“Cue the train…”

Joy W - Film Shoot
(Setting up for a scene – one of more than two dozen shot during a 13-hour day in my basement)

In 1968, artist Andy Warhol wrote in an exhibition programme, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes”. Yesterday, I was fortunate to experience a bit of what that feels like, when my Port Rowan layout was used as a location for a short drama directed by Toronto filmmaker Joy Webster.

Joy checking storyboard
(Joy reviews her storyboard prior to shooting a scene)

Joy contacted me in April via this blog. She’d found my layout online and wrote (in part)…

I’ve been on the hunt for a model railroad setup in a residential home (ideally in a basement) to use as a location for a short film that I am directing this summer … I’d love to get in touch with you and chat about seeing more of your train room and work. Looking forward to hearing from you!

Well, that was pretty much all it took. We arranged a site visit, and she decided almost immediately that the layout worked for her story. (I won’t give away details now – but will update this post when the film is released.)

What’s more, Joy was very accommodating with a couple of important technical requirements on my part.

First, I would be the only person touching the trains or adjusting scenic elements on the layout – I’d be happy to move things about, but of course I know best how to pick them up.

Second, we arranged a meeting with her lighting person to find a lighting solution that would not generate any heat (because aiming traditional film lights at the layout would quickly melt things). In the end, the lighting person found some awesome LED lights that look like a fluorescent tube, but run off a self-contained battery pack, are dimmable, colour-tunable (not only through various colour temperatures of “white” such as indoor and daylight, but also through the full RGB spectrum), and controlled via Bluetooth and an app on a smart phone.

Layout lighting
(Setting up lights on the fascia to create the look of actors being illuminated by the layout lighting. It was very effective!)

Joy and her producer Lucas Ford appreciated the time, effort and money that I’ve invested in my hobby, and they were terrific about making sure I felt comfortable having a film crew of approximately 20 people in the layout room and workshop for the day. For my part, I was thrilled to be able to take part: I studied television in university and while many of the details differ between TV and film, there were enough similarities that I appreciated what was going on (and knew when to shut the heck up), even as it reminded me of what I’m missing as someone who abandoned a career in media and who now works largely by himself.

What’s more, it was an easy decision to welcome this film project in our home. Joy’s work is stunning: Two previous films “Game” (2017) and “In The Weeds” (2015) have garnered multiple film festival awards, and it’s easy to see why. I feel privileged to have worked with her.

Here are some more pictures from the shoot, with permission from Joy to share them:

Reviewing script.
(Joy and one of the actors discuss a scene in my workshop)

Actor and machine tools
(Framed by machine tools, an actor delivers her performance on the basement stairs)

Sound and makeup
(Capturing audio for a shoot on the basement stairs, while the makeup department takes a break in the kitchen)

Backyard
(The baggage wagon in the backyard was an ideal staging area for equipment. That’s Lucas checking his phone at left)

Monitor
(Joy and her crew in my workshop, watching on a monitor as a scene unfolds in the layout room next door. My comfortable workshop chairs were most welcome by the end of the day…)

Final scene
(The actors have been released and Joy’s cinematographer is shooting the final scene of the day. “Cue the train…”)

Thanks, Joy and Lucas, for inviting me to take part in your project. I loved every minute of it – everyone on set was fantastic, professional, and respectful of my work and our home. I look forward to seeing the film when it’s released!

Austin Eagle: Layout tours

My trip to Texas to take part in The Austin Eagle – the NMRA Lone Star Region’s annual convention – included a terrific self-guided tour of area layouts. On the Saturday, a bunch of us hopped into my rental vehicle (a Toyota 4Runner, which had plenty of space for a crew) and hit the highway.

A highlight for me was a visit to the Proto:48 layout being built by master craftsman Jim Zwernemann. I’ve written about this on my Achievable Layouts blog, and you can read that story by clicking on Jim’s GE 70-Tonner, below:

Jim Z - SP 70 Tonner

Another key stop on the layout tour, for me, was the HO scale Santa Fe layout built by noted designer David Barrow. Again, you can read more about that experience on my Achievable Layouts blog, by clicking on the image below:

Barrow - layout tour

In addition to these two layouts, we visited a nice HOn3 layout built by Ben Sargent. Ben’s Santa Fe & San Juan Railroad models the D&RGW’s narrow gauge Chili Line in New Mexico.

