CREW MEMBER SPOTLIGHT ON
MODELMAKER SERIES 2-3, 6 & TUGS
Longtime creative film SFX and modelmaker Jeremy King's name is familiar to fans who have seen his name in the credits for Thomas and Friends and Tugs. SiF is proud to introduce Jeremy to fans in the following article, where he shares his memories of working on both these iconic shows...
~ Interview with James Gratton March-May, 2011
Jeremy, when and how did you become involved with the series and what did you work on?
I was just a work experience lad on Series II at 17 years of age at DBP Models. I made the cottage seen next to the station master's house for "Thomas Comes to Breakfast" and helped Paul 'Spike' Knight make Harold the Helicopter.
What were you taking in school at the time?
A-Levels in Biology, Chemistry, Physics-with-Maths and an Electronics O-Level.
Was there any aspect of the show's production that interested you?
I just liked modelmaking
Were you active in model making growing up?
My parents had to buy me just about the entire range of Airfix kits. I loved RAF jets and that was my first choice of career!
What was the Shepperton DBP workshop like to work in?
It was - and still is - a lovely old-fashioned workshop: a proper mess, not enough room, smelly and dusty - Perfect!
As an Experience Student, were you given any guidance as you were building the cottage?
Our references were from the paintings in the original books. I copied the stationmaster's cottage and painted it a different colour!
One of Jeremy's first assignments as an Experience Student the cottage pictured on the left
Were you familiar with the Rev. Awdry's books beforehand?
My Grandfather - a railway engineer and watercolour artist - read them to me.
Can you tell us how Harold was built? Did you and Paul have schematics to go by?
(Laughs!) No. Just the old children's book illustrations. Spike made wooden patterns and vacuformed 1.5mm styrene plasticard over them and made a bodyshell. The cockpit was made similarly, but in transparent perspex with the windows masked before painting. Harold was based on a Sikorsky S-55 "Whirlwind" in the nineteen-fifties British European Airways (BEA) 'pinstripe' colour scheme. I made the tail rotors!!
How were both rotors powered?
Initially not - a perspex disc and a static set of perspex rotors in metallic grey.
When was the solid Perspex disc replaced with proper rotating rotors?
In series III we put in two small electric motors. Dave Eves suspended Harold from a pivoting “fishing rod" rig from a post that went up inside the main rotor drive tube.
How were Harold's motions controlled during filming?
Mainly as described above on a swing arm mounted on a heavy lighting stand.
What did you work on in the period between Series 2 and 3?
By the time Series III came around, I had a fair amount of experience working with Albatross Models, Gerry Anderson, and for David Mitton on TUGS.
Can you tell us more about that other work?
I worked for Mr. Anderson on Dick Spanner, the Lou Tennant beer commercials, the last of the Scotch video tape ads with the animated skeleton and a Burger King ad for the USA!
How did you sign-on with the TUGS production?
DBP were contracted to make the tugs and I built Zorran and several other lesser characters.
Can you tell us more about building Zorran?
The Tugs had a fibreglass hull taken from a wooden pattern into which was fitted a perspex deck and superstructure. The moving eyes were painted onto a half-cylinder that rose, fell and turned with two servos behind the face "masks".
Who sculpted the character faces?
Spike Knight and Michelle Jones did most of the faces. I remember doing some for some lesser characters like Billy Shoepack and Burke and Blaire.
Do you recall how "Grampus" was built and controlled? It's said that it was based on a 1920's era two-man submarine.
Spike made Grampus in fibreglass from old photos of "Grampus" class submarines. He was on a parallel lifting version of the tugs' pull along trolleys so he could surface.
How was working on the TUGS set compared to your earlier (and later) work on Thomas?
Was manoeuvring around and working in water-filled sets a challenge?
Yup. Wellies, wet feet and waterlogged electrics!
Was the water treated in any way to obscure the shallow set bottom? Was the depth uniform throughout?
The water was 30cm deep with dark sea green food dye in it.
Was there some sort of track system on the flooded set basin to guide the Tug characters about?
