Interviews Frank Vitale & Rick Spencer

Many fans are fond of the live-action music videos featured in Shining Time Station episodes. Here, Frank Vitale and Rick Spencer share their memories of the fun and hard work they commited to producing these videos for the enjoyment of fans young and old.
~ Correspondence with J. Gratton, March 2014 

Rick, Frank, how did you first get involved with Shining Time Station, and what were your roles?
Rick Spencer: I wrote and co-produced The Fable Factory music videos that played in the nickelodeon featured on the show.   My business partner at the time, Frank Vitale directed and co-produced each film. Being American, I only worked the first season when Ringo Starr was Mr. Conductor. When the production moved to Canada, Frank who I believe has dual citizenship continued directing and producing under his own company's banner.
We founded the Fable Factory specifically for Shining Time Station productions (Quality Family Entertainment). This was as a result of Frank’s existing friendship/relationship with Rick Siggelkow.

Frank VitaleFor Shining Time Station, Rick Siggelkow and Britt Allcroft had already planned to feature themed music videos in the episodes. Rick was already familiar with me and my work and brought me in to produce them.
I had first met Rick Siggelkow not long after he graduated from college and had a novel submitted for possible publication. He came up from Manhattan with an old friend of mine, Alan Moyle, director of Pump Up the Volume with Christian Slater. Rick was a fan of my film Montreal Main and wanted to meet me. He was just a kid and he and Alan helped me load a huge oil tank into the back of my pickup truck. We became friends and worked on a script together for a movie. The script was Overnight Sensation and took place in upstate New York where Rick grew up. It hasn't been produced, yet!

What went into the process of making the music videos?
Frank Vitale: Making them was a wonderful experience. We would get a rough of a song from Kevin Roth, create a story to go with the music and lyrics and then make these short gems. They were the only part of STS that was shot on film, 16 MM. (other than the Thomas episodes shot in England).
We were a small crew, Rick, myself, usually Ray Preziosi and an assistant camera person. Film had a superior look to video and the producer, Rick Siggelkow, felt that it added some extra value to the show.
Rick Spencer: The short films were themed to the central message of each episode. I don’t recall if we had specific titles for each but if you know the show well, you’ll remember the Kite Heaven video (a favorite kite gets away and leads its owner to the wondrous Lost Kite resting place), the Christmas Dream (little boy playing with his Christmas tree train imagines an interaction with a hobo on the train), Apple Magic (where an elderly man thinks back to his youth when he learned a magic trick from an older gent while fishing), and Start Where You Are (a young girl experiences a magical encounter at an amusement park and overcomes the fear of unknown adventure).

Where did you find the actors featured in your music videos?
Frank Vitale: Some came from friends and contacts, others from casting sessions. The shows in Toronto were all filled through casting.

Rick Spencer: We cast the Cranbury, NJ videos at the nearby Cranbury public school.  The young boy who danced in "Start Where You Are" auditioned earlier for "You’re Only As Old As You Feel" but was not cast.  In a bit of sweet irony, he performed to a music track for SWYA in spite of being severely hearing-impaired – he kept the beat by watching his mother off screen as she clapped in time with the music.

We've compiled a listing of your videos that were featured in the episodes:

Video Title
A Place Unlike Any Other
Start Where You Are
Faith, Hope and Anxiety
Kite Song
Ring in the Old
You're Only as Old as You Feel Inside
'Tis a Gift (Christmas Special)
The Hobo Song
Do I Hear?
Better When He Grows Up
Jingle, Jingle, Jingle
Johnny Appleseed
All's Fair
Schemer Alone
I Can Do It Myself
Billy's Party
Schemer Goes Camping
Dan's Big Race
Start All Over Again
Mr. Conductor Gets Left Out
Missy Fussy Commercial
Mr. Conductor's Big Sleepwalk
Lullaby Song

Can you tell us more details about where the videos listed above were filmed?
Frank Vitale: There were a couple of others that were not featured in the viewer as music videos, but cut in, namely, Johnny Appleseed (a nice one) and Missy Fussy, a fake commercial.
That list is a little overwhelming in terms of providing details, but I'll do season 1 which was Fable Factory (the other season videos were done in Canada).

