All posts by Ivar

Scratchbuild case study: Phoenix

The Phoenix is an original design I came up with for a teaser promoting a feature length screenplay I had written called Test Pilot. Although the screenplay was never made into a film, it won a Toronto International Film Festival screenwriters’ competition.

The Phoenix is a lifting body design inspired by experimental NASA craft such as Northrop’s HL-10 and M2-F2. If you remember the TV series The Six Million Dollar Man, one of these craft was featured in a spectacular crash landing in the show’s title sequence.

Lifting body spaceplanes were developed to demonstrate the feasibility of unpowered re-entry from space using a piloted craft which could land like a conventional aircraft. These craft were never put into operational use, but they paved the way for NASA’s Space Shuttle, which utilized unpowered re-entry. The Space Shuttle had a career spanning 30 years, from 1981 to 2011. It was originally to have been replaced by the Lockheed Martin X-33, but that program was cancelled due to technical problems. The latest potential replacement for the Space Shuttle is Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser, a diminutive lifting body vehicle which could fit into the Space Shuttle’s cargo bay if the wings were folded. Time will tell if the Dream Chaser program will prove successful.

Using sheet styrene to build the Phoenix resulted in an origami style design with lots of sharp corners. If I were to do it all over again, I’d add some sculpting clay to smooth out the shape. The canopy glazing was frosted to eliminate the need to detail the cockpit interior. You can just make out the pilot’s white helmet if you look closely.

The rear landing gear feature solid rubber wheels (radio control aircraft parts) and the front landing gear wheels are from a 1:32 MIG-21 plastic kit. The engine is also made up of pieces from the spares box. The Phoenix is quite heavy due to a solid block of wood in the interior which was the attachment point for the support rod used to position it during filming. The model appeared in three shots in the video teaser: a static hangar shot, an in-flight shot showing the ship in a flat spin, and a lift-off shot which used a dry chemical fire extinguisher to simulate the exhaust blast.

Since the ship is designed to operate in the Earth’s atmosphere, it has to be streamlined to minimize friction. This means no Star Wars-style detailing like you’d see on a Y-Wing or Millennium Falcon. I applied a two-tone orange paint scheme to add some visual interest to the wide expanse of flat surface, and weathered the nose and underside of the ship to suggest scarring from the intense heat generated during re-entry.

Like many designs, the Phoenix looks better from some angles than others. The rear three-quarter view is probably the best, as it shows the massive engine bell with surrounding detail and the rear landing gear.

-Ivar

Historical dioramas from Spain – Part Four

In this final installment on dioramas in Spain, we journey to the Castillo de Almodovar, a picturesque medieval castle perched atop a hill near the town of Cordoba, Spain. The castle is based on a roughly rectangular floor plan of 5,624 square metres. Access is via a long, winding road to the castle entrance at the top of the hill. Once inside, a long ramp takes you to the Courtyard of Arms. From here you can see a total of nine towers, the highest of which is 33 metres tall. Architecturally, the castle is a mix of Neo-Mudejar (Moorish Revival), Gothic and Romanesque styles.

I was pleasantly surprised to find a diorama of the castle within its walls, set up in the centre of a small, dungeon-like room. Projectors in the ceiling illuminate the diorama with lighting effects, re-enacting a siege of the castle, and speakers provide sound.

Displaying a single diorama in the centre of a dark room, with nothing else to distract, gives it a certain theatricality. As you enter, the diorama commands your full attention.

The diorama consists of the castle itself, the hilltop base, and nothing else. There are no figures of attacking soldiers, or armaments being brought to bear. All these extra elements are provided by the projectors in the ceiling, along with flame and explosion effects. As with the diorama from Quebec City, Canada I discussed, there’s an integration of physical and virtual elements which work together to create a complete experience for the visitor.

