Sunday, 29 September 2013

Thoughts on Gerry Anderson and Supermarionation

If we look at the major cartoon fads of the past few decades, we find that most of them are in the action adventure genre: think of He-Man, Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Pokémon, and Ben 10, for a start. With a handful of exceptions Britain simply does not make cartoons of this type, and the void left by this genre is instead occupied by the puppet series of Gerry Anderson.

Anderson's curious practise of using string puppets to tell stories of dashing action heroes came about by accident. He entered the industry with a desire to make all-action blockbusters, but was instead commissioned to make puppet shows for children.

Eventually, he was given the chance to make a live action series, UFO, which started in 1970. That was the end of his "Supermarionation" line, which had lasted from Four Feather Falls in 1960 to The Secret Service in 1969, although Anderson did return to puppets for the "Supermacronation" series Terrahawks and the two stop motion series Dick Spanner, P.I. and Lavender Castle.

The core Supermarionation series - Stingray, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet - are an odd phenomenon. They just never went away. I remember them being rerun in the early nineties, with the toys once again going on the market; a similar revival occurred in the early 2000s, and perhaps there is another waiting in the wings.

The CGI Captain Scarlet.

It is not unusual for children's franchises to be periodically revived: Transformers and Ninja Turtles are routinely brought out of retirement, for example. But in those cases each revival is spearheaded by a new cartoon series with redesigned characters; with Anderson's Supermarionation it is the original series which are regularly dusted off for a new generation. Although a live action Thunderbirds film was released in 2004 to a lukewarm reception, and Anderson himself oversaw a CGI remake of Captain Scarlet the following year, the sixties series have by and large been left alone rather than reinvented.

Another curiosity is that, while the Supermarionation technique is well-known throughout Britain, Anderson has seen few imitators in his own country. The only examples of Anderson-derived puppetry from the UK which I can think of are Space Patrol, a series made in the early sixties by former Anderson associate Roberta Leigh; and Jackboots on Whitehall, a 2010 feature which seemed to owe more to Team America: World Police.

Interster: Andersonian adventures from South Africa.

To find productions which worked with techniques developed by Gerry Anderson, we will have to look elseehere in the world. The USA gave us the aforementioned Team America and the 1998 series Super Adventure Team, both parodies, while South Africa produced Interster in the seventies and eighties.

One country which definitely seems to have takenn Supermarionation to heart, however, is Japan: X-Bomber (dubbed into English as Star Fleet) even called its technique "Sūpāmariorama". However, I suspect that - to some degree, at least - these series developed independently to Gerry Anderson's work. An early example, Osamu Tezuka's Ginga Shonen Tai, premiered in 1963; I have no idea if any of Anderson's series had reached Japan by that time.

Anderson passed away last December, but the worlds which he created live on. Thunderbirds is set to be revived in 2015 for a new series which will combine CGI characters with model backgrounds.

Lacking the historical significance and raw nostalgic appeal of the original series, will the resurrected Thunderbirds catch on? Today's children seem to prefer wide-eyed youth still grappling to understand the world, like Harry Potter; comical, eccentric protagonists like Doctor Who; or grim, violent anti-heroes like Batman. Anderson's leads were generally straight-laced individuals, who seldom questioned orders and instead got on with things with upper lips thoroughly rigid.

Meanwhile, if Anderson's characters are being converted into CGI and live action, then perhaps it is time that we see his puppetry techniques put to use elsewhere. Perhaps somebody could attempt a Supermarionation horror short? Those puppets tend to be a little creepy at the best of times, after all, and are ripe for Svankmajeresque reinvention.

I wish the crew behind the CGI Thunderbirds the best of luck, but I would also like to see more work which explores the potential of the Supermarionation process and its derivatives. There's life in those marionettes yet.

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