Behind The Scenes!

Behind the Scenes

We're in a fortunate position here to have had access to information about the goings on behind the scenes on Thomas, have a read at these...

The Voice Recording of Series 16

Elliot poses with the crew for a photo!
 
(L to R) Elliot, Ian McCue (Producer), Sharon Miller (Voice Director), Dave Peacock (Studio Manager), Keith Wickham (Voice Artist) and Ben Small (Voice Aritst)

On Wednesday, 8th June 2011, I visited the Sound Company in Gosfield Street, London for my 18th Birthday. I was there to attend an actual recording session of Thomas & Friends and to see how they do the voice recording on the CGI Series. The Sound Company is the same studio where they do voice recording for many TV shows and films for the UK and US such as; The Magic Roundabout (2005 film), Valiant, Wallace and Gromit films: ‘The Curse of the Were-Rabbit’ and ‘A Matter of Loaf and Death,’ Peppa Pig, The Mr. Men Show, Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom, Olivia and Yoko! Jakamoko! Toto!

Sound Company Desk

We at the studios at 14:00, the reception is very beautiful, it has comfy sofas, its own TV and old fashioned games like Space Invaders to play. After waiting for 10 minutes, the Producer on Thomas & Friends, Ian McCue, met us. He was the same guy who helped us organise my visit. Ian then took us upstairs to Studio 3, which looked very fancy with all the film posters on display on the left side of the room. There are two desks, one near the door; this is where Ian McCue sits and a larger desk with all the machines and computers that the Voice Directors work on.

I met the manager of the studio, Dave Peacock, who is one of the Voice Directors on the Series, but he mention that he gets no credit for his work. I also met old faces like Sharon Miller (Voice Director) and Keith Wickham (Voice Artist on Thomas) who I had met from the Thomas Premieres in Leicester Square.

Elliot converses with the crew

We then started to have a nice chat while we were waiting for Ben Small to arrive. I was attending Ben’s recording session and the session was to start at 14:30 till 16:00. Sharon Miller told me that Michael Angelis, Teresa Gallagher and Kerry Shale had all done their recording sessions earlier that day, but they all had other commitments to attend to so I didn’t get to meet them unfortunately. Keith Wickham had finished his recording session when I arrived, but luckily, he was able to stay for my visit. According to Sharon and Dave, Michael Angelis or Brandon is the first person that records their voice on Thomas for each time a recording session is on because the Sound Company does the narration first before the voices for the characters.

After 10 minutes Ben Small finally arrived at Studio 3 and was even happier to see me because I was there to support him in his recording session. It was 14:20 so we had another chat to pass the time. I even brought Krispy Kreme Doughnuts for us all to share, Keith started to ‘attack’ the doughnuts and we all laughed. 14:30 soon came and we all got into our positions to start the voice recording, the excitement began to fill up in my chest!

Elliot with Ben Small

I sat at the main desk next to Sharon and Dave, the voice recording booth is in front of the desk, the actor/actress opens a door on the left side of the room, down a narrow hall which was 20 yards long, opens another door on the right and then enters the room where they start recording their voice. The room has a huge sound proof glass where Ben can be able to see us, the main desk have a microphone that we can turn on in order to speak to Ben, but we turn it off when we record the voice. The voice recording booth has a small TV Screen with footage from the Thomas episode on it. There is a huge plasma TV Screen in the main room of the studio that is drilled to the top of the room, above the sound-proof glass so we can watch the episodes too. When they record the voice, they play the footage of the episode and white text appears so that Ben can say his dialogue in order to follow the sync of Thomas’ lip movement. There is a small yellow line in the centre of the screen, as soon as the text hits this line; Ben begins to record his dialogue for Thomas.

Sharon and Dave hold a copy of the script so that they can change any lines if they need to. The voice artist doesn’t need a script because they have a TV Screen with the footage and the text appears so that they can record their lines.

 

We soon began to record Ben’s lines. For each recording session, they do two episodes respectively. The first episode we recorded was just a brief scene at Brendam Docks; Ben only had 2 lines for this episode. Dave then used a computer that can be able to skip scenes back and forth; Ben mentioned that this actually staggers him and all the other voice artists because if they’re skipping the scenes, the voice artists don’t know the proper story plot.

Elliot enjoys some chocolate cake

Then we went onto the second episode. It takes about 3 or 4 times to get the voice to sound right for Thomas, e.g. the panicked voices or the yawning.

