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Thunderbirds Case Study: Rescuing the International Rescuers

Posted on 20 July 2015 by Daniel Callaghan Comments
Tags: Case Study

Estimated Read time: 640 words 3 mins

  • A classic Thunderbirds character puppet

FIVE... FOUR... THREE... TWO... ONE! Thunderbirds are GO!

I’m sure for many of you, this intro needs no further explaining; it was the opening sound track to possibly one of the best known and loved TV shows of, well, several generations. My dad watched it when it first came on television in the 60’s; I remember watching it as a child, and then my younger cousins watched it when I was a teenager.

You can imagine my interest then, when I found an old Electrolube newsletter in our archives featuring the Thunderbirds. As it turns out, Electrolube was pivotal in the production of the show!


 
  • Electrolube newsletter cutting from 1966 showing our work with the Thunderbirds

    Top Left: Thunderbird 1, Top Right: Lady Penelope and Parker,
    Bottom Left: Puppeteers at work, Bottom Right: Electrolube grease being applied to the pulley.

Thunderbirds had a fantastic level of detail; the scenery and models were meticulous, giving the impression (certainly to my younger self at least) of being real. However, there was one detail that I hadn’t picked up on until now; that the mouths of the puppets were moving in perfect unison to the voiceover.

Lip-syncing puppets had been a problem for centuries, but the solution that AP Films, the creators of Thunderbirds, used was a major achievement at the time. The Thunderbirds dialogue was pre-recorded, and played back on tape during filming; then, through a resistance-capacity network, used pulses from the tape to operate solenoids (electro-magnetic coils) in the head of the puppet. This controlled the jaw and lip movement, syncing them to the recording of the voice.

The puppeteers worked on a gantry above the set with the pulses being transmitted along copper pickup wires parallel to the gantries. A small pulley made of brass, set between two copper and nickel discs, slid along each wire and picked up the impulse. From this pulley, a length of cable went to the puppeteer’s wooden control, and then from there, a fine wire conveyed the impulse to the puppets head moving the mouth in time.

These days, the signal would most likely be transmitted wirelessly to the puppet, but at the time this wasn’t possible. The pulley system allowed the puppeteers essential flexibility and movement, travelling backwards and forwards as they moved the puppet characters around the set.

It was this pulley system that brought Electrolube into the equation. Initially, it was found that oxidation was forming on the overhead pickup wires, which on occasion prevented contact from being made and thus stopping the puppet from opening its mouth when required. This wasted valuable film, not to mention time on re-takes. Electrolube’s No.1 (replaced by SGB) was used as a cleaner for removing the oxidation from the wires, while Electrolube 2G (replaced by SGA), was used both to protect the wires from further corrosion, to lubricate the pulleys, and improve the contact. The result was that the pulleys were now smoother, the contact for the impulses better, and the corrosion issue was resolved.


  • Electrolube Contact Grease 2G, now known as SGA

Electrolube has come a long way in the fifty or so years since the filming of the Thunderbirds. Our product catalogue has evolved dramatically and expanded to include 6 key product divisions, and we now manufacture and distribute all over the world. We’ve also enjoyed a company-wide rebranding within the last couple of years.

Thunderbirds has also only just undergone a re-brand, with a new TV series recently updated into a 3D animated format. While this new series has tried to keep the level of detail high, and has certainly achieved this to a much greater degree than many of the other classics remakes, I wonder whether it has kept the original series’ ability to capture the imagination? Only time will tell.

Electrolube, on the other hand, still retains the same ethos of being the go-to solutions provider for electronics; continually expanding on and improving our range to meet the requirements of the constantly evolving electronics industry.