THOMAS AND THE MAGIC RAILROAD
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
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 preva
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