Start Where You Are
Frank Vitale: Start Where You Are was shot in the Keansburg Amusement Park, New Jersey in the off season. It was a pleasure working with the kids. They were great dancers and very professional.

Start Where Your Are

Rick Spencer: When I negotiated the use of the amusement park the season was coming to a close.  So when we returned to shoot the film, we discovered that the park management had removed the cars from the Ferris wheel for the winter.  We explained that an empty Ferris wheel would not be the best image to promote their park…so they hastily replaced every other car.  I laugh every time I watch the video because almost no one notices this until I point it out.

Kite Song
Frank Vitale: Kite Song was shot in Stony Point Battle Field, Stony Point, NY and Kite Heaven was filmed in my back yard in Tomkins Cove, NY. For the Kite flying shots, tall Rick Spencer had a fishing pole with a string to animate the kite. Rick did a great job with kites that often didn't want to cooperate.

The Kite Song

Rick Spencer: The Kite Heaven shot was rigged in Frank’s backyard while we we’re filming the “escape” at Stony Point.  I consulted with a kite store in Newtown, Pennsylvania and the owner provided all the kites and various devices to wrangle them (including a motorized version we didn’t use).  The most effective was an extension fiberglass pole that stretched out to about 30 feet.  We attached the show kite to it with thin monofilament (invisible on film).  I ran with it and kept out of frame while our actor chased it.

The Hobo Song
Frank Vitale: The next two were shot in Rick Spencer's neck of the woods in and around Cranbury, NJ. For the Hobo Song featured in Tis a Gift, the train model scenes were shot in Rick's living room. For the exterior scenes, we had an hour drive to a parked steam engine and box car. It was night when we left Rick's, it began to rain torrentially. We knew we would not be able to light and shoot in that kind of weather but we drove on. Amazingly, when we got to the location, the rain stopped.

The Hobo Song

We had to take a parked train and make it look as if it was speeding through the night. We had two guys with 4X4s wedged between the wheel and the body, rocking back and forth to make the box car rock. Then we had a smoke machine and a fan to blow mist to create the feeling of movement. We had two people with tree branches running by the front of the lights to create moving shadows from the moon light. It was all pretty effective.
Together with the smoke and a hand held camera, we made the engine look like it was moving.

Rick Spencer: The videos were produced in the summer months so the fireplace scene was quite toasty, especially with all the lights necessary to create mood and capture image on film.  We used an artificial tree and tried to create the toy village and train set to resemble the practical location in Ringoes, New Jersey, home of the Black River and Western steam train.  Frank had Ray Preziosi film the passing landscape by mounting the camera on a skateboard rolling past the model buildings.

You Are Only As Old As You Feel
Frank Vitale: For You Are Only as Old, Rick found some farm-like locations right in Cranbury, and he got us an old model-T type car.
The general look and feel of our videos was kind of a timeless post Victorian sentimentality.

You Are Only As Old As You Feel

Rick Spencer: As Frank mentioned, we worked with the composer Kevin Roth to adjust lyrics to accommodate our limited resources.  In the first version the first line was, “When I was young I used to play by the railroad after school each day….”   We requested to change “railroad” to “firehouse” because the Cranbury fire station is a national historic building and had the antique engine on display.  Even though the film seems like it was shot somewhere in the south, it was all within walking distance of my home in central New Jersey which is surrounded by farmland.  The car belonged to a neighbor and he was happy to participate.  Frank/Ray’s choice of using a long lens added the cinematic quality we wanted, especially in the “into the sunset goodbye wave” shot.  All of our videos were shot in one day.

In "Better When He Grows Up", a boy destroys his older sibling's belongings. The young actor seemed to be doing that gleefully. Was it humorous to direct?
Frank Vitale: Yes, destroying things is always fun! There was a video we produced for season 2 - I Can Do it Myself with babies (about 20 of them dressed in costumes) that was also hysterical to film. We ended the show with exploding pillows and the babies were covered in feathers.

