Interview: Alexandra Dawe

Alexandra Dawe (née Bennett) applied her credited modelmaking skills for Thomas and Friends from Series 6 to 8 (2002-2004) and continued making props for the show for a few years beyond that up to Series 10. She and her colleagues weaved their artistic magic from out of the Thomas Stage Workshop at Shepperton Studios, London. Here, Alexandra kindly shares her recollections with us  about her contributions to Thomas and Friends...
~ Interview with J. Gratton, May 1-17, 2012

01) Can you tell us how and when you joined the crew of Thomas and Friends?
After I graduated I put together a portfolio and went around the studios (Shepperton & Pinewood) knocking on doors and asking for any work or work experience available. I did a lot of work experience! About a year after I graduated I was asking someone in Pinewood if he had any work, he told me to go over to Shepperton because a new season of Thomas was crewing up. I got in touch and went up to meet Dave Eves. He hired me and I started the following week. I think that was 2001...

02) Can you tell us more about the other work experience projects you were involved with prior to joining "Thomas"?
 I did work experience with a company who were making animatronic dinosaurs for the BBC Walking with Dinosaurs series. I helped out in a workshop for The Mummy Returns, nothing exciting, just painting scaffolding poles! Although they told me the work experience girl they had the week before ended up painting the toilets as they had no work on!
 
I was also in a workshop who were making gadgets for the first Tombraider movie. I was just sweeping floors, making tea etc, but ended up wearing Angelina Jolie’s earpiece while they were testing and building it as all their ears were too big. So I have the same size ears as Angelina Jolie. Which is where the similarity ends!
 
Most work experience involves tea and a broom, but if you’re friendly, enthusiastic and keen to learn people will start to give you little jobs, like teach you how to fibreglass, cut something on the bandsaw or do a bit of sanding and filling. If you do a good job then they might give you more work, then when you’re next looking for work or work experience you’ll be able to say you’ve done actual work and have a few skills.

03) How did your artistic/model-making interests lead up to this point? Did it begin at an early age?
 I mostly drew or painted, and made small models from Fimo. My dad trained as an engineer and would always do jobs around our house, plumbing, electrics etc, so I’ve learnt a lot from him. When I was a teenager I saw a film called “Labyrinth” which was aired with “Inside the Labyrinth”  (making of)  after. My art teacher in secondary school was very discouraging, she’d told me I’d never have a career in art. But I saw this “making of” documentary, and saw someone sat at a desk painting latex hands. I knew I could do that! So I began looking into degree courses that would give me practical skills for props and model making. There wasn’t a Google then so it was tricky! After my A levels I did an art foundation course, then a degree in animation. I learnt about stop-motion animation, making sets, moulding, casting etc, as well as 2D traditional animation. I wasn’t interested in the computer animation side of the course, I’ve always preferred traditional.


The 'making of' documentary that inspired Alexandra!

04) The Pinewood/Shepperton complex sounds like an amazing place to be and see interesting things and people. Did you get to do a lot of exploring of the site during your work search and free time on Thomas?
 Absolutely! There was always something going on. We were all sat out in the sun one lunchtime outside our workshop. They were filming “Love Actually” on a stage just up the “road” from our workshop and the entire cast was walking up and down; Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson etc. A lot of Harry Potter movies were filmed in Shepperton, I’ve walked around the forest, seen the blue flying car, the whomping willow, the huge Hogwarts model, all kinds. I’ve been on the Tombraider set on the Bond stage in Pinewood as well, I think it was the second film but I can’t remember! There’s always something interesting happening. Some stages have security, and you never go in if the red light is on over the door, that means they’re filming. But if the big shutter doors are open you can amble in and out and have a good old nose at what they’re doing. Most people are amazingly talented and creative, and happy to talk about what they’re working on.
 
Or, if you have a friend working on a film you can go and have lunch with them in their workshop and see what they’re all up to, that’s a great way to find out if there could be any work on another job when you’re close to finishing your current contract.
 
It’s strange seeing celebrities walking about or in the cafe queue, you recognise the face so you go to say “hello” then realise you don’t actually know them!

