Interview with Robert Gault-Galliers

Robert Gauld-Galliers was the Art Director on Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends from the Pilot Episode onwards until Series 7 and HiT Entertainment's takeover.  Robert's creative talents in character and set design are recognized for giving the series that special 'look and feel' that fans growing up with the series remember with fondness and nostalgia to this day. We're very honoured to present Robert's recollections and insight shared with us in this interview.
Compiled from correspondence with J. Gratton from Aug. 2007 to Dec. 2011.  

01) Robert, Can you tell us a bit about yourself, and your technical background?
I started work as an architectural model maker then moved into petro-chemical model making. I illustrated a script for a feature project, the script bundle was bandied around the studios and suddenly I was in demand!

02) You mentioned starting out as an architectural model maker. What were your early interests growing up that led up to this point?
I was interested in art and photography at school (and still am). As an after school and Saturday job I would work in a Camera shop. On leaving school I was going to start work for a photographer, running around, setting things up and most probably spending lots of time mixing chemicals in a dark room, no digital work then! I had made a window display for the camera shop which involved a degree of artwork and set dressing. Kevin Andrews, an architectural model maker working for one of the UK's leading architectural model making company's, 'John Piper Ltd' Richmond, saw the display, liked it and asked me if I would like to go for an interview. I did and started working there on leaving school.

03) Could you tell us what your work with "Petrochemical model making" was about?
Towards the end of the latter part of the 70's I joined a petrochemical company as a free lance model maker, then went on to work for Siemens in Erlangen, Bavaria. The contract lasted almost a year. Erlangen was a vibrant university town and I loved the time spent there. Now petrochemical uses computer technology but then we would assemble 1/33 scale pipelines, vessels, structure etc and note any clashes that had been overlooked by the designers/technicians.

04) How did you become involved with the Thomas and Friends television series as the Art Director?
I was working as an Art Director on commercials with David Mitton at The Clearwater Film Company in Battersea, London.  Clearwater specialised in model animation and when Britt approached the company to shoot the pilot episode, ’Down the Mine’, well, I was in the right place at the right time.

05) Are there any old Clearwater adverts that you worked on where we'd easily recognise your designs/handiwork?
Wow! Hundreds of them. Prize Guys yoghurts, Smiths Crisps. I’d have to think back hard to remember them all.

06) Were you familiar with the Rev. Awdry’s stories and books before signing on?
I remember having a pre production meeting with David and Britt. During the meeting she handed me a set of small TTTE books and expressed her desire to keep the look of the illustrations throughout the series. As soon as I opened the first book and saw Gordon’s face, I recognised him. I must have sat for hours staring at those illustrations as a small child. I turned the pages and recognised each image.

07) Were the books given to you as presents by your parents or relatives?
I guess I had the Rev. Awdry’s books as a present sometime in the mid 50’s. Regrettably I don’t remember who bought them for me, it was such a long time ago. I recognise and remember being mesmerised by the illustrations drawn by C. Reginald Dalby. I know for sure I had ‘Troublesome Engines’ & ‘Gordon The Big Engine’.

08) Did you ever have the opportunity to meet the Rev. Awdry during the early days of the series?
Yes, he and his family would frequently visit the stage whilst we where shooting the series. I used to chuckle at the way he eyed the crew up and down as if they were pirates!

09) Do you recall any details about the production of the pilot?
The pilot episode 'Down The Mine' was a very good path finding exercise for us. As with most animation model commercial sets, 6" polystyrene sheets were bought in and we were committed to stick them together and use them for the rock face and contours on the set. I could see that to build sets using that system would be totally out of the question for a future series as the wastage and damage to the Ozone layer would have been phenomenal! I decided to use polystyrene for rock faces and for the contoured areas we would use a form of greengrocers grass or Astro turf sandwiched between wire mesh and canvas in sheets that could be bent to shape and stapled to boxes called pancakes. For the next set change we would pull up the grass, re shape it, staple it down and hey, presto!
 
The area we had to build the sets was very small. From memory the backing was only one and a half metres from the backing lights and the rostrums was squeezed between the lights and the background hill flats. With the 10K, pup and backing lights all up it was like working in an oven!
 
