Christmas Trains – Behind the Scenes

Creating custom motion backgrounds can be challenging for multiple reasons, at a very minimum, costly and time consuming. The highly anticipated Christmas Trains was a recent set of motion backgrounds I produced that featured a set of HO model trains in three different variations surrounded by a Christmas village, trees, and smoke.

The sound stage, a fancy word for work space, doesn’t have to be huge as long as you control what the viewer sees through the camera. From the viewers perspective, they see a whole village, trains, and long sets of tracks, leading them to believe there is a massive set up and a near real-life display. That isn’t usually the case, at least for my set ups.

I had a total budget of $80. Sixty of those dollars were spent on the snow floor, fluffy backdrop snow, lights, and trees. The remaining $20 secured the rental of the model train sets.


I had about a 15 foot by 10 foot working space. So first things first. The backdrop needed to be dark so with a few staples, I hung a blue-ish drape for the backdrop and then laid down the snowy floor; then the fluffy snow, followed by the train tracks and village pieces. The last step to setting this up was lighting the scene. This was more tricky than I thought because I wanted to create a night looking scene, but didn’t want to raise the ISO on my camera, so there had to be a balance. The solution I came up with was lots of blue lights. It created enough ambient light for the camera to be able to see, but also had that night time look as well.

Then came the challenge of what video format to shoot the footage in. I was using a Black Magic 4.6K Ursa Mini in a Pro Res 444 video format in 3840X2160 resolution. While this format takes up alot of space, it produces incredible looking footage that kept the details in low light. I ran a SDI out to a TV so we could see what the picture looked like on a big screen to be sure color, detail, and focus was right where we wanted it.


My friend ran the trains while I did the shooting. It was always a tricky balance of making sure the trains didn’t go too fast around the track that is played with the surrounding elements, but also, fast enough to be sure it didn’t take too long for the train to come around again.  After nearly 5 hours of shooting, we had several different backgrounds we like using different variations of trees, buildings, and lights.

A few things I would change if I were to do this shoot again. First, add more light so a wider depth of field could be used. With the low light, I cranked the aperature down to a 2.8, and with that, the trains didn’t stay in focus very long as they passed by. The second thing would have been to have created a larger backdrop. I was forced to shoot tighter than I wanted to on the trains so the background didn’t cut off. However,  it was an extremely fun project to take on and we had a blast producing this motion background package. Download this 8 motion background package here:

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