Better When He Grows Up, I Can Do It Myself
"Better When He Grows Up" and "I Can Do It Myself"
Can you tell us more about filming Season 2's "Home" (Union Station, Toronto)? 
Frank Vitale: Yes, I like "Home" very much. It was fun to do. Union Station is beautiful. You'll be surprised to know that everything was shot in Toronto center. The Don River flows through Toronto into Lake Ontario. It is a small river, but it has created a deep ravine through town. It is a natural wooded park, and all those buildings featured in the music video can be found there, nostalgic Canadiana.
Season 3's "Lullaby Song" looked like it made use of green screen filming to have the child 'fly' over the model railway in his dream. The model railway was quite impressive as well. Were those shots filmed at some model railway club?
Frank Vitale: Yes, you are right. The layout was filmed at the Toronto Railway Club. Richard Grunberg did a great job shooting the models. To make the boy 'fly' we used the same green screen used to put Mr. Conductor into the station scenes. It was the only time we used that screen, and the only time we took more than one day to shoot a story. The bedroom was from a farmhouse that we shot a number of other stories out in the country outside Toronto. When we were surveying locations before the filming there was a crew from the Anne of Green Gables shooting there.
Again with Season 3, was "Start All Over Again" (girl skating) filmed somewhere in downtown Toronto?
Frank Vitale: Yes it was filmed downtown Toronto at an outside public skating area - Ryerson Rink. Very beautiful. I put on the skates and shot all of that.
Start All Over Again
I was impressed with the beautiful scenery in the "Johnny Appleseed" segment. Was that filmed in the same area as "Thanksgiving"?

Frank Vitale: Yes, that was a spectacular location for "Johnny Appleseed". "Thanksgiving" was filmed at a farm location, mostly flat land. (I spent some time with the daughter who owned the property. The father or grandfather had built a dancehall on the property to make extra money. I don't remember if it was still standing).
The location for Johnny Appleseed was a provincial park a little far out of Toronto. I didn't think I'd remember anything, but the name Black River or Black River Forks comes to mind. We ordered a special lens to capture the sunset and scheduled to be shooting just as the sun was about to set. The chances of us getting that shot were pretty low. We'd have to get there and get the actor ready at exactly the right time and there could be no cloud cover. We only had a minute or two to get the shot, but we got it!

Casting was interesting on that one. The casting director brought me 3 or 4 men. None of them were right. Then she said she knew one person who she thought would be right, but he was difficult and would not come for an audition. It was the day before so I had to either trust, gamble or go with someone not quite right. I gambled and was lucky again. The guy was great. Tall, lean and gangly with a perfect face. He performed pretty well, too.

Frank Vitale's "Johnny Appleseed"
"Johnny Appleseed" segment from "Jingle, Jingle, Jingle"

The "Missy Fussy" advert was hilarious. Did you have a hand in writing the dialogue? Were you also involved with the "Envirobot" commercial?
Frank Vitale: Credit for writing the script for those two adverts goes to Brian McConnachie. The "Envirobot" must have come from the art department. They were really good and came up with a lot of interesting props.

Missy Fussy and Envirobot Adverts
"Missy Fussy" & "Envirobot" adverts from "Mr. Conductor Gets Left Out"

Was putting together the music videos from 16mm film more of a challenge compared to editing with tape?
Frank Vitale: Even though we shot on film, we immediately transferred the footage to tape. I got 3/4 inch (U-matic) copies and spent a day editing the scenes to the music. After that I went into a production house to conform my version with beta to a master.

Can you tell us more about your contributions to the 10 Years of TTTE & Friends Anniversary DVD you worked on?
Frank Vitale: I produced and directed the shoot to celebrate Thomas' ten years in America. Steve White (I work with him often) shot it and my son, Thomas, took a day off at Vassar, where he was studying film, to help out. He is now the main producer for Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown. We only shot for one day (either April 30 or May 1-2, 1999), and got a lot of material. It was a steam engine down in southern PA at the Strasburg Railroad built to look like Thomas for A Day Out With Thomas Event. They put a plastic face Thomas face on the engine which melted over time. Quite a crowd of Thomas lovers showed up for this Thomas festival. I edited the show.