Thomas and Gordon were the only engines to feature in the pilot and they were completely scratch built including the wheels by Martin Gill. The engines' first runs were in front of the camera. Having had no pre-testing there were teething problems as you can imagine. The engines for the later series were built on Marklin chassis for reliability.

10) Were there noticeable cosmetic differences (from the wheels up) for the pilot Thomas & Gordon models compared to their Series-1 rebuilt versions?
No real cosmetic differences, but you look carefully at the buffer plates on Thomas you’ll notice that the rear buffer plate was lower than the front! This gave a wee problem when trucks were shunted from the front as the buffer heights did not match.

11) Do you recall any scene shots or set layouts from the pilot that were done differently than the refilmed episode?
We still had to use the same rostrum size and area between the wrap around backing and set dressing, no change there, although maybe the lighting was tweaked and I seem to remember forcing Terry to lower the lens to give more scale to the engines. This also helped to keep the horizon low. The horizon flats were adjustable so that if the camera was looking into a corner of the rostrum the flats would be tilted up at the edge of frame to give a level horizon. Before each shot was taken I would put an eye to the camera and tweak any areas that needed it.

12) Do you recall to who the pilot was screened to and of their initial reactions and feedback?
I don't remember who saw the first screening of the pilot although I do remember the response was very positive.

13) Do you know what happened to, or where the pilot episode can be found today?
I'm afraid I don't know what happened to the original. No doubt it'll be discovered in a rusting tin at some point in the future ;)

14) What became of the Thomas and Gordon pilot models?
I'm sure the original Thomas and Gordon models were not kept complete. I have a feeling they ended up as rusted scrap engines for b/g dressing.

15) With that said, there's a scrap engine seen in Magic Railroad that looks like Gordon's model...(see slide 3 below)
The container holding all the set dressing was sent to Canada for the movie so it's quite possible that is the original carcass of Gordon.

16) Would you know how the 'City of Truro' model ended up being broken up and turned into scrap engine set dressing by the time of  Series 5's 'Old Slow Coach'? (see slide 4 below)
Thinking back, I seem to remember the 'City of Truro' being built on a motor-less chassis, so maybe not placed in a storage case like the other working engines but placed on a rack with rolling stock and inevitably becoming damaged at some time. Unfortunately the 'C of T' would have been transferred to the set dressing racks. A sad fate indeed.

17) Where did all of the other rusted scrapped engine parts seen in the series come from and how were they typically turned into set pieces?
The dressing was mostly from cannibalised Marklin engines, their mechanical parts used for the character engines.

click image to view next slide

18) We habitually ask our crew contacts if they recall anything about the unmarked 0-6-0 Marklin engine seen in a photo from the Dec. '84 issue of Model Constructor. Further sleuthing by fans deduce that it can be seen in "The Flying Kipper", "Off the Rails" (night scenes) and under a tarpolin in "Trouble in the Shed"...
Your footnote on Tim Staffel's interview page explains all. The unconverted/uncustomised Marklin engine used during the filming of  Series-1. We used this engine to pull rolling stock through a scene, say when two characters where interacting there would be something happening behind or to reveal. The engine itself would never be seen during the sequence only the slow moving trucks or carriages. I'm afraid I can't add to or remember anything about its cameo in the episodes you mention.

click image to view next slide

19) Before moving production to Shepperton for Series 2,  Series 1 and the pilot was filmed at Clapham Junction. Can you tell us more about that location?
Yes, Series-1 was filmed out of a large (average sized) warehouse/shed near Clapham Junction. We had a small efficient crew and no space, but it was fun and much more cost-effective than the latter series at Shepperton for sure.

20) You drew many conceptual sketches and technical drawings for the series. Can you describe the process?
I would read the script and draw thumbnail sketches as I talked to DM about his requirements on each set, then, with a given rostrum area would design the layout in plan / map form using the standard track length and curve format. I would then draw an aerial view followed by detailed drawings of any architectural and natural features.

21) We're told that when it came time to choose real-life prototypes that Dave Eves took care of the rail characters while choosing non-rail character prototypes was your domain. Can you give us a few examples the process?
Dave Eves and Chris Lloyd were not involved in the early series. I’m not sure when they joined the team, maybe when we started filming at Shepperton Studios. The original model engine technical and body design was made by Clearwater model workshop, Martin Gill for the pilot episode and Dave Payne, John Pennicott and Dave Eves the series. Sorry if I’ve missed anyone out!
 
