Countdown to Re-Launch
ITV and Pukeko Pictures combine miniatures and CG animation to propel a unique look for a rebooted classic in By Tom McLean.
Few who saw the iconic 1960s series Thunderbirds can forget the excitement that creators Gerry and Sylvia Anderson brought to the most-beloved of their “Supermarionation” series, making the cult British show a prime candidate for revival. But remaking a series that used puppets in miniature sets and vehicles for a modern audience is a challenge that required a great deal of patience and ingenuity on both the creative and technical ends.
As with the original, ITV Studios’ Thunderbirds Are Go! tells the tale of the amazing Tracy brothers — Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John — each the pilot of one of five unique advanced Thunderbird craft that are the fastest and most unique vehicles on Earth. Based in the South Pacific on Tracy Island, they together work as International Rescue, saving the day when no one else can, with the help of security chief Tanusha “Kayo” Kyrano, engineer Brains and their London agent, Lady Penelope.
Executive produced by ITV Studios and Pukeko Pictures, Thunderbirds Are Go! mixes liveaction and CGI in a new way that has connected well with audiences since the 26-episode first season began airing in April in the U.K.
Giles Ridge — executive producer on the series, along with Estelle Hughes, Richard Taylor and Andrew Smith — says being asked by ITV managing director Julian Bellamy to assemble a team to remake the classic series was a “oncein-a-lifetime opportunity.”
“It filled me with, on one hand, complete excitement and, on the other, complete apprehension, having to do what I call trading the family silver,” he says.
The new show needed to strike a balance between pleasing the many passionate fans of the original series and appealing to its primary audience of modern kids — most of whom will have never heard of or seen the original.
Ridge says a deep look at the concept of the original revealed a strong basic concept. “When you look at the DNA of Thunderbirds — five young, aspirational brothers on a secret hideaway island with the most incredible craft at their disposal helping people around the world — it’s not a bad place to start.”
But pulling off a series worthy of the original required a diverse skill set that sent Ridge looking for partners outside of the typical co-production boundaries.
“I didn’t want the production to be limited by having to work in certain territories. I wanted to be able to choose the talent where I felt that the talent best served the show,” he says.
For the writing, Ridge went to the United States and tapped as head writer Rob Hoegee, a veteran animation writer and producer well versed in the boys action genre from stints on shows such as Teen Titans, Generator Rex and Slugterra.
“This is Thunderbirds for a new generation, really, but in the grand scheme of things, we are maintaining the core values of the original show: selfless heroism and a family who works together,” says Hoegee.
Ridge says the show sticks closely to the basic episodic structure of the original, starting with an accident or mishap of some kind, leading into the famous opening credits and a three-act structure. The rescue is planned and launched in act one; the team faces obstacles in executing the rescue in act two; and act three is the successful rescue and denouement.
“That’s what gives the editorial nature of the
show its brand,” says Ridge. “You know what kind of experience you’re going to have. That doesn’t mean you’re going to end up with 26 generic kind of shows; all the stories are different and it is a little bit like trying to make 26 mini feature films.”
Where the original series’ episodes were an hour long, Thunderbirds Are Go! has a half-hour format that requires faster pacing and simple, clear storytelling.
“We have to start off with a bang and get right into the action,” says Hoegee. “And we’ve found that, even in 22 minutes, we can tell pretty good stories and not really feel like we’re lacking anything.”
The most obvious change is the absence of the boys’ father, Jeff Tracy, who in the original was a dominating presence as the leader of the Thunderbirds. “We didn’t want to make the Jeff Tracy show; it had to be about the boys,” says Hoegee. The character is said to be missing in action after an undefined accident, giving the boys a loss to feel as well as forcing them to step up and make decisions on their own.
Another major change is the addition of Kayo as IR’s head of security. The character is adapted from Tin-Tin, who was the maintenance tech and lab assistant in the original, bringing a female character directly to the forefront of the action. “She has a bit of a dark secret in that her uncle is The Hood, something not known by the boys at first,” Hoegee says.
