ITC Incorporated Television Company Ltd
"J O E 9 0"
The world's most special agent is a boy of nine.
This is the remarkable and fascinating aspect to ITC's new series of 30 half-hour puppet films, "JOE 90," filmed in colour in Supermarionation, created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, and produced by David Lane for Century 21 with Reg Hill as executive producer.
The idea of a nine-year-old boy becoming a secret agent may sound far-fetched, yet viewers will find it logical enough. Joe is a completely normal youngster for his age - healthy, games-loving and with a sense of adventure - until an ingenious invention gives him all the attributes of a highly skilled and experienced adult.
Nothing is beyond his scope, and "Joe 90" is a series to make every boy's dream come true. He plunges into the most hazardous adventures. A fabulous electronic device can turn him into almost anything - the world's greatest astronaut, a skilled pilot, an ace motorist, a champion underwater swimmer, a brilliant brain surgeon, a mathematical genius, or whatever he may be asked to become.
How is it done?
Joe is the adopted son of a brilliant electronics engineer, professor Ian McClaine, creator of the BIG RAT (Brain Impulse Galvanoscope Record and Transfer), a highly sophisticated electronic machine capable of recording the brain patterns of one person and transferring them to another.
The recipient of these brain transfers is Joe, thanks to the astute realisation of Shane Weston, Deputy Head of the World Intelligence Network, that a boy agent with adult acumen could get into places that no grown-up could hope to enter - and get away with it even if caught. Who would suspect a nine-year-old boy of being a super secret agent?
The World Intelligence Network, known as W.I.N., is an organisation similar to M.I.5 or C.I.A., with its head office in America, but with London as the office from which Joe operates. The aim of W.I.N. is to assist in maintaining the balance of power throughout the world.
Professor McClaine's brainchild, BIG RAT, can tape record the brain patterns of anyone, and when a Joe 90 mission starts it is usually necessary to get the brain recording of the expert whose knowledge is needed. Joe is thus able to use the skill and experience of any living person. In one episode, for example, it is necessary for Joe to undertake a dangerous military operation, and to do so he is given the brain pattern of a military expert. In another episode, Joe has to carry out a delicate brain operation to save a man's life, and is given the brain pattern of a leading brain surgeon. And, time and time again, he is given the brain pattern's of intrepid secret agents.
To receive the brain transfer, Joe, wearing electrodes connected to his temples, sits comfortably in a special chair, which rises up into a circular cage. Once inside, the machine is switched on, the cage begins to revolve, and the BIG RAT tape is run.
Various electronic noises and psychedelic light effects are produced, and the transfer begins to take effect - an experience which Joe does, in fact, find thoroughly enjoyable and certainly not uncomfortable or harmful.
After he has received the brain transfer, the recording works only when he dons a pair of special glasses with a set of built-in electrodes which connect to his temples. Wearing the glasses, Joe has the ability, skill, experience and knowledge of the expert. Without them, he is just another boy.
Joe carries with him an ordinary-looking schoolboy's case which, on first inspection, contains such everyday items such as exercise books, pens, pencils, protractors and other school paraphernalia. But when he turns the case over, he presses one of the small studs which releases the secret lid and reveals a compartment which contains Joe's electrode glasses, his special W.I.N. badge, a silencer for his gun and two secret reports. Another stud opens up a compartment which contains Joe's automatic pistol (which is small, light and will fire 200 times without reloading), a small transistorised pocket transmitter enabling him to keep in contact with W.I.N., plus ammunition clips and two more secret reports.
And Joe is ready to tackle the most hair-raising adventures!
THE CHARACTERSJOE 90, the world's most intrepid secret agent, lives a completely normal life when not engaged on one of his missions on behalf of W.I.N.
THE MAGICAL WORLD OF SUPERMARIONATION.
"We know they are not really creatures of flesh and blood - but it's awfully
hard to remember that they aren't human. They become so real to us that we have
to keep on reminding ourselves that we've created them in the studios."
When he says this, Reg Hill is giving the clearest possible explanation for the fantastic appeal of those Supermarionation characters who have taken their place in television history and have become as real to viewers as to those who have created them.
Reg Hill is executive producer on the "JOE 90" series, and Joe 90 is the latest in the long list of man-made stars whose names deserve a "Who's Who" of their own - names like Mike Mercury (of "Supercar"), Steve Zodiac (of "Fireball XL-5" [sic]), Troy Tempest (of "Stingray"). Lady Penelope and the Tracy family, not to mention Parker (of "Thunderbirds"), Captain Scarlet and his colleagues (of "Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons"), and the many other characters who have become as popular with viewers as any Hollywood favourites.