The Castillo de Almodovar has a long history. Originally a Berber fortress built in 760, the castle came under Christian rule with Fernando III in 1240. Beginning in 1360, it served as the royal residence of Pedro I. It underwent numerous architectural changes with each new owner. The castle was eventually handed over to the knightly Order of Calatrava and then to the Order of Santiago. The Earl of Torralva undertook an extensive restoration of the castle from 1903 to 1936. Twelve centuries after its initial construction, the castle not only still stands but is remarkably well preserved.

-Ivar

 

Historical dioramas from Spain – Part Three

In this third installment on dioramas in Spain, we have a 1:1 scale recreation of the Zeluan Airfield operated by the Spanish Army near Melilla, Morocco, between 1913 and 1927. This 1,000 square metre display, completed in 2016, takes up an entire hangar at the Museo de Aeronautica y Astronautica in Madrid, Spain. How’s that for a super-sized diorama?

Spanish Army garrisons served the Spanish protectorate in Morocco from the late 19th Century until Morocco gained its independence in 1956. In the early 1920s, Spanish forces were tasked with quelling an uprising by the Berbers—tribes of the Rif, a mountainous region in the north of Morocco. Spain and its ally France deployed some 150 aircraft in the Rif War, also called the Second War of Morocco.

The Zeluan Airfield diorama is bisected by a path that visitors follow as they explore the scene. Large panels on the walls show maps of North Africa. A few truckloads of sand appear to have been brought in to recreate the desert base. But the stars of the diorama are the replicas of five period aircraft. The first of these is a French Morane-Saulnier G, a wire-braced monoplane which first flew in 1912. The second is a British AVRO 504. Due to its outstanding performance in WWI, Spain acquired 50 units of this model.

Third is a German Fokker C-III, a reconnaissance aircraft, and fourth, a British De Havilland DH4. One DH4 was apparently acquired as a civilian donation. The residents of various towns in Spain collectively raised money to buy the plane, and gave it to the army as a gift.

Last and perhaps most significant is the Bristol F.2B, a British two-seat fighter aircraft which first flew in 1916. It featured innovations such as a Rolls-Royce Falcon inline engine and a Vickers .303 inch machine gun synchronized to fire through the propeller. A second swivel-mounted gun was operated by the observer, who faced the rear of the aircraft. The F.2B became the most successful two-seat fighter of WWI and nearly 5,000 units were produced, serving in over a dozen air forces around the world. Although designed primarily as a fighter, the F.2B was also adapted for bombing and reconnaissance duties.

Aerial tactics in the Rif War included strafing attacks and makeshift bombing runs in which explosives were thrown by hand at enemy infantry positions. The bombs were designed to fall nose first, and a fuse in the nose detonated the bomb on impact.

The diorama was completed over the course of five months. The first three were dedicated to finding the right clothes and weapons to equip the 16 mannequins featured in the diorama. The mannequins represent mechanics, gunsmiths, pilots, and office clerks. The remaining two months involved assembling everything to create the final scene. Impressive!

-Ivar

 

Historical dioramas from Spain – Part Two

This is the second installment in a series on Spanish dioramas, which I started with my previous post. The diorama shown here is also from the Museo de Aeronautica y Astronautica. It depicts the first balloon used in Spain for military purposes, from the year 1889. The diorama inscription informs us that the inflatable sphere was 10.8 meters in diameter, with a volume of 682 cubic meters. This aircraft was assigned to the 4th Company of the Engineering Arm of the Telegraphers Battalion.

The balloon was accompanied by horse drawn support vehicles supplying a hydrogen generator and a 500 meter cable. The technological contrast between this aircraft, which represented cutting edge technology at the time, and the horse drawn vehicles, which were comparatively primitive, adds to the interest of the scene.

The balloon was named Maria Cristina after the reigning Queen of Spain, who had a keen interest in lighter-than-air aircraft. Accompanied by Lieutenant-Colonel Lícer López, she participated in a test flight of the balloon to an altitude of 300 meters.

