Thunderbirds Are Go: Puppet Adventurers Of The Groovy '60s

Entertainment | December 11, 2020

Source: IMDB

For fans of cult '60s TV, the Thunderbirds and catchphrase "Thunderbirds are go!" bring back fond memories of sci-fi puppetry and marionette action that was far better than it should have been. Marionettes on TV -- Howdy Doody, for instance -- were not known for their sophistication. But Thunderbirds and the shows that preceded it (Thunderball XL5, Stingray and others) used its brand of "supermarionation" to deliver real drama and action over silliness played for yuks. 

Thunderbirds depicts the adventures of the the Tracy family, led by Jeff Tracy, a former astronaut who works with his adult sons to form International Rescue, an organization created to save life on Earth. The squad is an unstoppable, futuristic rescue team made entirely of puppets. Thunderbirds was yet another manifestation of the 1960s spy and secret-agent craze that permeated entertainment, from The Avengers to James Bond to Get Smart to The Man From U.N.C.L.E. And in fact, Thunderbirds, produced in the United Kingdom, was breaking ground as serious action puppetry at the same time the American production Jonny Quest was pioneering serious action cartoons.

The success of Thunderbirds resulted from the advanced techniques of "supermarionation," invented and named by show creators Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. The characters on the show aren't just regular old puppets, they're electronically controlled marionettes with a moveable lower lip. Production values, special effects, sets and even mod wardrobe choices were all amped up on Thunderbirds, going well beyond what anyone might have expected for a "puppet show."

For all the technological advancements, did the Andersons' Thunderbirds still look like marionettes? Of course they did -- but they were the coolest and grooviest marionettes ever filmed.

What's 'Supermarionation'?

source: ITV

In the early 1960s Gerry and Sylvia Anderson met while working at AP Films. He was producing a series called The Adventures of Twizzle, and she was working as his secretary. While working on the western fantasy-adventure series Four Feather Falls, Anderson hit on something spectacular a TV-ready version of puppetry he would call "supermarionation." This groundbreaking production technique combined pre-recorded audio with marionettes who were filmed as if they were live-action movie stars.

Each marionette's head held filters that converted dialogue into pulses that enabled the puppet's mouth to move in time with the recorded speech. Inspired by Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion "Dynamation," Anderson combined the words “super,” “marionette” and “animation,” to form Supermarionation. Even with a cool name and technology that made filming easier, Anderson still had some trouble with his technique. For instance, the marionettes couldn't walk convincingly. Pretty much any sequence in Thunderbirds that calls on characters to walk, fall, or jump looks hilarious, so Anderson made sure to put his characters in vehicles as much as possible.

Anderson also had trouble filming hands, so rather than build special hands for close ups, he often used close up shots of a human actor's hands performing whatever function was necessary. Even with its silly moments, supermarionation changed the game for animation. This technical achievement wasn't just a time saver, it made the shows that used Anderson's technology look incredibly surreal. In the attempt to make a more lifelike marionette, Anderson created his own visual aesthetic that's still recognizable today.

'Supercar' Created One Of Anderson's Most Used Tropes

source: ITC Entertainment

Before reaching the apex of supermarionation with Thunderbirds, the Andersons made gradual steps forward with this technique in shows like Four Feather Falls and Supercar. Four Feather Falls was a vert early experiment in matching mouth movements with dialogue. The puppets were made of papier-mâché and had to have their mouths physically altered to match the pre-recorded dialogue. After this series came to an end after one season, Anderson produced Supercar, a series about a special vehicle that saved people.

Supercar was really the first of Anderson's series that looked like Thunderbirds, even if he hadn't fine tuned his supermarionation technique yet. The take-off and landing sequences of this series became a trope that Anderson used in the rest of his shows, and through the use of specialized vehicles he was able to mask the fact that marionettes look silly when they walk.

