Greg Tiernan answers our questions on his
involvement with the current CGI production of Thomas & Friends!
Nitrogen Studios, headed up by husband and wife team, Greg
Tiernan and Nicole Stinn, have been involved with the production of Thomas & Friends since 2008, initially
providing CGI elements for the final live-action model shoot, and currently helming the production of the full-CGI series
and associated specials.
Although initially met with scepticism and wariness prior to their debut, the
work that the Nitrogen team have ploughed into the series has been incredible, and the visual element of Thomas &
Friends is now stronger than ever before, with a new world of opportunity lying wide open, and driving the sales for
the series further than ever before.
SiF have met Greg and Nicole twice at Thomas & Friends premieres
and we have nothing but praise for them and what they do. As Greg is dedicated Rail-Fan and a Railway Series enthusiast
himself, we feel that HIT Entertainment could have made no better appointment to helm the new CGI series.
We hope you enjoy the insights that Greg provides here, and thank him, Nicole
and the entire Nitrogen team for their continuing contributions to Thomas's world, and wish them all the best for future!
The answers given in the following interview solely reflect the opinions
of Greg Tiernan and Nicole Stinn on behalf of Nitrogen Studios.
They in no way purport to represent HIT Entertainment.
Any opinions expressed in this interview
are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of HIT Entertainment.
CGI Thomas & Friends Director
Interviewed by Ryan (March 2011)
Studios were founded in 2003, and given the quality of work produced there, one would assume yourself and Nicole have gained
a great deal of experience working for other people first. Where did you both gain your experience, and have you worked
on any projects of great note?
have worked in the animation industry for 26 years and Nicole for 19 years. I have worked in Ireland, the UK, Germany, the US and Canada, and Nicole has worked
in the US and Canada. We have worked on all sorts of projects ranging from theatrical feature films (both animated and
live action) and TV series to animated commercials to Video Games and CD ROMs. We have been involved in many notable
projects. Movies include: An
American Tail, The Land Before Time, All Dogs
Go To Heaven, Cool World, Tank Girl, The Tigger Movie, Mr. Magoo, Rugrats in Paris, The Wild Thornberrys Movie, Bionicle and
many others. TV commercials for major clients like Nike, Coca-Cola, Hasbro and NBC TV, and TV series in the UK and US / Canada
like Danger Mouse, Rugrats, The Brothers Grunt and others. Video games like Sony's God of War, and many Disney titles for
cartridge and CD ROM games based on features like Tarzan, Hercules, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Lion
all aware that Nitrogen Studios provided some of the CGI animation for the 2007 Feature Film, Happily N’ever After,
what other major productions have the company been involved with?
projects....Thomas & Friends, of course, the Sony AAA video game God of War, video games based on Pixar's The Incredibles
and a Sonic the Hedgehog Nintendo DS video game, we storyboarded the DVD movie Bionicle: Web of Shadows, provided the animated
titles for four Roxy Hunter live action movies, we provided storyboards and animation for TV shows in Canada and the US like
Jacob Two Two, Max and Ruby, Yo! Gabba, Gabba, Da Boom Crew and MP4orce....animation for Jerry Seinfeld / American Express
online Superman commercials...and many more projects.
Can you tell us how and when Nitrogen
first became involved with HiT Entertainment and Thomas?
We were approached by HIT Entertainment
in 2007 when the decision was being considered to switch producing the show in live action to CG animation. HIT was aware
of our career history and the capabilities of our studio. We provided test shots to HIT to see how the show could look with
CGI added to live action footage (as eventually seen in Season 1200). We also provided a short sequence of full CGI.
Based on the overwhelmingly positive feedback to these tests from focus groups and from broadcasters, and despite the understandably
cautious reaction from the show's older fans the decision was made to make the transition. We are delighted that HIT chose our studio as the new 'home' for Thomas.
were you both with Thomas’ world beforehand?
We both were very familiar with the world of
Thomas before this. We were always very impressed with the original TV show and had read the Reverend Awdry's Railway Series
books when we were younger. Of course, once we were part of the show’s production, we went into overdrive in our research
and read all of the Railway Series again and re-watched every single episode of Thomas & Friends from Season 1 to the
present. We also compiled as broad a reference library as we could get our hands on...everything from The Thomas the Tank
Engine Man and The Island of Sodor to Industrial Steam in the 50s and 60s and Two Centuries of
Railway Signalling. We never approach anything in the show without fully researching historical accuracy first.