For the series I would draw up the facial expressions for each engine and they would be sculpted and tweaked in the workshop. For the characters I designed, I would talk to the builder to make sure he was happy with the internal area for eye movement and other internal mechanics. I would then draw up a rough from reference photographs and profiles emphasising certain features by shortening or enlarging to enhance the character. Then I would render in colour which would have Pantone reference numbers attached. You can see some examples of engine and vehicle design on my website.
 
Examples: For Series 5, I designed the sets and Cranky and now remember designing Butch. Re: Thumper, when I designed the new characters, it wasn’t unusual for them to have a name change by the time the scripts were finalised.

22) Re: Cranky, I've always wondered if you had based the character on any actual real-life crane.
Cranky was based and designed on photo reference of various cranes from the late 20’s through to the early 50’s.

23) Series 5's Cranky Bugs was indeed a destructive episode of Mittonesque proportions with Cranky falling (twice!), a tramp steamer plowing through the quay, sheds collapsing onto engines, not to mention the "rain"...! 
Yes, the Mittonesque episodes!  Someone once said during a TV show ‘Never catch any form of transport on the Island of Sodor, far too dangerous!’ With the steamer ploughing into the quay I guess that included arriving there too!
 
As a note, I personally built the steamer that ran into the quay but unfortunately it went missing in Canada during or after the Magic Railroad movie.

24) I also wonder about the possible damage to the models in those scenes, and those with the engines submerged completely in water (e.g. Henry plunging into the H2O in 'Something in the Air').
The engines were always being touched up and sometimes re-sprayed during set changes. When water was involved the vitals of the engines were removed and in some cases the character would be pulled using fishing line. As soon as the engine was finished on set it would be whisked away for a thorough cleaning out.

25) In some episodes i.e. 'Cranky Bugs', TUGS' Big Mickey can be seen, and the big passenger ship berthed at Brendam Docks must be the Vienna, hull painted black.
Between you and I, there was a fair bit of borrowing between the TTTE & TUGS containers .. tut tut.

26) We love your conceptual artwork that you've created over the years for the characters. Would you know why the Nigel character was never implemented?
Nigel was one of my favorite vehicles in development for Jack & the Pack, shame he didn't get built, he would have been a real gem. As to why he wasn't used, I can't answer that question, maybe as a merchandisable toy he didn’t have any gizmos attached!
 

27) Given that the sets were dismantled at the end of every series shoot, was it a challenge to recreate them exactly as they were the following season?
I had drawings, scale maps (as mentioned above) and a book full of continuity photographs. I have to say though; I disliked re-assembling Knapford Station time and time again, it was a pain with all the tacks, platforms and periscope lens access lift-off roofs. I really enjoyed creating new areas and beauty run-through’s, such as the coastal, rural areas (I’m a country boy at heart!)

28) Did you design or oversee the creation of any of the many different facial expressions that were sculpted for the engines?
I visualised the facial expressions on most of the characters up until the 7th series, for Thomas, Gordon etc. I obviously had to keep as close to the book artwork as possible.

29) Did you have a hand in designing Daisy's face? (lol where did those eyelashes come from?)
Oh don’t remind me! Some bright spark came up with the idea of using false eyelashes to emphasise the feminine (I swear it wasn’t me). David and Britt rubber stamped it and hey presto, the rest is history!

30) With so many varied facial expressions, would the ones required for a scene be selected in advance?
The scripts for a series would be combed through to make sure that all facial expressions were covered. The original engines such as Thomas, Gordon James and Henry had just about every facial expression possible by the fifth series. The different face plates were held in shallow drawers on stage. The drawer unit would usually stand on David Mitton’s desk. When the scene required a certain facial expression, it would be taken out and attached to the engine or vehicle’s face plate. The face removed would then be placed back into the drawer.

