CREWMEMBER SPOTLIGHT ON
MODELMAKER: THOMAS & THE GREAT DISCOVERY
In 2007-08, Katy Lloyd signed on with Thomas and the Great Discovery, first as a student, then as a modelmaker. Though only with the production for three months, Katy left with fond memories of her experience working on the special, a few of which are shared below...
~ with James Gratton, March 20, 2015
Katy, how and when did you become interested in modelmaking or the industry in general?
I was always a big fan of animation and puppets, but never imagined I could possibly do it as a job. I thought you had to live in America... it wasn't until I was about to leave school that a teacher suggested the idea to me. In one afternoon my career ambition snapped from zoologist to modelmaker - I took art at college, and then went to study Model Design and SFX at Hertfordshire Uni.
Katy, how and when did you become interested in modelmaking or the industry in general?
At university we were encouraged to go find work experience during the second year, as part of the course. I sent out flyers to every company I could find, and then I took a train and my portfolio and walked into Shepperton studios, knocking on doors and asking around. Dave Eves and Chris Lloyd were really nice and showed me around the Thomas and Friends workshop.
A few days later I got the call inviting me back for work experience... when my three weeks were up, they offered me a salary to stay on, and so I worked there for 3 months in total. I wanted to stay longer but being a student there was a limit - I had to get back to my course.
(Left) Abandoned Great Waterton balconies and (Right) Renovated Great Waterton balconies
Were you familiar with the Series or the Rev. Awdry's books beforehand?
I was familiar with the television show, although I hadn't watched it since I was small. Seeing the set in real life brought childhood nostalgia flooding back!
What were your impressions of the model shop set up at Shepperton?
On the day of my studio 'infiltration', as an introduction I was kindly shown around the workshop, and I was taken over to the film stage as well. They were filming and I remember staring slack-jawed at the beautiful set, the clear sky backdrop and bright lights, Thomas puffing real smoke...
When I returned a couple weeks later to work, I spent most of the time in the model shop, rather than the set. The workshop felt like being in an aircraft hangar. Sometimes I was asked to deliver items between the two buildings...I once carried some trains back from the set to the workshop... that was scary, carrying about £10k of hand-made engine models.
The Thomas crew was often compared to a small army. How many modelmakers were working on the The Great Discovery when you signed-on?
I think there were around seven or eight extra modelmakers hired for the Great Discovery… that's on top of the usual team which seemed to be about ten-twelve people… however, this was just in the workshop; I'm not sure about the grand total of staff working on the set, didn't spend enough time there.
The seasoned modelmakers had their own tool kits - as a Uni. student, did you have your own modelmaking tools on hand?
Yep, I had a pretty small toolbox; I acquired a second box and some more tools while I was there.
Do you remember the first set prop that you were asked to work on? Were you nervous to see if it "passed the grade"?
The first thing I was asked to do was some maintenance for old models. These were set buildings, farm houses, bridges and the like. There were cracks which needed filling and then fixing up the paintwork. I remember at first it being hard to distinguish the intentional damage (painted on ageing) from the actual damage. I probably made some mistakes but my supervisors were patient with me.
Before and After: General maintenance of props - Katy restored Series-5 double-gauge tunnel for possible future use.
You mentioned working 10 hour days, what were the hours like? Was getting to Shepperton every day a challenge?
The working day was 8am to 6pm (apparently very reasonable for studio hours). On Mondays I travelled on public transport all the way from Hatfield, where I was at uni, so I had to get up at 5.20 in the morning - urgh! During the week I stayed with a friend who lived nearby, so the weekdays weren't so bad.
9) Can you share some technical details as to what your work involved re:
a) painting buildings:
If I recall correctly, we used standard house emulsion, which we would mix to the correct tone by eye. Sometimes base colours would be sprayed on as undercoat, but final detail was brush painted and dry-brushed/ dabbed on.
b) weathering new models:
To weather a new model I would hack away with a scalpel and needle files, cutting out chunks and making cracks. Then you paint it 'as new', but then do a dark wash over the top, wiping off the excess with a rag. The black runs into the gaps - instant ageing - it's easy but so effective. Then you might crumble a little green moss dust on top (glued with spray mount).
