Thomas & Friends (Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends) is a British children’s television series, first broadcast on the ITV network on 4 September 1984. It is based on The Railway Series of books by the Reverend Wilbert Awdry and his son Christopher Awdry. These books deal with the adventures of a group of anthropomorphised trains and road vehicles who live on the fictional Island of Sodor. The books were based on stories Awdry told to entertain his son Christopher during his recovery from measles. Many of the stories are based on events from Awdry’s personal experience.
The show was originally produced with live action model animation at Shepperton Studios in England. The use of moving models was seen at the time of the show’s conception as an effective method of animating the stories. Locomotives and other vehicles were operated by radio, while humans and animals were static figures. Stop-motion was occasionally employed for instances in which a human or animal character would move. Hand-drawn animation was used in Series 3 to create bees.
At the show’s conception in 1984, live action model animation would not deliver lip sync, but show co-creator Britt Allcroft and model director David Mitton did not see this as an inhibition. About 20 years later however, with advancement in technology, the show saw the introduction of CGI by HIT Entertainment’s subsidiary HOT Animation. At first this was used to generate smoke and other effects, but later, HIT announced its intent to introduce a fully CGI series in 2009. With Series 12, CGI by Nitrogen Studios was used to animate characters’ faces and to make people and animals mobile within the stories. The following series saw a transition to full CGI animation.
Before Series 13, narration and dialogue were performed by a single storyteller. This was the choice of Allcroft, who wanted the television stories to be an extension of the way they would be told at home in a comforting environment. All character emotions would come from the nuances of the storyteller’s voice, in conjunction with facial expressions, music, and actions on-screen.
The first 130 stories were written for television by Britt Allcroft and David Mitton. For the first four series the shows were closely based on stories from The Railway Series books.
The original live action models were filmed on an extensive model railway layout built at the studios. The models were built to the 1:32 scale, known in model railway circles as “Gauge 1″. The locomotives used chassis made by Märklin with specially made bodies. Along with the moving-eye and eyelid mechanisms and clay faces, these bodies also included smoke generators. Coaches and trucks were made using Tenmille kits. Later models were constructed entirely from scratch. Some of the models from the sister television series Tugs were reused in later episodes of the series.
In Series 5 through to 12, some larger-scale models were used for the narrow gauge characters, to more easily fit the complex mechanisms into them while retaining a sufficient level of detail. In Series 6, the characters known as “the Pack” were also constructed on a large scale, and larger models of Thomas and Percy were made to interact with them. In the ninth series, another larger Thomas model was built to the same scale as the narrow gauge engines to provide greater possibilities for interaction. It was joined by a large version of James in the tenth series. In 2009, these models were put on display in a special exhibit at Drayton Manor Theme Park’s Thomas Land.
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