Interview: Charles Dunlop

The article below was compiled after meeting Charles Dunlop in Toronto to interview him about his work on Thomas and the Magic Railroad...

A Visit with Charles Dunlop, Associate Set Designer - Toronto Unit
- James Gratton -25 September, 2007

During a warm autumn afternoon in Toronto, I cabbed it up to the old Cabbagetown quarter of the city to meet up with Charles Dunlop. We’d pre-arranged our meeting through our email correspondence, to talk about his contribution as the associate set designer on Thomas and the Magic Railroad.
I was greeted at the door by Charles and his friendly yellow-lab named Quesie. Charles invited me into the kitchen, where he’d assembled his portfolio from the movie. Thus began a few hours of fascinating discussion.

Charles and the Magic Railroad

Charles’ initiation into the world of Thomas and the Magic Railroad began in the spring of 1999, when he, along with a few other artists received a phone call about an upcoming movie that was to be produced in Toronto by Britt Allcroft. Charles describes what happened next.


“We went to meet with Britt at her hotel, and she basically looked at our artwork for earlier projects that we’ve done to date. Britt talked a bit and explained to us what she wanted to do, which is where I became interested.”


After the interview, Britt returned home to California. A few days later, Charles received word that he was now a member of the Magic Railroad team.


“She contacted us to say – ‘You are going to work with me’, and we were flown down to Santa Monica to meet with her, for what was sort of a first production meeting”.


During the meeting, Britt explained clearly, and in detail what she wanted to convey and achieve with this project.


“We realized that what we were doing involved more than quite a bit of technical challenges!” adds Charles.

Conceptual Storyboards and Sketches

Britt asked Charles to capture and convey the essence of her movie script through illustrations – an important prerequisite before any sets are built or scenes filmed.


“Of all processes, she was interested in myself in particular, to provide the illustrations for them. In other words, what the script’s scenes would look like, roughly to get her thinking about the transforming of a television series, which is model-based only into a feature film to be seen in a movie theatre.”


“This requires quite a different approach, obviously. We were trying to find out how she would make that transformation, or what she would like to do to engage the audience in a different way than you would with a television audience. For many years, as you know, the show was purely based on tabletop models - beautiful rather fine-looking models I must say.”


“The project really became more and more interesting. I returned home and started producing some storyboards to interpret Britt’s script.  I didn’t do the whole movie, because there were two or three other storyboard artists involved as well.”

click image to see more samples

“As the production drew nearer, the storyboards and conceptual drawings provided Britt with a better idea of production requirements, for example, in terms of green screen scenes with live actors against the models. She was also able to firm up all of the powerful scenes in the script. “


“And then I got to deal with the actual production on the sets in the studio – the large-scale stuff for which I made a few drawings.”

Set Design Begins

The movie sets for the Toronto production were built at the Canada Square Studio – Building #24 at 940 Lansdowne Avenue. ‘Studio 24 East’ was used for the live action and green screen filming, whilst the model sets were housed and filmed in ‘Studio 24 West’. The large-scale sets were built during the months of August and September to be used for filming between late-September to mid-December, 1999.


The set designer must take into consideration studio size-constraints, scene filming schedules, set construction material types and budgeting, and most importantly, functionality with regards to actor interaction with the set during filming.


One of the first things Charles did with the Art Department crew headed by Lucinda Zak was to create a preliminary breakdown of set requirements. Studio 24 East was approximately 67 feet wide x 187 feet long with a ceiling height of 25 feet. With a site layout of the studio, the designers could strategically plan the dimensions and placement of the sets.


In the next segment of our article, Charles explains the detail and planning that went into his involvement with the design and construction of a few of the major sets from the movie.

Junior's Tropical Paradise

(pic below composited from TATMR)
Panoramic view of Juniors Tropical Paradise . The actual set begins to the right of the sufboard.

early rough sketches of beach chair
click to see larger version

The beach set, where we are first introduced to Junior in the movie, demonstrates the creative thought process that Charles put into practical set design.


“We recreated the portion of the white sand beach seen in the mask shot. The set was approximately 15 by 20 feet, banked up to a profile cut edge, with rhododendron-type bushes and dry scrub – the type you’d find at the high tide line. A dense foliage background of about 12 feet in height with a blue sky backing was created. Junior doesn’t walk around in this scene.”


“Oversized props were used for the close-up of Junior, and the back of the deck chair and the placement of the surfboards helped the overlay transition of the tropical white sand clip to the studio beach set – facing away from the sea, obviously.”


