Train to Nowhere

I  love trains, grew up with them – and go out of my way to get on one.  I’m also a realist. When I heard that legislators in Sacramento wanted to build a high speed train from Los Angeles to San Francisco, I did not rejoice because it didn’t make sense. Especially when I heard the estimated cost - ($100 Billion) - which was astronomical and only an estimate. Being a resident of California and suspicious of huge government projects, I decided to make a video that illustrated the relative costs of such an endeavor, in our car crazy culture.

To accomplish that, I needed to buy a train and build a model.

As a team member at ILM and Boss Film Corporation I was exposed to the best model and creature shops in the world.  What rubbed off on me is that they were inventing reality. If they could, then so could I - albeit on a much smaller scale.

My reality was the desert southwest, quite possibly the easiest topography to re-create.

I bought an HO scale “ACELA” train kit and planned  the rest of the background  scaled on that HO size and distance the train needed to travel. In this case – just a quarter of a mile. Luckily, that all played perfectly on a 4x8 sheet of plywood. (I actually did the arithmetic.)

The mountains are card board cut outs but the near and foreground mesas are shaped from canned foam insulation and painted with textured spray paints available in any hardware store. I shaped these “mesas” with a coarse rasp and heavy grit sandpaper. There is no set shape for these land features, so I sculpted them to camera. For those of you who know the southwest,  the topography is somewhat repetitive for hundreds of miles. Sandy, barren - god forsaken land. I happen to like it,  and enjoyed recreating it on a very small scale. I shopped for HO fencing, livestock and a hut or two. The small trees are dead weeds, the stones and sand I harvested from my yard. All in, excluding the train – maybe $125.

I also built a slider for the project that I use to this day. The key to the success of any model is believable lighting and maximum depth of field. Nothing says miniature like a train that isn’t completely in focus.

The model was built on a rolling table so it could be wheeled outside for a realistic look. In this case, backlit sunlight - bright enough to shoot at f 22.  That f-stop that gave us enough depth of field to keep everything in focus on our tiny set. (Canon XA-10). I didn’t cut the sun flares as I thought it might help with the illusion. In the end – no one was fooled - but the financial point was made - visually. That was my goal - and I learned some great new things while achieving it.

Watch "California High Speed Rail"

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