05) What did your friends and family think at the time of you working on such an iconic children's show?
Everyone was really happy for me, after so much knocking on doors and working for free, or for buttons, to get a properly paid job on a real TV show. Originally I was hired for 8 weeks, then I was given a contract for another 8 weeks. After that I was usually hired on a 10 or 12 week basis, then sometimes a break, then another 6 or 8 weeks or so.

06) Were you familiar with the show and characters beforehand?
No. I knew Thomas, but that was it.

07) What were your initial impressions when you first walked into the Thomas & Friends studio and workshop?
It was noisy! So many machines and compressors, and so many people. Everyone was incredibly friendly. I was just terrified that I didn’t really know how to do anything and that I wouldn’t last 5 minutes! The worst thing about a first day in a busy workshop is having to ask where every single thing is. Filler, glue, primer, sandpaper, the toilets! You’re conscious of always bothering someone!

08) Do you recall what your first assignment was on your first day?
I had to repair cracks in the roof of Tidmouth Sheds. The huge, curved resin roof had cracked in several places. So I filled the cracks, sanded them, used needle files to shape the tile pattern in the filler to match the rest of the shed, then repainted it.

09) Were the cracks a result of shipping it back to London from Toronto after the Magic Railroad movie?
No idea! It was on a table in the workshop, they said “The roof is broken, here’s some filler, paint is over there”.
 
10) Given its size, was it brought into the workshop or left on the stage floor? Was it a heavy piece?
It was on a table in the workshop. It was heavy, after it was fixed we lifted it down onto a trolley and it was pulled off to the stage.

11) A few of the Canadian movie crew  came over to work on Series 6. Adam Slater, Franc Madden, Gord Bray (sadly passed) and Duncan Orthner's names come to mind. Do you recall interacting with any of them in the workshop?
I worked with Franc, Gord & Duncan in the workshop, they were lovely. Franc had an awesome sense of humour!

12) How were the modelling assignments organized and typically tasked out?
We were all spread out over 2 rooms; sculptors, engineers, model-makers, you just picked a bench and that was yours for the run. Chris Lloyd was the workshop manager, he gave out the jobs and kept an eye to check we were all on schedule. I’d get hired for a number of weeks, usually between 8-12. I’d be given a few A4 sheets with lists of props and the dates they were needed. So I’d unpack my tools and get started. Most of the time when I reached the end of the list I’d be given another list and a few more weeks work. I loved working on Thomas because you got to do everything, make it, mould it, cast, sand, fill, paint and finish. Some jobs are much more of a production line, one person doing all the casting, another all the priming, so lots of people do bits on everything.

Freshly painted figurines of various scales
A view of the Shepperton Thomas & Friends Workshop with rows of freshly painted crew figurines of varying scales. Photo courtesy Alexandra Dawe

13) Re: Your mention of 'unpacking your tools'. Were modelmakers responsible for bringing in their own tools?
Yes, absolutely. Large machines: lathes, mills, table saws, band saws etc are provided in the workshop for everyone’s use, but they’re often owned by the person who’s put the crew together- such as Dave Eves on Thomas.
 
Consumables like sandpaper, screws, glue, resin, latex gloves, spray paint etc are also provided and regularly delivered. But drills, drill bits, hammers, screwdrivers, scalpels, files, chisels, airbrushes, clamps, all hand tools basically, were each model-makers responsibility. I have 2 of the big red metal toolboxes with 4 deep drawers in for my larger tools, like drills, and then 2 smaller red metal toolboxes that sit on top that have smaller hand tools in. I’ve also got a table top lathe, chop saw and fretsaw.
 
You start off with a basic tool kit, and you end up borrowing something off someone every 5 minutes! So after each work experience or job I’d have a shopping list of what tools I needed to buy before the next job. And sometimes you’ll be doing work from your home workshop/ garage so you need tools then. I have a massive tool kit, and it all has “ALEX” written all over it!

14) What months of the year did your work span for a series and how early/late were the hours for a typical workday?
 I think we usually started working in March, the workshop started a month or so before the stage so we had a head start on making the props, buildings etc. I can’t really remember how long we ran for, I think I usually got 3 or 4 months work in a run but there were others who started before me and worked on after me, it all depended on what your area was. Typical hours were 8am- to either 6pm or 7pm. Thomas had nice hours, I’ve worked much longer on other jobs!

