In mid-2014, HIT Entertainment reached out to Tongal to seek out a team to produce a Documentary to celebrate the 70th Anniversary of Thomas the Tank Engine. The winning entry came from MindFruit Studios, led by Producer Cassandra Chowdhury, with her trusted partners, Damon Stea and Christian Hall.
Together, the team travelled the world meeting fans of Thomas & Friends, including Ryan from Sodor Island Forums & Fansite, people involved with the production past and present, and even the boy for whom Sodor was created, Christopher Awdry.
Here, we turn the tables on the MindFruit team and ask Cassandra about her experience with Thomas, the work she and her team have done in the past, their extensive travels and what the future holds for them!
~ Interviewed by Ryan (July 2015)
DISCLAIMER: All answers and opinions expressed in this interview are solely those of the interviewees, and in no way purport to represent those of HIT Entertainment/Fisher Price
Tell us about yourselves, how did you guys start working together?
We met at USC film school. Damon was a very motivated filmmaker and the only film student in our dormitory who actually made films outside of class. I started helping him with his short films, and we continued to work together from there. We shared a love for both fantastical stories and real life stories. After we graduated we were working at a documentary studio together for about a year. But we got tired of working for someone else and decided to take a leap of faith- we quit our jobs and started Mindfruit. The first years were very rough but slowly our company grew.
What made you want to pursue a career in Documentary film-making and where did you gain your earliest experience?
Our first doc experience was a short documentary called “Obscura” about legally blind photographers. It played at several festivals and was very popular online, which was encouraging. And like I said, our first job out of school was to work at a documentary studio. We love documentary because it is often true that fact is stranger than fiction. There are so many amazing, wild stories out there, and you meet so many amazing people while doing documentary work. But we do also shoot a lot of commercials and music videos. It’s a good mix of projects.
What other projects have you been involved with?
We shot a feature length documentary in China and South Korea last year. That was our first real travel documentary work and a big reason we got the Thomas
In terms of other filmmakers and documentaries, who or what would you say are your biggest inspirations?
Filmmakers like Spike Jonze and Tom Kuntz are people we draw inspiration from. For documentary, we love people like Michael Moore and Werner Herzog for their passion and dedication. But I would say our style and shooting inspiration always comes from narrative and commercial directors. Documentary can and should look cinematic!
What drew you to the Tongal Project to create a Thomas & Friends Documentary?
The project was going to involve a lot of travel, which was very exciting to us, and Thomas is a brand that both of us grew up with. And given that we had spent the earlier part of the year shooting a feature travel documentary, it seemed like the project was made for us.
Given the magnitude of Thomas’s History and profile as a brand in general, were you guys daunted in any way by the task of telling this story in thirty minutes?
Knowing the 30 minute hard limit before going in was useful, because it gave us an idea of how much we could show of the Thomas story. It allowed us to focus our questions down and get to the heart of the brand without being weighed down by all the details. Ultimately, it was a relief not to be able to fit in the whole story because there is so much history. Almost too much to know what to do with! That being said, we could have made the documentary 2 hours long with the amount of footage we collected. There were a lot of interesting stories that we had to cut, and it was difficult to decide what to keep and what to leave on the cutting room floor. I think if we had had a longer running time I would have kept more of Rick Siggelkow’s stories. And a few more of yours too, Ryan.
“The variety of stories is immense. I can see why the brand is still alive and kicking!”
How did you come up with your idea for the Documentary? Did you have other options you were keen to pitch which could have fit?
Well, the basic idea was layed out for us by Tongal, the agency that we worked through. We knew it was going to be a 70 year anniversary celebration and that they wanted us to get a global perspective on the role of Thomas in people’s lives. We proposed riding trains in 10 countries and talking to both fans and Thomas professionals in each. I think ultimately we took Tongal and HiT’s ideas and made them more focused on the fan community. We got so much footage with the Thomas animators, producers, etc, but what made to project special was all of the fan interviews.
What do you think gave your project the X-Factor that saw it through to the production stage?
Again, I think it was the focus on the fan community and small stories that made the project special. The twins in Colorado, the brother and sister in Dubai, Imre in Amsterdam- these adorable and passionate kids brought the story to life.
How familiar were you with Thomas & Friends before pitching to do the Documentary? What were your first experiences of the series as children, or indeed as adults?
Damon and I both grew up watching Thomas & Friends on TV. I distinctly remember watching it at my grandmother’s house all the time. Damon’s father is obsessed with trains, so his memories are all of experiencing Thomas with his father- and going to every train museum in North America, ha ha. We didn’t keep up with the brand though, so we didn’t see it again until we started doing research for this project. The CG Thomas was a shock- it was so different from what I remembered. But after watching a few episodes I really appreciated the quality of the storytelling. I can see why the brand is still alive and kicking!
“I really like the episode where Thomas wants to go fishing!”
