Stingray, Thunderbirds & wobbling UFOs
.....a conversation with Special Effects man Ian Wingrove
.......................................................By David Sisson
Ian Wingrove has worked in the film industry for well over forty years, contributing to the effects in many major feature films such as ‘Return of the Jedi’, ‘Mission Impossible’,‘Troy’ and more recently ‘Captain America’.
But here he casts his mind back to the 1960s when he found himself working on the famous Gerry Anderson puppet television shows.
I began by asking him how he got started.

Back to INDEX ..................................................................................................................... Back to INTERVIEW SELECTION
Ian: Well I’d always been interested in the film industry but I had no idea how to get into it, so I found myself working in a factory in Maidenhead doing all the electrical wiring on missile testing systems. Then one day my father mentioned that Gerry Anderson had come into his shop to buy Cuban cigars, this was at a time when they were making ‘Fireball XL5’, so I got my dad to introduce him. I told Gerry that I was doing electrical work but wanted a career in films and he said ‘Well come and see our electrician because we’re about to start a new show called ‘Stingray’ , and if he thinks you’re OK there may be a vacancy for you’. And so that’s how I got my start.

David: When you joined it must still have been a very small company.
Ian: Yes, they’d just moved from one side of the Slough Trading Estate to the other. From Ipswich Road where I think they’d done ‘XL5’ and such like, to Stirling Road which was right next to the ‘Mars’ factory - so we used to get the nice smell of the chocolate bars being made each day!
It wasn’t what you’d call a proper studio as they were basically single-storey factory units and there was no height in the ceiling. So that’s why they later hit on the idea of digging pits in the floor to put the camera and the camera crew in, so the stage floor then became the set level giving us more height above.

David: So you were purely an electrician on ‘Stingray’?
Ian: I was just an electrician but I used to help out any way I could on the stage because I was interested in the production. Whereas someone else might have just done his bit of the job and then gone and sat in the corner, I was always going on and helping the effects boys out. I’d got electrical experience and used it to get in the door, but I didn’t just want to be an electrician.
I’ve always been quite good at art, even back at school there was talk of me going to Art College but it never happened, so after ‘Stingray’ finished and ‘Thunderbirds’ began I managed to get myself transferred to the Art Department.

David: What exactly does the Art Department do and how long did you stay there?
Ian: I think I was probably in that department for about six months. Basically they design and then organise for the sets to be built, run the decorating for the sets, what the backgrounds are going to be, all in consultation with what the director and the producer wants and depending on what the action calls for. Then when the set is built it has to be dressed. So if it’s a room they have to decide what ornaments they want in it, what pictures you want on the wall, what furniture to use and of course does it suit that period or the style of house. So in many ways the decisions the Art Department makes sets the tone of the whole picture.

David: ‘Thunderbirds’ started as a half-hour program then expanded to be an hour long. I assume at this stage they had to take on a lot more staff, or open up more stages to shoot on.
Ian: Yes they did, I think they expanded into the buildings next door if I remember correctly. We had two quite large buildings, one was for the puppets and then we had one with three stages for the special effects. Two of those stages were for shooting the main effects and then one was what we called ‘The Flying Unit’. Peter Wragg usually directed this and it had the rolling road and the roller backing on it.

Above: Director Alan Pattillo looks into the Stingray bridge set

David: Was it your idea to now get into the Special Effects Department?
Ian: Well yes and no. They had fallen behind on ‘Thunderbirds’ because the special effects were far more complex than what had been done before. They had actually fallen well behind and the only way they could really catch up was to start another unit.
The idea was for Derek Meddings (the Special Effects Supervisor) to come back onto the studio floor, because at that time he wasn’t on the day-to-day filming he was off doing the overall designing and organising of everything. So they asked us for volunteers to man this new unit and so that’s how I started, working directly with Derek, which was great because he taught me a lot.

There was a chain of command, Derek would be at the top and he designed everything and did the original concept. Then there would be a couple of other guys below him, one of which would be Mike Trimm who helped design models, and then below them there would be the directors of the three units doing the day-to-day work. And then below them they would have their crew of normally about three or four guys.

David: Did they pick different crews each week?
Ian: Mostly when you started with a crew you would stay with them. Jimmy Elliott was one of the long-time crew directors and Shaun Whittaker-Cook was another and normally if you started with one of those you would stay with them.
Shaun Whittaker-Cook was very ‘arty’ and very posh compared to the rest of us. He didn’t use to walk he used to ‘shuffle’ across the floor (laugh). He was a lovely guy but he seemed a bit out of place compared to the rest of us, a bit of an odd-one-out really but he was about ten years older than most of us. Jimmy Elliott was also a bit older and he was a real character; one of the funniest men I’ve ever met in my life.

