CREW MEMBER SPOTLIGHT ON
MODELMAKER - PILOT, SERIES 1-2
David Mitton often expressed his pride for the stellar work done by British film and TV Industry Modelmakers - especially by the crew associated with Clearwater and the Thomas series. SiF is privileged to be able to showcase one of these artisans - Christopher Noulton, who after 25 years in the industry is now an accomplished full-time artist working out from his studio at Putney, south London. Here, Christopher shares his insight and memories of working on Series 1 and 2 of Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends.
~ From correspondence with James Gratton, Oct-Nov 2010
Christopher, can you tell us about your pre-Thomas work as a Special Effects Designer and Modelmaker?
I got my big break into the film industry in 1980 when I joined the long-established model-making company DBP at Shepperton Studios. I designed and made many miniature props and sets for quite a few animated TV commercials including "Prize Guy Yoghurts" and "KP Nuts." These were being produced by what many would argue was the foremost British animation production company of the time: Clearwater Films.
Several of these ads were being directed by David Mitton, who I first met when he came down to our Shepperton workshop to approve some of the models I was working on. I liked David as soon as I met him and can only really sum him up as being a larger-than-life, gregarious character with a taste for wearing very loud jumpers! He always had a smile on his face and struck me as being very down-to-earth (even though he would often turn up to meetings dressed as a ship's captain complete with sailor's hat). He was not at all affected by his position of director/producer and I guess this was helped by the fact that he had come up through the ranks as a model-maker/effects man on the Gerry Anderson shows.
Christopher and David Mitton working together on an "Ever-Ready Battery" advert in 1982. Watch the actual advert on the next slide!
At that time Clearwater only had a skeleton crew of model-makers and as their workload was expanding at a rate of knots, David decided to tempt us away from DBP and join him down at his studios in Gwynne Road in Battersea. I was one of the first to join him and although I was very happy at DBP, I knew that if I didn't take him up on his offer I would regret it later.
How did you learn of and get involved with the “Thomas” pilot: "Down the Mine"?
After a few months of working on adverts, we got wind of the fact that David was planning to shoot a pilot of "Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends." From early childhood I passionately wanted to be involved in the making of a children's TV show and when the offer came to work with David on "Thomas", I didn't need much persuading. Unfortunately, this meant that I would be taking a small cut in my salary due to the fact that there was always plenty of overtime working on the commercials, but that was a small price to pay.
I had read several of the "Railway Series" books as a child and was really pleased that we were going to attempt to make an honest adaptation of the Rev. Awdry's books. I was also excited to learn that Ringo Star would be providing the narration.
Would you know why Gauge-1 was the chosen scale to work with? Were other scales considered?
As far as I can remember Gauge-1 was chosen because this made the engines just about large enough to shoot effectively, but not so large that the sets around them would end up being too big to fit into the small shooting stage. At first I had concerns that this scale would be too small for the smoke to look anywhere near to scale with the engines. As many in the effects industry will know, when it comes to shooting water and smoke in a miniature setting, you have to build everything as large as you can to maintain realistic scale movement. We did help the scale of the smoke however by shooting some scenes at high speed to slow its movement down a touch.
Was there any angst amongst the crew and producers whether the pilot would be successful?
I don't remember any angst as such among the crew, we just seemed to have this blind faith that the series would get the green light! Everything we had made and shot for the pilot looked so good that we were convinced it would be made into a series. I seem to remember David popping his head round the door and giving us the good news!
Would you be able to elaborate on your contributions to the pilot and Series 1?
My contributions to the pilot, and Series-One were as follows: I built many of the small stations and platforms, the signal box, tunnels, and the viaduct which featured in many episodes.
Christopher's Maron Station early construction, street-facing side of building
I also made resin castings of the small-scale Fat Controller, train drivers, and countless passengers, assembled them and art-worked them to match the style as seen in the books. Oh, and the schoolboy seen on the bridge with his bike in the opening titles! Most of these were done before the large-scale characters were made.
Polaroid snap of Christopher's bench at Clearwater Films, Clapham Junction showing one of his early figures - a train guard that he cast and sculpted.
Photo © 2010 Christopher Noulton
I have just remembered that to make it a little more interesting, I sculpted several from scratch to resemble some famous British character actors... for instance one large lady passenger was made with Margaret Rutherford in mind, and an elderly gentleman in a light brown speckled suit, reading a newspaper was styled on Alec Guinness... It helped to pass the time!
I was responsible for the finishing of some of the train face castings (Thomas, Gordon, James, and Henry etc) as well.
When it came to the landscapes I made the grass covered hills using a technique that enabled them to be re-shaped quickly for new settings. This involved using 6'x4' foot sheets of grocers grass (the sort used to display fruit on in most high street grocers), which I glued onto chicken wire sheets backed with strong hessian fabric for flexibility. This meant that the sheets were able to be pushed and bent into different shapes to make different parts of the Sodor landscape.