Ben Sargent

Ben Sargent
(I liked the false front stock pen – what a neat idea for a minimum-space model!)

Ben Sargent

Sargent Press
(Ben is a retired political cartoonist whose layout shares space with his speciality printing business, run with this 1905-era press. Ben’s press and his collection of type for it garnered as much interest at the layout did!)

We also visited the HO scale MKT Sedalia Division being built by Steve Nelson – covering the line between Franklin Missouri and Parsons, Kansas in the autumn of 1966. Steve is a modeller I can really relate to: he shows restraint in the composition of his scenes, but not trying to crowd too many ideas into a given space. Instead, he devotes proper space to each idea.

For example, note how much space is devoted to these harvest scenes – and how Steve has created vignettes in the fields:

Steve Nelson - Harvest

Steve Nelson - Harvest

Steve Nelson - Harvest

Steve Nelson - Harvest

I was also impressed by this large soybean processing operation. I didn’t realize how many different car types are required to process soybeans and ship various finished products – it’s almost as complex as a paper mill, and would make an excellent subject for a one-industry layout:

Steve Nelson - Soybeans

Steve Nelson - Soybeans

Finally, Steve had a simple but clever homemade device for laying out parallel track. It’s pretty self explanatory:

Steve Nelson - Parallel Track

Thanks to everyone who hosted layout tours. I really enjoyed seeing your work!

Austin Eagle: operating sessions

My trip to Texas to take part in The Austin Eagle – the NMRA Lone Star Region’s annual convention – included a really fun day of operating on local layouts – starting with a session on the HO scale Port of New York Railroad being built by Riley Triggs. You can read about Riley’s layout on my Achievable Layouts blog by clicking on the following image:

PoNY Herald

Later the same day, I took part in a large operating session on the HO scale D&RGW Moffat Route built by David Nicastro and his son, Sam Nicastro. Sam is a millennial who is already passionate about, and accomplished in, our hobby. He’s a modeller, a railfan, and a member of several groups including the Operations Special Interest Group. More than anything I can do, guys like Sam will help keep the hobby strong and viable in the future.

Their layout features a number of advanced electronics applications, including a dispatcher’s desk complete with virtual CTC machine linked into the DCC system and phone system. What’s most remarkable about this is it’s Internet-enabled, so the Nicastros can call upon a friend out of town (or anywhere in the world) to direct traffic during an operating session.

Nicastro DRGW - Dispatchers Office

David’s goal with this layout was to give one the feeling of running a train through the mountains, and he is certainly achieving that. I signed up to run a manifest freight as it would take me the length of the mainline – from terminal to terminal – and it took almost two hours to make the trip, with several pauses along the way to meet opposing trains.

DRGW

DRGW

DRGW - through the mountains

Moffat tunnel

Lift gate

While this is not the sort of layout I would build for myself, I really enjoyed running on it and would be happy to contribute to building and operating the Moffat Route if I lived in the area. Thanks, David and Sam – and your crew – for hosting us!

A fresh look at the terminal in Port Rowan

A fellow hobbyist got in touch yesterday to ask if he could use an overall photo of my layout in a presentation he’s doing at a convention in his area – and I was happy to oblige. But I realized that I didn’t have a suitable, current photograph. So off to Port Rowan I went, to shoot a few options for him.

Those are now on the way to him via email, but since I haven’t shared photos of the layout in a while, I thought I’d post them here too.

