Thomas and Friends - The Big Live Tour - Building the Engines

Thomas, Percy, James and Gordon made history for the franchise on Boxing Day, 2002 at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham, England. It was the debut of 'Thomas & Friends - the Big Live Tour', a live stage show that soon became a popular family event devised by Thomas’ new owners – HiT Entertainment in partnership with live event veteran DC Entertainment in London.

This is the first installment of what we hope to be a series of SiF articles about the Thomas Live stage and arena shows. We begin by showcasing the main attraction of the live show, the engines. We’ve discovered that All Effects, a special effects company based out of London were originally tasked with constructing large-scale working models of the familiar characters featured in the arena stage show.
 
SiF caught up with All Effects owner Chris Reynolds, who was happy to talk to us about how his company and crew were able to turn a concept into reality.
Chris Reynolds on Building Famous Engines
In a telephone interview, Wed. 23 July, 2008

Chris, how did you become involved with Thomas & Friends – The Big Live Tour?
 
I worked for the BBC for twenty years, and towards the end of my period with them, around the year 2002, a job came in about this new live theatre show based on the Thomas and Friends television program.  I was asked if I wanted to have a look at it, as a lot of people didn’t want to do it because it looked too complicated.   So I said that I’d be interested in taking it on as I’ve been involved with a lot of complicated engineering type builds.
 
You were obviously breaking new ground by being tasked to build large-scale versions of the show’s characters for the arena tours. How challenging was it?
 
When the theatre show designers first came in, it was a very tricky number because they were originally planning on using golf buggies; mounting the characters’ bodywork on the chassis and driving them around inside something resembling a railway track on the stage.
 
We tried doing that during testing and found that it was just too complicated - it was chaos. It just didn’t work at all. We then experimented using other methods without much success, but I then came up with the idea of adapting what is pretty much the Paris-Metro system. Essentially, you have rubber tires running inside of a groove, with the tires sticking on the outside edge. We found that it worked quite well, and we still had something on the floor that resembled a railway track.
 
A suitably-scaled portable railway track system wouldn’t have worked?
 
No - the thing of it is, we couldn’t have a real railway track on the arena stage floor. It would never work because the turning radiuses of the curves were too tight. It also would’ve also have made it overly complicated as we would have had to include and control switching points.
 
It obviously had to be very different, so we basically invented the whole new system.
 
Given engines’ sizes, how is driver visibility for navigation?
 
The actors playing the role of drivers in the show are also actually steering the train. They can actually see quite well out of the cabs.

Overhead view of James and Thomas
Overhead detail of track system devised by All Effects

Can you describe how your system works?

What happens is that the drivers themselves control whether they want the engine to go right or left at a junction. They steer the character from inside the cab by running all of the vehicle’s wheels pushed up against one particular wall or edge. For example, if they’re going straight ahead they’ll run the wheels along the left hand wall.

When the driver wants to go right at a particular junction, they press a specific button in the cab which switches the drive power steering system to the right side of the engine so it then runs along the right hand wall.
 
And if they want to go left at a junction, another button is pushed to switch the steering to the left side and thus follow the left hand wall. So depending on what direction you want to go, the vehicle itself either follows the left side wall if going left,  or the right side wall if going right.

It’s quite complicated; it could be compared to a sort of flight control system, especially the control system in the cab.

Can you tell us more about the control system?

There are 8 big buttons in the cab, of which 4 of the buttons control the steering – biasing whether it goes left or right, engaging forward or stopping. The other 4 buttons control the facial expressions for the character. You press a button for ‘smile’, it’ll smile, and another for ‘sad’, the expression becomes sad and so on.

How were the faces constructed?

The faces were made of latex foam which was sculpted to resemble the respective characters. They are not static in the least, and are all capable of stretching and moving around to create the desired facial expression. The latex foam face masks are fitted on top of the animatronics facial features.

The faces were sculpted from latex foam
A few familiar faces from the show

How does the steam effect work?
 
The steam effects are automatic using an electric smoke gun running off of the nickel batteries that power the engine. The steam puffs out the chimney all the time. On our European models, the smoke is regulated by little sensors in the wheels. As the wheels go round, the smoke puffs up and out of the chimney as the engine is going along.
 
You mentioned nickel batteries…
 
There are a series of these batteries hidden beneath every vehicle drive. For each character, the combined weight of the batteries is almost equivalent to the weight of a Ford pick-up truck – they are that heavy.
 
There are 2 bogies underneath each vehicle, and each bogie has its own separate and independent power system and motors. So if one bogie packs up, the show can go on as you can still drive the vehicle using the other set of bogies – a handy backup system of sorts.
 
Did you have any favorite character, or one that proved to be a challenge to build?
 
