Alain Bielik did not have to go undercover to find out Framestores vfx secrets for Thunderbirds.
Sorry Batmobile fans, but the two coolest cars of the 1960s were made in Britain. In that time, movie buffs dreamt of James Bond's gadget-ridden Aston Martin, while television fans were crazy for Lady Penelope's pink six-wheeled Rolls-Royce in Thunderbirds. Conceived by Gerry Anderson (Space 1999), Thunderbirds told the adventures of Jeff Tracy, a billionaire who secretly runs the International Rescue organization with his five sons. Responding to emergency calls from around the world, the Tracys hurry to the rescue with amazing flying machines the Thunderbirds. In a world full of spies and conspirators, they can count on the many talents of their agent in London, the beautiful Lady Penelope and her remarkable car.
Wildly popular throughout Europe, the series originally aired from 1964 to 1966 and was entirely realized with miniatures. Vehicles, sets and landscapes were created by (soon-to-be) miniature effects guru Derek Meddings and his crew, while characters were beautifully crafted wire puppets. Since the mid 1990s, producers had been trying to remake the show as a feature film and different options had been explored, including CGI and stop motion animation. When the project was finally greenlit, Thunderbirds was to reach the big screen as a live-action feature film directed by Jonathan Frakes.
Updating Landmark Machines
The ambitious visual effects work was assigned to Framestore CFC in London, the largest effects company in Europe. Supervising the effort were Mark Nelmes and Mike McGee. "I remember that I deeply enjoyed watching the original show on television, but I was never a real fan," explains Nelmes. "On his part, Mike was completely hooked: he had all the merchandising, from pajamas to bed sheets to wallpaper! I remember playing Thunderbirds toys and being impressed by their design, the fact that the wings, the legs, and the other parts were able to fold in and out because there was a space in the body for them to do so. The machines were fantastical, but they all made sense from a mechanical point of view. There was logic behind them. This was an approach that I absolutely wanted to pursue in the vehicles that we were creating for the movie."
The design of the original Thunderbirds was so successful and so popular that only discreet updates were deemed necessary. The new version of the vehicles looks the same, but they now have a lot more attributes. "When making the series, the original effects crew had the chance to work in a fantasy world," remarks Nelmes. "The size of the ships actually varied from one sequence to the next. There were many scale changes. We had far less opportunities to "cheat" in the movie version, as the new vehicles needed to blend in the real world. They had to appear alongside human performers, not puppets, which made it a lot more difficult."
From Miniatures to Computers
Framestore CFC elected to create the vehicles entirely with CGI. Nelmes and McGee believed that using miniatures would result in a movie that would look just like the series. CG modelers were faced with the uneasy task of replicating the original ships without any genuine reference. It turned out that all the miniatures had been thrown away, destroyed or simply taken home by effects team members as toys for their children when the show was cancelled. One can wonder about the price that these landmark "toys" would fetch today! The production designer, John Beard, dusted down and updated the original ship designs to create a look which was refered to as retro-modernism. Working closely with the concept artists and their drawings, Framestore-CFC's modellers produced a virtual turntable. This allowed collaborative design decisions to be made at a 3D workstation located alongside the art department.
The Tracy family actually uses five different types of vehicles. Thunderbird 1 is an 85-footlong super fastjet. Always first on a disaster scene, it allows the pilot to evaluate the needs in terms of equipment. Adapted machines are then loaded on to Thunderbird 2, a 150-foot long heavy-duty ship, and transported to the disaster scene for immediate action. The sleek Thunderbird 3 is a 175-foot tall space rocket that allows the Tracy family to reach Thunderbird 5, their very own space station orbiting Earth. Finally, Thunderbird 4 is a submarine dedicated to water operations. This fleet of vehicles is supplemented by a series of extraordinary machines that International Rescue uses for saving the day on any kind of disaster.
Frakes requested a certain degree of artistic licence in the texturing of the ships. "Although the action is grounded in reality in the movie, this is a Thunderbirds world, not our every day world," says Nelmes. "After all, even London is sunny in the movie! Jonathan wanted this world to be bright, shiny, and colorful. It led us to tone down the aging textures on the CG models. We could have added a lot more damage to the surfaces: after all, the Thunderbirds operate at disaster scenes. They must get a lot of abuse. The same is true for Thunderbird 3:we could have included more burns in the paint job to illustrate the many re-entries of the vehicle in the atmosphere. But Jonathan wanted this sleek, pristine look."
