Thunderbirds Are Go! at Weta Workshop: a report

Fanderson's New Zealand agent, ready to set out on in her next mission on her  FAB1/3.

Fanderson’s New Zealand agent Sereena Burton reports on her trip to Weta Workshop, the company behind the special effects on Thunderbirds Are Go! Armed with a list of questions from fellow fans, and her pink FAB1/3, she set out to discover more about this most eagerly-anticipated series…

First things first…

In the immortal words of a character from a classic TV series a little younger than Thunderbirds: “Don’t panic, Captain Mainwaring.”

Right, now that I’ve hopefully relieved your concerns, permit me to go over some of what I did during my visit to Wellington in April 2014. I’m as keen as the next person to ensure that Thunderbirds is done with respect for those who created it (especially Gerry Anderson) as well as us fans. So when I decided to visit our capital city this year, I also decided to include a visit to Weta Workshop’s workshop.

As I’m sure you all know Weta Workshop is a New Zealand company that has produced the special effects for such film luminaries as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia and others. They, along with Pukeko Pictures, have been charged with the weighty task of producing the next Thunderbirds series.

When we last holidayed in Wellington we visited the Weta Cave; a museum/store dedicated to all things Weta. But at that point the closest they had got to anything remotely sounding like Thunderbirds was the Tintin movie. Since then they have added a tour to their itinerary, offering a glimpse through the window into their workshop, and I have to say that originally I figured that peering through a window was all that we’d get to do.

I was wrong. It’s not so extensive that you get to stand at the shoulder of each craftsman and watch them work, but we did get to see more than I’d anticipated.

It was a typical Wellington day, although maybe less windy than we might have expected (the nation’s politicians must have been having a break from expelling their usual excess of hot air), so we were a little bedraggled when we got there. As we’d pre-booked our place on the tour a month ago we were assured of our spot, and we got there with plenty of time to look around the museum. Having seen few of Weta’s movies, apart from Forgotten Silver and Under the Mountain, we were only interested in the craftsmanship that went into the models on display. However I did take some photos for movie lovers to enjoy.

Unfortunately these were the only photos I was allowed to take.

Does that “caterpillar” remind you of anyone?

Does that “caterpillar” remind you of anyone?

The museum/shop is not very big and we were crammed in along with the 20 other people who were waiting for the tour, and a bus group admiring the sights. No one was willing to join the trolls outside in the rain, so we spent our time trying to keep out of the way of people getting selfies with Gollum.

At 11.00am we were greeted by Warren Dion Smith (whose credits credits include The Hobbit films, King Kong, and a couple of Lord of the Rings movies). He escorted us outside into the rain, around the corner, through the locked door (which sadly for those fans was not a wardrobe), and into a kind of foyer room. There we got the usual pre-tour talk; although maybe it wasn’t the usual talk as it was only the second tour that Warren had led. The first being the 10.30am one before us, where he’d run himself ragged trying to control them all.

But Warren was great. He was witty, entertaining and more than willing for us to experience these things that he’d helped produce. His role in the company was for creating makeup and hair, but he’d done all that and more. He said that Richard Taylor’s (Weta Workshop creator) vision for employees is to be passionate, innovative, creative, and then have skills. If you have the first three traits then they’ll teach you the last one.

He showed us how props such as weapons are made. The weapons designer makes up to 500 designs and five or so of the best are chosen. Then the CAD (Computer Aided Design) department makes the plans for the individual components. From these moulds are created and the whole thing is made out of nothing more sophisticated than skateboard wheel plastic. Then the finished prop is painted, “dirtied down” (a term we followers of Derek Meddings know well), until they are finally used in the movie… Unless the director decides that scene isn’t going to work and it’s cut from the whole show.

A “miniature” of King Kong’s head. Miniature in that it was about 700mm tall.

A “miniature” of King Kong’s head. Miniature in that it was about 700mm tall.

We all got to hold a ray gun and see the various stages that it had gone through to reach the final product. Warren also let us hold a sword and a flail; the handle of which was held together by a wooden dowel. What’s amazing is that although these have been decorated to look like well-worn pieces of iron weaponry, they’re actually fairly soft, flexible, and light enough that even I could heft them off the ground. Everything’s been made in two halves, so all the props will have a seam running down their length (something to zoom in on with your blu-ray machine); but that seam or any other imperfections are not to be visible on screen. (So much for blu-ray.)

It was about this point where Warren asked if anyone had any questions about past shows or future ones. “…such as Thunderbirds?” I put my hand up. “I’ve got a list!” He suggested that I talk to Abbey later on.

