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The second big-screen sequel to the popular British TV series Thunderbirds (1965-66), Thunderbird 6 (1968) was the final appearance of the space-age team of puppets known as International Rescue.
Created by the former husband-and-wife team of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, the TV series Thunderbirds was fourth in a succession of special effects-heavy sci-fi shows produced for AP Films, in a trademark process known as Supermarionation.
Thunderbird 6 centers around an intellectual crisis being suffered by Brains (voice of David Graham), the technical mastermind behind International Rescue, which is comprised of five futuristic air-space-and sea-craft known as Thunderbirds. Family patriarch and I.R. chief Jeff Tracy (Peter Dyneley) has demanded that Brains design a new rescue craft, to be known as Thunderbird 6. Unfortunately, every innovative prototype he builds gets rejected.
Meanwhile, Brains's gravity-defying airliner Skyship One is hijacked while on its maiden voyage. On board are Jeff's son Alan Tracy (Matt Zimmerman), Alan's sweetheart Tin-Tin (Christine Finn), ultra-posh undercover operative Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward (Sylvia Anderson), and her chauffeur Parker (David Graham again, but with a cockney accent).
After a gun battle between hijackers and passengers, the Skyship's gravitational compensators are damaged, and the enormous craft is lodged precariously atop a steel tower overlooking a missile base. The Tracy family rolls out its high-tech hardware to save the day, and even Brains joins the effort, coming to the rescue in the cockpit of an antique bi-plane.
Thunderbird 6 was filmed simultaneously with the Andersons' new TV series Captain Scarlet (1967-68), which split the crew of the production company 21st Century into two groups. As a result, the film Thunderbird 6 has a slightly different look from the small-screen version. The style of the sets also changed, since the movie was filmed in the widescreen Techniscope process, necessitating greater panoramic scale.
Mod architecture and clothing are two of the highlights of the series, and the designers of Thunderbird 6 took the futuristic fashions several steps further. The various chambers in Skyship One are designed in themes: wine bottle-shaped furniture in the dining room, the oversized chess pieces and dice of the game room, and Lady Penelope's airborne boudoir, saturated in pink and decorated with silk roses. The Skyship's true setpiece is the chamber of gravity compensators: gleaming silver rings that rotate in unison and magically bear the ship aloft. On ground, the passengers dine at the Whistle Stop Inn, where food is served via electric trains.
The Whistle Stop Inn is perched atop the Swiss Alps, where Penelope's pink Rolls Royce extends its retractable skis and glides effortlessly through the snow. Because there was to be so much movement within the scene, the skiing sequence required the largest interior set of the film: a mountainous landscape that was an estimated 40-50 feet in width. Massive quantities of salt were spread on the set to simulate snow.
In some cases, "foreground miniatures" were constructed and placed in exterior locations. This allowed miniature trees and models (placed near the camera) to be combined with natural sky and backgrounds. This technique was used frequently in the scenes of the bi-plane, nicknamed the Tiger Moth, flying over the fields of Buckinghamshire.
The filmmakers employed a number of crafts to depict the Tiger Moth in flight: a full-sized plane, a radio-controlled plane, and a variety of miniatures (in various scales and in various portions, such as wingtip, cockpit, etc.).
When the plane performed a series of aerial rolls and stunts, director David Lane wanted it to essentially dance in the air (in the film, it is accompanied by the tune "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze"). "I actually was playing the music to the pilot, if you can believe such an idiotic thing to try and do," Lane later recalled. "He was trying to do aerobatics to the playback music coming from my helicopter. I mean lunacy."
At the climax of Thunderbird 6, the Tiger Moth was needed to perform a series of stunts with four passengers clinging to the wings and undercarriage. At first the filmmakers tried to use the radio-controlled model, but the plane could not be controlled with the additional weight and wind-resistance. Pilot Joan Hughes believed she could perform the stunt instead, and so life-size mannequins were wired to the wings and landing gear. Sure enough, Hughes was able to compensate for the extra cargo and perform a number of dangerous feats, including brushing the wheels across a treetop.
