Feature Article: TATMR Production Notes

During the winter/spring of 2000, Production Notes for Thomas and the Magic Railroad were made available by Destination Films to promote the movie. Interestingly enough, actor Doug Lennox is mentioned by name in this article!

Brief History of Thomas

In the 1980s, a small blue train with an irrepressible smile and a sweet yet determined attitude became a beloved friend to millions of families across the world who watched him on television and home videos over and over, enchanted by his simple charms. This was Thomas the Tank Engine, a diminutive talking train, who first emerged in Britain out of an obscure series of 1940s children's books written by the Reverend Wilber Awdry. At the time, Awdry spun the warm-hearted tales of Thomas the Tank Engine to entertain his sick son.

But half a century later, young British storyteller and filmmaker Britt Allcroft intuited that the character had a far greater potential. In 1983, she took a risk, mortgaging her home and pouring all her resources, creative and financial, into forging a series of shows called "Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends" for British television. Narrated by none other than pop culture icon Ringo Starr and introducing what was to become a trademark style distinguished by whimsical visuals, fresh animation, gentle humor and a sense of constant discovery, the risk paid off. The show immediately captured young imaginations and became a favorite of parents, who were drawn in by the optical delights of the animation and the captivating, uplifting storylines. Most of all "Thomas the Tank Engine" did something special that appealed to all ages — the show melded the wonders of a child's fantastical dream world with the challenges and concerns of everyday reality, all in an utterly accessible and entertaining style.

In the ensuing years since his first television appearance. Thomas has laid tracks around the world, with television broadcasts in 123 countries and some 15 million videos sold across the globe. Thomas himself has become an enduring children's icon, beloved by the pint-sized and lauded by adults - just as Britt Allcroft believed in the beginning he could.

"I think the real appeal of Thomas the Tank Engine has always been that he leaves space for people of all ages to use their imaginations," says Britt Allcroft. "For me, Thomas has always been about bringing wonderful stories to life — and now there are millions and millions of folks around the world of all ages for whom the stories of Thomas mean so much in their lives."

She continues: "Bringing Thomas to the big screen means a grand new story for those who love him and a chance to really get to know him for those who don't. It's a continuation of Thomas' endless journey and adventure, with a whole new world of wonderful characters for him to meet."

Underlying Allcroft's script for Thomas and the Magic Railroad is her deep passion for enchanting myths and empowering messages. "At heart I am always a storyteller and great stories always inspire me," she summarizes.

Thomas and he Magic Railroad is not only the biggest adventure to date for Thomas the Tank Engine, but for Britt Allcroft as well. From the beginning, Allcroft knew she was the only person intimate enough with Thomas and his world to bring them to heartfelt life on the screen. She faced the challenging prospect of making her feature film directorial debut with a massive on-location production involving a large, international cast and cutting edge visual effects which allow the human characters to interact for the very first time with the talking trains on the Island of Sodor.

It was a challenge enlivened by Allcroft's excitement at seeing this new, epic incarnation of Thomas. "He is my baby in a sense and it's wonderful to give him a big, new life in the cinema, which is like no other kind of storytelling experience," she comments. "There's also a lot of joy as a writer to be able to direct a wonderful company of actors and technical crew to bring the characters that I've created to life all over again."

Allcroft had such a strong image of Thomas and the Magic Railroad in her head that she constantly challenged her crew to go beyond the ordinary in making it come true. Her guiding concept was for Thomas and the Magic Railroad to offer to audiences the sensation of entering into whimsical paintings come to life. For more than three months, she and director of photography Paul Ryan worked exhaustively in pre-production to create the feeling of paintings that move.

They discussed at length forging several brightly-lit locales through which Thomas and his friends travel, including: the contented railroading town of Shining Time where flowers are always in bloom; the sun-dappled Indian Valley, another town that sparkles with magic; the bustling, grey Big City from which Lily begins her journey; the endangered landscape of Muffle Mountain where an amazing secret hides; and of course the Island of Sodor, a world of joyful toy trains come to life.

"When I first met with Britt, she came to me with various artworks, photographs and film references that suggested how she wanted each part of the film to look, ideas about the mood of the film, the rich, warm color palette, everything. She had a whole visual plan in her head and she was very enthusiastic about expressing them," says Paul Ryan. "Not only was she interested in talking about specific colors and lighting designs but she had a whole emotional palette she wanted to draw from. And my job was to take her very emotional, instinctual, visual descriptions and figure out how to translate her vision through lenses and filters and angles."

Ryan found that working with Allcroft awakened his own childlike joy in playing with visuals and his willingness to go to the creative edge. "Britt is very spontaneous and she encourages a freedom that resembles a child's way of following your heart and instincts. It's a very fun way to work," sums up Ryan.