Any particular favourite Thomas & Friends stories or characters?
I really like the early, early episode where Thomas wants to go fishing. Later his driver has to collect water from the river to cool him down and he ends up having fish in his boiler! As to the newer series, I really love Marion – she’s my favorite character for sure. Damon likes Toad, just because he has a silly face.
Having worked with the series for several months during the making of the Documentary, what do you like most about Thomas and Friends?
We like how many characters there are. The variety of stories is immense. We also love how passionate the creators are about historical accuracy and attention to detail.
You have bHow much research went into the Documentary to explore the history and the world that Thomas currently finds himself in? Did you use sites like our own or The Real Lives of Thomas the Tank Engine to further your understanding during the pre-production stages?
We used SIF extensively while researching the history of Thomas and all of the key players in the series. It is such a great resource- and we were amazed to hear than even the current Thomas creators use SIF and other Thomas fan communities for research purposes. The Thomas Wiki was also very useful.
Christian and Damon enjoy exclusive access at Drayton Manor!
Your project seen you going all over the world to meet Thomas’s many friends, how were you able to find some of these fans to participate in the shoot?
It was not easy! HiT Entertainment was very insistent that we keep the documentary secretive until the release- so we couldn’t put a lot of press online calling for fan interviews. Ultimately it came down to reaching out to our network- many of our interviews came from knowing someone who knew someone. In particular, we were extremely lucky in finding both our Amsterdam and our Dubai interviews. They were both fantastic, and came from the references of friends of friends of friends. HiT was also instrumental in helping us get interviews in several of our destinations.
Did you have a clear idea of where you wanted to film, or did HIT Entertainment have locations in mind for you to work with?
HiT provided us with many filming opportunities- in particular, Arc Studios in Toronto, HiT in London, and Fisher Price in New York. Other than that, we chose all of our own destinations. Some locations we knew we wanted right off the bat, like the original Thomas Land theme park in Japan. Others were chosen simply because they were interesting places. We wanted to show people from many diverse backgrounds and lifestyles.
According to your interview with Tongal, you were on the road for 42 days shooting around the world. Was it a daunting task to fit everything in to such a tight schedule?
It was so difficult! Particularly difficult because we were only in each city for 1-3 days. So it took a lot of emails- a lot of back and forth. We had to make many people’s schedules fit into very small windows of time. Ultimately everything went smoothly- but I shudder to think what would have happened if one of our flights had been cancelled or we had missed a train. It would have been tough, if not impossible to catch up!
“The people at ARC were wonderful. it was great speaking to them and watching them work”
Were you surprised to find Thomas & Friends had a bit of an older online fanbase?
Honestly, yes, we were very surprised. And it took some research to really understand why. But we definitely get it now- especially after talking to you, and people like Ian McCue and Andrew Brenner who live and breathe Thomas every day. There is so much history, detail, and love in every episode, and even after my brief experience with the rich fan community I can feel some of that nostalgia.
You were given access to see Arc Productions working on Sodor’s Legend of the Lost Treasure. What was it like going behind the scenes on the production side of the actual show?
It was fantastic! All the people at Arc are so wonderful, it was great speaking to them and watching them work. Seeing the original animations and the concept art was particularly fascinating. We are filmmakers, so we know how much time and effort goes into a production- but even so, the work and thought behind every decision is fascinating to see, and it was a great opportunity to show Thomas fans and non filmmakers that process.
One of your interviewees spoke of how Thomas has evolved through the decades to where we are now. What are your own thoughts on the developments and changes that have occurred down the last seventy years?
The original Thomas series was so great- the live action trains, the matte paintings, the smoke from the enginies. That real physical presence is so appealing. I think when the switch to CG first happened some of the storytelling got a little lazy- and that’s actually a sentiment that we heard over and over again during interviews. But everyone seems to agree (and we do as well) that Ian and Andrew’s current work with the series is superb, and the storytelling now is as strong as it was in the days of the original. Yes, the show is CG now, but so much of its original charm is still intact. I think today’s kids would still enjoy a live action show, but I acknowledge that you can do a lot more with CG when it comes to action and excitement.
What were your personal highlights from the shoot?
We loved talking to Fisher Price. What great people! And who doesn’t love toys? We go to see the process of design, and the printing of the prototypes. Also, meeting with Christopher Awdry was a real honor. We weren’t sure what to expect, but him and his wife were so incredibly kind and a joy to speak to.
What was or had been the most challenging aspect of making this documentary?
The scheduling process was definitely the most challenging- setting up interviews with people, arranging transportation and accommodation that were within our budget. It took a lot of time!
Would you have any anecdotes from the making of the documentary that might be worth sharing?
One thing we got really right during the trip was coincidental timing. After planning out the trip, we found out we would be in Venice for the Carnivale – with people all dressed up in masks, etc. Also entirely coincidentally, we were in Hong Kong during Chinese New Year, so we got to see the parade and go to the celebration. Those were two serious strokes of luck- we don’t know how it happened!