David: How was Derek Meddings to work with, was he a good boss?
Ian:
He was good. He was hard - he was one of these that always used to say to us ‘Anticipate my next move’. So in other words if I need a screwdriver in my hand have that screwdriver ready to give to me, so when I hold out my hand its there.
He was a hard taskmaster, he really could be, but he had a lot of pressure on him because we had a schedule to keep, and we had to get it all done, but in other ways he was marvellous.

It was quite funny because Derek was one of these guys who always looked smart and never got dirty. At the end of the day we’d be looking like tramps and Derek still looked smart, I said ‘I don’t believe you Derek, look at the state of us and you look perfect’. The truth is he was probably as dirty as the rest of us because he never shirked getting stuck in, he was usually the first in there but he just always looked clean and smart!

He was also a great guy for thinking up shortcuts, that’s what he was very good at; he was great at getting things to work.

David: How would you start each day, would you review the film that you had shot previously?

Ian: Yes, you usually went into rushes and saw the film from the previous day (or even earlier that day) and decide if it was passable or if we had to re-shoot. I must say that the operation became pretty slick because you had a good team of boys who had been there some time and we were usually pretty good at what we were doing. There were some re-shoots because you would go to rushes and maybe see some silly little thing that you didn’t like and if the set was still there then you could re-shoot, but often the set wasn’t there and you had to evaluate if it was worth rebuilding. Once again it’s the old thing of schedules and money, because you had to stick to a certain schedule and get a certain amount of shots done each day.

David: Did you usually manage that or was there a lot of overtime?
Ian: There was a reasonable amount overtime, it would come at times when you’d get the odd episode that was probably a bit trickier than normal, say like ‘Attack of the Alligators’. I think we actually worked day and night on that through a weekend because we were using live alligators in the water tanks. Those alligators - or crocodiles I believe - were quite difficult to control. When we put them in the tank they would disappear and you wouldn’t see them for hours at a time, and then suddenly they’d come up and all you could see were their two eyes. Obviously for a film you wanted to see more of them than that so we tied them to the puppet control poles and pushed them out into the middle of the tank, so that you could see more of their bodies, otherwise they just didn’t want to perform. Maybe we weren’t paying them enough (laugh).

Ian standing in the water tank, as he prepares the Seascape oil rig model for the Thunderbirds episode 'Atlantic Inferno'
These things varied in size from about two-feet long to one that was four-foot long; that one spent most of the day sat in a box at the back of the stage and we covered it in wet rags to keep it moist. Over a period of several days you would forget that it was there then one day someone shouted ‘Look out’ and we turned round to see this big crocodile walking across the stage – which cleared of people very quickly!
Then there was the day when they were shooting some publicity photographs with it and a puppet of Lady Penelope. The puppet was standing right next to it and this crocodile was absolutely static, it was just stuck there without a single movement for what seemed like hours. Then suddenly it just turned round and got hold of this puppet and violently shook its head several times and there were bits of puppet flying in all directions (laugh). And I can remember the puppeteer, who was Christine Glanville, was in tears because this puppet was her baby. Poor Christine, but that’s the fun of filmmaking!

David: Was everything you did storyboarded?
Ian: Yes, that was very important, and we had to keep to those storyboards especially with model work like that. Now and again you may deviate a bit but basically that was our shooting bible.

David: Was there any competition between the units to see who could get the best shots?
Ian: Oh yes, definitely, it was very competitive in that way and quite honestly we really loved what we were doing from a work experience. We were all still young and impressionable in those days and it was fantastic - and it wasn’t like work in many ways.

David: Did you have any particular friends on the crew?
Ian: Well I don’t know how they all originally started but there was a group of guys who came from the Victoria area in London, Bill Camp, Ken Turner and Alan Berry and they became very good friends of mine. Jimmy Elliott was a very good friend too, and at one point I shared a house in Cookham village with Brian Loftus, Ian Scoones and Keith Wilson - who sadly died just recently.
All these guys were good friends, so much so that one year a big crowd of us all went down to Spain on holiday together. There were two or three different groups but it was the sort of place where we just all got on.

David: Roger Dicken worked on ‘Thunderbirds’ for a bit didn’t he?
Ian: Yes, he dressed like a Rock-and-Roller and was the most unlikely person that you would expect to make animated models. He was very good at his job and he was so into Prehistoric monsters, animation, Ray Harryhausen, and all that.
But he lived on his nerves and Derek would come into the workshop and say ‘Come on Roger we need that model now’ and Roger would be getting all upset that it wasn’t ready and the two would be arguing, and of course we (the crew) were terrible and we would try and wind both of them up just for the laugh. The pair of them was so funny.

