HIT Entertainment reached out to Tongal to seek out a team to produce a
Documentary to celebrate the 70th Anniversary of Thomas &
Friends. The winning entry came from
MindFruit Studios, led by Producer Cassandra Chowdhury, with her trusted
partners, Damon Stea and Christian Hall.
team travelled the world meeting fans of Thomas & Friends, including Ryan
from Sodor Island Forums & Fansite, people involved with the production
past and present, and even the boy for whom Sodor was created, Christopher
Here, we turn
the tables on the MindFruit team and ask Cassandra about her experience with
Thomas, the work she and her team have done in the past, their extensive
travels and what the future holds for them!
The answers given in the following interview solely reflect the opinions of Cassandra Chowdhury, Damon Stea and Christian Hall on behalf of Mindfruit
They in no way purport to represent HIT Entertainment / Fisher Price.
Any opinions expressed in this interview
are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of HIT Entertainment / Fisher Price.
Thomas & Friends 70th Anniversary Documentary Producer
Interviewed by Ryan (July 2015)
us about yourselves, how did you guys start working together?
We met at USC film school. Damon was a very motivated filmmaker and
only film student in our dormitory who actually made films outside of
class. I started helping him with his
short films, and we continued to work together from there. We shared a love
for both fantastical stories
and real life stories. After we
graduated we were working at a documentary studio together for about a
year. But we got tired of working for
someone else and decided to take a leap of faith- we quit our jobs and started
Mindfruit. The first years were very
rough but slowly our company grew.
made you want to pursue a career in Documentary film-making
and where did you gain your earliest experience?
Our first doc experience was a short
documentary called “Obscura” about
legally blind photographers. It played
at several festivals and was very popular online, which was encouraging. And
like I said, our first job out of school
was to work at a documentary studio. We
love documentary because it is often true that fact is stranger than
fiction. There are so many amazing, wild
stories out there, and you meet so many amazing people while doing documentary
work. But we do also shoot a lot of
commercials and music videos. It’s a
good mix of projects.
other projects have you been involved with?
We shot a feature length documentary in China and
South Korea last year. That was our
first real travel documentary work and a big reason we got the Thomas
terms of other filmmakers and documentaries, who or what would you say are your
Filmmakers like Spike Jonze and Tom
Kuntz are people we draw inspiration from.
For documentary, we love people like Michael Moore and Werner Herzog for
their passion and dedication. But I
would say our style and shooting inspiration always comes from narrative and
commercial directors. Documentary can
and should look cinematic!
drew you to the Tongal Project to create a Thomas & Friends Documentary?
The project was going to involve a lot
of travel, which was very exciting to us, and Thomas is a brand that both of us
grew up with. And given that we had
spent the earlier part of the year shooting a feature travel documentary, it
seemed like the project was made for us.
the magnitude of Thomas’s History and profile as a brand in general, were you
guys daunted in any way by the task of telling this story in thirty minutes?
Knowing the 30 minute hard limit before
going in was useful, because it gave us an idea of how much we could show of
the Thomas story. It allowed us to focus
our questions down and get to the heart of the brand without being weighed down
by all the details. Ultimately, it was a
relief not to be able to fit in the whole story because there is so much history. Almost too much to know what to do with! That
being said, we could have made the
documentary 2 hours long with the amount of footage we collected. There were
a lot of interesting stories that
we had to cut, and it was difficult to decide what to keep and what to leave on
the cutting room floor. I think if we
had had a longer running time I would have kept more of Rick Siggelkow’s
stories. And a few more of yours too,
did you come up with your idea for the Documentary? Did you have other options
you were keen to
pitch which could have fit?
Well, the basic idea was layed out for
us by Tongal, the agency that we worked through. We knew it was going to be
a 70 year
anniversary celebration and that they wanted us to get a global perspective on
the role of Thomas in people’s lives. We
proposed riding trains in 10 countries and talking to both fans and Thomas
professionals in each. I think
ultimately we took Tongal and HiT’s ideas and made them more focused on the fan
community. We got so much footage with
the Thomas animators, producers, etc, but what made to project special was all
of the fan interviews.
do you think gave your project the X-Factor that saw it through to the
Again, I think it was the focus on the
fan community and small stories that made the project special. The twins in
Colorado, the brother and sister
in Dubai, Imre in Amsterdam- these adorable and passionate kids brought the
story to life.
familiar were you with Thomas & Friends before pitching to do the
Documentary? What were your first experiences
of the series as children, or indeed as adults?
Damon and I both grew up watching
Thomas & Friends on tv. I distictly
remember watching it at my grandmother’s house all the time. Damon’s
father is obsessed with trains, so
his memories are all of experiencing Thomas with his father- and going to every
train museum in North America, haha. We
didn’t keep up with the brand though, so we didn’t see it again until we
started doing research for this project.