The Cast of Thomas

Into Thomas' world of talking trains and sparkling dust for the very first time travel several humans of varying sorts and sizes, each touched in some way by the magic of the Island of Sodor. Having created each of these characters, Britt Allcroft was particularly concerned that the casting reflect her highly detailed vision. "In the end, it was absolutely thrilling for me to hear so many fine actors bringing my words to life just as I had imagined them in front of my typewriter," she says.

Allcroft's choices were surprising and bold, entirely against type, giving several renowned actors a chance to show a lighter side nothing like their public personas. She cast Alec Baldwin — who is more typically the intense leading man of adult dramas — as the miniature Mr. Conductor, an 18 inch railroad man with a pragmatic attitude and a magical touch. Baldwin previously starred as the storyteller in the latest series of "Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends" episodes, so Allcroft knew he had a deep appreciation for Thomas.

"I liked the idea of working against predictability," comments Allcrofl. "To some people the idea of Alec Baldwin as this little, magical guy, this vulnerable, playful character is unusual, but I really feel that Alec has all these resources within him and more. He really brings all that to this wonderful and vital role."

Baldwin was drawn to the script because he felt the story transcended the typical genre definitions. "Sometimes you read a script and say 'this is a kid's movie' but "Thomas" is a good movie for anybody. There's a kind of Lewis Carroll quality to it all, a lot of fantastical fun. Yet it's straightforward, direct and honest in a way that I think kids demand but that adults will really like, too," he states. "There's danger and adventure for everyone, but underlying all that the characters are pure at heart."

Another incentive for Baldwin was the opportunity to work with Allcroft on her most ambitious project to date. "Normally, I might avoid a first-time feature film director," admits Baldwin, "but Britt is the person who created, conceived and mothered the whole Thomas enterprise from its inception. Who else could possibly understand this world they way she does? She's an incredibly smart and creative woman who really got us all into the joyful, imaginative spirit of the film."

Finally, there was the fun of playing the sweetly mischievous Mr. Conductor. Together, Allcroft and Baldwin forged an atmosphere of playful improvisation that carried over into the spirit of the film. "We were often in hysterics on the set," says Baldwin, "and you know that when you're having a good time that always translates to the audience."

Ultimately, Baldwin came to know and love Mr. C as deeply as he would any of the dark villains or macho heroes he has played on screen. "Mr. C is one of those characters like the Tin Man or the Cowardly Lion who is someone fun you meet along the journey, yet he has a journey of his own. He had this wonderful magical quality and now it seems to be missing," explains Baldwin. "And like all the characters, he has to figure out how to get the magic back."

The key to getting the magic back lies in part with Grandfather Burnett Stone. Playing Grandpa Burnett Stone is another unusual male lead cast against type: Peter Fonda, 60s icon and recent Academy Award nominee for his stunning portrait of the title character in "Ulee's Gold." Once a counter-cultural hero, Fonda might seem an odd choice for a country grandpa, but Allcroft responded to his ability to play an older man who has fallen out of the touch with the world. Allcroft explains: "Peter Fonda was always my dream choice for Grandpa Burnett Stone. I literally saw him playing the role in my dreams. Then when he read the script and called me to say 'I want to do this' it was absolute magic."

"I've always wanted to do a family film, because I think the very best ones have the ability to touch people just as much as any adult drama," says Fonda, "and I got that feeling from the script for Thomas and the Magic Railroad." On the set, Fonda became a mentor, taking several of the younger actors under his wing and joining in the playful atmosphere with his trademark sense of outrageousness.

Yet Fonda took the role of Grandpa Stone very seriously, comparing him to the complex Ulee that garnered him an Oscar nomination. "I saw him as a man who has shut himself out of the world of magic. But when his granddaughter Lily arrives, she saves him from giving up on life. It's about being engaged in life and believing in the possibilities. I also liked the idea of playing a grandfather, a man who has to return to his family to be whole," he says.

Fonda celebrates Britt Allcroft's insistence on putting meaning behind her adventures. "There's a lot of stuff in this story about being useful, about what friendship means, about bullies, about honesty and about the importance of family. This interested me because I think these are things that have really suffered in the last part of the century. Things have gotten messed up in society — and that's why Grandpa Stone has to come to his senses and get things back on track."

Helping Grandpa Stone get things back on track is the resourceful Lily, the 12 year-old girl who takes the wrong train and winds up in the right place to help restore magic and adventure to the world. Lily is played by the young and fiery Mara Wilson, who is quickly becoming a leading star of family films. Mara describes Lily as a "big city girl, who really likes living there with all the noise and the commotion. Only now she has to travel to the country to visit her quiet Grandpa. And if there's one thing she doesn't like it's. . . .quiet."

Mara immediately found herself really liking the character of Lily and believing in her. "I think she's someone I would probably be friends with in real life," says the young actress. "She's definitely sweet and very friendly and she ends up on a pretty amazing train ride."

