Producers Take on Challenge of Rebooting Toon Classic ‘Thunderbirds’

Adapting half-century-old TV animation for today’s tastes can be tricky, but the makers of the “Thunderbirds” remake may have just pulled it off.

The idea began 12 years ago when New Zealander Richard Taylor, a visual effects, makeup and costumes wizard, who won four Oscars for “The Lord of the Rings” pics and another for “King Kong,” started out on a quest of his own.

The co-owner of Pukeko Pictures and Weta Workshop wanted to revive Gerry Anderson’s futuristic marionette TV series, which was an international hit in the 1960s. He flew to the U.K. and managed to get Anderson’s blessing for a remake, but it was another nine years before U.K. network ITV commissioned its production arm, ITV Studios, to remake the series as “Thunderbirds Are Go,” under the guidance of exec producer Giles Ridge.

Seeking a partner who “shared our love and affection for the property,” Ridge connected with Taylor.

As with the original, the show revolves around five brothers, based on an island in the Pacific, who work for a rescue organization that responds to international emergencies.

The first task was to settle on a look for the series that would do justice to the vibe of the original, yet also satisfy today’s young auds. Ridge wanted to move away from the clean CGI look embraced by many youth-skewing action-adventure shows, and instead investigate a mixed-media approach.

The strategy was to combine live-action miniature models for the settings, with CG animation for the characters. The approach was a challenging one for the producers. “One of the most important things was to get the CG to integrate into the world of the miniatures. It’s very easy to make the miniature look organic and real. It’s difficult to do the same with animated CG for fast-turnaround television,” Taylor says.

Production, which started two years ago, has been divided among many different countries. Scripts, under the guidance of Rob Hoegee, are penned in the U.K. and the U.S. New Zealand handles all design, pre-vis and animatics, as well as all the miniature construction and shooting, and all the digital modeling. Weta Workshop, which is co-owned by Peter Jackson, created the miniatures.

The CGI animation is being produced in Taiwan, and the program is finished in London, including all the compositing, post-production and music, which is composed by Ben and Nick Foster. The U.K. portion of the production qualifies for the country’s 25% tax credit.

Fans of the original series will see many changes, but in some respects, it’s the same program. “The aesthetic of the show is very similar, and the characterization of the boys is very similar,” Taylor says. “Doing the characters with CG instead of marionettes is a huge visual shift. Our proportions tie a little bit closer to the real humans, although we have tried to capture the caricatured qualities of the original characters.”

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