THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO
5!4!3!2!1! Gerry Anderson’s classic series has been reimagined for the 21st century.
Old away the palm trees, retract the tropical swimming pool and feel your pulse instinctively quicken. International Rescue is back.
“I’ve fallen in love with the classic series during the making of this,” says Giles Ridge, executive producer of Thunderbirds Are Go, CITV’s ambitious upgrade of the icon- laden original. “Just by virtue of the fact that you have to immerse yourself in this world. It’s incredible how Gerry and Sylvia Anderson got it so right 50 years ago – a secret hideaway island, five young, aspirational brothers, rescuing people wherever they’re in danger, and the most incredible fleet of craft that you could ever wish for. The series starts from a point of perfection. It’s a pretty damn good DNA, really.”
Glossy, spectacular and armed with enough charm to conquer generation after generation, Thunderbirds first launched in 1965, setting its tales of global derring- do a hundred years hence. Now, halfway closer to that shiny ’ 60s dream of the future, Ridge tells SFX that this remake truly slings the show into the 21st century.
“When we set out to remake the series I was very clear that we didn’t want to mess too much with the original. It has a lot of cultural relevance for a lot of people. What we needed to update were those elements that a child audience of today would expect. And so whilst we still tell stories that have heroism and selflessness at their heart we wanted to look at the visual aesthetic of the series, and move that on for a 21st century audience. We’ve talked to kids all the way through the development of this series – not just in the UK but we’ve gone to Japan, where Thunderbirds is huge, we’ve gone to the US – and one of the common bits of feedback was that we had moved on from the concept of marionette puppets. We love the classic series and all that the puppets gave, but it was time to explore something more modern, more cutting- edge.”
Say goodbye to the bobble- headed heroics of Supermarionation. Thunderbirds Are Go
“We wanted Thunderbirds to push the boundaries in terms of delivering a new aesthetic for kids”
trades wood and string for pixels and code, conjuring its cast in sleek and snazzy CG form. Out go the oversized noggins, in comes anatomical correctness.
“They’re more in human proportion. You’re asking an audience to believe in and care for a character, so we felt that the character should be designed with more human proportions – which is what Gerry moved on to in his later series, because the servo technology moved on. When you get to Captain Scarlet the heads become much smaller, but the technology wasn’t there in ’ 65, and so you just had to have bigger heads.”
The new series keeps an aesthetic connection to the old, though, fusing its digital heroes and hardware with the reality of liveaction sets. “It was about retaining what made
Thunderbirds special in the first place but also being mindful that an audience of 2015 has a lot more media choices at its disposal,” Ridge tells SFX. “We inevitably had to look at the competition in the market. There are many excellent action adventure series out there, but they’re largely all produced in CG. They’re beautifully made but we wanted Thunderbirds to push the boundaries in terms of delivering a new aesthetic for kids. And at the same time we also wanted to try and pay tribute to how Gerry and Sylvia made the original series. In New Zealand we met the wonderful talents at Weta workshop and Pukeko Pictures, the company founded by Peter Jackson and Richard Taylor. And we discovered that Richard took a lot of his inspiration as a child from Thunderbirds and that most of the designers and technicians and craftspeople in his workshop in Wellington are passionate about Thunderbirds as well. I felt I had found absolutely the right co- producer and partner to make the series.”
Taylor and his crew perfected a technique that brings a cutting- edge visual style to the Tracy clan’s new adventures. “We tested this mixed media approach of building our craft and our characters in traditional CG but having our world, our vistas, our buildings, all of those backgrounds, as much as possible as liveaction miniature sets – which is absolutely Weta’s forte on all those wonderful feature films. That, in its rawest form, gives beautiful background plates that are real. These are real models, albeit built at different scales. It gives us a foreground that is traditional CG and then layered on top of that are 2D effects, 3D
effects, a layer of lighting, and when all that media comes to London it’s all composited together to make a picture that looks unique and very beautiful.
