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John Lee’s cinematic and television contributions as a seasoned modelmaker, designer and artist are quite impressive. His most recent foray into stop-motion animation can be seen in the Fantastic Mr. Fox, now being shown theatrically. John also has the distinction of having his work featured on the very first and last model series of Thomas. We were therefore quite chuffed that John set some time aside from his busy schedule to answer a few of our questions about his contributions to Thomas and Friends
J. Gratton, 26 November, 2009

John, can you tell us how you first became interested in pursuing a career in creative model making and design? Did it begin at an early age?
 
Yes, I suppose it all goes back to my early childhood and being raised on a diet of 1960’s Science Fiction, largely produced by Gerry & Sylvia Anderson’s Century 21 Films, Irwin Allen, and the fantasy films of Ray Harryhausen.
 
Both those genres played a large part in shaping my aspirations and career path. As far back as I can recall, I have always been fascinated by models and special effects. I have very fond memories of films such as "Jason and the Argonauts", "The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad", and "The Valley of The Gwangi" etc, plus Science fiction TV classics such as "Thunderbirds", "Captain Scarlett", and "Space:1999".

What project would you say was your first big break where you went from saying "I want to do this" to "I can do this"?
 
For a number of years prior to and during my art college days, a friend and I spent time developing, designing, filming and photographing our own model effects in order to assemble a portfolio and showreel ready to show prospective employers in the industry. This was a self-motivated apprenticeship where we honed our skills and allowed our creative juices to flourish. It demonstrated that we had the motivation, passion and commitment needed to establish ourselves in the film industry.
 
My first professional break came on a model-animated film of "Wind in the Willows", which was made at Manchester’s Cosgrove Hall Films in the early 1980's. To this day I can still remember that transitional feeling of going from trying to get into the industry to suddenly being in it!..... What seemed even weirder, was that at the end of the week they handed me a pay check!......a moment you never forget.

Messrs. Toad, Rat and Mole
Messrs. Toad, Rat and Mole from Cosgrove Hall's 1983
Production of The Wind in the Willows.

You mentioned your early days with Clearwater. Can you tell us more about your work there? Did you know, or work with David Mitton and/or Robert Cardona?
 
I joined Clearwater Films in 1983 after a long stint working on Gerry Anderson’s "Terrahawks" series. Clearwater Films were specialists in stop frame animated commercials as well as live action shoots. Dave Mitton and Ken Turner (both from Century 21 days) ran the company, with Ken concentrating on the commercials whilst Dave developed the "Thomas and Friends" project along with Robert Cardona. I didn't have many dealings with Robert Cardona as he was on the producing side of things, but knew Dave quite well as he was often in the workshops. He was a real character, full of enthusiasm. He is sadly missed.
 
Whilst there, I also worked with Tim Staffel, Bob Gauld-Galliers, and directors Ken Turner, Dave Lane, and Denis Russo.

You also mentioned that a few of your model set pieces were used in the early Clearwater-made episodes of Thomas…
 
Basically, when I arrived at Clearwater, Thomas was already in production with the crew in place. I joined the commercials team who produced models, props, puppets etc for the many directors who were shooting almost continually. We were working on a large series of Michelin Tyre commercials for the US and some of the landscape sets I constructed made their way onto the Thomas set once we’d used them. One that springs to mind was a ploughed field, hills and rock faces which I remember dressing into the Thomas set. I don’t think it happened that regularly, but because the shooting schedule on a series is always tight, this doubling up of sets and re-using stock items really helps to speed up set dressing, and kept the series looking expensive and fresh.

John Lee's Rock Faces seen in Series 01
John Lee's ploughed fields seen in Series 1
Top: John’s rock faces and hills from Series 1 - Toby and the Stout Gentleman
Bottom: Ploughed field from Thomas, Terence and the Snow (before and after snow was added to the set)

Can you tell us how you later became re-involved with model making and design for Thomas and Friends?
 
My contract had come to an end on the miniature unit of one of the "Harry Potter" films and I knew that Dave Eves was intending to expand on his team to make Series 11 and "The Great Discovery" film back to back. I'd recently worked with Chris Lloyd (Dave's workshop supervisor), and he knew that I could work fast, and more importantly, work free from drawings too. Dave and I met and it worked out really well. It was fantastic when I was asked to join the team. Also appealing was the fact that it was to be a long contract.

Series 12 introduced 3 new characters – Hank the American Engine, Flora the Steam Tram, and Colin the Crane. From what you’ve told me, you've had a direct hand in designing all 3 of them. Can you describe the process?
 
It worked like this, the scripts had already been written that featured the new characters, so that was, and always is the starting point. From the script, you get a fairly good outline as to each new character, so the design process starts from here really.
 
With Hank, Dave showed me some real life photographic reference of the type of train that he would like Hank to become, and I basically began to draw up an actual scale working drawing of the engine showing all elevations. It is necessary to simplify and stylize the design so that the train belongs in the world of Thomas. During this process, Dave would make the odd modification, until he was happy with the concept. Once this was completed, it was presented to Hit, who basically said "Great !".
 
I then began sketching out proposals for the look of Hank's face, which I initially conceived as a much older character with a moustache. I believe a younger version was requested by Hit, so I did a series of younger jolly faces, which they approved. To help the process, I cut and pasted these faces onto the elevation drawings, and that was it.
 
I designed the character faces for Colin & Flora next, as the engines had already been drawn up. I recall that Colin initially had a much longer nose, which I thought worked well as he was, after all a crane, but I did amend it, as the toy manufacturer suggested it could prove difficult to tool up.
 
Once all the face designs were drawn up, they were beautifully sculpted by Clare Kinross and cast in resin ready for the eye mechs. Hank had three different face expressions, which matched my designs perfectly.
 
