Interview with Tim Staffel

Tim Staffel's name can be seen in the closing credits of every Series 1 episode of Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends. As a crewmember and model building supervisor with Clearwater Model Making Systems Ltd., Tim was one of the pioneers who worked on the show's debut and launch into immediate popularity.
 
Tim has recently returned to his musician's roots with his band aMIGO, having spent a good part of his career with model building, animation, design and directing commercials for television and film. So we're very chuffed that Tim was only too happy to answer a few of our questions about his contributions to Thomas!
 
Reply to James Gratton on December 14, 2008

Can you tell the fans how you first became involved with Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends?
The route by which I became involved with Thomas was simply that I had been a core employee of Clearwater Films for some years in the Model Shop, and the management asked me to head up the team to make Thomas. The workshop at that time employed a variable number of people, depending on the amount of work going through - Clearwater was a major British Animation House - If We’d kept going, Aardman would never have risen to the prominence that they did. While we were making Thomas, the rest of the Model making Team - headed up by John Pennicott, continued to produce animated commercials.

Were you familiar with the Thomas characters beforehand?
Yes, I knew the Awdry Books. I was a fan - well, I liked the quaintness of them - the format - the illustrations - the whole visual ambience. I don’t think I owned any….

Did you work with David Mitton and Robert Cardona? Would you be able to share any insight with us about what it was like working with them?
I worked with David and Robert, yes... I didn’t know Robert particularly well - and David, with Ken Turner was one of the founders of Clearwater - but he wasn’t as busy a director as Ken or David Lane - We were all part of a team - it was an exciting time - as I say, Clearwater was a prominent animation production company - there was a great sense of community in the early days. We were d**n busy – I’m so sorry David’s gone….

You were part of a team breaking new ground into Children’s television. What was the atmosphere like on the set during building, setting everything up, and filming?
I’m not sure it was exactly breaking new ground - We were really repeating what Gerry Anderson had done ten years earlier; - at least as regards methodology - it was very much a matter of striving for topographic realism at Gauge One scales - without the pyros!

David Lane and Ken Turner had been part of Gerry Anderson’s crew - too, although there was no direct model making lineage from Thunderbirds to Thomas...

Your mention of David Lane intrigues me.  We know that his name isn't listed in the Series-1 credits. Was David Lane somehow involved in the early production setup of the inaugural series?
I can't be absolutely sure, but I know that Dave Lane was on and off set, and after all David Mitton hadn't been directing before Thomas.  He was, as far as I can remember, just producer up to that point.

You mentioned that you sculpted the faces for the engine characters. Can you tell us to some detail how you constructed them from design to moulding?
As I recall, I did most of those early faces - sculpted them in Plastiline - that’s a French product - moulded them in Silicon Rubber, and cast them in Polyester Resin, sanding them back until they were lovely and smooth - then sprayed them grey. The eyes were always hollowed - sculpted against spheres of the same diameter as the eyes in the RC mounts. There wasn’t a great deal of interference from the Art Director, I was just following the books as best as I could, whilst trying to visually ground the characters a bit more than the original illustrations had - they tended to vary quite a bit due to the naiive illustration style.
 
As far as I can recall, I did the first faces for Thomas, Edward, Henry, Gordon, James, Annie & Clarabel, Percy, Bertie – and that’s about it… oh and I made the human characters, too – large and small scale.
 
Can you tell us more about making these?
Regarding the figures:  Two scales, the smaller in line with Gauge One, the larger figures with the large scale CU stuff we built - I can't recall that scale.
 
In both cases they were carved in jeluton (soft carving timber) I  think, primer-sprayed, and cast in silicon. Then the main features (clothing, etc) were masked and sprayed in nitro-cellulose. Facial features and details hand-painted on, possibly with acrylics or, as you  suggested, a fine permanent marker.
 
I only built and painted the originals, as you will realise, and those would have been, I think - Thomas' Engineer and Guard, The Fat Controller small scale - and ditto big scale.
 
The railway populations would have just been cast and duplicated small scale from the original three, and painted at random to use as passengers and incidental characters. We might have added female clothing to one or two of the original first pulls, and then re-moulded  them for economy.

Can you tell us about your other work on the show?
I was in charge of the model making during that first series: I input on everything whenever there was an area I could get to grips with - for instance – On the engines from the original pilot episode - which I think we shot again – there was an automobile cigar lighter with smoke oil syringed on to it to create smoke. It was actually not good, since apart from running hot, off the twelve volts from the tracks – it kept needing recharging – and it didn’t puff.

