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F.A.B! by Gerry Anderson MBE

28 Jun

Gerry Anderson (1929 – 2012) with Thunderbird 2

This is an article written for Network Nine News by the legendary Gerry Anderson in 2009. Gerry sadly passed away in 2012 but his story continues with the new Gerry Anderson Legacy Site www.launch.gerryanderson.co.uk

Born in 1929 in London into a poor family, education wasn’t high on the list of priorities and being evacuated during the war didn’t help at all – so, with extreme optimism I decided that I wanted to be an architect and applied to enter a training course! Luckily, the local polytechnic had other building-related courses and I found that I had an aptitude for fibrous plastering and creating decorative pieces which were used for film work. I enjoyed this work enormously for some time but developed an allergy to plaster and had to give up.

I had developed a passion for film work by then and so spent the next few months tramping round the film studios looking for a job.  Eventually, I was taken on by the Colonial Film Unit which was run by the Ministry of Information. Filming was on 35mm and they had a 6-weekly rotation programme so that the trainees got comfortable with all the disciplines – camera, picture editing, sound, direction, projection- and under the guidance of the legendary George Pearson I found that I had a great affinity for editing. George gave me a piece of advice which I’ve always remembered … ‘when you are filming don’t forget to shoot a few feet of a bowl of tulips for cutaways!’ ….

Growing in confidence I applied for and got a job with Gainsborough Studios in Shepherds Bush as 2nd Assistant Editor then worked my way up to 1st Assistant on ‘The Wicked Lady’ in 1945, ‘Caravan’ in 1946 and many more – all for the princely sum of £10 per week! 

Then, as did everyone in those days, in 1947 I was ‘called up’ for National Service with the RAF, where I spent my time as a Radio Telephone Operator.  It was a requirement that, after National Service, everyone was re-instated into their previous job but Gainsborough had closed and I was re-located to Pinewood Studios – then moved to Shepperton as a Sound Editor working on films such as ‘They Who Dare’ in 1954 for the acclaimed Director, Lewis Milestone (‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, ‘Pork Chop Hill’, ‘Ocean’s Eleven’, ‘Mutiny on the Bounty‘) who terrified everyone on set – although I got on with him very well. 

‘Thunderbirds’ character Alan Tracy with Chief Puppeteer Christine Glanville

In 1956 I formed a production company with Arthur Provis – I think that we were one of the first (if not the only) small production company working at that time, calling ourselves AP Films and renting space in an Edwardian mansion in Maidenhead. We had a filing cabinet, a telephone and headed paper, so we were ready for anything!  However, six months went by without any offers and we all had to do extra work to keep ourselves afloat – then the phone rang!!  It was a lady called Roberta Leigh who had 52 scripts for a children’s series called ‘The Adventures of Twizzle’.  We were over the moon, our big chance to show what we were made of – then she dropped the bombshell that it was a puppet show – but, we were hungry for work and even the modest budget and the tight schedule didn’t put us off.

I hated what I had already seen on television as puppet shows and so we decided to add a few ‘film’ techniques to make the sets more realistic with cut-outs in mid and foreground to add depth – also, whenever the puppets were meant to look at each other they always seemed to miss the eyeline as the puppeteers, who by now we had moved up to a high gantry to give more set space, had a very restricted view, so we painted arrows on the puppets heads to make it easier! 

Every episode we made we got a little better. Christine Glanville was the chief puppeteer and made the heads herself from cork dust, glue and methylated spirits – which was infinitely better than the original papier maché as they could be sanded down to a smoother finish. Eventually all the puppets would be made of fibreglass. We noticed that, as the puppets eyes were made of wood, the grain was very noticable when they moved – so we called in William Shakespeare!  No, not the bard but a nice man who made glass eyes – and he produced the first pair of plastic puppet’s eyes for us. As he said, he had never ever been asked for a pair of false eyes before!

Around 250 set-ups were needed for a half-hour episode and the 1/3 life size sets were built on moveable stages to be wheeled in and out very quickly.

‘Thunderbirds are Go!’ – Lady Penelope and Parker on an undercover mission in France!