Britt Allcroft was equally impressed with Wilson. "Mara brought incredible intelligence and insight beyond her years to the role of Lily. She is the audience's guide into this whole wonderful universe and she comes off as completely true and real."

One of the wonderful characters Lily meets along the way is Junior, Mr. Conductor's 18 inch, beach bum Scottish cousin, played by Michael E. Rodgers. Rodgers was enamored with the character, whom he sees as one of the film's most impishly comical. "He's just great fun," says Rodgers. "There is a part of him that is the child I wish I could have been."

Rodgers added to joyous cacophony on the set, forging a rebellious comic bond with Alec Baldwin that had people comparing them to Martin and Lewis. Says Baldwin, "When you come across someone as talented and energetic and funny as he is, it just inspires you. After awhile, he reminded me of one of my brothers. He would just look you in the eye and do exactly the opposite of what you had just agreed upon, so I started calling him a Baldwin."

Rodgers sums up what attracted many of the actors involved in Thomas and the Magic Railroad — and the source of its appeal to people of all ages: "Most of us live our lives so seriously that we don't get a chance to be mischievous and carefree So when you have a role that enables you to dance and sing and fly off trains and lie on a beach and have a milkshake, who wouldn't want to do that?"

He continues: "I think that at the heart of the Thomas stories is tremendous optimism. What kids see is a train who is a living thing who gets himself into all kinds of dilemmas but always tries as hard as he can to come out smiling on the other end. When you give to society stories that instill people with that kind of optimism, that is a wonderful, wonderful thing."

Also joining the very international cast are renowned Native American actor and activist Russell Means as Billy Twofeathers, who drives the train Rainbow Sun through the Indian Valley; young Cody McMains as Lily's enthusiastic friend Patch; and Didi Conn reprising the role of Stacy from "Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends."

The Production

Britt Allcroft knew from the inception of Thomas and the Magic Railroad that she wanted the magical terrain of the Indian Valley to be viscerally real. In an age when many fantasy worlds are carved out of pixels, Allcroft decided to go against the grain, using real locations splashed with the magic of charming performances and subtle visual effects. She describes it as "reality touched with fantasy."

"I think as a storyteller who engages in fantasy, it's fun to use the latest, 21st century technology but I think it's also important to tell stories about what is truly out there, the incredible landscape of heather lands and pasture lands and rocky cliffs," Allcroft explains.

But where in the world could the filmmakers find a location suitable to stand in for this persistently playful world?

The answer turned out to be on the Isle of Man, a small wind-swept rock in the Irish Sea that still sees horse-drawn trains waltzing down the main street promenade, which is lined with eccentric pubs, romantic dancehalls, seafront casinos and an enduring sense of once-upon-a-time. It is a place tinged with mysticism and ancient beliefs. The Isle of Man was, in fact, the original inspiration for the Reverend Awdry's railroad stories.

Allcroft notes, "To find a place that's just 30 miles long and 10 miles wide yet had literally everything I was looking for and more was remarkable. On the Isle of Man, I found places all inside one landscape that looked exactly like I imagined the Indian Valley and Muffle Mountain."

For producer Phil Fehrle, the location presented some of the production's biggest and most exciting challenges. First and foremost he wondered how he would turn this isle of thatch-roofed farmhouses and stone walls into the supposedly North American Shining Time Station.

"Ultimately, we came to the realization that Shining Time is not so much a place as a state of mind," explains Fehrle. "Rather than try to turn the Isle of Man into Maine or Ohio, we decided to making Shining Time an apocryphal, mythical place that doesn't really have a nationality. It's meant to be a place that's fun and magical, a place that doesn't really exist but you'd like to believe it could. Britt worked with our phenomenally talented production designer, Oleg M. Savytski, to come up with a design and color palette that makes it just a tad on the other side of reality."

Another challenge for everyone involved was the Isle of Man's notoriously stormy weather and rugged terrain. The cast shot in some extremely dramatic locales, including bringing Peter Fonda. Doug Lennox, Mara Wilson and others to the top of an exposed, 100 foot sea cliff that was so remote the crew had to use ATVs just to get the people and equipment there. Then there was also the freezing rain to be endured.

After the Isle of Man, the production journeyed to Strasburg, Pennsylvania, one of the great railroading towns of North America. Here the first life-size, wholly operational Thomas the Tank Engine was built by real-life locomotive engineers. The unveiling of the engine was itself a major event — drawing some 12,000 families hoping for a glimpse.

In addition to the full-size train, dozens upon dozens of models were built for the film out of the Toronto studio. In fact, the model crew shot 12 hours a day for 53 days of production. "Everything had to be planned out to the last detail so that when you see the trains moving, you never realize that they're starting out in Pennsylvania and ending up in the Isle of Man," explains Phil Fehrle.