The Car That Could Fly
An equal amount of work was invested into Lady Penelope's car, dubbed FAB1, a vehicle that was computer-generated in many shots. Interestingly enough, the Rolls-Royce company declined to have the new car presented as one of their products, although the original series had provided them with a lot of free advertising. The Ford Co. very happily took over and helped design a supercharged 23-foot-long six-wheeled version of their new Thunderbird model, a car that transforms into an aircraft and a speedboat for key sequences in the film.
"The design of FAB1 was jointly developed by the art department, the Ford Co. and Framestore CFC," notes Nelmes. "The production built a practical car for the driving scenes, but it didn't have any gadgets. When FAB1 needed to grow wings or a new piece of equipment, we switched to CGI. Our main concern in building the model was to make sure that there was enough room in the body to fit wings, engines, and all the machinery required to make if fly or float. The hydrofoil and flying scenes were done with the CG car in which we had inserted digital doubles of the actors. For shots of FAB1 on water, we used elements of a jet ski for some of the wake. Smoke, dust heat haze and con-trails were created in CG and added in. FAB1 and the Thunderbirds were all built and animated in Maya, and rendered in RenderMan.
A Hideaway in Paradise
One element of the series that fans remember the most is Jeff Tracy's private tropical island in which the Thunderbirds are secretly sheltered. The island itself was a real location captured in the Seychelles Islands. "The atoll that we selected had a fancy hotel with many isolated huts and a restaurant", says Nelmes. "The first thing we had to do was to paint this all out, then reconstruct the landscape with trees copied elsewhere in the plates, and finally add the Tracy compound in CG. It had to be computer generated because the camera was moving a lot in those shots. When you see the ships stationed in their respective hangar, the vehicles are 2D matte paintings while the backgrounds are painted textures wrapped onto 3D geometry."
One of the most complex island sequences was the launching of Thunderbird 2. "We had to reproduce in CG several landmark images from the series: the cliff wall opening up, the ship advancing between palm trees that fold outward, the platform that raises the nose up and finally, the fiery take-off. This is a sequence that the fans were very eager to see on the wide screen. So, we had to deliver." After location scouts failed to find a suitable setting for the scene, Framestore CFC opted to utilize two different techniques to create the background. In wide shots, the take-off site was a matte painting composited in a plate of the real island. On the other hand, tight shots were completely computer generated, except for the vegetation. "The palm trees folding up were real plants that we shot blue screen," notes Nelmes. "We had a mechanism that folded them on stage. Between each take, we rotated them in order to get many different tree elements. We also shot hundreds of bluescreen plates of real plants and bushes, using wind machines to create movement. They were used extensively to add life to our matte paintings and CG landscapes of the island."
Thunderbirds to the Rescue
Where there is a Thunderbird, there is a disaster and during the course of the movie, the ships intervene on two rescue missions. The first one is a series of explosions that threatens to destroy an oil rig. The rig itself was a miniature built by the production. "This is one of the two miniatures that were actually created for the movie," observes Nelmes. "The sequence was so heavy on pyrotechnics and interactive lighting that it made sense to do it in miniature. We then added many elements to bring it to a level of complete realism: CG rain, CG debris, large scale explosions shot separately, and a matte-painting that enhanced the overall scale. We also added CG workers to make the shots look more lively."
The second disaster is the crash of the futuristic London monorail into the Thames. A carriage falls down to the bottom of the river, trapping dozens of commuters in the water. While the monorail was realized with CGI, a miniature was used for the shot of the carriage falling into the Thames. Shots featuring the trapped passengers were created with a clever blend of practical and digital effects. "The carriage was a set piece that was rigged to fill up with water," comments Nelmes. "The set outside was dry, but smoked up in order to imitate the murkiness of the water. By adding CG bubbles, dirt in suspension and the Thunderbird submarine, we were able to create the illusion that this was all happening underwater."
Framestore CFC enjoyed a rather long postproduction time, one year of effects work being a real luxury at a time when three to six months are the norm. "We did about 810 shots for the movie, although 120 were not included in the final cut," concludes Nelmes. "This long post-production time allowed us to do great work with a small, dedicated team. On major productions, there is usually not enough time to do the effects and that obliges us to use very large teams to meet the deadlines. On Thunderbirds, each member of the team was able to invest more into the project and focus on the consistency of the visual effects. This was especially important here as it was a very special world that we had to create, a Thunderbirds world. So, we were actually able to deliver better results with a smaller team."
Alain Bielik is the founder and special effects editor of renowned effects magazine S.F.X, published in France since 1991. He also contributes to various French publications and occasionally to Cinefex.