Joe, of "Joe 90", is a nine-year-old boy, who makes every boyhood dream come true and, like his predecessors, has a personality that will appeal to every member of the family, young and old.
From the outset, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, the creators of this magic world of Supermarionation, have refused to refer to their brain children as puppets. They have taken the world of puppetry into a new dimension, and the word Supermarionation was coined to describe this fascinating form of film production which now includes the cinema screen as well as television.
The Century 21 studios at Slough are an intriguing blend of fairyland and realism, with shrewd and practical film technicians carrying out their craft in a world of imagination, with everything scaled down to one third of normal size except for the cameras, the actors and actresses themselves averaging 22 inches in height.
Yet their is a curious illusion that everything is full-size. Just as the characters are of normal size to the viewer, they are to most people in the studio except those who are actually handling them. The illusion is there for the director, who operates from a control room and watches his players on television screens. And, throughout the studios, the heads of departments and others have this same full-size illusion through the closed-circuit television sets to be found everywhere. They are even on the studio floor so that those working on the production can see what the scenes will look like to the viewer.
Even when you see these puppet stars at close quarters, it's difficult to remember that they aren't living creatures. They are remarkably realistic… much more so nowadays than they were in the early productions because of technical advances and learning so much through experience.
It's always been a tradition that the puppets' heads should be larger, in proportion, to their bodies. Not so now. The Supermarionation wizards have reduced them to their correct proportions. Their movements, too, are completely natural.
The greatest advance has been made in making their eyes so realistic. They have a remarkably life-like sparkle, and they can move in all directions. It's almost as if human eyes have been transplanted - and, in fact, they are almost human. They are the eyes of various members of the studio staff. The method used is to take close-up photographs of the human eye, and then superimpose these actual photographs on to the half-sphere plastic iris of the puppets.
The mouth movements are electronically controlled and have remarkable mobility as they are automatically matched to the tape-recorded voices of the human actors and actresses who speak their lines for them.
The stars are treated in exactly the way they would be if they were human players. Their hair is real (wigs for the male characters are prefabricated; for the girl characters, each hair separately fixed to the head, building up the tresses to give them individual styles). Each evening, the operators become hairdressers, putting their players' hair into curlers after giving it a brisk brushing.
Make-up is an important item. Complexions are kept perfect with the aid of a paint-brush. Their clothes are hand-made for them and are perfect down to the smallest button-hole.
As much thought goes into creating the characters as it would do in casting a feature film, and this character development is the responsibility of Sylvia Anderson.
It begins with the idea of what a character should look like and then develops through trial and error. A figure is moulded; a fibre-glass head is shaped; and the features are built up. Each character may have a dozen different-shaped noses, differently formed cheekbones, numerous variations of the chins… and, finally, the mentally visualised personality takes shape with an individuality of its own.
Selecting a voice to speak the lines is equally important, and in the case of Joe 90, the outstanding young actor Len Jones was selected.
The actors may be miniature. The studios are not. They are geared for production in the same way as any fullscale studio for the making of human-star pictures.
There are now six stages at the Century 21 Studios. One is reserved for the making of the Supermarionation series currently in production, as in the case of "Joe 90". Five camera units are at work, two of them on the stages housing the two main units, three of them in the special effects studios (and the special effects are miracles of ingenious imagination, from underwater scenes to outer space and the remoter planets).
And it all began in ordinary rooms in an old mansion in Maidenhead when Gerry Anderson put his experience as a film editor and director into the formation of a company which produced two small puppet films and then a full-scale puppet production titled "Four Feather Falls," and then, realising the tremendous potentialities of this type of film-making, embarked on the first of the Supermarionation-type of revolutionary productions, "Supercar."
With him were three partners - Reg Hill (executive producer of "Joe 90"), John Read (former artist and photographer who has become a film cameraman) and Sylvia Anderson (who is Gerry Anderson's wife).
The go-ahead to plunge into full-scale production was a challenge with overwhelming obstacles to overcome. A fully-equipped studio was essential, and a building was found. All they had were four walls, a roof, nothing inside and hardly a penny between them.
All four got down to constructing the studio themselves, working all day and well into every night and scarcely pausing for meals. They made their own scenery, did their own painting, created their own models, and put in equipment which they couldn't pay for until they received money for the "pilot" they had made.
For sound-proofing, they went out to an egg farm and purchased 1,500 egg cartons, and stuck these all round the walls. And, just four weeks after moving in, they were ready to go into production.