“The beach itself was a sprayed urethane sand-textured background in a croissant shape, with real sand in the middle – but all contained in a sandbox to avoid a potentially massive cleanup.”


“If I remember correctly, there was also talk of including an ending sequence of Thomas visiting Junior’s tropical island getaway.”

Charles concept sketch for Juniors beach - click image to see larger version

The Shining Time Station Mural Set

Charles had a hand in designing the larger-than-life Shining Time Station mural featured in the movie. This oversized set was used for the scenes with the 18-inches tall Mr. Conductor and Junior.


“The set was approximately 20 feet wide with a 6 foot ledge beneath the ledge molding for Mr. C. and Jr. to walk on, with 10 feet above the ledge. It was a blow-up of the painting featuring the tunnel mouth and the signal box with door and windows.”


“It was painted on the set, projected from a photo of the original mural. It showed every brush stroke and paint splatter of the original. It was adjusted scale-wise for the actors to represent their being 18 inches in height.”

The 'Badger' and 'Sir Topham Hatt's Office' Sets

Charles provided conceptual designs for the ‘Badger Set’ with undergrowth as described in the script (it later became the ‘rabbit’ set). For Sir Topham Hatt’s office, Production Designer Oleg Savytski and Charles reviewed conceptual storyboards drawn by Bruce Simpson, then designed the set layout as seen in the movie.

The 'Diesel 10' Set

Several sets were designed as real-scale representations of the miniature models, and used by the actors for the live action film sequences. One example is the set built of Diesel 10’s rear used in the scenes where Junior is riding atop the mechanical villain.


“The set was half of diesel’s full-scale length, with a drop to one side of 6 feet to get a perspective view.  Steve Asquith drafted the technical drawings.”

The 'Tidmouth Engine Shed' Set

 A portion of the Tidmouth Engine Shed was designed and built as a full-scale set. For those of you familiar with the movie, the set was featured in the night scene where Diesel 10 harasses the night-clothed Mr. Conductor.


“The set piece was reproduced from Steve Asquith’s model. It was built with part of the broken brick wall and the window in the engine shed by the scaffolding. It was approximately 20 feet long with 8 foot corners, with a height of 16 feet. The sky backdrop was black velour – moonlit.”


Charles sketched the engine shed set to be used in the green screen scenes with the models prior to drafting up the construction drawings. Conceptual sketches were also drawn from Thomas’s and Diesel 10’s point-of-view relative to the shed.


“It was important when we were sketching these up that we show the POV of the audience – what they would see. They would see Thomas sort of looking up, and reacting to whatever was happening – which helped Britt a lot. When she was working on the television series, there weren’t too many options available in terms of POV. That’s why we had the luxury of working to allow the former for the film version.”

POV conceptual sketch of Tidmouth Engine Shed drawn by Charles Dunlop

The 'Windmill' Set

Charles drew conceptual and technical drawings of the Windmill set. A miniature model version of the windmill was built by GVFX, in addition to a full-sized mock up of its lower half. The set consisted of two parts.


First, the bottom portion of the windmill, roughly 20’ long and 16’ in height with a simple background wall and a bit of roofing. The decking of the platform was built on 2x4 joists, and included a ‘planter’ for the bell flowers. A blue sky backdrop complimented the set.


The full-scale constructions drawings and conceptual sketch drawings of the windmill were given to the mechanical/construction team for its full-scale staging. The plans were adjusted to make the base of the windmill wider. Steve Asquith also adjusted the first set of drawings to ‘lift’ the windmill blade distance from the ground.


The second part of the set designed by Charles was a full-sized portion of a windmill blade to be used in one of the movie’s memorable comedic scenes.


“We needed to build and rig one sail sweep 6’ wide and 10’ long for Junior to hang from, at the top of the camera image frame. It was to be rigged to sweep across the frame.”

The 'Campfire' Set

 The conceptual design for the ‘Campfire Set’ was drawn by Charles. It was used for filming the night scene with Lily and Mr. Conductor. The set was approximately 50 feet long by 25 feet deep.


“The embankment was built up using a set of 3 foot risers and landscaped up, both at the tracks for Thomas and Percy, and coved up at the back with low bushes along the edge with a couple of tree trunks. Being a night scene, it would be filmed with a black velour backdrop. There was a half-scale landing at the back beyond the staging area with just enough foliage for the lighting - moonlight to capture the tops of the bushes.”


