Richard Taylor

RichardTaylor-ThunderbirdsAreGo-1016The 1960s British hit Thunderbirds has been reinvented for a new generation, brought to life with a mix of CGI animation and live-action miniature sets. Produced by ITV Studios and Pukeko Pictures in association with Weta Workshop, Thunderbirds Are Go will head into its third season on CITV in the U.K. in 2017. The series counts among its broadcast partners Amazon Prime in the U.S., with international sales handled by ITV Studios Global Entertainment. Richard Taylor, co-owner of Pukeko Pictures and Weta Workshop who has worked on the miniatures and props for such high-profile films as The Lord of the Rings trilogy, is an executive producer on Thunderbirds Are Go. He tells TV Kids about fulfilling his boyhood dream by continuing the Thunderbirds legacy.

TV KIDS: How did you first become involved in reviving this classic series?
TAYLOR: It started initially with my childhood passion. I have often said that the DNA of Weta Workshop is partly because of our love of Thunderbirds. I grew up on the show in the U.K. and then when I immigrated to New Zealand, very thankfully it was on television so I was able to carry on my great love of the show.

Jump forward 30-plus years to about 14 years ago, Martin Baynton, my wife Tania [Rodger] and I were one year into running our new television production company, Pukeko Pictures. We were in production on our first show, Jane and the Dragon, and feeling very happy with ourselves. Martin asked me, “If you were able to fulfill your greatest wish, what show would you have wanted to make?” I said that I would love to reimagine Thunderbirds, and he said we should have a look at trying to do something around that. A few years earlier I had tried to get a revival of Thunderbirds going with another passionate enthusiast. We made a test and flew to the U.K., where we managed to meet with [Thunderbirds co-creators] Gerry and Sylvia Anderson and they gave us their blessing. At the time, the show was owned by Carlton International Media. We pitched it to them and they received the idea very warmly, but once back in New Zealand we discovered that Carlton had been bought out [by Granada in a corporate takeover to form ITV]. Sadly, the project dissipated at that point.

It took another 11 years of banging on that drum and chasing it—it falling quiet then us having a burst of interest, enthusiasm and energy to chase it again—for it [to come to fruition]. By some bizarre and unbelievable convergence, Giles [Ridge, executive producer and senior VP of content and brand development at ITV Studios Global Entertainment] was equally working away in the U.K. preparing to bring Thunderbirds to the world through ITV and their acquisition of the material. In some wonderful alignment of the stars, we happened to connect with each other. Pukeko connected with ITV and we connected with Giles.

Giles, understandably, had to look further afield than at just one company, regardless of our passion and interest. We were able to imprint on him what we considered to be our pedigree for the show and our aspiration to do it in a unique way. That was enthusiastically received and has now led to this wonderful relationship that we have with ITV.

TV KIDS: How did you go about paying homage to the original while still evolving the series?
TAYLOR: We understood very early on, despite my boyhood aspirations, that we couldn’t exactly replicate the original show. Today’s audiences are treated to dynamic, emotive, complex characters. The original technique of Supermarionation using puppetry simply wouldn’t have given a modern audience the necessary prerequisites for emotional fulfillment and dynamic performance that you see today even in the simplest of television [shows].

We anxiously stepped into a process of creating the characters and ships in CGI and the world in miniatures. Our biggest concern was that [the use of CGI] would be a turn-off for the core fans. Even though the show ultimately has to appeal to a much wider audience than the core fans, if you upset the fan base you can quickly undermine your own enthusiasm for the show, never mind the market. The lovely thing is that the fans [of the original series] have acknowledged why we made this decision and furthermore have actually commented that they see that it was a wise move. It’s now given us the beauty and tactile integrity of the original show—which was literally sculpted on the stage in a way so that children could empathize with it, connect with it and feel that they were watching a magical world unfold—and it is populated by these dynamic, high-spirited, beautifully emotional, rich, three-dimensional characters. We’re very thankful that what we visualized as the solution has ultimately been received so warmly today.

TV KIDS: How labor intensive is the process of creating all the models and miniatures for the series, and how does it compare to some of your feature-film work?
TAYLOR: If you put it into perspective, you’re building 26 half-hours of television—that’s 13 hours of content. Basically, in one season you’re building seven and a half stop-animation feature films, but building it on a television budget in a fast-turnaround environment at breakneck speed. That can only be achieved through one thing above all else and that’s passion. [We have] a group of digital technicians, TV filming crew, designers, production people and model-makers who are driven to deliver everything yesterday, everything to the highest level they can possibly deliver in the time that they’ve got and constantly up their game.

No audience wants to see tomorrow what they saw yesterday. It’s imperative that even as the show unfolds episode by episode, the scenes are grander, the rescues are riskier, the devastation is mightier, the nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat concern for the boys grows deeper. That demands a very special type of focus. It’s very easy to be focused and passionate for the first three and a half months or even six months. At the ninth month, maybe you can still retain that passion. When you’re doing the sort of hours that our team does, with the sort of environment that we’re working in, it’s got to be part of the calling of your life.

When I go to check out the miniatures, it constantly astounds me how this small team, regularly only six to eight people, has conjured—and I use the word “conjured” because it’s almost like a magic act—this beautiful thing out of a collection of mostly junky objects, using tried-and-true “scratch-build model-making” techniques. We also utilize modern 3D laser-printing technology, and so on, to assist in the build of the items. This also greatly accelerates our ability to deliver the episodes on time. We’re using all the techniques that we can bring together to do something special for the show.

TV KIDS: Did the approach for season two differ at all from the first season, and what’s in store for season three?
TAYLOR: The original season was already a significant achievement, but the new episodes are on a whole other level!

By the second season, the writers no longer need to constantly introduce the characters because your audience has already discovered the very fully rounded family unit. They know the relationship between the characters. This frees up the ability to focus much more on the dynamic of the situation and the family’s unique qualities, as opposed to individual character development. The story can take a greater leap.

[Head writer] Rob Hoegee very cleverly, under Giles’s guidance, set up story arcs way back in the first episode of the first season that are complex, emotive and [deal with] very real things that children are facing today. Rob has very cleverly woven these beautiful B-stories in that he’s traversed right across season one into season two. Season three gives the opportunity to start to evolve and play out, and in some cases conclude, some of those arcs. For a devotee of the show, it allows them to watch a very broad and emotive B-story unfolding.

TV KIDS: Do you have any “dos” and “don’ts” to impart about rebooting a classic property?
TAYLOR: You’ve got to be very aware of what your target audience is consuming in the moment you’re making the show. The problem is, of course, when you choose to make a show, it isn’t going to be on screen for one and a half to two years after you’ve begun your production and decided on the design of how you’re going to make the show and what it will look like. Appetites shift, the world shifts, the generational gap in television production shifts. It demands that you be predictive. You’ve got to try to predict the way the appetite will be at the time the show will air. That’s very challenging, especially when you’re making a show that’s paying homage to something historical. If you were coming up with a totally original IP, life would be much easier! Finding the balance between those two things is very difficult.