Compositionally, the diorama is nicely done. The balloon itself should naturally be the focal point of the diorama, and the artist has succeeded in making it so. The eye is immediately drawn to the balloon not just because of its size and height, but also its golden colour, which sets it apart from the greens and browns of the surroundings. In addition, the balloon is the most brightly lit object in the diorama, which adds even more emphasis. It is positioned off to one side and visually balanced by the support vehicles at the other end of the scene.

What makes this diorama especially effective is the illusion that the balloon is actually floating into the air on its own. This effect is reinforced by the slack in the control cables which the men around the balloon are handling. If all the cables were taut, they would look like stiff rods supporting the balloon, and the effect would be lost. Also, the area directly underneath the balloon is dark, hiding any physical supports. The background photograph adds a further element of realism and helps sell the scene.

-Ivar

 

Historical dioramas from Spain – Part One

The Museo de Aeronautica y Astronautica in Madrid, Spain features not only an extensive collection of full size aircraft, but some impressive miniatures and dioramas as well. To start off this series focusing on dioramas in Spain, I’m going to discuss a diorama by Miguel Martinez Jimenez entitled La Legion Condor Alemanes en Espana 12 Enero 1939.

The Spanish Civil War began when Francisco Franco’s Nationalists rebelled against the Republican government of Spain in 1936. The Nationalists received support and armaments from Germany and Italy, while the Republicans were assisted mainly by the Soviet Union and France. The Luftwaffe supplied four fighter squadrons to Franco (along with bombers and other aircraft) as part of the Condor Legion, manned by German pilots. The war claimed some half a million lives before Franco emerged victorious in 1939.

This diorama depicts two Condor Legion Messerschmitt Bf-109 aircraft on a Nationalist airfield. One is undergoing repairs in the hangar and the other is parked outside. The Spanish Civil War was the Bf-109’s first theatre of engagement, and the innovative German fighter proved itself to be vastly superior to its outdated Soviet-sourced adversaries. The 109’s uncontested superiority in the skies over Spain was instrumental in securing Franco’s victory.

The monochromatic Condor Legion markings are rather sombre looking and the roundels on the wings remind me of the “x” you’d write next to your candidate of choice when casting your vote at the ballot box. The 109 parked in front of the hangar is missing its entire cockpit canopy. Since it’s unlikely that all three canopy sections would be simultaneously removed for maintenance, we can assume that the absence of these pieces is accidental. The 109’s are in 1:32 scale and are probably kits rather than scratchbuilt miniatures, so the canopies would have been separate parts which simply came unglued and were lost at some point.

The scene is far from an idealized portrait of an airfield. Fuel drums are haphazardly scattered about the hangar, shop tools are strewn on the floor, and doors are left ajar. One of the mechanics is sitting on the wing of the 109, doing nothing.

The colourful regalia displayed on the hangar wall are the visual focal point of the scene and provide some political context. In the centre is the standard of the Condor Legion: an Iron Cross superimposed over red and yellow. The standard is flanked by a Spanish flag on the left and a swastika on the right, symbolizing Franco’s allegiance to Nazi Germany.

-Ivar

The best fisherman and the best diorama artist

There’s a great observation by John Gray in his award-winning book Straw Dogs which reminds us why we have hobbies: “the best fisherman is not the one who catches the most fish but the one who enjoys fishing the most.” Although it seems obvious, it’s easy to lose sight of this simple truth.

If we transpose the fishing example to the world of dioramas, some interesting questions come up. Such as, what is it about building dioramas that you enjoy the most? And which parts could you do without? By answering these questions, you can maximize your “success” as a diorama artist.

For myself, I especially enjoy the concept phase, in which I decide on the story I’ll be telling, and how to most effectively portray the story within the diorama framework. Once construction gets underway, I enjoy scratchbuilding and freehand work like carving a cliff face by hand or pouring resin to simulate water.

