Chris Reynolds on Building
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
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 detail of track system devised by All Effects
Can you describe how your system
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
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.
|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.
|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.
|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.