This photo provides a nice overview of the terminal at Port Rowan. I’ve shot this vantage point before, but not since adding trees to both the left (backdrop) and right (fascia) sides of the yard:

Port Rowan overview

This is another shot I’ve taken before, looking along the turntable lead towards the yard entrance. I like it better now that I have those two large trees in place to the left of the track:

Port Rowan turntable

Here’s a photo of Port Rowan taken from across the aisle at St. Williams. It’s a good overview that emphasizes the spread-out nature of this small branchline terminal:

Port Rowan overview

This next photo is another shot I frequently take – looking up the line from end of track in Port Rowan, at track level. I’ve always liked this shot, but it’s even better with extra trees to frame the scene – including additional trees across the aisle in St. Williams:

Port Rowan - along the track

This final photo is probably the best one to illustrate how the layout fits into the room, but it’s also the weakest in terms of composition – in no small part because the end of the peninsula (closest to the camera) is so unfinished compared to the rest of the layout. The Lynn Valley is out of view to the upper right.

Port Rowan - from end of peninsula

Every so often, I need to photograph the layout to make a record of the progress that I’ve made on it. But I haven’t been doing that lately as other things have taken priority. So I’m grateful that I was approached about sharing some images – and flattered that someone would want to use my layout to illustrate a point in their clinic.

A visit from the Brothers Harper

Yesterday, I hosted Bob Harper, his brother Gerald Harper, and my friend David Woodhead for a layout visit. There are many interesting connections between us.

I first met Gerald when I hosted members of the Toronto Chapter of the Canadian Association of Railway Modellers for an open house back in April of last year. Gerald got in touch recently to let me know his brother Bob was coming to North America from the UK – and bringing his exhibition-style Maine two-foot layout with him. Could they come for a visit? Of course!

Naturally, Bob and I had a lot to talk about – from the mechanics of packing a layout for a plane voyage, to the paperwork required, to how he ended up modelling a Maine two-footer. (I know how that goes – I did it myself, before embarking on the Port Rowan project.)

After a tour of the layout, we retired to Harbord House for dinner. David could not join us, unfortunately, but he did take a few photos when Bob and Gerald were at my house:

Bob Harper at Port Rowan
(Bob inspects a freight extra about to leave Port Rowan)

Gerald Harper at Port Rowan
(Gerald snaps a photo of a CNR self-propelled unit, running on M233’s schedule)

Subsequent to the visit to my basement, Bob and Gerald took Bob’s layout – Franklin in On2 – to the annual Railroad Hobby Show in Springfield, Massachusetts. You can read more about that trip on the MaineOn2 FAQ website.

If you missed Franklin there, you have a couple more chances to see it on this side of The Pond: Bob and his layout will attend the annual Ontario Narrow Gauge Show in Schomberg, Ontario in April and the National Narrow Gauge Convention in Minneapolis, Minnesota in September.

Shooting a cover

The editor of a hobby magazine emailed yesterday to ask for a vertical-format photo to use as a potential cover for a feature I wrote. I spent the next several hours composing and shooting 13 potential covers.

Shooting a cover.
(Lights, camera, cover? We’ll see if this composition makes the cut…)

I’m pretty excited: If my photo is used, it’ll be the first cover story related to my current layout in a mainstream monthly print publication. (My previous, Maine On2 layout made the cover of RMC several times.)

Cover shots are tricky. First, the vertical format is really challenging for almost all layout photography. We normally view our models (and our layouts) from the side. But the vertical format for a cover means it makes more sense to shoot along the layout instead of across it.

As anyone who has done layout tour photography will know, that creates all sorts of challenges. For example, Even if you’re just focussing on a couple of models in the foreground – just a few feet in front of the camera – you may have an expanse of sky that’s going to need lighting. In the case of the above photo, I had to light up about 15 feet of backdrop in Port Rowan, plus the background at the west end of St. Williams – about 25 feet away from the lens.

Another issue is the nature of trains themselves. Our model trains are low (extending just a few inches above the rails) but long (running for several feet). So shooting a train side-on is impossible when taking a vertical format photograph. Even shooting even a single piece of equipment side-on is tricky. For a vertical photo, even if the model fills the frame side-to-side, there’s going to be a ton of boring sky above it.