David: What sort of day-to-day jobs were you expected to do there as an Effects Assistant?
Ian: Well it was a bit like a film school for effects men really because we did a bit of everything, so it was like a training facility. Because it was such a small studio we could become involved in everything, we learnt by looking through the cameras and sometimes even help operate them. You learned more about lenses and such like, leant about different camera speeds for different shots, you were rigging stuff and doing scaffold work, slinging lines across to fly the models. You would never get that experience as a special effects technician working on a big movie so it was very varied - plus the explosives, the pyrotechnics, that was obviously a new area to me.

David: Did you have a daily target for how many shots you had to achieve?
Ian: Yes we did, but don’t ask me what it was as it did vary a bit. It was hard going, it really was, we got there first thing in the day and we didn’t stop. And the other thing was that we had to build the sets ourselves, we didn’t have a construction crew come in and build the sets for us - we did the lot.
It was building the sets, modelling the background, even getting involved in painting the backings. Then you had to dress the sets, like if you were doing a big street scene you would be putting in the buildings and laying down grass (using special grass mats) and then dress and paint the edges of the road using lots of powder paints, and dressing the landscape to get the distance on the shots. It was very hard work and so by the end of the day we would be covered from head-to-foot in dirt and powder paints, and it got so bad that they actually had to install showers for us because we couldn’t leave the building in that state every day.

David: So the landscapes were literally just thrown together from a collection of bits?
Ian: Yes, all the rocks were sculpted from polystyrene and we would have a stock of these, all different sizes and colours, which we kept just outside the stage door. And we would go out and bring them in, set them in place by trying different ones and dressing them to camera, thinking ‘That looks good’ and sending someone to go and have a look through the camera and tell you what it looks like. Then you would dress the floor using a lot of silver sand, nearer the camera you would use the very small-scale grass matting and for the most distance stuff you would use coloured powders.

If we were doing the road we would colour the roadway not with paint but usually with grey and black powders. And you would put in the wear marks in the road where the cars had been; again doing it using brushes and powder paints so it was quite artistic to do that sort of stuff.

Behind the model mountains we would have cutouts of painted mountains and behind that we would have more mountains painted on the actual backing. There used to be a lot of work involved in doing it and we all used to jump in and get involved with doing the colouring of the set, which often meant changing the colour of the rocks if they didn’t suit that particular story. The rocks might have been in a desert the previous episode, or the Moon, so you had to get a spray outfit out and change the colour to suit the episodes requirements.

We used to use different scales of grass matting and lots of real stuff too, like lichen. That was a great lifesaver because you could use it for trees and hedges. For some trees we would build them from real bits of small tree branch and then spray them with this white adhesive material, I can’t quite remember what the product was but it was a bit like the snow-effect stuff we use today. Anyway we would spray this stuff onto the branches to create scale leaves and then spray it all green, and that used to work quite well for us.

David: The sky backgrounds always looked very good.
Ian: Yes, I’d say the person who did more of those than anyone was Derek himself; he was a very good artist because that was his background originally. He started out by working with Les Bowie who was originally a Matte artist and Derek was to have carried that on, but then like Les he moved on to more general effects work.

David: Did you ever have problems getting shadows on the backdrops?
Ian: We often had problems, if you could you would do a dry run to see if you got a shadow, but that wasn’t always possible. It was one thing that the Lighting Cameraman had to deal with all the time. They would often light to eliminate the shadow altogether or have the shadow appear well after the shot, in other words the shot was through and gone before the shadow appeared on the backing.

David: Who came up with the idea for the rolling backdrop?
Ian: The idea wasn’t new as it had been used in films back in the 1930s, although it probably just had a bloke with a handle and not a motor like ours. We also had the horizontal one, which had an attachment to it so that there would also be a foreground one that ran at a slightly different pace.
I can remember working on the episode where the big plane (the Fireflash) had to come down and land on the vehicles, that was a pig to do, getting it to land and everything to work right. You had the models on thin tungsten wires and if one of them broke your model would go ‘whoosh’ past your head (laugh) and you were picking up the pieces, then into the workshop to get the glue out. But it did all work out well in the end.

David: Did the belts ever come off?
Ian: We did occasionally have problems; the sky backing was the worst one because obviously gravity was pulling it down. It was made from rubberised canvas and it was on rollers that you could tension at each end to hold it up there, but it did move down. At a later stage it was modified and wheels were put around the top to support it and stop the problem.