I came up with a novel idea – I had some small rectangular glass phials blown with piping inlets and outlets. The inlet went to the floor of the phial – so as to be under the surface of the liquid that they were filled with, and the outlet extended from the top surface. We filled them with Titanium Tetrachloride – a liquid that smokes on contact with air (often used in those days to simulate hot food in TV Ads) then the inlet tube was attached to a small diaphragm pump driven off the main driving wheels of the engines. The outlet tube ran up to the funnel. As the engine ran air was pumped in pulses under the Titanium Tet in the phials, it created smoke that bubbled out of the outlet to the funnel, and hence the engines puffed as they ran! Totally cold, and dynamic with it!

An unresolved mystery with the fans is the presence of an unmodified Marklin1 engine seen in a photograph of the crew likely  setting up a scene for 'Tenders and Turntables'. Would you be able to provide any insight about  this photo? (photo source: 'The Making of Thomas', Chris Leigh, Model Railway Constructor - Dec. 1984)
I can partly help with the characters in the pic - Foreground is Bob Gauld-Galliers, Art Director - left of David Mitton is Jamie Bowering - Modelmaker. Leaning over in front of Bob is Jamie Jackson-Moore, Modelmaker - and looking through the camera is Terry Permane.2

Interestingly, I've suddenly remembered - and this was prompted by the white magazine on the camera - (usually denoting High Speed) footage - a lot of the Thomas footage was overcranked to slow the smoke down, and give a little more 'weight' to the movement of the engines.

Unfortunately, I don't actually recall us using a standard Marklin engine as a stand in - but there it is, undeniably...

bts_marklin.jpg
Crew setting up 'Tenders & Turntables' with Marklin present on the set (Photo: CHRIS LEIGH )

Was fishing line ever used during filming to assist  loaded engines along?
We certainly did  use fishing line to help with some of the shots - as I recall for close ups at low speed, sometimes the power transmission from the tracks resulted in jerky motion, so we would not use the power at all - but pull the engines past camera with fishing line - careful of course, not to show the wheels, as, unpowered, they locked up and didn't revolve (this problem may have been solved in later series).

Do you have any anecdotes that you could share with the fans of working on the show and with the rest of the crew?
It’s a long time ago…. I recall that the day we commenced shooting – We had all been awake for about 72 hours putting the final touches to Knapford., and the opening shot called for a snow scene. The whole set (about forty feet square) was covered with Dendritic salt – which was standard for model snow, as it crystallises very easily and is very stable.

Unfortunately – for some reason, it interfered with the electrical transmission within the brass Gauge One rails that we had laid. (the engines picked up their power from the lines)

Me and, I think Dave Payne, drove all the way to Epsom, (about 25 miles) to buy up a whole load of stainless steel track in order to replace it. Dave was trying to keep me awake at the wheel, while trying to keep himself awake at the same time! Needless to say, we made it – stripped all the salt and the brass track off, replaced it, and turned over (successfully) on the set the next day.

Do you still keep in touch with any of your former colleagues from the show?
Yes, I still see some of my old colleagues from time to time – unfortunately, film and TV model making has largely bitten the dust in the wake of digital effects, so opportunities being much scarcer than they used to be, a lot of them are engaged in other things’ which is a great shame, because there was a time when British Models and Special Effects were the best in the World.

SiF would like to once again thank Tim for his insight and to wish him and his musical career all the best!

Footnote:
[1] For readers who are unfamiliar with the story - Ever since its appearance in Chris Leigh's article in the December 1984 issue of Model Railway Constructor, the unconverted Marklin has become a source of continued debate amongst fans. A few have gone as far as describing the enigmatic engine as the equivalent of Sodor's 'Bigfoot', with sightings of the engine in various episodes, but without conclusive proof. We can surmise that the engine was used as a spare for some off-camera shunting where the train makes a run-by without the viewer ever seeing the engine. The photo of what appears to be the crew setting up to film a scene for 'Tenders and Turntables' supports this theory (re: camera's position). In the episode, as James is going onto the turntable and just before Gordon arrives, the tail-end of a train (the brakevan) is briefly seen in the foreground exiting to the right. Considering the position of the Marklin train in the photo, we can make an educated guess that this brakevan was indeed part of the train being pulled by our mystery Marklin - even if we never see the engine itself!
 
[2] With special thanks to Robert Gauld-Galliers for positive identification of the crew.(2009-01-29)