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Past Article

Let's Get Small: a talk with Gerry Anderson
By Jonathan Marlow
October 15, 2004 - 5:51 AM PDT

"I have always tried to make each show unique."

For nearly 50 years, Gerry Anderson has created many of the most memorable animated shows on television. "Animated" not in the usual sense of the word - Anderson and his team of incredible craftsmen and technicians used puppets and elaborate miniatures to create fantastic, futuristic worlds. This remarkable work continues to resurface, either in syndication or in a rather complete series of seventy-one discs from A&E representing eleven of his shows. In fact, in the wake of the Thunderbirds-influenced Team America: World Police by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and the forthcoming New Captain Scarlet, Anderson's latest television series (which he refers to as "undoubtedly the finest television CGI series that's ever been made," due to air in England next year), Anderson will soon be worthy of an all new appreciation of his achievements. I recently spoke with him about his pioneering efforts for the small screen.

From your earliest television work - The Adventures of Twizzle, Torchy the Battery Boy - composer Barry Gray's music forms a key component to your shows. How did you find him?

The lady that wrote the show [Roberta Leigh, credited as producer and lyricist of Twizzle] used to hum the music into a tape recorder. Then, Barry Gray - who I met at the time - orchestrated it. I was always amazed how some poor little humming into a tape recorder turned into a wonderful orchestral piece. I asked Barry if he composed and he said, "Yes," he did, and that's how it all started.

He truly forms an exceptional foundation for the later shows.


Your association with John Read began on the puppet western Four Feather Falls?

No, our association started right at the very beginning when we made our very first production, The Adventures of Twizzle.

His revolutionary lighting helped to give your characters their remarkable life-like look.

For many years, he lit the shows. In fact, he lit certainly all of the puppet shows we ever made. He was a very good photographer.

Obviously, the model work is outstanding as well. These two elements together helped to elevate the look of the shows. He also developed the solenoid lip-sync for the puppet heads of Thunderbirds?

Well, it was developed before Thunderbirds. Basically, we started off by having to pull a control wire which would open the puppet's mouth. Of course, the puppet's mouth wouldn't then shut. We put on a return spring, so now, when we had to open the mouth, we really had to tug. The result was, when the puppet spoke, they were bobbing their head up and down the whole time. To overcome that, I designed the automatic mouth movement.

It's particularly effective.  

It saved a lot of time, that's for sure!

If Crossroads to Crime had proved successful, would you have given up on puppets entirely?

I'm sure I would have done although, I have to tell you, that Crossroads to Crime was such an awful picture. It certainly wasn't going to any good for me. I directed it. It was our first attempt at live action and the budget was incredibly low. I'm afraid that it failed. It was in the day - I don't know about America, but over here, the cinemas would show a big movie and then there would be a so-called "B-picture."

Yes, we had them as well.

This was intended to be, and was, a "B-picture."

I hope that I get a chance to see it someday.

I have to say, no offense, but I hope that you don't see it!

Your first work with Lew Grade at ATV was Supercar. Lew was clearly influential throughout British television but, in your case, he helped get this show and quite a few later ones off the ground. Here, you're already showing your affinity for America - the show takes place at a secret laboratory in the Nevada desert, circa 1960. Was there a particular reason for the setting? Syndication reasons, perhaps?

Most of my shows have a very strong American flavor. That really is because British films did not go down well in America and, I think, with some justification. A lot of them were of very low quality. To overcome this bias, because the American market was very important to us, we made many of our shows with American locations, American accents and we did everything to make them look as if they were American shows shot on location by a British crew.

What was your experience working with Lord Grade?

Lew Grade was a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful man. He bought my company and I worked with him for twelve years. I went from one production to another all the way through those twelve years. He treated me like a king and I obviously had a great respect for him. I just wish that he was with us today.

Was your first work with special-effects genius Derek Meddings on your next series, Fireball XL5?

Derek was with us from the very early days. When we first started, he was a young man working at another studio and he used to come in evenings to our little studio to paint the sky backings. Then he became part of the crew and then we formed our own special effects department. He ended up with three special effects crews working under him.

There seemed to be a surge in the use of miniatures from the point you first started doing your television work. Granted, miniatures have been around since the earliest days of filmmaking. Around this time, though, model-work figured heavily into the daikaiju eiga in Japan. Do you think, outside of a technique to stretch budgets, that there was some kind of thread during this period that was connecting these various efforts of making the very small appear exceptionally large?

It was our creation, working with miniatures, and then, as you say, it was picked up by other companies. In fact, when Stanley Kubrick made 2001, I was asked to provide the special effects crews. I had to explain that we only did this style of special effects for our own productions, so I wasn't, in fact, involved. Could've been, had I wanted to.

David Graham was a constant in this period as voice talent on your shows. What made you decide to do a voice on Fireball X15?

The truth is that I didn't. Very briefly, let me explain. We built a wooden box with a hole at one end where I could push my mouth up against it and a microphone inside the box at the other end. Then I held a vibrator unit under my chin. Of course, when I opened my mouth, that vibration was coming from my mouth. All I did was to mouth the words - I didn't actually use my voice - and my mouth modulated that tone and turned them into words. These days, we'd just push a button on the desk and that would be it! It was very difficult at that time to produce a robot voice.

