The new Thunderbirds sets are made with expanded polystyrene
Fifty years on and airpop ‘engineered air’ now provides the perfect setting for spectacular reprise of sixties sci-fi show
Originally produced for just two years between 1964 and 1966 by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson using a revolutionary technique known as ‘supermarionation’, Thunderbirds was the television series featuring the escapades of ex-astronaut Jeff Tracy and his five adult sons who piloted the Thunderbird machines from International Rescue’s secret base in the Pacific Ocean. It created a vast and loyal following for the Tracy brothers and fellow characters including Lady Penelope, her butler and chauffeur Parker and the bespectacled Brains who invented the Thunderbird machines.
Now fifty years on and thanks to the success of an internet campaign which raised the necessary funding, three new episodes have been made which faithfully recreate the programme exactly as it looked in the sixties but with dramatic new sets carved out of airpop™ – a material formerly known as Expanded Polystyrene and now widely used in stage and film sets and the creative industries.
Airpop’s advantages in creating impressive stage and film scenery are put to great use in the new Thunderbirds programmes. The material was transformed into the frozen walls of an ice cave that the villain of the story uses for his nefarious purposes and even used to create the Himalayas as a backdrop to a scene where Thunderbirds on a mission encounter dangerous blizzards of blinding snow.
Andrew T. Smith, associate producer of this new series of retro episodes praised the value and versatility of airpop™ saying, “It has been extremely useful and time-saving to have ice cave walls that can be very easily picked up and shifted around. In ten minutes a torture chamber can be transformed into an icy prison or mysterious corridor. Chunks of EPS that were left over after the ice walls and mountains had been carved were then grated down – using cheese graters – to make snow that was then blown into shot by a desk fan. Rather low-tech but it looks great on screen!”
Stephen La Riviére, who directed the acclaimed 2014 documentary Filmed in Supermarionation spearheaded the creation of this 2015 fiftieth anniversary series and acts as its producer and director. He said, “It has been a herculean undertaking made possible by surrounding ourselves with an amazing team of creative professionals who really want to see the show pick up where it left off in the 1960s.” The airpop used in the new series by the creative team was hand-modelled, hot-wired or electric sawed to create the many scenes required in the adventures. Then the material was finished using paint and surfacing techniques to create a reality and believability which helps Thunderbirds come alive for the viewer.
Chairman of BPF EPS Group, David Emes said, “airpop™ can be transformed into virtually limitless scenes for the stage, film and art world. Recently the material helped win an award for a garden at the Chelsea Flower Show and it was also used to create a giant optical illusion where the façade of Covent Garden Market was seemingly made to float on thin air. Whilst most airpop™ is used in construction and insulation it is increasingly seen as a solution for stage and set designers across the world where the only limit is the creativity of the designer.”