Thomas and Friends: The CGI Series refers to the television series as it was produced from the twelfth season onwards. In 2008, HiT Entertainment announced that Thomas and Friends would be undergoing a radical change in production. The company announced its intent to relocate production of the series from the United Kingdom to Canada. With this change, HIT announced that future Thomas productions would be animated with Computer-Generated Imagery.
HiT Entertainment's Senior Vice President of Production and Programming, Christopher Skala, stated that the change, aside from budgetary reasons, was intended to convey more emotion and flexibility through the stories. Skala claimed that, of his focus group, even those who felt that Thomas, as an institution, should not be changed in this way ultimately responded positively to the demonstration of the new animation techniques.
As part of a transitional period, the twelfth season would see computer-animated faces and characters superimposed over the live-action environment of earlier seasons. Characters could now display a variety of new expressions and their mouths would move in sync with the storyteller's voice when they are talking, whilst their thinking is evident when their mouths aren't moving in sync! People, animals, and certain other characters became wholly CGI elements.
This change was made possible by motion-capture animation. When a character's face needed to move, the moulded faces of earlier seasons would be replaced by a target, to which the computer could attach a face in post-production. The animation for this and future seasons would be provided by Nitrogen Studios, based in Canada.
Three new characters were introduced:
The first feature of the overhauled series was Hero of the Rails, released in autumn 2009. Trailers, DVD covers and a music video called Go, Go Thomas all from this feature-length special were shown on YouTube prior to its official release. Book merchandise tying into the special have also appeared on online retailers. It introduced three new characters and a new location - the Sodor Steamworks.
Three new characters were introduced in Hero of the Rails:
- Hiro, an old Japanese engine, whom Thomas helped restore.
- Kevin, a yellow four-wheeled mobile crane who belongs to the Sodor Steamworks.
- Victor, a red tank engine who is in charge of the Sodor Steamworks.
The thirteenth season was the first season to feature computer-animation exclusively. Two images were originally found - two recreations of scenes from the eleventh season episode Thomas and the Stinky Cheese.
One new character was introduced in this season:
- Charlie, a purple tank engine.
Misty Island Rescue is a special that was released on September 7th, 2010 in the US and October 11th in the UK.
- The first appearances of Diesel 10, Harold, Salty, Whiff, Stanley, and Butch in a fully CGI environment.
- Bash and Dash, mischievous gray and yellow tank engine twins.
- Captain, a brave lifeboat.
- Ferdinand, a teal class C Climax.
The fourteenth season is the second to use CGI exclusively. It began airing on October the 11th, 2010 in the UK and in November in the US.
The fifteenth season is the third to use CGI exclusively. It began airing on March 1st, 2011 in the UK and on April 2nd in the US. The twenty episode season was supposed to air after the release of Day of the Diesels, but was brought forward for unknown reasons. Rupert Degas joined the voice cast.
- Butch spoke for the first time.
- The first speaking roles of Bertie and Stanley in the CGI series.
- The return of Arlesdale End, Castle Loch, the Fishing Village, and Wellsworth.
- The first appearance of Trevor in a CGI episode.
- The first appearance of the Sodor Dieselworks.
- Belle, a blue tank engine with a brass bell and water cannons.
- Flynn, a road-rail fire engine who will join the Search and Rescue Team.
- Den, a stately Diesel who will work at the Sodor Dieselworks.
- Dart, a clumsy Diesel who will work with Den at the Sodor Dieselworks.
- Norman, Dennis' twin. He often breaks down, but would be a Really Useful Engine if fixed properly.
- Paxton, a gullible Class 08 shunter who likes steam engines.
- Sidney, a forgetful and absent minded Class 08 shunter.
The sixteenth season first aired in February and March 2012 in the UK and April and June in the US. Skarloey, Rheneas, Sir Handel, Peter Sam, and Rusty returned along with the Skarloey Railway Depot, the lighthouse, the Sodor Suspension Bridge, and trucks with faces. Steven Kynman joins the voice cast as Peter Sam (albeit uncredited in the UK broadcast) and William Hope is added to the UK voice cast for the first time. This was the last season animated by Nitrogen Studios.
- Stafford, a wooden battery-electric shunting engine.
- Winston, a red track inspection vehicle belonging to Sir Topham Hatt.
Owen and Merrick both cameoed in The Christmas Tree Express.
Blue Mountain Mystery is a special that was released in 2012. The Skarloey Railway engines feature heavily. Michael Legge joins the voice cast as Luke. This was the last special animated by Nitrogen Studios.
This special also marks the official introduction of Winston.
King of the Railway is a special that was released in September 2013. This special marks the return of Jack. Bob Golding and David Menkin joined the voice cast, although the latter went uncredited. Four of the new characters were first seen in the seventeenth season. This will be the first special animated by Arc Productions.
Characters officially introduced:
- Caitlin, a pink-purple streamlined tender engine
- Millie, a light blue tank engine
- Connor, an aquamarine streamlined tender engine
- Sir Robert Norramby, an Earl of Sodor
The seventeenth season started airing in June 2013. This season is the first to use a new writing style for the series and is also the first animated by Arc Productions. Mark Moraghan takes over narration duties from Michael Angelis and Michael Brandon and Rupert Degas is no longer a member of the voice cast. This season marks the return of Kellsthorpe, Dryaw, Duck, Harvey, Bill and Ben. Diesel 10 and Sidney also appear in an episode for the first time. As ten episodes of this season were released ahead of King of the Railway, this season marks the first appearances of Millie, Connor, Caitlin and Sir Robert Norramby and their voice actors Miranda Raison, Jonathan Forbes, Rebecca O'Mara, and Mike Grady respectively. Although this is their first appearance, they would not be officially introduced until King of the Railway. Jonathan Broadbent also joins the voice cast.
Tale of the Brave is a special slated to be released in March 2014. It will be the second special to feature animation from Arc Productions.
The nineteenth season may air sometime in 2015. It will be the third season animated by Arc.
"The WWII Movie" (possibly titled "Thomas the Tank Engine") is the fan-made term used to refer to a Thomas and Friends film that was due for release in 2014. Josh Klausner, Will McRobb, and Chris Viscardi were confirmed as the writers. The film would have use a combination of live action (most likely humans) and CGI. Unlike the current seasons and specials however, it appears that Weta Digital instead of Nitrogen Studios will be supplying the CGI aspect of the movie. Shane Acker, the films director, revealed that "The tale will revolve around a pre-teen boy who has drifted apart from his father. The son is introduced into this world of Sodor, a place his father visited as a child but can't remember. There is a bonding experience." Shane Acker revealed that the film was cancelled due to "lack of interest" in February 2013.