Welcome to Slough – dream machine '66

Elizabeth Millar Gow enters a fantasy world,
where thunderbirds are special effects go!

Elizabeth Millar Gow

in live-action, Special Effects may mean no more than pushing a few bricks of dry-ice around ("The mist is coming up over the heath, Sir Murgatroyd...") or panelling a door-frame with balsa-wood so that even Charlie Drake won't injure his nut. But in Thunderbirds? Pilot to co-pilot: We're not going to make it. We're running out of runway. CUT TO ELEVATOR CAR. We see the wheels lock solid. There is a tearing sound of rubber as the wheels burst into flames. CUT TO NOSE OF AIRCRAFT. The other wheels explode under the strain, so the car is now bumping heavily. Sparks fly from the rims... Or this, as Lady Penelope's gleaming Rolls-Royce is in hot pursuit of a villain in a police car... Parker, calmly, talking on intercom: We're closing in on him m'lady. Lady P: Good, Parker. Wait till we get to a clear stretch of road. We don't want to create a scene... CU Rolls radiator. We see the number plate FAB 1. The grilles of the radiator began to open. Lady P: Go ahead, Parker. Parker: Yes, m'lady. CU Gun barrel begins to emerge at centre of radiator. Parker's hand (insert driving wheel) depresses horn button. There is a burst of cannon-fire as shells streak out. Police car in front of Rolls explodes, and burning chassis swivels off road, tumbling down slope showering fragments until it lands upside down, a complete wreck. Parker: Home, m'lady..? Special Effects are life-blood to Thunderbirds. And in this quarter-scale Gulliver world, things can be done which would be incredibly dangerous or costly in full-scale live-action. (Ever tried crashing a space vehicle on a mountain top?)

We START fires...
'We START fires!' a Thunderbirds' team told a startled studio fire-prevention officer. Burning rubber creates dense black smoke for Space Age crash scenes, but dry-ice and harmless chemical effects are also used.

As I toured the Special Effects studios at Slough, Gerry Anderson said with pride: "This department, under the control of Derek Meddings, turns out daily the most remarkable model shots which, I think, are the finest examples of special-effects shooting anywhere in the world. The staff are the "back-room boys" of AP Films, and we do not like to discuss details of the work, since the ingenuity that enables us to obtain such wonderful screen value is something we wish to retain..."

However, this vital section of Supermarionation cannot be brushed away with any mistaken thought that it's done by stopped-motion or faking the negative.

"Lighting and depth of focus are two serious problems with special effects," I am told by John Read. "Small-scale work has hazards not obvious to the live-action experts. Depth of focus problems are most marked in special effects where accurate detail is necessary. When you have no focus, for instance, at about two feet, there is not a very practical depth of focus even with the world's best lenses."

Lighting problems become more acute now shooting is on 35mm colour, but in Special Effects the trouble is heightened since almost everything is shot in slow-motion. Explosions are more dramatic, more immediately understandable to the viewer, if the charge mushrooms upwards, smoke billowing outwards, oil or water cascading down in droplets... This may entail shooting at 120 frames a second, and in turn this necessitates five times normal lighting: worse, this has to be concentrated on a special-effects stage even smaller than a normal Thunderbirds stage.

Rosenthal advert

Ocean and lake effects, first seen so dramatically in Stingray, are created in one or more of the mobile tanks, each holding 2,000 gallons of water, with automatic pumps to keep water flowing over the horizon line. This gives perfect exterior model sea shots. It overcomes the usual special-effects problem of concealing the rear edge, and while the water is steadily pumped over the far end to the lower tank, as a weir, waves are created by a bank of electric fans. Again, this involves shooting at around 75fps to get realism in the correct scale-speed dimension.

