Is the diorama art?

As someone who loves art, I’ve often wondered how many diorama builders see themselves as artists, and see their creations as works of art. We accept without hesitation that a photograph, sculpture or painting is a work of art. But what about dioramas?

We could take the easy way out and remain agnostic, like The Joker who said in Tim Burton’s Batman: “I don’t know if it’s art, but I like it.” But let’s explore the issue and see what happens.

Since the vast majority of dioramas are populated with commercially available plastic models, the purist might argue that they contain content which is not 100% original. Therefore, they cannot be considered original works of art. And although some dioramas rely more than others on off-the-shelf models, the purist would argue that any non-original content immediately disqualifies the diorama as a true work of art.

I would argue that the “original content” argument is of little or no relevance in the present day world of art. Ever since Pop Art emerged in the 1950s, measuring the amount of original content in a piece of art has become irrelevant. I recently saw a sculpture at an art show which was made entirely of Lego blocks.

Photography is another art form which does not hold up particularly well to the “original content” argument. The landscape photographer does not construct anything that appears in his photo. The content was conveniently created for him billions of years ago. He “borrows” content from his immediate surroundings every time he presses the shutter release. By manipulating variables such as lighting and composition, he creates a work of art which qualifies as “original,” even though the physical content depicted in the photo is not of his own making. Most of the time, the photographer is able to borrow the content for his photos with little or no protest—but not always. Photographers have gotten into costly and embarrassing legal scrapes for photographing people and places without permission, which is arguably worse than being unoriginal. I have yet to see this fate befall a diorama artist.

Another protest we often hear when debating the diorama’s place in the world of art is its association with children’s crafts. But children make lots of things when emulating adults. A child’s sand castle is a sculpture, but no-one would accuse Rodin’s sculptures of being glorified sand castles. Children also love to finger paint, a technique appropriated by numerous modern artists of the 20th Century. Painter Jackson Pollock liked to lay his canvases on the floor and then fling, drip and spatter paint over them. Luckily, his parents were not around to make him clean up the mess.

If we adopt the position that anything exhibited as art is a work of art, then the diorama easily qualifies. Several have been featured at art fairs, alongside art of every description. And in countries around the world, people pay admission to admire professionally built dioramas. I’m not talking about museums which often contain historical dioramas to support the exhibits, but dedicated diorama galleries.

So how did the diorama become a wallflower at the art world’s high school prom? Without a dedicated PR team, perhaps it was inevitable. We diorama artists tend to be quiet types who don’t care what the world thinks of us. We are not likely to be found trumpeting our achievements on Facebook or Twitter, or taking selfies in our studios. And it’s a safe bet we’ll never have our own reality show. We prefer to create, not promote. And for most of us, the satisfaction we get from finishing a project is enough.

But if you feel that recognition is an important part of the experience of building dioramas, I have a simple suggestion. And you don’t need a PR team. Here is what you do: The next time someone asks you how you like to spend your spare time, don’t hang your head sheepishly and mumble something in hushed tones about plastic models. Look them in the eye and tell them you’re an artist. I guarantee you’ll feel a lot better by the end of the conversation.

-Ivar

Lag time (or, why it takes so long for some kits to be released)

The introduction of a new model kit based on a subject from a movie is an eagerly anticipated event for many hobbyists. I remember when MPC released its Millennium Falcon kit back in 1977, coinciding with the release of the first Star Wars movie. MPC’s marketing department was on the ball and capitalized on the movie’s success by being quick on the draw with the release of the kit.

Not all kit releases are timed as perfectly as MPC’s Falcon release. The same subject was released by FineMolds nearly three decades later, in 2005. The FineMolds Falcon, although late to the game, was a dramatic improvement over the MPC kit. It featured the usual high level of accuracy and detail associated with the FineMolds brand, in correct 1:72 scale. The MPC kit did not even specify a scale, and Star Wars aficionados have enjoyed debating the scale of the kit since it was released.

When I first heard about the FineMolds Falcon release, my first thought was, “Wow, it sure took them long enough.” But FineMolds actually did something very clever.

