Despite my initial suspicion, given the lack of puppets, the new reboot of Thunderbirds for ITV (Thunderbirds Are Go) has a lot of merit and is great fun to watch.
I tend to find in general that films and television that use CGI rather than puppetry are just not as effective. You can always tell when something is CGI rather than animated or using live puppetry and it does tend to feel a bit cheap, fake and disappointing. There are obviously exceptions. The work of Pixar for example does not attempt to make CGI look naturalistic but instead uses caricatured visuals which are much more effective.
Puppets have a character and expression all of their own and unlike CGI where every action is programmed a puppeteer can be surprised by the things their puppet does. A puppeteer does not impose a set of actions and movements upon the puppet, rather the puppeteer uses the natural movement and rhythm of the puppet as a physical object in real space, (with real gravity etc.) to create the character and these determine what movements the puppeteer has the puppet make.
A lot of directors/producers recognise the unique quality that physical models, practical effects, puppets, prosthetics and animatronics can give to a film and use these techniques in their work (often in combination with CGI as well).
Indeed the “Thunderbirds Are Go” series has tried to be very respectful to the love that people have for the original Thunderbirds and the old and new Thunderbirds share a great many common elements. Not least of these is the decision to use model work and some physical effects in combination with the CGI characters. These models have been made by Weta Workshops in New Zealand – the same team who created the truly stunning model work for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, (the films which coincidentally brought the use of CGI in film forward in huge leaps and bounds).
I watched a “making of” documentary of the “Thunderbirds Are Go” series and was delighted to hear that Weta had been taking inspiration from the original Thunderbirds sets by incorporating everyday household objects (such as a lemon squeezer and part of a Dyson vacuum cleaner) into the sets and models. I am a big fan of re-purposing everyday household objects and waste to create new and fabulous things.
I was also amazed to discover that they were able to engage the same voice actor from the original Thunderbirds to play the ever popular “Parker” (Lady Penelope’s chauffeur).
The things we all loved about the original Thunderbirds – exciting plots, great music, suspense, explosions, ingenious machines, humour and the elaborate and fantastic ways the Tracy brothers get into their uniforms and vehicles are all still there in the new series. Some of the plots are better than others but in the main – highly entertaining.
So what are the differences? Gerry Anderson tried very hard to keep the “puppetness” of the characters to a minimum. They wanted the strings to be as little noticed as possible and, to avoid the funny, unnatural walk the characters had being on view, the plots had the characters sitting down a lot or used close ups of the faces or top halves of the characters. The puppets had sophisticated mouth moving mechanisms and features that were very realistic. Captain Scarlet continued this quest for realism and away from caricature by reducing the size of the heads of the puppets to be closer to the proportions of a real human being.
I am not by any means criticising the puppeteering skills of the Thunderbirds team as the problems with the puppets’ gait were not necessarily their fault. The use of long strings kept the puppeteers out of view but also diminished control compared to a short stringed marionette. To minimise the visibility of the strings, a lesser number than is usual were used which made natural movement difficult too. I understand there were also difficulties with weighting the puppets correctly to produce a natural walk due to the materials used. For those who are interested – you can find out more about this in John M Blundall’s article page 19 of volume 16, Number 7 Autumn 2009 issue of The Puppet Master (The Journal of the British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild).
Despite these difficulties audiences found the puppet performances charming, fascinating and no bar at all to whole-hearted immersion in the stories that the puppets were telling. I believe young children who watch marionette shows (even live where the strings are more visible) do not even notice the strings, as the life of the puppet and the story are all absorbing. I heard a great many people, including Paul O’ Grady on his Radio 2 show, bemoaning the lack of puppets in the new series and saying “it’s not the same without the puppet is it?”.
While the puppets managed to tell their stories perfectly well, the CGI characters (despite lacking the charm of the puppets) are able to do things (or be seen doing things) which the puppets could not. The sequences with Parker as the “Grey Ninja” in one of the episodes of Thunderbirds Are Go, have him leaping and sneaking about in a way the puppet Parker never could. These movements may not have been awfully realistic for a man his age but that made it funny!
Lady Penelope’s radically altered appearance is something I find difficult to forgive and of all the CGI characters her appearance looks the most fake. Her hair (and indeed the hair of all the characters looks solid like it has been carved out of something) and her face has none of the effortless cool and sophistication of the original Lady P. (who I’m told was modelled on the appearance of Sylvia Anderson). The addition of a pug to her entourage is however, perfectly acceptable and it is very cute. The new look of the pink Rolls Royce is also acceptable and pretty damn snazzy.
The look of the faces of the Tracy Brothers and the other characters is meant to be a nod to the original “eggshell” finish of the puppet faces but I can’t help wondering if this just makes the CGI look cheap and shoddy, as it looks like a mistake. The solid-look hair would also make the characters quicker and easier to animate. On the other hand – I do like the fact that the characters (apart from Lady P.) are very similar and recognisable from the original puppets and I have already admitted that I prefer my CGI stylised rather than realistic.
The greatly increased role of Grandma Tracy in the new series is a good change too as she adds a lot of extra humour and of course it is always good to address the male/female balance a bit.
The new series has also tackled some of the less PC slightly cringe-worthy elements of the original series (though it was of its time so some slack can be cut, I feel). I refer to the fact that in the original series the Hood (the bad guy) has an east asian appearance and the Tracy family servants are also East Asian (so either sub-ordinate or evil hmmm!).
In the new series the Hood does not look or sound Asian (he sounds English) and Brains, who is a positive character possessing great intelligence and a member of the International Rescue team, has become an Asian character and is voiced by a British Asian actor. It makes sense to me that “International Rescue” has taken this opportunity to become a bit more International than they were before (they only had Americans and English people originally).
I am, however, greatly disappointed that the Hood has not the same level of cheesy villain-ness as before, (I would like to see more maniacal laughing and I miss his glowing mesmeric eyes trick).
Despite the shortened running time (another new series drawback) the character interactions are given more prominence and subtlety and in many episodes are more important than the rescue scenarios.
So which is best? I am going to sit on the fence and say I like them both. There is nothing to stop Thunderbirds fans old & new from enjoying the original series in all its Supermarionated glory and then tuning in to find out what the latest emergency facing International Rescue is on ITV at the weekend.
At Stone Puppet Festival on the 8th and 9th of August 2015 there will be a free interactive exhibition of “classic” Thunderbirds Marionettes by Supermarionation Recreations. A great chance to discover the puppets the new series is based on for young viewers and a nostalgic stroll down memory lane for those of us who remember and love the original Thunderbirds series. CLICK HERE to find out more and don’t forget Stone Festival’s Crowd Funding campaign still needs your support. Tell all your friends and pledge some money if you can please :) We will be performing our Alice in Wonderland show at the festival, CLICK HERE for more info.
Meanwhile please vote in my poll below :)