Stingray, which concentrated almost entirely on underwater shots, has helped the Thunderbirds Special Effects team ( Stingray itself was a submarine, based on Marineville, headquarters of the World Aquanaut Security Patrol, and much of this special effects material was built on a scale of 8ft to the inch.) A wider selection of scales has had to be used for T-Birds. The main space vehicle in Supercar special effects was 9 ft in length. For the five Thunderbird vehicles, however, there are over 200 different models and sections. Some, used in sky scenes (against a BP plate projection) are not 6" long. Other sections (such as cockpits) are three or four feet across.

Initial under-water scenes for the preceding series were shot through glass-lined tanks of plate glass, until one morning the entire Special Effects stage was swamped as a glass panel blew out with the pressure of hundreds of gallons of water. T-Birds' tanks are of half-inch armoured plate glass, double-walled, with water contained in a 6" sandwich. Puppets and other subjects are high and dry of the far side of the water, and if shot in a swimming action the camera-frame speed is again increased. Unique colour problems have arisen with T-Birds. Special Effects shots involving the water tanks have to be completed quickly, for if repeat shots are needed a day or two later it is found that the algae in the water have multiplied, causing a noticeably different shade of green. This had been detected in Stingray, for the first time, but the new tanks are nearly 8ft wide and hold so much water that the algae growth within a reasonable time is not so troublesome.

Rocket propulsion demands most frequent fire-risk special effects in T-Birds. Typical script instructions to the Special Effects men reads: Thunderbird-2 taxis out... Once in position it stops, and an enormous concealed ramp structure raises it to an angle of 60°. We hear the motors wind up as though building up pressure. The rockets in the tail fire, and in a fury of smoke and flames the giant machine streaks into the air...

AP Films tried all the usual Special-effects gimmicks such as dry ice and chemical smoke, but eventually settled for realism. Nothing looks more like a rocket than a rocket. One of the biggest rocket concerns in Britain, Schermuly Pistol Rocket Apparatus Ltd, are engaged on Royal Naval and other life-saving rocket devices, but their research section found time to devise special compressed-gunpowder rockets for T-Birds. All explosions, rocket-launchings, jet motors and retro-rockets are therefore Lilliputian scaled-down versions of the real thing, with camera speed upped to 80fps or more to extend the dramatic effect of the blast.

Fire precautions, already stringent enough in any film studio, are redoubled in AP's Special Effects division. The county fire-prevention officer raised his eyebrows when making his first official visit to the studios, only to be told: "We start fires!" However, everything combustible or explodable is rigidly controlled, stored in steel canisters with safety locks, and the Nu-Swift anti-fire precautions are trebled. A new form of high-pressure water jets is available, and Special Effects also play for safety with batteries of Nu-Swift chemical-powder and CO2 extinguishers. Chemical extinction can in confined spaces be slightly more toxic than CO2 but it instantly and positively cuts out the blaze. With CO2 the fire is quelled, but may re-ignite when the inert gas is dispersed, as can happen with Special Effects wind machines.

Thunderbirds' dramatic features are frequently heightened by absolute necessity for fire. Exciting episode Trapped in the Sky, with 600-passenger atomic-powered Fireflash at the mercy of saboteur Hood, who plants a bomb in the landing-gear, is got out of trouble by monster elevator cars brought by T-Birds' International Rescue, at 'London Control.'

Script calls for dramatic shot of one elevator car, seen in tracking shot as it overshoots and accidentally hits a line of parked airliners. ("Elevator car crashes into them, and they explode into a burning holocaust, showering debris in all directions...") and the tension is held because, above the blaze, Fireflash is still circling, its radiation-safety factor almost at limit of endurance. Barks the London controller down his microphone: "Crash crews return to stand-by positions. Let those aircraft burn. Fireflash is carrying passengers – they aren't!"

How to get realism in such a blaze? "This is our headache," members of the Special Effects team told me. "Puppets are scaled down human beings, but a flame is a flame. Only by changing shooting speed can you help to make a small jet of flame waver like a 20-foot blaze. Difficulty is increased in colour, for it is hardly ever possible to use a fairly-easily controllable flame such as that of methylated spirits. It burns too blue for simulating real-life blaze. We burn rubber to add smoke density. Dry ice and chemical smoke just do not fit in with our scale..."

