Wellington: No strings attached

By Shandelle Battersby

Around New Zealand Shandelle Battersby finds the latest tourist attraction at Weta Workshop is F.A.B.
Thunderbirds Are Go.
Thunderbirds Are Go.

Doohickeys, dingles, greebles, wotsits, whosits, dooferies, doofernannies, squiggles, widgets. Making something from the row of jars labelled with nonsense names and what can only be described as bits of junk would be a test for anyone's imagination, but this is what you do if you work for Weta Workshop. It must, surely, be one of the best jobs in the world.

I'm in a warehouse in Miramar, Wellington, to visit the Thunderbirds Are Go Behind-the-Scenes Experience, Weta's latest tourism offering, which opened at the end of last year.

Its something of a surprise to find the Weta Cave headquarters in a nondescript house down a suburban street. If it weren't for the three ugly giant trolls in the front garden, you'd wonder if you were in the right place.

After a short bus ride we're dropped at the warehouse, where Simon, our guide for the morning, greets us for our tour.

Over the next 45 minutes we familiarise ourselves with the original sci-fi series about the Tracy family, made in the 1960s by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson using electronic marionette puppetry - "supermarionation" - with scale model special effects sequences.

Remaking - or rather, reimagining - the show in conjunction with production companies ITV and Pukeko Pictures, was a lifelong dream for Sir Richard Taylor and his Weta Workshop team, many of whose careers were shaped by the pioneering TV show and others like it.

"Talk to anyone working out there in our [Pukeko Pictures] workshop and they'll tell you the same thing," Sir Richard Taylor told the Herald's Canvas magazine last year. "We were all inspired by Thunderbirds."

In the new version it's still the future - the 2060s to be exact - and the characters are no longer marionettes on strings, rather they're created by CGI at a studio in Korea. The pilots in particular have been given a facelift to more accurately resemble a group of men in their 20s.

There are other tiny changes: The character formerly known as Tin-Tin is now Tanusha or Kayo due to copyright issues with the Tin-Tin name. In this incarnation she's the Tracy brothers' adopted sister and flies a rocket too, the Thunderbird Shadow. And John Tracy, who was kept up in space in the original show because Gerry Anderson reportedly didn't like him, has now been given a teleporter so he can pop down to Tracy Island for a cup of tea whenever he likes.

Weta have added their own touches throughout - Virgil wears a Swanndri, Gordon's Hawaiian shirts have nikau palms on them; and in Lady Penelope's office you can spot Kiwiana on the bookshelves such as tiny Lord of the Rings books and other Weta DVDs.

As we're guided past the working sets - Tracy Island, the Thunderbirds hangars, Creighton-Ward Manor, and, my favourite, the 1960s Tracy house - Simon points out the doohickeys and dingles that have been used to construct them.

The original sets were made to 1:4 scale out of junk and model kits, and the Andersons' dedication to "junk building" has been honoured by Sir Richard's team. We spot industrial vacuum cleaner pipes, computer parts, chess pieces, toy blocks, doll's house furniture, Kinder Surprise egg casings and razors which have been painted silver, "because its the colour of the future" and repurposed.

It's not always as simple as that, Simon explains. "Although we can put in a lot of junk, we always need to look at scale and proportion." Things are a lot easier these days thanks to technology such as LED lights, 3D printing, laser cutting, and silicon moulds. What the crew use for sand is actually minutely ground foam - at a scale of 1:100 real sand looks like rocks or boulders and falls too heavily if there's a sandstorm in the desert.

Replicating the famous lemon squeezer on the wall of one of the hangars was also a challenge. The new set is slightly bigger than the original, so lemon squeezer #II had to be custom-made in order to look right.

Lady Penelope's office is exquisitely detailed. It was built to spec - the material on the couch is hand-sewn, furniture is handmade, and there is real baking on the coffee table.

Fifty-plus years on, Thunderbirds is still firing up the imaginations of young and old. This is a nostalgia trip set firmly in the future.

Checklist

DETAILS
The Thunderbirds Are Go Behind the Scenes Experience is at Weta Cave, 1 Weka St, Miramar. Admission is $25 for adults, $12 for children aged 6-12. The second season of Thunderbirds Are Go will be on TV at the end of the year.

ONLINE
wetaworkshop.com

- NZ Herald

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