David: I guess that one of your jobs would have been to light the Jetex motors, I assume that they were ignited manually?
Ian: Oh yes the Jetex motors, we used those in the models to kick up dust under the vehicles as they went down the road. We probably sent Jetex shares soaring at that time for the amount we used (laugh). Basically it was just an off-the-shelf product made of cheap bronzed-metal, it came in two halves and it had a spring clip on the top that you would latch over. You would put the two Jetex rocket fuels in there, half pellets (bit like slug pellets), and then you put a fuse filter in there, coil it up and poke it through the end, put the lid back on, clip it over and fix it into the vehicles with little spring clips. It was usually lit by hand, not electrically, usually by leaving out a trailing fuse or by poking a light underneath. We’d dust the road with powder paint, lit the fuse, turn over the camera, and then pull the model car down the road and so you’d get all this dust flying up, which gave it some action and made it look more realistic.

David: In Alan Shubrook’s book Century 21 FX: Unseen, Untold there’s a good picture of you trying to catch the big Thunderbird 2 as it leaves the launch ramp (feature film version). Was catching the models a common job?
Ian: Yes, you usually were due to the space restrictions in the studio. If you were shooting at high speed and you wanted a model to come through fast you had to get it up to speed very quickly. We pulled the models through on running wires, we had a running wire above, a very taught piano wire, and we used to run a tube along it with the model hanging from what we use to call a crucifix with screw-eyes in. That model had to get up to speed very quick, because you’re shooting at high speed, and you’ve got to stop it quickly as well. So these things were hanging there on very thin tungsten wires and so we use to try and catch them, to save them from smashing into the tower that was supporting the wire and also to try and stop the wires from breaking. Because you often wanted to do a second take and you don’t want to have to rewire the model again. So it was very important that you caught this thing.
David: Did you ever build any of the models?
Ian: No not a great deal. I wasn’t involved in the model workshop, I used to get involved in repairing them but I wasn’t actually one of the model makers. If I remember rightly Ray Brown ran the Model Workshop and there was also Peter Ashton and they were both very good.

David: Apparently some of the models were made from Balsa wood at the beginning to keep them light, before fibreglass ones were used?
Ian: That may have been the case, but Balsa wood didn’t necessarily make the models lighter because you can’t always get the very thin shapes, or the finish on it, that you can get with a fibreglass model. And the fibreglass ones were actually pretty light.

The worse one was Thunderbird 2, because it was so big it was quite heavy and then on top of that every time it crashed down on the floor it was a case of rushing it into the model shop for a quick repair with Cataloy (car body filler) and then back onto the set. As time went on this model actually got heavier and heavier (laugh) and it was falling off as much as it was staying in the air! So it was almost counter-productive to repair it in this way, but that’s how it happened.

Left: With it's crew disabled the massive Crablogger ploughs a 'Path of Destruction' in a classic Thunderbirds episode.

David: I guess the models were designed to look good and so were not always very practical. I was looking at the Crablogger photos and thinking how was such a massive model moved through the scenes.
Ian: Well if we didn’t use a wire there were often times when we used to just push these models in, we would have a rod and hide it down the back and push it along. Or we would have a rod going down through the set and someone pulling it through.

It was harder to get the models to turn, the vehicles all had small axles on them with a bit of steering so the wheels could turn and suspension, which was usually done with foam rubber, to get the movement. Basically we had a slot in the centre of the set and they were pulled by someone underneath, or someone at the side.
We had a system (which worked on the overhead models as well) that if a model was on a wire and we again needed to get them up to speed we would use bicycle wheels, and we put a little drum on the bicycle wheel so it was like a gear, so it was 2:1 or 6:1 or something like that. So you pulled the cable on the small drum and just ran with it and the model wire was attached to a large drum, so this gearing allowed the model to get up to speed very quickly.
There were times when you had a very long run and you had to run out the stage door and into the corridor just pulling this model. The fact is we didn’t have the time or money to get more sophisticated than that, it was pretty much all manual where possible. We did have motors on a few things - but very few things!

David: When people talk about wires they often think of just fishing lines.
Ian: It was fishing lines, steel cables, string, it was all different things depending on the time we had. We had one particular cable that we used a lot to pull stuff on and that was called a lay-flat cable, which was very thin bonded wire. We used that mainly because it didn’t stretch and we got better feedback through it, whereas if you used a fishing line it would be very bouncy.
With the tungsten support wires we could feed electrical power down to the models, but if you used too much power they would just burn out and snap and down would go the model. So you had to know just how much you could use because most of the time we over-ran all the bulbs in the models, in other words if it was a 6-volt bulb we would run it up to 12-volt or even more to make it as bright as possible. But by doing that it became quite easy to use more power than the tungsten wire liked then puff it would burn-out, especially if it was under tension which it usually was.