The CG Thomas was a shock- it was so different from what I
remembered. But after watching a few
episodes I really appreciated the quality of the storytelling. I can see why
the brand is still alive and
particular favourite Thomas & Friends stories or characters?
I really like the early, early episode
where Thomas wants to go fishing. Later
his driver has to collect water from the river to cool him down and he ends up
having fish in his boiler! As to the
newer series, I really love Marion – she’s my favorite character for sure.
Damon likes Toad, just because he has a silly
worked with the series for several months during the making of the Documentary,
what do you like most about Thomas and Friends?
We like how many characters there
are. The variety of stories is immense.
We also love how passionate the creators are
about historical accuracy and attention to detail.
much research went into the Documentary to explore the history and the world
that Thomas currently finds himself in?
Did you use sites like our own or The Real Lives of Thomas the Tank
Engine to further your understanding during the pre-production stages?
We used SIF extensively while
researching the history of Thomas and all of the key players in the
series. It is such a great resource- and
we were amazed to hear than even the current Thomas creators use SIF and other
Thomas fan communities for research purposes.
The Thomas Wiki was also very useful.
project seen you going all over the world to meet Thomas’s many friends, how
were you able to find some of these fans to participate in the shoot?
It was not easy! HiT Entertainment was very insistent that we
keep the documentary secretive until the release- so we couldn’t put a lot of
press online calling for fan interviews.
Ultimately it came down to reaching out to our network- many of our
interviews came from knowing someone who knew someone. In particular, we were
extremely lucky in
finding both our Amsterdam and our Dubai interviews. They were both fantastic,
and came from the
references of friends of friends of friends.
HiT was also instrumental in helping us get interviews in several of our
you have a clear idea of where you wanted to film, or did HIT Entertainment
have locations in mind for you to work with?
HiT provided us with many filming
opportunities- in particular, Arc Studios in Toronto, HiT in London, and Fisher
Price in New York. Other than that, we
chose all of our own destinations. Some
locations we knew we wanted right off the bat, like the original Thomas Land theme
park in Japan. Others were chosen simply
because they were interesting places. We
wanted to show people from many diverse backgrounds and lifestyles.
to your interview with Tongal, you were on the road for 42 days shooting around
the world. Was it a daunting task to fit
everything in to such a tight schedule?
It was so difficult!
Particularly difficult because we were only
in each city for 1-3 days. So it took a
lot of emails- a lot of back and forth.
We had to make many people’s schedules fit into very small windows of
time. Ultimately everything went
smoothly- but I shudder to think what would have happened if one of our flights
had been cancelled or we had missed a train.
It would have been tough, if not impossible to catch up!
you surprised to find Thomas &
Friends had a bit of an older online fanbase?
Honestly, yes, we were very
surprised. And it took some research to
really understand why. But we definitely
get it now- especially after
talking to you, and people like Ian McCue and Andrew Brenner who live and
breathe Thomas every day. There is so
much history, detail, and love in every episode, and even after my brief
experience with the rich fan community I can feel some of that nostalgia.
were given access to see Arc Productions working on Sodor’s Legend of the Lost
Treasure. What was it like going behind the scenes on
the production side of the actual show?
It was fantastic! All the people at Arc are so
was great speaking to them and watching them work. Seeing the original animatics
and the concept
art was particularly fascinating. We are
filmmakers, so we know how much time and effort goes into a production- but even so, the
work and thought behind every decision is fascinating to see, and it was a
great opportunity to show Thomas fans and non filmmakers that process.
of your interviewees spoke of how Thomas has evolved through the decades to
where we are now. What are your own
thoughts on the developments and changes that have occurred down the last
The original Thomas series was so
great- the live action trains, the matte paintings, the smoke from the
enginies. That real physical presence is
so appealing. I think when the switch to
CG first happened some of the storytelling got a little lazy- and that’s
actually a sentiment that we heard over and over again during interviews. But
everyone seems to agree (and we do as well) that Ian and Andrew’s
current work with the series is superb, and the storytelling now is as strong
as it was in the days of the original. Yes,
the show is CG now, but so much of its original charm is still intact. I think
today’s kids would still enjoy a live
action show, but I acknowledge that you can do a lot more with CG when it comes
to action and excitement.
were your personal highlights from the shoot?
We loved talking to Fisher Price. What great people! And who doesn’t love toys? We go to see the process
of design, and the
printing of the prototypes. Also,
meeting with Christopher Awdry was a real honor. We weren’t sure what
to expect, but him and
his wife were so incredibly kind and a joy to speak to.
was or had been the most challenging aspect of making this documentary?
The scheduling process was definitely
the most challenging- setting up interviews with people, arranging transportation
and accommodation that were within our budget.
It took a lot of time!
you have any anecdotes from the making of the documentary that might be worth
One thing we got really right during
the trip was coincidental timing. After
planning out the trip, we found out we would be in Venice for the Carnivale –
with people all dressed up in masks, etc.
