This is a brief story of how The Railways of Sodor, or ‘TRoS’ for short came about, and a personal account of how I think things have progressed.
I was born in 1985 and one of my earliest memories was watching ‘Dirty Work’ in my first house, a Season 2 episode of Thomas The Tank Engine & Friends. Season 2 was first aired in 1986 and so it is quite possible that I was viewing it’s first public airing, in the same year when I was two years old my parents moved me out to where I still live today, that was 25 years ago. Thus from a very early age, that event and a few other influences collaborated to sow the seed of fascination with Thomas and railways. Like many children I grew up on Thomas as a chief interest, nothing changed until I turned 10 or 12 or so, that was when I put it aside in an attempt to ‘grow up,’ due to inevitable cultural pressures. It however did not work. In 2004 (I was a soldier in the British Army) I was doing my 2nd Operational Tour for the United Nations in Cyprus. During this time while based at Nicosia I would finish nightshift ‘stag’ on the observation towers only to go bed when the sun was up, I however would forfeit an hour or so to go into the lounge where the internet computer resided. For some reason I started searching Thomas the Tank Engine and subsequently found Martin Clutterbuck’s excellent website; The Real Lives of Thomas the Tank Engine / TRLOTTTE. Well, something happened, I couldn’t get enough and was amazed to find all this information I had never heard of before, quite enthralled I was. That spark rekindled a small fire that was to grow at a steady pace. I had a video camera in the army either before or after the above account and made some short animation films for fun. I had no editing programs so it was a case of using skilful cuts and it didn’t take long before I filmed a Blue-Tack worm eating it’s way through an apple, this was the genesis of my animation interest, combine that with my renewed interest in Thomas and you have a well-known combination made famous in 1984. During my time as a soldier I was based in Germany, so on leave (holiday) sometime back in the UK I started playing with my video camera in the loft on my layout. I cannot remember when I built it so it may have been before or after Cyprus, anyway, I made a short ‘Thomas’ film for the fun of it, little did I know this would turn out to be, in a sense, a Pilot episode. It was very crude but my parents and a few friends seemed to like it. For this reason I wanted to record it on my computer as a file so I could watch it and share it easier but didn’t know what I was doing, after some research I went down the town and purchased an Analogue Capture Device. I didn’t know at the time that this came with an editing program called Pinnacle Studio’s Quick Start 9. I quickly taught myself how to use it, never edited anything in my life but it came pretty naturally once I got my head around a few things, therefore I put my pilot episode in and tweaked it to produce what you now know as, ‘The Railways of Sodor Episode 1 Slippery Rails.’ A second episode and a third episode followed and then not long after I discovered Sodor island Fansite, this led to the discovery of Sodor island Forums and fairly soon after I became a member I uploaded episode one, two and three all in one go, they however at that time had no narration until I added it later but a fair number of people seemed to like them regardless. Maybe you remember that day on May the 18th, 2006.Episode 4 soon followed on June 1st with the narrated version soon after. Many people assumed and asked me if Captain Punjab (who at that time was well known for his model series) was an inspiration or basis, but the truth is the first three episodes were made before I’d heard of SiF, Captain Punjab or even an online Thomas community. Once I found his episodes I couldn’t stop watching them. The fact that I had found an online community who have an interest in Thomas and can talk freely without fear of ridicule meant an awful lot to me for it’s something I never had previously. Therefore from then on I soaked up all the SiF and Youtube ‘Thomas’ media I could, I finally felt that in this area of my life I wasn’t completely alone so it was refreshing to see others enjoying the same subject and coming up with new ideas and episodes. It seemed by the plethora of comments and PM’s, that I quickly had attained a small amount of, for want of a better word, ‘fame’. I was new to Youtube and SiF at the time but Judging by the youtube view counts and the statistical locations that commenters lived at, it seemed that my video’s had gone world-wide within a very short space of time. Further episodes followed and I think it’s safe to say that within the online Thomas community, the username ‘Knuckles’ or ‘Sparkshot’, ‘Knucklehead Entertainment’ and the media/modelling works that go with it have become to a degree, well known. I’ve even had a few people randomly come up to me at model railway exhibitions and say, “Are you Knuckles!?”Is recognition my drive? Well no