10 Years of Thomas on the Strasburg Railroad, PA
Frank's videography from the "10 Years of TTTE & Friends" DVD

Would you have any other interesting anecdotes to share about your days with Shining Time Station?
Rick Spencer: Perhaps the most unusual experience I had with QFE, Britt Allcroft and Thomas the Tank Engine was when I suggested we construct a life size version for parades, appearances and events…which we did with a special effects company in Los Angeles, M.E.L. (Make-up Effects Lab).
The exacting replica was built on a jeep frame/powertrain left over from the first Star Wars film.  Together with the cast, we debuted the first life size Thomas in the Chicago Thanksgiving Parade.  I believe it still tours.  There is a photograph of it here at Universal Studios together with many other iconic characters that were brought in for a special promotion.

1st Thomas replica built by M.E.L. in 1989.
First Thomas replica built for parades by M.E.L. in 1989 (Photo courtesy M.E.L.)

Britt obviously supported your idea. Did she supply you and M.E.L. with any reference materials to work from?
Rick Spencer: Britt and I visited several vendors in California before choosing M.E.L.  Britt/Q.F.E. supplied a complete design bible that every licensee was obligated to follow.  Completed just in time for the Chicago Thanksgiving parade, Thomas was packed onto a transport and shipped.  It was only upon arrival home in Cranbury that everyone realized I was the only one who knew how to drive it…so I was flown immediately to Chicago to take delivery and demonstrate its operation.  The Chicago police had to provide escort because the transport couldn’t make it under the elevated train tracks that surround downtown.  So Thomas’s maiden journey was from outside the inner loop to Marshall Fields (who was sponsoring the appearance).
Do you remember who was in the parade from the Shining Time Station cast?
Rick Spencer: I remember Brian O’Connor and Didi Conn came in and I believe Nicolle and Jason were a part of the parade too. 

Frank, was there ever any early talk of your company producing music videos for the 4 Family Specials?
Frank Vitale: I directed the location scenes for all four of the Family specials. As I was the main exterior director, we initially considered doing the whole thing on film, but decided it was too expensive.

Can you tell us more about being the Location Director for the 4 Family Specials?
Frank Vitale: Personally, it was fun directing them. To get to the South Simcoe Railway for the shoot in Tottemham, Ontario, Rick would pick me up at 4 AM.

Climatic scene from "Once Upon a Time"

Shooting the scenes for Once Upon a Time with Ed Begley Jr. was the biggest challenge. We had a stunt man riding a horse who was to transfer from the horse to the moving train. To get the key shot, we were in the back of a pick-up truck tracking the horse, rider and train. On the last take the horse got a little spooked and literally leapt right over us in the back of the pick-up truck.
Shooting all of the Family Specials scenes presented technical challenges - go cart race, horse riding, train scenes (you don't stop, start and back up a steam engine in a few minutes!). It was hard work rushing to get the shots under the clock, dealing with disappointments. It is when looking back retrospectively that I realize what a special and magical experience they were.
During my time with the Family Specials, one funny thing happened with Ed Begley Jr. He arrived in Toronto and came directly to the studio. Then he disappeared. The production team members were searching frantically for him. We discovered later that he had decided to 'walk' to his hotel from the studio (a 2 hour walk). Everyone kept an eye on him after that.
I think the regulars did enjoy being outside for a change. I got to know Didi Conn pretty well. She is a very nice person.

Was directing Brian O'Connor as Schemer as entertaining as he is to watch in the specials?
Frank Vitale: Brian was funny. He is just as energetic off screen. He was always coming up with ideas, some of which we were able to do, some not.

Can you tell us about any interesting projects you've worked on since Shining Time Station?
Frank Vitale: I am currently the director of the Audio-Visual Division at the March of Dimes Foundation. I directed and produced a feature with Rick Spencer, Thunder Born.

