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Thunderbirds Thursday: Creating the Thunderbirds

International Rescue’s line-up of Thunderbird machines remains some of the most iconic sci-fi vehicle designs of all time. From communications satellites in constant orbit around the Earth to heavy duty transporter aircraft, the five main Thunderbird craft that form the core of the organisation’s fleet of miraculous mechanical marvels each fulfil a unique role, which helps to solidify the celebrated nature of each machine.

Thunderbirds sets itself apart from its puppet predecessors produced by A.P. Films by stretching beyond having a single star vehicle, this time featuring an ensemble line-up of memorably fantastic machines. This Thunderbirds Thursday, we’re going behind the scenes and investigating how the Thunderbird vehicles were conceived, designed, and built!

Retrofuture Wonderlands

Derek Meddings would be given the ambitious task of designing the International Rescue craft.

By 1965, A.P. Films had rapidly cemented itself as quality producers of space-age puppet entertainment, delivering meticulously produced action-adventure series that pushed the boundaries of special effects wizardry and sci-fi imagination. Supercar, Fireball XL5, and Stingray had each proved phenomenal successes, a crucial factor being that the star vehicle of each series lent itself extremely well to all manners of merchandise possibilities. Clockwork motorised Stingray toys and large-scale Space City playsets filled both the toy shelves and young imaginations. If one vehicle could command such toy-friendly avenues, it’s only logical that five vehicles would generate even further demand from young viewers.

However, such commercially-driven means weren’t entirely at the forefront of Gerry Anderson’s mind when he and his then wife Sylvia began devising the concept for what would become Thunderbirds (the series was initially titled International Rescue and each machine was simply known as ‘Rescue’). Inspired by a real-life mining disaster in Germany, whereby delivery of rescue equipment turned out to be an achingly prolonged affair, the initial outlining for Thunderbirds naturally blossomed into the idea that the family-run organisation couldn’t depend their efforts entirely on a single craft. There would have to be a fleet, each machine designed to have capabilities that the others didn’t. Fireball XL5 and Stingray may well have featured other heroic space and submarine vehicles beyond the main craft. But here, the series would allow room for each machine to carry the star role of the series.

Each of the five main ‘Rescue’ machines, as they were still known at this stage early on in pre-production, was given individual specifications as to their roles and some key details of their features, as detailed below:

Derek’s preliminary sketch of Rescue Three. Note the extra boosters at the bottom of the craft’s rocket engines.

RESCUE ONE, the 15,000-m.p.h., rocket piloted by Scott Tracy, comes out of the swimming pool, palm trees swaying and smoke billowing from its tail.

RESCUE TWO, transporter of heavy rescue equipment, is piloted by Virgil Tracy and housed in a hanger behind a cliff face. It is comparatively slow, travelling at a maximum speed of 2,000 m.p.h, and is the heavy duty arm of the International Rescue fleet.

RESCUE THREE, the spacecraft, awaits pilot Alan Tracy in the heart of Tracy Island. There is an eruption of sound as three giant engines kick into thunderous life. As they scream louder, the craft begins to shudder and then she is away, roaring through the Round House for the emptiness of space.

RESCUE FOUR, the underwater scout, is carried aboard Rescue Two and piloted by Gordon, who is also Virgil’s co-pilot.

RESCUE FIVE, the super-satellite, appears. Its function is to orbit the Earth and monitor global communications.

It’s fascinating to read into what these descriptions say – or rather, what they don’t say. Thunderbirds 2 and 5 (or rather, Rescue 2 and 5) are given pretty clear-cut descriptions of their roles in the series, but Thunderbird 1’s profile is oddly lacking. Conversely, Thunderbird 5’s profile avoids any mention of what the satellite should actually look like, whereas Thunderbird 3 is described as having a trio of engines.

These profiles were issued to the series’ art director, Bob Bell, and special effects supervisor, Derek Meddings, who both began the task of designing and constructing the interiors and exteriors of the Thunderbird machines, respectively.