Very early on, it appears to us
that the model episode from Series 11 -“Thomas and the Stinky Cheese” was adapted to a CGI’d version. Was the CGI’d version used to garner and gauge test audience
feedback, and is there anything else you can tell us about it?
Yes, that is exactly what it was used for. We reproduced a short sequence from “Thomas and the
Stinky Cheese” as a way for everyone to see what Thomas & Friends could look like in CGI. Although it proved extremely
successful, we have to confess that our work looks primitive compared to the show as it exists now!
you explain the process that was used during the CGI animation of Series 12? We are aware of the targets being used for the
faces, but how did these work?
A standard procedure in the industry, when combining CG animation
with live footage, we added tracking markers to live shots so that once the animation is added, it doesn't jitter around,
and it stays 'locked' to the movement of either the actor or the camera pans in the live action picture.
primary task was adding faces to the engines, the most appropriate place for a tracking marker was on the face plate of the
engines with the actual faces not being needed. Adding the markers to the faces served two purposes -- the first was to enable
the moving engine to be tracked. For the second, since we would be covering the markers with our CGI faces, this eliminated
the costly and time consuming process of digitally removing the tracking markers from the final shots.
crew shot the show as usual, except with the addition of tracking markers. We then took the image sequences of the entire
show and ran them through our pipeline and used software to read the tracking markers in a process known as match moving.
Every TV show and theatrical movie which combines live action with CGI visual effects uses this process. The result is that
our CGI faces appear to be locked firmly in place on the engines no matter where they moved or no matter where the camera
Were there any great difficulties
present when fusing the two animated mediums of live action models and CGI together?
always a few tricky problems to solve when combining live action with animation. I should point out, at the risk of sounding
pedantic, that the original model shoot is not and never was animation. Everything was shot in real time. The two biggest
challenges are making sure that the CGI stays locked to the live action footage, and that the lighting that we used with our
CGI models matched as closely as possible to the lighting used on the set. We managed the latter with the use of a mirror
ball, a common industry technique, which enables the CGI production house to accurately measure the colour values and intensity
of the lights that were used on the set and then recreate them in our CGI set.
How much interaction did you guys
get with the model unit at Shepperton throughout that particular shoot?
We were in constant contact
with the Shepperton crew, and I was on set for the first week of shooting Season 1200 at Shepperton to help the crew set up
the necessary additions to their shots. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had the chance to work with
such a fantastic crew and to work on set for part of the final days of such an iconic show at Shepperton.
When the decision was taken toward
the end of Series 12’s production to change over to full CGI, how did you and your team feel about taking over from
the established medium of 25 years?
An overwhelming sense of pride and honour, tempered with sheer
terror! Our initial feeling, contrary to all good business sense, was that it was a shame to change Thomas from its traditional
method of production. We strongly felt that if this was to be the future for the Thomas TV program, then we were the only
studio who would treat Thomas & Friends with the respect that the show deserved. We wanted to shepherd Thomas into his
new format with as much care and reverence to his roots as possible.
We would like to give a very special word of thanks
to Steve Asquith and Simon Spencer who were the epitome of professionalism and good grace in handing over the torch to Nicole
and me as the new Producer and Director. We try every day to follow on from their example, and that of Britt Allcroft and
David Mitton, in our efforts to produce a show of which the Reverend Awdry, were he alive today, would be proud.
also should be noted that HIT Entertainment has been the best production partner that we could have hoped for and has been
extremely supportive of our efforts at every step of the way.
Many fans are curious about how
Thomas and his Friends were transformed into CGI so faithfully from their model counterparts. Would you be able to elaborate
as to how the transformation took place? A friend of SiF who had worked on Thomas and the Magic Railroad suggested
that a 3D Color Laser scanner may have been used to initially digitize the models.
are recreated from scratch without any scanning or programming, just good old fashioned craftsmanship! Our modelers work from
the original models, many of which we have on display in our studio, and from hundreds of photographs of each engine -- both
the show model and the engine on which the character was based.
Each model is hand sculpted in the 3D animation program
Maya (industry standard software). I say 'hand sculpted' because there is a common misconception that because computers are
used for 99.9% of production in the animation and VFX industries that it is the computer itself which is doing the work. Nothing
could be further from the truth. The computer is no more than a tool. Our modelers work in way that is very similar as to
how the model makers worked at Shepperton when crafting the original models, and very similar to how sculptors work with clay,
except our modelers do their crafting within Maya.