and yes I suppose would be the answer, when I first posted the first three episodes it was the first time I had ever had several people comment positive on something that I had done, I was throughout my life used to being hated and now there was an avenue for being liked, so I walked down it. Recognition is not my primary drive, yet it is nice and encouraging. Everyone wants to be liked and be known for something, but my main drive is internal improvement of standards. With my modelling and films I aspire to attain accuracy via incremental improvement. I’m not primarily competing with others but with myself, yet over some time I found myself forced into a type of competition, I guess you do after a while want to attain a certain position or reputation once aquired. Show me someone who doesn’t? A healthy amount of competition with others has developed several valued friendships and the striving for quality in my works, their video’s and the evolution of everyone’s standards I have found both interesting and edifying. I only started to get serious about my series from about episode 5 or 6. The first 5 video’s I considered a diary in the progression of my model railway progression and editing techniques, indeed, if you watch these in order you may see what I am talking about. Episode 1 has a pot of glue holding a tunnel mouth in place with some buffalo horns (honestly!) leaning against the loft bricks. Episode 2 has some grass on the bank with the tunnel incorporated into the scenery, episode 3 has bushes and much development and a few digital effects, episode 4 has many digital effects and a quirky theme, episode 5 introduced some interesting stop animation with a rubber worm and jam, and again, more effects. Plus many etcetera’s.I always had a handful of Railway Series (RWS) books as a boy but my main influence in the early days was the TV series, this changed when I found it impossible to map it. I had always been a fan of Season 1 and 2 of the TV series and so like many of us I wanted to map the Island of Sodor to get a clearer picture to enjoy and subjects to model. I ended up trying to combine Tidmouth station in the RWS with Knapford station of the TV series by having part of it a terminus and another part of it as a run through, rather like the TV series but different. This however was the last straw for me ,for in the RWS, canonical sources and the maps there I finally found some consistency and stability. Notwithstanding the RWS has its contradictions, but compared to the sinking TV series it’s a stable ship. From this point on I gradually turned into a RWS purist with a high appreciation of the early TV series. As Wilbert Awdry wrote the RWS, I see no reason to accept that ‘over’ the TV series when contradiction occurs, and so herein lies my chief aim… Restore the RWS to how I think Wilbert would have wanted it, had the TV series got it correct in the first place. Naturally there will be personal projections in my work, it’s inevitable but I take a strict line in how I do things. With my filming, the aim now is to film the RWS as I think it should have been (that doesn’t mean I won’t film ‘silly’ episodes anymore, just less), and with my RWS modelling the aim is similar, for example: Many if not all of the models the TV series made to represent the engines were in my opinion incorrectly done. Don’t get me wrong, I love what they produced and have a deep appreciation for them, but according to Wilbert’s own descriptions they can’t be considered accurate, neither can his own 00 gauge models. It seems that the primary influences for the TV series models were the illustrations by Clarence Reginald Dalby. Probably due to their iconic instantly recognisable appeal, not that I dislike these, on the contrary I love them for what they are but it has to be said Wilbert Awdry often slated them for their lack of technical accuracy, proportion and inconsistency, thus I come in with what I believe to be the only remedy – DIY.There is no doubt an element of personal influence and style in my work that may or may not be accurate, I willingly will admit that, yet with research (often not solely by myself) I try to model my engines as Wilbert’s descriptions in the canonical sources lead. Hornby and Bachman have both produced some fine RWS/Thomas models in 00 and H0 gauge respectively, they however for the most part are not up to my personal standard of accuracy for the RWS, thus I now make or adapt my own, for some of the engines much help on the research side was conducted by Simon Martin and Sean O’Connor, with which I give thanks, particularly the research of Gordon’s duel incarnations. Engine accuracies are only one example of where I believe the TV series went wrong; the other is in the area of topography and track planning with which the same applies. For track planning and topographical errors, explain this prominent issue: Why in the world did the TV series from Season 1 onwards see it fit to rename the Western terminus station of Tidmouth to Knapford? And why would they change Thomas’s Junction, which