The magical spirit of locomotion seemed to follow the production no matter where they went. Several railways ran through the sets on the Isle of Man and in Pennsylvania — and even getting to the Toronto studio required crossing a set of train-tracks.

It all enhanced the prevalent sense of play that characterized the production. "One thing that was very important to me is that we all have a lot of fun together," explains Allcroft. "There was a wonderful shared sense of humor on the set that made it a terrific experience and gave the whole thing a delightful sense of unpredictability."

The Look of Locomotion

T homas and the Magic Railroad takes the little tank engine into entirely new territory, including his first ever interactions with human characters and his encounter with the hidden Magic Railroad that keeps the Island of Sodor going. These new experiences required an entirely new set of visual effects, in addition to Thomas's trade-mark model animation, which was kept authentically in tact for the production. But, in keeping with Britt Allcroft's vision for the film, the challenge was to create effects so seamlessly woven into the fabric of the film that they seem utterly real.

To oversee the creation of these many "effect-less" effects, Allcroft brought in visual effects supervisor Bill Neil, who previously designed thrilling sequences for the Bond film "Tomorrow Never Dies" and the sci-fi feature "The 5th Element." This time, his job was something entirely different. "On most big effect pictures, you want people to notice the effects. But here, even though we created effects for more than 300 shots in the film, I'm hoping the audience doesn't even notice, explains Neil. "When humans walk among the trains on the Island of Sodor, it should feel like believable reality. Everything is being woven in, photographic sky, steam and clouds are being stitched into digital effects, giving the whole thing the look of a slightly magic-tinged real world."

Continues Neil: "One of the exciting things about this picture is that we're using a wide variety of techniques including model animation, CGI, digital compositing and visual effects interacting with live-action photography." Neil even ended up creating a digital Thomas the Tank Engine — the little engine's premiere digital experience — for the sequences m which Thomas tumbles bravely down the Magic Railroad with Lily.

The film's primary digital effects include 1) the digital manipulation of the 18 inch Mr. Conductor; 2) digital compositing that allows live-action human photography to interact with animated and digital effects on the Island of Sodor; 3) the digital creation of Mr. Conductor's sparkling gold dust and 4) the CGI creation of the Magic Railroad itself

The original concept for the Magic Railroad was as a computer-animated representation of the renowned "Ley Lines," a theoretical network of energy tracks that link the earth's geographies. The Ley Lines theory became popular in Britain at the turn of the century and it remains a heavily researched branch of mysticism and geomancy around the world. According to the theory of the Ley Lines, places where these electromagnetic tracks begin are often magical or sacred, such as the Eight Wonders of the World, or in this case Muffle Mountain. Britt Allcroft imagined Thomas riding along his own version of the Ley Lines, a railroad of positive energy in the fabric of the universe— and she asked Bill Neil to help her develop this visually.

"Working from Britt's original concept, we created something that has a moving, living visual reality," says Neil. "The Magic Railroad, which was created entirely inside the computer, has three distinct phases: from its initial shadowy, dark lowpoint to it's full- fledged beauty as something alive and luminous."

One of the most delicate phases of production was the compositing of humans into the animated Island of Sodor. Throughout this process it was essential to Allcroft that despite the meshing of two utterly different worlds that it feel like one movie. The compositing involved intense work, demanding the precise calibration of lighting, lenses and the tiniest of physical details. It even brought up questions of Sodorian "physics." Allcroft had to address such questions as: if Mr. Conductor is 18 inches in Shining Time, then how tall is he on Sodor? The answer turned out to be that everything becomes equal on Sodor and all the humans are transformed into correct proportions with the trains — heightening the sense of magic.

"The main goal of our entire crew, whether actors, effects designers or model animators, was to maintain the illusion of Britt's worlds," comments Fehrle. "Bill Neil was able to forge images of human beings flying through the air and landing on moving, wooden trains — and make it look so great that you don't even think about the tremendous amounts of work that went into it. It just seems like magic."

The constant use of the by now infamous green screen provided the actors with challenges, as well. For young Mara Wilson, the key was to tap into her own store of magical imagery in her mind. "It's pretty funny to be pretending you're on this magical island with gold dust and railroads of light when you look around and see men with cameras and lights and electrical equipment," she admits. "But it really challenges your imagination and your ability to pretend."

Michael E. Rodgers, who plays the role of Junior, sums up how the visual effects inspire the captivating, rainbow outlook of Thomas and the Magic Railroad: "I think that this movie is about looking at the world through magic. whether it's in your imagination or through special effects on a movie screen. It's about looking at the world with optimism. With hope. With the faith that when things go wrong and people get together to solve the problems, there is a wonderful outcome. It's the basis of all the great legends of our times."