'Thomas the Tank Engine' director: David Mitton

With Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends, the television director David Mitton brought to life on screen the railway locomotives from the much-loved children's books written by the Rev W. Awdry. In his "Railway Series", which began in the 1940s, Awdry had given Thomas and the other brightly coloured engines, such as Gordon and James, personalities of their own and so successfully were they transferred to television that new programmes are still being made a quarter of a century later.

The producer Britt Allcroft had approached Mitton with the idea of bringing the children's stories to television after securing the rights to the books and, in a joint production between her company and his Clearwater Films, they made Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends between 1984 and 2003 until HiT bought out Allcroft and retitled the programme Thomas & Friends.

Mitton, who wrote some of the scripts after the original stories had been used up, directed all 182 episodes in the seven series made during that period. He was able to move each engine's eyes in real time – not stop-frame animation– by using a radio control linked to a motor mounted behind them, and there was a sculpted mask that could be changed to give different facial expressions. The actor Michael Angelis took over from the former Beatle Ringo Starr as narrator after the first two series.

Although Thomas the Tank Engine merchandise had previously been available, the programmes led to a boom in new products, creating a multi-million-pound industry. They also gave Awdry's characters a fresh lease of life, introducing a new generation of children to the Fat Controller and his rolling stock on the fictional Island of Sodor – and became popular around the world. Where Awdry had treated all the locomotives as equal, the television series made a personality of Thomas, the cheeky No 1 engine, painted blue and designated a "Really Useful Engine", with his own branch line.

Born in the East Lothian village of Preston, outside Edinburgh, in 1939, the son of a consultant engineer, Mitton attended Strathallan School in Perthshire, before joining the Royal Navy and working with its Air Sea Rescue Service. This might have prepared him well for a switch in career to become a special-effects technician for Gerry Anderson, the television producer whose animated puppet series enthralled children with their hi-tech adventures involving futuristic craft on land or sea or in the air.

Mitton was a member of the supervising visual effects director Derek Meddings's team, displaying a special skill in setting up the electronics necessary for making models, such as buildings, blow up on cue in Thunderbirds (1965-66), Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967-68), Joe 90 (1968), The Secret Service (1969) and the live-action series U.F.O. (1970-71).

As Anderson moved away from animation, Mitton turned freelance. He was the assistant director to Ridley Scott on the famous Hovis commercials of the 1970s and began directing animated television advertisements himself. Then, with Ken Turner – who had directed Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons and U.F.O. – he formed the Clearwater Film Company (later Clearwater Films). However, Mitton's first job as producer, with Turner directing, was not on an animated production, but Argent Circus (1975), a concert featuring high-wire and trapeze acts staged to music written and performed by the rock star Rod Argent.

With Clearwater, in 1982 he also directed award-winning commercials for Hovis set in an orbiting space station and accompanied by an electronic version of Dvorák's New World Symphony, and for PG Tips tea-bags.

Mitton's return to animation came with Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends. He then created, with the newly formed Clearwater Features, TUGS (1989), a "Thomas the Tank Engine with tugboats" series, and directed most of the 13 episodes, which featured the adventures of Captain Star's Star Fleet at the fictional Bigg City Port.

Two years ago, Mitton became creative director of Pineapple Squared Entertainment, which he founded with David Lane, a director of Thunderbirds and other Gerry Anderson series, and Michele Fabian-Jones. At the time of Mitton's death, they were working on Adventures on Orsum Island, a 26-part, computer-generated animated series.

Anthony Hayward

David Nelson Godfrey Mitton, director: born Preston, East Lothian 27 February 1939; twice married (one son); died London 16 May 2008.