“When Thomas came into the shot, that was obviously green screen against the model which was later mixed together.”

(click image below for larger version)
photo of Charles conceptual sketch of the Campfire Set

The 'Bush Near Track' Set

This literally-named set was used for filming the scene where a weakened Mr. Conductor is seen lying on the grass near some bushes. It was simply a redress of the ‘Campfire Set’ pared down to approximately 15 feet by 20 feet.

The 'Barge' Set

Sets are sometimes planned for, but are never built due to script or filming schedule revisions. The following is an example of a set that was never constructed for the movie.


There were plans to design and build a large-scale ‘Barge Set’ to film a scene with Diesel 10 and PT Boomer in the aftermath of plunging off of the viaduct and into the barge.


“A portion of a barge built and filled with sludge with part of Diesel 10 stuck in it, and Boomer emerging wiping off sludge from his face and clothes!”


“How deep do you want the live Boomer actor to be immersed in porridge oats sludge?” asks Charles in a hand-written note to Art Director, Lucinda Zak.

The 'Well and Station' Set

 The ‘Well’ set that was featured in the film differs somewhat from its original design. The well was integrated into a railway station platform, as described in the script.


Steve Asquith built the model set and Charles sketched the conceptual drawing to ensure that it functioned for the scenes that were to be filmed on it. Charles then drafted working construction drawings for a full-scale set based on the model.


For the well, Charles demonstrated his resourcefulness in set design by locating a working well winch and handle that were actually used in the well’s construction.

The 'Rainbow Ridge' Set and Models

Another set that was first designed as a model was of the ‘Rainbow Ridge’ on Sodor. Charles sketched the landscape with a vintage hay wagon on the hill’s crest to provide Steve Asquith’s crew with a guide of what the model diorama should look like.


In addition, Charles sketched conceptual drawings for the Magic Buffer area model set along with a very beautiful perspective rendition of the viaduct that was built for the movie (seen below).

(click image for larger view)
Photo of Charles beautiful conceptual sketch of viaduct for the model makers.

“The model makers were also finding it helpful, because when you are involved with model making, you are intensely concentrated in what you are doing. The creative aspect of it sometimes doesn’t play unless you get help with pictures and drawings. The model makers on this movie were very good at what they were doing.”


“I also sketched the wagon which was later drafted up for construction (by G. Rickett).”


It was to be used in an action sequence which had Mr. Conductor rolling down the hillside inside of the hay wagon. This would’ve been filmed in miniature on the model set, whilst a live-action shot would be taken of the actor being jostled about.


Charles went as far as contacting the Ontario Agricultural Museum in Milton, Ontario to see if they had a hay wagon in their collection that could be used for the live-action sequence.


The wagon miniature was sub-contracted by GVFX to Toronto’s Backbone Special Effects for construction. It appears that the full-sized version of the hay wagon was never built and neither was the Rainbow Ridge set. The scene was modified to instead take place at the Windmill, where the Conductor Family’s riddle appears on the wall.


The good news is that the model of the hay wagon made it to the final release of the movie. It can be briefly seen during the ‘Really Useful Engine’ musical interlude as seen in the photo below. One can appreciate the level of detail that went into both the conceptual sketch drawn by Charles (right) and the miniature of the hay wagon (left).

(click image to see larger version of hay wagon)
Model of the Hay Wagon (left) with Charles conceptual drawing (right)

Sky and Scenic Backdrops

Charles came up with a few conceptual designs for the sky and scenic backdrops that were used during the model shoots. The sky backdrops that stand out for Charles were Diesel 10’s night sky, and Thomas’s sunset.


Each one of these sky backdrops were to be scaled up to 60’ x 24’. Charles initially painted several backdrop samples at a scale of .25” = 1’0” for Britt to choose from.


“For the sky backdrop representing a night storm on Sodor, Britt wanted it to convey feeling – threatening feelings, which I found interesting to do.”


Britt was very mindful of her target audience during the selection process. A few of the dark blue cloudy moonlit backdrop samples came across as being too menacing.

(click image below for larger view)
Photo of one of D-10 Night Sky samples painted by Charles. This sample was not chosen for the movie.

“She was afraid that I was getting a bit too scary for the kids” recalls Charles with a smile.


“I thought depending on the environment of the story, the scarier it is, the more thrilling it is for the kids! It really gives credibility to Thomas’ reaction and those of the people in the story.  So any kind of adjustments that we had to make in the design involved that aspect of it – that we weren’t to make it too scary.”