David: How did you attach the wires to the models?
Ian: A lot of the time if there wasn’t a little hole or something we would put little dress pins into the model, and just go round the pinhead. But where you had to be careful with tungsten wire is that you mustn’t kink it, you must not turn it back on itself, or it just breaks very easily. That’s actually how we used it, once we’d run a length out we would just kink it and it would break. But obviously you didn’t want that to happen on the model so you had to be very careful how you tied it on and we used to use things like a Fisherman’s knot where you wouldn’t kink it.
With some models, like Thunderbirds 1 and 3, you could attach it with a single wire through the nose. On the take-off shots we use to try and get it so that the support wire was directly above the model so that it wouldn’t want to move in any other direction. But sometimes you did see the odd one where the model used to spin a bit, but we usually got it looking pretty good with the rockets firing underneath.

David: Did the person holding the model activate the rockets?
Ian: No that was usually done by someone else. On some models we had to run the feed down the wires but at other times, like the Thunderbird 1 take-off, we would put the electrical ignition up through from underneath the set and into the rocket pod, so that wasn’t actually attached to the model and that was the easier way of doing it. (This can be seen in some episodes as a burning wire protruding up from the landscape set.)

David: Has anyone ever pointed out to you that the four rockets that fired when Thunderbird 2 landed, or took-off, were actually put into the holes for the legs – not the holes for the thrusters!
Ian: I’ve never given that any thought to be honest, and I don’t think anyone else ever did! (laugh)
I mean Derek designed all these models but he wasn’t actually very practical as such, so perhaps he didn’t think of it and nobody else did.

David: Were you often pulling the models along?
Ian: Oh yes I was, there were certain people who were good at flying the models and pulling them along. I seemed to have a bit of a talent for it so I often became one of the operators; another person who was good at it was Peter Wragg.
This wasn’t always a good thing because you usually ended up on top of the tower holding Thunderbird 2 or one of the others. I keep harking on about Thunderbird 2 because it was ‘The Pig’ of all the models, it was a nice model but it was so big and heavy and you used to be standing out there holding this thing from the wooden crucifix (with the four wires hanging down) and you were standing out on a plank that was bending under the weight – it was almost like walking the plank on a Pirate ship! And not only that but this plank was tied to a tower, and we used to put a couple of big steel oxygen bottles on it to counter-weight it, but the trouble is that often you were so far out that the tower was starting to move a bit. So you were on a plank that was bending, on a tower that was moving, and you were out there holding a very expensive model with your hands actually shaking from the weight.
And you also had to hold it most of the time because they were colouring the wires – we had powder puffers, and powder paints with different tones and they had to be applied to match the backgrounds. And so with a combination of lighting, the puffers, powder paint and anti-flare spray we used to get rid of the wires, because in those days we didn’t have CGI to get rid of the wires we had to do it live on the set.

David: I think Derek also referred to Thunderbird 2 as being a bit of a pig too!
Ian: Well Thunderbird 2 had the highest failure rate just because of its bulk. If it had been a real vehicle I don’t know how it could have ever flown quite honestly (laugh) but that probably goes for all of them up to a point. Thunderbird 2 was the hardest one and it was the one that was used more than any other, it was in every episode and with different Pods.

David: Talking of Pods, how did it actually stay in position, did you just normally jam something like Plasticine (modelling clay) into the gaps to hold it?
Ian: You know I can’t actually think back on this one, I was hoping that you wouldn’t ask me that one (laugh). The Pod was fibreglass and too heavy for Plasticine to hold it. There was some sort of bracket but I can’t remember if it was underneath or inside, but we did use something to secure it.

David: In a lot of these behind-the-scenes pictures we can clearly see the roof and the crew are actually up against it.
Ian: Oh yes that’s right, we were up in the roof and all the heat just went up there too. Because we were shooting high-speed there were two or three times the amount of lights as normal and it was HOT, most of the time we just wore shorts and nothing else and the sweat was just pouring off us!

David: Did they have extractors installed?
Ian: There were extractors there but as you know extractors never seem to do what they claim. I’ve been going into different buildings all my life, especially on film sets and big stages like Pinewood and Shepperton, and you hear the extractors roaring away but the smoke and fumes seem to stay exactly the same. So yes they did have extractors, but because we used to need black smokes in there - which to make black smoke you have to burn something, usually from smoke candles - and white smoke and do explosions with naphthalene the atmosphere inside those buildings was pretty grim at times.

David: Did you usually wear masks?
Ian: We did have masks but at times they were just impractical to use. We used to do explosions and because the stuff was so close to us we all wore protective gear, helmets, facemasks, fireproof jackets, because we were really close to these things. It wasn’t like the explosion was in the field next-door you were almost in amongst it. It was miniature stuff and it was right close to camera and we were doing it in buildings that really weren’t properly suitable for that type of work.
So at the end of the shot it would be ‘CUT’ and there were times when you just stood there and you couldn’t see where you were, you didn’t know which way to turn, because the smoke was so thick. And you had to wait for someone to open a couple of big doors and put on some fans to blow it all out of the building.

