R.I.P. - "Thunderbirds" Creator Gerry Anderson - Titan Of The Imagination
On December 26, 2012 we lost Gerry Anderson, prolific creative force behind countless classics of UK television. Though his shows and techniques may seem a little homebrew these days, there was nothing as thrilling or as "realistic" anywhere else. Whether you were a fan of his innovative "Supermarionation" puppet series like Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet, or his later live action output such as Space:1999 or UFO (one of my personal favorites), his unique vision has lasted through generations of TV audiences, and still influences the world of special effects.
Anderson got his start in the 1950s with a number of black and white series for children. While his career goal was to produce live-action films for the cinema, his earliest work in the entertainment industry was as a children's TV producer for British television. Looking for a more economical way to do cartoons, he hit upon the idea of using puppets. Puppets on TV weren't unusual back then, but it wasn't long before Anderson's puppet shows stood out from the stringed-up crowd. Puppet shows were often shot in a single long take, like watching a live show on a stage. Anderson used the tools of cinema - editing, varying shot sizes - all to make his puppets into TV stars. His team also created an innovative method for animating the character's mouth in precise synch to the pre-recorded soundtrack- a huge innovation. On one series, when he saw how much excitement an on-set explosion added to a scene, Anderson added elaborate special effects to every episode of every series.
His 50s and 60s TV series inhabited the world of science fiction. Not only because hearts and minds were on the high-tech space race of the time, but he theorized that the future's inevitable moving walkways and jetpacks would keep the puppets from having to walk around too much (still a difficult illusion for puppeteers to pull off). After successfully selling his series Fireball XL-5 and Stingray to the US, Anderson created the epic 60 minute episodes of Thunderbirds - his most famous series. It's safe to argue that the massively popular (and massively impractical) craft of Thunderbirds were the real stars of the show. The follow-up series Captain Scarlet introduced more realistically proportioned puppets which were both amazing - and amazingly creepy.
Finally realizing his dream of live action adventure (after helming a handful of feature films), the 70s brought a pair of innovative live action shows - the infamous Space:1999, and the virtually unknown UFO (that I adore for all the wrong reasons). 1999 featured amazing special effects for TV, astonishingly comprehensive design for the sets, fashion designs for the crew... No wonder it was the most expensive series on television at the time (though a ratings disappointment). UFO was the precursor to 1999, a show that seems to be about who can make the cruelest command decision that will result in the most collateral damage - but that's a story for another time.
In the 80s, Anderson returned to kid's TV with Terrahawks (he was not involved in the Japanese cartoon Thunderbirds:2086). The 90s saw a new live-action series called Space Precinct, as well as a revival of sorts of his puppet series. One peculiar repackaging called "Turbocharged Thunderbirds" in the US had human hosts that followed the goings-on of the characters on... um... "Thunderworld". Another 90s attempt to modernize Thunderbirds saw the 60 minute episodes edited down to 22 minutes (first to go... shots of the puppets smoking cigarettes!), with new dialogue tracks and sound effects (but the original 60s music soundtrack for some reason) dubbed in.
Anderson himself was constantly busy with new ideas & innovation even after his 60s heyday. Dick Spanner was a stop-motion animated series, and he was an early entrant into full computer animation with an all CG reboot of Captain Scarlet in the 2000s. While he remained at arms length from the 2004 Thunderbirds feature film that played like a knockoff of Spy Kids, he was still out there promoting his old series and developing new ideas.
It's not hard to find examples the effect Anderson's shows had on the special effects industry worldwide. Many of his top people were poached for 2001: A Space Odyssey in the 60s. In the 70s one of his top FX artists, Derek Meddings, went on to be a remarkably in-demand miniatures and effects expert creating astonishing visuals for the original Superman feature film and several installments of the James Bond series. In the 90s til today, Ron Thornton (a gent I've had the good fortune to speak with a number of times) is a master of computer graphics special effects. He and a small team of dedicated effects artists used their Amiga computers in the early 90s to create the amazing special effects of space opera Babylon 5 - the first weekly TV series to have fully CG special effects that looked as good as anything in feature films. The methods he used to "dirty down" clean computer generated models comes right from the "lived-in tech" techniques from Anderson's many series.
It's no exaggeration to say that we've lost one of the fathers of modern film and television special effects. I first saw his series at 6 in the morning on local television in the 70s. Trust me, it's got to be something special to get me out of bed that early. Even in those post Star Wars years, the level of attention to detail Anderson's crews lavished onto what were ostensibly kid's shows is still breathtaking. Oh yes, those shows are quirky, but Anderson's work amazed us then, and in so many ways continues to amaze us now. You knew from the very first time that you were watching something special. We salute you, Gerry Anderson.