We carried on, seeing a giant rabbit (appropriate for Easter) that both Peter Jackson and Richard Taylor had great delight in wearing and scaring little children with. I’m not surprised really. A lot of Peter Jackson’s early films were quite frightening, so he obviously has a love of putting The Frighteners on us all.

We were introduced to giant WotWots; a children’s TV show Weta produced with Pukeko Pictures in 2009, and one that has generated more income than any of the blockbuster movies mentioned above.

We were also shown the head moulds of various actors and these had been used to create the prosthetics they wore for their films. The manufacturing process that goes into creating these moulds sounds pretty arduous. The actor has to sit very still, with straws up his or her nose to breathe, while dental alginate is applied to their head, neck and shoulders. What follows is 20 minutes of being in darkness and constrained by a suffocating head case; and I would think that if you couldn’t hack the claustrophobia you would wind up as a head case. Warren told us that Elijah Wood was able to cope better than most, because he didn’t need to use the straws and survived by taking shallow breaths.

Replicas of costumes. Weta museum.

Replicas of costumes. Weta museum.

Moving on we came to a working model of the armoured car in Perfect Strangers, with a frozen Sam Neil sitting in the driver’s seat. The dummy was good enough that I knew who it represented even before Warren let us into the secret. So now I can say that I’ve shaken Sam Neil’s hand (and that he’s got a rather limp handshake.) And, as I said, the car was a working model – one of the staffers used it as a wedding car.

Behind a window a master armourer would normally work at making replicas of swords (out of steel) for over US$25,000.00 a pop. It could be even more expensive if you wanted extra details like writing engraved on it. Through another window was all the CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machinery. One boy left school with few practical skills, worked the Weta CNC machines gaining experience, and now he makes one-off perfume bottles for men to give to their wives for $100,000.00 each.

That’s nothing to sniff at.

Warren showed us the various types of chainmail that they used for different shows and characters. They were quite heavy, but were made by slicing up PVC pipe, linking them together, and electroplating them. (Which had to be lighter than using actual metal.) He also told us that he had a bedspread made out of scale chain maill  (which was made up of triangular steel scales). He found it good because it reached body heat no matter what the weather, and was warm in winter and cool in summer.

We learnt that when wearing the fake suits of armour (even though it was made out of the skateboard rubbery stuff), the actors had to limber up for 45 minutes before putting them on, because wearing it was such a workout. However the actors in those roles were so fit and flexible (they were dancers and the suchlike), that they were able to move freely and even skateboard when in costume. (We did wonder about other, eh-hem, human activities, but didn’t like to ask.)

Wellington Airport – there used to be two of these eagles soaring above the food court. That was until a 6.2 earthquake in Cook Strait on the 20th January 2014. Then the “unmanned” one fell, fortunately not hitting anyone. The remaining eagle, Gollum and the fish have all been tethered more securely since then.

Wellington Airport – there used to be two of these eagles soaring above the food court. That was until a 6.2 earthquake in Cook Strait on the 20th January 2014. Then the “unmanned” one fell, fortunately not hitting anyone. The remaining eagle, Gollum and the fish have all been tethered more securely since then.

When wearing armour, eating was done without removing the costume and at the end of the day the wardrobe department sometimes had to clean bits of food from the inside. They also had to clean out the gallons of sweat that the actors perspired, before disinfecting the whole thing ready for the next morning’s shoot. When you consider the number of suits of armour that had to be cleaned, and the fact that the call time on the set was sometimes 2.00am, and that shooting may finish at 7.00pm, then these suits didn’t have a lot of time to dry out! Many times an actor had to put on a wet costume.

Those actors who didn’t have to wear armour, but had prosthetics as part of their costume, had holes in the soles of their “feet” so the sweat could drain out – pooling around them. We were allowed to play with the prosthetic plastic that they use body parts such as arms and faces. This was quite an experience; if a little creepy.

The next piece of technical wizardry that we were shown was a wig that Warren had made by tying individual strands of human hair into a fine net, which gave us yet another idea of the level of detail that Weta go to.

After learning all that we came to a group who were working on various projects. One of the ladies was the aforementioned Abbey and Warren told her that I had a list of questions. I think both were surprised when I pulled a full sheet of A4 paper out of my pocket.

Detail of the eagle.

Detail of the eagle.

I didn’t want to hold her up too much as Abbey was working from a picture on a small scale model of Taipei for *trumpets sound* Thunderbirds! It was only about 20mm high and, like the model makers of 50 years ago, she was using various objects in ways they were never designed for to get the look that she wanted. (I didn’t see any lemon squeezers.) At this stage of completion, the city was painted grey and windows were made of roughly 5mm x 5mm craft mirrors, painstakingly glued side-by-side and in neat vertical columns to make skyscrapers.

