Few readers with children under the age of 10 can have failed to notice the arrival of Thomas the Tank Engine ad Friends on Independent Television on Tuesday afternoons. The series is based upon the Reverend W. Awdry’s popular children’s books which sell in excess of 750, 000 per year. Southampton-based producer Britt Allcroft has turned the much-loved stories into 26 live-action animated episodes of around five minutes duration, narrated by no lesser personage than Ringo Starr. A considerable amount of model-making was obviously involved in construction of the trains and the sets through which they operate. But, how does one go about making such a series and what sort of model making skills are involved?
My investigations took me to a row of small industrial premises not far from Clapham Junction station, to the home of Clearwater Features who were producers for the series. With model-makers, Dave Payne and Jamie Jackson-More I went to find Thomas and the other characters neatly packed away in a storeroom alongside one of the workshop/studios.
The Company specialises in animation and special effect work, it’s more usual projects involving characters such as robots and singing and dancing lemons for TV commercials. Dave and Jamie describe themselves as special-effects model makers and on Thomas they worked with a third team-member, Tom Vaine, to produce locomotives with many other model-makers and produce rolling stock and sets for the series.
To obtain a satisfactory size and the necessary level of reliability, the model-makers worked in Gauge 1, using Marklin components as a basis for the locomotives. In fact, the Marklin items are barely recognisable, being confined to the chassis (often extensively modified), motor and wheels. The chassis had to be anglicised and new bodies constructed to represent the various characters from the books. In all, seven locomotives are featured, Thomas and Percy, the two small mischievous tanks, Gordon, Henry, Edward and James, and of course Toby the tram engine.
These seven were built in just six weeks, a considerable achievement in view of their complexity, and the fact that none of the model-makers boast any previous railway modelling experience. Take the body off any one of the engines, and there’s almost as a much equipment as a James Bond car! The body shell has a flat, clear perspex front to the front to the smokebox and incorporates a pair of moving ‘eyes’. These can be moved up, down, sideways or round and round, by radio control. Receiver and servos to operate the eyes are mounted within the locomotive body and powered by four rechargeable batteries squeezed into the available space.
Actual movement of the locomotives is by conventional two-rail electronification using the standard Marklin equipment which proved impressively reliable throughout the arduous nine months of filming. In addition the mechanism is linked to a diaphragm pump and smoke unit arrangement to realistically puff a specially formulated smoke. Plans to reproduce leaking glands and suchlike on stationary locomotives were simplified to the provision of a concealed smoke arrangement located under this track.
The locomotive bodies capture well the character of those book illustrations although some adjustments to shape have been made in order to accommodate all the equipment. This is scarcely as drastic as it sounds, since close inspection of the books will reveal considerable artistic license in variation of shape from one page to the next! Thomas, of course, is the 0-6-0T with ‘short stumpy funnel, short stumpy boiler and short stumpy dome’, Percy is a diminutive and bulbous 0-4-0T, while the main line types range from James, an inside cylinder 2-6-0, up to Gordon the big blue Pacific.
The faces are separate resin castings fitted and changed between shooting sequences in order to obtain changes of expression. They are held in place with nothing more sophisticated than double-sided adhesive tape. To allow for differing boiler diameters and a variety of expressions, some 70 individual faces are available. Coupled with the wide range of eye movements they provide for great flexibility in the available expressions.
The filming sequences involved live action – that is filming of moving models rather than the stop-frame animation technique which results in the slightly jerky movements associated with many of the TV children’s series. Thus convincing movements and reliable operation were essential. During the nine months of filming, Jamie was on hand to service and maintain the locomotives and the railway. It was a full-time job in keeping wheels and mechanisms clean, batteries charged and rails free from the combined effects of extraneous scenic materials, dirt and smoke oil.
Sets were constructed on a rostrum some 3ft above ground level using the specialised techniques of the industry. Grass, for instance, is the plastic variety used in greengrocer’s shops, but specially treated to make it appear more convincing. Each set was used for all the relevant sequences and then dismantled and replaced by the next. Anyone who knows the books will realise that quite a substantial number of different sets would be required. The human characters in the stories, particularly the Fat Controller and the train crews featured much larger scale figures posed alongside enlarged parts of the trains such as cab sides. Thomas, however, does have a driver with an arm which moves to the ‘waving’ position.