31) A few of the sets were larger scale, for example the Fat Controller's office and house. Can you tell us about how they were designed/built and for a concept of scale - how large these sets were?
These sets had four walls and each wall could be removed for reverse shots so at any time you would have two or three walls standing. An oversized ceiling piece would be mounted at 45 degrees for lighting the set. The interior of the Fat Controllers office was only about three foot square (900mm x 900mm) with the window angled to look over a garden area or as with the office, sidings.

32) Would you know anything about the portraits that graced TFC's office, home and other larger-scaled sets?
I seem to remember crayoning the 4th image in the row and painting the last one too. The 4th image is based on one of the narrow gauge engines "Duke" and the last illustration is of a made up character in Victorian style to match the human characters.
 
I cannot remember where the other pictures came from. I have a sneaking suspicion they are illustrations from a book or magazine re-worked, tut tut!
 
As dressing for the large scale set, the portraits would have been roughly 80 x 60 mm.

Portraits seen in series
Portraits seen in series - Robert created the one for Duke and the engine seen on the right.

33) Would you know why the RWS No.19 "Mountain Engines" stories weren't adapted into TV episodes? 
Maybe the Culdee Fell rack railway/engines were most probably limited on storylines and not very merchandisable because of its climbing rack track and strange angled body.

34) Of all your years with the series, do you have a favorite set?
I loved the mountain engine (Skarloey Railway) sets most of all. Far more dramatic but still cozy and sweet. The buildings and water towers, etc. had so much character.

35) What would be the most complicated TTTE set that you recall designing for the series?
I guess that has to be Knapford Station.  I had to design the structure so that every roof panel and outer structure could be removed independently to allow the periscope lens to lower in and manoeuvre.

36) Same as above, but for TUGS?
I designed the one dock area set for TUGS. The other sets were a re-dress on that format.

37) On the subject of interesting set pieces, can you tell us how you designed the one  for Series 3's Toby's Tightrope?
The bridge stood as a complete sound structure then with cuts to close up on wheels etc. we replaced the bridge for the collapsible one and filmed the sequence in slow motion.  The water was pumped up from a catchment tank and the slow mo gave it a scale. The timbers breaking and falling away were pulled using thin fishing nylon.

38) Another impressive TTTE set is the smelter seen Series 5's Stepney Gets Lost. The red light, steam/smoke, long shadows, and menacing grappling hook added a lot of atmosphere to the episode. 
The smelter set would have been disappointing to see in the flesh because it was fabricated out of flat walls and roof sections with vessels and gantry’s placed to camera for composition. Unlike Knapford station it didn’t exist as a complete model set.  


Examples of Robert's scene sketches for T&F - click image to view next slide

39) I loved Series 4 with the Skarloey Railway engines. Can you tell us more about them and perhaps why "Duke" wasn't seen again after Series 4?
The NG engines were all built to the same gauge scale as the larger engines and ran on narrow O gauge track because they appeared together in a few episodes, ie. tracks running alongside and shared sidings. Later however, the NG engines were built to a larger scale for ease of filming and reliability. Nearly all drivers for large and small engines were cut down the middle and black tacked to the engines because the electric motors would not allow them to stand half in the cabs. Duke may have not have been up scaled because of budgeter reasons.

40) David Mitton confirmed that some work on the Series 2 episode "Missing Coach" using the Tidmouth Station set  had begun when it was decided to scrap the episode. Would you recall anything about it?
I must say I don't remember anything specific for this episode. I'm sure you know this already, we would shoot all sequences that took place in, say Tidmouth Station for a series in one hit, so it could be that the pulling of the episode just meant striking a line through the 'Missing Coach' episode in the sequence list for each of the other sets.

41) There is the occasional fan speculation seen in the episode still below from "Breakvan",  that Donald & Douglas' models once had blue wheels and body as in the Railway Series stories.  Can you shed some light on what we're seeing here?
Donald and Douglas, as far as I remember never had blue wheels or undercoat at any time. I believe the blue you see is actually fine Fullers Earth Dust. If you look at the roof of the cab you will see the blue picked up and reflected from the blue gels on Terry Permane's lamps and from the backing behind. We would sieve Fullers earth over any wagon or structure that was going to be hit and smashed up to give a scale effect and to make the slow mo more dramatic.

From Series 2's Break Van - trick of light
From Series 2: Break Van - blue wheels or a trick of light?