is called actually called Knapford and replace it with Elsbridge, a station on the Ffarquhar Branch? There’s just no good reason for it. If you research the various elements within the RWS you can usually build a fairly clear picture of some locations so I don’t see how or why you can mix those stations up especially as 3 of them are some of the most well-known and oft illustrated of locations, therefore if you want to ‘see’ these areas of the RWS on film properly then they need to be redone. There is no to my mind ZERO hope in the TV series ‘doing things’ properly or restoring things, or even making a parallel series that starts again, so what choice do you have but to do it yourself? I’m constantly trying to reconcile and plan things as best I can in the hope to build, operate and film accurately. I just want to make and see the RWS as never before. Episodes 1-5 were made without a script, I would literally have a good idea of what I want to happen and just film it, narration was added after as I saw fit, ‘ad libbing’ as I went along. I suppose the closest you could come to a script was a few scribbled notes to work from and RWS#8 for episode 6 ‘Off the Rails’, it was only until episode 7 that I actually bothered to do things a little more professionally. Christopher kindly wrote a bunch of stories for me and I subsequently selected one for episode 7. This episode I feel showed an interesting collaboration in the creation of a character known as ‘Archibald’. Christopher wrote the story but I decided the class of locomotive Archibald was to be. Originally I thought about using my LMS 2-6-4 tank engine as seen in the early episodes but after reading the story more carefully Archibald contrasts himself as a tender engine against the tank engines, and so in an attempt to respect and maintain Christopher’s intended characterization I asked what class of loco it should be. He kindly gave me the freedom to decide for myself thus I found an appealing Airfix Royal Scot model for £48 on Modelfair.com and this became the basis for Archibald, all I had to do was add a smoke generator and craft a few faces, once of which I’m sorry to say kind of resembles an Egyptian Mummy! I went a bit overboard with the facial creases.Every episode was an attempt to raise the bar on quality and set new standards and methods of modelling and filming, other people in many ways seemed to have followed. Some of the most notable are alternative plaster facial expression, various smoke effects, certain RWS modelling adaptations and now (although I’m not the first for some of these) animated faces. Episode 8 is in my opinion my best film to date and unlike before, this time the idea was to create a possible plot hole filler that would neatly slip into the canonical RWS framework without contradictory disruption, Me and Sean O’Connor both wrote draft ideas of certain story elements and passed them to and fro for comment and alteration until we were both happy with the end result. Part two of the episode had a little input from Christopher regarding general outline and again Me and Sean would swap the material between us until completion. In some ways I feel I achieved what I wanted in episode 8 but not everything. It was also an attempt (or excuse if you prefer!) to show off my new models that I had been working on, my only serious regret is Edward. I really didn’t want to use Hornby’s plastic ‘cake icing’, but there you go, the kit manufacturer I was liaising with put the K2 locomotive development back a year, and then back another year with which by that time I gave up waiting, thus I reluctantly submitted and used Hornby’s blue Jelly Baby. I took great care this time to give each train the correct head lamp codes, this resulted in me getting angry a few times when I realised the scene I just struggled to shoot had no lamps on their irons resulting in countless reshoots. Sadly I couldn’t feature smoke generators this time due to the poor working of my layout and the cost and hassle of installing them. Since I first started using them the price per unit had almost doubled and my layout couldn’t carry the voltage any more due to its deterioration, I thus concentrated effort on the various cylinder cock effects using my disco smoke machine instead, seeing as this was my last film on the layout I literally peppered the layout with holes wherever I wanted an engine to stop or start. It ended up resembling a rather abused colander. Another thing that really irked me was I forgot to add James’s brake (or vacuum?) pipe since it fell off, also the 1939 scenes had on more than one occasion vehicles featuring British Rail’s early crest which as I’m sure many of you will know is a serious anachronism, aaaand…. One thing that I really would like to express is my view of sound editing; throughout the series I have always put great emphasis in this area. If you spend much time searching, making and mixing sounds I promise you it will come across more convincing. Musical changes are important too, Episode 6,7 and 8 features a self-developed