By contrast, the sunset backdrop was to convey a peaceful feeling.


“Britt talked of rainbow effect clouds with a reddish tinge when the sun sets”.


The scenic backdrop designs chosen by Britt from Charles’s work and seen in the movie are very reminiscent of the pastoral scenes painted by artist C. Reginald Dalby for the Railway Series. Britt wanted to capture the look and feel of Sodor as closely as possible.

Photo of one of Charles’ conceptual artwork samples for a scenic backdrop. Britt wanted to capture the essence of Sodor as seen in the illustrations of the early Railway Series books. Copyright control Britt Allcroft Productions, Charles Dunlop

The final designs were then passed onto the contracted scenic artists to use as a guide. The crew then went to work airbrushing and painting the designs onto the large backdrop canvases that were hanging in the studio.


A very large scenery and sky backdrop, approximately 125 feet in length wrapped around the larger model set. Many of the model scenes were shot against this backdrop.


“With the cyclorama, the model tables were on wheels, so they were able to move them around to set them up for filming”.

Below:The final result as seen in the movie
The sky and scenic backdrop together with the model set gave us Thomas Sunset.

More about Charles

Charles was born in the United Kingdom in the 1950’s, and like many children of that era, became very familiar with steam railways at a very young age.


“I grew up in a place called Lincoln, which was very close to the Midlands. The Midlands were riddled with a vast network of railway tracks (lines) for delivering goods and passenger traffic. We lived quite close to the main line from Edinburgh to London, so we had ample opportunity to visit railway sites. “


“My two older brothers were trainspotters, which was a hobby that younger people used to take up before diesel engines came in. They used to buy these books – little books with engine numbers in them.  You’d get on a bridge or railway side, and cross off the ones you’d see going by. This was in Britain, so it was quite a thick book and between the two of my brothers, they managed to get quite a few on one particular railway line. Now it’s all run by the state – one big network of railways. “


I asked Charles whether he was familiar with the Rev. Awdry’s Railway Series while growing up, and whether he had a favorite volume or story.


“Oh yes I was. The books were passed down from one brother to the next. The books themselves are still with my younger brother who lives in Oxford. He kept all of our books including Holling C. Holling’sPaddle to the Sea’.


“I didn’t have a favorite book – In general, I liked them all. They were read to me up to the age of ten. As I had a gang of brothers, the stories were read to all of us.”


Charles was schooled at Lancing College in Sussex, England, the Chelsea School of Art in London, and studied Set Design at London’s Central St. Martins’ School of Arts and Design.


Charles has Usher’s Syndrome which affects his peripheral vision and hearing. As the reader can judge for themselves from Charles’s talented contributions to Thomas and the Magic Railroad, the condition did not get in the way of expressing his creativity. Charles only recently had to set aside his work in film design for safety reasons.

Charles' Other Projects

If you search for ‘Charles Dunlop’ in the Internet Movie Database (IMDB), you will notice that Charles has been involved in Set Design and Art Direction for many movie and television productions.  The Associates (2001) television series, where he designed the studio sets, The Stupids (1996), Urban Legends – The Final Cut (2000) are but to name a few. He was co-nominated for a Genie Award in 1982 for Best Achievement in Art Direction during the production of Improper Channels (1981).


Charles’ work experience extends into theatre productions. Before moving to Canada, Charles designed sets and costumes for the National Theatre of Great Britain, The West End Theatre and Royal Court Theatre in London.


In 2003 Charles designed the set for the theatre production of ‘Dancing to Beethoven’ in Montreal’s Place des Arts. For hockey fans that chance to visit the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, Charles designed and modified the 1930’s replica of the Montreal Canadien's team dressing room.


Charles is also a qualified instructor. He’s also taught Production Design and Scenography at Ryerson University for two semesters a few years ago, and was an instructor for Production Design at the National Theatre School in Montreal.


Out of the many productions that Charles was involved with over the years, ‘Thomas and The Magic Railroad’ appears to have left a lasting impression.


“Britt was always amazingly clear about what she wanted. It was a fun and a great project that I've been involved in.”

Photo of Charles Dunlop
Charles and his working dog Quesie at his Toronto home on 25 September, 2007 - photo: James Gratton

I'd like to thank Charles once again on behalf of the Fansite for sharing his insight about his contributions to the making of TATMR. I would also like to extend our special thanks to Britt Allcroft for the permission to share samples of Charles' work, so that all fansite visitors can appreciate his work  :)