David: So how big were these explosions and did you mix them at all?
Ian: Well some of them usually used to hit the roof – although the roof wasn’t that far away! We were all allowed to do it and some people got into it more than others. I used to love learning how to mix it up. There was an art to doing small explosions as opposed to the big ones; I think its harder in many ways.

David: Derek sometimes called them ‘soft explosions’, did they have much power to them?
Ian: Well they could have power. When he says ‘soft’ it usually means a pyrotechnic which is a powder, like black powder etc. And when you say ‘hard’ you usually mean high-explosive, which is dynamite, plastic explosive, and things like that. You can make a little charge quite dangerous, or bigger, by just ‘tamping’ it. Tamping means either wrapping it much harder or putting it in a confined space so that it has to work harder to get out.

David: And they worked fine in the water tank?
Ian: Yes they did work in the water if you could keep them dry before you let them off, which we did in various ways like putting them in bottles and such like.

David: I noticed in some of the shots in ‘Captain Scarlet’ that when an explosion occurred all the powder paints on the floor would lift into the air, which looked very realistic.
Ian: That was basically the shockwave from the explosives, sometimes it used to work for us and sometimes it didn’t and that used to work quite well. Sometimes things happen better than you think they would, and occasionally unexpected things would happen. At times you can spend hours trying to get something to work and then something else would just happen spontaneously.

John Richardson who did the first ‘Omen’ film, where they cut the head off on the pane of glass and then the head spun on the glass, said to me ‘We didn’t do that, it just happened’. Everyone said that it was ‘Terrific’ but he said they just got lucky! Funny enough I thought Derek was one of the luckiest special effects guys I ever met because when we did things we would say to him ‘Shall we do this, and that, to make sure that it works’ and he would say ‘No forget about it’ and it would work just fine. But if you did it the next day it wouldn’t work at all, he was lucky that way.

David: Did things ever go wrong?
Ian: Sometimes. I remember a time on ‘Stingray’ with Ian Scoones when there was an underwater shot where one of those Terror Fish was blown up by a missile. We were filming through the fish-tank and we had this missile coming in on a wire where it hits this model and then goes BOOM. As soon as this happened we were to cut the support wires to make the model drop, and that model wasn’t rigged on the overhead wires but a horizontal wire because the idea was that it was easier to cut that wire and get the model to fall cleanly. I can remember we spent hours getting this thing prepared, it was a real tricky shot to do, we got it all ready and then the shout came ‘Turn over’, so the cameras are running but then something was wrong so the call went out ‘CUT, CUT’. So Ian thought it was his queue and cut the wires - silly boy. Old Derek was livid and shouts ‘SCOONES YOU’RE A C**T! (laugh).
It was hilarious, but we all ended up doing things like that, it had to happen, it was inevitable when you were working at that pace. Sometimes we would do five major shots a day and it was a lot of work, and as soon as you’d done one it was right strip it down, sling it out, and get the next one in. But we did have fun too.

Right: Ian (centre) working on the set during the filming of Thunderbird 6. The camera shoots through a partial model of the Tiger Moth wings to get an aerial view of Lady Penelope's home.

David: They started making Thunderbird feature films, do you remember much of this. You did actually get a screen credit for ‘Thunderbird 6’, did that mean you got more cash?
Ian:
I can’t remember getting more cash (laugh) but yes I did get a credit, prior to that not many of us got screen credits. That was in the days when you go to see a film at the cinema and only the special effects supervisor usually got a mention.
I did a little bit of work on the first one, but I was sort of in-and-out on that. The first film was more Shaun Whittacker-Cook and Richard Conway, I would just come in if they needed more hands on it – I remember being involved when we were letting off all the fireballs with the Rock-Snakes on Mars.

David: So you couldn’t answer the question ‘Why was Mars Grey?’
I mean they fly to the Red Planet and it looks just like the Moon!

Ian: I can’t answer that one, I can’t remember if we had photographs of Mars at that time so we obviously didn’t know if the surface was actually that red. Maybe they did tests using different coloured surfaces and they found out that it really didn’t work, or perhaps it was the most practical and best looking for that scene in the film.