Apart from the locomotives, the model-makers had to provide a wide range of rolling stock, most of which was scratch-built using parts from the Tenmille range of gauge 1 accessories and fittings. Two other important characters are Bertie the Bus and Terence the Tractor, the latter quickly nicknamed ‘Drac the Trac’ by the film crew.
Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends is the culmination of five years work by producer Britt Allcroft. The series was directed by David Mitton, with incidental music specially written by Mike O’Donnell and Junior Campbell. UK Television rights have been acquired by Central TV and UK video rights by the Guild Organisation Ltd.
The model makers are hoping that their efforts will attract the kind of cult following received by such series as Magic Roundabout and Postman Pat. Certainly the commercial spin-offs from such a venture, in the form of a whole range of Thomas the Tank Engine goods, toys and models might provide a valuable shot-in-the-arm from the toy sector of the model railway market, with train sets based on the series attracting children into the hobby once more. For the moment, any such suggestions are purely thinking aloud.
As I talked to the model makers and they pulled out some of the locomotives and set them out for photography it was interesting to note the reactions of other members of the Clearwater team. The little engines, had obviously been in stores for some while, since filming ended, and they were greeted with some obvious delight by several who witnessed our short photography session. Had these little characters endeared themselves to those who created and worked with them? I’ve a suspicion that I met several people who won’t ever see trains in quite the same way they did before Thomas.
Note: Since the completion of Thomas the Tank Engine the model making team have formed an independent company, Penicott, Payne, & Lillie Ltd, offering models and special effects for film and TV.
Set dressing for The Flying Kipper
Original James & Percy models
Filming of Thomas & The Brakedown Train
Crew look on at the final scene of "Thomas & Terence"
Gordon the Express Engine
Filming of "Toby the Tram Engine".
Note the Clearwater Periscope Lense Camera
Thomas looking cross!
Thomas the Tank Engine has steamed through many a childhood since the Reverend Wilbert Awdry began writing stories about the little blue locomotive 40 years ago. The books are wonderful, but the TV adaptations – well, they’re wonderful too. To find out how the producers of Shining Time Station achieve such stunning results, I visited the famous Shepperton studios on the outskirts of London.
It all began 12 years ago, when executive producer Britt Allcroft was working on a film about the ago of steam. The film’s technical consultant was none other than the Rev. Awdry, and Allcroft began thinking about interpreting his creations as TV characters. To some observers, a children’s series starring a steam locomotive seemed a big gamble – this was the age of space epics ad Steven Speilberg. Reverend Awdry himself was concerned that TV might destroy the delicate, period quality that the original book illustrations conveyed. He was a stickler for accuracy. He need not have worried. Authenticity became a major goal, and speciality bookshops were scoured for reference works.
For the pilot film, the train models were scratch built from plastic. However, the problems were many and varied. To obtain better reliability, the producers turned to Marklin’s superbly engineered O Scale  locomotives with their die-cast metal frames. They added new acrylic bodies with radio-controlled eyes.
To come off well on film, smoke must be quite dense. Marklin’s smoke system wasn’t quite up to the challenge, so it was replaced with one developed by the show’s staff and employing the chemical titanium tetrachloride. The engines were fitted with rubber bellows that pump air across the TTC, producing a chemical reaction and plenty of smoke. The bellows are used to crank and geared to the wheels, creating a totally authentic puffing effect. The steam that appears around the cylinders and wheels is produced by two smoke machines pushed by compressed air along pipes and up through holes in the set. The same smoke is used for background chimneys and to create fog and mist
The Many Faces of Thomas
Those removable faces bring the characters alive, even though the only moving parts are the eyes. Each character has its own basic face, which was first sculpted in clay. Then a rubber mould was made, and copies were cast in a mixture of resin and autobody filler. These were reworked to different expressions from which the final silicone castings were taken. Some members of the supporting cast have a basic 5 or 6 faces. Thomas, the star, has more than 40.
