Photography as a building aid

It’s natural to wait until your diorama is completed before taking pictures of it. After all, the finished product is what people want to see. But there’s a case to be made for getting out your camera before everything is finished. 

I’m in the final stages of completing Mirage, a diorama featuring WWII Germany’s versatile Junkers JU-88 medium bomber. I decided to take some photos before mounting the acrylic window which will cover the front of the diorama. Without a polarizing filter, reflections from acrylic and glass can be an issue when photographing your work. 

When I reviewed the photos I’d taken, a number of flaws came to light which I hadn’t noticed before. I wondered how I could have missed them. 

The camera, I realized, was like a second set of eyes. It enabled me to see the diorama differently, revealing imperfections which went unnoticed before. I can think of two reasons for the camera’s unique ability to do this. 

The first reason is that our eyes are permanently set in wide angle mode. We can’t ‘zoom in’ on subjects. A camera’s field of vision, on the other hand, can be varied. Close-up photographs allow us to more easily study separate sections of a diorama, one at a time. When all our attention is focused on a very small part of the diorama, it’s harder for flaws to escape scrutiny. 

The second reason is that looking at something in three dimensions presents the eye with more information than when looking at the same subject in two dimensions. When looking for flaws, this can be a liability, because some of the information is superfluous. The photograph distills what you see into a simplified two-dimensional form. This makes it easier to pick up mistakes in your work. In other words, flaws which were ‘buried’ in a three-dimensional view are laid bare in two dimensions. 

Before the days of digital photography, taking pictures was a much longer process. You had to buy a roll of film, take your pictures, and get everything developed and printed at the photo shop. The whole process could take several days, with the result that photography tended to be reserved for special occasions. But with the instant turnaround conferred by digital cameras, the bounds of conservativism in picture taking have been forever broken. I’d venture that photography has actually become too accessible, as evidenced by that modern day cultural aberration known as the selfie. 

To paraphrase Blade Runner’s Rick Deckard, technology can be a benefit or a hazard. That goes for cameras as well as replicants. So put your camera to good use, and when you’re nearing the end of your project, take pictures of your work in progress. Don’t skimp on coverage. Get several angles and plenty of close-ups. You may be surprised at what you discover, and once you fix the things you missed, you’ll have a better diorama. 

If you like to build dioramas and want to learn more about how to optimize the visual impact of your work, you might like my book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar

Sea Water from Tomytec

Diorama modellers who like to build scenes featuring ships and boats know how important realistic looking water is to the overall effect. Depending on the location being portrayed, water  can look transparent, translucent, or opaque, and can take on a wide variety of colours, including blue, green, grey, teal and turquoise, to name a few. Its surface can range anywhere from glassy smooth to wave tossed. 

If you’re working in larger scales like 1:35, water is much more visually appealing if it’s translucent rather than opaque. Even a muddy river has a top layer which is translucent. Getting this effect is usually very labour intensive. My Drug Runners diorama required five layers of two-part resin infused with blue paint to get the effect I was after. Ripples were added to the top layer with a spatula, before the resin had completely set. Creating the wake for the speedboat also took some experimentation before I was satisfied with the results. 

Generally speaking, smaller scales will have more opaque looking water. If your taste runs to naval vessels in scales such as 1:144 or 1:200, you’re in luck, because Tomytec has a solution. Simply referred to as Sea Water, Tomytech is offering a set of two A4 size sheets of PET depicting an ocean surface in 1:150 scale. The sheets are thin enough to be cut with scissors, so you can easily customize them to fit a base of any shape. 

Tomytec doesn’t specify if the sheets are translucent or opaque. Translucency would provide more control over the final appearance of the ocean surface you’re modelling. You can always make a translucent surface more opaque, but not the reverse. 

With these sheets, all you have to do is affix your waterline hull model to the sheet, add some wake, and you’re all set. Infinitely easier than creating your own water using resin mixes. 

Tomytec’s Sea Water sheets will be available in June. You can pre-order them at www.1999.co.jp

If you like to build dioramas and want to learn more about how to optimize the visual impact of your work, you might like my book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar

T2 Judgement Day diorama

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) was one of those rare sequels that outdid its predecessor both critically and commercially. Featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger at the top of his game, director James Cameron’s second time travel flick has stood the test of time. T2 is still the defining installment of the Terminator franchise nearly three decades after its release. None of the subsequent Terminator films have come close to capturing the frothy mix of inventive plotting and brilliant chase sequences that made T2 so successful. 

Pegasus Hobbies offers a number of kits based on the Terminator franchise. One is a diorama featuring T-800 Endoskeletons patrolling a post-apocalyptic battlefield, recalling the opening scene in T2. Although the kit has been out for some time, there’s now a special edition featuring chrome plated figures. Pegasus doesn’t specify a scale, but resellers put it at 1:32. 

