Delightful 'Thunderbirds' documentary goes behind the strings

Stand by for action! The new documentary "Filmed in Supermarionation" goes behind the strings of Gerry Anderson's puppet shows "Thunderbirds", "Captain Scarlet" and "Stingray".

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
3 min read

Former Supermarionation puppeteers Mary Turner and Judith Shutt get reacquainted with Thunderbird Gordon Tracy and Captain Scarlet. "Filmed in Supermarionation"

A couple of years ago I was in New York on New Year's eve, watching Neil Gaiman sing a song. The song was the theme to a 1950s kids' sci-fi show involving a rocket ship and a space monkey, sung by the writer in tribute to the man whose imagination helped shape his childhood, one of the finest storytellers in TV history: Gerry Anderson.

You may not know the name, but you'll almost certainly recognise the shows he created with his wife, Sylvia, the "mad lot" at AP and Century 21 productions, and a varied cast of marionette performers: "Fireball XL5" (the source of Gaiman's song), "Supercar", "Stingray", "Joe 90", "Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons" and of course "Thunderbirds". Now a new documentary, "Filmed in Supermarionation", tells the story of the people behind the puppets.

Gerry Anderson was a British film and TV writer, director, and producer best known for his pioneering childrens' TV shows, beginning in 1957 with "The Adventures of Twizzle". He had international success in the 1960s with "Supercar", "Fireball XL5" and "Stingray", before his biggest success with the adventures of Lady Penelope, Parker and the Tracy family in "Thunderbirds".

"Joe 90" and "Captain Scarlet" followed, but ignominious big-screen outings for International Rescue (the top-secret organization from "Thunderbirds") and the failure of "The Secret Service" -- bizarrely padded with live-action footage of a stuntman in drag -- spelled the end of supermarionation.

Along the way, the Andersons and their team were responsible for many innovations, not just in the art of puppetry, but also in television production generally. And it was all achieved, in wonderfully British fashion, in the ballroom of a stately home and in a shed in Slough.

Directed by Stephen La Rivière, the documentary's vibrant storytelling captures the vitality, innocence and sense of joy of the series themselves, especially with the inspired choice to cast Parker and Lady Penelope as the narrators -- with technical explanations of filming techniques supplied by Brains, naturally. The narration scenes are genuinely funny -- the film opens with Parker wondering existentially where he came from. The whole film is a delight, in fact, thanks to a mixture of cheeky reminiscences and craftily chosen clips.

Mike Mercury of "Supercar", Brains of "Thunderbirds" and Lieutenant Green of "Captain Scarlet" return to the original garage where Anderson and co. first produced their classic TV serials. "Filmed in Supermarionation"

The use of puppets to narrate the story also gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the process of filming puppets -- or rather, the problems of filming puppets. Watching the puppets go wrong is as much fun as watching them go right, and the documentary provides fascinating insight into the way the shows were made.

The film is packed with great details -- like the fact that the cool moving chairs bearing characters to their ships in "Thunderbirds", a signature part of the series, were borne out of necessity -- because the one thing the puppeteers couldn't portray realistically was walking.

The focus is squarely on the puppets, the programmes and the filming techniques and innovations, stopping before Anderson moved into live action with "UFO" and "Space: 1999", offering only tantalising hints at the antics of the people pulling the strings. Perhaps most glaring, the troubled relationship between Gerry and Sylvia is entirely glossed over.

We do learn about the friendly rivalry between the puppeteers, who moved the marionettes, and the special-effects crew, who would often blow them up (the puppets, that is). And we do also get a sly admission that the makers of children's TV really do know what they're saying when the characters appear to be saying something not for the ears of kids.

But most interesting is an intriguing subtext of Anderson's ambivalent relationship with the puppets to which he was attached by his own set of invisible strings. Aspiring to be a serious filmmaker, when he was first instructed to make a show with puppets he "nearly vomited".

Still, his creations have brought joy to generations. With "Thunderbirds" set to be revived on TV in 2015 in CGI form, "Filmed in Supermarionation" is a timely treat.

"Filmed in Supermarionation" is in cinemas in the UK from 10 October, and is then released on DVD, Blu-ray and in a limited edition box set on 20 October.