 

After Ben finished his lines, we all watched the finished result which also meant I actually saw one of the Series 16 episodes in its entirety. Some of the footage was not in its final render as some were still in pre-viz mode (similar to the Hero of the Rails footage on Nitrogen’s website), but the facial expressions and the lip sync on the characters were not static.

 

Another surprise was installed for me; a staff member of the Sound Company came with a birthday chocolate cake and Ben, Keith, Sharon, Ian and Dave all sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to me. We all had one slice each, very tasty chocolate!  All too soon, my visit then came to an end. 

A big thank you is due to Sharon Miller and Dave Peacock for watching the recording on Series 16, to Ian McCue for taking his time in order and help to arrange this visit and the birthday presents and to HiT Entertainment for making this visit possible.

 

It truly was a fantastic adventure in The World of Thomas & Friends and I hope I will be able to attend another recording session some day.

Behind The Scenes Of Series 12

On 14th January 2008, I visited Shepperton Studios, along with the Day Out With Thomas Project Manager of HIT Entertainment, to see how the Thomas The Tank Engine & Friends TV Show is made.  For those that don’t know Shepperton is part of the Pinewood group which collectively produce all the major films and TV shows in the UK, such as James Bond, Harry Potter, Last Of the Sumer Wine, The Weakest Link etc

We arrived at the studios at 11:00, the site is massive, it has own taxi company, refreshments rooms everything. A guy called Matt Porter, who is Head Of Production on the show, met us.  Unfortunately this is point where my camera left me, as I could not take any photos once inside the main buildings. (shame!!!) A sacrifice well made all the same.

Most of the buildings we saw are like aeroplane sheds and they were everywhere probably around 80 – 120 foot in height, the same in width and a minimum of 200 foot long. These was just buildings for the smaller filming requirements, we did not see those required for big film productions.

Matt told us the basic history of filming the show at Shepperton and that it has been moved from stage E where the first series was filmed all the through to stage L the current stage. As the show got bigger so did the need for bigger filming space and workshops to accompany it. The giveaway, as to which stage we were visiting, would have been the huge image of Thomas on the buildings side.

Opposite stage L was a building about 40 foot in height, 80 foot width and about 100 foot length this was the Thomas Workshop. Inside the shop was every tool imaginable. They could have recreated full size trains in there. There was 2 rows of workbenches going down one side of the room.

David Eves has worked on Thomas since day one. He is in charge of everything that happens in the workshop. He told us what happened in the workshop and the preparation ready for filming.  Everything apart from railway vehicle wheels is built on site. Wheels are bought in from specialist model makers.  When there is a request for new characters, David has a look at the storylines, some designs and then searches for pictures and information on real locomotives that are similar in some ways to the designer’s request.

Once David and designers are happy with the basic loco, several designs are done i.e. different colours, facial expressions etc before the prototype are built.  Once the designs are agreed, detailed line drawing from all angles are done with exact information on size, scale, colours etc. The prototype is then built  Any last minute changes are then made and the character goes into production.

Several facial expressions are done to accompany the line drawing, each character used to have between 7-10 faces, this has been reduced to 5-7 depending on how many / what roles the new character will have in the current series. Thomas has the most between 40-50 faces have been made, some are newer improved faces from the earlier series. Several of the major support cast have between 15-25.

Very little other then wheels are actually bought in, sometime model railway items are bought from local shops either to use or to be a guide for a new item to be made to fit in with filming.

Each workbench had something different happenning. On one a Harold The Helicopter was being repainted and the mechanism of another Harold being looked at.   The next had trees on it and it was explained that there are hundreds of model trees. Trees for summer, winter spring, autumn and specialist trees like ones that are striked by lighting or falling onto tracks and roads. There was a specialist tree that was being finished for a feature in a new episode. Next to it was a newer improved red balloon, again going to be used in a new episode.

Further on was a model of Rosie stripped back to basics. The model was bare, made of brass and taken apart so we could see how it worked. The eyes are 2 balls that are linked together and sit in a plastic case that acts as the smokebox door cover on the front of an engine. If anyone has seen the film Short Circuit, it looked a bit like the robot on that with wires all around it’s eyes, only this was on a much smaller scale. I won’t say how the eyes actually work but it’s impressive. So much electronics are packed into those tiny areas.