No. After a failed attempt at directionally controlled underwater trolleys it was found easier to pull the Tugs along on simple trolleys vie pulleys mounted on weighted plates. It was tricky to set it up but Chris Tulloch got it off to a fine art - and it was repeatable.
The tugs emitted a copious amount of smoke – were the TT smoke units much larger than the ones used on Thomas?
The tugs had glycol smoke piped to them via air-movers down weighted garden hose from Opti-Mist smoke machines "on shore".
Would you recall anything about the model origins of “the Goods Engine” and "Puffa"? ("Americanized" Marklins?)
I made puffer from a German 0-6-0 and a turned wooden pipe that took a white smoke pellet and a perspex cow-catcher! Driving him through the explosions of "Munitions" was great fun! The Goods Engine wasn't liked by Dave Mitton and was quickly replaced by Puffa.
From "High Tide": The Dock Railway Goods Engine (left) and Puffa (right)
What would have been David’s reasons for disliking that engine?
Not very realistic, I think.
Can you tell us more about filming “Munitions”?
Ross King supervising the explosion of lots of wax and balsa scenery for about 4 weeks. Fireballs were petrol and rubber dust mixed with black powder. Terry over-cranking the camera as much as he could.
Was refurbishing ‘Big Mickey’ after filming an easy process?
You'd have to ask Martin Gaskell about that.
While filming “Munitions”, was smoke and odour (burnt plastic) a problem in the studio with all of the pyrotechnics going off?
No. We opened the doors to clear the air and kept going!
Were there high expectations for the series by Robert Cardona and David? What were they like to work for?
Of course - they put their own money into it! They were both remarkable characters!
After Clearwater Features folded, Britt bought many of the TUGS set pieces. Do you remember seeing any of them whilst working on Series-3?
Not sure where the Tugs ended up. The ocean liner "Vienna"/"Princess" certainly appeared in Thomas as did some models and pieces of set.
How big was the Vienna model and how heavy would it have been?
About 10' long in 3 or 4 sections. It was very light - made of plywood. It was made by a modelmaker in Germany. He brought it over in his car.
Were any of the non-character boats built from ready-made kits?
How did you re-enlist to work on Series 3?
I tendered for work refurbishing the 22 engines that existed then to make them ready for the new series.
Refurbishing 22 engines sounds like a lot of work. How long did it take?
Pete Eves and I stripped each engine down to the last nut and bolt, replaced any worn parts and re-engineered many mechanisms, rebuilt them with any bodywork repairs necessary and gave them a new coat of paint and new vinyl graphics.
It took about eight weeks.
We also built Mavis and put an eye mechanism into Trevor!
Considering how smaller Trevor is compared to the engines, was it a challenge to do that given the tight space you had to work with?
Yes. Less than an inch in diameter. Fiddly but it sort-of-worked! Gave his face a bit more life anyway.
I assume that of the 22 engines, several were spares of the characters?
There were no spares in that lot.
Were they still using the plain unmodified Marklin in Series 3 to do off-camera shunting duty?
Not aware of that one. I think most Marklin engines looked very German.
You had mentioned that during TUGS, you helped Peter Eves build the new Series 3 characters, namely: Oliver and Mavis, Toad and Bulgy. Re: Mavis and Oliver, were they built to spec from Marklin engine kits?
Yes, engines were ordered from the Marklin catalogue. They were stripped apart once they arrived to get at the chassis and wheel-arrangement. This was done initially, and then the engines were all scratch-built from Series IV onward.
Oliver was all brass. Mavis was perspex and brass. The eye-mechs and smoke units were all scratchbuilt - often by Martin Gaskell and Chris Lloyd.
Mavis was often used (for test runs) as she was a reliable unadulterated Marklin 0-6-0 chassis.
That's interesting – was this the same case with Toby - given how his wheels were also hidden by skirting?
Toby probably received a new chassis as it was the same standard 0-6-0.
How was Bulgy built, motorized and controlled?
Scratchbuilt in brass and Perspex, with aircraft radio control and electronic speed controller. Martin built him with two top decks - one entire and one bashed in!
Some of the TATMR crew were impressed how Dave Eves was a master machining the brass parts for the engines. Was this also true of his father Peter?
