Interview with David Axford

SiF has the good fortune to ask longtime Visual Effects Specialist Dave Axford about his work on Thomas and the Magic Railroad. Dave provides us with a rare glimpse of what went on behind the scenes. As Dave introduces himself to SiF, you’ll no doubt agree with what he has to say!
"My title on Thomas was 'VFX producer for GVFX', but I think you'll soon see how many hats I wore during the 13 months I was involved with the film."
- Correspondence with James Gratton, May 2007

How did you become involved with Thomas and the Magic Railroad?
It was a bolt out of the blue really. Producer Phil Fehrle was doing some research on the different effects houses in Toronto and gave us a call at GVFX. We were better situated than other effects houses as we had a model shop (which I was supervisor of) as opposed to all digital effects services. I did the meeting with Phil and it went quite well. A month later, Phil brought over Steve Asquith from England for a meeting. Steve had been on the Thomas series for years and would serve as link to 'the look' of Thomas while being worked on in Toronto.

Did you have any prior knowledge of the 'Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends' television series and characters?
Oh sure. Kind of hard to NOT know about Thomas. Having said that, it was not a show I watched, because it came on TV in Canada probably when I was in my 20's.

We found a copy of a draft script for the movie, dated May 19, 1999. The insight provided by this version of the script was stupendous. Doug Lennox, whose role as villain PT Boomer was cut entirely from the movie confirmed that many of the scripted scenes were indeed filmed, but later cut from the movie.
Indeed they were. I not only saw some of the footage, but we proceeded to do some straight-forward visual effects work in our digital department at GVFX before the shots got cut. If I remember correctly, Boomer was riding his motorcycle along a road towards an upcoming train crossing. He makes it across with only a split second to spare before the train comes through. Needless to say, the actor wasn't in any kind of peril on the actual shooting day... The actor rode across the railroad tracks and the train crossed several seconds afterwards. Our job was to tighten up the time between the two events making it seem like it was much more risky than it actually was.

Another shot was of Boomer punching the flower pot where Mr. Conductor spent time hanging out... For these types of shots Alec Baldwin was shot against green-screen and composited into the live action footage. We only just started this shot when it got cut.

Regarding your visual effects work, were you involved with the other compositions e.g. the ‘flying’ sequences – notably Jr. and the Windmill, Mr. Conductor being ‘launched’  by Diesel 10, Jr and Lily sailing through the Magic Buffers etc?
As you know, there were several shops involved in creating the “Thomas” visual effects, including a digital matte painter working in the production office. Most of the 3D work was done at CORE Digital, and the remaining 2D compositing and 3D was split between Toybox, Topix and GVFX. I believe that Jr. and the windmill was Topix and Mr. Conductor being launched was Toybox.

I imagine that it took some work to later ‘realign’ the green screen scenes with the live footage.
Actually no. Bill Neil and Robbi Hinds did a pretty good job aligning the plates during production. It was more about pulling a decent ‘key’ from the green-screens and blending them into a miniature environment. Different film stocks were used in shooting the miniatures and green-screens. As a result, the grain structure between the different stocks wasn’t exactly the same nor was the colour saturation. So it was a situation of adding or subtracting film grain or saturating or de-saturating particular colours.

VFX Supervisor Bill Neil on windmill set
VFX Supervisor Bill Neil on set - Nigel Permane & Andreas Fehrle (rear) adjusting periscope lens

We understand that all of the engine models and sets were shipped over from Shepperton Studios in the UK to 940 Lansdowne Avenue - Studio 24 West in Toronto @July, 1999. Could you describe with us what it was like to see these famous engines and other characters (e.g. Bertie the Bus, Harold the Helicopter) first hand?
Funny you say that. There were two distinct batches of models that arrived. The engines were in aluminum travel cases and immaculately packed. The other models were basically stuffed into large cardboard boxes without much rhyme or reason. Almost all of these models were rebuilt for the film. Perhaps most notably, Tidmouth engine shed.
It should also be noted that we built an additional Thomas and Percy. Also, new addition engines Lady and Diesel 10 were built in Toronto. All engines used in the film had to be re-fitted with brand new servos and radio control receivers (for North American standards). Almost all engines used in the film had cosmetic work (re-paints) and some repair work done as well.
For what it's worth, I have a soft spot for Toby and Harold.

Do you recall whether the set and models were shipped by air freight or by cargo ship?
A bit of both. We shot a test early on to see if the scale of the models would hold up to ‘the big screen’. In order to do this test, the overhead camera system had to be brought over from London as well as a handful of miniatures. These items were flown in. The next lot of miniatures brought in was placed in a sea container. I’m sure that this was done, since they wouldn’t be needed for several weeks after the test had been screened.