Not all AP's discoveries in special effects can be patented. Their work, after nearly eight years, demands better protection than the patent laws provide. However it is an open secret that special volcano and 'boiling Space' effects are obtained by ingenious use of rapid-motion shooting of some Polycell products, with special paints and plastics. Miniature ferns are used for scrub and bushes. Coal, sprayed grey, makes an excellent mountain-top. Reflection owing to high light intensity needed for special effects precludes use of usual film-studio chemicals for snow, or even plastic flakes. However, lumps of glass from the base of glass furnaces (wasn't it Eamonn Andrews, in What's My Line, who first discovered the sagger-maker's bottom-knocker, the man who specialises in glass-furnace bottoms?) are found to be the best ice, when photographed on T-Birds scale!

Many most effective T-Birds special effects are simply the result of ingenious model-making. Instances include arch-villain Hood's cap-badge camera. In one episode Hood is disguised as an airport policeman, to gain access to secret instrument panel of a T-Bird space-craft. "Cut to Insert cap badge," the Special Effects team are instructed. "This badge bears inscription AIRPORT POLICE. Circle in the centre is a camera shutter, and we hear the unmistakable sound of the shutter clicking, and ratchet noise of film being moved forward. Music up... Fade out."

Novel special effects are used suddenly to aid characterisation and here again, the Special Effects department have to produce scale models which really work. There are no stopped-motion shots in T-Birds. It was an amusing Special Effects model which demonstrated the real inner life of Lady Penelope to viewing millons. Here's the script instruction.

CUT TO Lady Penelope Creighton–Ward's drawing room.

It is a typical English stately home. Lady Penelope is seated on couch with silver tea tray and pot for one. She is young and beautiful in a very English-Rose style. There is a thin buzzing sound. Lady Penelope straightens the tea-pot.

INSERT Penelope's hand turning knob on lid.

Scott's voice (off)

Mobile Control calling International Rescue, England.

CUT TO MS, Lady Penelope holding teapot in hand, listening to transmission coming from the pot. She speaks back, using the silver pot as a microphone...

So futuristic have become some of Thunderbirds' Special Effects (remember, the whole setting is way ahead in the year 2,000 AD) that AP's creators are flattered to find industrial consultants and inventors looking to them to glean hints for inventive devices yet to come! Typical inspirations are (a) Phonavision, and (b) Automatic X-ray camera with long-range telephoto lens-X-ray-tube!

Phonavision booth, like GPO phone box, is of futuristic design, has miniature TV screen, with two-way switch so for normal audio calls a caption comes up on the CRT. 'Sound Only Selected.' In second switch position, a 7" TV monitor is brought into circuit. The Automatic X-ray camera, as produced by Special Effects, is based on a normal gun shot, with a Polaroid-like instant-picture X-ray processing magazine. Rapid cutting to special-effects shots heightens dramatic effect of the gun pointing at a distant aircraft, then a man studying photograph of its internal wing structure!

"You mentioned the gun protruding through the radiator grille of Lady P's FAB 1 Rolls-Royce," said Reg Hill to me. "We worked on that one, and decided on a live-action shot. It cost us well over £100 for a genuine RR radiator shell and shutters, and then to modify it to hold a machine-gun mechanism. But on this occasion (and it is a rarity) it was more economical than building a small-scale model. And the live-action shot was easier to light for the cameras..."

There are no prizes in AP's Special Effects and, because of industrial security, very little praise or publicity. But they are naturally proud of the dramatic effects gained on Thunderbirds, and the time saved.

Needing a real-life, live-action shot of an aircraft crashing, a world-famed British film studio experimented with balsa-wood models swung and crashed on fine wires supported on pylons, in open country. They worked for three weeks, and still the effect was not right. So they came over to AP Films for help. And they were astounded to see the rushes of a similar aircraft crashing shot for T-Birds. This was realistic, dramatic. And the whole scene was in the can in a single afternoon.