'Captain Scarlet': From Puppets to Pixels

Tara DiLullo looks at the CGI transformation of The New Captain Scarlet, which begins a second season this month on U.K. television.

This isnt your daddys Captain Scarlet. All images © Indestructible Production Co.

This isnt your daddys Captain Scarlet. All images © Indestructible Production Co.

With almost 60 years in the film and television business, legendary British creative producer Gerry Anderson is known for pioneering his own niche of broadcasting history: the marionette television series. From the 60s space classic Thunderbirds to Stingray, Fireball and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, children on both sides of the Atlantic have grown up in awe of his singular brand of puppetry that came to be known as Supermarionation. As the producer of 17 television series, most featuring puppets, Anderson has evolved with the business and the technology, expanding his own interests and pursuits into the digital realm. Transitioning his projects to stop-motion, anime and now motion-capture filmmaking, Andersons newest hit is the modern day revamp of his previous program, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. Created with state of the art CGI artistry, 3D rendering and MoCap technology, The New Captain Scarlet is a visual treat for the digitally savvy kids of the new millennium. Starting its second season on Sept. 3 on U.K. television with 13 brand new episodes, The New Captain Scarlet is allowing Anderson to again create groundbreaking work that is setting the standard for the creation of CGI television.

From his office at Pinewoood Studios in Buckinghamshire, England, Anderson says the creation of The New Captain Scarlet was a long time coming in his long career. We made Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons around 1965-66 I didnt really want to make puppets, but having been a technician in the business for some time, I formed my own production company. It really went nowhere and we were on the point of closing down for lack of money, but someone came along and said, Would you make a television series? I was told they were going to be made with puppets and from there I very quickly became typecast, he admits with a sigh. Over the years, despite the fact that I wanted to make live-action shows, I found myself making puppet shows. So some time ago, I switched to directing commercials for a couple of years. It was the very early years of CGI and it set me thinking, maybe one day CGI would be good enough to convert some of my puppet films to the equivalent of live action, but, with CGI, make the characters exactly the same and recognizable as they were in the puppet shows.

Time, of course, rolls by and CGI got better and better. I had seen a few CGI TV shows, but I didnt find them particularly good and for a while I didnt want to follow in their footsteps. But things got better and better and some feature films with CGI came out and really fired my imagination and I thought maybe the time had come where I could make a CGI television series. In 2004, I got the re-make rights from Granada [which merged with Carlton] and commenced production [of The New Captain Scarlet] at Pinewood studios. We built our own CGI studio within Pinewood and use motion-capture.

Utilizing motion-capture technology blended with animation, similar to the technique used in The Polar Express, The New Captain Scarlet takes the puppet look of the characters from the original series and upgrades them with a high-tech 3D appearance, including realistic facial expressions and nifty uniforms with textures, and gives them a whole world of futuristic ships, cars and environments old-time puppets could never dream to rival. On putting the sophisticated elements together for the series, Anderson explains, We started production and I wont say it was easy to begin with, because the quality we were aiming for hadnt been attempted, to the best of my knowledge, anywhere in the world. We had a budget of 23 million pounds (approximately $40 million U.S. dollars), which is a great deal of dollars. We started hiring an existing motion-capture outfit and they did very well, but the fact was that we were in their hands waiting for the data to be processed. The data wasnt processed in the time element we needed, so it started to affect our schedule.

Motion-capture replaced Supermarionation to bring the characters alive for the 21st century.

Motion-capture replaced Supermarionation to bring the characters alive for the 21st century.

It was Oxford-based Vicon Motion Systems, the Academy Award-winning developer of motion-capture systems, that swooped in to help Anderson and company with their delivery delays. David Lowe, business development manager at Vicon, explains, It was through several contacts of mine that I managed to get in front of Gerry, Mark Sherwood, the line producer on the show, and David Lane, who is one of the directors, and Ron Thornton, the vfx supervisor. We opened up a discussion with them and asked how the production was going and what they were trying to improve. During the first four episodes, they were doing two days of motion-capture every other week. The whole team would go down to a studio about 30 miles away from them and shoot the motion-capture they thought they wanted to shoot and then go back to the office. They would usually have to wait a week to two weeks for that data to come back to them, so there was a big gap between the delivery and a very short timeline as to how much motion-capture they could get done.

We went in with the premise of them buying their own system, so they could capture five days a week and the director would have the freedom to really explore the system and see what it could do. We also turned around the delivery of the motion-capture data. With Vicon IQ, we were able to pipeline data straight onto the set and it would almost be production ready by the end of the day. The director could have some rough renders out of Maya by the end of the day. It gave them the ability to have a lot more artistic control over how the system was operated and how the actors could interact with one another and with props. One of the major things we were able to deliver and enable them to do was have a huge number of props on the set and swap things in and out. That meant instead of doing 50-60% of the show animation with motion-capture, they could now do it almost 100%. On average, they would spend three days on set and then another one or two days of pick-up shots after they watched the dailies.

