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Gerry Anderson: Master in Miniature Part One

The amazing world of the THUNDERBIRDS creator

By Jeff Bond     November 29, 2002

America has its genre visionaries: Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek, Star Trek: The Next Generation), Irwin Allen (Lost in Space, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea), Chris Carter (The X-Files), Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery)all of these guys at most produced a handful of television shows that syndicated reruns have turned into a legion of episodes, any one of which is running somewhere in the world at any given time.


Britain has

Gerry Anderson

Gerry Anderson, and his track record would make any self-respecting U.S. producer shake in his boots: 17 television programs, virtually all of which now rate as cult successes, spawning mountains of merchandise, record albums, action figures and toy vehicles as well as a hugely popular series of DVDs unleashed in America by A&E. Anderson's television shows include the lavishly produced space adventure Space: 1999 and the cult favorite UFO, but he's still probably best known for a series of shows including Supercar, Thunderbirds, Joe 90 and Captain Scarlet which featured sophisticated marionettes instead of human characters.


That's not how Anderson had it planned.


"I wanted to be a Steven Spielberg," Anderson says, noting that he started his first puppet-based show, The Adventures of Twizzle, out of sheer desperation. When the production company he had started with some associates failed to obtain any projects, a writer of children's books offered them 52 15-minute scripts to be made as a television show. "We didn't even pretend to think about itwe just said 'yes.' Then she said it's got to be made using puppets. I'd never seen a puppet in my life and what I had seen on television I hated. So that's how it started. I was terribly distressed at what I was doing."


Anderson hired

The high tech spaceships from Gerry Anderson's UFO.

puppeteer Christine Glanville, who went on to become the chief puppeteer on all of his later series, and asked her a simple question: "What do you do with puppets? She said you get a sheet of hardboard, you paint a scene on it like maybe a garden, and then in the front you put down some props like a garden hose and a couple of flower pots, and then I stand behind the hardboard so you can't see my legs and I lean over the top and I operate the puppet."


To Anderson, that sounded like a recipe to keep him exactly where he was, so he quickly began applying every technique he knew for live action filming to the puppet shows. "As each series came on we introduced all kinds of innovations. We introduced automatic mouth movement which was really a forerunner of Disco Lights, in Fireball XL-5. Interestingly, in order to put the mechanics in the head so that the mouths would react to the prerecorded dialogue when it was played, we had to make the heads large. Years later everybody thought that we did that because we wanted to create fantasy characters. It was just that we had no alternative. All this took place over five or six yearswe replaced the strings with very fine wire which was only 5/1000 of an inch think, but the wire glinted in the light so we painted the wires black, and the paint made them thick again, but we eventually were able to get black wire."


"There were

THUNDERBIRDS: SET 2

hundreds of innovations. If a puppet wanted to walk through a doorway and we had a long shot, we had a model made hanging upside down from the gantry, and when the puppet got to the doorway we would zoom in so you couldn't see the top of the door and they would jump in and remove the top of the door and the puppet would go through and they'd put the thing back and then zoom out. All of this was me trying to say to the industry, 'Look, please give me a live action show.' But the puppet shows became very successful and I became typecast, and the better the films, the more puppet films I got."


Be sure to check back for the second part of our exclusive interview with Gerry Anderson.



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