42) There's one very unusual Thomas face that was included in one of the faxes from England used as references for TATMR. We definitely know that it was never used !
The middle Thomas face shown was in fact a gag. I remember one of the model makers* made it, and at the start of the day Thomas was positioned with Annie and Clarabelle ready for the first shot of the day. David Mitton walked onto the stage, picked up Thomas's eye transmitter and simply fell into fits of laughter when he looked at the monitor!
*Note: Jeremy King has confirmed that he sculpted the face :) 


Mirth of the set of Thomas: Click to see what caused David Mitton to LOL!

43) A friend of mine acquired a set of annotated Railway Series books a number of years ago, purportedly used during the pre-production phase of the TV Series. Are any of these familiar to you?
I think I can help you here, the notes on the attached pages are David Mitton's. We would sit together in the production office and he would jot down comments on the pages of the books (chosen for each episode). I know the 'Knapford Yards' with an arrow pointing to '2 Turntable' (see slide 1 below) seems obvious but at the time it referred to a point that I have long since forgotten. Ah! hang on, maybe enlarge to hold two smaller engines on the turntable at one time.

44) Intriguingly pages for 'Gordon Goes Foreign' were also annotated. Were there plans to adapt this story for an episode? (see slide 2 below)
I seem to remember plans for an episode called 'Gordon Goes Foreign' however it never went beyond planning. I think it would have been a high budget episode so got knocked on the head.


Example of David Mitton's annotated RWS stories for TV story adaptations and set design,
click image to view next slide

46) Can you tell us why a faint "face" can be seen on the boulder in Rusty and the Boulder's final scene?
We made the decision that because the boulder seemed to have a life of its own it should have a subtle face.

47) What was  your involvement with TUGS?
I drew up concept visuals and designed the sets for TUGS, working with the model making company (Albatross Models) who built and installed the set units. Later the sets were re dressed to look like different areas.

48) Whilst designing the concept visuals for the TUGS characters and sets, were you provided with any supplemental info about a locale or character that fans may have never heard of?
David Mitton and Bob Cardona travelled to New York to have meetings with Tug operators and collect material.  On their return they gave me volumes of visual and story references plus thousands of photographs they had taken themselves. David was passionate about tugs, as you know he owned a small tug and kept it on the river Avon in Bristol for a while.

49) How far back do you recall TUGS being talked about or planned before it went into production?
Maybe a year and a half. I started designing the characters and sets more or less as soon as I received their reference on their return.  As soon as the water tank size and depth were known, based on the usable floor area on T stage, the dock sets were designed.  I had a meeting with Albatross models, Kingston upon Thames and they began building the waterfront panels. There were many inlets and jetties so that once the lens was down with the characters the viewer would have to really study the background to know the geography of the set within the tank. DBP models at Shepperton made the Tugs and other characters.


On site with TUGS, possibly during the filming of "Jinxed" - click image to view next slide

50) As with the TTTE series, was there a pilot episode produced for TUGS?
Because of the logistics in having to have a huge metal water tank made in sections and welded up, then filled with hundreds of gallons of water, a complex waterproof set plus a huge wrap around backdrop would make a pilot episode costly to achieve.
 
Remember the pilot episode shot on Thomas The Tank Engine was achieved on a small stage with fairly minimal costs.

51) For fans of the series that are not aware of this, you have a passion for WWI aircraft. You’re also been directly involved in the restoration/replication and flying of these vintage aircraft – namely a Nieuport 17 biplane and of a ‘Fly Baby’ converted into a Junkers CL-1 (Trench Straffer). Can you tell us what attracted you to become actively involved in such a rewarding pastime and venture? Did it begin at a young age?
I guess I fell in love with flying when my parents took me on a flight from Dublin to Cork in Ireland. I must have only been three years old but even now, all these years later, I remember watching with my sister, faces pressed against the window as the candy floss clouds floated serenely by.
 
In 1983 Steve Asquith and I joined a flying club at Denham airfield in Buckinghamshire and started flying lessons but he backed out after a few lessons.

I have a passion for early aeroplanes, especially the later WW1 types. I knew the only way I would ever be able to fly one was to build it myself and that’s what I did with a friend who had the same interest. The bonus was the following demand for air-shows and the movie ‘Flyboys’ which kept her in Fuel and Oil!