Why was a "test" shot required and what did it include?
Britt was concerned that a large face on an engine might be scary to children on the big screen. We shot Thomas pulling into the "station', wide, medium and close. After we screened this, it was decided that Thomas could have close-ups. The station itself came over from England.  We did minimal dressing and shot it against a painted back-drop. The 'station' was a relatively small piece, re-dressed and re-painted several times.

landsdowne model shop, Toronto
The Lansdowne Studio 24 West Model Shop - Photo courtesy Dave Axford

You mentioned that remote control devices and servos were used to control the engine’s eyes. Was remote control also used to control the engines’ movements? 
That’s exactly how it was done.

Were the different engine ‘faces’ (facial expressions) packed in the same travel cases with their respective engines?
No. Actually the faces came in a large tool box. You could slide open the different drawers and find each of the different character’s set of faces.

How were the faces held in place on the engine fronts? We’ve heard of blu-tack being used on the television series.
Yes, you could use blu-tack or a small piece of double sided tape.

I imagine it was tricky to switch the faces in situ on an engine during the shoot without ‘moving’ it prior to resuming the filming.
Not really, once you’ve struck the right balance of adhesion with the tape, it wasn’t too bad. Using a scalpel blade as a pry bar also helps.

'Cranky the Crane' and 'George the Steamroller' had separate action scenes in the script. Do you recall filming any scenes with these two characters?
Cranky was packed in the aforementioned cardboard boxes and was in pretty rough shape when he arrived. I started to refurbish Cranky when I was told to stop as he 'may not play in the film'... So it was back to the box with Cranky. As for George the steamroller, I don't recall seeing him. He may have simply stayed in his travel case along with others that were not featured in the film.
Neither Cranky's or George's scenes were shot for the film, though I think the crane ended up being used as set dressing near the big station.

There's a behind-the-scenes photograph of Terry Permane's Periscope Lens where you can see Cranky in the background (pic posted in the 'Revealed' page). It must've been taken early in the production while you were preparing to refurbish the model.
Actually, this is after I had started to refurbish Cranky (in the model building phase as opposed to the model shooting phase) and was told to stop. Cranky probably was intended to play in the seaside run-by, but got canned again! Poor Cranky. He never gets a break! As I said earlier, in the end we only used the crane as set dressing.

David Mitton is listed as the Model Consultant for the movie. Did he ever visit the set in Toronto, and did you have the opportunity to meet with him?
Oh, David did more than visit... David ended up directing the model unit. Originally, Britt wanted to direct the model unit, but I think the extreme temperatures in the studio deterred her. We were having a heat wave, this plus the vast amount of lighting made the temperatures in the studio climb to 113-115 F. Besides, Britt was soon needed in the studio next door to direct the live action scenes.
David made me laugh. I think the funniest things was he came into the model shop (which was now adjacent to the studio at Lansdowne as opposed to GVFX) and he was singing  ‘Roadhouse Blues’ by The Doors... He turned to me and said, "The Doors, Hendrix... All the best music of the 60's came out of the U.K." LOL! And all these years I had thought that The Doors and Hendrix were American!
But David really had a great handle on making Thomas and friends come to life. Everything from the camera angles to the rolling of eyes. He just 'got it'.

Dave Asling also mentioned the intense heat generated by the lights…
Suspended overhead, the grid had approximately 12 to 15  6k (6 thousand watt) 'space lights'. This setup gave us an overall luminance.  The ‘key lights’ were 20K lamps that were used were on the ground on stands with wheels. 
Yes, it was brutally hot. On the first day or two there was some warping happening on the Tidmouth engine shed. This was relieved by using 'heat shields' on the 20K lights. Basically a 'heat shield' is a gel (clear plastic film in this case) that prevents some of the heat from being transmitted in the direction that the light is pointed. After that, we could shoot takes for as long as we wanted.

Lighting on the model set of TATMR
Lighting on the model set of Thomas and the Magic Railroad - Photo courtesy David Axford to SiF

Do you recall hearing Britt, David, Terry or anyone else mention Edward on the model set? It's a mystery to us as to why such a prominent character from the TV Series was left out of the script.
No talk of Edward that I can remember. I'm sure he was shipped over with the rest of the engines... There were dozens of aluminum travel cases with engines in them that were never utilized for the movie. They were kept in a separate room at Lansdowne 'just in case'. Just in case they got written in, or just in case we needed to cannibalize a part in a pinch.

There is one scene in the movie, where JR and Lily reach the top of the hill, and we see all the engines (and Bertie) going through their paces. Was it difficult to choreograph the models to shoot this scene?
It was a bit of a 'free for all' with several operators choreographing the action by radio control . We shot it a few times and kept improving the timing of the sequence with each consecutive take.

Given that the model 'actors' were mechanical; did any of them provide any challenges in this or other scenes? (e.g. Diesel 10 and his claw)
Diesel 10 is probably the most sophisticated of all the engines. D10's claw was actually "motion control". We could program the movement before we rolled camera. This was particularly useful in the knocking down of the scaffolding scene. We got that in the first take!

