Allagash Railfan Series backstory
The original concept for the Allagash Railfan Video Series was sparked in 2001 from watching a Pentrex video. Pentrex is primarily known for their vast library of high-quality prototype railroading videos. But back in 2001, they did something a bit different, filming Allen McClelland’s HO-Scale Virginian & Ohio Afton Division. This was about the time that Allen was going to be moving, and the original V&O was about to be torn down. The title of the video was “Afton Division Finale.”
But this Pentrex home layout video was different: much of it was shot from the perspective of a railfan. Into the video, they wove a story about a pair of railfan buddies chasing trains on the V&O. Some of the footage was shot close-in, and some of it was filmed from the vantage point of a visitor standing in the aisle. At the time, onboard sound didn’t really exist, so prototype, piped-in sounds were used to give the video a more prototype feel.
I had always enjoyed watching the Pentrex V&O video, and wanted to do something similar for my Allagash Railway, but I wanted to take it to another level.
To me, the ultimate presentation of a well-done model railroad is with a video of that railroad shot exclusively from a railfan’s trackside perspective. There’s no escaping the video camera. It picks up everything. So, if things aren’t up to snuff, it quickly shows. But if things are done well, the effect can be killer. In the case of the proto-freelanced Allagash, a railroad that is not real, video can bring it to life in a way that pictures in books, magazines or online just can't match.
In short, it looks more real, and that was the goal: to document the day-to-day life of this model railroad, but treat it as if it were, in fact a real railroad.
I’ve had a Sony Hi-Def. camera for 10 years or so. We purchased it for family use, but I found this camera was pretty darn good at filming my model railroad too. So, back in the summer, I began to think about how I could do this video.
Joe Fugate turned me on to the Sony software I would need to edit video and create a finished product. My first efforts were not all that great. I shot a test video and sent it over to Joe for review. My depth of field was very poor. I have a lot of fluorescent lighting in my railroad room, but with video you need a lot more light. I learned this the hard way!
Joe recommended some soft-box lights and after shopping around a bit I picked up three of these monsters. Boy do they put out the light! I sent him a second trial video shot with the new lights and his reaction was “Wow!”
So, with lighting problem solved and camera in hand, I began to document the Allagash strictly from the perspective of a railfan trackside. That meant no fascia, no walls, no nothing that clearly gave away that it's a model railroad. This meant that my composition would have to be very tight. No wide views from the aisle, no views from a helicopter.
For much of the summer, I spent spare time filming the railroad. I started at New Sharon (volume 1) and documented the daily goings-on of the New Sharon Switcher and the road trains that pass by or stop to work. I tried to capture everything that might happen there on a typical day if the Allagash were real.
After volume 1 was complete, I began filming for volume 2. Volume 2 covers coal trains. This enabled a bit more reach as the trains traversed the scenery vs. being confined to just New Sharon. As I got deeper into the process, I began to try new techniques with the lighting, creating dawn and dusk scenarios. This gave the video a lot more ambience and prototype edge. I have some additional, outside-the-box ideas I will try in future volumes. Stay tuned.
A word or two about sound and narration. Onboard sound is from Soundtraxx and LokSound. My original sample to Joe had no narration, just captions. Joe suggested narrating the video would take it up a notch or two. Always up for a challenge, I purchased a head-set mic and went to it. I knew it would improve the finished product, I just didn’t realize how much fun it would be doing it. Somebody once told me I had a “radio voice.” I don’t know about that. It’s strange listening to yourself talk!
The final add-on was something I hadn’t planned to do, but in retrospect makes the biggest impact in the final analysis: ambient sound. When I say ambient, I mean sound from the track and wheels etc. Without it, it just doesn’t sound real. With a real train, as the locomotives roll by, the prime mover sounds are replaced by flange squeal, rail click/clack, car rumble, and other sounds that all blend together. I had to figure a way to make this happen.
It turns out it was real easy. Over the years I’ve captured tons of Hi-Def video of real trains in my area and on various railfan trips. I found an HD video converter program, and one of the features of this program is it lets you create an MP3 audio file from your video clips.
So, I went ahead and watched the videos and isolated areas where there was adequate ambient sound, with no locomotive sound. I had to find variation – slow, fast, high-squeal industrial etc. After all was said and done, I came up with about 15 or 20 clips that I could use and apply to the video. Editing these in was a snap and it brought the project to an entirely different level.
I’m looking forward to putting together many more of these little trackside adventures, especially as additional scenery is completed.
- Mike Confalone
I’d like some feedback on how these first efforts grab you: have I accomplished my goals of depicting the Allagash as a real railroad? When you watch it, does it seem like you are a HO-Scale figure standing trackside? If the answer is yes, then I’ve done my job. If no, then please let me know what needs improvement!