Interview with Dave Asling

Dave Asling was one of the key model builders for the miniatures filming of Thomas and the Magic Railroad. Here, Dave shares his insight and recollections of working on the movie.

Here is Dave's testimonial, received 22 April 2007
Hi James and Ryan,
Thanks for your interest in the work that we did on Thomas and the Magic Railroad. That production still stands out in my mind as one of the most enjoyable projects that we’ve undertaken. I’ll do my best to give you a synopsis of the work that we did and a rough timeline, though a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, so dates will be approximate.

When the decision was made by Britt Allcroft and her team to bring Thomas to the big screen, they quickly realized that the original television series models wouldn’t hold up to big screen scrutiny. To be fair, the original trains were wonderful little feats of engineering but had suffered from many years of service. As well, most of the architecture built on very small budgets and often from little more than painted cardboard, had also seen better days. When we won the bid to film the miniature sequences in Canada, all of the original models and set decorations were packed into a freight container and shipped to Toronto where they were stored until the end of photography.

We began miniature production in the late spring of 1999. David Eves and Steve Asquith, who had been keys on the original TV series, came over from England to be overall supervisors of the miniatures, ensuring continuity from the series to the feature. Based on budgetary concerns and the construction time available to us, the decision was made to rebuild only what we had to and to refurbish the rest.

We divided into teams. David Eves and his team were responsible for the construction of the five new ‘hero’ trains that were required for the film and the refurbishing of the secondary train characters that had less screen time, The refurbishing of the trains usually meant the re-use of the original body shell and drive systems, the installation of new eye mechanisms and smoke generators and new paint, or at the very least paint touch ups. The new trains were built from the wheels up and were machined entirely from brass and aluminum, unlike the original TV versions, which were often styrene assemblies.

My team was responsible for the construction of the architecture. Unlike the trains, very little of the architecture from the series was usable for the feature, and with the exception of two small train sheds and an assortment of generic train yard mechanical features, all of the architecture seen on screen was newly constructed for the feature. For some architecture, such as the Tidmouth buildings, the original TV models could be used as construction guides for measurements and colour reference. For other buildings, like the windmill or the water mill, the production art department provided exterior elevation drawings that we used as basic construction guides.

Dave Asling airbrushing set building.
Dave Asling airbrushing one of the set buildings - 1999 (Photo courtesy David Axford)

We worked on constructing the miniatures from late April until late July of 1999, at which time we moved to the studios. Live action was filming next door to the miniature unit and often the art department would be borrowing the miniatures to use as colour and texture guides for the full size set pieces that were being constructed next door. We established an ‘on-set’ model shop in a room attached to the large miniatures stage so that repairs, modifications and additions to the miniatures could be undertaken as we filmed.

Filming of the miniatures took place by setting up the miniature landscapes on three platforms. Each platform was about 20ft x 32ft and was fitted with wheels so that we could roll the sets into position as needed. At one end of the studio, suspended from the ceiling, was a three axis camera platform and a lighting grid. The camera platform was driven through x and y axis by control wheels (to position the camera as needed over the landscape) and the z axis would raise and lower the camera to the correct altitude.

The lighting grid consisted of fifteen 6k lights, and secondary 20k lights would be positioned around the platforms as required for specific scenes. For those of you not familiar with lighting, a "k" is a thousand watts of light. So, when we were filming, we had fifteen 6k space lights directly over the set plus the two 20k side lights for a total of 130,000 watts of light.

This incredible amount of light was required because of the small periscope lens on the Mitchel camera used to film the models. To pull sharp focus on the miniatures through the small aperture of this lens meant that we needed a tremendous amount of light. All of these lights also meant an incredible amount of heat.

We began filming Thomas during a heat wave in Toronto and typically the exterior temperatures were in the mid 80’s by mid morning. In studio, the temperature was usually a few degrees warmer but once the lights were turned on, the temp on the model platform set would rise from the high 80’s to 115-118 F in a matter of 10 to 15 seconds. Consequently, we could only film in short bursts of a few minutes and then let the set cool for a few minutes or the models would begin to suffer from the intense heat.

Filming of the miniatures was structured to make the most of the time that we had available. We had three platforms for the model sets that we rotated around the studio:

Position 1 was dressing the set. This consisted of laying the track, positioning the architecture, dressing in the landscaping and wiring the electronics for the tracks and lighting.

Position 2 was under the camera/lighting grid. In this position, final dressing of the set would happen once camera positions and angles were established and any modifications that were needed to further the action, such as drilling holes in the set decks for piping steam were done.

Position 3 was where the sets were stripped of all of the miniature elements in preparation for moving back to position 1

Imagine positions 1, 2 and 3 as points on a triangle with position 2 at the top. Using this method, we were able to efficiently rotate the model sets around the studio from position to position so that as we completed filming on one, the next set was ready to roll under the camera and the third set was ready to begin constructed. Typically, we would shoot on a set from two to four days before moving on to the next set. This continued from late July until the end of October when we wrapped filming.

How was the viaduct built and and rigged to fall apart?
We used electromagnets to trigger the collapse of the viaduct or bridge model. There were actually two versions of this model constructed. The main model was for all of the wide, medium and close up shots. A second larger scale model was constructed for the super close shots of the bridge fracturing. 

Viadct collapse triggered by electromagnets
The Sky is falling! the viaduct's gradual collapse was controlled by electro-magnets

The main bridge model was constructed as modules to make transport and set up easier since it (the bridge) stood 6 feet tall, measured over 14 feet long and 7 inches wide. We used resin cast stone over MDF structure, with the column bases waterproofed for obvious reasons.The center break-away sections fitted together like a jig saw puzzle with the electromagnets keeping the pieces in place until the current was shut off. With this, the viaduct's gradual collapse in the movie was controlled by releasing certain sections on cue.

Diesel 10 heading toward his doom on the viaduct

Were there miniatures made of the human characters?
There were miniature versions of Mr. Conductor, Junior, the dog and PT Boomer constructed at the same scale as the trains. These models were only used sparingly in shots where the characters were seen at a distance on or near the trains and as reference for the positioning of green screen filmed actors. Shots that had the characters flying through the air or falling were done as green screen composites of the actors.

Do you recall anything about the PT Boomer character?
Doug Lennox’ character of PT Boomer was scripted as a human analogue to Evil Diesel. He was a great guy on set and I felt that his character had value, but the script went through so many revisions and changes in direction that ultimately his character was written out, primarily for time considerations.

We're very grateful for Mr. Asling's insight and wish him all the best with his current and future projects. Examples of Dave's  other TV and film work can be seen on his company's website: Dave Asling Miniature-Effects