Yes. Pete was an instrument maker by training and made many Bond gadgets amongst other things. They were both great machinists.
Were you involved with sculpting/finishing any of the new character faces?
I can only claim two faces - Mavis and Spencer - both of which had to be personally okayed by Britt.
I sculpted and finished many other expressions for other engines - as did Martin but most of the original sculpts were by PPL from Bob G-G's artwork.
Was there ever occasion for facial expressions needing modification or created but never used for filming?
Were the faces all catalogued in some way for quick choosing and retrieval in future filming?
Yes. All stored in a cabinet and numbered. So many were added that the "catalogue" was always out of date.
Did you also have a hand in building the City of Truro static model?
Another one of Martin Gaskell's! He scratch-built it from Perspex and plastic tube using model railway drawings and the book illustrations. Shame it got trashed.
Ed. Note: City of Truro was converted to set dressing as a scrapped engine by Series 5. Its ignoble end can be seen in the Series 5 episode: Old Slow Coach.
City of Truro in S-3 (left) became set dressing in the Series 5 episode: Old Slow Coach. (right)
You mention that all engines were 100% scratch built from the wheels up from Series 4 onwards. Do you recall who built the narrow-gauge engines for Series-4?
They used 0-guage track, I think, and, again, Martin's your man to ask about that.
Was it difficult to build Spencer from scratch especially with the streamlined curves of a Gresley A-4?
How did you build Spencer’s chassis, wheel arrangement etc. from scratch? Was there a large collection of Marklin spare parts (wheels, side-rods, motors) in stock?
Steve Knowles built the chassis from scratch - wheels and all - the body ending up being widened by Ray Lovell after I left to accommodate the non-scale sideways shift of the axles to cope with tight curves - a common model railway problem, apparently...
With Spencer’s curved front, was sculpting and fitting the different faces challenging?
We cheated and made the face a little more vertical.
Re: Steve keeping you on for the S-3 filming: What type of work were you doing?
Keeping the engines running and building any new props that cropped up in revised scripts. I was there for the filming duration of 11 of the 26 episodes.
What sort of engine breakdown/maintenance that you had to take care of?
Engines would suffer from ingress of dirt and the corrosive and solvent effects of the TTC smoke fluid. Keeping electrical contact between the wheels and track was a constant problem - ask any model railway enthusiast!
Were some engine characters more prone to problems than others?
Thomas and Percy were always a pain because the works were all crammed into such a small space but they were improved markedly over the years by Dave Eves and the model engineers.
Can you give us examples of the types of props you had to build?
Lots of things, from door handles to cranes!
The last thing I made for Dave was a little steam crane with a curved tin roof and a brick base - mostly in brass and fully radio-controlled. It was used in later Series episodes.
Jeremy's steam crane in S-10: Wharf and Peace (Big thanks to Christopher Signore for spotting it!)
You had a hiatus from the show after Series 3 until Series 6. Were you busy with other projects?
Being close to the production, were you privy to any talk back then about the upcoming “Magic Railroad” movie?
Only second hand. We thought we might all be going to Canada!
During your work on Series 6, did you see or heard anything about the Splatter/Dodge models from the movie who were never seen again?
Two dirty diesels? I didn't know they were missing?
What did you work on during Series 6?
Casting and building figures, as I remember, and larger scale stuff that was to tie in with Jack and the new characters.
Would those be the Gauge-1 human figures, or the larger-scaled ones used in the close-up shots? (Cyril the Fogman and Miss Jenny come to mind).
They were even larger - about 100mm = 6 feet - or 1:18 scale.
How were the figures made and finished?
They were sculpted in polyester filler, moulded in silicone rubber and cast in polyurethane resin ("Fastcast") with model aeroplane ball-and-socket joints at the shoulder. They were finished in acrylic plastic primer and cellulose paints.
Can you give us examples of what large-scale set pieces you built for Jack & the Pack and how you built them?
I wasn't involved in any Jack set-building. I only remember a big building site which was just big polystyrene terrain dressed as mud.