A bigger role was carved out for Grandma Tracy, who is barely seen in the original, as the emotional head of the Tracy family. And Lady Penelope gets a modern update while her trusty butler, Parker, stays constant with original series actor David Graham returning to do his voice.
There are other elements of the original that were just too iconic to tamper with, one of which being the opening countdown sequence that introduces the five Thunderbird craft, their pilots and the rest of the cast.
Ridge says the production got permission from the estate of actor Peter Dyneley, who voiced the countdown and played Jeff Tracy on the 1960s show, to re-use the original recording. The theme music, composed by Ben and Nick Foster, also pays tribute to Barry Gray’s brassy original.
Mixing Up the Look
Finding a visual style for the series was another major challenge. Clearly, animation was going to work better than puppets, but Ridge says they still wanted to find a unique look for the show that stands out from the pack and echoes the original.
“We were very keen to move away from the customary CGI digital shiny look that you have on a lot action shows today,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with that — it works for many shows very successfully — but we wanted to create a visual esthetic on Thunderbirds that just set itself apart from the original, and that’s why we ended up experimenting with this CG and live-action mix.”
Working with Taylor’s New Zealand-based Pukeko Pictures, a pipeline was set up that combines live-action miniatures and CG animated characters.
“Most of our world in Thunderbirds — all of our vistas, all of our buildings, our exteriors — are real models,” says Ridge. “They are liveaction miniature models — and though I say miniature, actually they’re quite huge in the Weta Workshop — and built at different scales. They built two different scales of Tracy Island and filled a huge tank with water, so all the water around Tracy Island is completely real.”
The vehicles are created using CG “skeletons,” around which are wrapped digital skins made from photographs and scans of large glass panels painted in each craft’s iconic colors and physically worn and weathered with dust and dirt.
“No CG aspect is completely electronic,” says Ridge. “It’s all got some physical nature to it and that is why the joy in it is possible to see.”
Some of the CG vehicle work is done in New Zealand, but all of the character animation is done by CGCG in China and Taiwan. “We chose them just because of their track record for action adventure shows for the major U.S. networks,” says Ridge.
All of the elements come together at Milk VFX in London, which does the final composting of the elements into a final product, says Ridge.
A Strong Push
The show got a major push when it launched on ITV, with a life-size replica of Thunderbird 4 floated down the Thames. Reactions have been mostly positive, as have ratings — a second season of 26 episodes already has been ordered.
The show is still rolling out internationally, with ITV taking its time to find the right partner in each territory. Ridge says the patience of fans in markets like the United States, where the show has yet to announce a broadcast deal, will be rewarded.
“We want to give it a platform that does the series proud and does the series justice,” says Ridge. “We want to make sure the partner shares that same commitment and love that we have.” [
So, guys, what exactly is “slapstick”? How is it different from physical comedy?
Javier Valdez: To me, slapstick feels like physical comedy, but actually happening to a character in a way you can feel. A birthday cake in the face leads to a plank upside the head and a springloaded boxing glove to the gut — the gut of not just anyone, but King Pig, when trying to break in to his rival Trump Pig’s limo.
Joe Vitale: In my mind, slapstick requires someone to get hit. An anvil falling on your head? Slapstick. Trying to move an anvil from one end of a rocking boat to another? Physical comedy. But why does a character need to move the anvil, fast, or else? Answer that and you’ll have a fun cartoon.
So who is your favorite Toons character?
Valdez: I have the most fun with the character of the generic pigs. They’re always willing to do anything you want. We can dress them up however we like. There’s a real likable enthusiasm about them that gives us a lot of freedom.
Vitale: I like Chuck. He’s so gosh-darned eager to impress. Also, I think, he’s kind of an idiot. This makes you feel for him — he just wants to pull off the impossible, whether he’s capable of it or not. And if he’s not? Doesn’t matter! He’ll keep on trying. That may be the idiotic part but it’s also what makes him lovable. Talk about violence in cartoons. Valdez: If you’ll stop hitting me. Personally, I’m a fan. It’s one of those things that best explores what animation is capable of. There’s debate about what kids absorb from cartoons, but I think, for example, casual misogyny is more dangerous for the young audience to take away than watching a character take an oak log to the face and come back swinging.