At the next bench a lady was busy with plans for a new character and new feature for one of the new stories. She explained how it is made and showed some rough model faces that had been made with the spare materials. The new character’s line drawing was on the wall next to her.

The next bench had one of the new characters that had just recently finished being painted. Again we saw some facial expressions that were going to be made. Blacktac, a lot sticker then bluetac hold on the faces. According to Matt, blacktac is used on nearly everything, as it is a quick fix.

The next bench had a model of Whiff being looked at along with the tender of a new character engine.  On the bench opposite was the line drawing for this engine and colour photo’s of what is the engine was based on.

Across the other side of the room was a large-scale model of Thomas. It stood about 1.5 feet tall. Inside the cab was fully detailed as though it was a real steam engine. Gauge glasses, regulator, steam brake, handbrake, injectors, pressure gauges, everything. It was in great detail. These types of models are used for close ups of the cab with the driver and fireman in. There were also 2 of James’s tenders. A large scale red one and a standard size black and yellow one.

The model team was great; all of them spared a few minutes of their time to explain about their work. We thanked them for there time, but the best was yet to come.

We left the workshop and entered stage L. The Island Of Sodor.

As you walk in you stare straight at a model set, which has the biggest camera hanging above it. The camera runs along rails above the set and can move to any part of the set. There are wires and pipes going underneath the set. This to electrify the rails and makes steam come up through the set. The sets are about 30f by 30f square on wheels. Whilst one set is being filmed another is being built. Whilst a set is being built some of the models are tested to make sure everything works prior to the start of filming. Hanging off the walls are 4 sky effects, one blue with clouds, 1 for evening / early morning, 1 is winter / cloudy and I is just plan sky blue. The skies go 3/4 around the set so all the area is covered and are about 30 foot in height. One thing to note is that all scenes needing that set for the series i.e. the docks is filmed at once. One set like the main sheds could appear in at least 10 stories. The sets have tiny holes in them where smoke and fog like effects can come through.

There were 4 large TV screens in one part where the show’s director Steve Asquith and his team were controlling the set. Behind them was a board with the episode numbers running across and to the left the scene needed in a grid when a scene has been completed that particular box is coloured in. Only 25 still photos are taken per episode, so only 1 or 2 per scene. These are for books etc.

We watched them film for around 5 minutes, the shot involved Thomas, Percy and one of the new characters. Matt then took us the back of the room where on a stacked shelving was some of the models and sets. The model characters needed for the series are decided by the director and his team and they are then taken out of storage. There are 9 containers full of models and sets.

The buildings are fantastic to detail, a lot of time and effort goes into sets to try and make it as realistic as possible. Matt explained that there are 3 model sizes that gets used in the main filming. The narrow gauge engines are actually built to a bigger size then the standard gauge engines, reason being more detail can be put onto the little engines. There is also a Jack gauge, as The Pack was also built to a scale larger then the standard gauge engines. This series will cost around 2.5m with a filming cost of about 1,000 an hour. Although parts of different episodes are filmed during the day, it takes about 5 days to film each episode. Although the sets are excellent due to budget and timescale the sets can sometimes not be as realistic as the team would like. But they do make every effort to try, you can tell by the quality of the buildings, particularly the station buildings. One of the guys on set is actually re-building a full size traction engine so his knowledge has often come into good use. We had a quick chat about Shackerstone (the heritage railway I work on) and what happens on a Day Out With Thomas event, he had heard of us. A lot of the new series voice recordings will be done in a portable van so as to be easier for new storyteller Pierce Brosnan, as he will be working on other projects as well as Thomas.  Music is added at a studio not too far away from Shepperton.

Our visit then came to an end.  Out of respect and trust for being allowed on set certain information have not been mentioned.

A big thank you is due to David Eves and his workshop team, to Steve Asquith and crew for letting us watch the filming, to Matt Porter for taking the time to give the tour and to HIT Entertainment for making it possible.

It truly was a great Day Out With Thomas The Tank Engine & Friends.

The Making Of Thomas The Tank Engine

Thomas the Tank Engine has steamed through many a childhood since the Reverend Wilbert Awdry began writing stories about the little blue locomotive 40 years ago. The books are wonderful, but the TV adaptations – well, they’re wonderful too. To find out how the producers of Shining Time Station achieve such stunning results, I visited the famous Shepperton studios on the outskirts of London.