Kits with chrome plated parts are a rarity. Few manufacturers go to the trouble of adding this process to their production lines, perhaps because so few subjects require it. Unless you build kits of 1950s and 1960s cars, you may have never been faced with the task of creating a chrome finish. 

If you’ve attempted to duplicate the look of chrome, you probably found out that even the most sophisticated multi-layer airbrush techniques won’t give you a realistic looking chrome finish. No matter how much you layer it and polish it, at the end of the day, silver paint will just look like silver paint. This is where chrome plated parts come in. 

One of the earliest kits I remember building was a beautiful chrome plated CF-104 Starfighter, and the factory chroming process was exceptionally good. Assuming the process being used by Pegasus is similar, the results should be impressive. Just remember to scrape the chrome off the areas that will receive glue (otherwise the parts won’t stick together). 

The T2 diorama is a tad sparse. It consists of five figures, a relatively flat circular base, and a ruin of a stone gate. A standard out-of-the-box build isn’t going to give you anything that looks like what you saw in the film. Adding some additional elements, like a rusted out truck or Hunter Killer (which Pegasus also makes), would liven things up. Even a few rocks and pieces of scrap metal would help. Since the battlefield in T2 was shown at night, some lighting would go a long way to recreating the ambience of the scene. To quote John Connor, ‘there is no fate but what we make for ourselves.’ The same is true for your diorama.  

If you like to build dioramas and want to learn more about how to optimize the visual impact of your work, you might like my book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar

Order of Operations

Back in grade school we learned about something called order of operations in math class. When solving an equation, we were told the correct sequence was brackets, multiplication, division, addition, and subtraction. There’s also an order of operations when creating a diorama, but the sequence isn’t constant. It depends on the project. 

The more complex your diorama, the more time it’ll take you to figure out the order of operations. Here’s a case study to illustrate: I’m currently working on a diorama depicting a scene from Star Wars: A New Hope, which shows a group of rebel fighters flying past Yavin on their way to intercept the approaching Death Star. This is a box diorama, so it’s going to be fully enclosed. 

Here’s a list of tasks which need to be completed:

  • build X-Wings and Y-Wings
  • install LED stars
  • fabricate and install EL panel depicting Yavin
  • line interior with black velvet
  • install X-Wings and Y-Wings
  • drill holes in back panel for wiring
  • punch holes in black velvet for lighting
  • fabricate and assemble top, back and bottom panels
  • install front window
  • stain cabinet exterior

These ten tasks can be arranged in many different sequences. In fact, using permutation theory, we can determine exactly how many possible sequences there are. The formula is 10! which equals 3,628,800. Hard to believe there are that many possible ways to build a diorama, but there you have it. 

Since we’re dealing with art rather than science here, there’s rarely a perfect sequence. Each will have its pros and cons. The important thing is to avoid a sequence which unnecessarily increases your workload or makes it difficult for you to complete your project the way you envisioned it (without undoing a large part of your work and starting over). 

A common pitfall is forgetting to include all the tasks on your list. Just as many chefs prepare recipes by heart (and then forget to add the salt), most diorama artists probably don’t make written task lists. But it’s not a bad idea. When you’re going by memory, it’s easy to leave a step out and not realize it until it’s too late. Forgetting just one task in our example means that all 362,880 ways of completing the nine tasks you wrote down would lead to problems! 

Assuming you carefully wrote down all the required tasks and checked to make sure no steps were missing, the other error you can make is of course completing a task out of sequence, making it difficult or impossible to complete subsequent tasks. For example, you might decide the two last steps will be installing the X-Wings and Y-Wings and then installing the front window. But if you forgot to measure your models and realize too late that they’re too big to fit through the opening for the front window, you’d have a problem. 

Rather than trying to juggle over three million sequences in your head, it’s much easier to write down three or four which seem to make sense. Then study each option you’ve written down, verifying that none of the earlier steps will create problems in completing any of the subsequent steps. You may realize at this point that one or two of your sequences won’t work very well. By process of elimination, you can pick a sequence which will allow you to successfully complete your project the way you envisioned it, without complications.

And you thought math couldn’t be fun! 

If you like to build dioramas and want to learn more about how to optimize the visual impact of your work, you might like my book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar

Review of Diorama Design

My book, Diorama Design, has just been reviewed in the Winter 2019 edition of The Potomac Flyer. This is a quarterly publication of the Potomac Division, NMRA (National Model Railroad Association). The review is by Nicholas Kalis, a veteran NMRA model railroader and author who has written many articles devoted to the hobby. 

Mr. Kalis does a great job in his review of discussing how the principles in Diorama Design apply not only to dioramas, but to model railroads as well. After all, a scenic model railroad can be thought of as a diorama enlivened by the motion of miniature trains. I wrote about this in a previous post.  