Vitale: Violence and slapstick are different. Violence is bloody. It can be copied in real life without a choreographer or outlandish props. Slapstick is, by design, ridiculous and over-the-top. That’s what makes it fun. Cartoons — at least the ones make — are full of slapstick but very little violence. Hear that, FCC?
To butcher a John Cleese quote, a guy falling in mud isn’t so funny. A judge falling in mud is. How does character influence physical comedy?
Vitale: That quote hits it right on the nose (speaking of slapstick). If some random guy takes a tumble? Sure, it’s a chuckle. But if it’s a spiteful character who has spent the entire episode complaining about how much he hates cottage cheese? You’ve got the perfect excuse to place him underneath the flight path of a Red Cross helicopter delivering 10 metric tons of cottage cheese to a disaster area ... and it just so happens the rope holding the crate of cottage cheese is no longer under warranty. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how to mine comedy gold.
Valdez: Sympathy is a big part of it. In Angry Birds, for example, we have Matilda, our nurturing and maternal character (and so much more). It’s not fun watching things happen to her, and we have a lot more fun when she’s in command and kicking butt. But King Pig, who to me is sort of a spoiled glutton, is a riot to have things happen to, and we can’t wait to see what ridiculously terrible thing will befall him next.
What’s your stance on gross-out material? Boogers: Too gross? Not gross enough?
Valdez: Feels dated, like, say, ’90s Nickelodeon. Of course, when I do want to use gross-out humor, I say go big or go home! Saying “boogers” isn’t funny, but falling into a swimming pool of them? Magic.
Vitale: Personally, I try to stay away from bathroom humor, not because it’s gross but because it’s lazy. It’s a cheap laugh. I like my laughs to be expensive and paid for in installments. Next issue: To save him, they had to shave him — Baboon’s new A Boy and His Dude short, now airing on Nick.com. Baboon Animation is a U.S.-based collective of Oscar-nominated, multi-Emmy winning animation writers with credits on dozens of the most iconic animated shows worldwide.
With longevity in publishing becoming increasingly rare in the digital age, it was clear that something special was needed to celebrate this, the 250th issue of Animation Magazine.
Since the first issue in 1987, Animation Magazine has been there to chronicle the growth of animation from a small part of the overall entertainment business to one of the most exciting industries in the world. And as animation as an artform and a business stands here in 2015 more successful and vibrant than ever — and poised only to continue to grow — it seems an apt moment to celebrate.
Hence, this list of 250 of the most dynamic and innovative people, companies, productsprodu and projects was compiled to chronicle this moment in the history of animation — a little bit of where we’ve been, but a lot ot more about where we’re going.
The list is broken down into 10 categories:
None of the lists is ranked ( except Animated Box Office Champs); each category is listed in alphabetical order and was compiled after soliciting — and receiving — suggestions from our readers.
We received many great suggestions and gave them all due consideration. In the end, the list is one we carefully curated to offer an eclectic mix of promising newcomers and old favorites that have proven worthy of the recognition. That means some of the best-known names in the business were passed over because the industry already is scrutinizing their every move in favor of some fresh faces and new names.
So we hope our readers find the lists useful: that they might remind you how deep the animation industry is; that they might open your eyes to a new company, executive, talent or event that will help your efforts succeed. And most of all, we hope they remind you how amazing it is to be involved in animation, whether it’s as a creator, a business person or just as a fan.
Lastly, we want to thank our readers, who have made it possible for us to publish 250 issues of Animation Magazine. We appreciate the trust you place in us and expect the next 250 issues will be even more amazing!