Designing the Future

Prior to Thunderbirds, the task of designing each series’ lead vehicle had chiefly fallen to Reg Hill. However, as A.P. Films continued to expand its operations and Thunderbirds proved to be a far more demandingly large-scale production, Hill’s role as associate producer for the company became his primary focus. The designing of the Thunderbird machines would fall to Meddings, who was now overseeing a vastly expanded visual effects department for the company, consisting of three special effects units.

Despite having to work off of these admittedly minimal descriptions, it’s also worth noting that Bell and Meddings would presumably also have had access to the finished script for Trapped in the Sky, which was designed to serve as an additional series bible of sorts. Quite amusingly, Meddings’ eventual designs for the Thunderbird machines bore little resemblance to Gerry and Sylvia’s initial script! Instead, Meddings embraced the preliminary outlines of the Thunderbirds in function only, rather than sticking to any strict visual specifications he may have otherwise been given. This philosophy of design would also influence fellow special effects maestro Mike Trim’s efforts throughout the making of Captain Scarlet and Joe 90, for which he gained a more influential role in the series’ visual effects.

Bob Bell’s art direction gave the Thunderbird machines a cohesive interior aesthetic.

Bob Bell’s interiors of the Thunderbird machines boasted a pleasingly unified feel in their aesthetic. Each craft’s interior sets were obviously designed with the needs and proportional style of the puppets in mind, and all feature characteristically large banks of controls and monitors that are so evergreen to the retrofuture worlds of the Supermarionation series. However, each Thunderbird craft demanded a wholly individual exterior appearance, and Meddings quickly took it upon himself to diverge from whatever ideas the Andersons may have had and conjure up his own distinct visual flavour for each machine. The pair also collaborated in the making of Tracy Island, resulting in a tastefully cohesive design approach to the entirety of the series that stretched beyond the five main Thunderbirds themselves.

It’s worth highlighting that, as well as his pyrotechnic capabilities, Meddings married this skillset with a creative bent. He was an accomplished artist in his own right and kept a keen interest in all the latest developments in aviation and space engineering. All of these skills, combined with his growing experiences in crafting A.P. Films’ visual effects, ensured that the Thunderbird machines would become some of his most successful creations.

“Let’s have a rundown of the International Rescue craft”

Meddings himself was responsible for devising Thunderbird 1’s iconic wing function.

Going off of the brief summary of Thunderbird 1 in the above notes and, presumably, having the Trapped in the Sky script to hand, Meddings knew first off that International Rescue’s rapid response reconnaissance craft had to launch like a rocket, but also be able to fly across the skies like a conventional aircraft. Its design, therefore, had to reflect this unique functionality. It was Meddings himself who envisioned Thunderbird 1’s swing-wing design, with the craft maintaining a chiefly typical appearance of a rocket, but boasting retractable wings, fins, and extendable landing gear to enable aerodynamic action.

Thunderbird 2 proved to be the most complicated craft to design. Compared to Thunderbird 1, Thunderbird 2 was clearly more visually complex, functioning as a much larger machine than TB1, but also having to convincingly serve its chief function as an equipment transporter. After an abundance of early attempts, Meddings eventually settled on a design that featured a detachable pod section sitting within the craft’s main body and could utilise telescopic legs to allow the transferring of pods themselves. Evidently, Meddings had the functionality of TB2 as the priority, with other elements arguably coming in second.

Thunderbird 2 may be the most iconic of the Thunderbird machines, but it’s also had to endure a tricky post-series afterlife in the public imagination because of how seemingly unconvincing its ability to fly is! Thunderbird 2’s minimal, swept-forward wings are often brought up in conversation about how practical it could be to actually fly, but this was the design Meddings was most happy with. The more traditional swept-back wings appeared too conventional, while larger or no wings at all simply didn’t have the desired effect. Nevertheless, Thunderbird 2 quite clearly looked the part, and Meddings was supposedly quite taken with how Frank Bellamy depicted the craft in Thunderbirds‘ adventures in TV Century 21.

Thunderbird 2’s large size and detachable middle section proved to be a nightmare to film!
One of the largest models produced for Thunderbirds went mostly unused!