Setting up the production was scarier than this Mysteron-controlled killing machine.

Setting up the production was scarier than this Mysteron-controlled killing machine.

The New Captain Scarlet also became the first television series to utilize Vicons MX40 four-million-pixel optical motion capture cameras, which were built into the productions Pinewood studio. Lowe says getting Anderson and company their brand new studio setup was a huge challenge. It was a pretty scary time, Lowe laughs. They put an awful lot of demands on the team here. They basically said, We shoot once every two weeks and our next shoot is on this date here, so we are going to buy a system today and we need it delivered in two weeks and set up and ready for us to walk in and use. You can help us run it the first time, and then gradually hand it over to us so we can run the system. From day one, they were shooting for their production. There were no training sessions, there was no vetting-in time for the system; we had to work out of the box, which is pretty much a motion-capture first.

In turn, Lowe says Andersons team was invaluable with their feedback about the system. They were a huge help throughout the entire running of the show, helping evolve the software particularly. They were pushing the envelope of the system all the time: capturing 10 people at once, a 16-camera system and capturing hands. They were using a lot of the advanced gap filling tools and enabled the system to work in heavily occlusive situations without any loss of quality to the final output. They were instrumental in helping us achieve that. Everybody is continually pushing the boundaries. Its kind of scary for us, but its also a lot of fun, Lowe chuckles.

For his part, Anderson adds, We signed out the stage at Pinewood and installed all our own equipment and from then on, in my words, it was a complete miracle. Yes, we had the odd spot of bother because we were doing it for the first time, but generally speaking the material came through on time. Here and there we had to do a few fixes but, by and large, it worked superbly. Anderson says the creative and software decisions were actually trickier on the production and had to go through vast learning curves before they achieved what they needed. I know that a number of companies around the world were playing around with CGI for a television series and I know that some of these companies tended to use whoever was on the crew that was available [for motion-capture performance]. We could very quickly see that motion-capture captures the body movements so accurately that we could tell just from the walk that we were dealing with amateurs.

One of the major contributions we made was to make sure that we used professionals and we cast them as you would any other actor. What a lot of people dont realize is that if someone comes onto a film stage and walks across and says, Hi, Gerry!, they walk quite naturally. The moment you say I want you to walk urgently or briskly or lazily, they cant do it and they become terribly self-conscious. Very quickly, we realized we needed to hire professional motion-capture artists and we got them to develop a different and specific walk for each leading character. It worked very well. I dont think an audience would notice how a character walks, but I do believe people would say, My God that looks so realistic! They could be real people.

The CG series swung into its second season Sept. 3 in the U.K.

The CG series swung into its second season Sept. 3 in the U.K.

We also had some trouble at the beginning and it had to do with using certain software to build a skeleton and another software package to build the faces and bodies. Certain inaccuracies started to creep in and that caused some problems. Also, with Scarlet, when we started, scripts were arriving, but feedback came from the CGI director we had at the time, saying we cant do things like water. There were a lot of restrictions being placed on us and so we changed our top members of our crew and brought in Ron Thornton, who had worked in the U.S. for 20 years, and he came over and helped us overcome our problems. It was a few months before we put together a CGI team that really knew what they were doing and we managed to do the most spectacular things that we were told over and over again we wouldnt be able to do. Now weve finished The New Captain Scarlet and gotten rid of all our equipment, not because there was anything wrong with it, but its a very fast moving world when it comes to computers, so we sold it all off and we are running up to begin a new television show, called Lightspeed.

One of the things we are doing on the new series is to use all the lessons we learned about building the characters, knowing the pitfalls we fell into last time. At the end of September, we start our pre-production and during that time we will be assessing whatever new hardware and software is around and will be buying all new equipment and setting it all up again If we start at [the level of episode 26 on Scarlet], I think the next series will be fantastic!

Anderson admits hes now completely wedded to CGI. Ive shot live-action in my time and when I look at our pictures and I see revolutionary science fiction vehicles that would probably weigh 8 or 9 tons in real life, being shot on a mountain road 6,000 feet up on a sheer drop, I think, My God, if I took a film crew up there, wed blow the budget in one day! The next day we are shooting in [a virtual] frozen Siberia and then next day a desert, so the scope of entertainment that CGI provides is something Ive come to love and Im almost certain that I will end my days making CGI television shows and maybe feature films.

Tara DiLullo is an East Coast-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as SCI-FI Magazine, Dreamwatch and ScreenTalk, as well as the websites atnzone.com and ritzfilmbill.com.

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