Enthusiasm carried them through, but it was touch and go whether they could survive until public reaction to their efforts could be judged. "Supercar" turned the scales for them. It was a phenomenal success, and even today, after several years of ever-advancing techniques, stands out as a remarkable achievement, years ahead of any other puppet productions.
The company, now known as Century 21, has become a vast organisation, with each series making even further progress, with its own marketing organisation selling models and toys throughout the world, (all based on the Supermarionation characters and props), its own magazines, and a large permanent staff which is not only youthful in its enthusiasm but youthful in age.
The subjects look to the future; and the studios are always looking to the future, never content to rest on their laurels but always experimenting, improving and breaking new ground.
Because there is no other studio like it in the world, Century 21 has to train its own personnel. Most of its directors and executives have grown up with the company. David Lane, producer of "Joe 90", has come up through the studios' cutting-rooms and then direction. Desmond Saunders the production controller, moved over from the "human" cutting-rooms editing credits on features to become one of the first of the Supermarionation directors.
This Hollywood in miniature is complete in every detail, with extra departments that can't even be found in Hollywood: after all, Hollywood producers don't have to create their own stars, even though they may build them up from humble beginnings!
All the scenery is built there, but scaled down to one-third size to keep in proportion to the characters. The furniture is all hand-made. So are all the remarkable futuristic machines and equipment which figure so prominently in these scientifically-inclined productions.
There are well over 5,000 items in the property department, yet every story demands something new. There is little that can be purchased from ordinary sources because, once again, everything is scaled down in size. Just imagine what such a straightforward scene as a meal can mean. All the food (made from plastics) has to be made, with miniature steaks and vegetables or whatever is being eaten. The knives, forks, spoons, plates and other crockery all have to be one-third of normal size.
All the scientific instruments, including such tools as spanners and drills, have to be specially made. Even such every-day items as paper clips have to be manufactured down to a size of 5/8" of an inch.
The wardrobe department is one of the busiest of all. The clothes are designed for the future, and designed right down to the smallest detail. Even the button-holes are prefect examples of craftsmanship.
Some of the stories in the Supermarionation films may seem far-fetched, but the actual technical details have to be accurate. Young viewers, in particular, are super-critical and remarkably knowledgeable. They will pick out the slightest error. In one unguarded moment, one character in an early scene was allowed to refer to light years as a length of time: there was an immediate protest from a young viewer that a light year is a distance. But such errors are very, very rare.
Visit the studios to see a film in production, and your immediate feeling is of being a Gulliver in Lilliput. Filming is similar to feature film production, yet strikingly different. The director, instead of being on the floor, is in his control-room. His loudspeaker instructions are not to the artistes but to the technicians.
The first thing that strikes you, of course, is the very long gantry above the set and the intricate web of these practically invisible wires which operate the man-made players. Yet even these are not always necessary. An advanced technique has made it possible for the characters in "Joe 90" to be moved from below instead of above, thus giving them greater manoeuvrability, and overcoming the difficulties, for instance, of their walking through doorways and under archways.
The Supermarionation figures don't talk. Instead, they act to pre-recorded voices, and these tapes do, in fact, operate the lip movements of the characters, reacting on solenoid cells in their heads.
Scenes are filmed simultaneously in the two main studios, but even more fascinating is the action in the special effects studios. Cars race around in hot pursuit of the villains. Water scenes are filmed in and on mobile tanks each holding 2,000 gallons of water (one once burst because too much water had been placed in it, and it caused chaos!). Bombs are dropped. Buildings explode. Futuristic aircraft rush through outer space.
Everything has to be scientifically worked out to a millionth of an inch and to the split second. It's a magic toyshop, but with toys no parent could afford to buy for his children. But instead of having to risk the lives of stunt-men, there is safety ion the fact that they are only model figures; they can take risks no human would dare face.
The only full-size department is the editing department. The programmes are filmed with normal movie cameras, and full scale editing apparatus is used. So far as the editors are concerned, they might as well be handling live action subjects.
Watching every aspect of the production, either on the studio floor or on his closed-circuit television, is Reg Hill, executive producer of the "Joe 90" series, and he brings to his task the combined knowledge of the artist and technician.
He is a man who has been closely associated with puppet film production since the earliest days. As Deputy Managing Director of the Company, his original on-the-floor participation was as art director.
Reg Hill is a Londoner whose career, prior to film, was as an artist and in advertising and print; then his wartime service in the R.A.F. led him to films through his finding himself on special effects and modelling for Service productions.
This led to an interest in puppet film-making, and his meeting Gerry Anderson paved the way to his becoming a founder-member of the firm that has become the world's most unusual and romantic film production concern.