SFX Magic – The ‘Underwater’ Aquarium

For a series of shows that featured an awful lot of underwater scenes, it’s surprising to think that vehicles such as Stingray, Thunderbird 4 or Skydiver didn’t come into contact with water as often as it might appear. While scenes of them cruising on (or diving below) the ocean surface would be filmed in a large water tank, such a tank would not be practical for filming scenes of those vehicles underwater.

Filming the opening scene of the Stingray episode The Disappearing Ships in a water tank.

For scenes featuring these craft operating beneath the surface of the waves, an ingenious yet simple method was devised that is still in use in the film industry today and which still tricks viewers into believing that Stingray and the rest really were underwater. Devised by Reg Hill during production of Supercar, the solution was to place an aquarium between the film camera and a model set displaying an underwater landscape. This aquarium, which was mounted on wheels, measured seven feet tall with a width of only a few inches. Once the shot was set up the model would then be ‘flown’ across the set as if it were any normal land-based scene, with its wires so skilfully hidden that even in High Definition it is normally extremely difficult to spot them. The same technique would also come to be used in scenes featuring puppet characters underwater.

“It travels in space, or under the sea…” At least Supercar can appear to, thanks to the aquarium!

Yet the process wasn’t as simple as just placing an aquarium in front of the camera; the illusion needed several more elements in order to be completely brought to life. One of the most important was air bubbles, released into the water through an out-of-shot (or otherwise concealed) airline. These bubbles would also disturb any floating detritus in the water such as seaweed, which is particularly noticeable on Stingray. Adding another element of realism was the inclusion of real fish in the tank, who would often by reacting to any sudden explosion on the model stage as if it really were happening in the water with them.

Although they flatly refused to assist during rescue operations.

Looking at the underwater scenes on Supercar the effect was achieved extraordinarily well almost immediately. Although there were still a few problems to be ironed out (most notably the lighting of the aquarium to avoid making the fish look like unidentifiable blobs, plus the edge of the aquarium very occasionally creeping into shot) Supercar’s underwater scenes are generally as convincing as anything that came after afterwards, with the show’s black-and-white nature creating an underwater world that was at times a rather unsettling place to be.

Problems apparent with lighting and positioning the aquarium in Supercar: Deep Seven – although this shot is not typical of the rest of the episode!

Stingray saw the technique perfected, creating a spectacular yet realistic underwater world that still looks very impressive today, and the aquarium technique would remain in use throughout all subsequent productions from AP Films and Century 21. By the time of shooting on UFO fish were rarely seen in the underwater model shots, but the aquarium was still in place to create bubbles that gave the illusion Skydiver (and the occasional UFO) were underwater. Following completion of UFO underwater scenes were a rarity in the Anderson shows, but whenever one did occur (such as the Hawkwing launch sequence in Terrahawks) there would still be an aquarium (with bubbles!) positioned between the camera and the model set to add greater realism!

An aquarium, fish, bubbles, seaweed, and filtered lighting all combine to give the illusion that Stingray really is underwater – while the model itself remains completely dry!

Although the aquarium with hindsight may seem an obvious solution to the problem of underwater filming, thanks to how frequently the process has been used in subsequent productions throughout the film industry, its implementation on Supercar was one of many pioneering breakthroughs achieved by the early Supermarionation shows – and it’s hard to imagine that Stingray and subsequent underwater adventures would have looked anywhere near as convincing without it!

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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