Large hydraulic claw
Large scale operational hydraulic claw built by GVFX for the movie. Photo courtesy David Axford

What was your favorite model/engine, if any, that you had a hand in constructing or worked with in the movie?
Hmmmm... I enjoyed working on Tidmouth engine shed and the aqueduct. My (to be) girlfriend Christine Kowbuz did most of the work on the viaduct. Yes... We're still together.
But I think D10 is my favourite although I had little to do with its construction. That was primarily model builders David Eves, Dan Brooks, Peter Randal, Duncan Orthner (electronics whiz), Frank Madden (painter) and Garfield Minnot (who sculpted the faces).

A few fans are wondering whether the model for 'Lady' was constructed based on an actual steam engine class. Would you have any insight about the basis for 'her' construction?
Good question. I don't remember seeing any reference from actual engines for Lady. Just art department sketches. Lady was actually quite a tricky build due to her petite nature.

Another memorable scene in the movie is where Diesel 10 falls off the viaduct and ends up in a barge. Can you describe to us how that scene was filmed?
Oh yes, I certainly can! David Eves and Steve Asquith said, "We're going to drop Diesel 10 right off the viaduct and into the water". I couldn't believe my ears! It was the most complex of the engines and we were going to drop it into the water!!!?? I said, "What if it gets smashed? The electronics will be ruined"! David and Steve just laughed, "We'll just rebuild it"! Yikes! So basically, it was a 'one take wonder' with at least two (possibly 3) high speed cameras.

That's a surprise! I always envisioned someone waiting below to catch it!
We actually did have someone down below to catch D10 off the top. It was Adam Slater with the catcher’s mitt on. After we go our coverage for the close ups and medium shots, then it was time to drop ol’ D10 for real. D 10 held up pretty darn well (at least cosmetically). But I'm sure the electronics inside were toast! Ah well, that's why it was saved for last.

Here, 2nd Camera Assistant David Rumley (rear) and Adam Slater are dwarfed by the viaduct.

The smelter diorama was another nice work of art, especially with all off the derelict engine parts lying about adding to the ambience. The night scene (with the ground fog) and the confrontational scene with James, Jr. and Diesel 10 are also very memorable. Could you describe how these scenes were filmed and the smelter scenery constructed?
The smelter was probably one of the easier sets to construct... Almost all of it was 'out of the box' dressing. In other words, very little had to be built in Toronto and most of it was simply set dressing that had come over from England. Basically, we just built the walls and some overhead rigging.
During the shooting of the smelter scenes, we did have a bit of a 911... Steve Asquith was controlling James and 'hit the gas' a little too much during one of the takes. James went backwards through the buffer and into the pit. The pit was hollow for lighting purposes and James ended up hitting the studio floor (about a 3 and a half foot drop). Unlike some other engines, James was made out of Plexiglas and shattered a bit. Fortunately, there was the on-site shop and we had James repaired and repainted in about 90 minutes or so. Considering the damage, I think we did quite well to get James back in front of the camera in such a short period of time.

I do have a question about how Bertie the Bus was controlled during that character's sequences. Would the bus have been adapted to operate via remote control?
Since Bertie was to be seen so rarely in the film, he had a minimal amount of retro fitting. Basically, Bertie was 'point and go', meaning that his wheels were set to a certain angle and he was sent on his way... Someone was at the far end of the set to catch him before he fell off the set!

Did your unit provide any film footage of the models that was used early on during the making of the film’s teaser?
Clearly, some of the miniature footage (if not all) was from the Lansdowne shoot, as Diesel 10 didn’t exist before. I’m quite sure that all the visual effects in this teaser were done by Film Effects as they did the entire opening credit sequence.

Looking at all of the model scenery in the movie (trees, shrubs etc), did the model crew made a few forays to 'George's Trains'  (Toronto) every once in a while to pick up a few additional supplies?
Oh sure. George's, Keith's Hobby Shop, The Little Dollhouse Shop and John's Photo and Hobby. Not to mention several floral shops to buy bulk dried flowers and plants.
Here's a bit of trivia for you... Do you know how the engine's smoke from their tiny chimneys was created? It's an effect created by blowing small amounts of air over titanium tetrachloride in solution (go do a Google search).
Yikes! When I first heard that, I called the University of Toronto chemical engineering department. I made production pay for a Professor of chemical engineering, Brad Saville to come down and consult. We then invested in an air extraction system which could be manually moved over the engines as they went down the track while shooting on set. Also, on loan from the university were three air monitoring stations. This would allow us to know if our precautions were indeed keeping us safe. Fortunately, we were comfortably below any harmful exposure standards. Also, everyone on set was issued their own personal respirator... I did catch a whiff TTC one day and it caused irritated throat and lungs.  Amazingly corrosive stuff that TTC.