15) Were there ever occasions where you or others were called onto the set to make emergency repairs during filming?
Not that I recall. Quite a few of the stage crew are amazing model-makers. They had supplies on the stage: superglue, paint etc, so they could make most repairs themselves. Occasionally someone would forget to put the stops on the end of the track so a train would fall off the edge of the set and come to the workshop in bits. That would usually have to be fixed instantly!

Buckets made by Alexandra Dawe
Top: Examples of large-scale buckets made by Alexandra for the series - one can be seen in Series-10's James the Second Best (bottom). Prop Photo courtesy Alexandra Dawe

16) During your years with "Thomas", did you pick up any modelling tips and tricks from your colleagues, or develop any of your own? Can you give us an example or two?
One of the best things about Thomas was the time the experienced model-makers were prepared to give to the new crew members. I’d never used a lathe, never made a jacket mould, never had an air-brush. But the crew in the workshop taught me everything. Everyone was so friendly and helpful, you never felt stupid for now knowing how to do something or having to ask how best to approach something new. The best tips I had were how to safely use a table saw, a mill, a lathe etc, all of the engineers were brilliant at teaching and were incredibly patient. A great tip I got from one of the sculptors was about making a silicon mould- when the mould starts to perish don’t throw it away. Chop it into tiny cubes. Then when you’re pouring a new mould that has a few gaps in it you can pop the cubes into the gaps to fill them in. Then you use less expensive silicon.

17) You're first credited with working on Series 6 (2002). Can you tell us about your contributions for your first year with the show? Are there any props etc. that fans can recognize as yours? And the same for Series 7 and 8?

From Series 10: James the Second Best
A few oil drums likely made by Alexandra

There were 3 of us that made most of the props at first, then mostly me and another girl. Oil drums, sacks, buckets, brooms, cakes, pallets, drums of wire, rope, books, I made all kinds. General set dressing really. I also made trees, painted figures, I did a couple of small buildings but not many. I did one Thomas face, but there were much better and faster sculptors than me so I didn’t do much of that. I loved making buckets, you got to use a lathe and the vac-former, for some reason I love turning and vac-forming! And I really love making trees, that was a favourite job.
 
I made the Fat Controller's tea set, and an old fashioned camera, cranes, water towers, all kinds. We used to go through the list together, if you saw something that you really wanted to make you’d ask the others if that was ok. So I might have to make 100 oil drums, 50 pallets and 10 metres of bunting, but then I’d get to make all the cream cakes & the Christmas tree that really lit up! We’d try and share out the monotonous jobs and the fun jobs equally.
 
From Series 10: James the Second Best
Top Right: Alexandra made two cameras for the Series-10 episode James the Second Best - a gauge-1 version (@2 inches) seen on the lower right, and a large scale version (@10.5 inches) seen in detail on the left. Prop Photo courtesy Alexandra Dawe

18) What was so appealing about making trees and what types did you make?
I just really like trees, maybe it’s a pagan thing?! They’re beautiful, very soothing to make! I made some pine trees (some of my pine trees are on the Hogwarts model!), the Christmas tree, silver birch and just general tree-like trees. Some with leaves, some without. Without is easier!

19) How were these constructed and supported as to not topple over on the sets?
You make a cross out of 2 x 1, drill a hole in the middle and glue in a rod. Then you drill a hole up the centre of the tree trunk and slot it onto the rod. Then you can start adding branches, paint, leaves etc. It stays very stable, but you can slide it on and off the base if you need to. I have photos that show the base.

One of the leafless  trees made by Alexandra
An example of one of the many types of trees constructed by Alexandra.
Prop Photo courtesy Alexandra Dawe

20) Was the Thomas face you made a molded copy of an existing face? Do you recall its facial expression? Did new faces have to be recast often?
I think it was shocked or surprised possibly. I cast out another face, used a dremmel to sand off the mouth and then sculpted on a new mouth. Then I moulded and cast it, sanded and painted it.

21) How tall were these trees?
It varied from maybe about 12 inches to 3 or 4 feet.
 
22) Did new trees need to be remade every series, or did they survive storage to be used again?
Most of them could be repaired, sometimes we needed to make a few new ones.