One scene required the Tiger Moth to fly underneath a highway overpass. The filmmakers gained access to a motorway that had just completed construction but was not yet open to the public (the M40). However, the police forbade Hughes to fly underneath the concrete bridge. Instead, she was required to land just before reaching it, taxi under, then lift off again. During the shooting, Hughes found it much more dangerous to land and take off with the extra cargo, and decided to fly beneath the bridge instead. Charges were filed against the company, and production manager Norman Foster had to appear in court. The charges were later dismissed, partly because the aeronautical authorities agreed that Hughes's method was safer than that recommended by the police, and also because Foster presented the judge with an authentic model of Thunderbird 1, "and the judge's grandson was a great fan," Lane remembered.
Throughout their career, the Andersons blurred the line between puppetry and live-action by inserting closeups of actual hands (usually those of a crew member). At a certain point, the British unions objected, and required that all these hands be provided by Equity members.
The puppets themselves were approximately eighteen inches in height, and were usually marionettes manipulated by wire, by puppeteers standing on a catwalk about eight feet above the floor. In closeup shots, the marionettes were often replaced with wireless "rod puppets" that can be controlled from beneath. By the time Thunderbird 6 was made, Supermarionation had become quite sophisticated. Rather than being operated by hand, the mouths were controlled by a sound-activated solenoid device implanted in the puppet heads. The pre-recorded dialogue was piped into the puppet, and the electronic impulses from these tapes activated the mouths with greater speed and accuracy than could a puppeteer's finger.
The visual effects were supervised by Derek Meddings, who not only designed the sleek rocketry of 2068 (we know the year because it appears quickly in a newspaper headline in Thunderbird 6) but also engineered their destruction in the colossal explosions for which Thunderbirds are famous. To give these maelstroms of destruction an air of authenticity, the fireballs were filmed at a speed of 125 frames per second (the fastest their cameras would run).
The seven Tracy sons are named after five of the Mercury astronauts in America's initial space exploration project: Alan, Scott, John, Gordon, and Virgil. But these original Thunderbird pilots garnered very little screen time in the big-screen sequel. Lady Penelope had become such a popular (and much-merchandised) character among girls that the producers chose to foreground her, turning her into a female James Bond. Gordon and John Tracy are virtually unseen in Thunderbird 6.
The Thunderbirds series and its sequels continue to find new generations of fans. In 2004, Jonathan Frakes directed a live-action film version of the show. That same year, the irreverent comedy team of Trey Parker and Matt Stone created a vulgar parody of Supermarionation: Team America: World Police.
The reasons for the enduring popularity of Thunderbird 6 and its small-screen predecessors may not lie in its outrageous special effects or high-tech hardware, but in its sense of style and a sense of humor, which transcend nationality, gender and age brackets. Sylvia Anderson points out there is one other very important reason why the series is popular among children, "We never talked down to kids."
Producer: Sylvia Anderson
Director: David Lane
Screenplay: Gerry Anderson, Sylvia Anderson
Cinematography: Harry Oakes
Art Direction: Bob Bell
Music: Barry Gray
Film Editing: Len Walter
Cast: Peter Dyneley (Jeff Tracy, voice), Sylvia Anderson (Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward, voice), Shane Rimmer (Scott Tracy, voice), Jeremy Wilkin (Virgil Tracy/Hogarth, voice), Matt Zimmerman (Alan Tracy/Carter, voice), David Graham (Gordon Tracy/Brains/Aloysius Parker, voice), Keith Alexander (John Tracy/Narrator, voice), Gary Files (The Hood/Black Phantom/Captain Foster I/Lane, voice), Christine Finn (Tin-Tin/Indian Fortune-teller, voice), John Carson (Captain Foster II, voice), Geoffrey Keen (James Glenn, voice).
by Bret Wood