Can you give us an idea of the size of the “Pack” models and how they were operated and powered?
Jack was about two feet long - about 1:18 scale and was fully radio conrolled. Screwjacks operated the "rams". Faces were as Thomas. Alfie was similar. Two people operated each model with aircraft r/c.
Combined with Jack & the Pack, the production of Series 6 must’ve been a very busy one for all involved!
It was confusing but then Jack was cancelled - presumably because it clashed with Hit's "Bob The Builder".
Early publicity stills and toys had "Packard & Co" written on the sides of the characters, later switched to "Sodor Construction Co." How far along into the production did Jack's full integration into Thomas take place?
I can't tell you dates but much work had been done on Jack.
I'm aware that the engines were stored in aluminium cases, but how were the human figures, track, buildings and rolling stored between series?
Props that weren't easily racked were bagged in zip-up poly bags and crated. Buildings were shelved in steel shipping containers. Everything was accessible and secure.
Were racks used to store rolling stock? Were their "faces" left on?
Sometimes, yes. Mostly the faces were stored off their vehicles and flat in engineers' tool cabinets.
By your estimate, how many pieces of rolling stock did they have in inventory?
There must have been around sixty engines in the end and three or four hundred pieces of rolling stock. Dave Eves will know.
Of all the characters you've worked on, do you have a few personal favorites?
Mavis and Spencer were my two really. I sculpted their faces too. Billy Shoepack was my Tugs character, designed by Chris Tulloch. I made Zorran who had Chris' voice.
I liked Puffa too. Loved the plume of smoke we got out of him. I also did Burke and Blaire's faces - they were funny, sinister characters. Dave Mitton always called me Warrior - big and scruffy, although I swear I was never that clumsy!
A little joke of mine in Tugs was the Wreck Buoy. I painted up a buoy green with"Wreck" on it and a hungover look in his eyes. Maybe in "Jinxed". Hope you got "Dem Der Rocks" as well - as in "Gold in dem der hills..." DM's one, that.
Left: "Wreck Buoy" from "Jinxed"- Right: "Dem Der Rocks" from "Regatta"
Do you have any anecdotes or special memories that you can share from your time with Thomas & Tugs?
I remember goldfish being introduced to the Tugs tank and when Dave M. - a self-proclaimed Buddhist and animal lover - found out he would feed them every morning with fish food until the dye and general toxicity of their environment finished them off! Poor Dave! Poor fish!
There are several joke names throughout Thomas and Tugs like the Ewell Neverno oil company (Reflecting a common comment made during set dressing) - and the unrepeatable name of the garbage wharf owner in Tugs who had his name in tiny writing above his door... Even "Sodor Fuel" on the tanker trucks started as a joke "Sod Off You All" but was innocent enough for Dave to use - I laugh when I see that on the toys!
Of course Dave M. called his Ocean Liner "Vienna" just so Sunshine could say "Goodnight Vienna!" (Which also ties in with Tugs/TTTE music man Mike O'Donnell - who was Ringo Starr's engineer - whose 4th album was "Goodnight Vienna"!!!)
In-jokes all the way...!!!
David Mitton's inspiration for the name "Vienna"
Can you tell us about your post-Thomas Movie and Television work?
I had my own workshops for fourteen years and am now back out freelancing for TV and film. Lately I have been making props for Movies like Aeon Flux, V for Vendetta, Atonement, X-Men First Class and Ridley Scott's new Alien Prequel at Pinewood.
Do you still keep in touch with any of your old Thomas & Tugs crewmembers?
Martin Gaskell and I have worked together a lot. Also Chris Lloyd and Dean Brookes. They are world-class prop and model makers and we often hire each other for all kinds of work. We often find ourselves happily working with many of the other TTTE/Tugs veterans in England and abroad.
Is there any message that you’d like to pass on to the Thomas and TUGS fans?
Treat goldfish with the humanity they deserve and don't eat yellow snow - it's marble dust with powder paint in it...
SiF extends our many thanks to Jeremy for sharing his insight and memories with us, and we wish him all the best with his current and future projects. Fansite visitors can see more of Jeremy's work on his company's website.