David: Did the team split at this point because ‘Captain Scarlet’ was being done around the time of the later Thunderbird film?
Ian: Yes, I started on ‘Captain Scarlet’ but Derek was going to direct the effects on ‘Thunderbird 6’ and he asked me to go on it with him. ‘Thunderbird 6’ was good because obviously the budget was higher than normal and so you got to do things bigger and probably better than you had done before. For example we built a very big-scale motorway bridge out in a field near to Booker Airfield at High Wycombe, so that you could use the real background and sky as part of the model shot as we flew the model Tiger Moth underneath the bridge.
They also did it for real as they were still building the M40 motorway at that time. They got a pilot, called Joan Hughes, and she actually flew the plane underneath this new motorway bridge. She wasn’t supposed to as she was only supposed to taxi it and the Ministry man, who was there at the time, went absolutely bananas (laugh), but she was a brilliant pilot.
Of course we could repeat the stunt in miniature and we used to fly our planes under the model bridge. But the model plane was thrown out of balance quite badly by the small puppet figures on the wings and it was very difficult to get that model back into balance, as a result it piled into the bridge on quite a few occasions.

David: What did you think to the puppet programs?
Ian: I loved them, because at that time they were something totally new, they became very big, they became the ‘in-thing’ you know. In those days if you said that you worked on ‘Thunderbirds’ then they really thought you were wonderful, and this was in the days of the swinging sixties, and so we were quite well thought of by everybody. It was fun, it was groundbreaking really because nobody had ever shot models like that before.

David: With ‘Captain Scarlet’ they introduced the more life-like puppets.
Ian: Yes, a lot of people thought that they lost something then. When we first saw them we thought the heads were too small, they were actually the right scale but I always thought they were too small - and even looking at them now I still get that feeling! And I think a lot of people believe that that was a mistake to make them look too realistic, and to have kept the characterization of the bigger heads, it worked better for what they were.

David: Here’s another daft question but I have to ask. On ‘Captain Scarlet’ the SPV had tracks on the back that pivot down, but they were never used. I wonder if it was an effect that couldn’t be made to work?
Ian: I can never remember those tracks going down at all, certainly not in any of the episodes that I was involved with. I think it was something that was possibly designed because it looked good, but I can’t remember them ever being used while I was there. I think comments were made by a few of us at the time about ‘What are those tracks for’, and people just looked at each other and ‘Well they do nothing so lets carry on’ (laugh).

I remember one day that some comedian had gone up into the roof and put two large eyes there and underneath had written ‘Derek Meddings is a Mysteron’ (laugh). But no one ever admitted to it.

David: I believe that you worked on ‘Doppelganger’. Was it good to be working on a ‘proper’ film with real actors?
Ian: Yes that was good to work on, once again it was a bit bigger budget than the TV programs and we had a chance to do more things. I’d been at the studios since ‘Stingray’ so I was one of the longest serving members there and it was nice to be getting into other things and doing ‘floor effects’, which is something that I did in the later years, moving away from the model work and into the big practical floor effects with real people. You were meeting actors that you had only seen on the big screen, like Ian Hendry, Patrick Wymark and Roy Thinnes - who at that time was the star of an American series (‘The Invaders’) and was a big name.

So it was more like the glamour side of the business and nice to be doing it, and once again the models were bigger and there was better stuff to do. Like for the rocket take-off where we built it outside between the two stages, and we had two big 40-foot towers with a ladder beam across for the rocket to be pulled up on, so you were looking up at real sky away from the Slough Trading Estate. Unfortunately something happened on the first take and it got jammed on the launch platform. When we fired the rockets the support arms were supposed to jump back to release the vehicle and then off it went. However when we were shooting it the arms didn’t move, I can’t remember exactly what the problem was but one of the cables must have snapped. So suddenly we were sitting there and found that we couldn’t move it, and those rockets were going and once they ignite that’s it. There were three 2-inch diameter rockets in that thing, they we BIG, and they did quite a lot of damage. And you couldn’t really put it out easily, just trying to get up to the model in the first place was hard work and then spraying it to try and put it out, by the time you got there the damage was already done!

David: Did you have any problems keeping the miniatures in focus?
Ian: Yes you did. One of the things you do is split your focus so that you try to hold the background and foreground reasonable well in focus. Because if you focus like say in a normal film where they are focusing on the actors you can notice that the background often goes soft, or if they’re talking to a character in the foreground they can go a bit soft. With ours, to try and make it look more natural, we used to try and split the focus and to do this we used to use wide-angle lenses all the time. So rather than keep the camera still and put on a narrow-angle lens, where you would have more of a problem with focus, you would keep using the wide-angle lens and just push the camera in closer to the set.

David: When these new models appeared on stage were there any times that you thought ‘How are we going to make this work’?
Ian: You used to get certain ones that were a problem; the worst was the UFO with the spinning top. We used to think how the hell are we going to suspend this on wires, and then keep it steady, because the only way to get a fixing was from the top bit that didn’t spin. So we would have a main wire from the centre and splay the wires out – and sometimes put a wire out to the side to stop it moving round too much. But it was a pain, every time to fly that thing was a pain! Also aerodynamically it was just totally wrong (laugh). On any model you would find the centre of balance on but on that thing you couldn’t – I mean if you just held it in your hand it would be wobbling!

