Filming "The Chessie Steam Special"

By Autorino, Michael L | American Cinematographer, June 1979 | Go to article overview

Filming "The Chessie Steam Special"


Autorino, Michael L, American Cinematographer


A documentary to celebrate the 150th Birthday of a railroad and also to salute a vanishing American legend: the steam locomotive

In 1977, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad celebrated its 150th anniversary as the first common carrier railroad chartered in the United States. Today, the B & O is part of the dynamic Chessie System, a giant 10,000-mile railroad network. The founding of this pioneer rail line was commemorated in 1977 with a celebration that would eventually span two years. It was Chessie's intention to "bring the party to the people". And it did so in grand style.

The railroad assembled a twenty-car, steam powered excursion train called the "Chessie Steam Special". During its two operating seasons of 1977 and 1978, the Steam Special woulc1 carry over 55,000 passengers and tens of thousands more would come to see it pass by and wave to it. Its journey would take it through ten states in the East and Midwest and over 18,000 miles of track.

The passenger accommodations on board varied from the open-windowed coaches which were so typical of the first part of the twentieth century, to the airconditioned cars of the not-too-distant past. Elegant first-class parlor car and open-observation car seating supplemented the coach space, and offered riders a glimpse of life that existed aboard posh passenger express trains like the Chesapeake and Ohio's George Washington and the Baltimore and Ohio's Capital Limited.

The focal point of the Chessie Steam Special was its massive one-millionpound steam locomotive, No. 2101, which symbolized in face-to-face terms, the energy and vigor of the modern Chessie System, and yet provided a tangible link with the railroad's pioneering efforts of steam motive power.

The filming concept was to document the yellow, blue, and vermillion birthday train as it passed historic locations, rolled through scenic countrysides, and called many a person to trackside with its steam song. Quite naturally, all the people who came down to the station, as well as those who came to ride, became an integral element of the filming plan. The old and the young, the beautiful and the not-so-beautiful, and the workers and the spectators, all became the human side of this rare occasion.

Many times, before we did any shooting, we consulted railroad officials to help us determine the most photogenic spots in their respective areas. These men were invaluable with their insight and assistance. And frequently their knowledge proved to be a great help in our gaining access to difficult-to-reach locations. Also, our scouting efforts depended heavily on the use of U.S. Geodetic Survey maps, which adequately indicate all roads, rail lines, and ground characteristics.

Our 16mm camera equipment consisted of a Bolex EBM, and two Bolex Rex Vs, which were fitted with electric drives. They operated flawlessly, even though subjected to extremely dirty filming situations and heavy vibration. An Arrivox-Tandberg, together with a Sony 800TC, were used to record location sound. Despite an admixture of water, grease, cinders, and heat, these units also performed without any problems.

Some of the planned shots called for the use of custom designed and built camera mounts. A "ties eye" view shot required the use of a special mount for a between-the-rails, under-train shot. This was constructed from angle steel stock and was designed to be a universal size to fit on the varying widths of ties that are in use. This mount was securely clamped to a track tie with the camera mounted at a predetermined angle. The remote-controlled camera was positioned beneath the railhead and fixed in place with the aid of a level to check vertical accuracy.

Another trackside mount was designed and built to effect a 180-degree vertical rotation of the camera. This was also made of steel. Beginning and ending camera stops were incorporated into the design, since it was impossible to follow the subject through the viewfinder while filming and rotating the camera. …

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