Every detail of the original TV model is carefully reproduced in
the CGI model. We have many rounds of review between the modeler, the modeling supervisor and myself before we submit the
model to HIT for final input and approval.
Nitrogen had the arduous task of
producing full CGI sets and models prior to beginning and completing production of a series and special in little over a year.
Was it a particularly difficult job getting everything together in time?
It was a task of gargantuan
proportions and one which is ongoing. In order to recreate Sodor in CGI, every facet of the original show had to be recreated
including every building, vehicle, prop and character. That's hundreds of thousands of individual assets!
task was to create enough assets to get stories underway and give a believable setting to these stories. As each season progresses
we've added more and more of both classic Thomas destinations and characters as well as new ones, but it will be quite a while
before every familiar set and character are recreated in CGI.
Do Nitrogen have a map of their
sets and is there a particular order to them, or do locations appear on a required basis to provide vehicles for the characters?
have a map of our locations and everything is based on the original map of the Island of Sodor. We place a compass in every
set and scene so that our geographical position is always correct. There is no particular order to the appearance of these
sets on screen -- we can pull them up at anytime, for any story. It's basically the story points of each episode which dictate
which set is used.
Back in the Series’ model era, whenever Production would plan
to introduce a new character, Dave Eves would suggest a real engine prototype to suit the character’s personality and
have his model crew build it from the wheels up. Would you be able to share how the process works now in a 100% CGI character
environment? Say, using “Charlie” as an example? Is there a lot of research that takes place? (old photos,
proper scaling, technical drawings etc?) And is it more difficult than using the old models?
follow exactly the same process, except that it is myself who suggests the engine prototypes in response to HIT's needs for
the show. We always do exhaustive research on the engine that is the prototype for every potential character, and this involves
collecting all of the available photographic, video and written reference. Whenever possible, we travel to museums and preservation
railways in the UK to photograph, film and see these engines in real life.
We add as much realism as possible whilst
staying within the artistic boundaries of the style of the show.
Are there any characters or locations
from the model era that you would particularly like to return to the series? Will we ever see any of the old characters -
Boco, Donald & Douglas, Duke, and so on and so forth, return?
Speaking from purely a personal
point of view, we would like to see every character return. I wouldn't discount seeing some of your old favourites again in
the CGI format has been established and accepted by the fans, is there room for you to be more brave with changing things
up such as reintroducing older locations and set designs to give a larger sense of continuity to the show?
have been very brave in introducing both new characters and new locations on the Island of Sodor. As stated previously, we
are working hard to recreate Thomas’ entire world into CGI – both classic locations and new, and this will take
What modeling software do you guys
use to create the scenes for the show?
We use a primarily Maya pipeline with various support
Is directing a 100% CGI episode just as much work as a “live” production
i.e. with models? Is the method very similar?
It is a very similar process, except that with animation,
we have to pre-edit. We need to plan our shots ahead of time by storyboarding and putting together a low resolution previz
reel. Examples of this can be seen on the Nitrogen website. In live action, all of the editing is done after the footage has
been shot. To do that in animation, it would be way too expensive as there are areas in animation which are far more time
consuming and labour intensive than in live action production. Shots which end up on the cutting room floor in live action
are relatively inexpensive when compared to the same shots of an animated production.
The main goal with directing
a Thomas episode is the same whether in CGI or live action – to craft the most engaging story as possible from the script
that you've been given.
Is there a
vision of the show that you have, that you are trying to evolve the current one into?
vision is that I'd like the show be as competitive in today's pre-school TV marketplace as possible whilst keeping as much
railway realism and Reverend Awdry influence as feasible. The current show has the best production values of any pre-school
show anywhere in the world, and Thomas & Friends will continue to enthrall not only children, but also adults for many
years to come. If we can play just a small part in keeping Thomas' legacy on track, we'll be happy.
Will we see brake vans on trains
soon? Please can we have trucks with faces back?
Keep watching the show and you may be pleasantly surprised
We know Greg is a fan of the Railway
Series, he mentioned that he had a copy of The Island Of Sodor, and we’ve seen Peter Edwards’ Island
of Sodor map crop up in Misty Island Rescue. Would you say you’re trying to add some of the original Awdry
influence back in subtly to the TV Series through what we see in your visuals?
always been a stickler for authenticity, and I firmly believe that you can never do enough research. I will always refer back
to the Reverend Awdry's perspective of Sodor as this is the foundation on which the world of Thomas is built.