David: I think ‘UFO’ was the high point in the effects work, the Shado Mobiles driving through the forest looked pretty real.
Ian: I think that over a period of time we had learnt little things as we went along, how to shoot the models, how to make them, what was the best scale, how to weight the models, make the suspensions so they looked more natural, etc, etc. It was something that had evolved. On ‘UFO’ I started on the models, because the effects started up before the live-action, but then I moved more over onto the live-action effects side of it. I was forever backwards and forwards between Slough and Elstree with the car loaded up with bits and pieces, explosives and such like. In those days Elstree Studio, like Pinewood, had its own in-house special effects department so I always used to use one of their guys to help me out, which was normally Trevor Neighbour.

David: The flying effects were slightly different this time with what looked like real clouds.
Ian: Yes, we had a base layer of dry-ice and then we would mix it with different types of smoke, two or three smoke machines would be used as some would give you a better layer than others. Plus sometimes you would send the smoke down through the dry-ice to mix it, so that it would hang there that bit longer. And you had to time it, and wait till it was ready, and then you would say 'It looks good. Turnover, go'. It worked very well.

David: I think that you had more space to do the ‘UFO’ effects as you had taken over the empty puppet stages.
Ian: I’m not sure as I think there was an overlap at some point with some puppet stuff still being done, as they may have still been filming ‘The Secret Service’. It was a shame really because they did still have the opportunity to continue shooting puppets, but Gerry just didn’t want to know as all through his life he had wanted to shoot live-action. I think he made a mistake then and should have found a way to keep shooting the puppet stuff, trimming it down so that it wasn’t so expensive. That way I think it could have carried on for several more years. However you have to give him credit with what it did at the time, but I guess he had a love-hate relationship with the puppets and just wanted to get away from them and do live-action only – and he did shoot some good live-action stuff.

David: Did you see Gerry or Sylvia on the sets much?
Ian: You used to see them daily. Old Gerry was marvellous because when I first started he said ‘There will be times when you are very busy and other times when you’ve done your thing and are sat down having a cup of tea. I’m not worried if I come in and find you’re having a snooze in the corner because if you’re not doing your job I’ll soon find out. So don’t worry about seeing me and having to jump up and start working, because if you have to do that then there is something wrong.’ And he was marvellous like that. I got on well with Gerry and I’ve got a tremendous amount of admiration for him, he gave me my first break and he did a marvellous job with all those films.
........................................................................................... Below: Filming the Shado Mobiles as they hunt for aliens in the UFO episode 'Computer Affair'.

David: When ‘UFO’ was coming to the end did you realise that it was the ‘last’ show?
Ian: It was difficult to believe I’ll say that. I was one of the last people there and I can remember having to chuck all these models in skips and I actually ended up with a Thunderbird 2! We were throwing everything out because in those days there wasn’t a market for film memorabilia, it just wasn’t valuable until years later. I saw this Thunderbird 2 and I thought I’m going to have a memento and so I said to Gerry ‘Could I have something’ and he said ‘Take what you want’, and so I had it and everything else was skipped.

So I actually had this model but unfortunately over the years I’ve lost it!
I have had fans of ‘Thunderbirds’ phoning me to say ‘We’re heard you have this model would you be interested in selling it’. So I went to look for it as I thought it was in the loft, or down where I store my equipment, and I just couldn’t find it. So I asked my wife and she said ‘I think you threw it out during one of your famous clearouts’ – can you believe me doing that?

David: It would probably be worth about £50,000 now!
Ian: Tell me about it (laugh). But I do now bitterly regret not having that Thunderbird 2. I’d love to have it, not necessarily to sell it, but just to have it. Because that was an important part of my life, where I first learnt about special effects. It was like a film school and you were paid to learn these things, and it was so much fun working on those models and it was so creative. I really enjoyed it there and it was a great bunch of people. Good days, they really were good days.
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
I would like to thank the following
Ian Wingrove for kindly inviting me into his home and answering every question I could think of!
Dennis Lowe for his enthusiasm and taking the time to arrange and film the interview.
CLICK HERE to visit Dennis Lowes website to view the filmed version of this interview

Alan and Martin Shubrook for generously allowing the use of their photographs from
their superb books '
Century 21 FX: Unseen, Untold' and 'Special Effects Superman'
Visit their site here

Other photographs supplied by Ian Wingrove and Phil Rae.

Gerry Anderson production photographs ITC Entertainment Group Ltd
No infringement of copyright is intended - non-profit fan interest site only.
David Sisson 2011

BACK TO INDEX ..... or ..... INTERVIEW SELECTION