This is another reason to build realistically tall trees. They help add interest to the photo. It helps, too, that on a cover, much of the top of any photo will be covered by the magazine’s name/logo. There will also be several call-outs on the cover – “Gluing things to other things: Page 48” and so on – that help hide less desirable elements in the background of a photo. In my case, I have a sharp vertical line where the backdrop curves away from Port Rowan to enter the Lynn Valley, but cloning some trees in PhotoShop, combined with the logo and call-outs, will make that disappear from the viewer’s perception.

The logo, the call-outs, and other items like the location of mailing labels and UPC codes are all things one needs to think about while composing a cover. And that’s before any considerations about scene composition and engagement with the casual viewer. A cover needs to grab attention on the rack – whether it’s in a hobby-friendly location like the local model train emporium, or in an agnostic location like a book shop or grocery store, where it’s competing not only with other model railroading publications, but also all those other magazines vying for our money.

I know my layout photographs well, because I’ve found many interesting places to shoot images on it (which I’ve shared on this blog). But I’ve rarely done vertical format photos and I was surprised at how difficult it was to find an interesting location to shoot when the camera was rotated 90 degrees.

We’ll see how well I did if/when my shot is used on the cover.

Beyond that, I will wait until the article comes out before I reveal what it’s about and what magazine it’s in. At that time, I’ll also share some of the rejected cover shots.

Stay tuned…

Open up!

CARM 2017 - Open House

I’ve been asked several times to open my layout for tours, and I rarely do. My layout is medium-sized but the layout room is fairly tight. Get more than a few people in the space and it gets uncomfortable. And since the layout is designed for walk-around control, with turnout and turntable controls mounted on the facia, it can also become impossible to operate if the aisles are plugged.

But Ian McIntosh from the Toronto Chapter of the Canadian Association of Railway Modellers has been asking me for many years now if I’d host a tour. (In fact, his first request was back when I was still modelling the Boston & Maine in HO scale.) And earlier this year, Ian suggested that he and his wife Joan – also involved with the local chapter – could schedule members into time slots, and keep the numbers to something that my layout could manage.

So, I said “Yes”, and I hosted about a dozen people on Saturday afternoon, divided into three 90-minute windows.

Normally, people who visit my layout have a good idea what to expect. Sometimes, they’ve known me for ages and I’ve already shared my work with them. Other times, they’re regular readers of this blog so they have a solid understanding of my layout and my approach to the hobby. Some of my guests this past weekend have read my blog. But for most, I think, it was a brand new experience.

There was a lot to experience, and I’m always interested in what ideas people take away from my layout.

Having had several visitors over the years since I started building Port Rowan in 1:64 in October of 2011, I know that some features are always popular:

The garden scale switch stands I use to control turnouts always generate a lot of discussion. So do the tools I’ve mounted on the fascia to help operators simulate setting brakes and pumping air.

Visitors always comment on my use of environmental audio – the birdsong and other noises that help place the viewer in the scene. My decision to light they layout with 12v Halogen landscape lighting is also often discussed.

I know my approach is a track less travelled. I’ve built a very simple layout in a rather generous space, giving it a relaxed feel that’s not often seen in the hobby. And of course it was a real temptation during the design phase to add more track or choose busier locations.

But I’m glad that I built the layout just the way I did. And it proved itself again on the weekend, as I was able to operate the layout – solo – for my visitors while still holding conversations and answering questions. At no time did I feel stressed by the experience.

I had a couple of DCC-related incidents – possibly caused by something touching on a locomotive and causing a short – but nothing that stopped the show. I’m investigating the issue and hope to have it resolved quickly. Also, I had just two derailments – not perfect, which is my goal, but both caused by (my) operator error so I’ll mark that up as a “win”.

And of course, there’s often a discussion around S scale. For many people, mine is the first layout they’ve seen built to S scale standard gauge. I had many conversations about how I ended up in S, and how I find it to be a sweet spot between the size of the models, and compatibility with a medium-sized space. For me, it really does combine the mass of O scale with HO’s ability to model the space around the tracks, too.

I never try to convince others to model in S: choice of scale is a personal decision, and what works for me won’t work for you. But I suspect a few people left with a new appreciation for 1:64.