So successful were we with ‘Twizzle’ and before the series was finished, Roberta Leigh came to us with another new series, ‘Torchy the Battery Boy’.  The budget was increased to nearly double and the team wanted to see how far they could go to improve the look and ‘workability’ of the puppets – finer wires, a spring in the jaw to snap the mouth shut to simulate speaking without the head bouncing up and down as the puppeteers jerked the wires. Eventually mouth movement was controlled by an electro-magnet device – another first – this was when we came up with the name ‘Supermarionation’

We were working on 35mm film with a Mitchell camera and I wanted to see what the TV audience would be viewing as we were working. I bought a lightweight video camera and fixed it to the Mitchell camera we were using so it looked directly down the lens, linking to a monitor and giving us a constant picture.  This ‘Video Assist’ technique was soon adopted by the film industry worldwide.

The next series,  ‘Four Feather Falls’ finished in 1960, and ‘Supercar’ came along in 1962 with the support of Lew Grade and the ITV network. Eventually ‘Supercar’ was broadcast coast-to-coast in the USA and became the top rated children’s programme.

‘Fireball XL5’ followed closely behind in 1963 with ‘Stingray’ in 1965 made in our new home in a large warehouse in the Slough trading estate.  I think that ‘Stingray’was possibly the first puppet series to entertain an adult audience, was shot in colour and had an enormous budget at that time of £20,000 per episode.

Gerry leaning on FAB 1 – a full-size working model of Lady Penelope’s car in ‘Thunderbirds are Go!’

While ‘Stingray’ was still in production I was writing a new series which eventually would be called ‘Thunderbirds’. Public response when the series was aired was phenomenal! Apparantly the astronaut Alan Shepherd was a fan!  The very futuristic ‘Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons’ came out in 1968 followed by ‘Joe 90’ in 1969.

Shortly after this Lew Grade came apologetically to me and said that, as all the programmes we had produced were being repeated so much on television, we were drowning in our own product so unfortunately, I would have to switch to live action!  What joy – all I’d ever wanted to do was live action!  So ‘UFO’, ‘ Space 1999’ and ‘Space Precinct’ followed

Major developments and change have always been an essential part of the industry. Puppet work has been superceded by CGI and we dipped our toe in the water with ‘Lavender Castle’ and re-made ‘Captain Scarlet’ in 2005 using the latest software – except that I still worked with film people for storyboards and set design to make sure that it had that ‘3-dimensional’ film feel.

The 2005 CGI version of ‘Captain Scarlet’

I always remember something that Lewis Milestone said to me way back in 1947 when I was working with him.  He said ‘Do you want to be famous?’ … I was slightly taken aback by the question but obviously answered ..‘Yes’‘Never second-guess your audience’ he said ‘make what you want – if they like it you’ll become famous, if they don’t you might as well open a greengrocer’s shop!’  I have lived up to this advice throughout my career!

I really enjoy what I do and can’t imagine retiring – the technology and techniques during my career have changed so much and continue to evolve, so it makes each fresh project an exciting and rewarding challenge.

Ed: Gerry brought much joy and entertainment to several generations of of fans. Hopefully, through re-runs and perhaps through unfinished projects which may be completed in the future, his legacy will continue.

Gerry Anderson’s film & television credits include: New Captain Scarlet – 2005; Lavender Castle – 1999; Space Precinct – 1994; Dick Spanner – 1987; Terrahawks – 1983; Space 1999 – 1975; The Protectors – 1972; UFO – 1970; Doppelganger – 1969; Joe 90 – 1968; Thunderbird Six – 1968; Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons – 1967; Thunderbirds are Go – 1966; Thunderbirds – 1965; Stingray – 1964; Fireball XL5 – 1963; Supercar – 1960; Four Feather Falls – 1959; Torchy the Battery Boy – 1958; The Adventures of Twizzle – 1957

 
1 Comment

Posted by on June 28, 2012 in Animation

 

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One response to “F.A.B! by Gerry Anderson MBE

  1. Tressa

    January 28, 2015 at 1:25 pm

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