in Frieze | 02 JAN 01
Featured in
Issue 56

Puppets on a Shoestring

Model childhood

in Frieze | 02 JAN 01

The most memorable scenes from the Thunderbirds television series are the launch sequences. They are, to a child, the epitome of cool: the Tracy brothers are transported to their hi-tech machines via an ingenious system of slides, chutes, and moving chairs; palm trees recline at the touch of a button and the swimming pool glides out of sight to reveal a rocket ship. On Tracy Island every object has a secret, other purpose. And even if the characters are rather, well, wooden, the jet engines spew fire, the boats create a wake, and each episode contains a fantastic new machine to marvel at. Thunderbirds was born out of Gerry Anderson's determination to create a puppet series that would appeal to an adult audience. His intention was that it should be so dramatic and fast moving that viewers would forget they were watching models. It was filmed like a live-action show, with cross-cutting between long shots and medium shots of the same scene. To enable this sort of cinematography, they had to create a variety of different-sized vehicles, models, and sets, ranging from one-third life-size for the puppets, to miniature versions for the long shots.

Derek Meddings was the man responsible for the miniatures and special effects. At the head of several teams of people meticulously striving to recreate life as we know it, he had gained his modelling experience on other Anderson productions - particularly Supercar and Fireball XL5, the immediate precursors to Thunderbirds. Meddings was obsessed with making the models as realistic as possible and went to extreme lengths to achieve this goal (although he was always disappointed by his foliage). Every scene is full of minute details that are not immediately noticeable but which enable us to accept the shot as 'real'. Houses have grubby dustbins standing outside, or a ladder leaning up against a wall. Buildings that are blown up have interiors to give the detonation veracity, and, perhaps more importantly, the model vehicles behave as in real life. When a car brakes hard, the front-end dips and the exhaust creates little plumes of smoke.

Even as an adult, it is a let down to discover that all these locations and machines were cobbled together from cardboard, balsa wood, toys, and household objects bought from the local branch of Woolworths. Such was Meddings' skill that these mundane items could be made to do almost anything when filmed from the right angle, at the right speed, and in the right 'dirtied-down' colours. My first real disappointment came with the discovery that the Mobile Crane (Thunderbird 2, pod 3) was '...made of wood and detailed with numerous kit parts, some of which were the Airfix Signal Gantry, Airfix 15 Ton Crane, and AMT 1965 Pontiac'. Model kits, both whole and in bits, were used regularly. This knowledge alone is distressing - as a child, I never had the patience or inclination to finish building a model. My little aeroplanes would always be smeared with blobs of glue and peppered with gaps where I couldn't get the pieces to fit. Since then I have always treated modellers with caution as any aptitude in this area is a reminder of my childhood deficiencies. (For those who are interested, Sci-Fi and Fantasy Models Magazine regularly informs readers how to make accurate replicas of Meddings' vehicle designs).

Thunderbirds was filmed in 'Supermarionation', a superb but meaningless word which signified a new way of stringing the puppets in combination with a device in their heads that caused their lips to move in synch with each syllable on a pre-recorded dialogue tape. (This is why the heads are out of proportion with bodies). 'Supermarionation' has come to refer to any Anderson show that involves a futuristic setting, lots of gadgets, and those inescapable explosions. Blowing things up was a Meddings speciality and his ability to choreograph miniature destruction was a trademark. This manifested itself in a series of small detonations building up to 'the big one'. For the latter he used a gelled petrol, similar to napalm, to which he added fullers' earth and kit parts. In his book 21st Century Visions (1993) he explains how he achieved many of the effects that, as a child, I was eager to replicate. His revelations include such useful nuggets of information as: miniature flames are best achieved by igniting wood dye, and high-pressure water jets can be simulated using powdered French chalk.

Meddings also developed the 'rolling road': a system whereby a vehicle is held stationary while the road, foreground, background, and sky are each mounted on separate rollers and run at slightly different speeds to simulate the effect of varying distance. Such an excess of information is bound to dispel any residual aura of childhood wonder that still clings to Thunderbirds. The final blow to any remaining desire to be a Tracy brother (with their appealing shake of the head) is mercilessly delivered by the disclosure that the underwater scenes did not take place underwater. A thin glass tank populated by miniature fish was placed between the camera and the action.

There is something very slightly more heroic and ingenious about the way Meddings and his crew brought their world into existence than the modern method of using computers to create 'objects' with no spatial extension. All Meddings' illusions were created at a time when the things you saw on TV had to exist, somewhere, in three dimensions. The certainty of the actual physical presence of the Thunderbirds world and all its machines was rather exciting, yet it created its own problems. Thunderbirds was the most merchandised media production until Star Wars. The real stars of the show were the various vehicles - millions of toys and model kits have been sold over the years. The trouble is, they never did the things you saw them do on TV, and this is the essence of toy disappointment. In the mind of a child, anything seen on the screen and then translated into a toy is never as good as its initial promise. No jets of fire screamed from the engines of my TB2; no smoke curled from the spinning rear wheels of my cars. But now any lingering sense of betrayal provoked by Meddings' revelations is tempered by the knowledge that it was not just my Thunderbirds that couldn't do what they did on TV - his couldn't either.