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The Look of Locomotion

Thomas 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


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