With Fireball, and then Stingray, the next show, you had the W.S.P. spacecraft in the former and the W.A.S.P. super-submarine in the latter. In both cases, you've set the shows literally 100 years into the future.

My type of storytelling really didn't lend itself to going 2,500 years ahead. We were dealing always with the immediate future. In fact, in the way that technology is moving so fast today, the series that I'm working on at the moment [a 26-episode CGI version of Captain Scarlet filmed in "Hypermarionation"] we refer to the dateline as "The Day After Tomorrow." We're not copying the feature film title because ours came first [Anderson created a single-episode pilot in 1975 with this title].

You're generally listed as a producer on these shows although that doesn't begin to describe your level of involvement. Obviously, in the concept and creation, in the character design, these are entirely your shows.

It's a very interesting matter that you've raised there because in my type of shows there really is no normal title that fits what I do. I am a producer; I'm also a director. On the other hand, I have three directors working on the show [New Captain Scarlet]. I'm a writer but I don't write the scripts for this show because there isn't time. Of course, in a creative way, I work with a writer and something of me comes out in the script. Really, I suppose that the best description of me is "creator and producer."

The shows really reflect your personality.

I'd like to think that my personality matched up with the shows!

This leads me to the memorable International Rescue series, Thunderbirds. The show is generally considered to be your masterpiece. Is it true that you modeled the series somewhat after Bonanza?

I certainly didn't. But what is true is that I used to watch Bonanza and I thoroughly enjoyed the show. I kind of picked up the value of having a "father and sons" relationship where the sons were going out and facing danger. And the father was obviously very concerned about his sons. So, in Thunderbirds, the fact that we have a father and five sons was influenced by Bonanza, but not the show itself.

Thematically, it's quite a bit different. You were able to create 32 episodes of the show and two feature films. Where did your notion of a secret island base come from? Shades of Dr. No?

Well, basically, I think it was just a question of thinking it through. Thunderbirds had some very, very advanced aircraft and equipment and, of course, it followed therefore that certain nations in the world would be anxious to get hold of this equipment. I thought that they'd better hide it away somewhere. So I decided that the idea of using an uncharted island in the Pacific was a good way of concealing their base. Of course, that idea wouldn't work today but at the time it did hold water.

Stingray was the first of the color shows and the Thunderbirds features are your first widescreen efforts. What special challenges did those developments pose?

Stingray was the first color show to be made in the UK. It was very odd because America had color but we didn't. So we filmed in color and then we had to print it in black-and-white for the UK and print it in color for America. When we made the feature films, that posed a particular problem because we were shooting with miniatures, and it was very difficult to hold the depth of focus. The depth of focus on exteriors made it imperative that we kept everything sharp to the horizon. This meant that we couldn't use anamorphic lenses. What we did was we used a system called Techniscope, which was a Technicolor system. Whereas normal movies have pictures on the [35mm] film that cover four sprockets, our pictures only covered two sprockets. Therefore, we were shooting an elongated picture. That's how we produced the Cinemascope effect.

Like an advanced matting technique?


Your work, particularly Thunderbirds, continues to be remarkably influential in this country and elsewhere. Of course, fond memories of the series resulted in a rather disastrous live-action version. I know that they didn't consult you during the making of the film.

I was not involved in any way. Not guilty!

It would be a much better film if you had been involved. Team America: World Police also sports a recognizable imprint of your style.

You're talking about the Trey Parker film? I haven't seen it yet.

In an interview that I read with them, it was mentioned that they didn't realize how incredibly difficult it would be to make a film with marionettes.

It certainly was. Desperately difficult.

When you moved on to Captain Scarlet in 1967, you went back to creating half-hour programs [versus the one-hour episodes of Thunderbirds]. Was it difficult to go back to a shorter length for your shows?

Not really. [As for New Captain Scarlet] it's just that in today's market, a one-hour show on prime-time lead-in is much more difficult to place. That's the only reason that we're doing half-hours.

When Joe 90 came along, you were already in the process of working on the feature film Dopplegänger [aka Journey to the Far Side of the Sun] for Universal Pictures. You were acting in more of a producer role on Joe 90 and letting the rest of your team develop the show?

That's right.

With ITC interested in a show with a smaller budget, is that partially why Joe 90 is so uncharacteristically Earth-bound?

I try to make each show different from the last. Really, that was the only reason for the way it was.

Since we only have a moment more, I'd like to touch briefly on your live-action episodic programs, starting in 1969 with UFO, The Protectors shortly thereafter and on to Space: 1999 in the early 1970s. You clearly had an exceptional cast for the latter, with Martin Landau, Barbara Bain and others. It was a very unusual show for so-called "science fiction" because there isn't much action in it. How did the idea develop for this show?

I have always tried to make each show unique. That was the idea that came to me ["When Earth's moon is blasted out of orbit, the men and women of Moonbase Alpha embark on the greatest adventures of their lives"]. It appealed to me at the time, so that's what we did.

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"I have always tried to make each show unique."

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Jonathan Marlow
In addition to his persistence in acquiring obscure films for GreenCine, Marlow is a writer, filmmaker, curator and occasional critic. Not necessarily in that order. He is also a dedicated skeptic.

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