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Strings Attached to the Deal

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Gerry Anderson was 'bitterly disappointed' when an early commission required use of puppets. But his innovations in that medium led to such hits as 'Thunderbirds.'

August 22, 2002|MARK OLSEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With exotic hide-outs, evil villains, high-tech gadgets and teams of crime fighters traversing sea, sky and space, the work of Gerry Anderson has captured the imaginations of audiences around the globe for nearly 40 years.

In an era of computer-generated imagery, when the line between reality and gimmickry has become all but indistinguishable, there is something decidedly homespun and reassuring about the medium for which Anderson is best known: puppets.

To finish its third Festival of Fantasy, Horror, and Science Fiction, American Cinematheque will present a tribute to Anderson on Friday and Sunday. The 72-year-old Englishman will make a rare Los Angeles appearance, and episodes of his most popular TV programs will be screened.

Throughout the 1960s and '70s, with shows such as "Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons," "Supercar," "Fireball XL5" and, most famously, "Thunderbirds," Anderson combined puppetry, special effects, science fiction and action-adventure in an intoxicating mixture.

The shows continue to be phenomenally popular in Britain, Australia and Japan, with a dedicated if somewhat smaller following in the U.S. and a worldwide community of fans known as "Fandersons."

Eventually creating more than 600 episodes of 17 television series, Anderson began his career as a sound editor for feature films. Starting his own production company, he was on the brink of shutting down when he was saved by a commission to produce a series of children's shows for British television. There was a catch, however: The shows had to use puppets.

"I was bitterly disappointed to be working with puppets," Anderson recalled, speaking recently from his home in London. "But I needed the money. So I tried to improve the puppet film because I wanted to say to the industry, 'If I can make puppet films like this, surely I can do live action very well.' But of course I dug my own grave, as it were, because the better the puppet film, the more they wanted."

Starting with the show "Supercar" he began to work on a process he christened "Supermarionation"--a combination of "super," "marionette" and "animation" meant to invoke the spirit of CinemaScope, something bigger and better.

Though he also made such live-action shows as "UFO" and "Space: 1999," it is the Supermarionation shows for which he is best known. Though he may downplay them, they are inevitably more exciting and oddly more real than his live-action work. At times, the "performances" of the one-third-scale puppets seem to outpace those on the shows that feature flesh-and-blood actors.

Likening his role to that of a conductor of a symphony orchestra, Anderson, often working with his then-wife Sylvia, would create the concept for a show and write at least its first script, sometimes also directing the debut episode. He would oversee the design and creation of the all aspects of a show, including puppets, sets and special effects.

"The puppet films were extremely difficult to make," he says. "We would have a crew of upwards of 175 people, and each episode could cost a million pounds in today's money. When I finally made a live action show, I thought, 'This is terrific. Working on a full-size set, with actors who can walk--wow!' "

After twice having to stop shooting because of an actor's confusion over the use of a prop telephone, Anderson says, "I came to see it's going to be one set of challenges exchanged for another. So the short answer is they both had problems."

His shows may have been ostensibly for children, but then as now they also had a grip on adult audiences. Some of his shows, in particular "Captain Scarlet," have surprisingly dark themes for kiddie adventures.

Anderson wrote with both sets of viewers in mind. "The theory I always had is that some, if not all, children find it most exciting to stay up and watch an adult show. Children like adult shows. At the same time, I knew parents watch shows with their children, and if the stories were terribly twee, it became boring for the adults. So I started to think, why just make films specifically for children, let's aim for the entire family.

"I always follow the advice I received while working once with Lewis Milestone, director of 'All Quiet on the Western Front,' which was, 'Never try to second-guess your audience. You do what you want to do, and if the audience likes what you're doing, then you'll be a success.' And that's what I've done all along the line."

Anderson seems especially proud of the miniature special-effects work that went into all of his shows, creating surprisingly realistic explosions, airplanes and spacecraft. He recalls how the team behind the early James Bond films would scour his programs for ideas and the time director Stanley Kubrick extended a lunch invitation only to rescind it once Anderson made it clear he was not interested in sharing any of his technical secrets.

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