“Rick Siggelkow had some great ideas about Thomas' early days”
Given that it was a thirty-minute feature, you obviously had to include the best bits from the footage you shot. Is there anything you would have liked to have included in the final edit which couldn’t go in due to time constraints or other reasons?
Rick Siggelkow had some great stories about the early Thomas days that would have been fun to include. And you had some really interesting insights too, Ryan, that I wish could have fit in somewhere. My favorite thing that you said was that steam engines are the closest thing to living creatures that a machine can get. They breathe, they respond kindly to good care and poorly to neglect. I would have loved to include that.
You got the opportunity to meet a lot of interesting people who have been involved in the past and presently with Thomas, as well as a lot of young fans who love the series. Did you have any particular favourite interviews during the course of the shoot?
Imre in Amsterdam was the coolest kid. We loved him- he said a lot of great stuff we couldn’t fit into the doc, but it was great to meet him. The Fisher Price interviews were great, as well as our Chris Awdry interview. And we really loved the interview with you as well.
Sadly, prominent figures from Thomas’s history were notably absent in the Documentary – is there anyone you’d have loved to have been part of the feature telling their story with Thomas?
We tried to get Britt Allcroft involved but never got a response. We also asked HiT to help us get at least one of the previous narrators of the show involved to no avail.
“We loved talking to Fisher Price. What great people, and who doesn't love toys”
The documentary looked at several different aspects of Thomas's world: the books, the TV series, the toys, the global audience etc. Is there a particular one among these that interests you most - perhaps that you would have liked to spend more time exploring?
Again, we loved Fisher Price and wanted to see more. It would have been great to see kids play testing the toys, and see the toys coming off of an assembly line in a factory. But the audience is fascinating as well. It would have been great to speak to more kids. And we also would have loved talking to more adult fans- especially the fans who create their own CG Thomas episodes for YouTube. That was something we were intending to include that we just didn’t have time for.
Are there any moments from the history of the books and TV Series you would have liked to have explored further?
The early days of the TV series, that very first few episodes, would have been great to learn more about. Unfortunately we had no access to behind the scenes footage, and without Britt Allcroft we didn’t have a lot of first hand accounts of the process either.
One of my personal highlights was watching Chris Awdry reading Thomas Comes To Breakfast – was this his own idea or did you ask him to do it?
We asked if he would read his favorite Thomas story- so he brought the book with him for the shoot. It was fantastic. His use of the character’s voices really surprised and delighted us.
How did you find interviewing someone who is so close to the heart of the Thomas story like Christopher Awdry?
Awdry was wonderful to interview. You can tell that Thomas is close to his heart. It’s fascinating to hear about the series from a more personal perspective. He was there at the beginning of it all. He knew what Thomas was before he even knew its power to engage and enthral people!
Having completed the documentary, what would you say were some of the key things that you wanted to communicate?
Thomas & Friends is a world that is kept alive by the people who love it most. The adult fans and the new generation of young fans. And the creators are passionate, dedicated people who want nothing more than to satisfy those fans.
Has anything in particular surprised or intrigued you in particular about the heritage and history of the franchise?
The attention to historical detail is amazing and really admirable. We never realized rail fans loved Thomas so much.
If you could remake the documentary, is there anything you would like to improve on?
I would have cut out the locations we didn’t get good interviews and instead spend more time in places like the UK and Japan.
Do you feel you’ve learned a lot more about Thomas and the history of the brand than you previously knew before?
We learned so much! So much that people would be annoyed if I brought it up at a dinner party, ha ha.
Are there any other iconic franchises that you would love to make a documentary about - whether or not a documentary has already been done about said franchise?
Well, we have actually been hoping for a while to make a documentary about the history of toys. Particularly, the history of gendered toys- how the idea of “boys” vs “girls” toys began and how it has changed over the years. So maybe that’s something we will tackle with Mattel in the distant future! We are also huge Lord of the Rings and Star Wars fans (I mean, come on, who isn’t?) We definitely couldn’t say no to a documentary about either.
Do you have any further projects lined up at the moment that you can tell us about?
We are currently working on a stop motion animated miniature short film with a cactus as a main character. There are several other projects in the works including a music video and a commercial. No documentaries in the lineup as of now, but hopefully another will come up soon.
Finally, do you have any messages for fans of the series and people who have appreciated your fantastic work with the Documentary?
I would say trust the people who are working on the series right now. They are really passionate people who are giving in their all! So much work goes into this stuff, more than you can imagine- and this is a brand that really does care about what you want to see in the show. They do respond to demand, and their goal is to satisfy fans. The Thomas community is so friendly and welcoming, and it was great to be a part of it. I suppose now we are a part of it for life!