The biggest problem to overcome with the faces was creating an original character that was different from every other Thomas character, whilst having loads of charm and appeal.
 
Once that was done, I set about making both identical Hank trains. The reason why I made two "Hanks" was simply so that we had a back up engine on set, just in case there was a minor technical problem, usually with a broken circuit, or misplaced piece of track, or if the model was scratched for some reason. The photography is (or was) done with Hi definition cameras...and those lenses pick up every little imperfection or fingerprint. The shooting schedule was so fast that there is simply no time to wait for the model to be fixed, or have the set re-dressed. It was policy to have two of each main engine for this reason, although there was only one of each of "Colin" and "Flora" made.
 
The pressure was on, as both trains were needed on set in 12 weeks. I recall that all the new builds were scheduled later in the shooting schedule to accommodate this.
 
Actually, Now I think about it, I must give credit to veteran Thomas modelmaker, Mike Wall, who took care of the Hank running gear assembly. A great guy.

Along with photographs, do you sometimes consult technical specifications whilst drafting up scaled drawings?
 
I drew up the wheel assembly for "Hank" so that we could use the same-sized wheels as a previous engine...think it was "Spencer" - To save time and budget.

Would you able to tell us why Colin, Hank and Flora had resin faces made for them, even though the faces were completely CGI'd for Series 12?
 
They were made so that the trains were "complete" with faces. At the time of construction, it was easier to make them as we were unsure if the trains would have real faces or CG faces for the mid to background shots. Also, it meant that the trains would always be "in character", and could be photographed for promotional purposes. We also made additional faces for the Japanese theme park rides. All this was completed well before any CG had been started.

The buildings you constructed for Great Discovery are superbly detailed. Can you tell us how they were made?
 
Dave gave me a load of photographs of different buildings and I drew up my own simple elevations in my sketch-pad.
 
The buildings were made from various materials, but mainly MDF, and balsawood, with resin cast details like doors, windows etc. The moulding process really speeds up construction as each building was made twice, once as a dilapidated wreck, and then as a pristine newly re- furbished building.

John Lee's mdelling work on TATGD
Before and After views centering on Great Waterton’s Town Hall. John also constructed the corner shop seen in this shot.
I used this moulding and casting process to great effect on Great Waterton's Town Hall buildings, as the ground floor featured a row of arches. I made one pattern arch, and cast the rest in resin. There's no way you would ever make every single piece. You have to think in terms of a kit of parts!

I imagine that building these models requires some degree of isolation to concentrate on the task at hand. Did you have your own workshop and specialized tools to build these models?
 
Everything for the series was constructed in a special, fully equipped workshop set up by Dave at Shepperton Studios. It is essential for budget & schedule that everything be under one roof, Continuity-wise it also makes sense. Both the shooting stage, and production offices were on the lot, so it made everything neat. It's also much more fun to work in a team. Each crew member would also have their own set of tools.

Are you looking forward to seeing how your storyboarded scenes were translated into CGI for Series-13?
 
I have to admit; I have only seen a brief clip of the CGI animated version of the series, so it's hard to comment. It featured the character "Hiro", which was also one of my designs, along with the interior and exterior engine shed set.
 
I do miss the "real life" Thomas though; it had a very distinctive, original, timeless look, some fabulous models, and looked and felt like no other children's series. It also respected the Rev. Awdry's books, which I read as a child.
 
I thought that the "hybrid" look was a good combination of techniques, and the animated faces added a lot of character to the engines, whilst the use of models retained the originality of the brand.
 
I'd be interested to know what the young target audience, and the fans think of it.

Your mention of designing "Hiro" is interesting to us as one of the first new 100% CGI T&F characters (Hero of the Rails). Was conceptualizing and designing "Hiro" interesting for you as well?
 
Dave Eves had asked me to draw up some designs for a new character, which at the time had a different name. I drew up the face expressions, whilst Dave sketched up the actual engine. This was done at the back end of series 12. I also drew up potential designs for human characters, as there was very little reference in place for these apart from photos. These were to help the CG studio with the look and scaling, but they were never used.
 
I also designed the faces for "Victor". At the time I drew them up; he had not been given a name, but was referred to as a "Hispanic" character. I didn’t design "Kevin".

Do you have any special memories or anecdotes that you can share about working on the show?
 
I have many memories and anecdotes from working on the show, but what stands out is that it was a very happy and dedicated crew, hand picked by Dave.
 
Everyone really enjoyed their work, and it was a very sad day when the (model) series came to an end.

Lastly, your extensive portfolio and CV demonstrates that your talents are very versatile from model builder, designer and artist to children's book illustrator. Out of all of the projects that you've worked on for film and television, do you have a particular favorite?
 
A really hard one to answer as each project is very different and brings with it new challenges.
 
Naturally, I will always have special memories for "Wind in the Willows" as it was my first job in the industry. I’m also a fan of Science Fiction, so "Aliens", "Thunderbirds", and the recent "Moon" figure high on the list. As a reader of the graphic novel "V for Vendetta", it was a thrill to be involved with the miniatures on that too.
 
Plus, I look back on my time spent on "Thomas & Friends" with great affection, as not only was the work interesting and challenging, but we had a fabulous crew, who were really dedicated and skilled.
 
So, I can't really answer your question, except to say I’m really grateful to have had the opportunity to work on some pretty amazing and varied projects over the years.
 

Fans can appreciate samples of John’s many contributions to cinema and television by visiting his website: http://www.johnlee.info/ John would like to ask all Thomas fans to respect him and his portfolio images of the show by not posting them anywhere else on the internet.
 
SiF would like to extend our warmest thanks to John for sharing his wonderful insight with us about his contributions to Thomas and Friends - past and present. We therefore wish John all our best with his present and future projects :)

Page prepared by James Gratton, December 7, 2009