If only I had been allowed to take photographs!

On the Fanderson Forum I had asked for people to supply me with the questions that they would like me to ask on their behalf, so I gave Abbey the list and she had a quick read and then asked me to ask her and she’d answer while she worked. So here they are (and I hope I’ve remembered her answers correctly.)

 

Is FAB1 going to be a Rolls Royce again, or have the rights to use the name been refused again, as happened with the 2004 film?

  • She believed that it was going to be a Rolls Royce, but wasn’t 100% sure.

Is Jeff Tracy going to be in the series, and will it essentially be a continuation of the story after the events of Thunderbird Six?

  • We’re going to be seeing many of the same characters, with a few additional ones, and some of the stories are going to be reworkings of the original episodes.

Are the Thunderbirds machines the same or been updated?

  • True to the originals, but slightly updated.

When are we likely to get our first trailer?

  • Abbey didn’t know.

Is it easier or harder to make the puppets than it was back in 1965? Are you still using the same techniques?

  • Sorry, I didn’t ask this one.

Is the production team immersing themselves in the original series whilst making these new adventures?

  • Very much so. She had a good grasp of what was what. And, as an aside, if you check out the crew’s biographies on Weta’s web site you will see that a number of them were inspired by Thunderbirds. One gentleman’s photograph has him holding Thunderbird Two, with Thunderbird Five and Sun Probe in the background; and his bio states that he made a Thunderbird Two with his dad as a child.  Also, apparently the office has Thunderbirds models about the place. (Sounds like my kind of work environment. The best I can do is a photo on my computer’s desktop and sound clips telling me when something’s about to happen, like Virgil calling me Brains and telling me when it’s time to go at the end of the day.)

Is it set in present day or the world-of-tomorrow kind of setting of the originals?

  • The Tracy Villa will have a modern retro feel. The date it’s set in is nebulous, but it’s in the future.

What does it look like compared to the 1965 version? Fresh, retro?

  • Faithful.

Is it going to respect the original material or be a cynical money grabbing abortion?

  • I didn’t quite phrase it that way, but Richard Taylor, the boss at Weta Workshop is – devoted, I think is the word Abbey used – to Thunderbirds, so he’s determined to be true to it. Right down to the way that the palm trees leaves hang. And if that one fact doesn’t inspire confidence, nothing will.

What has happened to Jeff?

  • He’s sitting at Tracy Villa waiting for filming to start.

Will we see Fireflash? That machine was legendary

  • Abbey wasn’t sure about that one. But we do get the Mole and the Firefly.

Will Barry Gray’s Thunderbirds theme be used in any capacity?

  • Abbey didn’t know if they’d managed to get the rights to use the original music.

How different will the series be from a real world tech position? (Green energy, social media, dangers of smoking, factual space exploration, voice interface / A.I. computing?)

  • It’ll be faithful to the 1960s version, taking into account today’s technology and values, but with an eye towards the future.

Has ITV stipulated any specific elements that must be retained from the original series?

  • Abbey is only a model maker, and “only” sounds wrong because without the model makers where would the series be? But she isn’t privy to the machinations at head office level, so she couldn’t answer that.

Was there a specific reason why the episodes are 25 minutes rather than 50?

  • Sorry, I didn’t ask that one.

Will Thunderbirds Are Go! hint at any other Anderson formats (the existence of Spectrum from Captain Scarlet for example) or be a standalone series?

  • She wasn’t aware of any crossovers.

Besides Fireflash, will any other guest vehicles or pod vehicles show up from the original series?

  • Definitely the old favourites, and if, as Abbey said, existing stories are reworked, then quite probably.

What year will Thunderbirds be set in and what will the relative ages of the Tracys be?

  • Abbey didn’t have definitive answers and thought that those questions would be left up in the air.

 

Did I have fun?

Very much so, even when I missed out on part of Warren’s talk because I was gleaning all the information I could about Thunderbirds Are Go. (I could have quite happily popped out the door and followed the next group back in – except that tour was full.)

If you ever get the opportunity to take the tour I would thoroughly recommend it. And if Warren’s the one who’s leading you around you’ll probably hear about the woman who actually had a long written list of questions about Thunderbirds ready and waiting to be asked. Fame at last!

So now you can hopefully relax. International Rescue is in good hands.

  • Thank you to Magnus of Weta Workshop and ITV for validating my report.
Wellington Airport – a giant Gollum fishing above the food court.

Wellington Airport – a giant Gollum fishing above the food court.