One of the defining characteristics of Gerry Anderson as a producer was his desire to create the very best work possible, with each production building upon and improving the successes of the last. This can be seen in his push to continually refine the puppets his team were working with, and the evolution in puppetry from 1957’s The Adventures of Twizzle to 1965’s Thunderbirds was a huge technological achievement in a relatively short space of time. In 1967 the Supermarionation puppetry technique would experience another drastic step forward, as the solenoids required to make the puppets’ mouths move could now be produced to such a small scale that they could be housed in the characters chests rather than their heads, resulting in the development of puppets created in human-like proportions for Anderson’s latest series Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. But was the switch to this new style of puppet a smart decision? It certainly proved a controversial one, with Anderson fans and colleagues alike having strong opinions on the matter, and it has led to a frequently-asked question among fans; do you prefer the larger or smaller puppet heads?
Since ultimately it comes down to personal opinion and there’s really no right or wrong answer I can only speak to my own feelings on the issue, so I’ll be honest up front; I’ve always been attracted more to the Century 21 era (Captain Scarlet to The Secret Service in Supermarionation, plus UFO in live-action) of Anderson’s work than the APF era (Supercar–Thunderbirds), and the more sophisticated puppets do play a part in that. As late as Fireball XL5 (and even occasionally Stingray) the Supermarionation series had featured guest character puppets that could perhaps be best described as nightmarish…
…but even the least attractive of the Century 21 era puppets are just not particularly interesting to look at rather than being actually hideous. The attempt to achieve the closest thing to live actors using puppets may not be to everyone’s tastes, and some may argue that the correctly proportioned heads lack a certain amount of expression and charm that the previous models had, but at least the failures aren’t distractingly bad either.
Yet the appeal of the correctly proportioned puppets goes beyond the more naturalistic facial sculpting, and has more to do with the series they were created for. Ultimately, I feel that producing Captain Scarlet using the old style of puppets with oversized heads would have been at best a mistake, and at worst fundamentally undermined the entire series. The show’s greatest strength is its dark and violent tone, and while puppets murdering other puppets can be a gigglesome sight if you’re in the right mood the fact that death was such an integral part of the Captain Scarlet format meant that only the most realistic puppets possible could have made the series work. One of my favourite shots in any Anderson production is that of Captain Black standing in the graveyard during the Mysteron threat sequence – but can you imagine an overly caricatured version of Black looking even half as sinister as the one that was ultimately used?
Similarly, I feel that the equally hard-edged Joe 90 would have also been less effective without the correctly proportioned puppets, but beyond those two series? Well, the lighter tone of The Secret Service could possibly have worked with the older more caricatured puppets, were it not for the live action insert shots of a correctly proportioned Stanley Unwin pootling about the countryside spoiling the illusion. Likewise, although the John and Judy puppets aren’t particularly attractive The Investigator being a live-action/puppetry hybrid does rather demand that the puppets be as realistic-looking as possible.
However, there were certain occasions where more realistic puppets definitely had a negative on a production, particularly when revisiting old characters. Thunderbird 6, the final installment of the original Supermarionation Thunderbirds, featured new slightly less caricatured sculpts of many of the regular characters from the television series, which in my opinion led to a little of the charm of the originals being lost. Scott and Virgil in particular almost feel like imposters throughout that film; it’s the same voices, and the faces look similar…but they’re not quite what they used to be.
This brings us to one area where the correctly-proportioned puppets were certainly inferior to their predecessors, however; mobility. The more heavily caricatured puppets were able to move like puppets without it seeming strange because…well, they looked like puppets, so it wasn’t too distracting to see them behaving like puppets. The Scarlet-era puppets, however, were so lifelike that even a slightly puppet-like movement would become very distracting. Take for instance the Stingray/Thunderbirds era puppets’ habit of raising their hands up and down during conversation; it’s something that very few people do in real life, but we instantly accept it when the puppets do it in those shows. However, when Lieutenant Green does the same thing while issuing orders during Winged Assassin (an episode with quite a bit of puppet fidgetiness) it instantly breaks the illusion of realism and reminds us that this is a puppet – the exact opposite of Anderson’s intention!
So it was the Scarlet-era puppets became more reliant than ever on using any other method than walking to get around; vehicles, jet-packs, and moving walkways to name a few. Occasionally a short stunt sequence might be attempted, but for every one that sort-of worked (such as Captain Blue karate chopping Orson in Lunarville 7) there’s at least two – let’s say ‘Doctor Magnus escapes sickbay’ or ‘Captain Blue throws himself from the fake Cloudbase porthole’ – that simply don’t. The development of the ‘under control’ system (puppets operated from below the frame without strings) helped a little, but sometimes it appeared as though the Supermarionation puppets had now been ‘perfected’ into a corner, and the only way forward for the Century 21 team was the inevitable switch to live actors.
Ultimately it is down to individual choice which style of puppet you prefer, and that can depend on what your favourite Supermarionation series is – although for some fans the style of puppet is in itself a factor in determining their favourite series. Speaking for myself I would have happily watched more post-Thunderbirds series made using the ‘big head’ puppets, but I’m very glad that the more mature concepts and themes of Captain Scarlet and Joe 90 benefited from the greater realism of the correctly proportioned characters – no matter how flawed they sometimes were! But what do you think; do you prefer the larger or smaller puppet heads, or are you not bothered at all? Let us know in the comments below!