Interview with David Payne

Series one and two modelmaker, David Payne shares his memories of building and designing the familiar characters used in the early episodes. His name often goes together with John Pennicott and David Lillie, who built the Series 2 characters in their own company, Pennicott Payne and Lillie. He is still a modelmaker to this day working as a freelancer since leaving Asylum SFX, and still runs into familiar faces from Thomas.
Interview with R. Fenrich, January - March 2012

01) How did you first get involved with model making, and later working on Series 1 and 2 of Thomas?
I started out in model making initially as a young lad at school making and modifying model kits. When I left school in 1972 I was going to go into Engineering but my father who was a truck driver spotted a model making company in London one day whilst driving, (I hadn't realised that model making existed as a career) he thought it might be a good option for me so he went in and arranged for them to give me an interview. I did the interview and started a 3 year apprenticeship at Thorpe Model Makers who were one of the leading companies specialising in Architectural and Engineering models.
After about 9 years I moved on to DBP Models based at Shepperton Studios. After about another year I was approached by John Pennicott who ran the in house model making facility at Clearwater Films in Battersea to join them working on TV Commercials.
Whilst I was at Clearwater the pilot for Thomas was started and someone, I can't remember his name (ed: Martin Gill), built Thomas and Gordon.
Unfortunately these two trains proved to be unreliable and the pilot was stopped. I was then given the job of sorting things out and had 6 weeks to get 7 reliable engines designed and built.
To do this I decided to base the trains on an off the shelf train, Marklin Gauge 1, eyes were radio control, faces were a simple interchangeable unit and smoke was to be achieved using Titanium Tetrachloride.
The team making the trains was myself, designing, engineering and building bodies. David Lillie, making faces. Tom Vain, building bodies. Jamie Jackson Moore, assisting.
Pennicott Payne and Lillie was set up between series 1 & 2 and was commissioned to make the new trains for series 2. An in-house facility was used on subsequent series.

02) Did you ever visit the set during the filming of Thomas?
On the first series the set was next door so I would often pop in. I don't think I visited the set at Shepperton on the second.

03) Do you recall the use of and fate of an unmodified, black Marklin BR80 0-6-0 used for off-camera trains during Series 1?
I don't remember any off camera trains, I spoke yesterday to Jamie Jackson Moore (who looked after the trains on set during filming) and he can't remember this also.

04) Do you have any fond memories or anecdotes of the early modelmakers of Thomas? Did any work with you and John at Asylum?
The making of those first trains is rather a blur as we worked every hour possible to meet the shoot deadline. Just be assured that we had a good time and much banter and japes would have been had.
No one from that team works at Asylum but as I am a freelancer and work elsewhere also, I was with Jamie Jackson Moore yesterday.

05) Why did you decide to form your own modelling company with John Pennicott?
Myself, John Pennicott and David Lillie took the established Clearwater model making facility and crew and set it up as an independent company in order to offer the huge technical skill base that we had to the wider advertising filmmaking community.

06) We know the Reverend W. Awdry often visited the set during Series 1. Did you ever meet him? Did he like the models you and the team made?
The Reverend Awdry certainly visited the workshop once when we were building the trains and as a train lover seemed to appreciate the models.
I only met him the once and he appeared to be a very nice man, passionate about trains.

07) Were you familiar with The Railway Series as a kid?
No I hadn't heard of it before working on it.

08) How were the bodyshells made for the S1 and S2 characters? Were any kits used?
The bodies were made of plastic, sheet, tube etc. Parts from the Marklin trains used for the chassis were incorporated especially the beams with the buffers and couplings. Other bits were robbed but I can't recall what. The faces were made in Polyester resin cast from Silicone moulds taken from Plastiline masters.

09) Henry changed shapes during the course of Series 1, and also added on splashers for Series 2. Was the same shell of Henry used for budget purposes?
Yes there was only one body built.

10) Diesel's tool box and ladders come from the Marklin BR80 (as mentioned) above. Did any other parts of the characters you built come from other stock locos?
As in the earlier answer Marklin bits were used.

11) You built all (motorized) characters for Season 1. In addition to Duck, Bill, and Diesel, did you build Ben, Donald, Douglas, Boco, Daisy, Trevor, and Harold?
We built all the trains and vehicles for series one and I think Pennicott Payne and Lillie made all the Trains for series two, but I don't think we made any other vehicles for series two.

12) Being large and not requiring a smoke mechanism, were Daisy and Boco easier builds than the steam engines?
Yes the larger any of the engines were the easier they became and not needing to build in the added complexities of smoke made things easier still.

13) Do you recall any character build to be tougher or easier than the others?
Thomas was one of the hardest as his wheel layout didn't match any Marklin trains, meaning that 3/4 of the chassis had to be built from scratch. Luckily we found that Ripmax nylon gear wheels mated with the Marklin gears in the drive trains making this easier. Also, the space in Thomas was very restricted requiring us to separate the batteries for the radio control and distribute them individually around the shell. The radio receiver had to be fitted without the casing, and the servos had to be reduced in size by taking the circuit boards out and fitting them remotely.