23) When painting the human figures, were their appearances pre-determined by a style-sheet, or were you encouraged to be creative with the color and detail of their hair, clothes etc?
 If it was a train driver or a character like the Fat Controller then you were usually given an old model to copy. For general crowd you could do what you wanted. I saw the first ever ethnic minorities to appear on Thomas get sculpted and painted.

3 poses of The Fat Controller made by Alexandra
3 different poses of the large scale Fat Controller made and detailed by Alexandra. Prop Photo courtesy Alexandra Dawe

24) Can you describe the types of buildings you made and how they were constructed?
There’s a little building with a green trim that the trains drive past all the time, that was one that I made. The really weird thing is seeing a CG version of a real building that I made, they copied it into the computer Thomas. That’s very odd!
 
It’s just an MDF box with a sheet of resin bricks, or roof tiles, glued on (we had huge silicon moulds of tiles, bricks etc so you just pour an area about the size you need, trim off the wobbly edges on the bandsaw, paint it and you have a wall or roof ready to glue onto your MDF box)

Signalbox - click image to view larger version
Alexandra's signalbox built for Series 6.  Used regularly as the Wellsworth Signalbox since Series-7, though the model is often seen along other lines in the series at junctions. Top Right: Series-6's A Bad Day for Harold and Bottom Right: As seen again in Series 10's James the Second Best.   Prop Photo courtesy Alexandra Dawe

25) Re: the tea set, cakes, camera props, were these the larger-scaled versions used in the house/office close-up scenes?
 I don’t know, I didn’t have scripts, just a list of what to make. It just said “Fat Controller’s tea set- LS” LS being large-scale. My kids watch Thomas now, so I’m seeing the show for the first time since I was a child! I do see things in it and say “Mummy made that” but they don’t really understand.

26) Were these easier to work on because of their scale and detail? Can you tell us how you built the props and what materials you used? (e.g. camera, tea set) 
Depending on what it was large scale could be easier or harder. For very small props it was great. The camera I think I carved it out of chemiwood and painted it black. The tea set I turned the shapes for the cups, tea pot and sugarbowl, then vac-formed the cups and added handles made out of styrene. I sculpted a spout for the solid, turned teapot and added a styrene handle. The sugarbowl was also solid, I think I added a bead on the lid, and styrene handles. Then they all had a coat of grey primer to check for any imperfections- grey shows imperfections up best. Then they had a coat of silver spray paint.

Click image to see larger version
Bottom: The Fat Contoller's tea set made by Alexandra (the toast looks good  and real enough to eat!). Top: Featured in Series 6's A Bad Day for Harold. Alexandra also made the pen and ink set. Screencap courtesy Chris Signore. Prop Photos courtesy Alexandra Dawe

27) Re: Christmas tree you made that actually lit up - would this by chance be the one seen in Series 8's 'Don't tell Thomas' ? Can you describe how you made it?
I’ve actually seen that episode, my kids watched it the other day! And I recognised my tree. I got a stick of thin dowel, covered it in filler, quite rough to get a barky texture, and painted it brown. Then I drilled very small holes in it and stuck branches in. The branches were something dried that had come from a floristry wholesaler, I don’t know what it was called but we used to spend days spray-painting it all dark green for bushes on set. It arrived white, and it smelled DREADFUL! Evil stuff!
 
I had a pile of LEDS and some glass paints, so I painted the bulbs then Steve Knowles showed me how to wire them up. Photo attached of the thing that powered it, I know nothing about electrics!

Click image to see larger version
Left: Alexandra's Christmas tree as seen in Series 8's Don't Tell Thomas and Right: Same model hooked up to DC Power Supply (ISO-TECH IPS-6060). Photo (Right) courtesy Alexandra Dawe
28) Were there any other props, characters or structures being worked on by your colleagues that you were impressed with or found to be unique?

From S8 The Runaway Elephant
Series 8 - The Runaway Elephant

Coach (Sean Hedges-Quinn) had to make an elephant for one episode. It was gorgeous, and beautifully sculpted. Chrissie Overs was an amazing sculptor as well, and I was fascinated by her poly-carving. Massive blocks of polystyrene would arrive in the workshop, and within a few weeks the most amazing cliff faces would be heading to the stage. I love turning as well, watching the engineers turning beautiful, shiny brass parts that came together to make a wheel or a new engine was fantastic, I really love metalwork. There was always something interesting or unique being made on all the benches!

