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Thunderbirds Thursday: Behind the Scenes – The Untold Stories of Thunderbirds’ Production

It’s a scene that any Thunderbirds fan will carry with them for the rest of their lives; the dramatic conclusion to the show’s very first episode Trapped in the Sky, in which International Rescue save the crew and passengers of the Fireflash from disaster!

But how was the iconic scene of the giant airliner landing on Thunderbird 2’s elevator cars achieved?

It may surprise you to learn that for the shots of the models of the Fireflash and the elevator cars appearing to race down a runway the models themselves weren’t actually moving at all – the illusion was instead achieved by using a rolling runway and sky background!

The early days of space travel – Fireball XL5 takes to the skies suspended in front of a background sky!
The Early Days

The idea of moving a background element rather than a model to suggest a vehicle in motion was nothing new at the time, with examples of it being found in the Anderson universe stretching as far back as Torchy the Battery Boy’s rocket flying through space by suspending the model rocket against a moving starfield background. In many of the early shows these backgrounds could be footage on back-projected screens (as seen in shots of Supercar flying against specially filmed footage of a real sky) but by the time of Thunderbirds these had largely been supplanted by paintings on canvas mounted on motor-driven rollers.

By turning the rollers at the appropriate speed, the vehicle suspended in front of the backdrop appeared to fly through the sky – but for the very first episode of Thunderbirds, which heavily featured the guest vehicle of the Fireflash airliner, Derek Meddings and the AP Films effects department would have to up their game considerably in order to create a realistic take-off scene for the aircraft, and to realise one of the most famous scenes in the show’s history; the landing of the Fireflash on International Rescue’s elevator cars.

The Fireflash takes off on her maiden flight, in the Thunderbirds episode Trapped in the Sky.

The solution was to evolve the rolling sky background idea one step further, and incorporate rolling ground elements; in this case, the runaway which the Fireflash had to be seen taking off from. By using a short stretch of rolling runaway constructed in a similar style to the rolling background, the camera could follow the Fireflash indefinitely as it thundered down the runway before leaving the ground – and all the technician ‘flying’ the model from the bridge over the model stage would have to do would be to slowly lift the craft off the rolling road at the relevant moment.

Troy Tempest takes off in the Stingray episode Rescue from the Skies.
The Rolling Road Take-Off

Comparing the Fireflash take-off to earlier aircraft take-off scenes in such episodes as Fireball XL5’s Space City Special or Stingray’s Rescue from the Skies, in which a craft is quickly and somewhat jerkily flown over a small model set on a wire, it’s hard to imagine the dramatic events of Trapped in the Sky being brought to life anywhere near as successfully as they were without the rolling road.

Although the scenes from the earlier shows were undoubtedly technically impressive for their time, the rolling road offered a chance to hold on the subject vehicle for as long as the story required, while also offering the sense of feature-film grandeur and scale that the Andersons were increasingly working towards.

Foreground elements heighten the realism of the Fireflash rescue in Trapped in the Sky.

It’s in the climax of the episode featuring the Fireflash landing on the elevator cars that we can also appreciate the multiple elements that went into bringing the scene to life. There’s more going on than just a rolling sky background and a single rolling road – because in certain shots there are in fact several ground layers rolling at once, helping create the illusion of perspective.

In addition to the runaway itself, for side-on shots of the action there are also rolling ground-level background elements rolling slower than the runaway, and a roller closer to the camera (running fastest) displaying foreground elements.

When combined these three ground rollers, plus the rolling sky, all help to fool the eye into believing that the Fireflash really is taking off from or cruising over a seemingly infinite stretch of runway – when the reality is that the rolling runaway probably wouldn’t have been more than a few feet longer than the model aircraft itself.

Lady Penelope gets into a car chase on a rolling road in the episode Brink of Disaster.
Aircraft Launches to Car Chases

Later episodes of Thunderbirds (plus Captain Scarlet, Joe 90, The Secret Service and UFO) also made impressive use of the rolling road technique for aircraft launches, most notably the launch of the Zero-X in the 1966 feature film Thunderbirds are Go.

It also became a staple of many car chases seen from Thunderbirds onwards, for such episodes as Brink of Disaster and Operation Time just to name two. The technique was even adapted for use on the puppet stage in the Thunderbirds episode The Cham-Cham for the sequence in which Tin-Tin and Lady Penelope ski to Olsen’s chalet, with the puppets positioned on a rolling section of mountainside in front of a revolving background painting to give the illusion of the characters skiing downhill.

A rolling road completes the illusion of Tin-Tin and Penelope skiing in the episode The Cham-Cham.

As with many of the effects they pioneered on the Anderson shows, Derek Meddings and those who worked with him carried this technique with them onto later non-Anderson productions, allowing other filmmakers to benefit from their experience. The Anderson shows were always a hotbed of creativity and ingenuity, and the first episode of Thunderbirds is perhaps one of the finest examples of both!

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Written by
Chris Dale

Writer, editor & voice actor on Big Finish's Doctor Who, Terrahawks, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet audio ranges. Host of the Randomiser on the Gerry Anderson Podcast.

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