Did Thomas's mouth just move?

I finally got around to replacing the network cable on my wife's MythTV box, and it is back to recording TV shows for the kids again. I started up a new recording of Thomas the Tank Engine for the toddler, and I had to do a double-take when I saw his face actually move when he spoke.

If you're not familiar with the show, it's done with model trains that have faces. The faces change from scene to scene, but never "on-camera". The only thing that you ever saw move was the eyes, which could shift (or spin on some comical occasions). The faces were very expressive, but they were always static plates that would be interchanged when the camera cut away.

Well, no more. It appeared that the faces were now animated, although the rest of the show did appear to be the same model sets. A quick google did seem to confirm this guess, that as of this season, the face plates in filming were replaced with a target that a computer used to overlay with a CGI face. The effect is actually pretty well done; to me, the face does indeed look like it is part of the train.

Oh, and the people, which were before just wooden models, are now completely CGI. They still have the same look as their wooden model counterparts, but now they can move around, although they are animated to be almost robotic — probably to keep the impression of their wooden heritage?

Of course, the internet being what it is, as I was googling, I came across the melodramatic reaction that they've "ruined" Thomas the Tank Engine. I dunno, my kids (after getting over their initial shock of first seeing Thomas "blink" and then actually "talk") thought it was pretty cool.

I'm still a little undecided. Not that I spend a ton of time analyzing Thomas, but it is getting watched a bit more often now that our toddler has decided he likes watching "woo-woo" (train whistle, although the "word" also applies to cars) almost as much as he likes "Wawwy" (that's "Larry" from Veggie Tales). It's definitely different.

What does concern me a bit is that the press release indicates that while the faces are CGI this season, next season the entire show will be CGI. Because they use models now, it has that "model railroad" feel. Going all CGI would make it possible for them to completely change the look and feel of the show to however they want. Hopefully, they won't, because I think that's part of the show's charm.

I can definitely see, though, how it might be almost a little sad to think that there aren't actual model trains behind the show anymore. I grew up with model trains. But I also am a computer geek, and I can understand why they would want to move to using computers to produce their show. I imagine their models need a lot of maintenance, and creating a new character or even a facial expression is a costly amount of work, involving real, physical materials.

But they've always done it so well. Hopefully they don't end up trivializing it.

The press release also indicates they're moving the show Bob the Builder from stop-motion to CGI. I'm surprised they didn't do that sooner. I can't imagine how much time and energy and patience must go into making a stop-motion video.

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