Front Projection Changed The Game

source: ITC Entertainment

With Fireball XL5, Anderson brought one more important element to his aesthetic, the team of specialized individuals. Set in 2062 and following the missions of Earth spaceship Fireball XL5, commanded by Colonel Steve Zodiac of the World Space Patrol, each of the 39 episodes was filmed in black and white and it utilized front projection-based visual effects.

(Front projection is a way of putting live action against a pre-filmed background, and is a vast improvement over rear projection. Think of driving scenes in old movies, where the moving background behind the car is washed-out and unconvincing -- that's due to the technical limitations of rear projection. With front projection, the pre-filmed footage is much sharper.) 

Anderson's use of in-camera effects took the series from just another puppet show to a science-fiction/action series that pushed visual boundaries. The composite filmmaking was ahead of its time, and made for gripping visual drama. The series, which at the time was thought to be directed at an American audience, was actually just trying to be more believable to viewers. Anderson later explained:

The reason that a lot of my shows have a certain amount of American characters is simply because…in the case of Fireball XL5, we’re talking about space, and most if not all of the science-fiction films I’ve made deal with space-travel and with futuristic machines and futuristic cars, and so forth. I always wanted the stories to be believable, and I think that if we made them as truly British films and said that this moon-rocket was going to be launched tomorrow morning from Scunthorpe, I don’t think it would go down very well.

Following the end of Fireball, Anderson continued his marionette wizardry with Stingray, the first English production to film completely in color and use marionettes with interchangeable electronic heads used to create different facial expressions. The total cost of the series ended up at around £1 million, something like £21 million today. The series is an impressive mix of underwater sci-fi and technical production. It's easy to see how the production team transitioned so quickly into Thunderbirds.

A German Mining Disaster Inspired 'Thunderbirds'

source: ITV

Everything Anderson had been working on since Four Feather Falls culminated in Thunderbirds, the action-adventure puppet driven series aimed at children and adults. As similar as the show may sound to Anderson's previous work with Stingray and Fireball XL5, he actually drew inspiration from the real world. In 1963, 11 West German miners were rescued from a collapsed mine using a series of dramatic techniques, although at least 10 men were lost in the incident.

While reading up on the disaster, Anderson devised the concept of the Thunderbirds, an international rescue organization with a whip-fast response time to major world disasters.

Premiering in 1965, Thunderbirds brought together the best bits of supermarionation - the electronic puppet heads, front and back protection, and the super cool vehicles. Produced for £22,000 per episode and with hundreds of models the series is one of the most detailed productions of the era. Combining cold war cool with animation, the series still contains a camp value, but it's also a technological wonder. Many of the ships and sets of Thunderbirds have become huge pieces of merchandise, but Anderson says that was never his intention:

When we made Thunderbirds, space was a dream, really. It hadn’t actually happened yet. The space-station was designed, and it worked okay on film, but in my view it wasn’t a very glamorous toy. You couldn’t fly it, you couldn’t push it along… it didn’t have any play value... I think we’ve always tried to steer clear of designing things that would make good merchandising. We tend to design them to ‘look right’ on the particular show we’re making. I didn’t like Thunderbird 5, period

Thunderbirds Are Still A Go

source: ITV

Thunderbirds may have only run for two seasons (with three specials), but it spawned an entire world of characters and storylines. 1966’s Thunderbirds Are Go and 1968’s Thunderbird 6 movies continue the story of this rescue team, and even though they didn't perform well at the box office they only deepens the cult status of the Anderson's work.

The general population may not be saying "supermarionation" on a day to day basis, but Anderson's work impacted pop culture in ways that you can't ignore. The model work of shows like Thunderbirds and Stingray directly inspired the science fiction films of the '70s by showing burgeoning special effects artists exactly how to make something small seem gargantuan, and its sci-fi take on the Cold War helped codify an aesthetic that we're still using today.

Tags: Marionettes | Puppets | Supermarionation | Thunderbirds

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.