The sweeping premise of Thunderbirds, which took the International Rescue team from the ocean depths to the far reaches of outer space, required a larger number of models to support the stories than any previous program. Indeed, the demand for models in Thunderbirds became so great that miniature vehicles were frequently reworked or repainted so they could be used in more than one episode.
Although the Supermarionation production crew had many years of previous special effects experience to draw upon by this time, some new innovations did result from Thunderbirds. Two of these were the so-called 'rolling road' and 'rolling sky'. The rolling road was an endless loop of canvas, decorated to simulate the ground, a road, or an aircraft runway, which rolled around a pair of motorized rollers. The rolling sky was a similar device which was oriented vertically, with the canvas roll painted to simulate a blue sky with white clouds or black space with stars. Stationary model vehicles could be suspended on top of or in front of the rolling road or sky, respectively, to simulate motion. The rolling road and sky proved so effective that Derek Meddings later used them when he worked on the James Bond films during the 1970s.
It's a little known fact that the Andersons were asked to produce the miniature effects for Stanley Kubrick's 2001 A Space Odyssey as a direct result of their work on Thunderbirds. The Andersons spurned Kubrick's offer but one of the Thunderbirds effects technicians, Brian Johnson, jumped ship to assist the 2001 miniature effects crew.
Unfortunately, the great popularity of Thunderbirds did not translate into further successes for Supermarionation. Although three additional Supermarionation television programs were subsequently produced by the Andersons, Captain Scarlet, Joe 90, and The Secret Service, none of these really caught on with TV audiences the way that Thunderbirds and its predecessors had. In fact, a final Supermarionation pilot which was produced during the early 1970s called The Investigator was never picked up by a television network and has never been televised.
Some people believe that it was simply impossible for the Andersons to top Thunderbirds, the 'perfect' Supermarionation program. Others believe that efforts to strive for greater realism in subsequent Supermarionation productions, such as switching to puppets with perfect human proportions in Captain Scarlet, ultimately resulted in a loss of realism.
Let's take a look at the models of Thunderbirds:
A huge number of model kit versions of Thunderbirds craft were produced over the years. In fact, Thunderbirds was the most heavily merchandised media production in history until Star Wars! Many Thunderbirds model kits remain in production today in Japan and in the UK and are marketed around the world. The most prolific makers of Thunderbirds model kits over the years have been Bandai and Imai of Japan. From the mid 1960s to the present day, there have been literally hundreds of Bandai and Imai model kits based upon Thunderbirds subjects. These subjects range from the expected Thunderbirds 1 thru 5 to sets of Thunderbird 2 pod vehicles and even miniature model kit versions of Tracy Island Base. For more information on past and present Thunderbirds model kits or other merchandising, check out Dennis Nicholson's Gerry Anderson collectibles site [which has dropped off the net – JLN2nd].
The continued availability of many of the exact same plastic model kits used by the Thunderbirds model makers under Derek Meddings make it possible for the talented hobby kit builder to produce truly accurate replicas of some of the miniatures seen in Thunderbirds. A few examples that come to mind immediately are the Lindberg Draken based Red Arrow jet fighter from Edge of Impact and the Hawk Huskie based helijets seen in Pit of Peril, City of Fire, and End of the Road.
Because of the prolific distribution of Thunderbirds merchandise over the past 30 years, its general availability on video and laser disk, and the program's wide popularity among science fiction model builders, digging up decent photographic reference materials is relatively easy. The old TV21 comics and the more recent Fleetways Thunderbirds comics from the early 1990s featured many useful photographs and drawings of the main Thunderbird vehicles, the rescue equipment, and even relatively minor craft. Many photos of Thunderbirds miniatures can be found in 21st Century Visions by Sam Mitchell and Derek Meddings. This book, which was published by Paper Tiger in 1993, is highly recommended to anyone who is interested in the subject of Supermarionation special effects. Other Thunderbirds model photographs can be found in various Japanese photographic reference books on Supermarionation which have been published over the years.