The one item I’d classify as a negative is airbrushing. Many years ago, I decided to pick up a cheap airbrush and see if it would improve the quality of paint finishes on my models. It didn’t. I attended an airbrushing workshop to make sure I was doing everything right and tried a more expensive airbrush. I found it astonishingly finicky. If I didn’t mix exactly the right proportions of paint and thinner and dial the compressor to exactly the right pressure, it would either not spray evenly or not spray at all. Although I would eventually get it to spray properly after many attempts, I realized that it was detracting from my enjoyment of modelling.

The benefit I got from airbrushing was the ability to paint large surfaces with custom shades of paint. After doing some research, I found a paint store stocking hundreds of shades of Montana brand spray paint in canisters with high quality interchangeable nozzles. So I could get pretty much any shade I wanted without an airbrush. I now use Montana spray paints almost exclusively to finish large surfaces, and the results are consistently excellent. I’ve probably saved myself dozens of hours of airbrush-related hassles by changing my approach. I’d compare it to that feeling of liberation you get after dumping a high maintenance girlfriend!

Hobby store owners will swear up and down that you need an airbrush. If you want to make them happy, buy one. If you want to make yourself happy, don’t.

When it comes to itemizing the most enjoyable and least enjoyable things about diorama building, every diorama artist will come up with a different list. Think about what you’d put in the plus column and the minus column. Then see if you can find a way to maximize the pluses and minimize the minuses. By doing this simple exercise, you’ll be able to increase your “success” as a diorama artist.

-Ivar

 

Building dioramas can make you smarter

Several scientific studies have explored the relationship between motor coordination skills and intelligence. Neuroscientists are still in the process of unravelling the workings of the human brain, and our understanding of this organ—the most complex in the human body—is far from complete.

It never occurred to me that developing hand-eye coordination could have a positive effect on intelligence. If this were the case, we’d expect to see great athletes and musicians turning into brilliant scientists and philosophers. Clearly it’s not a simple case of cause and effect.

What the studies are showing instead is a spill-over effect in neural development. In other words, developing one part of the brain results in positive effects in other parts of the brain. This article from Psychology Today describes how neural activity in the hand-eye coordination centre of the brain stimulates neural growth elsewhere.

So it could be that all those plastic model airplanes we put together as kids, with misaligned wings, fogged canopies and broken landing gear, actually left us with a positive legacy we didn’t realize: more neurons. The same effect would hold true for taking piano lessons at an early age, or any other activities requiring hand-eye coordination. All these activities stimulate neuron production.

Quantifying the spill-over effect is notoriously difficult. Setting up a test subject and a control subject is never an easy thing when the experiment involves human beings. Even if you started with genetically identical twins at an early age and had one building dioramas and playing the violin while the other watched TV all day, and then compared their IQs many years later, you couldn’t be sure if any observed difference in IQ was due to their different activity rosters (assuming that intelligence is trainable in the first place). Many other factors, not all identifiable, could have contributed to the difference.

But in the end, if the brain is indeed the interconnected maze of neural pathways that scientists think it is, the spill-over effect makes sense whether it can be measured or not. Wouldn’t it be something if the person you met at your next Mensa meeting turned out to be a diorama artist!

-Ivar

Naval diorama kits from Fujimi

Fujimi has a series of interesting products in 1:3000 scale which are a great introduction to naval dioramas. Each kit depicts a Japanese naval port and includes a base with docks and buildings molded in one piece, as well as a selection of ships. Any number of diorama scenes could be created with the supplied parts.

The key benefit of these kits is the professionally designed base, which gives the novice diorama builder a good head start. Coming up with the overall design for a diorama is probably the most daunting task for the novice.

The Fujimi bases can be enhanced in a number of ways. The one piece molding of the base makes painting difficult but not beyond reach for those with lots of masking tape and patience. You’ll want to stock up on fine brushes and a good magnifying glass before detailing the tiny ships. A more ambitious upgrade would involve replacing the sea (which is molded in opaque styrene along with the rest of the base) with clear acrylic or some other material to create a more realistic water effect.

