Wednesday, October 07, 2015

It's All So F.A.B.ulous

Reboots, reimaginings and returning relics are distressingly common in recent years. I understand that one of the big reasons for this is that the children of the 80's and 90's are now the ones in charge of greenlighting new projects today. If I had that power, we'd be starting Season 5 of MacGyver (2011)* around now.

But for all the terrible attempts to bring back the past, there are a handful of successes, and one series stands above all others in recent years.

Growing up, I watched the heck out of the original adventures of International Rescue, Thunderbirds, a supermarionation series by Gerry Anderson. I've seen every episode multiple times. So when I heard that there was a new series on the way from ITV, I was pretty excited. My excitement faltered when I first heard it would be CGI, but grew immensely when I discovered it would have sets by WETA Workshop, the same company behind the sets and props for such massive movies as Lord of the Rings, Avatar and Disctrict 9!

Wait. Is it computer animation, or physical models? Yes.

What? It's both. The sets are physical models build by WETA, and then the characters are digital creations composited into the filmed sets! And it works! Spectaularly. The new series, Thunderbirds Are Go has become my favourite sci-fi show on TV right now, either animated or live action, and joy of joys, this is both!

Here is my top five reasons Thunderbirds Are Go is awesome!

FIVE! The sets are lovingly created in exquisite detail by the masters of modern miniature sets, WETA Workshop. The level of care and attention to detail is astonishing. There is a massive amount of tribute paid to the original sets, from the basic base and craft designs simply getting a modern overhaul, to things like the portraits in the island lounge, or the orange juicer in the wall of the Thunderbird 1 hanger.

But it's more than that. Not everything runs smoothly, and there's a slight jerkiness to some of the sets more mobile aspects. My favourite is the wall panel that swivels back to bring Virgil in to pilot Thunderbird 2. The panel judders just a tiny amount as it starts its rotation, a mechanical hiccup that was either intentionally included or purposely not fixed, because it adds to the heritage of the series.

FOUR! The computer graphic elements are so good they are indistinguishable from the sets. The figures are animated with a wonderful texture to their clothes and skin, making them appear to be miniatures as well. The seams and zips look a little over-sized and the weave in the fabrics look magnified. The skin effect in particular is beautiful, a slightly shiny, waxy look, as if made from the same rubber as the original marionettes.

All this intentional fakeness helps sell the illusion that these are also physical puppets moving within the set spaces. It sounds impossible, a clever idea that could never pay off. Surely the viewer would see the layering of effects? Yet, Thunderbirds Are Go proves that it can be done through cutting edge CG animation, lighting and clever set features. Doors open and close in the physical set, powered by invisible gears and mechanisms, and then one of the brothers is animated in, perfectly timed to the footage. Your brain simply accepts what it sees.

I also love how the characters move. Being CG, they can run, jump and be more active, as well as type without being replaced by live action hands, yet they still can often be seen holding their hands in that classic marionette cupped pose, or they move just a little like they might be on strings. And I still can't believe that the vehicles themselves are entirely CG. They interact with the sets so well, again, totally selling the illusion.

THREE! Scott, Virgil, Gordon, Alan and John. The brothers are so well written and realised. They work well as a team, and there are never any egos. Everyone is working for the benefit of the mission, so when Scott tells Virgil that he needs to back off because he's putting himself and the mission in danger, then Virgil does so immediately. Everyone still gets their moments of heroics of course, but they also have absolute confidence in each other, and never bicker or disagree. Success is a team effort.

That said, I hope to see a lot more of the newest member of International Rescue, Kayo in future episodes. Kayo is the new Tin-Tin, and is much more proactive, having her own ship, Thunderbird S, the Shadow, and joining Alan on rescue missions in Thunderbird 3. But so far, she's only appeared in a handful of episodes. More please!

TWO! The characters are smart. As soon as someone on a video connection starts acting weird, Lady Penelopy spots the inconsistency and warns of a possible trap by the dastardly Hood, Scott agrees, and everyone acts accordingly. When John admits to missing Grandma's cooking, the rest of International Rescue jump to action to rescue their obviously captive brother. Problems are usually solved in clever, action packed ways, that leave plenty of room for drama.

I would like to see them hire a science advisor for future seasons, however. There is no reason they can't stick to some basic levels of science without compromising the tension. In one episode John is subjected to 25 Gs of force as Thunderbird 5's ring spins. A human would blackout at around 8 or 9 Gs. I know 25 sounds much cooler or more dangerous, but Brains could simply have stated "Th-th-the average human can only withstand up to 9 Gs of force before going unconscious" to which Scott could have quipped "John's never been average at anything" as the readouts climbed into the low double digits.

ONE! That theme.

Need I say more. No, I needn't, but I will. It's a great update of the original, making it a bit more action packed and exciting. In a stroke of genius, they opted to retain the countdown from the original theme, intoned by the late Peter Dyneley, who also voiced father Jeff Tracy in the original series. It sends shivers down my spine every time. There are some themes you skip past to get to the action, but not this one. Never this one.

THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO!

* - In the Season 4 finale, MacGyver had to rescue friend and regular trouble-magnet Jack Dalton from recurring villain and master of disguise, Murdock after Jack stumbled on to a map to the lost library of Alexandria. In the Season 5 opener, Mac and Jack uncover the location of the library, only to discover that Murdock, presumed dead for a few months now, has gotten there ahead of them. When Jack gets them both trapped inside the ancient site, it's up to MacGyver to get them out, using only the artifacts inside. Sounds easy, but her hands have been badly burned in the cave-in, and she has to rely on Jack to put her plan into action.

No. No, I got the pronouns right.

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