 

It all began 12 years ago, when executive producer Britt Allcroft was working on a film about the ago of steam. The film’s technical consultant was none other than the Rev. Awdry, and Allcroft began thinking about interpreting his creations as TV characters. To some observers, a children’s series starring a steam locomotive seemed a big gamble – this was the age of space epics ad Steven Speilberg. Reverend Awdry himself was concerned that TV might destroy the delicate, period quality that the original book illustrations conveyed. He was a stickler for accuracy. He need not have worried. Authenticity became a major goal, and speciality bookshops were scoured for reference works.

Edward gets a dusting down by Bob Gauld Galliers
Edward gets a dusting down by Bob Gauld Galliers

The Locomotives

For the pilot film, the train models were scratch built from plastic. However, the problems were many and varied. To obtain better reliability, the producers turned to Marklin’s superbly engineered O Scale [1] locomotives with their die-cast metal frames. They added new acrylic bodies with radio-controlled eyes.

 

To come off well on film, smoke must be quite dense. Marklin’s smoke system wasn’t quite up to the challenge, so it was replaced with one developed by the show’s staff and employing the chemical titanium tetrachloride. The engines were fitted with rubber bellows that pump air across the TTC, producing a chemical reaction and plenty of smoke. The bellows are used to crank and geared to the wheels, creating a totally authentic puffing effect. The steam that appears around the cylinders and wheels is produced by two smoke machines pushed by compressed air along pipes and up through holes in the set. The same smoke is used for background chimneys and to create fog and mist.

The many faces of Thomas The Tank Engine!
The many faces of Thomas The Tank Engine!

The Many Faces Of Thomas

Those removable faces bring the characters alive, even though the only moving parts are the eyes. Each character has its own basic face, which was first sculpted in clay. Then a rubber mould was made, and copies were cast in a mixture of resin and autobody filler. These were reworked to different expressions from which the final silicone castings were taken. Some members of the supporting cast have a basic 5 or 6 faces. Thomas, the star, has more than 40.

 

Sockets in the back of the face incorporate two acrylic balls for the eyes. These are sprayed white with stick-on black pupils. Eye movement is radio controlled using two servos, one connected to the other. The first servo alone will give a side-to-side movement, while the second can make the first move up and down. Between these two servos, just about any eye movement can be achieved.

Modelling Water

Scaling water creates problems for David Eves, the special effects designer. For rain, an atomizer used for misting plants produces drops to scale. To shoot a rain scene, the set is normally dampened down and the engines given a light misting. During actual filming, the rain is restricted to a predetermined position between the cameras and the action, rather like a curtain, thus avoiding vital electrical equipment and lenses. To simulate a storm, smoke is added to the rain and churned up with a fan.

 

Often the water you see is actually a sheet of clean, black plastic. The sand, rocks and grass dressed along the shore are reflected in a convincing fashion. The opening title shot, where we see Thomas and the windmill reflected in the pond, is an excellent example of this technique. When boats must move on the water, the plastic is edge-sealed with clay, and half an inch of real water is added so ripples can be created as boats are pulled across.

Other Effects

Snow is represented with very fine, dried paper pulp sifted onto the scene. For those large background areas, white felt is cut to shape and worked in. When a locomotive has to plough through snow, powdered glass is sprinkled on. The locomotives can push through it easily, but the tracks and wheels must be brushed after each take to maintain electrical contact.

 

All the grass is a synthetic material used to display fruits and vegetables in grocery stores. It’s backed with wire mesh to bend and form it around the contours of the set. Too much uniformity is avoided by placing clumps of moss here and there.

 

The skies are enormous airbrushed canvasses. There’s a summer sky with white clouds, a stormy grey sky, and a sunset sky that can also be lit to look like sunrise.

Sets For The Series

Three full-time model makers and two part-time free-lancers worked under the art director, Robert Gauld-Galliers, for 32 weeks on the latest, 26-part series. They made 70 sets, ranging from the fairly simple “run-by” scenes to major sets like the quarry. Most sets are 16 x 20 feet, but they tend to overlap and there are runoffs that extend beyond the set. Once a set is completed, all the scenes for the series requiring that set are filmed at the same time. A set may appear in as many as 15 episodes, presenting what must be a continuity nightmare. At a filming cost of 10,000 per hour, time is of the essence, with much forward planning and strict schedules. While one set is being dismantled and another set-up, the close-up and interior shots are being filmed.

