“…No Shame in Being a Foamer!”* Loco enthusiasts push for real thing on AMC’s Hell on Wheels

*with credit to Angie Schmitt and GOOD (see link below for a great article on where the term “foamer” comes from and more interesting info on the U.S. railways)

We’re changing our blog direction this week from the supernatural gore of Syfy’s modern day western Wynonna Earp to another western – the hit AMC show Hell on Wheels and vintage steam engines.

Shot in Calgary and area, Hell on Wheels was in its 4th season when the producers realized more was needed to make their simulated locomotives look genuine. The previous engines were made from EPS foam with rubber bed liner coatings and dressed with household plumbing pipe. The early incarnations had served their purpose as a backdrop to the sprawling western saga, but had come under fire from a fervent community of locomotive enthusiasts.

Charged with the task of making these rolling set pieces look historically accurate, Art Director Bill Ives drew up plans based on “The General” – the most famous engine manufactured by Rogers, Ketchum, and Grosvenor. Plans for an all steel replication were started in the production’s fab shop and Bill’s next step when adding the “jewelry” (the functioning decor) to the new engine was to contact our own Leo Wieser. When Leo is not doing special effects, he can be found acting as swing fireman (the engineer in charge of the boiler) on one of the 1940’s oil-burning CPR locomotives at Calgary’s Heritage Park.

pic1  pic 5

(Before and In Process Shots)

Leo and Alyssa Moor (BAI Head Fabricator) quickly went to work, sourcing and designing pieces that would ensure the right look. Local museums were contacted for information, as well as Jonathan Scott of the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History, where the real General engine resides. Kyle Wyatt of the California State Railway Museum rounded out the information on the authentic plumbing found on early steam engines. It should be noted that The General was updated several times in its life to conform with more modern rail and power engineering standards, so care had to be taken to ensure the right look for the specific era was being constructed. The team worked very hard to build an early 1800’s look.

To complete the jewelry, various shapes were drawn and water cut out of steel, eBay and Kijiji websites were scoured for antique parts, and old time blacksmith skills were used. As it was not specifically scripted as to what action would occur in the cab, certain items were identified as best possible details for look.

train 1    train 2

The throttle was made correct to the engine and period and made to work.  The fire box door was fully recreated and doubled not only as a service port but also as part of the action.  The reversing lever was added as well as positions for oilers, oil cans and other dressing.  On the main body of the train, the railing was re-installed with correct stylings of boiler mount.  Boiler plumbing and oiling systems were added. Since some more modern brass angle valves for the engine were used, they needed to be aged using an ammonia bath technique. The final aging and distressing were finished when all of the parts were mounted to the engine.

Sadly with most things in the film world, the realities of budget, time and creative license set in.  There were still a number of cheats done on the piece and unfortunately the wheel base was that of the old unit, however the revamp was a great improvement and added significant realism to the look.

“Most engineers of the period took loving care of these detailed pieces of art and machinery.  They were brightly painted and spotlessly clean,” said Wieser. “Unfortunately poetic license doesn’t always coincide with cinematic realism.”  The truth is that this is a dramatic representation of the period.  A shiny new engine would stand out like a sore thumb and detract from the gritty look in the rest of the show.  However, this will not satisfy many railroad enthusiasts as they are watching the show only for the detail of the rail equipment and not as dramatic art.

Season Five of Hell on Wheels is currently on AMC, with the final episode being aired on July 23, 2016. It can also be seen on iTunes here.

Link to “There’s No Shame in Being a Foamer!” by Kathie Schmitt, published September 7, 2014 in GOOD, “a social impact company that creates stories, experiences,
and tools to push the world forward.”

Links to:

The California Railroad Museum

The Southern Museum where The General resides

Thanks for reading from all of us at Bleeding Art Industries.

NEXT WEEK: Want to know something really interesting about Mad Max Fury Road and Life of Pi? Follow our blog and read next week’s posting about the different types of special effects – mechanical, practical, visual and CG – what do they all mean?



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