I had to trim the height of the grass to help give it scale and used a heat gun to scorch some areas to give a realistic worn feel. I then "Blushed" the grass with a dry-brush paint technique to add realism. The unfortunate effect of gluing up so many of these sheets (in what I remember was a really hot wooden shed behind the studio) was that we got very light-headed to say the least! I also carved the big wooden doors and windows to the Tidmouth engine sheds behind the turntable.
Christopher Noulton's grassy hills and Tidmouth Shed doors.
What did you work on for Series 2?
On Series-Two I was responsible for re-furbishing the main engines. This involved a complete re-spray of the body work, the repair/replacing of small details, and re-painting some of the character faces.
A happy-looking Gordon now fully restored by Christopher. The pilot version of Gordon was briefly kept as a spare for Series 2, but later dismantled with the shell used as set-dressing
In addition, I had to make a new Fat Controller and a new batch of train drivers and passengers. I also repainted Annie and Clarabelle and wrote their names on the side of the carriage (I had painted their original lettering for Series 1). I also aged down the "Troublesome Trucks".
Left: New Fat Controller figure from "Edward's Exploit"
Right: More of Christopher's figures from "Thomas and the Missing Christmas Tree"
Were the engines showing that much wear and tear after Series-1? Were any of the engines in a worse state than the rest?
I remember they were all really chipped, scratched and in a filthy state after series-1 and the Letratape line work was peeling off of most of them as well. Thomas seemed worse than the rest which I guess goes without saying as he was the star. I had to remove all of the smoke oil residue off of his paint work before I could re-spray him.
When you were finishing the resin face castings for Series-1 , did it also involve carving/grinding out the eye holes?
No, the eye holes were pre-cast into the backs already and needed no grinding out, I only had to cut the flashing off and neaten them up a bit. I seem to remember E.M.A. perspex spheres being placed into the rubber mould (after being sprayed with release agent) before each face was cast in resin. When the resin hardened they simply popped out of the back, giving a smooth surface for the finished eyes to sit in.
Would you be able to describe what we'd see when the faces are removed?
If you were to pop the faces off you would see the mechanism for the eyes. This consisted of a servo motor with a geared arm that when moved left and right would turn the eyeballs in unison. The eyes were held in position by being drilled underneath and pivoted on short rods, The eyes were Perspex spheres identical in size as the ones used in the casting process, sprayed white with the pupils artworked on them.
Did you have a favorite character facial expression that you worked on, or any you didn't care much for?
Gordon (frowning) was always my favourite. That strong nose gave him a certain elegance. I remember liking them all!
Resin casts of a few of the characters - From Top-Left: Thomas (cocky), Percy (sad), Bertie (happy, surprised), Toby (sleeping), Henry (surprised), Gordon (happy), and James (smug) prior to final rubbing down, priming and artwork.
Did Art Director Bob Gauld-Galliers and David Mitton check on your progress while you were building the viaduct?
I remember Bob G G having a quick look at the viaduct...we had worked together before this so he knew that I could render his design as he saw it. As for David... he would pass by and give me a big smile and say "jolly good Chris!" As I was a young model maker it always impressed me how friendly he was to me.
Top: Christopher working on the Viaduct model outside of the main workshop by the Clearwater Films scene storage shed. Bottom: The finished product, one of the more memorable series set pieces.
Can you tell us about the materials and procedures you and your colleagues used to build the structures?
I was given scale drawings of the stations by the art director Bob Gauld-Galliers and set about constructing the shell of the buildings mainly from sheet Balsa wood. The brickwork was cast using a wet paper technique (pressed into a mould to give a 3D feel.) These sheets were then dried and laminated onto the building shells. These were then painted up brick by brick and aged down to look realistic on camera.
Top Left: Christopher's South Suddery Station model shell with stone texture applied.
Top Right: The finished station with cast roof tiles, brickwork and railings.
Bottom Left: The station seen in Series-1 "Percy Runs Away"
Bottom Right: Same station seen in Series-2 "Bertie's Chase"
I sculpted sections of roof tiles which I then moulded in silicone rubber. These were cast in a mixture of resin and car body filler and clad over the roof areas. I made the row of signal levers in the signal box from plastic card and perspex rod. I guess each of the small station buildings took about three to four days each to build.
Christopher's finished and aged signalbox. The intricate levers and other detail can be discerned inside the structure.
Do you recall how Knapford Station was constructed?
The big Knapford Station (platform side) was very simple, squared-off and connected to, I believe, John Kerr's perspex domed roof which I remember him making.
Do you recall how Trevor, Bertie (and by extension Harold) were powered and controlled?