 

Building models for a TV show is quite different from doing it as a hobby. As model maker Martin Gaskell explained, “Most of our models are made for the camera. Whereas a model railway club would include intricate detail throughout a model, we will leave blank a part of a building that the camera doesn’t see.”

“Realism is paramount,” model maker Mark Dorset pointed out. “It’s nice to be as authentic as possible, but you must know when to stop. I could spend hours getting things just right, but when you’re under the pressure of filming schedules you have to know when to say when.”

“Most model makers make things too pristine,” added Martin. “Even when dirtying down, they tend to make it very clinical. We dirty down a tremendous amount for realism.”

A Very Special Camera

Much of the show’s quality is due to the special 35-mm movie camera used to film it. The camera was designed by director David Mitton and director of photography Terry Permane. Built in the United States with lenses ground in Japan, the camera incorporates an inverted periscope and can get down to within 1” of the track. The depth of field is an incredible 1” to infinity.

 

But consider watching these marvellous films without the music by Mike O’ Donnell and Junior Campbell, both of Bluebird themes. Each locomotive has its own catchy theme, and I couldn’t imagine watching there delightful stories without them. It’s all the elements working smoothly together that make “Thomas” a wonderful show.


[1] Webmaster note: The scale mentioned in this article is misleading. Rather than O-scale, the engines (Thomas, Gordon et al) were actually built  to Gauge-1 model standards - the scale of choice for the series. The confusion may be due to Series 4 being prepared/filmed at the time of the article's writing - April 1993 where the narrow gauge Skarloey Railway engines were introduced and  indeed modelled in O-scale to contrast their size  with their standard  track gauge (Gauge-1) brethren.

Behind The Scenes of Series 1

Few readers with children under the age of 10 can have failed to notice the arrival of Thomas the Tank Engine ad Friends on Independent Television on Tuesday afternoons. The series is based upon the Reverend W. Awdry’s popular children’s books which sell in excess of 750, 000 per year. Southampton-based producer Britt Allcroft has turned the much-loved stories into 26 live-action animated episodes of around five minutes duration, narrated by no lesser personage than Ringo Starr. A considerable amount of model-making was obviously involved in construction of the trains and the sets through which they operate. But, how does one go about making such a series and what sort of model making skills are involved?

 

My investigations took me to a row of small industrial premises not far from Clapham Junction station, to the home of Clearwater Features who were producers for the series. With model-makers, Dave Payne and Jamie Jackson-More I went to find Thomas and the other characters neatly packed away in a storeroom alongside one of the workshop/studios.

 

The Company specialises in animation and special effect work, it’s more usual projects involving characters such as robots and singing and dancing lemons for TV commercials. Dave and Jamie describe themselves as special-effects model makers and on Thomas they worked with a third team-member, Tom Vaine, to produce locomotives with many other model-makers and produce rolling stock and sets for the series.

 

To obtain a satisfactory size and the necessary level of reliability, the model-makers worked in Gauge 1, using Marklin components as a basis for the locomotives. In fact, the Marklin items are barely recognisable, being confined to the chassis (often extensively modified), motor and wheels. The chassis had to be anglicised and new bodies constructed to represent the various characters from the books. In all, seven locomotives are featured, Thomas and Percy, the two small mischievous tanks, Gordon, Henry, Edward and James, and of course Toby the tram engine.

 

These seven were built in just six weeks, a considerable achievement in view of their complexity, and the fact that none of the model-makers boast any previous railway modelling experience. Take the body off any one of the engines, and there’s almost as a much equipment as a James Bond car! The body shell has a flat, clear perspex front to the front to the smokebox and incorporates a pair of moving ‘eyes’. These can be moved up, down, sideways or round and round, by radio control. Receiver and servos to operate the eyes are mounted within the locomotive body and powered by four rechargeable batteries squeezed into the available space.

 

Actual movement of the locomotives is by conventional two-rail electronification using the standard Marklin equipment which proved impressively reliable throughout the arduous nine months of filming. In addition the mechanism is linked to a diaphragm pump and smoke unit arrangement to realistically puff a specially formulated smoke. Plans to reproduce leaking glands and suchlike on stationary locomotives were simplified to the provision of a concealed smoke arrangement located under this track.

