While it allows the Spectrum Captains to get closer to the camera, and thus make the control tower set appear slightly larger than it probably was, it also makes their movements appear stiff and unnatural – which rather defeated the goal of lifelike realism that created the puppets in the first place! Like many of the triumphs of the Supermarionation universe however, under-control puppetry was a bold experiment that certainly succeeded more often than it failed.

The next time you put on your Captain Scarlet or Joe 90 Blu-rays, and you’re struggling to see a puppet’s wires, try to spot whether they have just been very carefully painted out – or if they’re being operated from below!

Written by
Chris Dale

Writer, editor & voice actor on Big Finish's Doctor Who, Terrahawks, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet audio ranges. Host of the Randomiser on the Gerry Anderson Podcast.

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