Phil Fehrle, Producer - Thomas & Friends

With TATMR filming completed,  Co-Producer Phil Fehrle found himself even more intimately involved with Thomas' world as the Producer for  Series 6 of Thomas & Friends. Phil introduced an enhanced  production schedule to the TV Series which continues to this day. Phil parted company with the show after Series 7 in 2003 during the period in which Hit Entertainment had taken over the franchise.  Here, Phil shares his thoughts about his time with Thomas & Friends along with his  innovative contributions.
In a reply sent to J. Gratton, 27 July, 2009 

After or during the movie’s production, there was for a short time serious consideration put towards resuming filming Series 6 in Toronto. Would you be able to tell us more about the proposal?

I do remember the conversations, but in the end it came down to two things: a cost/benefit analysis (would it be appreciably less expensive to shoot in Canada?) and the consideration about whether moving the production out of the UK (since Thomas was such a cultural icon) would damage its image.

When you were asked by Britt to join Thomas and Friends as Producer for Series 6 in London, was this a big decision for you?

Yes, it was a big decision because I knew that for all practical purposes, Britt would not be involved on a day-to-day basis. I knew I could handle the production challenges. Those weren’t at issue. But, I’m a Yank. The question for me was, “Can I sublimate my Yankness enough to be a good steward for a British cultural icon?" Thankfully, my relationship with David Mitton and Steve Asquith and David Eves was such that they were happy to guide me.

Do you remember the first day you set foot into Shepperton studios? Was there a marked difference between the model and filming setup routines for the TV series compared to what was done with TATMR?

Shepperton is a studio, like any studio so, there was no magical moment for me. The whole crew, from top to bottom, was professional — whether in Canada or the UK. But the whole operation went much more smoothly at Shepperton because everyone was working in his or her normal, comfortable environment. They went home to their families every night. They drank the pints of beer they liked. They ate the food they liked. Their personal needs were no longer challenges, so they could focus 100% on their work.

We’ve always been curious about how the production cycle for a typical series of Thomas and Friends plays out - from series planning (e.g. storylines, new characters) to post-production. Would you be able to provide us with some insight about the process?

The whole reason I was asked to go to Shepperton was because of my strong production background and my ability to put together and execute an ambitious production plan. In the past, it had taken two to three years for each cycle of Thomas. The 26 scripts had to be written by Britt and David (this could take up to a year or more).
 
Then the production schedule had to be laid out for maximum shooting efficiency. Then principal photography had to be completed (usually over schedule and over budget, for a variety of reasons). Britt and David were involved in everything, so each phase had to wait until the prior phase was completed. When I joined the team, our approach was to write and produce 52 scripts (Series Six and Seven) back to back, without any appreciable downtime.

Series 6 was the first series to our knowledge to have recruited a writing team for the episodes. Can you tell us a bit about the decision for doing so plus how you put the team together?

There was no decision to make. Without hiring multiple writers and developing multiple storylines simultaneously, we would not have been able to execute our production plan.
 
In my view, Abi Grant was the key to the success of the script development of Series 6 & 7. I hired Abi and, though she and I put together a show bible and a style guide for the writers, it was she who really was the protector of the flame in terms of remaining faithful to the tone, spirit and heart of Thomas.
 
Abi and I reviewed writing samples from many English children’s TV writers and ultimately selected the ones we felt “got it”. Then it was just a matter of managing the process. Britt remained as a consultant, but no longer wrote episodes. David focused on production planning.

Writer Paul Larson has some fond memories of you leading story brainstorming sessions with the writers. Can you share details about these meetings and how story ideas were bantered about?

Paul is a gifted writer who also seemed to have a knack for understanding the heart and soul of Thomas. So, we drafted him to brainstorm with us. There was always a tension between how much action and how much heart to include, and we only had four-and-a-half minutes.
 
It was important to keep David Mitton motivated and Britt Allcroft happy. David liked lots of action because it was more fun to film. Britt liked more heart because that was her orientation. Gullane wanted more new characters because they could sell more toys, but at the same time they wanted to make sure we afforded plenty of screen time to our primary characters.
 
That was the tightrope Abi, Paul and I walked. We were always careful to remain faithful to the spirit of Thomas, which Britt had so steadfastly guarded for so many years.

Would you remember what happened to Splatter & Dodge’s models after the movie? It’s speculated that they were refurbished into updated versions of Iron ‘Arry & Iron Bert for Series 6.

To be honest with you, I have no idea. All I know is that we didn’t use any of the movie characters in Series 6 & 7.

Would you be able to share some insight as to why these characters (Lady, Diesel-10) weren’t worked into some of the Series 6 or 7 episodes?

There was never any intent to do this because we weren’t yet sure of the impact of the movie on the traditional Thomas audience and whether or not its influence should spill over into the series. We saw them as two totally different animals.

During your time as Producer, several new characters were introduced;
- Series 6 (2002): Salty, Harvey the Crane Engine and Elizabeth the Vintage Lorry.
- Series 7 (2003): Emily, Murdoch, Fergus, Arthur and Spencer.
Did you have a hand in conceptualizing any of these new characters and their personalities?

First of all, David Eves was the real force behind all the engine designs. He is a steam buff himself and immersed himself in research. When we wanted to add new characters, he would bring sketches or photos of real engines for us to choose from. We would assess the value of a particular engine based on its real-life capabilities and our story needs, then build a character around that.
 
For example, Salty was a character we knew we could use a lot in the shipyards and we gave him a distinctive personality so we could also get some good conflict mileage out of him.
 
In terms of Emily, that was sort of a personal fight of mine. The model David brought to us was nineteenth-century elegant, so I felt it should be a female. But this was not an automatic. The Reverend Awdry had never wanted there to be female engines because all the original engines were named after young Christopher’s playmates, all of whom were boys. So there was resistance from that side.  But corporate was always after us to make Thomas or appealing to girls.
 
Regarding the female characters, I believe the restriction to male names applied only to the main line steam engines (Gordon, Percy, Thomas, James, etc.).  My recollection is that Mavis and Daisy don't fit into this category.  I can't recall the source of this restriction, but I know we were aware of it and discussed it at length and often.  In fact, it became ironic for  us when we learned that all engineers ("drivers") refer to their steam engines as "she," not as "he" or "it."
 
So, we finally prevailed and got Emily, one of my proudest moments of the assignment.

As the creator of the Jack and the Pack spin-off series, could you tell us how you came up with the concept for it, and of what you originally envisioned for the series?

The concept for the series came out of meeting with Gullane’s marketing people in New York, who wanted to make a companion series to Thomas that would appeal to the next higher age group (6-8). Their market research showed that in terms of selling toys, boys in this age group like toys they can “push and pull, load and unload.” Therefore, I suggested to them that we us heavy construction vehicles (not Bob the Builder vehicles, but really big ones).
 
They bought the idea and I returned to Los Angeles and began to do research at various construction sites to find out what the character dynamics were of the various heavy equipment operators.
 
Among the operators, there is a great deal of pride in their work and also a great deal of competition. They also take great care of their machinery – the life’s blood of their work. However, they universally dislike the truck drivers. The truck drivers are seen as careless with their equipment, careless with other people’s equipment (always banging into it) and not requiring very much skill to do their jobs. That’s why we made the two dump trucks the heavies in Jack and the Pack.

Can you tell us a bit more about its filming, characters and production? You also scripted a few of the episodes – A Friend in Need, Kelly’s Windy Day, Jack Jumps In! (co-written with Abi Grant and Jonathan Truman).

The biggest production challenge to Jack and the Pack was that, unlike the Thomas characters, all the Jack characters were not track-bound. They were mobile and functional. Since they were not track-bound, they had to be guided by radio control. And so did their functions. There had to be a different control and servo for each function, such as the accelerator, the steering, the crane arm or dump mechanism, etc.
 
This meant that the vehicles had to be made much bigger than the Thomas figures so David Eves and his staff could incorporate all the inner workings necessary for the different functions of each model. Often times vehicles required up to three different operators, all coordinating with each other to make sure we got what we needed in the shot.
 
In terms of my own writing, it was done primarily to make sure I understood all the challenges that our writers faced. In some cases it was to accommodate changes we made in the stories. For example, originally Jack and the Pack was to be a stand-alone series. But HIT bought Gullane just as we were to begin production on Jack and the decision came down to us that Jack was to be part of Thomas’ world and that we had to incorporate Thomas characters into Jack.
 
This required some last-minute script retooling. It also presented production challenges, since the two sets of characters were built to different scales. As it turns out, we had a Thomas and a Percy the same scale as the Jack characters (as a result of research and development for the movie), so this helped us make Thomas an integral part of the opening episode (Jack Jumps In!).

Given the numbering scheme assigned to the Pack:  Nelson (#10), Jack (#11), Alfie (#12), Oliver (#14), Max & Monty (15 & 16) etc.,  were there  planned-for characters  to fill in the number gaps?  (e.g. 13, 20, 21). Was Buster originally slated to sport his own number?

The numbering system was arbitrary.  Two digit numbers gave us flexibility and legitimacy (we wanted the audience to feel that the company and the machines had been around for awhile - thus no single digits).

We did not  have more characters in mind at this time.  We designed and built enough characters for 26 episodes.  We were poised to begin production when HIT Entertainment bought Gullane Entertainment and decided to produce only 13 episodes.  There was no need to develop any more characters.

I don't recall if Buster, The Steamroller, was to have a number.  I suspect we intended to give him a number and discovered there just wasn't a convenient place on his bodywork to put it.  This happens a lot.  Oftentimes circumstances make decisions for you.

A good example is Jack.  He was originally designed and built as a digger/loader, with a back-hoe arm in the rear and his scoop loader in front.  However, after screen testing the machines we realized that if a story required Jack to be digging a trench and interacting with another machine working on the trench at the same time, his face (where his scoop loader is) would be facing away from the action (and the conversation - which makes for a very difficult two-shot!).  For story purposes, it was important to feature the machines' faces as much as we could.  There was no point in making our lives more difficult in order to make Jack a more versatile machine.  Story always wins out.  The back-hoe had to go.

If it’s not too personal, would you be able to tell us why you left the show in 2003? Was it a sad parting for you?

I left the show because HIT wanted to install its own team. This is normal and natural when a new group comes in. There were some aspects of the parting that could have been handled better, in my view, but it was not a sad occasion. I have been producing for many years and am familiar with the process.

Series 12 in 2008 was groundbreaking for Thomas and Friends as it became the first time CGI was used to animate the model engines’ faces. The human characters were also animated (Vancouver’s Nitrogen Studios did a fantastic job). I recall that there were originally long discussions weighing the pros & cons for animating the faces for Thomas and the Magic Railroad. Do you recall any of those discussions with Britt?

I recall many conversations about this during the planning of the movie. Ultimately we decided that it would be wrong to animate the faces of the engines because that was part of the charm and uniqueness of Thomas.
 
It was also a cost consideration - we didn’t have a feature budget large enough to animate the engine faces. In terms of the move to video and, ultimately, CGI, there was always a feeling on the part of the purists (I count myself among them!) that we should strive to continue to produce Thomas on 35 mm film. It just has a look that you can’t duplicate on video. We felt especially strongly about this because of the extent to which Steve Asquith and his staff worked to recreate reality in miniature – not an easy task. On film, it looked so much more real.
 
Having said that, it was purely a consideration of filmmaker pride, not audience enjoyment. In my view, as long as the story quality holds up, there’ll be an audience for Thomas no matter what format is used.

Phil, can you tell us what you’ve been up to since leaving the series? I understand that you’ve recently been promoting the practice of ‘Fair Trade’. For the benefit of the fans, could you tell us a little more about it and how they can get involved with it in their own communities?

On my return from Thomas I focused on writing motion picture screenplays. Corday Productions (The Days of Our Lives) owned the rights to two novellas by Susan Trott, The Holy Man and The Holy Man’s Journey. Corday hired me to adapt these two books into a screenplay entitled The Holy Man.
 
Following that, I was hired by Jones 21st Century Productions in Denver, CO, to adapt an original biographical manuscript into a screenplay, The Cry of the Loon.
 
I have since written two original screenplays, The Easy Way Out, which is currently with Peter Fonda (my hope is that he will direct and, perhaps, star), and Two Guys Who, my send-up of Hollywood, which is also out to a director.
 
I am, indeed, active in Fair Trade. My wife, Luz Elena, and I have formed a company to import Fair Trade handicraft products from developing countries in Central and South America (mostly pottery and textile items with an emphasis on Peru).
 
The Fair Trade movement attempts to insure that small farmers and artisans in developing countries are not forced to leave their ancestral homes in order to have sustainable lives. Fair Trade provides them with access to the global marketplace and assists them in adjusting traditional agricultural or handicraft methodologies to accommodate marketplace needs.
 
All this is done through the Fair Trade partnership agreement, which guarantees indigenous producers fair compensation for their labors, decision-making authority over their working conditions, an active role in managing their businesses and an ownership stake. It further provides them with funds for local social programs such as schools, roads, vocational training, etc. If you would like to become active in Fair Trade, please log onto the Fair Trade Resource Network at http://www.fairtraderesource.org/.
 
There are a million different ways to support Fair Trade, but the way to start is to be thoughtful about your purchases: coffee, tea and chocolate, for example. They are all available as Fair Trade commodities. Also, you can find gift shops that handle Fair Trade handicraft and art items (Ten Thousand Villages, for example). Just think about where your money goes and whether or not that’s really where you want it to go. Simple.

Lastly, is there any special message that you’d like to pass on to the longtime fans of Thomas & Friends and Thomas and the Magic Railroad?

It was a privilege and a pleasure to be associated with Thomas for almost four years. All the people at Gullane were supportive and a pleasure to work with. Those who comprised the crew of the movie and the crew of the TV series (many of whom were the same) were first-rate professionals. They all worked hard to make Thomas as good as it could be. My hat is off to all of them. It was a rich and memorable experience and I hope the fans feel we did them proud.

We'd like to express out thanks once again to Phil for taking some time away from his busy schedule to answer our questions. Along with the Fehrles promoting Fair Trade via their new business, we're very chuffed to learn that Phil is still very much active with the motion picture arts as a writer. We wish you all the best success with both endeavours!  

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