29) Did you ever have the opportunity to explore the room where all of the show's models/props were stored?
During filming most of the props and models were on shelves in the stage, so that they could do a quick turnaround. When not on stage they were stored in containers, very dark and cramped so you couldn’t really explore much!

30) Were your colleagues also excited at the time about the new 'Jack and the Pack' series? Did you make any of the (larger-scale) props for the show? 
I wasn’t involved in Jack, I saw the vehicles being made. I think Chris Lloyd might have been making them so you’ll have to check with him. I was interested in Jack mainly as a source of more work and income!

31) David Mitton has been described as being one of the creative sparks behind the show, with a matching character to boot. Did you ever have the opportunity to meet him?
I saw him a few times when he came into the workshop but I didn’t really speak to him. I was on his table at the crew Christmas party once, but we were all quite lively that day!
 
32) At the same time, did you meet or ever interact with Steve Asquith and Phil Fehrle on the set?
I didn’t speak with Phil much, but he was really nice. Out of those 3 I knew Steve Asquith the best. He’s very clever, very quick, with a great sense of humour.

33) Series 8 (2004) was your final one with Thomas' production.  Did you decide to leave the industry to develop your art interests further? 
I didn’t leave the industry straightaway. I made the props for that series, then when my contract was up I went to look for more work, as I always did in between series’. Everyone in the film industry is a self-employed contractor so you just move from contract to contract. I worked on a few other jobs, mostly films but some idents, adverts and other projects. I made trees for Thomas from my home workshop for the next series. Then I got married and had kids! And now I’m an artist, but really I’m mostly a mum, and occasionally an artist!

34) Is there anything about your days with the series that you miss the most?
The people, the Thomas crew were lovely. And runners who’d go out and get everyone’s breakfast order! Hanging out in the studios watching what was going on on the other stages while having a lunchbreak. It was mostly Harry Potter in Shepperton then, so it was great to see what they were up to as it was all so top secret. It was so top secret that J K Rowling couldn’t get onto a stage once, she didn’t have her pass and the guard didn’t recognise her!

35) Can you tell us more about the genre of fantasy art that you're into?
Faeries! I’ve been interested in fantasy and faeries for as long as I can remember, ever since I was very little. That’s my real passion; folklore and faerytales of Europe. It was the Henson fantasy movie “Labyrinth” that got me into props, models, animatronics, FX etc.

Click image to see larger version
A sample of Alexandra's art: "In the Wild Wild Wood"

36) As a fantasy artist and having worked on the show what are your thoughts about the Island of Sodor and its characters? As a mother, what is it about Sodor that captivates the imaginations of children? 
Until recently I had never even seen an episode! I appreciate it greatly as it gives me 10 minutes of peace to load the washing machine and make a cup of tea while the kids watch it! I like knowing that I can put an episode on and leave the kids watching it, I know there’ll be no violence, nothing inappropriate or scary. I’m pretty strict on what I let the kids watch, they’re allowed a max of 3 cartoons a day, most days they only get one. The characters in Thomas make a mistake, acknowledge it, apologise and try and make things right. Hopefully the kids are learning some kind of social responsibility from it! I think they really love how important children are in the show, the trains and the adult characters in the show are always trying to get things done for the children, or worrying that the children will be disappointed. They also really love the song at the end and both of them know all the words. They’ve got the books, audio CDs and the toy trains, they’re a bit obsessed!

37) Lastly, is there any special message that you'd like to pass on to:
a) Your old colleagues and production crew who may be reading this?
Hope you’re all well, and more importantly, hope you’re working! If anyone wants to get in touch my website is
www.alexandradawe.co.uk, you can use the email link on there. Or find me on Facebook, there’s a link on my website.
 
b) And to the fans of the show?
Thanks for watching, you’ve kept a lot of people employed for a long time!


We'd like to once again express our thanks to Alexandra for sharing her recollections of her time with "Thomas".  We wish her all our best with her artistic pursuits, and all the best to her family as well!  "Tanks" for your contributions to making Sodor come to life for the fans! :)