52) Did you ever give any of the TTTE crew a ride in your plane?
Yes I think I took a few of the crew up in my aeroplane but I'd have to look back through my old log books to see who.

53) In series 5 (1998), a new character - a biplane named ‘Tiger-Moth’ was introduced in an episode (Sir Topham Hatt's Holiday). Given your interests, was this your idea, or  an homage paid to you by David Mitton?
‘Tiger Moth’ was DM’s idea. From memory I think the aeroplane was not actually a Tiger Moth but a Nieuport17!

David Mitton's homage to Robert - Tiger Moth!
Left: Tiger Moth from Series 5's "STH's Birthday" Right: Nieuport 17 Bi-Plane

54) I never realized how large (and beautiful) your sky backdrops were.
I'm glad you like them! It would take two days to paint all three plus background scenery flats!

55) Can you tell us about how the sky backdrops were conceived of and painted?
The backdrops were painted to look like the skies in the book illustrations, i.e. horizon light turquoise graduating up through mid blue to a deeper blue at the top with soft, fluffy fair weather cumulus clouds.
 
For night time sequences we would gel the lights blue and turn off the backdrop lighting.  There were two floating backdrops, one a cloudy/stormy sky and the other a sunset sky that could be used as a sunrise sky, these backdrops would be pulled into position and lit when required.  As I had been a scenic artist I was commissioned to do the artwork myself. The smaller, earlier backdrops were sprayed with a standard compressor while the later larger ones were sprayed with an industrial airless compressor from a scissor jack lift. All paints were matte emulsion.


click image to view next slide

56) Given the smaller space at the Clapham studio compared to that of Shepperton's, were smaller  backdrop versions used for Series-1?
The first two series had small wrap-around backings on a small stage. One office, small workshops, a handful of model makers and a small budget.  As the series rolled on the stages got bigger, the backings were huge, needing a super-tanker to deliver the emulsion paints ;-)  The rostrums had to be bigger, thus needing more lighting and more crew. Multiple offices and the workshops became bigger with an army of model makers and to cover it all, a massive budget!!  Strange though, we produced one episode a week in the beginning and one episode a week in the later series!! Maybe it was further to walk to get anything done ;-)  No wonder it went CG in Canada!!

57) Can you tell us about how the smaller and larger moon effects were achieved? (i.e. large moon seen behind the viaduct in Duncan Gets Spooked")
There were several mirror acrylic moons, full, quarter, etc. We would hang the moon on nylon in front of the backdrop and angle a light into it to make it glow. 

58) How were  all proposed story pitches for any given series shortlisted to 26 episode scripts?
Britt and David would sit and settle that one.

59) Re: "snow" used in the series. Was there a lot of experimentation for trying out different type of materials?
The general snow effect used was fine paper snow and for sequences where an engine or other had to run into a snow drift for instance we would use a highly carcinogenic fine white synthetic material called Aerosill.
 
60) How was the snow applied to the set evenly?
The snow was sieved onto the set by hand.
 
61) Were all winter scenes filmed at the end of a set's use for a series? Was it labour intensive to clean up afterwards?
If a set was to be featured with snow, we would shoot the sunny day shots then sunset/sunrise or grey cloud/rain followed by night time then dress for snow at the very end.
 
This enabled us to strike the set, strip out and clean up the grass mats and buildings together with engines and rolling stock. Yes it was time consuming but we were adept at getting it done rapidly.
 
62) You had mentioned having large welded water tanks on TUGS. What kind of system was used for the TTTTE sets?
For TTTE sets that involved water we used pond liners in shallow frames

63) In your many years with the show, did you ever come up with an episode idea, or creative ideas to liven up an episode?
Not an episode idea but designed many run-throughs and settings to maximise on the storyline.

64) Can you give us a few examples that fans would be able to recognize?
Ooh not easy, I don’t remember coming up with any episode ideas other than suggesting settings and look. I did come up with creative ideas such as, viewing angles, composition dressing to camera etc.
 