Sockets in the back of the face incorporate two acrylic balls for the eyes. These are sprayed white with stick-on black pupils. Eye movement is radio controlled using two servos, one connected to the other. The first servo alone will give a side-to-side movement, while the second can make the first move up and down. Between these two servos, just about any eye movement can be achieved.
Bob Gauld-Galliers gives Edward a dusting
The many faces of Thomas the Tank Engine!
Scaling water creates problems for David Eves, the special effects designer. For rain, an atomizer used for misting plants produces drops to scale. To shoot a rain scene, the set is normally dampened down and the engines given a light misting. During actual filming, the rain is restricted to a predetermined position between the cameras and the action, rather like a curtain, thus avoiding vital electrical equipment and lenses. To simulate a storm, smoke is added to the rain and churned up with a fan.
Often the water you see is actually a sheet of clean, black plastic. The sand, rocks and grass dressed along the shore are reflected in a convincing fashion. The opening title shot, where we see Thomas and the windmill reflected in the pond, is an excellent example of this technique. When boats must move on the water, the plastic is edge-sealed with clay, and half an inch of real water is added so ripples can be created as boats are pulled across.
Snow is represented with very fine, dried paper pulp sifted onto the scene. For those large background areas, white felt is cut to shape and worked in. When a locomotive has to plough through snow, powdered glass is sprinkled on. The locomotives can push through it easily, but the tracks and wheels must be brushed after each take to maintain electrical contact.
All the grass is a synthetic material used to display fruits and vegetables in grocery stores. It’s backed with wire mesh to bend and form it around the contours of the set. Too much uniformity is avoided by placing clumps of moss here and there.
The skies are enormous airbrushed canvasses. There’s a summer sky with white clouds, a stormy grey sky, and a sunset sky that can also be lit to look like sunrise.
Sets for the Series
Three full-time model makers and two part-time free-lancers worked under the art director, Robert Gauld-Galliers, for 32 weeks on the latest, 26-part series. They made 70 sets, ranging from the fairly simple “run-by” scenes to major sets like the quarry. Most sets are 16 x 20 feet, but they tend to overlap and there are runoffs that extend beyond the set. Once a set is completed, all the scenes for the series requiring that set are filmed at the same time. A set may appear in as many as 15 episodes, presenting what must be a continuity nightmare. At a filming cost of £10,000 per hour, time is of the essence, with much forward planning and strict schedules. While one set is being dismantled and another set-up, the close-up and interior shots are being filmed.
Building models for a TV show is quite different from doing it as a hobby. As model maker Martin Gaskell explained, “Most of our models are made for the camera. Whereas a model railway club would include intricate detail throughout a model, we will leave blank a part of a building that the camera doesn’t see.”
“Realism is paramount,” model maker Mark Dorset pointed out. “It’s nice to be as authentic as possible, but you must know when to stop. I could spend hours getting things just right, but when you’re under the pressure of filming schedules you have to know when to say when.”
“Most model makers make things too pristine,” added Martin. “Even when dirtying down, they tend to make it very clinical. We dirty down a tremendous amount for realism.”
A Very Special Camera
Much of the show’s quality is due to the special 35-mm movie camera used to film it. The camera was designed by director David Mitton and director of photography Terry Permane. Built in the United States with lenses ground in Japan, the camera incorporates an inverted periscope and can get down to within 1” of the track. The depth of field is an incredible 1” to infinity.
But consider watching these marvellous films without the music by Mike O’ Donnell and Junior Campbell, both of Bluebird themes. Each locomotive has its own catchy theme, and I couldn’t imagine watching there delightful stories without them. It’s all the elements working smoothly together that make “Thomas” a wonderful show.
Thomas' original model from 1984.
Built by Pennicott, Payne & Lillie Ltd
Thomas' model taken apart to show components. His body was scratchbuilt from perspex and his chassis from a modified Marklin Gauge 1 model.
At West London's Shepperton Studios, in a room the size of an aircraft hangar, Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends are being put through their electrically powered and rather sweet remote controlled paces. Wait a minute! Where are the actors? "Actors sweat, really, and they're nasty and get ill and stuff," says David Mitton, the director and co-producer who supervises cheerful, brightly coloured locomotives with names like Thomas, Edward and Gordon. Meet Stepney, an engine "He's the little yellow chap,'' Mitton says with a smile and the star of this week's 5 1/2-minute segment. In this particular plot, Stepney is chugging about the grassy valley when the fog descends and he loses his way.