The possibilities for diorama scenes are endless. The small scale of these kits affords the possibility of creating an all-out naval battle involving several ships, without needing a model railroad sized space. The diminutive scale chosen by Fujimi was no doubt influenced by the fact that residential space is at a premium in much of Japan. For those with more space, extra ships and sea level extension panels can be bought separately.

Fujimi’s Japanese language website isn’t the easiest to navigate if you don’t speak Japanese, but their naval port kits are available through HobbyLink Japan at http://hlj.com.

-Ivar

Dioramas in film – Ronin

Ronin (1998) is a classic espionage flick featuring exotic European locales and first-rate performances from Robert De Niro and Jean Reno. It’s the only film I know of whose title is explained with a diorama. The diorama is not a special effect but an actual “character” in the movie.

When Sam (De Niro) is wounded during a mission, Vincent (Reno) takes him to the country mansion of his old acquaintance Jean-Pierre (Michael Lonsdale). After treating Sam’s wound, the kindly Jean-Pierre recounts the tale of the 47 ronin—masterless samurai—of feudal Japan who avenged their master, sacrificing themselves for his honour. We see Jean-Pierre at work in his study, putting the finishing touches on a miniature samurai figure. He then places the figure in a diorama depicting the climactic battle waged by the 47 ronin. The diorama is fairly large and features several beautifully detailed samurai figures engaged in battle.

The famous ronin displayed in the diorama are of course paralleled by Sam, Vincent, and the other mercenaries depicted in the film. Sam is portrayed as ex-CIA, and Vincent is presumably a retired agent gone freelance as well, making them both ronin of a sort. Like the ronin of old, they are masterless, but continue to devoutly follow a shared warrior code. Through Sam, we learn some of the strict rules of this code. Whenever asked to reveal vital information, his response is “I don’t remember.” When asked who his contacts are, it’s “We went to high school together.” You get the idea.

What makes the film especially satisfying is the camaraderie which develops between Sam and Vincent. Through their easy banter, we learn about the unspoken discipline which governs their world. In the final scene of the movie, the two men are having a coffee in the same café where the story began, and we hope they’ll stay friends. But the code prohibits it. So when Vincent picks up the tab and Sam says “I’ll get the next one,” we know there won’t be a “next one.” And as Vincent leaves the café and turns up his collar against the cold, we get one last glimpse into the secret code of these modern day ronin.

-Ivar

The return of the box diorama

Browsing through the Pegasus Hobbies website, I noticed something in the Featured Products section I haven’t seen in a long time: two box dioramas, one ready-made and one requiring assembly. Both dioramas are based on the film War of the Worlds and depict battles with alien “tripods,” tall, gangly invaders that fire powerful energy beams. Pegasus already offers a War Machines Attack Diorama from the same movie, but it’s not in the box diorama format.

A box diorama, as its name implies, features one or more subjects displayed in a square or rectangular box with an open front and top. The three vertical sides of the box form the background (usually printed on cardboard) and the bottom panel acts as the terrain. The box diorama’s simple shape makes it easy and inexpensive to produce, and the inclusion of background panels makes the product more appealing than a standard base-only diorama. I talked about the many advantages of box dioramas in a previous post.

What I like about these offerings from Pegasus is that they provide an accessible entry point into diorama building for modellers who have thought about making a diorama but never got around to it. They’re educational in the sense that they provide the modeller examples of how combining good design with the right number and scale of subjects creates a compelling scene. Chances are that after finishing one of the Pegasus dioramas, the budding diorama modeller will have enough experience and confidence to start building his own dioramas from scratch.

Pegasus is not the first company to offer box dioramas. The concept has been tried by various kit manufacturers, but never gained enough momentum to become a permanent fixture of the scale modelling world. Pegasus has set the price point for these products at a level which should be accessible to most hobbyists, and that should broaden their appeal. Time will tell if these two offerings gain enough traction to become heralds of a long term trend.

-Ivar