There were so many. I guess the compositions built to camera that spring to mind out of many would be the bridge with boy and bicycle used during the titles as was the distant Thomas with Anne and Clarabel (with sea behind) run-through. Windmill, water-mill, the three bridge set up, the mountain sequence in ‘Rusty and the Boulder’ (see storyboard below).


click image to view next slide

65) Do you have any fond memories or anecdotes that you can share with us of working on the set with the crew?
Ooh! Fond memories, thinking back on those times it all seemed like hard graft! Well I guess that’s not true, any incident you look back on and chuckle must be a fond memory! One event that just popped into my mind was at Shepperton Studio’s.

One day after lunch in the canteen almost the whole crew climbed into a milk float to return to the stage. We used old milk floats as studio runabouts. Now I think the studio has moved into the 20th Century and replaced them with Hollywood style Golf buggies.

Well, these old milk floats have three wheels, one at the front and two at the back.

Yep, you’ve guessed it, we turned a corner at speed in our haste to get back on the hour and rolled the poor thing onto its side, cushioned fortunatly by an abundant herbaceous border!! No injuries thankfully just a few bruises. Fortunately the driver was the studio manager’s son so he suffered the finger wagging!!

Hmm! Now it coming back to me, loads more TTTE memories but that’s another story!!

66) You were the project designer on the Fujikyu Highland 'Thomas Land' Theme Park in Japan which opened in 1998. Could you tell us more about that project?
Sony Creative wanted me to design their new Thomas Land in Fujikyu at the base of Mount Fuji, a truly amazing location. I flew out to have a look at the site and take notes and was given the most amazing time as a guest. I can honestly say they treated me like a King … just hope they had the right person!!
 
I was amazed at the schedule for completion of stage one, only a few months to be ready for the spring opening the next year. I admired the work ethic, by the deadline everything was completed, even a hedge maze that should have taken years to grow!! The second stage was designed the following year, great fun.

67) Given your standing as one of the core production crew, do you recall why you weren't involved with Thomas and the Magic Railroad in Toronto in 1999 and 2000?
I truly cannot remember why I was not involved in the movie. Maybe it coincided with my involvement with Thomas Land in Japan or commercials.

68) Do or did you have any favorites amongst the TTTE and TUGS characters?
My favourites were Percy, Rusty and Bertie the bus. I was given the task of driving Bertie a number of times. I remember David Mitton laughing so much he almost fell over when I had to drive Bertie towards a queue of people standing waiting for him at a bus stop. The cameras rolled, action, I drove him down the lane, lost control and he ploughed through the queue knocking them everywhere. I must say the playback was hilarious!
 
Footnote: Chris Signore posits  that this may have taken place during the filming of Series-3's "Thomas gets Bumped".

69) Can you tell us about your contributions to Britt's Mumfie? How did you become involved with its production?
I was on meetings with Mumfie from the very beginning.  At first we experimented with puppets at Shepperton Studios. The results turned out fairly disappointing so Britt decided to go Cell animation.  The production was based in Toronto Canada and the results were great.
 
I drew up lots of location drawings and really enjoyed the format.  While I was there we decided to hire a car and drive out to Niagara Falls. When we got to the falls there was thick fog. One couldn’t see twenty foot in front! All that way and it sounded like we were standing next to a free-way … hey, we may have been for all we knew!!

70) How did you become involved with Orsum? Did you (as with Thomas) work closely with David Mitton (and also with David Lane)?
 I had worked successfully with both Davids before and guess I just fell into the job.

71) What projects you worked with David Lane on?
I had worked with David Lane on numerous commercials as an art director and had developed characters and settings for many projects.

72) From what we saw of the one released episode, it would have been a popular series. Was everyone associated with Orsum excited about it?
Yes we were all excited with the results, I really enjoyed the format, model sets mixed with CGI.  The two elements worked well together.

73) The concept sketch for underwater vessel featured on your website - was it intended to be built as a model or rendered in CGI?
The vessel interior would have been built as a breakaway model but the exterior would have been model with CGI elements.

74) Were you still involved with Orsum during David Mitton's sudden passing? How did you first learn of the tragic news?
I remember a colleague phoned and told me of the news.

75) Was David's passing a contributing factor to the Orsum project being delayed and eventually shelved?
I think so. I wasn’t involved with that complex financial side of the production.