Do you have any particular favourite
stories or characters from the original Awdry books at all? And if we had an ideal world, and there was an opportunity at
hand to create an episode from the original books in CGI form, which would you choose and why?
like all of the original Reverend Awdry stories, but I have a particular soft spot for Devious Diesel and the engines of the
Skarloey Railway. I would love to recreate "Pop Goes the Diesel" and "Dirty Work" simply because Diesel is such a wonderfully
classic antagonist. There is so much in his personality that has remained untapped. It’s a great well to draw from in
his role as a troublemaker. A happy by-product of these stories is that they include dear old Duck and the Troublesome Trucks.
have always loved "Very Old Engines" and "Duke the Lost Engine". I have a lifelong passion for history and adventure stories,
and both of these Awdry books deliver history and adventure in spades.
As a Rail Fan,
are there any particular locomotive designs you would love to see brought to life and animated as a new character in the series?
probably a lame answer, but there are so many fantastic engines throughout the history of both steam and diesel (not to
mention electric) that it's often quite difficult to decide on a particular design. I'm particularly drawn to 'unusual'
designs – for example, the industrial Sentinels like Scruff, and Den, who appears in the upcoming Day of the Diesels.
It would be great to have a fireless engine at some stage, and a big ol' Beyer-Garratt 2-6-2+2-6-2 would be wonderful...but
impractical for Sodor!
I imagine that you receive many
résumés from hopeful animators – several who are undoubtedly Thomas fans and would love to contribute to the show. What
would be your best advice to someone starting out or contemplating a career in animation?
receive a lot of resumes and reels from artists who would like to join our crew. The best advice that we can give is that
potential animation artists (there are dozens of job categories other than animators) should immerse themselves in
as much animation reference as they can. They should study the classic films of Walt Disney and the Warner Brothers and MGM
cartoon shorts; Study British, European and Asian animation as well as making themselves completely aware of current trends
in the business with the movies of Pixar, Sony, Disney, Dreamworks, etc.
They should then ask themselves if, really
and truly, they feel that their talent is of such a calibre that they can step into the arena with the professionals. And
if so, go for it!
It's important for artists new to the industry to realize that talent will always win out over qualifications
on paper. Recognizing the limits of that talent is the key to gaining acceptance at a studio. Animation is a highly skilled
profession and takes years of hard work to master. As a talented young artist myself (Long ago!), I was shocked at
how much more talented than me was pretty much everyone else that I came across during my first few years in the industry.
I knew enough at the time to learn from those around me and to be open to criticism and advice from my peers and senior artists.
Twenty-six years later, I'm still learning.
Are you excited about working on
upcoming features and seasons?
We are very excited at the prospect of working on upcoming seasons. We hope to be involved with Thomas for as long as possible.
are there any messages you’d like to pass on to the long time fans of the series?
We'd like the long time fans of the show to know that we very much
appreciate their dedication and respect for Thomas & Friends. We at Nitrogen hope that our efforts are worthy of their
expectations for their favourite show. We'll continue to do the best that we can for Thomas, for HIT Entertainment, and for
SPECIAL THANKS TO GREG &
Sodor Island Forums &
Fansitewould like to extend a gracious thank you to Greg Tiernan, Nicole Stinn and the team
at Nitrogen Studios for this interview, as well as for their tremendous creative input into the series as a whole - you're
doing a great job guys, we're loving the visual side of Thomas at the moment!
The Nitrogen Studios playlist takes you through examples
of work that the production company have been working on. From new pre-school property, Kodee's Canoe,
through the Thomas & Friends showreels, to advertisements for Gretsch Guitars, and examples
of their Flash animations, finishing with CGI work done for the movie, Happily N'ever After!
Click on image to access site
The official site of the Canadian
Animation Studio charged with the responsibility of bringing Thomas and his friends to life through the most stunning
CGI animation. Helmed by husband and wife team, Greg Tiernan and Nicole Stinn, here you can see what other projects
that Nitrogen have worked on, what they're capable of and even see how they animate Thomas in full CGI.
Nitrogen Studios official YouTube Channel showcasing
the wealth of work the Studio has produced since their launch in 2003 - including a showreel of Thomas & Friends clips!