Steaming into new territory

This innovative diorama of a cargo steamer, on display at the Estonian Maritime Museum, combines a 3D cutaway model with a transparent OLED display. The display has been programmed to show animation of smoke billowing out of the smokestack, sailors on deck, and even rats running around!

This is an imaginative solution to the age-old problem of how to animate atmospheric effects and figures in a diorama. These effects are often difficult and impractical to do in three dimensions. By adding a 2D ‘layer’ in front of the scene, specialist model makers Premier Ship Models were able to successfully add the desired effects.

The diorama is similar to a forced perspective piece in the sense that it must be viewed head-on so the animated OLED effects line up with the physical model. If you move to the side, the 2D and 3D layers diverge and the illusion is weakened. 

Cargo steamers first appeared in Estonia between 1850 and 1860. They represented a major technological breakthrough and revolutionized passenger and freight transportation around the world. The model showcased here is based on a steamer called the Keyingham.

-Ivar

A diorama in porcelain

Dating from the late 19th Century, this rural scene is made entirely of porcelain. The piece is titled Desk Set in Shape of a Farmhouse and was fabricated by the Gardner Porcelain and Faience Factory. It is part of the permanent collection on display at the Kadriorg Art Museum in Tallinn, Estonia. 

Porcelain might very well be one of the last materials that diorama artists would think of using for their next project, especially when coming from the world of scale modelling. Porcelain sculptures are hand sculpted in clay and then fired in a kiln. The firing process places limitations on the proportions of objects which can be modelled—anything too thin will crack when heated. This explains the slightly puffy look of the lady and her dog. Like most porcelain sculptures, this one is uniformly glazed in a high gloss finish. 

The farmhouse represents a log cabin, but its perfect symmetry and soft pastel shades give it a look more akin to a gingerbread house. The small tree off to the side has one shiny red apple on it, adding a dash of cheer. 

The diorama perfectly captures the peaceful feeling of a day in the country. For those of us who live in the city, separated from nature, this unassuming little diorama makes an excellent argument for a simpler way of life.   

-Ivar

Dioramas in Film – Die Hard

John McTiernan’s Die Hard (1988) was the first in a series of action flicks starring Bruce Willis as streetwise cop John McClane. Alan Rickman co-starred as McClane’s nemesis, the elegant and refined master criminal Hans Gruber. 

About half an hour into the film, Gruber’s team escorts Takagi, president of Nakatomi Corporation, through a remarkable gallery of architectural models representing Nakatomi projects around the world. Exclaims Gruber, “I always enjoyed to make models when I was a boy. The exactness, the attention to every conceivable detail. It’s beautiful.”

Gruber and Takagi stop in front of a large diorama of a bridge, which Takagi describes as a project in Indonesia. The diorama is placed in the foreground of the shot, occupying most of the frame. It rests on a base of mirrored tiles representing the river that flows beneath the bridge, creating a reflection that doubles its presence on the screen.

It’s rare for a film character to comment directly on a movie prop the way Gruber does in Die Hard. He may be the bad guy, but we can admire his taste in art.

-Ivar  

Fifth Anniversary

Today marks the fifth anniversary of Creative Dioramas. The readership of the blog has grown substantially over the past year. I take this as an indication that the art of diorama building is alive and well. Although we increasingly spend our time staring at screens, the rewards of scale modelling remain the same as they’ve always been. The sense of satisfaction from a project that you complete with your own two hands is something that can’t be duplicated in the passive environment of the Internet. 

This year I released my second book, Forced Perspective Dioramas. It’s based on the dioramas I’ve built over the last three years and includes everything I learned along the way. The book received a four star rating from Indies Today and another positive review from Parka Blogs. Thanks to everyone who has supported my work by making a purchase. 

I also had the opportunity to correspond with Christian Pearce, Senior Concept Artist at Weta Workshop and designer of the new Thunderbird 2 from Thunderbirds Are Go. This beloved green behemoth is the subject of one of the case studies featured in Forced Perspective Dioramas. I’m pleased to say that Christian liked the diorama. 

This blog will continue to feature anything and everything related to dioramas, scale modelling and three-dimensional art. I invite you to stay tuned for another year of Creative Dioramas.

-Ivar 

Dioramas in Film – Darkman

About 13 minutes into Sam Raimi’s campy 1990 flick Darkman, the title character’s girlfriend is shown a diorama of a proposed riverfront development in her boss’s office. She has just stumbled across an incriminating memo which shows evidence of bribes made in support of the riverfront project. Her boss does his best to get her to look the other way. Showing her the diorama, he tries to convince her that the bribes were necessary to guarantee the future of the project. Predictably, she doesn’t want to just hand over the memo and forget about it, and mayhem ensues. 

Most architectural dioramas are made of wood, paper, and plastic. What sets the diorama in Darkman apart is that it appears to be made entirely of transparent acrylic. The diorama is lit from below and the light is captured by the acrylic much like a chandelier. It becomes a glistening beacon in the dark, wood panelled office, adding substantial visual interest to a scene that would have otherwise been plain.