14) Interesting of your mention of Thomas' chassis being mostly scratchbuilt. Did any other characters utilize the same construction method?
All the chassis were altered to some extent, but Thomas as far as I can remember, was the only engine needing a complete re: spacing of the wheels.

15) Do you recall any of the specific stock Marklin drives used for the characters such as Thomas, Percy, Bill/Ben, Diesel, Duck, etc.?
These trains were built about 30 years ago and since then I have worked on thousands of projects, so remembering these details is not possible. If you look at the wheel layouts on the Marklin trains you will be able to work this out.

16) You mentioned that you were the one in the team to design and engineer the models. How much freedom did you have with the models? Did you have full control with designing the shells, colours, etc., or did you have limited control based on David Mitton's (or anyone else's) draft design?
The Trains were all based on the illustrations in the books. My brief was to make them as faithfully as possible to these whilst giving them reliable, controllable forward and backward movement. Eye movement, up, down and right to left, to have the faces interchangeable and to make them puff smoke.
How this was to be achieved was left up to me to design.

17) Did you design how everything would fit and squish into the chassis? What was the most challenging component to fit in?
Yes I did work out the basic layout of the components. The eye mechanisms were the trickiest to fit into the restricted area of front of the boilers, especially as the servos available then were not as small as they are today.

18) What would be the process of events for making a screen-ready character, from the time you were designing the character to when you finished cramming everything into the chassis and put the complete shell on?
With the first trains, the process starts with the initial decisions as to how to build the trains and provide reliable movements of the trains, their eyes and the smoke they need to produce, whilst keeping the required final look intact.
Once this is decided, research and testing into what suitable donor trains are available, what were the smallest servos, what is the best radio control system, how to design the smoke system, and where to source the components.
When this process is complete, the team start to construct all the elements as simultaneously as possible (my method of working involves very few drawings and even the ones we do are very basic).
The final part of the process is to paint and detail the trains before doing as much testing as possible (the first series Trains had virtually no testing as they were only completed on the morning of the first days shooting)
The second series trains would have been done the same but with ought the initial research and testing.

19) Do you have a personal favourite of the characters you built?
Yes! I think that Thomas is my favourite as he was more complicated than the others and was also the first train to be tackled meaning that a lot of the problem solving was done on him.

20) Your old company website featured photos of the engine characters built by your company for their debut in Series 2. Oddly, they were referenced with pseudo-names - Duck being "Charles", Diesel being "Toby" and Bill being "David". Can you tell us why these were named so - Were these project build names to keep things under wraps?
Can't remember this at all!

21) In the Railway Series and the photo of Bill from your company site, he carried the number 1 above his smokebox. However, his and Ben's numbers were not seen in any episode. Do you know why they were dropped?
I don't know as after the trains left us we were not greatly involved in the shoot.

Original RWS and TV version of Bill/Ben
(left) One of the twins as seen in the RWS with their number and (right) the other twin missing their number in the TV Series!

22) Similarly, Donald and Douglas were kept black for the TV Series, while they changed to blue after The Deputation in the Railway Series. Was this for the simplicity of making the model, as well as for out-of-order shooting sequences?
Again I can't help!

23) Were you or John asked to work on Mitton and Cardona's show TUGS or any later Series of Thomas?
As you know PPL worked on the second series of Thomas. Unfortunately we were not involved in any further series.
We did look at working on TUGS  but that didn't happen in the end.

24) Thomas, along with many other British shows such as Fireman Sam and Bob the Builder are now computer animated. Do you feel that Nitrogen captured the original models you made well?
Unfortunately I haven't seen any of the computer animated shows you mention but although I am sure they are very well executed, I generally don't feel that this genre has the same heart and soul that live action can give. These days a mix of live action and post-production usually gives the best results.

25) What are some of your former and current projects both with Pennicott, Payne and Lillie and Asylum?
At PPL and Asylum I predominantly worked on Television adverts, I have been involved with upwards of 2000 of these for all the major advertisers. Alongside this I have worked on many music videos for diverse artists such as Robby William's, Cliff Richard, the Prodigy and many more. For my Feature Film and TV credits look at my IMDB page.

26) Do you have any special messages you'd like to send to fans of the classic series of Thomas, young or old?
It was a great privilege to be involved with the beginnings of such an iconic TV show as Thomas the Tank Engine that I know has given a huge amount of pleasure to many, both young and old. I hope it will continue to do so for many years to come!

Ryan and SiF would like to thank David Payne for sharing his memories and insight about the show, and for taking time away from his busy schedule to answer our questions. We wish him all the best with his freelance projects, and to view some of his past work, visit the Asylum Model and Effects website.