Thunderbirds lives again – 1965 style

The other day I discovered somebody has remade Thunderbirds. Not the Weta remake. Another one – old school and old style, using the ‘Supermarionation’ techniques pioneered by Gerry Anderson and his team fifty years ago.

Thunderbird 2 – a Dinky toy I’ve had since forever which, somehow, I’ve never thrown out.

I’m kind of late to the party: it’s a project by Stephen le Riviere that sprang from a book and documentary he did on Gerry Anderson’s puppet-and-model ouvre, and he’s made three new 1960s-style Thunderbirds episodes with re-made puppets, sets and SFX to match the original (including the explosions) with sound and plot from three genuine 1960s stories released as audio-only merchandise at the time.  Old-style SFX re-made for the new production included the ingenious ‘rolling road’ runway and sky background – an endless conveyor belt over which a model could be suspended, giving the impression it was hurtling along at huge speed over great distances. Then the modern high-def video was processed to give it the look of 1960s film stock.

It was deeply cool, and this deliberate retro-crusade got me thinking about just how special effects evolved during the 1960s particularly – much of them driven, worldwide, by Anderson’s shows. The effects in Anderson’s shows, largely created by special effects genius Derek Meddings – were absolutely pioneering, and they were on a learning curve themselves. The advances between his early and late work are stunning – compare, for instance, Stingray with Space 1999.  Anderson’s effects team led the world at the time – and the industry knew it too. In 1966, reputedly, Stanley Kubrick tried to hire Meddings and some of the Anderson SFX people to work on 2001: A Space Odyssey. Anderson refused. Kubrick went off and developed his own SFX team instead.

“Discovery” from 2001, with one of its pods nearby. This isn’t from the movie – it’s a picture I made using my trusty Celestia software, which could produce (in seconds) what Kubrick’s special effects guys took weeks to create…

Meanwhile Anderson and his team kept pushing the effects limits in their shows. I can’t help thinking that one of the reasons was that Anderson was apparently excellent to work with – I knew someone who did some work for him and said he was a nice guy. Anderson’s UFO of 1969-70 was live action, starring (among others) Benedict Cumberbatch’s mum; and it used classic Anderson-style model-work and effects such a a spinning UFO moving through the blackness of space, making a very spooky noise produced by composer John Barry on an Ondes Martinot (a 1920s-era valve-based synthesiser). The UFO was actually dangling on a string, against a velvet backdrop – but you wouldn’t know from seeing it. It only lasted one season – TV schedulers didn’t know whether it was a kid’s show  or an adult one. Actually it was adult, tackling themes from the loneliness of command to infidelity and murder – in style very much in tune with the grittier end of 1970s drama (think The Professionals, but with aliens).

An “Eagle Transporter” from Gerry Anderson’s “Space 1999”. Another Celestia image I made. This craft was conceptually identical to Discovery in fundamental ways.

Anderson and his team notched the SFX up again in Space 1999 – which, in many respects, echoed 2001 in style: compare Kubrick’s Clavius Moonbase with the design of Moonbase Alpha in Space 1999; the nature of the detailing on the spacecraft; or some of the Eagle Transporter interiors. It also matched 2001 in quality of most effects, notably the take-off sequences from the moonbase launch-pads, where the exhaust of the Eagle lift-motors blew dust away in the right pattern.

It was all very carefully done – easily matching today’s CGI in many scenes. One of the ways they did that was through fairly large scale: the Eagle Transporter was a 1/24 model, which improved depth-of-field issues and transcended some of the ‘cheese factor’ involved when small-scale models are shown against normal-scale water, flames or smoke – these look fake irrespective of the slo-mo.

The point being that this all came together in 1973-74, just a year or so before George Lucas began working up the details of Star Wars. And the SFX he deployed took things up another notch again – still with models, still mostly old-school by today’s standards, but setting the pattern for what followed.

It was all iterative and evolutionary, and Anderson’s work was right there in the middle of it. Which, to get back to the first point of this post, is why a total retro-remake of Thunderbirds  – using all the old techniques – is such a cool idea. I believe it’s been used since in a series of advertisements.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017

7 thoughts on “Thunderbirds lives again – 1965 style

  1. As I remember Thunderbirds from my childhood I think a retro remake could appeal to the golden oldies as it has nostalgia value. The younger generation I doubt it would hold much appeal because technology has moved on and it’s a little tame.

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    1. I agree. It’s a generational thing… I think the point was recognised by Pukeko Pictures, who produced that authorised remake using a combo of CGI and modern modelling techniques, which is up to the minute and captures the spirit of the original for the current generation – which to me is genius in its own terms. But in terms of personal taste it’s a bit too cartoony for my liking, irrespective of how much I appreciate what they are doing. (I was a book launch in 2015 where I ended up standing right behind Richard Taylor, who runs both Pukeko Pictures and Weta Workshop, but never got to talk to him to get a personal insight into that point).

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  2. I loved the Thunderbirds when I was a kid, and the others – Joe 90, Stingray, and I’m sure there’s another one I’ve forgotten. Even as a kid I thought of them as adult shows, and I knew if my parents watched them and saw what they were about I wouldn’t have been allowed to keep watching. They were fooled by the fact it was puppets.

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    1. I remember them all well – was the other one Captain Scarlet? That one had an adult level for sure – my mother picked it, because she was dubious about letting me watch it. They were, I think, also among the first shows to really key into that secondary ‘merchandise’ market – we usually point to Star Wars as pioneering it, but Anderson’s programmes were doing it over a decade earlier. I had the Dinky SPV (I still – er – do…), an Angel Interceptor, Thunderbird 2 (with 4 in the pod) and a Joe 90 hardback ‘annual’ with all-new stories and artwork. Looking back I guess the key thing about all of them was the sense of optimism they conveyed about the future. Got a problem? We’ll build a machine to fix it! Would that it were true.


      1. Captain Scarlet – that was it. I’ve still got a couple of paperback comic style books of their adventures. I had a hardback annual which I read over and over again, but I don’t know what happened to that.

        I was a big fan of Space 1999 when that came out too.

        I was in the 3rd form when Star Wars came out. It was the first movie I saw more than once. I’ve still got the LP of the movie, though I’ve had nothing to play it on for more than 20 years. Besides, I’ve got the DVD now. And DVDs of the Stingray and Thunderbirds tv series!

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