technique (no doubt I wasn’t the inventor) of change in relation to the screen. The method is simple; as the screen changes, either to another or with action within the same screen, the music must change also, either within the same peice or to another completely. For example in episode 6 I used it with when Gordon was being pushed by Edward. As the screen changed to see the turntable the music within that piece changed significantly, and then as the 2 engines entered the screen it changed again, this I did later in the episode and in the latest episodes. See if you can locate them all.From the start of modelling my new engines, to release date it took almost 5 years for it to unearth with episode 7 being released in 2007, and episode 8 at the very end of 2011. Most of my episodes from filming time to the end of editing took no more than a day or two of constant editing, episode 8 however took many months due to the amount of re-filming and editing required to produce what I intended. Using Crazy Talk 6 for the facial animation added significantly to the production time, especially when you consider I had to key frame certain segments (to several 100ths of a second in areas) to coincide with the onscreen movement of the engines resizing them as they passed, what a chore! I do think the extra bother was worth it however, the results I hope you will agree speak for themselves. Now comes what may regrettably be the end of my series, ‘The Railways of Sodor’ for a considerable time. I haven’t ‘ended’ the series, but unlike before my modelling was primarily in attempt to film more accurate depictions of the characters and improve the series, this time although that in part hasn’t changed I have embarked upon something that many may like or dislike. Episode 8 was rather modular, I’d just mock scenes up by moving things to give the effect of a wider geography, but for the future I’d rather have a more realistic, polished look to things, so I’ll have to give each area of modelling more love and care. After finally releasing episode 8 I ripped the layout up (this has been filmed and I will make a video sometime) in favour of a new one, but first I need to renovate the loft and progress is sadly proving rather slow. Secondly, as well as building a new layout I’m seriously thinking of doing it in P4 (see below). That WILL NOT be a quick job at all! I’ve had a lot of stress trying to get by with a layout that hardly works due to my ignorance and lack of patience, so this time I want to take things slow without shortcuts. Believe me, you don’t want to skimp on the planning, foundations and wiring of a layout, it’ll only end in tears. The seven P’s, ‘Prior Preparation & Planning Prevents P--- Poor Performance’ – I didn’t apply those. I didn’t even wire the layout so no wonder it hardly worked.With this slower and more careful approach in mind and for personal reasons of accuracy I’m currently experimenting with the railway modelling scale / gauge combination known as P4 within the Scalefour Society, it’s like your usual ‘Hornby 00/H0 but with more accurate track and wheels – information on this can be found all over the internet, but I recommend the main website; http://www.scalefour.org/ Will there be a new episode soon? No I’m afraid you won’t see one for a good while now, (3-15 years as a guess?) I wish to enjoy modelling as an exercise in and of itself without the self-inflicted pressures of having to perpetually ‘do another episode’, it has to be said Episode 8 for years before release became a real burden in ways, and now lighted I wish it to stay that way for considerable time. Consider TRoS dead, or if dead is too hard, temporarily dormant, a sleeping chrysalis waiting to become a butterfly, any overused analogy will do. I still plan to make more episodes but rather than modelling ‘to do episodes’, I’m modelling because I want to just create and play, and once I’ve created and played enough, then I’ll think about resurrecting TRoS again. After all, a plant doesn’t grown unless a seed dies, and I think with my modelling and film making I’ve sown a fair few, I’ve lost count the amount of kind PM’s I’ve received throughout the years saying my works are motivational and that I’ve actually inspired people to pull their finger out and have a go. Many many times that has happened I’m happy to say.Therefore, in closure, I hope you’ve enjoyed this little history and thank you all heartfully for appreciating and helping me, without people to enjoy, encourage and support what I do, I don’t think it would have turned out quite as popular and successful as it has. Many thanks indeed. J Special Thanks goes out to Ryan Healy, James Gratton, Simon Martin, Sean O’Connor, Henryblue, SiFox, Davey and all who have in some way helped throughout the years, that’s most of you then. So until next time in 20..’? Happy modelling and film making, also to quote the RWS, “Dry rails and good running.” I’m going off to construct another set of P4 points that hopefully have dry rails and good running, so wish me success, goodbye!