Crew wearing respirators
Crewmembers Adam Slater (left) and Richard (?) wearing respirators on the Tidmouth Set

Could you provide us with a rough production timeline for the model building and subsequent filming?
I might have to re-think this, but I believe it was roughly 3 months for the build, three months for the studio shoot and four months post production. This does not include our initial tests that were shot to see if the scale of the engines would translate for a theatrical release.

Do you recall any additional or extended scenes of the engine or road characters that were filmed and later cut out of the movie?
Well, I wasn't part of the Isle of Man portion of the shoot. Nor was I shown any Isle of Man shots other than what pertained to VFX work. As far as the engine shoot goes, Splatter and Dodge (Splodge as we'd call them) were to have a bigger role. I think they got cut down in the amount that they were shot and then pared down a little more in editing.

In one of Bruce Simpson's storyboards, PT Boomer arrives on Sodor a few seconds after Thomas emerges from the magic buffers, and lands on top of Diesel 10. In the script, Boomer is inside Thomas's cab when he arrives on Sodor only to be accidentally snatched up by his claw during the chase scene. Can you tell us which version they ended up using for the model shoot?
To be honest, there were so many revisions happening, it was hard to keep on top of them all. Typically, when new pages were handed out, I wouldn't read them, but only scan them to see if something unexpected was sneaking up on us fast. BTW, script revisions are the bane of everyone's existence on set. Sometimes, the new pages only have punctuation that has changed or a line that only has one word that is different. There soon comes a point when people just roll their eyes at the 'new pages'. Especially, when so many other things require your immediate attention.

*update: The resurfaced Boomer/D-10 Chase clip reveals that the storyboard version was filmed.

You can see the 'model' of PT Boomer lying prone on the back of Diesel 10 during the climatic chase scene (see ‘Revealed’ page). He's only seen for a split second, but a sharp-eyed forum member spotted him.
I think if there was more time and money, Boomer would have been digitally removed from the shot. The end sequence did in fact take place late in the model shoot. Having said that, I'm quite certain that the shoot took place before the first test screening. Therefore, no one knew that Boomer's part would be cut down.
To be honest, things were a bit odd towards the end. David Mitton became sick and missed some days. Bill Neil was next door with Britt supervising the live action VFX and Ray MacMillan took over the model shooting ever so briefly. So for the last two days, the model unit was more or less ‘directorless’ and the crew were left to their own devices (which is fine, since we were pretty much on autopilot at this stage of the game). Phil Fehrle would drop by to see how we were doing and encourage us to shoot as much as we could. When Britt had a moment away from live action shooting, she too would drop by and would outline what she wanted shot.

Steve Asquith on the Windmill Set
Director Steve Asquith looking through periscope lens on the Windmill Set.

Dave, can you recall exactly when you received word that PT Boomer's character was dropped from the film?
Oh dear... Exact dates? No, I can't give you exact dates. But if I'm not mistaken, there were two screenings in LA. After the first one, cuts started to be made. It was then shown to a second group of children and then more cuts were made... I know that after the second round of cuts, nearly every frame from the model shoot was utilized, while the live action was pared down considerably. Since there was no mouth movement on the engines, new dialogue (plot points) could be edited in. So yes, things got moved around quite considerably it seems.

The reason I'm asking is that forum member recently interviewed Hummie Mann, who mentioned that PT Boomer was gone by the time he came on to compose and record the movie’s soundtrack. Hummie also mentioned that he was present at the test screening.
My guess is that Hummie saw the second set of revisions.

I've had brief correspondence with your old GVFX boss, John Gajdecki who mentioned that his brother Rick is no longer in the model making business.
Unfortunately, true. Rick was primarily looking after the cash flow in the model shop(s). Sourcing and ordering materials as well as hiring staff and securing additional building space.

In his ‘mission statement’ on his old GVFX website, John mentioned that he wanted all of his employees and associates to gain experience in all aspects of visual effects production in his company’s projects. Within the context of your involvement on the Magic Railroad movie, this appears to be true. Was the expertise gained in these other disciplines beneficial to you in your career?
Of course it was. Being able to ‘talk the talk’ with different departments is always tremendously helpful. One thing I must give John credit for was his pro-active attitude about the WHOLE process of visual effects. Visual effects is not just about which software program you are running. It’s about meeting the client and helping them problem solve… It’s about breaking down the script, doing the budget and outlining a methodology for shooting and post-production. You have to understand everything from cameras, lighting, physical effects to software. At GVFX we were all encouraged to participate to one degree or another in all of these processes.

Lastly, on behalf of the Sodor Island Fansite and Forums, Dave, I’d like to formally thank you for providing us with so much insight into your work on this film..
You are most welcome.