Supermarionation's Stars

Information on Gerry Anderson series models extracted from the Supermarionation Pages of Alex van der Wyck (a.k.a. J. Lester Novros II). The model re-use information was extracted from Marc J. Frattasio's list in

Everyone who has seen any of Gerry Anderson's science fiction TV productions knows that the 'stars' of these programs were actually the miniature model vehicles. In this article I shall briefly discuss what I know about the principal craft featured in Anderson's works. Of course, by 'principal' craft I mean the main vehicles around which a given series was based. For example, the Supercar, Thunderbird machines, etc.

During the earliest years of Supermarionation, the major miniature models were usually hand crafted on an individual basis. The principal construction material utilized was balsa or juletong wood with other materials and commercial shapes added on for details. As time went on, wooden master patterns were fabricated from which rubber or plaster molds were made. These molds were used to cast parts made from polyester resin and fiberglass cloth. Many identical models could be constructed using these parts. This provided the effects crew with significant savings of time and effort compared to that required by hand crafting.

As far back as Supercar, it was decided that long-time Anderson special effects supervisor Derek Meddings' crew could not handle all of the model work required. Thus, a significant amount of model making was contracted out to companies or even talented individuals. Often, Anderson's studio would only handle very simple shapes or perform finish work to models partially completed by outside contractors.

Model aircraft and spacecraft were often fitted with one or more heat resistant metal tubes which were used to contain slow burning electrically fired pyrotechnic devices. Legend has it that many of the earliest pyrotechnic tubes used by the effects people were actually metal cigar containers discarded by Gerry Anderson! Later on they were produced en masse by Schermuly Pistol Rocket Apparatus Ltd., a company that manufactured flares for naval purposes. Ground vehicles were frequently fitted with an apparatus that used a CO2 cartridge or pyrotechnic 'Jetex' motor to direct a blast of air beneath the model to disturb a layer of fine powder (Fuller's earth) placed on the miniature roadway and thus create a scale cloud of dust. Some model ground vehicles were configured with a smoke generator to simulate 'exhaust' fumes. Other models were doused with Titanium Tetrachloride, a noxious liquid which smokes spontaneously upon contact with air.

In most cases, more than one model of each principal craft was built. Obviously, there were many advantages to having duplicate models available to the studio. Having several identical models around made it possible to film more than one miniature effect sequence at the same time. Additionally, a measure of insurance was provided in the event that an important model was damaged or destroyed during filming. Spare models were also occasionally sent out of the studio to be put on display for publicity purposes. Sometimes they were sent to major toy shops or department stores for merchandising promotions.

Models made in different sizes and large scale partial sections permitted the production crews to create close up or distant effects which minimized depth of field and camera focus problems. Usually at least three different sized versions of each principal craft were constructed. In most cases the size of studio miniatures was dictated by filming requirements, not by any desire to work within a specific scale. Different sized versions of the same vehicle often varied to a great degree in contour and detail. Mostly, these differences were hard for TV viewers to discern but sometimes they were very obvious.

The level of detail incorporated into each studio miniature varied greatly. Obviously, later and larger models featured more detail than earlier or smaller ones. In general, the level of detail and standard of finish built into an original studio miniature was no greater than that required to be adequate for the specific purpose of the model. Since the TV camera tends not to resolve fine details, fine detail was usually left out. Conversely, some effects such as weathering or 'dirtying down' had to be overdone in order to appear on TV at all. As a result, many studio models on close inspection appear to have not been built with the same degree of finesse that a 'hobby' builder would use. I understand that studio models were often repainted or otherwise 'cleaned up' for TV21 and publicity still photo sessions so that they would appear presentable to the more discerning still camera.

Major studio miniatures were usually painted using cellulose based automotive lacquers. This type of paint dries very quickly and the resulting finish can be easily sanded down and removed for repainting. Letters and numbers were applied using 'Lettraset' type dry transfers whenever possible. Thick automobile striping tape and even thin strips of shiny metal were often used for trim lines.

Most if not all of the models were 'weathered' in order to enhance their realism. A secondary benefit of this treatment was that it camouflaged finish and construction flaws. Generally, panel lines, color separations, and trim lines were highlighted on the model using black ink or thin striping tape. Certain panels were painted using a lighter shade of the primary color or with a shade of grey to represent replaced, retouched, or undercoated panels. Black paint was smudged or sprayed into right angle joints such as the connecting area between wing and fuselage to provide a shadow effect. Black paint was also used around exhaust areas and gun ports. Grimy colors were sprayed around wheel wells and other areas that would normally be subjected to filth. As a final touch, the entire model was frequently given a light overspray with a dusty color to subdue the finish and blend all details together.

The Supercar was designed by long term Anderson associate and ITC executive Reg Hill. At least two different sized Supercar miniatures were constructed in-house by the modelmaking team. The 7 foot long puppet sized Supercar model was essentially a thin plywood shell formed over a hardwood substructure. This model featured a high-quality thermoformed plastic canopy that was reused later during the production of Stingray on the puppet sized 'Hepcat' submarine used in the episode Raptures of the Deep. The smaller Supercar miniature was carved out of solid balsa wood and used crudely folded translucent sheet acetate for its cockpit canopy.

Model Re-use in Later Series

Fireball XL5
Fireball XL5 was designed jointly by Reg Hill and Derek Meddings. Gerry Anderson got the idea for the name 'Fireball XL5' from the brand name of a popular automotive lubricating oil, 'Castrol XL'. The ship's unusual launch procedure was lifted by Derek Meddings from a plan publicized during the 1950s by the Soviet Union. Apparently, at one time the Russians seriously considered launching rockets into space by means of long inclined ramps. No doubt the Commies were laboring under the influence of some 3rd string German 'buzz bomb' engineer that they swiped from Peenemunde!

Model Re-use in Later Series

Supercar Home Page
Fireball XL5 Home Page