 

The locomotive bodies capture well the character of those book illustrations although some adjustments to shape have been made in order to accommodate all the equipment. This is scarcely as drastic as it sounds, since close inspection of the books will reveal considerable artistic license in variation of shape from one page to the next! Thomas, of course, is the 0-6-0T with ‘short stumpy funnel, short stumpy boiler and short stumpy dome’, Percy is a diminutive and bulbous 0-4-0T, while the main line types range from James, an inside cylinder 2-6-0, up to Gordon the big blue Pacific.

 

The faces are separate resin castings fitted and changed between shooting sequences in order to obtain changes of expression. They are held in place with nothing more sophisticated than double-sided adhesive tape. To allow for differing boiler diameters and a variety of expressions, some 70 individual faces are available. Coupled with the wide range of eye movements they provide for great flexibility in the available expressions.

 

The filming sequences involved live action – that is filming of moving models rather than the stop-frame animation technique which results in the slightly jerky movements associated with many of the TV children’s series.  Thus convincing movements and reliable operation were essential. During the nine months of filming, Jamie was on hand to service and maintain the locomotives and the railway. It was a full-time job in keeping wheels and mechanisms clean, batteries charged and rails free from the combined effects of extraneous scenic materials, dirt and smoke oil.

 

Sets were constructed on a rostrum some 3ft above ground level using the specialised techniques of the industry. Grass, for instance, is the plastic variety used in greengrocer’s shops, but specially treated to make it appear more convincing. Each set was used for all the relevant sequences and then dismantled and replaced by the next. Anyone who knows the books will realise that quite a substantial number of different sets would be required. The human characters in the stories, particularly the Fat Controller and the train crews featured much larger scale figures posed alongside enlarged parts of the trains such as cab sides. Thomas, however, does have a driver with an arm which moves to the ‘waving’ position.

 

Apart from the locomotives, the model-makers had to provide a wide range of rolling stock, most of which was scratch-built using parts from the Tenmille range of gauge 1 accessories and fittings. Two other important characters are Bertie the Bus and Terence the Tractor, the latter quickly nicknamed ‘Drac the Trac’ by the film crew.

 

Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends is the culmination of five years work by producer Britt Allcroft. The series was directed by David Mitton, with incidental music specially written by Mike O’Donnell and Junior Campbell. UK Television rights have been acquired by Central TV and UK video rights by the Guild Organisation Ltd.

 

The model makers are hoping that their efforts will attract the kind of cult following received by such series as Magic Roundabout and Postman Pat. Certainly the commercial spin-offs from such a venture, in the form of a whole range of Thomas the Tank Engine goods, toys and models might provide a valuable shot-in-the-arm from the toy sector of the model railway market, with train sets based on the series attracting children into the hobby once more. For the moment, any such suggestions are purely thinking aloud.

 

As I talked to the model makers and they pulled out some of the locomotives and set them out for photography it was interesting to note the reactions of other members of the Clearwater team. The little engines, had obviously been in stores for some while, since filming ended, and they were greeted with some obvious delight by several who witnessed our short photography session. Had these little characters endeared themselves to those who created and worked with them? I’ve a suspicion that I met several people who won’t  ever see trains in quite the same way they did before Thomas.

 

Note: Since the completion of Thomas the Tank Engine the model making team have formed an independent company, Penicott, Payne, & Lillie Ltd, offering models and special effects for film and TV.

Photos From Behind The Scenes Of Series 1

makingof01a.jpg

makingof03a.jpg
Original Thomas model from 1984

makingof02a.jpg
Thomas model taken apart to show working components

makingof04a.jpg
Set decoration for Flying Kipper

makingof05a.jpg
Original Percy and James models

makingof07a.jpg
Set dressing 1984 - filming of Tenders and Turntables/Breakdown Train

makingof09a.jpg
Crew look on at final scene of "Thomas and Terence"

makingof06a.jpg

makingof08a.jpg
Toby's old shed, yard and turntable

The Making Of Series 5

At West London's Shepperton Studios, in a room the size of an aircraft hangar, Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends are being put through their electrically powered and rather sweet remote controlled paces. Wait a minute! Where are the actors? "Actors sweat, really, and they're nasty and get ill and stuff," says David Mitton, the director and co-producer who supervises cheerful, brightly coloured locomotives with names like Thomas, Edward and Gordon. Meet Stepney, an engine "He's the little yellow chap,'' Mitton says with a smile and the star of this week's 5 1/2-minute segment. In this particular plot, Stepney is chugging about the grassy valley when the fog descends and he loses his way.