The price differential between the two kits is considerable, even with a few decades’ worth of inflation factored in. The result is that they are not in direct competition with one another. The MPC kit was clearly aimed at kids and teens with little or no money. The FineMolds kit, on the other hand, was targeted at advanced modellers with generous budgets. The funny thing is, even though the markets for the two kits are distinct, the person buying them could quite often be one and the same. If you were a teen when Star Wars was released, and bought the MPC kit back then, there’s a good chance that you’d be willing to upgrade to the FineMolds version several decades later. My guess is that this is exactly what FineMolds planned.

The FineMolds Falcon has been so successful that Revell is now re-releasing it under their Master Series label. It will still be manufactured in Japan by FineMolds but will have revised packaging and English instructions.

It’s less clear what Bandai was thinking with their recent release of 1:72 models of the classic X-Wing and Y-Wing. Chances are, anyone who wanted a 1:72 scale kit of either of these subjects would have picked up the FineMolds version by now. Price, accuracy and quality for both brands are similar. There just isn’t that much difference between them. Bandai will also be releasing a 1:144 Millennium Falcon, which has been done before by FineMolds as well. How Bandai will be able to turn a profit on these “me too” products is a mystery. A much better move would have been to produce a 1:48 Y-Wing to complement the FineMolds 1:48 X-Wing. This would have filled an empty niche in the market.

When Episode 7 of Star Wars comes out this December, a newly designed X-Wing will grace the screen. It looks good—smaller and sleeker—and can be glimpsed in the teaser trailer for the film. Fortunately, Bandai has made one good decision, which is to launch a kit of the new X-Wing just before Episode 7’s release in December. Unless the movie is a complete disaster, this kit will be a guaranteed cash cow. The new X-Wing will be followed by a kit of the new TIE Fighter, which looks like a lot like the classic TIE but with an inverted colour scheme. This kit should be popular as well.

-Ivar

Making the transition from models to dioramas

Many modelers are content to build an out-of-the-box plastic model kit, display it on a shelf, and call it a day. Some will go a step further and buy aftermarket parts to improve the accuracy of their model or modify it. And those who are even more ambitious will kitbash a model, creating something new out of one or more out-of-the-box kits.

If you enjoy going a step or two beyond the basic out-of-the-box build, chances are you’ve thought about creating an entire scene to showcase your latest model(s). Welcome to the world of dioramas.

The diorama is a miniature slice of reality depicting an event or its aftermath. It is limited by only two things: your imagination and your skill at translating vision into reality. You can create a scene taking place on land, at sea, or on another planet. You decide what characters, vehicles and buildings will populate the scene, and what event will be depicted.

Most diorama artists have no shortage of imagination. The real challenge is translating your vision into a finished diorama. This sounds simple but can be a challenge for artists of all stripes. When George Lucas was deciding which of his Star Wars movies to film first, he realized that 1970s-era special effects would not do justice to all the scenes he had envisioned for the saga. He started with Episode 4 because it had the least demanding special effects, which could be achieved using the technology of the day.

To render your vision to its fullest potential, you must not only be a good craftsman, but make the right artistic decisions as well. Every work of art starts with an idea. Then the idea is usually fleshed out as a design. This could be as simple as a pencil sketch, or as complex as a computer generated 3D model. Some diorama builders skip this step, and run the risk of ending up with something that is awkwardly composed and visually weak.

For myself, I’ve found that the more dioramas you create, the better you get. As you become familiar with the diorama form, you learn to see what works and what doesn’t. Most artists go through a learning curve. There are, of course, exceptions. Orson Welles made his most critically acclaimed film, Citizen Kane, at the beginning of his career as a filmmaker. Reflecting on his career in his later years, he liked to joke that he started at the top and worked his way down. But he was an exception.

The mistake many diorama artists make is not realizing that they are creating a work of art. They see themselves as hobbyists and balk at the term “artist.” But if you don’t see yourself as an artist, you’re handicapping yourself from making progress. Your dioramas may be well crafted, but no-one will see them as art unless you do. So stop being modest. You don’t have to start hanging out at the art gallery and using words like “iconicity.” But having a basic knowledge of design principles is useful. Brush up on these and it’ll make a big difference to your next diorama.

-Ivar