No, I can’t say that I had a real favorite character; they were all quite the same.  Mind you this was years ago, but it was quite a challenge to build James because he was so big. The turning radius was very tight, and it was difficult getting him around the track with his tender. The good thing is that it all worked out in the end, and that it’s been working great without incident for years now.
 
We built Thomas, Percy and James, along with a static partial Gordon who remains in the engine shed.

Alleffects fitting mask over animatronics
All Effects Craftsman applying heat gun to adjust foam latex mask

All Effects didn’t build the ones currently seen in the North American Thomas Live: Thomas Saves the Day?
 
We only built the characters that were mostly used in the European early version of the show. We didn’t build Diesel or the characters (Thomas and Percy) in the American version you’re referring to.
 
A bit of background - After we built the Thomas and Friends characters for the European show back in 2002, I came up with the idea for a radio-controlled system for the Noddy stage show. The vehicle could be controlled on the stage remotely. In fact, I’ve just created a similar version for the Bob the Builder live show. Basically, the vehicle drives with a series of smaller wheels hidden beneath it. It’s very similar to tank-like steering which also allows the vehicle to spin around on the spot like a top.
 
Because our Thomas and Friends characters were complicated to operate and quite heavy to move around, we were planning to substitute the existing system with one similar to the one we developed for Noddy.
 
The advantage of this system is that it wasn’t absolutely necessary to have a physical track, and instead could even paint something that resembled a railway track on the stage.
 
But unfortunately I didn’t get the contract and it was given to an American Company in the end. By appearances, the American-built versions of Percy and Thomas use a similar steering principle that I originally planned to do.
 
I imagine that your engines get a lot of attention when getting loaded and unloaded during each show.
 
Oh yes, they’re pretty big. They’ve been to a lot of places around Europe. We toured Japan during the summer of the year before last. They got a lot of attention and interest wherever they went because of their size and character popularity - they’ve got quite a presence.
 
Does your company still service your Thomas models?
 
Yes, about once every year, we go and have a look at them. They’re all quite big, about 14 feet long and 8 feet high. Even Thomas is about 8 feet high. We visit them at their storage garage in Birmingham about 100 miles from where I am. The production company has a hired permanent technician looking after them most of the time who more or less travels along with the show. After we built them, I only had dealings with the show on a yearly basis, giving the vehicles a quick once-over, so I don’t look after them on a regular basis any longer.

Big Live Tour stars Thomas and Percy
Thomas and Percy looking proud and ready for the stage at All Effects workshop

Chris, Can you tell us how you got into the special effects and mechanical props business?
 
I have a degree in architecture and when I finally landed a job in that field as an architect for an architectural office, I found that I actually hated it! Eventually I got involved with special effects through a friend of mine; initially working on commercials for a few years. I then left and joined the BBC where I worked there for about 20 years until I left in 2003 to run my own company full-time. I do explosives as well and am a member of the Institute of Explosive Engineers. Explosives play a large part in film and television special effects. As for the extent of explosives used, it really varies. Some films need low explosives while other films do not. 
 
What is the most challenging aspect of the work your company and crew does?
 
I think the most difficult thing is the engineering aspect of special effects. Things like coming up with innovative solutions for the Thomas the Tank engine models. I also did all of the mechanical and visual effects for Robot wars. That show was quite complicated with big vehicles equipped with hydraulics that can cut up steel robots, flamethrowers and the like - all that had to be operated safely in a studio. In many respects, that can be more difficult than setting up explosions outdoors on a site.  In addition, there’s working out team rosters to do it, not to mention managing a budget.
 
In addition to Robot Wars, can you tell us about your other earlier special effects work?
 
We did some special effects quite a long time ago for Dr. Who. All sorts of special visual effects such as exploding Daleks and spaceships. I was also a stand-in for a scene in an episode. In it, the Doctor was supposed to be buried underneath a mound of sand with his feet sticking out, but the actor at the time didn’t want to play it, so I did. I was Dr. Who with my feet sticking out of the sand!
 
Another scene had a hand reaching up and grabbing Dr. Who to drag him under the water. I did a lot of stand-in work like that.
 
What have you and your crew been working on recently?
 
At the moment we’re doing the special effects on a new film called Agora, with Rachel Weisz. It’s about the woman scientist-philosopher Hypatia and the collapse of the pagan religions with the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire.  We’ve been filming out there for 6 months. A quite busy production to work on.
 
Finally, given the diversity of work your company has been involved with, how do you approach each project?
 
We treat every job as being unique and different. It is important to us in terms of quality for what it is, and what it is going to be.


We’d like to thank Chris for setting some time aside from his busy schedule to speak with us. You can see what other projects Chris and is crew have been working on  by visiting All Effect’s website at www.alleffects.com .
 
The photographs in this article are used with permission of Chris Reynolds - All Effects. Thomas and Friends characters are copyright HiT Entertainment. 'Thomas & Friends - the Big Live Tour' copyright HiT Entertainment and DC Entertainment.