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.
Among the people she interviewed about involvement in the hobby was Hollywood actor Michael Gross.
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 anywhere.
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 documentary topic.
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.
Are 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.
Sara doing an interview.
Was it hard to get model railroaders to talk about their hobby?
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 land.
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 good.
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 to license.
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 for each.
Sara interviewing Michael Gross.
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 shown?
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 Citizens.)
Well, the movie is about modellers. They are all citizens of a special society. Plus, who doesn’t want to be a model citizen?
For more information, visit the Model Citizens website, or click here to read an article by Sara.