Thunderbird 3 proves to be something of an enigma within the series, due to its minima number of appearances. However, Meddings applied a far more grandiose rocket design for TB3 compared to the more compact, streamlined TB1. Meddings turned to real-world developments in space rockets for inspiration, specifically the Soyuz rocket family. Using this as a springboard, Meddings’ eventual design for Thunderbird 3 also incorporated a variety of fins to allow for some degree of aerodynamic realism. A colossal 6-foot filming model of Thunderbird 3 was produced for the series, the largest Thunderbird model ever produced. Sadly, this impressive model went mostly unneeded, since space-based adventures proved less popular with Thunderbirds‘ writers.

As the smallest and arguably least visually complex of the main International Rescue craft, Thunderbird 4 maintains a comparatively straight-forward design aesthetic. It lacks the curved outer hull of its thematic predecessor, Stingray, but understandably had to look distinct and believable as a rescue submarine. Compared to Stingray’s rear-mounted hydroplane and rotating atomic generator, Thunderbird 4 is propelled using compact boosters and rocket tubes, giving it a much boxier appearance. Even if TB4 was a relatively easy effort for Meddings, it proved to be a more complicated endeavour to actually film the craft, by comparison. Thunderbird 4’s most notable feature is its manoeuvrable, front-facing light-bank, which itself reveals a variety of rescue gadgetry throughout the series.

Thunderbird 5 was the last of the main I.R. craft to be designed for the series, and has perhaps the most amusing background. Rather than take inspiration from real-world satellites or otherwise ground the craft’s appearance in something realistic, Meddings was inspired by none other than Thunderbird 3’s Round House! The building’s circular shape and protruding entrance section evidently served Thunderbird 5’s functions well, with the satellite requiring some form of docking port for Thunderbird 3. To help make the design at least appear convincingly separate from the Round House, Meddings added in a variety of protruding antennae to the craft, enabling Thunderbird 5 to gain some believability as International Rescue’s integral communications monitoring station.

Thunderbirds Are Definitely Go!

With the Thunderbird machines now fully designed, the filming of episodes could now be well underway for the series. Thunderbirds‘ spectacular special effects continued to broaden A.P. Films’ abilities as versatile filmmakers. The innovative usage of rolling road and sky backdrops and the technique of placing a large fish tank in-between the camera and the miniature sets to create the illusion of filming underwater are utilised to an entertainingly convincing effect throughout the series. Other techniques involved using varyingly sized models of the same Thunderbird craft for different types of scenes (close-ups, long shots, etc.). They ultimately provide exciting backdrops for the incredible Thunderbird machines to blast off into heroic adventure.

The filming of Thunderbirds would continue to throw fresh challenges in the path of the special effects crew. Underwater sequences involving Thunderbird 4 were always a tricky endeavour to pull off due to the nature of mixing models with working electronics within an aquatic environment! Thunderbird 4’s unpredictable rescue features, from laser cutters to grappling hooks, meant that varying front sections of the model had to be in constant production. Thunderbird 2, however, defined the series’ production as the most impossible craft to film. It’s gargantuan size, non-traditional appearance, and detachable middle section often resulted in the various filming models experiencing some form of damage during shooting, some instances more extreme than others.

Scott visits Brains in his lab during Sun Probe. The sketches behind Scott are Meddings’ actual pre-production drawings of Rescue 1 and Rescue 4!

Despite these regular setbacks, Thunderbirds remains a pivotal offering of incredible action-disaster sci-fi, and the series’ special effects are some of the most memorable and beloved elements of anything from Gerry Anderson’s career. So much of what makes these effects sequences stay in the mind is the awe-inspiring designs of the International Rescue craft themselves. The unique appearance and functionality of each Thunderbird machine gifts the series an electrifying energy whereby anything could happen in the next 50 minutes, and often did! The collective imaginations of the Andersons, Bob Bell, Derek Meddings, and everyone else involved in the making of Thunderbirds‘ special effects played a crucial role in creating the series’ imaginatively iconic rescue vehicles.

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Written by
Fred McNamara

Atomic-powered writer/editor. Website editor at Official Gerry Anderson. Author of Flaming Thunderbolts: The Definitive Story of Terrahawks. Also runs Gerry Anderson comic book blog Sequential 21.

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