Agency: United Talent Agency Focus: Voice actors Highlights: Balbo is well known for placing many A-list stars into major animation franchises, including: Alan Tudyk, Jack McBrayer, Joe Lo Truglio and Mindy Kaling into Wreck-It-Ralph; Tudyk into Frozen and Big Hero 6; Elizabeth Banks, Nick Offerman, Will Forte, Jake Johnson, Cobie Smulders and Keegan Micheal Key into The LEGO Movie; and in television, placing Chris Parnell, Spencer Grammer and Sarah Chalke into Rick and Morty. Agency: United Talent Agency Focus: TV literary and packaging Highlights: Begleiter is known for representing top names in animation to help package series such as Bob’s Burgers and Archer. Begleiter represents numerous creators and showrunners working in animation such as Adam Reed & Matt Thompson ( Archer); Jackson Publick & Doc Hammer ( The Venture Bros.); Dave Willis ( Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Squidbillies, Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell); Justin Roiland ( Rick & Morty); Seth Green & Matt Senreich ( Robot Chicken, Supermansion); Zeb Wells ( Supermansion); Jim Dauterive ( Bob’s Burgers) and Alex Hirsch ( Gravity Falls). Agency: Natural Talent Focus: talent Highlights: Calder is a co-owner at Natural Talent, one of the largest agencies representing creators, producers, directors, writers and animators. Calder began her career at Universal Television and worked her way up through the business affairs department, learning the ins-and-outs of the animation business before embarking on a career as an agent. She and partner Donna Felten launched Natural Talent in 1998. Agency: Digital Artists Agency Focus: Visualeffects artists Highlights: Coleman founded Digital Artists Agency in Los Angeles in 1998 to represent artists for work in feature, commercial and related fields. With a roster of visual-effects talent that includes Academy Award, VES Award and Emmy Award winners, DAA continues to be the pre-eminent belowthe-line agency, exclusively representing visual-effects artists for feature films, entertainment television and television commercials. Agency: William Morris Endeavor Focus: Voice actors Highlights: Curtis is a partner at WME and oversees the agency’s voiceover department. Curtis has placed hundreds of actors in projects and helped package talent for some of the most successful animated franchises of all time. Agency: Sheil Land Associates Focus: Writers in the U. K. Highlights: Fawcett heads the film, TV and stage department at Sheil Land Associates, a boutique literary agency in London representing fiction and non-fiction authors and screenwriters. She represents authors’ rights and also screenwriters working in all areas of scripted material. One of her areas of expertise is animation; including representation of The Brothers McLeod and animation creators such as Alan Gilbey and Dan Berlinka. Agency: Natural Talent Focus: Animation talent Highlights: Felton is the co-owner of Natural Talent, serving as CEO and as a licensed agent for the company. Felton began her career in the domestic distribution department at Lorimar. She eventually worked in the business affairs department at Universal Family Entertainment, where she developed her working relationship with Kelly Calder, her best friend since middle school. Felton and Calder founded Natural Talent in 1998. Agency: Soho Editors Focus: Editors, motion graphics and visual-effects artists, color graders, audio professionals and directors. Highlights: Ferreira is talent director at Soho Editors, representing more than 250 of the best and brightest talent in post-production. She also assembled a team of motion graphics artists to deliver content related to the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil as project manager of the event’s interactive worldwide app. Agency: Vanguarde Artists Focus: Showrunners, writers and directors in Canada Highlights: Horowitz founded Vanguarde in 2002, and it has become a leader in representing Canada’s most sought-after showrunners, screenwriters and directors. It represents such talent as the creators of The League of Super Evil and the
