I recently became aware
of Model Citizens, a new documentary
about model railroading by journalist Sara Kelly.
Kelly, who teaches at
National University in San Diego, became so intrigued by model railroading
after visiting the San Diego Model Railroad Museum that she decided to do a
documentary about the hobby. Her goal is to release it to the festival circuit sometime
after spring, 2015.
I interviewed Sara
earlier this month. Find that conversation below.
How did you get interested in doing a documentary
about model railroading?
As a journalist, I'm always looking for a
good story. Since 2008, I've lived in San Diego, which is home to the world
famous San Diego Model Railroad Museum, one of the largest of its kind
When I finally got around to visiting, I was immediately drawn in.
The extreme focus of the model railroaders, and the incredible artistry of
their layouts, made me think that model railroading would be an amazing
For the first few months, I shot
exclusively at the museum. I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Association
president Tom Ilas, and to Mike Thornhill, who took me under his wing and
worked with me through several attempts to record the on-board perspective from
one of his trains using my tiny GoPro camera.
He even bought a depressed center
flat car to allow the camera to sit low enough that it (just barely) cleared
all the tunnels on the layout.
|San Diego Model Railroad Museum|
What interests you about model railroading and model railroaders?
First and foremost is the human angle.
That's what's universal, and that's what's going to extend the Model Citizens
audience beyond just model railroaders. I think any people who are passionate about
what they do are great potential story subjects.
Although I've never been a model
railroader, I've always had a nerdy obsession with miniature structures,
transportation infrastructure and roadside vernacular architecture.
When I was
in the writing program at Brown University, I took classes with a professor
named Patrick Malone, an industrial archeologist and technology historian who
gave highly popular lectures on roadside architecture. I also took a class from
him on bridges and dams.
A lot of what I see on model railroading
layouts reminds me of Professor Malone's information-packed slideshows of
roadside (and trackside) structures. Think Burma-Shave billboards, Mail Pouch
barns and buildings shaped like milk bottles or giant oranges. The history is
fascinating, and it's just a lot of fun to look at.
you a model railroader?
No. Like any good journalist, I can't be part of the story. As an outsider, I'm
discovering model railroading in much the same way I hope my audience will.
Why did you want to make a documentary about the hobby?
There's a lot of great train video out
there, but most of what I've seen has been videography by model railroaders for
model railroaders. As an outsider, I think I bring a fresh perspective to the
idea of representing model railroading to the wider world.
And that's my
biggest challenge: Creating something that will seem valid to those inside the
hobby while generating interest among those outside the hobby.
Also, as many inside the hobby have observed,
I've noticed that most model railroaders these days tend to be older. There are
young people involved, but their numbers may not be big enough to keep the
hobby as healthy and vibrant in the future as it is now. I'm hoping that Model
Citizens can at least help bring the hobby more into the mainstream.
A lot of young people these days are
rediscovering cool interests and ideas. Look at the steampunk movement, for
example, or Comic-Con. Model railroading is finally ready for its close-up. I
can't imagine a better time to reintroduce it to the general public.
Was it hard to get model railroaders to talk about
At first I had a hard time establishing
trust. It took a few letters and phone calls just to get my first tour of the
San Diego Model Railroad Museum. It was doubly difficult for me as an outsider
without any real knowledge of model railroading and as someone who was no
longer affiliated with a media outlet. Instead of simply flashing my business
card, I had a lot of explaining to do.
Once I started working with Mike Thornhill
at the museum, I became a regular for a while and I established trust just by
showing up week after week.
I decided early on that this would be a long-term
project, and that the only way I'd be able to really tap into the human aspects
of the hobby would be to take my time and really get to know the lay of the
I also decided early on that I'd have to develop a website for the project and regularly post short videos on focused topics that would give people a sense of
where I was going with the project while showing them that my intentions were
What do you hear about the future of model
railroading through your work on the documentary?
I hear a lot of concern
about the future of the hobby. It ranges from a sort of quiet acceptance that
the hobby is going away to a zealous insistence that it's not.
One person who
has a particularly interesting perspective on the future of the hobby is Stuart
Forsyth, who is both a model railroader and a futurist. He works primarily in
the legal realm, helping his clients prepare for the future. You'll see his
perspective in the video on my site titled "A Futurist Talks ModelRailroading."
How are you funding the documentary?
I'm entirely self-funded at the moment,
though my days of being able to spread expenses out over several credit card
statements may be coming to an end.
I anticipate some pretty big bills coming
up. For instance, I want to use some historic model railroading footage from
the Works Progress Administration (WPA) archives. They've offered me a good
deal, but just a few minutes of old footage will cost me thousands of dollars
I'm also running out of memory on my giant
G-drives and will soon need to invest in what amounts to a small server farm
just for Model Citizens video. This will also cost a few thousand dollars. And
I've started talking with someone who may wind up creating an original score. I
also know I'll need to hire a sound engineer for post production, which will
cost a lot.
My plan is to break up most of these
big-ticket items into manageable funding goals and launch Kickstarter campaigns
Will you be shooting any video in Canada?
I'd love to. And I'll definitely put in on
the list. I'd also love to visit layouts in England, Europe and Australia,
where there are vibrant model railroading communities.
I'd love to visit
layouts in Asia--particularly Japan, where there's a lot of interest in pop
culture and (and I say this with trepidation, knowing some may be offended by
the term) "toys." In Japan, collectible toys are a very adult interest,
so you won't find any grownups there bothered by the term.
When and where will Model Citizens be
When I finish editing
most likely next spring, I will enter Model Citizens in the film festival
circuit. I hope this leads to a distribution deal.
Is there a double meaning in the title? (Model
Well, the movie is about modellers. They
are all citizens of a special society. Plus, who doesn't want to be a model