Lifelong Thunderbirds fan Stephen La Rivière stepped into Gerry Anderson’s filmmaking wonderland for his documentary Filmed In Supermarionation , but found the puppets wouldn’t cooperate and the puppeteers were just embarrassed
What inspired you to make a documentary about Gerry Anderson and his team now?
It’s the story of a group of pioneers and I don’t think they really get the recognition they deserve for the astonishing work that they did. At the time in the ’60s, there was a little snobbishness that these puppet films were doing so well and were technically so well made. The resources given to an episode of Thunderbirds were far in excess of most prestige dramas. Thunderbirds was extraordinarily expensive to make. As technology has moved on I don’t think people realise just what a debt cinema and television history owe to this small company making these puppet shows. If you saw side-by-side what the competition was like in the ’60s – a favourite comparison I like to draw is that the first episode of Doctor Who and the first episode of Stingray were filmed almost in the same month. You wouldn’t even believe that they were filmed in the same decade. With this film, I’d like people to appreciate that and the ingenuity they put into making their films.
You shot new footage with the Thunderbirds puppets and sets. How tricky was that?
What they were filming in the ’60s, they really honed down to perfection and they had a studio that was turning this out all the time. They were masters of their craft. We were trying to do these recreations in a few days what they took ten years to perfect. You hear that they often had problems with puppet wires – the wires would snap, they’d kink. They shot very little footage in a day. The secret of their particular style of filmmaking is not so much about what the puppets do, it’s more about what the puppets don’t do. It’s about keeping the range of motions within certain limitations so as to reduce really puppety movements. The puppets are operated from a bridge above the set so you can give them close-ups and long shots. One of the pioneering things that they did was not to film them like they were puppets but to film them like they were human beings. It was an amazing learning curve. We shot everything we set out to do but we only got there by the skin of our teeth.
What has been the reaction from Gerry’s old crew?
The thing I really wanted for this is – it’s the story of people, not puppets. It’s the story of the shows they made but I want you to get a sense of who these people were. With the huge success that Thunderbirds was, if you were interviewing an American team they would be much more gung ho about it – "We were the greatest!" Even 50 years on, these people are very quiet about it and they don’t really see just how big what they did was. They’re touched but they don’t understand it because they spent most of their time being faintly embarrassed by it.