I believe Trevor and Bertie were radio controlled using a standard kit with servo steering and I think maybe Harold was flown on wires and had a fixed perspex disc as the rotor blades (artworked to look like they were spinning.) I may be wrong about this, I'm not sure.
Would you know why “Down the Mine” was later re-filmed in Series 1? Was there a marked difference between the pilot and the Series-1 version?
I unfortunately can't answer this. It was so long ago and memories fade!
Can you share what it was like working for David Mitton and Britt?
I really enjoyed working with "Sir Glove" (Mitten) as he was called by some of the crew. I always felt that he appreciated the immense effort put in by all of us. I only met Britt a few times, she seemed really nice and friendly!
One key player whose contributions to the series are virtually unknown is for Co-Producer Robert Cardona. Would you be able to provide us with some insight about Robert?
I first met Bob I think whilst building a realistic road model for a "Michelin" tyre commercial, and it seemed clear that he hit it off with David Mitton right from the start. He was an American I believe and was the shy, silent type. I cant really remember him being that hands on with "Thomas" though, I remember him being more involved with the "Tugs" project.
Re: Your mention of TUGS - did Robert or David drop any hints during Series-2 that they had a new independent series in the works?
No they kept it secret! I can't remember much about it!
David Mitton's sudden passing was a shock to many fans in May, 2008. Can you share how you first heard of the news?
Unfortunately I only found out about his sad passing a year ago and as a result didn't attend the funeral.
Did you ever have interesting visitors drop in to visit the set at Clapham and Shepperton?
I do remember the time that the Rev. W. Awdry popped-in for a guided tour of the set prior to filming and the most unfortunate accident happened. The model trains were laid out on trestle tables for him to see and half an hour before he arrived the trestles collapsed sending the stars of the show crashing to the ground! I seem to remember they were hastily repaired and cleaned up minutes before he arrived.
Do you recall the Rev. Awdry's impressions of the models or get a chance to be introduced?
I was stuck in the workshop at the other end if the building so didn't get to meet him.
The Troublesome Trucks and vans in Series-1 had decaled eyes as opposed to “full faces” in Series-2. Was the latter implemented to match the ones seen n the books?
I guess so. I think the original intention with the model trucks was to keep them as secondary characters hence they were only decal-ed. Also it was a cheaper way of making them.
One of the Troublesome Trucks from Series-1 (left) and Series-2 (right)
Can you tell us who sculpted the Series-2 truck faces and how many versions were made? How were they affixed to the trucks?
I believe they were either sculpted by Tim Staffell or David Lillie. I'm not sure how many versions were made. I think I had a hand in rubbing the faces down and priming them up ready for artworking. I seem to remember the faces being attached with a strong double sided tape. Blue Tack would have lost its stickiness under the hot studio lights.
Out of curiosity, how many units of rolling stock did you have for Series 1 and 2? Were they all constructed in-house?
Sorry, but I can't remember actual numbers but I think they were all shop bought and customised in the workshops.
In the Series 2 episode: “Daisy”, a white Tidmouth Milk tank car appears on the scene where you get the impression that the side opposite the viewer was painted as a "Sodor Tar" tanker. Were a few masked in that fashion for reasons of economy?
Yes, that is a common way of making the budget go further.
The "half-tanker" seen in Series-1 "Edward and Gordon" (left) and Series-2 "Daisy" (right).
Were you involved in the construction of the large-scale characters and sets? (e.g. large-scale "Thomas", Signal Box, Fat Controller’s office and dining room etc.)
I wasn't actually involved with any of the large scale sets. These were made by a model maker named Bernard Carr and a couple of other modellers (including John Kerr.) There was however a fair bit of liaison between him and the crew who were building the small scale models.
Terry Permane standing next to large-scale Thomas cab with the motorised scenic roller backing in the background
Would you recall who created the portraits seen in the large-scaled sets?
I vaguely remember them. I can only presume the art director Bob Gauld-Galliers knocked them up.
Another curiosity – In Series 2: “The Diseasel” , one of the harbour barges has the name “Steve” painted on its stern. Could this be a in-joke reference to Steve Asquith?
It must have been! I don't remember there being another Steve on the show at that time.
Odd coincidence? a boat named "Steve" and another named "Terrey" in Series-2 "The Diseasel" - Steve Asquith and Terrence Permane?
The winter episodes are amongst my favorites. Were they all filmed near the end of the series shoot because of the intensive cleanup required?
Yes, I seem to remember these snow scenes being saved till last! It always makes sense to shoot messy set ups right at the end!
Of the Pilot, Series 1 and 2, do you have a particular favorite character, set or episode that was your favourite to work on?
I suppose my favourite character to work on was "Toby the Tram Engine." In the run up to shooting the second series, I was responsible for refurbishing many of the engines' bodywork and details. I particularly enjoyed airbrushing his wooden slatted bodywork and remaking his bell and other details.