“But even with the CG nothing is completely electronic. With Thunderbird 2, for example, we painted that iconic green onto a glass panel in the workshop, threw lots of dust and dirt at it to get that beautiful dirtied texture, and then we’d photograph that panel and scan that photograph around the digital model. So even a CG asset has something physical to its nature. We love the fact that it pays tribute to the handmade nature of Gerry and Sylvia’s series. The original series pioneered a technique called kit- bashing, where you’d find bits and pieces around the home… That’s absolutely the approach that we’ve brought to this series. Which is very British! It just adds another layer of originality and sophistication that I think kids will enjoy.”
Telling “mostly brand new stories – though there’s at least one remake of an iconic episode in there”, Thunderbirds Are Go preserves much of the matchless iconography of the original series. Ridge says a contemporary spin ensures it’s not simply a retro- fest. “From a design perspective we found it easy to mesh those iconic ’ 60s elements with new. There’s a bit of a fashion for it nowadays anyway. I think the trick was in getting the colour palette right, and ensuring that the world of colour within
Thunderbirds wasn’t stuck in the ’ 60s but that there was sufficient panache and diversity in terms of the colours that made it feel modern and fresh.”
Tweaks have been made to the mighty Thunderbird fleet. “We’ve made some minor adjustments. We’ve streamlined Thunderbird 2 in a small way. The sophistication, technically, of these vehicles is much greater than they were 50 years ago, but the test for us was that you should be able to look at a silhouette and immediately know which vehicle it was. I think with all the craft you can absolutely do that.”
And yes, those heart- stirring Tracy Island launch sequences are present and correct. “Kids love mechanical process, so we have absolutely indulged that in the new series. We absolutely romance the launches. We spent a lot of time storyboarding them and just making sure that all the detail was there.”
The show’s voice cast includes Gone Girl star Rosamund Pike, an impeccable fit for International Rescue’s trouble- seeking toff Lady Penelope.
“Rosamund always felt that she wanted to bring a modern interpretation to what is a very modern woman in our new series. I think it’s right that the Lady Penelope of 2015 should be relevant to our audience. She’s a young, independent- minded, intelligent woman, who celebrates the fashions and attitudes of now, rather than 1965.”
no lighting up
Naturally this thoroughly modern Penelope hasn’t inherited her predecessor’s elegant way with a cigarette.
“That’s the whole reason why I doubt the classic series would ever be played in children’s airtime again – there was smoking and there was drinking. That’s lacking from our new series, but made up for in all sorts of other areas.”
Not tempted to have her vaping, then? “No!” laughs Ridge.
The gaspers may be absent but this Penelope is still ferried in FAB 1 by the loyal Parker. Parker’s so remarkably loyal that he’s even voiced by David Graham, the man whose larynx brought the cockney chauffeur to life in the ’ 60s show.
“I felt if there was one part that we could recreate completely loyally and accurately it was Parker. The thing about David’s performance in our new series is that he sounds no different to how he was 50 years ago. He’s exactly the same Parker, and he’s been a delight to work with. He’s embraced the changes that we feel we’ve been able to make.”
Parker may have embraced the changes, but will the hardcore Anderson fanbase welcome this new take on a beloved Brit SF classic? The Tracy brood can face down everything from fires to floods but can they win the hearts of the purists?
“When ITV asked me to remake this series I was filled with a mixture of elation and huge apprehension,” Ridge tells SFX. “I completely understand that there’s a very loyal audience of the original who will look upon us very carefully. I really hope that we’ve found that right balance of offering a dynamic, cuttingedge series for youngsters but with the loyalty that we’ve brought to the look and feel of the original, and the values that made the original in the first place. Remakes are not easy, but I really hope that we have a wide audience that appreciates what we’ve done.”
Thunderbirds Are Go launches on CITV in April ( exact date TBC).
Tracy Island: as small and verdant as ever.
The makers have gone for fairly muted colours for the fleet, as per the original series. Their heads may be smaller, but the Tracys are just as smart! Rosamund Pike voices the new- look Lady Penelope.