tween series Dark Oracle, one of the co-EPs of King of the Hill, and writers of such shows as The Simpsons, Inspector Gadget and Paw Patrol. Agency: Gotham Group Focus: Gotham represents directors, writers, producers, illustrators and artists, as well as book and comics publishers and animation studios Highlights: Since its founding in 1994, Gotham Group has represented animation writers, directors and artists in landing deals for award-winning features like The Boxtrolls and The Book of Life, and television programs like The Fairly Odd Parents and Star Vs. The Forces of Evil. Agency: N.S. Bienstock, a division of United Talent Agency Focus: Licensing Highlights: A 35-year veteran of the licensing and animation industries, Kaufman provides licensing services to a host of characters, celebrities, brands and estates. He has experience in multiple business aspects, having previously been president of merchandising at Universal Studios; operated his own agency, Total Licensing Services; and worked for Nelvana on its brands and MGA on Bratz. Agency: Creative Artists Agency Focus: Motion picture literary Highlights: For client Neil Gaiman, Levin put together Coraline with LAIKA for Universal; partnered clients Simon Cowell and Animal Logic to produce the first feature-film starring Betty Boop for Sony; and is in the process of bringing The Breadwinner to the big screen as Cartoon Saloon’s next animated feature. Agency: SBV Talent Focus: Voice actors Highlights: A veteran of more than 30 years in the agency business and a specialist in animation since 2000, McLean has placed clients on such shows as Archer, Family Guy, The Simpsons, SpongeBob SquarePants, Star Wars Rebels, Phineas & Ferb, Adventure Time, Ben 10, Regular Show, Uncle Grandpa, Turbo FAST and The Adventures of Puss in Boots. Agency: Meridian Artists Focus: Animation talent in Canada Highlights: Mitchell has become the go-to agent for animation talent in Canada, well known by all of the production companies, studios and networks and representing the best of the nation’s talent. Agency: Creative Artists Agency Focus: Voice-over actors Highlights: Formed the voice-over department at CAA in 2004, has secured lead voice roles for clients in such hit animated feature film franchises as Frozen, How to Train Your Dragon, The LEGO Movie, WreckIt Ralph, Rio, The Croods, Monsters University, Cars, Hotel Transylvania and The Smurfs. Agency: VoiceBank Focus: Voice talent Highlights: VoiceBank represents a team of animation specialists whose voices can bring any character to life. Talent includes Marc Silk, Janet James, Tom Clarke Hill and Melissa Sinden, and the agency has landed actors roles on such projects as Postman Pat, Thomas and Friends, Bob the Builder, Fifi & the Flowertots, Dirt Girl, Tickety Toc, Get Squiggling, Muddle Earth and Strange Hill High, as well as in commercials and games. Agency: VOX Focus: Voice actors Highlights: VOX is a 13-year-old talent agency representing scale and celebrity voice-over actors that has worked on nearly every television animated series and many features, including: Up, A Bug’s Life, Futurama, American Dad, Adventure Time, Duck Dodgers, Teen Titans, Star Wars Rebels and Miles from Tomorrowland. The agency also works with animation directors and creators to develop their slates in features and television. Notable clients include Ed Asner, J. K. Simmons, John DiMaggio, George Takei, David Hyde Pierce, Craig T. Nelson, Yvette Nicole Brown, Tania Gunadi, Diedrich Bader and Joe Alaskey. Agency: Vanguarde Artists Focus: Family entertainment Highlights: Stulberg became an agent at Vanguade in 2007, and since has championed family entertainment at the company. Vanguarde was founded by Tina Horwitz in 2002 and has become a leader in representing Canada’s most sought after showrunners, screenwriters and directors. Agency: Annette van Duren Agency Focus: Writers, producers, story editors, executives and artists Highlights: Van Duren is a veteran agent whose clients include Elise Allen, Ann Austen, Chuck Austen, John Derevlany, Robert Hughes, Edward Kay, Craig Miller, Charles- Henri Moarbes, Celeste Moreno, Martin Olson, Mark Palmer, Angela Salt/ Stu Harrison – FUN CREW, Dave Skwarczek and Rob Tinkler. Agency: SMA Talent Focus: Music Highlights: The U. K.-based SMA has represented the top composers for animation and visual-effects projects including Ex Machina, Planet 51, Time Bandits, Rarg, Tales of Friendship for Disney; Noddy in Toyland; An Ode to Love; Apollo; The Rain Collector and Schrödinger’s Cat.