Rick Spencer: Ironically, I am now the Creative Manager at Universal (Florida) and am once again involved in bringing to life another popular import from the U.K., The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  Diagon Alley opens later this year, complete with the Hogwarts Express train running back and forth to Hogsmeade.

Rick, the new addition sounds fascinating. Will there be park staff present masquerading as Harry Potter characters?
Rick Spencer: J.K. Rowling, Warner Brothers and Universal want to maintain the authenticity of the novels/films.  As result there are no walk-around actors representing the recognizable characters/actors from the films.  However they all reprised their roles for various elements within the attractions (very magical)…and all were present for the grand opening and many visit often as guests.  There are other Wizarding World characters that do interact with park guests.
To learn more you may want to visit our official website.  The best way to see the Hogwarts Express is to click on the Kings Cross Station icon on the map, then click again to enter one of the parlor car cabins… a video plays that briefly describes the effects and the meticulous care given the design of the attraction.

Rick, being a Creative Manager at a studio theme park sounds like very interesting work.  Is it challenging? What are the rewards?
Rick Spencer: I tell all who visit me for the first time at Universal that they will learn 2 things; the operation is so much bigger than anyone can imagine…and I have one of the coolest jobs in the world.  We design and manage all of our theme parks around the world (Japan, Singapore, Hollywood and soon new ones) from our headquarters here in Orlando.  And here in Orlando we have 4 themed hotel resort complexes connected by waterways and walking paths that connect at CityWalk, our restaurant, shopping and entertainment complex.
I go to work every day in the world’s biggest toy box.  I am surrounded by amazingly talented artists whose sole purpose in life is to entertain guests with thrills, chills and smiles.  No one I know feels stifled creatively.  Every idea is welcomed and many become reality. Very satisfying.

Frank, I understand that you're also a film instructor. Do you ever get approached by students who remember your Shining Time Station music videos?
Frank Vitale: Yes some remember. Actually, I use the stories in class. I play the music for them and ask them to come up with a visual story. Then I show them the rushes, and then the fine cut.

Would you like to share anything else about your years with Shining Time Station or to the fans of the show and your videos?
Rick Spencer: I learned to direct/produce by studying Frank Vitale’s technique and patience in the sometimes-tedious filmmaking process.  Shining Time Station was “film school” for me.  It sure paid off.

Frank Vitale: I want to point out that the name "Fable Factory" is entirely Rick Spencer's invention. Rick is a man of fables, adventure and imagination. He loves adventure himself and loves to bring an audience into a fantasy world. In this he is immensely talented. It feels perfect to me that he ended up at Universal where he can use that imagination and turn it into entertainment for others. It must please him greatly.
Lastly, I'd like to say that, as much as the fans do, I love being in that magical Rockwellian nether-world where Shining Time Station is placed.

We'd like to express our many thanks to both Rick & Frank for setting some time aside from their busy schedules to share their insight with us.
Visit the Vitale Productions website to learn more about Frank's past and upcoming projects.
If you're visiting Florida, Rick encourages you to visit the family-friendly Universal Orlando theme park for a memorable entertainment experience.

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More About the Thomas Full-Sized Replica

Thinking the Thomas replica's construction might be of interest to fans, I contacted Make-Up and Effects Lab (M.E.L.) in North Hollywood, California to learn more. Owner and CEO / Principal Artist Allan A,. Apone was happy to provide us with details.
To begin with, Allan and his crew obtained the chassis of a Toyota Land Cruiser Jeep. With photos of Thomas model and using Thomas toys style sheets as a guide, metal frames outlining the basic shape of the locomotive were erected. Fir plywood with fibreglass sheeting completed the shape. After equipping Thomas with a smoke machine, the crowning touch was the addition of Thomas' sculpted face (M.E.L. still has a copy). The replica could be driven like a car and was gasoline powered.
Fans are invited to see more of M.E.L.'s interesting work for film, television and live entertainment on their website.
Allan was also kind enough to share photos of the Thomas replica's construction with us below (click photo to see next one). 

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