-Ivar

A brass dragon takes flight

Keith Newstead’s steampunk dragon is a marvel of craftsmanship. This whimsical creation is on display at the Museum of Puppetry Arts in Tallinn, Estonia. Although the focus of the museum is on traditional dolls, some of the exhibits veer off the beaten path, like this one.

This miniature dragon shows what can be accomplished when building from scratch with a single material. Brass has a warm glow and can be buffed to the desired level of gloss. It is a fairly soft, easily workable metal and comes in sheet, rod, tube and solid block, making it quite versatile. Brass has long been a favourite of model train builders. 

While Newstead’s works would stand on their own as static displays, many of them are animated. Geared down electric motors bring these creations to life, adding an extra dimension of visual interest.

-Ivar  

Sea surface diorama base from Yamashita

Yamashita Hobby is a manufacturer of warship kits focusing on 1:700 Japanese WWII subjects. The company has just announced a new product for September 2020 release which will be of interest to naval modellers. 

The ‘3D Sea Surface Diorama Board’ is a ready-made one piece base designed to work with a 1:700 warship. The appeal of this product lies in the amount of time it can save the diorama artist in creating a realistic ocean surface for a naval diorama. 

The most popular technique for creating an ocean surface is with a solid, sculptable material which is built up on a flat support and then painted the appropriate shade of blue. The problem with this approach is that it fails to capture the translucent quality of water. 

The more ambitious modeller will use two-part casting resins to achieve a more realistic effect. Dye can be added to the resin to create a very nice translucent look. This approach is time consuming as it involves building up the surface gradually with multiple layers, as resin can crack if poured on too thick. I used several layers of resin to create the river surface for Drug Runners.

Yamashita’s new base will provide a realistic translucent ocean surface right out of the box, saving the modeller a ton of time in creating an attractive naval diorama. Details at HobbyLink Japan.

-Ivar

The Beauty of Birch

The vast majority of diorama artists revere absolute realism as the ideal to which one should aspire. This is natural when coming to dioramas from the world of plastic modelling, where we are taught to paint and weather surfaces to enhance their verisimilitude. 

Architectural dioramas place more emphasis on shape than realism. For the architect, conveying the three-dimensional form of a building or site takes priority over conveying the actual look of the finishing materials. A case in point is this diorama of a 2012 update given to Tartu University’s Narva College in Estonia. The entire diorama is rendered in natural birch wood. 

The trees in the foreground—simple birch cutoffs—are especially well done, giving the scene a flowing, sculptural quality. Topographical variations in the landscaping are approximated by layering thin birch panels on top of one another. The diorama does a good job of leveraging the versatility of birch wood. Personally, I would have left out the orange figures, as they don’t really fit the aesthetic of the scene, but that’s a minor point.  

The end result is a diorama which not only fulfills its intended purpose of conveying the form of the proposed addition, but succeeds as a work of art in its own right. The diorama can be seen at the Museum of Estonian Architecture in Tallinn.

-Ivar

Gladiatorial combat diorama from Italeri

Italeri are set to release a 1:72 diorama of a Roman era gladiatoral arena, complete with figures. The product is scheduled for a September 2020 release and is the latest in a long line of 1:72 battle sets from various historical periods offered by Italeri. 

For anyone who enjoys Roman epics like Ben-Hur, Quo Vadis, Spartacus and Gladiator, this diorama is sure to please. Components include a circular stadium made with laser cut MDF, an arena fence, spectator seats, animal cages, two chariots, and dozens of injection plastic figures. The arena is approximately 43cm in diameter when assembled.  

More ambitious modellers could use the arena as a starting point for a broader scene with additional elements. The possibilities are endless. 

-Ivar

Review of Forced Perspective Dioramas

My new book, Forced Perspective Dioramas, has just been reviewed by Indies Today, a leading editorial reviewer of fiction and non-fiction books. The book received a four star rating. The review is reproduced here:

Whether in a museum or any other setting, detailed dioramas grab the attention of all who see them. It is fascinating to examine a well-conceived scene in miniature! In this book, Ivar Kangur details a practice commonly used in artwork but far less frequently in dioramas: forced perspective. By means of using forced perspective techniques, a diorama creator can give depth and perspective to their handiwork.

Despite being a relatively short work, all necessary considerations are provided for creating realistic depth in the models, from determining the proper scale when composing the subjects to the proper use of lighting. In the first half of the book, a number of examples are given of how forced perspective is used to enhance and add realism to artwork, architecture, photography and film. Much of the second half of the book consists of forced perspective diorama examples, including photographs that show the components and final product. These examples provide a detailed and visual explanation of the process that makes even a novice like myself feel like they could craft a competition-worthy diorama.

Ivar Kangur provides insightful suggestions and shares a great deal of passion and expertise in diorama design. Forced Perspective Dioramas is perfect for anyone looking to add a wow-factor to their next diorama.

A subject as out of the ordinary as forced perspective dioramas can be challenging for readers who aren’t familiar with this niche art form to appreciate. This makes it especially gratifying to receive such positive feedback. My thanks to R.C. Gibson and Indies Today.

-Ivar