Image: Thunderbird takeoff
Universal Pictures
The Thunderbird 3 rocket takes off from the Tracy family's secret island headquarters in a computer-generated scene from the new film version of “Thunderbirds.”
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 7/30/2004 3:17:35 PM ET 2004-07-30T19:17:35

As an actor, Jonathan Frakes was Captain Picard’s right-hand man in the next-generation “Star Trek” saga. Now, as a film director, Frakes is at the helm of yet another sci-fi cult classic, “Thunderbirds” — and he’s updating the ’60s-style TV puppet show with the best special effects the early 21st century can offer.

That plan could backfire: Much of the “Thunderbirds” appeal comes from its retro look and schlocky dialogue, and too much glitz could turn the movie into a second-rate “Spy Kids” clone. So Frakes had to strike a balance between catering to the hard-core fans and the newbies who can't tell Lady Penelope from Tin-Tin.

The movie, like the old TV show, focuses on widowed ex-astronaut/millionaire Jeff Tracy and his sons, who save the world from their Pacific island hideaway. The movie serves as a prequel to the TV series, showing how the youngest son, Alan, gets involved in the family business.

“What we decided was to embrace the whole look of the original show in terms of the design of the ships and the colors and the whole concept of the secret island in the South Pacific,” Frakes told MSNBC.com. “So all the elements of the show are in the movie, and some of the iconic moments that people remember so fondly. ...  It’s all in there for the fans. And for the non-fans, they get introduced to this wonderful new International Rescue Organization.”

From supermarionation to computer graphics
The biggest difference has to do with production values: The original “Thunderbirds” was created by British animation genius Gerry Anderson, who used marionettes and models to bring the world of 2065 to life — a technique he called “supermarionation.” In contrast, this summer's movie version is live-action, augmented with a massive dose of computer-generated graphics.

“What we took mostly was the story, the idea of the family, and the original shapes, and [production designer] John Beard and his team kicked it into the 21st century,” Frakes said.

Image: Frakes and Corbet
Universal Pictures
Jonathan Frakes directs Brady Corbet as Alan Tracy during the filming of a scene for the movie "Thunderbirds."
Frakes — who has directed a string of movies and TV shows, including two of the “Star Trek” films — said he adopted “retro-futurism” as the catchphrase for his latest project.

“What we kept using as a reference was the idea of the VW Beetle or the Mini Cooper,” he said. “When they got reintroduced, you knew what they were because they looked so much like the original, but you also felt like they had somehow been reworked so that they felt retro yet modern. … Not ‘Star Trek’ modern, but retro modern.”

Using computer graphics, the moviemakers added a monorail to the London skyline, built massive Thunderbird spaceships for the Tracy family, and created an entire secret headquarters out of interior sets and green-screen graphics.

"Intelligent moviegoing people have said, ‘Where did you find that house and that island?’” Frakes recalled with a laugh. “And in fact it’s an empty island ... and we created the Tracy Island compound in it. When you cobble together pieces of real set with 3-D set extensions, it’s quite something."

Frakes freely admits that the movie, like the TV series, shouldn't be taken as a guide to real-life rocket engineering — any more than “Star Trek” could be considered a guidebook to extraterrestrial life forms. But he contends that the production crew tried to make the “Thunderbirds” gadgetry look at least plausible.

"There were some of us who were more interested in how cool things looked, and then there were other people who were very much in favor of trying the best we could to hold onto what is physically possible," he said. "So I think we found a healthy balance of both."

Will Frakes' version of the “Thunderbirds” fly with the moviegoing public, or fans of the old show? Perhaps the toughest critic is Anderson, the creator of the original (as well as other supermarionation shows such as "Fireball XL-5" and "Captain Scarlet."). The 75-year-old animator sold off the rights to “Thunderbirds” long ago, and thus isn't getting any compensation from the remake.

This week, spokeswoman Michele Fabian Jones was quoted as saying Anderson was too busy working on a new version of “Captain Scarlet” and didn't intend to see the “Thunderbirds” movie. “I understand it is more like the film ‘Spy Kids,’” Fabian Jones said.

Despite the chill, Frakes said he paid Anderson a visit "to thank him for the gift that ‘Thunderbirds’ was.”

“He’s like Gene Roddenberry was to ‘Star Trek,’” Frakes observed. “He created this world, and millions of fans probably believe in this wonderful vision of the future that both Gerry and Gene provided. And it’s given people a lot of pleasure.”

Indeed, Frakes sees a powerful parallel between the worlds of “Thunderbirds” and “Star Trek.”

“I have been very proud to be associated with two of these franchises that provide an optimistic look at the future," he said. “‘Thunderbirds,’ not unlike ‘Star Trek,’ celebrates heroism, celebrates the family — certainly on the Enterprise, we functioned as a family of sorts. Altruism is a huge theme in the ‘Thunderbirds,’ and I think in this post-9/11 atmosphere, to have a positive future ... you know, we should be so lucky, frankly.”

If the original, supermarionated TV series strikes your fancy, you can catch annotated episodes this weekend during a "Thunderbirds" marathon on G4TechTV (available on cable TV systems) or check out "Thunderbirds" on DVD.

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