Unlike two-dimensional art forms like painting and photography, dioramas and model railroads share a sculptural aspect and a reach-out-and-touch-it physical presence. They also utilize similar construction techniques and materials. Above all, modelers in both camps share a common interest in creating visually compelling miniature environments.

Based on these similarities, Mr. Kalis makes a strong case that model railroad aficionados can benefit from the concepts outlined in Diorama Design. So if you’re a model railroader looking to add some visual punch to your layout, you may want to check out the book. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon. 

Thanks to Mr. Kalis for sharing his insights from the world of model railroads, and for taking the initiative to write the review. You can read it here

-Ivar

The RBG Escarpment Train

The Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG) is a major tourist attraction in Burlington, Canada. As the name implies, the focus of RBG is horticulture. However, the site also features a G gauge (1:29 scale) model railroad layout, which was donated to RBG by Norman and Jackie Wells of Burlington in 2017. 

Known as the RBG Escarpment Train, the specs are impressive: nine diesel and two steam locomotives, 122 metres of track, and 476 figures on a 37 square metre layout. Although the sheer size of the layout commands attention, what really makes it memorable is the varied topography. There’s an intriguing mix of hills, valleys, tunnels and bridges, with lots of variation in height. Creating a continuous run track plan with this much of a vertical span is quite challenging, and the RBG Escarpment Train succeeds beautifully. 

Varying the topography accomplishes the same goal in both railroad layouts and dioramas. It creates visual interest. Multiple levels are always more interesting than one level. Unless you’re in the desert or in the middle of a lake, you generally see topography all around you. It’s part of nature, so employing it in a layout or diorama will also contribute to the realism of the scene you’re creating.   

The layout incorporates full lighting, allowing visitors to enjoy nighttime as well as daytime views of the exhibit. The nighttime version is especially striking.

The RBG Escarpment Train lives up to its name and is definitely worth a visit (more info at www.rbg.ca) next time you’re in Southern Ontario. Even if you’re not a gardener!

If you like to build dioramas and want to learn more about how to optimize the visual impact of your work, you might like my book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar

Dioramas in Film – Quo Vadis

Quo Vadis (1951) is a biblical epic about a Roman army commander who falls in love with a beautiful Christian hostage and begins questioning the despotic rule of Emperor Nero. Like all epics of its time, the film features many magnificent sets, some of immense proportions. 

Of considerably smaller proportions is a diorama which appears about an hour and a half into the movie. Nero is conversing with his architect, Phaon, and we are introduced to an elaborate miniature of a new Rome envisioned by Nero. Filled with classical architecture, the diorama is made all the more elegant by virtue of being rendered entirely in whites and light pastels. The level of detail is impressive. 

From a storytelling perspective, the diorama is central to the film. It symbolizes the egomaniacal fervor of Nero, who sees this new Rome as a tribute to his glory as Emperor. Nero has no interest in what benefits a new city could potentially offer its citizens. Rather, he speaks haughtily of the foul smells which will disappear when the city is built, and he even has a new name for it: Neropolis. The city is an expression of his megalomania.

Rather than remaining an elaborate sketch of a distant dream, this diorama portends ominous events which soon come to fruition. In order to build his new city, Nero must first destroy the old one. So he gives the order to burn Rome to the ground. From the safety of his palace, he plays the lyre as the flames rise. Nero’s final touch is to blame the Christians for starting the fire, giving him the excuse he needs to hunt them down.

These events propel the film to its climax, which is grandly staged in the tradition of historical films of the period.  Although Quo Vadis never achieved the critical acclaim of Ben-Hur or Spartacus, it’s a fine work with a well deserved place in the pantheon of biblical epics.   

If you like to build dioramas and want to learn more about how to optimize the visual impact of your work, you might like my book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar


Dioramas in Film – Diamonds Are Forever

After looking at the diorama from the movie Goldfinger, it’s time once again to return to the world of James Bond. Diamonds are Forever (1971) takes Bond to Las Vegas, where a diamond smuggling investigation puts him in the middle of a plot involving satellites, high energy lasers, and his arch nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld.  

High above Las Vegas is the lavish penthouse of billionaire industrialist Willard Whyte. The most distinctive feature of this Ken Adam designed set is the floor, which has a circular glass inset containing a diorama of Whyte’s worldwide business enterprises. Several meters in diameter, the disk-shaped diorama is surrounded by three curved couches which hug its perimeter, accentuating the circular motif. The diorama goes a step beyond the one in Goldfinger by virtue of its glass roof, which is flush with the floor and is supported by a gleaming metal lattice. The shape of the lattice mimics the latitude and longitude lines on a world map. 

