Feature Article: All Aboard

Reproduced with the kind permission of the Publisher, American Cinematographer Magazine,  from the August, 2000 issue of A.C. 

A beloved children's tale makes tracks for the big screen in Thomas and the Magic Railroad, a whimsical feature directed by Britt Allcroft and photographed by Paul Ryan, ASC.

By: Rachael K. Bosley

Unit photography by Tom Collins, Mark Jacobson, David Milne and Karen Steyr

Thomas and Diesel-10

Left: Thomas the Tank Engine is menaced by an evil diesel in Thomas and the Magic Railroad. the animated sequences were shot in a Toronto studio using the same models popularized in the Shining Time TV Series.
Few might have predicted that bringing the warm, cozy world of Thomas the Tank Engine to the big screen in Thomas and the Magic Railroad would create a triangle of production stretching from a Toronto studio to Pennsylvania Dutch Country and across the Atlantic to the Isle of Man. But as the details of Thomas's feature-film debut began to take shape last year, it became clear that the project would require some unusual location work — including shooting in two active train stations.
Expanding upon Britt Allcroft's hit PBS series Shining Time Station (which made its American debut in 1984 and is now being rebroadcast on Nickelodeon), Thomas and the Magic Railroad follows Lily (Mara Wilson), a little girl who leaves her home in a big city to visit her lonely, widowed grandfa­ther (Peter Fonda) on Muffle Mountain . Through a mix-up at the train station, Lily ends up in the lush, idyllic town of Shining Time and is soon transported to the Island of Sodor , the toy-train world where Thomas has long negotiated with his fellow steam engines and traded barbs with bullying diesels. There she learns of a problem that her grandfa­ther, a former railroader, can help solve for Thomas and his friends.
According to cinematographer Paul Ryan, ASC, it was always a given that the Island of Sodor sequences would be shot in the same Toronto studio that had been used for Shining Time Station, and that the same models would be used with expanded sets in the film.  "If there was one known factor about the film, it was that the Island of Sodor material was going to use the same form and imagery as the TV series," says Ryan. "Britt Allcroft [creator of the series and writer/director of the feature] and the producers wanted a base of appeal for the film, and they knew kids would be the most comfortable with that [familiar setting]."
However, that certainty created one big uncertainty: how the tiny models would look on the big screen. "It was really unknown how they would translate," recalls Ryan, who was involved in about three months of preproduction. "The models are only about eight inches long, which surprised me; I thought they'd be bigger. There were ques­tions about how the trains' texture would appear, how much smoke to use, what speed to run them at and whether they'd seem out of scale, and a lot of tests were done." The film-makers also tested a variety of film stocks, searching for one that would render the models' bright colors the best. "I wanted to have a palette that would have clarity, one that would also bring out primary colors," Allcroft says. She was happiest with Fuji Super F-250 8551, and she and Ryan, a longtime Kodak user, agreed that the models would be shot on Fuji and everything else would be shot on Kodak.

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TATMR Station - Night Scene
The model-unit crew sets up shot of a miniature train station for a sequence on the Island of Sodor

The locations for "everything else" were where the production became really interesting. Allcroft, who had been thinking about a Thomas feature for several years, says she wanted an overall look of "magi­cal realism, like fantasy built onto reality." She elaborates, "I had a very clear idea early on that I wanted a marriage between the familiar and the mythical, to create a look [that children felt] they could step into. I wanted the look of watercolors come to life."
By the time she sat down with Ryan last year, Allcroft had amassed a huge pile of photographs and paint­ings whose color palettes, landscapes and use of light suggested the imagery she wanted for Thomas. These included O. Winston Link's famous steam-engine photography from the 1950s, Norman Rockwell's images of small-town America, and paintings by Edward Hopper and Don Hatfield. "From the cinematographer's standpoint, it's great to have a director come in with imagery that's so striking but not specific — it puts something in the back of your mind, and you can come back to it on your own," says Ryan, whose feature credits include Wildflowers (see AC July '99), Box of Moonlight {AC July '97) and Other Voices, Other Rooms, as well as second-unit photography on The Horse Whisperer, A River Runs Through It and Days of Heaven.
Harrisburg Station
The period train supplied to the production by the Strasburg Railroad shares space with a modern Amtrack train in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Shooting in an active, urban train station gave the crew some nervous moments.

Allcroft and Ryan knew that a proper location for Shining Time was key. "It had to be a golden place, bright and cheery, with rolling hills," Ryan says. "We also needed it to have a real train, and we needed to be able to look down on the town from Grandpa's mountain." Because the production was based in Canada, there was "a certain push" to stay in the country for economic reasons, according to Ryan. "We considered an area in western Canada, but in the end we decided that the landscape was so spectacular it would over­whelm the story. The world of Thomas is small and cozy — Muffle Mountain should really look more like Muffle Hill." Pennsylvania, which had real American steam engines and provided locations for the last few weeks of principal photography, was ruled out as well because it was too expensive to shoot the entire produc­tion there.

Pennsylvania filming of TATMR

Director of photography Paul Ryan (in white hat) and his crew get ready to shoot the Strasburg Railroad in Pennsylvania Dutch Country.

It was Allcroft, a native of England, who suggested the Isle of Man, a 30-mile-long island that lies in the Irish Sea off the northwest coast of England. While vacationing in Scotland in the summer of 1998, she read an article about the Isle of Man Film Commission's efforts to attract film production. "I went there a couple of days later and was truly amazed," she says. "Thousands of miles away from where I'd always imagined [Shining Time] to be, there it was."
Ryan notes that many believe the Isle of Man actually inspired the Rev. Wilbert Awdry to create the Railway Series, the children's books that introduced Thomas and his friends in the 1940s. "There's a narrow-gauge railroad that still transports people, and it looks exactly like Thomas," Ryan says. "There's also a parish called Sodor!" It also helped that the self-governing crown possession offers substantial tax breaks and invest­ments to the film industry. In 1995, the government gave the film commission 1 million to attract such productions, and roughly 20 features — including Waking Ned Devine and Alice Through the Looking Glass — have been shot there since.

Isle of Man filming
The crew sets up on the Isle of Man, a visually spectacular location that created many challenges for the filmmakers.

Thus, in July of 1999, while model unit director of photography Terry Permane and his crew began shooting the model-train sequences in a Toronto studio, the cast and crew headed to the Isle of Man for four weeks of principal photography. But while the location's landscape and financial incentives were significant assets, the filmmakers quickly discov­ered that its geography and climate created some daunting logistics.
First, there was the weather. "There's a reason why places like that are so green," Ryan notes with a laugh. "It rained a lot, almost every other day, and Shining Time is supposed to be cheerful and sunny. We therefore shot a bit tighter than we would have ordinarily, chose our days and tried to fill the frame with color. We used a lot of HMIs and negative fill!"
The crew also found that obtaining and transporting neces­sary equipment took a high level of coordination. "Access to things was difficult," says the cinematographer. "They don't have the kind of trans­portation we're used to, so we had to use an endless amount of small trucks [to move gear]. Also, we couldn't just call up a piece of equip­ment in a day, because it took a day to come over from the mainland and a day to get back."
One piece of equipment Ryan had been looking forward to using was the Barbour All-Terrain Tracking vehicle, commonly called the BATT-mobile, combined with a Librahead. He says that John Toll, ASC recommended this approach after employing it on Braveheart. "I was going to use it to shoot a horse­back-riding sequence in a field, tracking closely with the horses, but we only had it for two days, and it poured rain both days," Ryan recalls ruefully.
When the weather cleared long enough for him to shoot the sequence, Ryan says he relied on a trick from Francois Truffaut's The Man Who Loved Women. "We put the camera on sticks and did long-lens panning," he details. "Truffaut used it to follow a woman; he put the camera in the center of a circle and had her walk around the circle while he panned with a long lens. If the subject is moving fast enough, you don't notice the background because it's blurred. For my sequence, I stayed very tight on the horse and had it run in as small a circle as it could manage and just kept shooting. It's a good trick — you can get away with a lot if you're tight on stuff."
Ryan relied on his favorite cameras, the Moviecam Compact (A-camera) and the Moviecam SL (B-camera and backup), and used Zeiss primes, an Angenieux 10:1 zoom and a Cooke 5:1 zoom. "I try to always have the SL on the set, almost like you'd have a Nikon around your neck," he notes. "I always have it set up with a short zoom or a prime in handheld mode; that way, I can use the time that might otherwise be downtime — while someone's laying dolly tracks or setting up a compli­cated shot, for example — to take the camera, run in and grab close-ups, scenics or interiors. Even on a stage, you always need that insert of someone doing something or a little dialogue scene on the side. I'm a real fan of that approach."
The filmmakers were surprised to discover that it would be less expensive to transport a Canadian crew to the Isle of Man than to hire a British crew from the nearby mainland. "The Canadian crew turned out to be quite good," Ryan says, adding that his approach to lighting was often a bit different from theirs. "I tend to use a lot of soft light, particularly China balls, and create a big source of light, whereas they were more used to hard lights coming in with a lot of flags. We had to work fast, with many changes at the last minute, so I didn't want a jungle of flags restricting the actors and the camera. Often I'd say, 'Let's light this — and no flags!' Then I'd have to go off to talk to Britt or organize the next scene, and I'd come back and they'd say, "Well, we just put in a couple of flags over here.'
"It always takes a little while to sort that out with a new crew," he continues. "There's a lot of creativity on all levels, and I don't want to be the sort of director of photography who says, 'Put a 2K here and a 200 there, exactly three feet away' If you do that, you don't tap into the creativity of the gaffer and grip. You want to free yourself up from some concerns."
After processing film dailies at Deluxe London during the first week of the shoot, the production began shipping dailies to Deluxe Toronto, where the model and greenscreen sequences were being processed, in order to save money. Film dailies were eventually replaced altogether by video. "It was great to have the immediate feedback [from Deluxe London] in the first week," Ryan notes. "Shipping to and from Toronto was a long haul. Arguing for film dailies is sort of like a losing battle, but on the other hand, video is getting better." He adds he has been especially impressed with recent demonstrations of high-definition video dailies.

Shining Time Station
Lily(Mara Wilson) takes a stroll with her friend Stacy (Didi Conn) in Shining Time

Throughout the shoot, whose final weeks included locations in Strasburg and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the cinematographer and his crew found that shooting in "live" train stations required not only a visual strategy but also considerable safety measures, particularly in Harrisburg, which served as Lily's big-city home. The production used one of the Harrisburg station's eight tracks. "It's amazingly dangerous to shoot in an active station, and they actually gave us a two-hour orienta­tion about how to do it," Ryan says. "For one thing, the noise level of idling diesel engines is extraordinary all day long, and you don't always hear incoming trains. On a set, you're often running around — you want to back up suddenly or put a reflector board somewhere, for example — and it's easy to ignore the fact that a train might be coming. That slowed us down a lot."
Shooting the Strasburg Railroad in the Pennsylvania Dutch countryside was considerably easier. "The whole operation there is very, very good," Ryan remarks. "They've been involved with a lot of movies, and [Strasburg Railroad coordinator Lynn Modinger was] very flexible." The railroad is featured in the film's shots of Lily's train heading from the city to Shining Time, and Ryan said his approach to these sequences was carefully planned to coordinate with the toy trains on Sodor. "The classic approach to photographing American steam engines is to take a low angle and make them seem enormous," he observes. "We didn't want that, because in the world of this film, trains are friendly and accessible. Instead, we took higher angles and shot more at a distance, trying to place the train in the context of a landscape [to make it seem smaller]."

Strasburg Railway Filming
Director Britt Allcroft says she wanted Thomas to look like "watercolors come to life". For beauty shots such as this, Ryan photographed trains from a distance in an effort to diminish their size and make them seem friendly.

The train station on the Isle of Man posed a different challenge — particularly in terms of integrating footage shot there with the Pennsylvania footage. "The narrow- gauge trains there are tiny, and they would come about every half-hour," Ryan recalls. "We actually built a shell of the Shining Time Station over the existing station, which kind of freaked out the locals. We had to be very careful about how the tracks were included in our shots of the station, because they're not as far apart as tracks for 'real' trains.
"We could shoot everything [on the island] but the angles toward the trains — those we got in Pennsylvania. In the film, you see Lily boarding the train on the Isle of Man with the station behind her, but the reverse angle of her on the train, waving back toward the station, was shot in Pennsylvania." He adds that smoke, which figures prominently in Thomas's world of steam and diesel engines, came in very handy for blending the footage. "We used a lot of offscreen smokers, because smoke helped us mask a lot."
The interior of Shining Time Station, where Lily interacts with the magical, miniature Mr. Conductor (Alec Baldwin), was built on a stage on the Isle of Man and features an elaborate mural by production designer Oleg M. Savytski. Ryan says he particularly enjoyed lighting those sequences. "The mural is beautiful, and if you're standing in front of it, it has its own dimensionality," he observes. "But on film, with charac­ters in front of it, it becomes kind of flat. I wanted to paint it with light and accent little areas of it. I hung space lights for overall ambience, then used hard lights, mostly Lekos or IKs on full spot — it almost didn't matter where they were. So instead of being lit overall, the mural is accented with a soft shape of light here or there." Because the station is such a magical place, Ryan says he frequently lit through stained glass or used gels to create rainbow effects.
The cinematographer worked primarily with four Kodak stocks on the picture: Vision 500T 5279, Vision 250D 5246, EXR 5245 and EXR 5248. He also used Vision 320T 5277 for the train interiors. "It was terrific for that, because I lit the interior at one stop under and it still held the outside without gelling the windows."
Thomas and the Magic Railroad marks Ryan's first children's film, an experience he says he wouldn't mind repeating. He emphasizes, however, that Allcroft's lengthy involvement with the Thomas franchise made this project unique. "Britt had clearly been think­ing about this for a long time," he says. "I've worked with a lot of first-time directors; there's a great enthu­siasm in making your first film because you're bringing a lifetime of vision to it, really. That was certainly the case here."■