"He's nearly smelted down," Mitton explains later. "The diesels are waiting to get hold of him to melt him down badly." (In the world of Thomas, diesels are usually the bad guys.) Then again, this is popular children's TV, not life. So all must end well, though Thomas tales often pack a neat little moral.
Set on the fictional Island of Sodor, the Thomas series began filming in 1984. This round marks the fifth spate of stories, with Alec Baldwin now narrating. Special effects supervisor David Eves is in charge of steam, fog and water. In addition, he knows the engines well, having helped his father, Peter, build the originals. "When you see a lot of the rubbish the kids do watch," says Eves, looking up from his work table in an adjacent studio, "Thomas has got a lot to offer. Adults watch it as well." He is not worried about competition from British rivals like Teletubbies, now demanding their share of the children's market. Says Eves: "That's a bit of a passing fad." Much of the work on Thomas falls to chief model-maker Brian Rutland, who built such new characters as The Paxman Diesel and Harry Topper's Biplane. Rutland's team includes Martin Gaskell, a senior model-maker who works from some sketches provided by Britt Allcroft. As the series' original creator and producer, Allcroft has turned the late Reverend Wilbert Awdry's tales into an international franchise.
The show airs in 121 countries, including Canada, and has been translated into nine languages, including Norwegian, Korean, Welsh, and Estonian. Last month, an amusement park with a Thomas theme opened in Japan. Gaskell is busy moulding silicone rubber into beguiling, open-faced expressions so beloved in Britain and abroad.
He comes to the series after helping build the main spacecraft in the film Lost In Space. Now marking his third Thomas series, Gaskell is adamant "I never do anything that's the same. Every job is different." So, too, is every expression, including 30 faces for Thomas alone. And though viewers often assume the engines' features move, only the eyes dart as a 12-volt current powers the engines down the track. Barrels of gravel, sand and stone are evident on the set, as is a periscope lens that allows Mitton and colleagues to view everything from the engines' eye level. Mitton knew the Rev. W. Awdry, the English cleric who wrote the Railway Series that gave rise to the Thomas phenomenon.
Courtesy of CIREMI of the SiForums, we've managed to precure some Behind the Scenes pictures taken from Graeme MacArthur's own private collection from when he worked on the show. These have been marked for security reasons, please do not use them elsewhere!
Apparently, they built about 70 layouts for the series roughly 16 x 20 ft. each. A 35mm movie camera was also developed, which allows ground shots down to 1 inch (about 2.5 cm) from the scenery. The camera also gives a focal point of a certain object from 1 inch/2.5 cm to infinity. Each set appeared in about 15 different episodes.
On to the layout itself. Most water on the layouts are pieces of (very clean) black plastic sheeting. When real water is needed, a dam of clay is used on top of the sheeting which is then filled with water. Any ships seen on this "water" are pulled along with strings. Things like rain are done with water vaporizers between the camera and the objects being filmed. Snow is either dried paper pulp or powdered glass sifted onto the sets. Skies are huge canvas paintings.
As for the trains, they are built in "O" Scale and started out as handmade units. Later, the producers converted to "Marklin" engines for better dependability. Thomas had more than 40 faces cast for him, while the other engines only had 5 or 6 each.
Filming costs for the series are $16,700 (£ 10,000) per hour, and everything is done at Shepperton Film Studios on the outskirts of London, England. The crew are as follows:
Britt Allcroft, Producer
David Mitton, Director
Terry Permane, Director of Photography
Robert Gauld Galliers, Art Director
NOTE: Before passing away in 1997, Rev. W. Awdry served as Allcroft's technical consultant.
 Webmaster note: The scale mentioned in this article is misleading. Rather than O-scale, the engines (Thomas, Gordon et al) were actually built to Gauge-1 model standards - the scale of choice for the series. The confusion may be due to Series 4 being prepared/filmed at the time of the article's writing - April 1993 where the narrow gauge Skarloey Railway engines were introduced and indeed modelled in O-scale to contrast their size with their standard track gauge (Gauge-1) brethren.