Auric Golfinger’s cleaning lady would have had her work cut out for her dusting the massive diorama of Fort Knox. The reclusive Whyte, who abhors intrusions into his private lair, wisely decided to cover his diorama with glass, keeping it permanently dust-free without the need for outside help. If you read my previous post on keeping dust off your diorama, you’ll appreciate the eminent practicality of this design. 

The other advantage of the glass cover is more floor space. You can walk over Whyte’s diorama, since the glass is part of the floor. Goldfinger, on the other hand, has to be careful he doesn’t take a misstep and fall onto Fort Knox. 

The diorama in Diamonds are Forever is highly stylized, populated with miniatures of missiles, oil rigs, etc. which are almost toylike in their simplicity. Since the miniatures have to be recognizable from a distance, this visually reductionist approach works well. A ring of floodlights also helps ensure that everything is visible. So striking is the diorama that it’s shown in nearly every shot of the film’s penthouse scenes. Cinematographer Ted Moore clearly recognized the value of Ken Adam’s contribution and leveraged it to the hilt. 

If you like to build dioramas and want to learn more about how to optimize the visual impact of your work, you might like my book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar

Keeping your dioramas dust-free

The vast majority of dioramas consist of a base with no background or enclosure. While this type of diorama is the easiest and quickest to build, it’s also the least practical. With nothing to cover it, that ubiquitous household villain known as dust will make its presence known all too soon. Even if you keep your windows closed, your diorama will soon be covered in dust. 

Now depending on the contents of your diorama, dusting it may be a minor nuisance or a major undertaking. Dusting a 1:12 scale contemporary car will be easier than dusting a 1:72 scale forest scene. 

As you begin the task of dusting, you’ll find yourself bringing home every type of cleaning rag carried by your hardware store or supermarket. Then you’ll start experimenting with various cleaning liquids, from window cleaners to vinegar and dish detergent. At some point you may inadvertantly damage your diorama and be faced with a repair job. 

If you forego frequent dusting, you’ll find that the dust becomes even more difficult to eradicate. It almost seems to turn sticky if you leave it too long. The longer you wait, the thicker it gets, and the harder the job becomes when you finally get around to it. 

There’s a simple solution to this, and it’s called the box diorama (also known as a shadowbox). This is a diorama which adds walls and a ‘roof’ to the base (at least one wall is transparent, for obvious reasons). The walls and roof prevent any dust from getting onto your diorama, guaranteeing that it will continue to look as good as the day you finished it. Any dust that accumulates on the outside of the diorama can be cleaned off in seconds, the same as windows or a countertop.  

To be completely dust free, the box diorama should be completely sealed. Any open spaces will allow dust to get in. It doesn’t have to be airtight, but it should be covered on each side and devoid of gaps. 

The simplest way to start is with a commercially available display case. This type of case consists of a clear acrylic cover which attaches to an opaque base. While a box diorama usually has a background photo or painting on the rear wall, this isn’t absolutely necessary, and you can always add it later. If you can’t find a commercially available display case that you like, you can make your own. Whether you opt for a pre-made display case or a custom version, your diorama will be beautifully dust free. 

If you like to build dioramas and want to learn more about how to optimize the visual impact of your work, you might like my book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar

There’s no rush

As a modeller, there will be times when you get stuck at a certain stage in your project because you’re not quite happy with something. You’re faced with a choice of either proceeding and hoping it will turn out okay, or waiting. I favour waiting, for the simple reason that letting something marinate in your head for a while can often yield a better solution. 

Here’s an example. I’m currently adding propellers to a 1:600 scale B-29 bomber. The props in this scale need to be 8mm in diameter. I’ll be showing the bomber in flight, so I need transparent or translucent disks to mimic the look of spinning props. The material also has to be very thin. 

After looking at various options, I finally came across some clear rubber bumper pads at the hardware store. The pads are the right diameter, but are too thick and have a convex surface. I tried sanding them down by hand, but the rubber didn’t sand well and left tiny strands protruding from the surface. 

At this point, I could have used the bumper pads ‘as is’ and lived with the fact that they’re too thick and have a convex surface. But I decided to wait instead. This isn’t to say I put everything away. I left the B-29 on the work table so I wouldn’t forget about it. 

Every time I walked by and looked at the B-29, I’d mull over the problem. After a few days, I came up with the idea of using my drill. I already had a fine grit sanding bit so I gave it a shot. Voilà! No more rubber strands. The high speed of the drill bit made all the difference, producing a smooth, flat surface and reducing the overall thickness of the parts. 

The B-29 project can now move forward, complete with realistic looking props. Moral of the story: don’t rush, because in a few days you may come up with a better idea. 

If you like to build dioramas and want to learn more about how to optimize the visual impact of your work, you might like my book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar