STOP10 Nov 2017: 'One Track Mind' by On The Rocks Productions

You are never too old for toys. That's what these 'boys' live by - a retired banker, a retired handyman, an advertiser, an engineer, and an IT consultant. The short film One Track Mind centers around the story of model railway enthusiast Thomas Bhat, and the friends he has made along the way. These men (henceforth referred to as Train Buddies) come from all walks of life but they share a roaring passion for their locomotives. In 13:19 minutes, One Track Mind explores how these miniature models captivate the men, and the lengths people will go for the things they love - even if no one else understands.

This short documentary by On The Rocks Productions recently won the First Prize in the Student Category in the Singapore Heritage Short Film Competition (HSFC) organized by the Singapore Film Society (SFS) with support from National Heritage Board.

On The Rocks Production is made up of Ruth Smalley (Director & Director of Photography), Holly Matthews (Producer), Tiara Yap (Asst producer), and Mark Benedict Cheong (Editor & Sound). 

The five friends featured in the film not only share a passion. They hope to build Singapore's first model railway museum too. With such a unique subject, the film instantly promises to intrigue and it certainly did. The documentary is well paced and gives the audience enough colour on each individual's life. And the team obviously has a way with making their subjects extremely comfortable in front of the camera.

SINdie spoke to the team behind this unique production,

How did the subject matter come to mind? including the use of the figurines? 

Ruth, our Director, has heard about Thomas Bhat and the train shop he’d opened in his house, so she went to meet and talk to him. And at first when she pitched the idea to us, we were all a bit sceptical. Model trains? We didn’t know anything about the hobby at all, and didn’t know it was a ‘thing’ in Singapore. How would we be able to take such a niche interest, and make it relatable to anyone who watched it? But Ruth was really insistent, and she basically said, “You’ve just got to meet this guy and you’ll understand”. So we did. We all trooped off to Bukit Batok to meet Thomas and see his shop. And Ruth was completely right. When you first meet Thomas, you see a quiet, lovely - if a bit nerdy - man. But then you start talking about model trains, he gets this light in his eyes; he gets very animated and passionate. That’s what really interested us. As creators, we related to that passion, and we knew other people would too - even if they have never seen a model train in their life. 

As for the models, all of the men in our film had a sense of wanting to create a mini world - whether it’s to relive an old memory, or create new ones. Running parallel to that was also the idea that this miniature hobby was such a huge part of their lives, despite the literal size. So we wanted to play with that juxtaposition of big VS small: how little things can mean a lot. And we also wanted to visually make our men a part of the little universes they created, so they could have some physical representation of themselves in their own worlds. 

After we wrapped filming, we actually gave each man his corresponding figurine, and they really loved it.

Was there a particular memorable memory of the filming process? 

There is no one big memory, but a collection of snippets, showing the warmth and kindness of Thomas Bhat, Jaap Jan Kompf, Pad Krishna, Mustaffa, and Gavin Hall. We call them our train men. We can't emphasise enough how sweet and welcoming they were to us.

To set the scene a little, in any shoot, we had a huge camera bag, an even bigger hard case for our lenses, tripods, a boom pole, sound mixer, lights, light stands, and then our own backpacks and equipment like duct tape, production notes - you get the picture. Every shoot is always kind of a logistical nightmare, but mostly you're on a set or in a studio so the equipment doesn't have to move. For documentary, however, you're always shooting in different locations, so it's like a travelling circus with all our bulky bags and boxes. Add to that the fact that we were shooting in people's homes - where they kept all their precious possessions and lived their lives. It was a huge imposition on the part of our train men, so we were fully expecting to have to manage their displeasure. 

However, our train men were nothing short of lovely hosts. We were a ragtag team - sweaty, noisy, exhausted students - showing up with like 20 thousand bags. Then we'd all cram around their precious train layouts and demand silence, making them repeat interviews because a car horned outside, or one of their kids happened to laugh in another room. They were so kind and patient with us the entire process. Gavin encouraged us when we were tired, telling us about his time in Communications school; Pad made tea and snacks for us after we wrapped a long shoot; and Mustaffa even gave us each a green packet for Hari Raya. Thomas put up with us for weeks of reshoots, all trudging into his shop, because we needed to get that one perfect shot. It got to the point where he'd automatically wear the same shirt every time we came, even if we didn't tell him, because he knew we needed continuity. Everything our train men did for us, all of it was just out of the goodness of their hearts! We had nothing to offer them except the promise of a short little quirky documentary that probably no one would ever see.

Any hopes on your audiences? 

When we were pitching and planning this idea for the film, we knew it wasn’t going to be earth shattering or life changing. A lot of things in life aren’t, and that doesn’t mean that they are less important or meaningful to us. So we really wanted to lean into that appreciation of the small things in life that can bring us such joy. We also hoped Thomas’ determination to make his museum a reality would inspire others to pursue their dreams.

Pictures and stills courtesy of On The Rocks Productions

One Track Mind will be screened as part of the Singapore Heritage Short Film Competition Travelling Showcase. This year's travelling showcase comprises of 8 short films that make up this year's winners and finalists. They include:

Nautical Miles (PG) by Lighthouse Pictures

Set A: The Singaporean Breakfast (G) by S.M.J Productions

Old of Things (PG) by Honest Visuals

Getting Tough 纸扎止扎 (PG) by 小火 PorDuckSions

Apache Over Singapore (PG) by The60sApaches

The Last Line (PG) by SNP Collective

The Nine Emperor Gods (PG) by Broadcast Media Team 2

One Track Mind (G) by On The Rocks Productions

There will be a post-screening Q&A with the filmmakers of one of the films. The films are in multiple languages, and subtitled in English.
Free admission to general public, all are welcome!
For more info about the competition, please check out:

There are two more upcoming Travelling Showcases in November. Here are the details:

Fri 17 Nov, 7pm – 8.30pm

Goodman Arts Centre
Sat, 25 Nov, 4pm – 10pm*
*Screening on loop

Visit HSFC’s FB page for the latest updates on the release of tickets.

Interview by Ivan Choong

For the full list of November 2017's 10 films under STOP10, click here.
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