(Thank you, Ian and Joan, for arranging the tour. And thanks to everyone who attended. I enjoyed sharing my layout with you!)

CARM 2017 - Open House

Roweham 2017

Roweham 2017
(The passenger train – an auto coach pushed by a 14XX class 0-4-2T – arrives at Roweham)

Those who have read this blog for some time now know that I’m a fan of smaller layouts. I’m far more impressed by a small, thoughtfully-conceived and expertly executed model railway than I am by a half-baked basement-filler. The hobby is not about quantity for me; it’s about quality. In fact, I have a whole other blog devoted to what I call Achievable Layouts.

So it’ll come as no surprise that last Saturday, I was delighted to help my friend Brian Dickey exhibit his 7mm (British O scale – 1:43) masterpiece, “Roweham”, at the annual model railway show organized by the club to which he belongs. Also on hand was my friend Pierre Oliver – who, like me, helped Brian exhibit Roweham at last year’s show. We were joined this year by Ross Oddi. (Great to meet you, Ross!)

Roweham 2017
(Ross, Pierre, and Brian on deck)

Roweham 2017
(Ross deploys Brian’s version of the Galvanick Lucipher to break the train as engineer Pierre prepares his next move. Brian’s layout uses prototypically-correct three-link couplings, which add to the play value)

For me, Brian has really hit all the targets with Roweham. The modelling is excellent, and careful. The design is realistic and relaxed – perfect for a branchline terminal in a Green and Pleasant Land. The locomotives and rolling stock are appropriate for the modelling subject, and run flawlessly. (We had one derailment during the show – the result of buffer lock between a longish 2-6-0 and a short wagon. Brian immediately removed the mogul from service so it would not detract from the presentation.) And the presentation is professional – from the skirting, to the fascia, to Brian’s handsome waistcoat complete with brass GWR buttons. (Since I’m part of the exhibition team, I’ll be happy to follow Brian’s lead and pick up a waistcoat from his supplier.)

Roweham 2017
(An overview of Roweham, from the terminal end)

In short, it’s clear that Brian has made an effort to reward the public for their $5 admission fee – even as he enjoys this layout at home. This also informed Brian’s wise decision to have three people help him exhibit Roweham. He wanted to make sure he could talk to visitors even as the layout continued to operate, and he wanted to make sure everybody had a chance to take a break from operating – a much better situation than one person, standing on his feet for six hours, trying to explain the layout to guests and keep the trains moving.

While it’s a modest design, with just four turnouts, Roweham is already finished to a level rarely seen at exhibition in these parts, and Brian continues to add details. New features this year include a cattle dock, a water tank, a brick workshop, some tractors, and more.

Roweham 2017

Roweham 2017

Meantime, Brian has taken a second pass at things, especially equipment, to give it a tasteful weathering job. All in all, Roweham will only get better each time it’s on display. Here are some more shots from the day…

Roweham 2017

Roweham 2017

Roweham 2017

Roweham 2017

Roweham 2017

Roweham 2017

Roweham 2017

Most modellers I meet are obsessed with quantity. They talk about the number of locomotives they have, or the number of freight cars, or the size of their layout. The first question often asked is, “How big is your layout?” – with emphasis on “big”. How different the hobby would be if we instead started with the question, “What story are you trying to tell?” – and then gauged how well the layout accomplishes that.

Brian’s layout tells a very clear story, and that’s why it succeeds so well.

Roweham 2017

Thanks again, Brian, for letting me be a part of your exhibition!

Cab ride to Port Rowan

I continue to experiment with my video camera from Replay XD, which rides nicely on a flat car.

Having had a successful test run on the S Scale Workshop layout over the weekend – with two videos shared to the Workshop blog – I’ve now also done a test-run on my Port Rowan layout:


(You may also view this directly on YouTube, where you may be able to enjoy it in larger formats)

This trip is looking into the sun, so everything is somewhat backlit. I will do an eastbound trip – with the sun at my back – when time permits.

I’m still learning about what this camera can do, but I’m enjoying the results so far…