❉ The ‘Supermarionation’ pioneer’s personal life is explored in this compelling portrait of a complicated man, writes Kevin Burnard.
“From a love of rescue heroes like his older brother to complicated parental emotions driving what figures turn up in his stories, the documentary does a great job exploring how the artist does drive the art, and how art and artist can reveal much about each other… Knowing more about the context can enrich art, and make for moving art in of itself. A Life Uncharted succeeds on those terms.”
Can you really separate the art from the artist?
It used to be an easier question for most. Most people aren’t, say, the son of a beloved pioneer in children’s animation. For most of us, the names in the credits have been mysteries, but with the connections of the modern world, that line is changing, and their stories are more accessible, too. In the new documentary directed by Benjamin Field, Gerry Anderson: A Life Uncharted, the art of the ‘Supermarionation’ pioneer behind Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, and more takes backseat, as his history and relationships go under the microscope. It’s a moving picture of a sometimes turbulent man at a turbulent time through the lens of people who knew him in so many different ways, including himself. And in the process of exploring the other side of the art/artist separation, it raises a new question: not can you separate them, but should you?
A Life Uncharted goes about charting the life of Gerry Anderson in roughly chronological order, eschewing the production details on the iconic shows for the most part, instead focusing on formative relationships and experiences throughout his life. It’s framed loosely through one of his sons, Jamie Anderson, on a search to get to know a father he didn’t know all that well better. A few figures and stories quickly loom larger than the rest: the tumultuous dynamic with his parents, the hero worship and wartime tragic fate of his brother Lionel, the turbulent marriages, especially the second, and the tragedy of dementia towards the end of his life. These threads form a substantial portion of the material, and are all well-worth exploring. The filmmakers clearly had no issues finding meaty drama and anecdotes to share, or if they did, it’s hard to know given how well they structure the film around big events and relationships. My personal familiarity with both the man and his work before this are limited to pretty much the 2004 live action Thunderbirds movie, which is probably not a very good introduction point, but the film plays just fine for the uninitiated and quickly proves that this is a life worth exploring in of itself.
The editing and presentation of A Life Uncharted deserve particular praise. Interviews are cut well together, building off each other to create a fuller picture of the man, both his strengths and his difficult flaws. Though, for example, ex-wife and creative collaborator Sylvia Anderson is deceased and can’t be part of the film, you get a strong sense of their relationship tensions just through how people who knew them react and talk, as well as how those impressions are chosen to be cut together with archival footage and even clips from Anderson’s own work. It even provides glimpses of how personal baggage bled into his art, such as a Terrahawks villain bearing a suspicious similarity to the ex. Even more than that, it does a strong job tying the threads of his life together into little payoffs, like a hilarious and then very sad anecdote the time he met another Sylvia in the care home in his final days.
Another strong production choice comes in the use of deepfakes. They’re growing in popularity to recreate old characters in stuff like Star Wars, but I have to admit I’ve never seen one used in a documentary like this, helping fill in gaps in the story of Anderson’s life by bringing old interviews to the screen. It feels pretty seamless, helped along by the stylisation of the whole thing. The production design’s use of old TV graphics, for example, helps cover for some of the footage, as do the general old-fashioned, even kitschy aesthetics, which compliment the animation style of Anderson’s work. Ethical conversations about deepfakes have been going on a long time and will continue long after this, but using Anderson’s own words, and doing so under the supervision of family to help tell his life story for a visual medium, with clear disclaimer up-front, seems like the best possible use to me.
Ultimately, A Life Uncharted left me a lot more curious about the art of the man I’d just gotten to know. The portrait of Gerry Anderson painted here is a compelling one, and I’d like to see how the sides it reveals of him shine in his work. From a love of rescue heroes like his older brother to complicated parental emotions driving what figures turn up in his stories, the documentary does a great job exploring how the artist does drive the art, and how art and artist can reveal much about each other. And, of course, possibly making a villain look like his ex-wife, a level of uncomfortably and yet all-too-familiarly petty I think says a lot about people. Knowing more about the context can enrich art, and make for moving art in of itself. A Life Uncharted succeeds on those terms. It makes you care about Gerry Anderson because of what a complicated man he was, and not just because of his many fans, but because of how the people who loved him knew him. His stories may already be beloved, but hopefully this will help the story of the man be as celebrated, too.
❉ ‘Gerry Anderson: A Life Uncharted’ is available to watch on the subscription service Britbox in the UK having launched on 14 April 2022, known to fans as ‘Gerry Anderson Day’. A nationwide theatrical tour commenced on 9 April 2022 with a preview screening at BFI Southbank on 9 April 2022, for more dates and information visit https://www.gerryanderson.com/documentary/
❉ Kevin Burnard is a writer, filmmaker, and podcaster. He can usually be found watching TV and tie-in media, tweeting about TV and tie-in media at @scribblesscript, or frequently, both simultaneously. Backflips are sometimes involved.