"He's nearly smelted down," Mitton explains later. "The diesels are waiting to get hold of him to melt him down badly." (In the world of Thomas, diesels are usually the bad guys.) Then again, this is popular children's TV, not life. So all must end well, though Thomas tales often pack a neat little moral.

Set on the fictional Island of Sodor, the Thomas series began filming in 1984. This round marks the fifth spate of stories, with Alec Baldwin now narrating. Special effects supervisor David Eves is in charge of steam, fog and water. In addition, he knows the engines well, having helped his father, Peter, build the originals. "When you see a lot of the rubbish the kids do watch," says Eves, looking up from his work table in an adjacent studio, "Thomas has got a lot to offer. Adults watch it as well." He is not worried about competition from British rivals like Teletubbies, now demanding their share of the children's market. Says Eves: "That's a bit of a passing fad." Much of the work on Thomas falls to chief model-maker Brian Rutland, who built such new characters as The Paxman Diesel and Harry Topper's Biplane. Rutland's team includes Martin Gaskell, a senior model-maker who works from some sketches provided by Britt Allcroft. As the series' original creator and producer, Allcroft has turned the late Reverend Wilbert Awdry's tales into an international franchise.

The show airs in 121 countries, including Canada, and has been translated into nine languages, including Norwegian, Korean, Welsh, and Estonian. Last month, an amusement park with a Thomas theme opened in Japan. Gaskell is busy moulding silicone rubber into beguiling, open-faced expressions so beloved in Britain and abroad.

He comes to the series after helping build the main spacecraft in the film Lost In Space. Now marking his third Thomas series, Gaskell is adamant "I never do anything that's the same. Every job is different." So, too, is every expression, including 30 faces for Thomas alone. And though viewers often assume the engines' features move, only the eyes dart as a 12-volt current powers the engines down the track. Barrels of gravel, sand and stone are evident on the set, as is a periscope lens that allows Mitton and colleagues to view everything from the engines' eye level. Mitton knew the Rev. W. Awdry, the English cleric who wrote the Railway Series that gave rise to the Thomas phenomenon.

Making Of Series 5 - Images

Courtesy of CIREMI of the SiForums, we've managed to precure some Behind the Scenes pictures taken from Graeme MacArthur's own private collection from when he worked on the show.  These have been marked for security reasons, please do not use them elsewhere!

f.jpg

Night Shoot

henrybs.jpg

Sunset On Tidmouth

working.jpg

Model Railroader Article

Apparently, they built about 70 layouts for the series roughly 16 x 20 ft. each. A 35mm movie camera was also developed, which allows ground shots down to 1 inch (about 2.5 cm) from the scenery. The camera also gives a focal point of a certain object from 1 inch/2.5 cm to infinity. Each set appeared in about 15 different episodes.

On to the layout itself. Most water on the layouts are pieces of (very clean) black plastic sheeting. When real water is needed, a dam of clay is used on top of the sheeting which is then filled with water. Any ships seen on this "water" are pulled along with strings. Things like rain are done with water vaporizers between the camera and the objects being filmed. Snow is either dried paper pulp or powdered glass sifted onto the sets. Skies are huge canvas paintings.

As for the trains, they are built in "O" Scale and started out as handmade units. Later, the producers converted to "Marklin" engines for better dependability. Thomas had more than 40 faces cast for him, while the other engines only had 5 or 6 each.

Filming costs for the series are $16,700 ( 10,000) per hour, and everything is done at Shepperton Film Studios on the outskirts of London, England. The crew are as follows:

Britt Allcroft, Producer
David Mitton, Director
Terry Permane, Director of Photography
Robert Gauld Galliers, Art Director

NOTE: Before passing away in 1997, Rev. W. Awdry served as Allcroft's technical consultant.

Behind The Scenes Of Series 4

BTS_Series4_7.jpg

The Drayton Manor Display

Select train models, buildings and scenery from the TV Series will be set up as a permanent display at Drayton Manor's Thomas Land. Whilst visiting the Park on 10th May, 2009, Callum Walker asked for and was given permission by the construction crew to examine the models close-up as they worked on the display. Here are a few photos taken by Callum of the models that were on site at the time.

Click buttons to view photos

And Mr. Walker took these once the display was completed...

And finally some live footage of the exhibit taken in 2009 courtesy of SiF's Chris