Also entirely coincidentally, we were in Hong Kong during Chinese New
Year, so we got to see the parade and go to the celebration. Those were two
serious strokes of luck- we
don’t know how it happened!
that it was a thirty-minute feature, you obviously had to include the best bits
from the footage you shot. Is there
anything you would have liked to have included in the final edit which couldn’t
go in due to time constraints or other reasons?
Rick Siggelkow had some great stories
about the early Thomas days that would have been fun to include. And you had
some really interesting insights
too, Ryan, that I wish could have fit in somewhere. My favorite thing that you
said was that
steam engines are the closest thing to living creatures that a machine can
get. They breathe, they respond kindly
to good care and poorly to neglect. I
would have loved to include that.
got the opportunity to meet a lot of interesting people who have been involved
in the past and presently with Thomas, as well as a lot of young fans who love
the series. Did you have any particular
favourite interviews during the course of the shoot?
Imre in Amsterdam was the coolest
kid. We loved him- he said a lot of
great stuff we couldn’t fit into the doc, but it was great to meet him. The
Fisher Price interviews were great, as
well as our Chris Awdry interview. And
we really loved the interview with you as well.
prominent figures from Thomas’s history were notably absent in the Documentary
– is there anyone you’d have loved to have been part of the feature telling
their story with Thomas?
We tried to get Britt Alcroft involved
but never got a response. We also asked
HiT to help us get at least one of the previous narrators of the show involved
to no avail.
documentary looked at several different aspects of Thomas's world: the books,
the TV series, the toys, the global audience etc. Is there a particular one
among these that interests you most - perhaps that you would have liked to
spend more time exploring?
Again, we loved Fisher Price and wanted
to see more. It would have been great to
see kids play testing the toys, and see the toys coming off of an assembly line
in a factory. But the audience is
fascinating as well. It would have been
great to speak to more kids. And we also
would have loved talking to more adult fans- especially the fans who create
their own CG Thomas episodes for YouTube.
That was something we were intending to include that we just didn’t have
there any moments from the history of the books and TV Series you would have
liked to have explored further?
The early days of the TV series, that
very first few episodes, would have been great to learn more about. Unfortunately
we had no access to behind the
scenes footage, and without Britt Alcroft we didn’t have a lot of first hand
accounts of the process either.
of my personal highlights was watching Chris Awdry reading Thomas Comes To Breakfast
– was this his own idea or did you ask
him to do it?
We asked if he would read his favorite
Thomas story- so he brought the book with him for the shoot. It was fantastic. His use of the character’s voices really
surprised and delighted us.
did you find interviewing someone who is so close to the heart of the Thomas
story like Christopher Awdry?
Awdry was wonderful to interview. You can tell that Thomas is close
heart. It’s fascinating to hear about
the series from a more personal perspective.
He was there at the beginning of it all.
He knew what Thomas was before he even knew its power to engage and
completed the documentary, what would you say were some of the key things that
you wanted to communicate?
Thomas & Friends is a world that is
kept alive by the people who love it most.
The adult fans and the new generation of young fans. And the creators
are passionate, dedicated
people who want nothing more than to satisfy those fans.
anything in particular surprised or intrigued you in particular about the
heritage and history of the franchise?
The attention to historical detail is
amazing and really admirable. We never
realized rail fans loved Thomas so much.
you could remake the documentary, is there anything you would like to improve
I would have cut out the locations we
didn’t get good interviews and instead spend more time in places like the UK
you feel you’ve learned a lot more about Thomas and the history of the brand
than you previously knew before?
We learned so much! So much that people would be annoyed if I
brought it up at a dinner party, haha.
there any other iconic franchises that you would love to make a documentary
about - whether or not a documentary has already been done about said
Well, we have actually been hoping for
a while to make a documentary about the history of toys. Particularly, the history
of gendered toys-
how the idea of “boys” vs “girls” toys began and how it has changed over the
years. So maybe that’s something we will
tackle with Mattel in the distant future!
We are also huge Lord of the Rings and Star Wars fans (I mean, come on, who
isn’t?) We definitely couldn’t say no to a
documentary about either.
you have any further projects lined up at the moment that you can tell us
We are currently working on a stop
motion animated miniature short film with a cactus as a main character. There
are several other projects in the works
including a music video and a commercial.
No documentaries in the lineup as of now, but hopefully another will
come up soon.
do you have any messages for fans of the series and people who have appreciated
your fantastic work with the Documentary?
I would say trust the people who are
working on the series right now. They
are really passionate people who are giving in their all! So much work goes
into this stuff, more than
you can imagine- and this is a brand that really does care about what you want
to see in the show. They do respond to
demand, and their goal is to satisfy fans.
The Thomas community is so friendly and welcoming, and it was great to
be a part of it. I suppose now we are a
part of it for life!