As far as the sets go, I really enjoyed making the Viaduct which looked very effective on screen. The Fat Controller was great to artwork and the many passengers and luggage were fun as I had a free hand to re-sculpt and paint them to my own designs.
Would you have any special or memorable anecdotes to share with us about working on the show?
Yes! I do remember that we were expecting a visit from VIP guests who were invited down to the studios to see the models. One of the model makers (who shall remain nameless) had more than a keen interest in collecting pin-ups of naked ladies-which he had plastered all around his bench. Suffice to say, he was asked in no uncertain terms to remove them all in a rush before they arrived.
On another occasion, I was asked to mock up some passengers for a crowd scene in a rush. I had no other choice than to make them out of Plasticine and paint them up to look like the resin ones. I explained that they wouldn't last very long under the hot lights but it seems this was forgotten once filming began. I think it must have been Terry Permane who had the shock of his life when he spotted through his camera that they had all melted into a mess at the end of the platform!
A few of the cruder Plasticine passengers featured in S-1's "James and the Express".
The girl seen from behind with the blond ponytail (see pic above - arrowed) was one of the Plasticine versions that melted so dramatically under the lights. I seem to remember the head and some of the body was Plasticine and the hairpiece was stiff resin poured and modelled on top of the head. The ponytail was left as a solid remain in a pool of liquefied Plasticine after the lights had done their worst!
Can you tell us why you didn’t return to the show for Series 3?
It was down to a number of factors really, namely that there seemed to be a long gap before the third series was confirmed by which time the advertising side had slowed down at Clearwater. Some of the model makers decided to form a new model making and effects company called PPL, and several key model makers including myself moved into the now redundant stage where "Thomas" was shot to work with them on new projects.
I think that this coincided with David Mitton and Ken Turner (who I had also worked with on lots of adverts at Clearwater,) going their separate ways. I did work for Ken several times after this when I eventually left PPL to form Rocky Road Productions with John Lee. We were then contacted by David Mitton to quote on making new models and engines for another series of "Thomas" but were unfortunately busy on other projects.
You may find it interesting to know that John and myself eventually moved from model making and effects into TV production. We were commissioned by Carlton Television to create a live action pre-school show called "Potamus Park" which we shot down at Pinewood studios.
Do you still keep in touch with, or bump into any of your old colleagues from the show?
I see a lot of John Lee but have lost contact with many of the others!
After a few more years in the Industry, you became an established artist. Your style is fascinating in that you plan out a series of paintings to tell a story. Would you be able to describe the process and why you chose the 60’s as a setting?
My paintings feature everyday scenes of both urban and country life, but with a retrospective twist. I paint with a strong nostalgic feel for the past, and often features places and characters from my childhood. My current series of paintings are based on my memories of being a milk boy in the late 1960s and are full of amorous milkmen, bored housewives and local people who used to treat the milkman and other working men as their local heroes. I found growing up in the 60s visually rewarding as it seems most things from cars to cookers were so much nicer to look at than todays designs.
"Little Red" painting by Chris Noulton
Having spent twenty-five years working in the film and television industry, this has quite naturally influenced my work. As part of the picture making process, I photographs small cardboard models (complete with toy cars and people) to establish the scenes I have in mind. This process seems to imbue my pictures with a cinematic feel. In a similar way to how a TV series is filmed. I often create a story line, settings, and cast of characters, which I then use for the basis of a series of paintings. Sometimes when I am surrounded by the toy people, vehicles and landscapes I am photographing, I get a flashback to how it felt working on the "Thomas" set.
With regard to my visual style, I draw inspiration from the commercial art of the 1960s, especially cigarette cards and Ladybird books. One of my milk float paintings was hung recently in the Royal Academy in Piccadilly and as a result of this, a major west end gallery has offered me a solo show for April 2011. A book on my life and paintings is being published and will be released to coincide with the exhibition.
Of your paintings, I especially love the ones of “Little Red” the vintage milk truck and driver. Did you ever entertain the thought of writing and illustrating a children’s book with the character?
Thank you! Yes, I have several "Little Red" story-lines written, and plan to approach a publisher in the near future.
Lastly, is there any special message that you’d like to pass on to the fans about your time with the show?
Working on the "Thomas" series was fantastic! It was the fulfilment of a childhood dream-to work on a classic children's television show and I enjoyed every minute. I worked with an amazingly talented team who like me believed right from the start that the series would be a great hit!
We're very grateful to Christopher for sharing his wonderful insight and photos with us of his time working on "Thomas". We wish him all our best with his projects and exhibitions. Many "Tanks" again for helping to create the magic for "Thomas" ! :)
Christopher invites you to check out his website to see more of his artwork and galleries. Christopher also would like to ask fans to respect his property and copyright by not posting or reproducing any of the images featured on his website and on this page to any other websites or forums.