Great Waterton Station platform painting stages with final weathering applied (lower right)
c) restoring old models:
To restore an old model would involve filling cracks, touching up any chipped/flaked paint, adding extra internal support if needed. Sometimes the roofs would sag a little too authentically :)
d) making roofs:
I made a 'master roof' which took a couple of days - this was one giant roof used to create a big mould, so that if someone needed a standard slate roof they could just use the mould to cast out their own. This was a long yet therapeutic job where I scored and snapped thin strips of plastic into little squares (tiles) and then super-glued them onto an MDF board - starting from the bottom and working up, you glue the tiles on in rows, resting the top edge of the tile against a clamped rule (to keep a straight line) and the bottom half sits on the layer of tiles below. When finished, we added MDF walls around the piece to turn it into a box mould.
Katy laid out and glued all roof tiles individually, then built a box mould (bottom-right)
e) making simple box moulds:
Box moulds were ideal for a shape with one flat side and no undercuts - especially good for parts of building details, such as windows, alcoves, doors, etc. You use double-sided tape to attach the flat back of your model to a piece of MDF wood. Then you build four walls around it, and pour in your rubber/ silicone. Much care must be given to avoid air bubbles! Silicone should be agitated first (like on a vibrating machine), then tipped slowly into one corner and allowed to slowly spread, whilst jiggling the bottom of the mould.
Katy made moulds of her windows in order to mass-replicate them for Great Waterton's buildings
Kate moulded the cornices which could be mass-produced as needed for the construction of buildings
Is there anything that fans can easily identify as your work in The Great Discovery?
The other *real* modelmakers were given whole buildings to make - I was just given little jobs here and there. The most recognisable thing I did was painting the train platforms and the platform station building of the lost town.
Great Waterton Station (abandoned ruins version)
Was there a set piece or model that you were particularly impressed with?
I was pleased with the tiny lion head door-knocker I sculpted for the town hall! It was smaller than a 5p coin. With other people's work there was too much amazing stuff to choose from... I recall someone made a collapsing bridge which was very impressive.
Intricate detail: Door and lion's head door knocker sculpted by Katy Lloyd
Were other crew/staff helpful with giving you modelmaking tips/tricks that you put into practice?
John Lee taught me a technique called "sledging", which sounds rude but is actually about making a plaster form along a straight edge using a profile. You build a right angle from wood, wax it, lay down your wet plaster and slide the profile along to stencil the shape - we used it to make building cornices. (see pictures)
Katy was taught "Sledging" technique by John Lee to sculpt building cornices
Do you have a special memory of working on Thomas at Shepperton?
Just being in the studios was so exciting. Seeing extras for other movies walking around in the weirdest get-up... that was exciting.
How would you rate your overall experience of working on this iconic series?
I had a great time. I was so excited to be working in industry and the whole team were kind and supportive.
Did you get a chance to watch the finished “Great Discovery” when it came out?
I didn't at the time, but I recently discovered it on Netflix! I thought it was great. Although my part was very small, I'm proud to have been part of such a quality project.
You mentioned that you went on to work on other modelmaking projects after Thomas, can you describe a few them to us?
I was hired by Duncan Mude at D-forms in London- we made several props for CBBC's Bo and the Spirit World, and other models for various adverts, shop windows, fashion shows, etc. I was also part of the huge team that worked on the Sony Bravia stop-motion bunny advert at Artem, and I also did some product work at DesignWorks in Windsor (most famous for their Harry Potter and Doctor Who action dolls).
You've branched-out to specializing in CGI. Is it as interesting and rewarding as modelmaking?
Yes, I work in video games now. It's very rewarding, especially if you work on small projects there can be a lot of creative freedom. I enjoy the speed with which you can create characters in digital 3D; it feels similar to stop-motion, the process of building a character. I like helping different people out with different kind of projects :)
Have you seen any of the Thomas episodes since it switched to 100% CGI?
No! I'm not really a fan of CGI in TV/film - I think traditional animation and SFX techniques have more charm and immersion. In video games it's not so bad, being necessity, but even that could have a more mixed media approach.
Lastly, do you have any special shout out you'd like to send to your former crewmates or fans of the series?
Ah, well like I say, I was only there for 3 months, so most will probably not remember me! They were all so nice tho - I hope they are still out there doing their thing.
As for fans of the series - well, having seen first-hand the amount of effort and love and care that went into it, I can see why it has touched so many people. Seeing a modelshop working to such high standards - it really created something special. I sincerely hope this is not the end for model FX, because truly, nothing beats it.
We'd like to express our thanks to Katy for sharing her insight and wish her all the best in her endeavours. We hope that our interview with Katy will inspire fans to continue the Thomas model era on their own railway layouts!