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

By | December 9, 2020

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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'?

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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.