76) Your Nieuport 17 biplane replica was featured in the 2006 movie ‘Flyboys’, in which you are also credited as one of the ‘real’ pilots. Can you tell us how you became involved with this movie and what you experienced during filming?
Flyboys was about the ‘Lafayette Escadrille,’ a squadron of the French Air Service during World War One, composed largely of American volunteer pilots flying fighters such as the Nieuport 17. Fortunately I had the only full size Nieuport 17 in Europe and so the deal was struck. The other flying Nieuport 17 came from Florida.
 
We based at many locations around the UK. The sets were amazing, period hangars, workshops, officer’s mess, kitchens, vintage vehicles, horses and hundreds of extras milling around in costume. If the weather was flyable, we would get kitted out by the costume department and be up. Nieuport’s, Fokker’s, Sopwith 1.1/2 strutter and camera helicopter would be flying and chasing each other like lunatics, up railway cuttings, through valleys, around oak trees in the grounds of Castle Howard. I must say I found display flying a wee bit boring after that!!

me in my aeroplane
Robert in his Nieuport 17 on location at Breighton Airfield, Yorkshire for Flyboys movie in 2005

77) From your historical perspective, did the movie portray life and death in the skies as a WWI aerial combat pilot accurately?
Well, I guess only a fighter pilot who fought in WW1 could answer that question.

Personally I believe that the characters serving in 1917 would have been rather more reserved than as portrayed in the film. The air combat sequences covered by the CGI department succeeded in making the aeroplanes a little too zippy and Star Wars X-Fighter like.

78) Many steam preservation railways have volunteer programs for young people to gain hands-on experience with many aspects of steam railways. Does the Great War Display Team offer a similar type of program with your restoration or ground crew work?
Steam preservation railways have a permanent base making volunteer work possible. Unfortunately because of the distances travelled to position the aeroplanes for air shows it would be too costly (travel-wise) to have volunteer ground crew. Any offers would be greatly appreciated though!!

79) How many different types of aircraft have you flown over the years? Of the ones you've flown, do you have a personal favorite?
Looking through my log book I’ve flown 42 different types of aircraft. I guess my favourites are Nieuport17 (of course) and the Piper L4 Cub.
 
80) If a wish could be granted, what would be the ultimate aircraft that you would love to pilot?
I have a passion for WW1 aeroplanes so it would have to be a Fokker DVII.

81) Are, or will you be involved with any new aircraft restoration/building projects?
I have a new side line in War Bird nose art now but I doubt very much I would ever start a new build. I’d rather play golf now … well, attempt to play!
 
82) Re: your earlier mention of an interest in photography, did you ever have discussions about the subject with Terry Permane?
No, I don’t remember ever discussing photography with Terry other than questions about the periscope lens ect.

83) Are there any aspects of the show's production that you miss the most after leaving Thomas?
Yes, I guess setting up and building run-through’s to camera. For instance the line between locations such as ‘Gordons Hill’ and ‘Knapford Station’ the line would have to run in correspondence to a map of the Island of Sodor.
 
David was keen to keep a continuity with the geography of Sodor.  I enjoyed designing and building beach scene run-throughs with Rosco foil to give the illusion of a sparkling sea.

Series 2 TTTE Crew - CLICK image for larger view
Series 2 Crew in this photo taken on 6th June, 1986. We'll ID the other crew as they are known to us

84) Do you ever on occasion bump into or keep in touch with any of your old crewmates?
Now and again we call each other and have a chat and a laugh.

85) Lastly, is there  any special message that you'd like to say to the TTTE (and TUGS) fans who admire and appreciate your contributions to the series?
Thank you for taking such an interest in my input with TTTE and Tugs.  I really enjoyed working on the production and I’m so glad all these years later Thomas is still a favourite.
 
Watch out for my latest work by Googling ‘Mike DA Mustang and Friends’ at Airshowbuzz.com.  I hope you like it :)
 
Note: Fans can watch a promotional video of Mike DA Mustang below : (embedded video) 

Mike DA Mustang - Promotional Video Segment

We'd like to express our many thanks to Robert for sharing his recollections of working on Thomas and other shows - a real testament to this man's creativity. Robert, we wish you all the best in your endeavours and success with your latest venture. Fans can see and appreciate more of Robert's work on his website.