Category Archives: Artistic Musings

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

Third Anniversary

Today marks the third anniversary of this blog. The more I write about dioramas, the more I discover that there’s no end to how much we can learn and develop as modellers and artists. For myself, moving to forced perspective dioramas has opened up a new world of possibilities. I plan to continue exploring this technique and see where it takes me. 

My book, Diorama Design, has been out for a year now and is selling well. You can find it on Amazon in both ebook and print formats.

Whether you come to this blog regularly or just once in a while, I wish you continued success in your growth as an artist. Happy diorama modelling!

-Ivar 

Dioramas in Film – Goldfinger

James Bond returns to this blog with a look at the Fort Knox diorama from the 1964 movie Goldfinger. The diorama appears midway through the movie. The titular villain has assembled the top mafiosi from around the U.S. to brief them on his daring plan to raid the gold depository at Fort Knox. They gather in Goldfinger’s lavish briefing room, a superb set designed by Ken Adam with strong Frank Lloyd Wright influences: a vast horizontal expanse of luxurious woods set off with stone walls and a massive fireplace. 

Goldfinger begins the briefing by flipping a switch on the side of a pool table, which rotates upside down to reveal a large control panel. He brings up a wall-size aerial photograph of the Fort Knox vicinity and begins to explain his plan. And then comes the highlight of the scene: a section of the hardwood floor slides aside and a huge diorama of Fort Knox emerges on a motorized lift. 

The diorama is the focal point of the scene. It’s fully lit, while the surrounding actors remain in the shadows. Goldfinger points with a pool cue at various elements of the diorama as he outlines his strategy to break into the most heavily guarded bank in the world. 

The Bond villains have always been known for their elaborate lairs. These locations are generally big, visually striking, and outfitted with all manner of technological contrivances. And Auric Goldfinger is no exception. He takes great pleasure in dazzling his guests, maintaining an unerring air of superiority as the master villain in the room.

There’s one man in the scene who is unimpressed by Goldfinger’s presentation: James Bond. We find out that 007 has been watching the briefing from a hidden vantage point underneath the diorama. It’s quite amusing, if not entirely believable, when we see Bond’s eyes behind the Fort Knox model, and none of the characters notice. Bond’s irreverent lurking completely deflates the grandiosity of the scene and robs Goldfinger’s presentation of its dignity. Once again, 007 gets the better of a criminal mastermind.  

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 new book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar

Dioramas in Literature – Moonraker

In a previous post, I wrote about the diorama featured in the Robert de Niro film Ronin. Dioramas occasionally make an appearance in pop culture, and the one in Ronin was notable in that it was central to the theme of the movie. 

I was pleasantly surprised to come across the term ‘diorama’ in another espionage tale—not a movie this time but a book: Ian Fleming’s Moonraker. In this instance, the diorama is not manifested physically, as in Ronin, but the word is used as a literary device. The passage can be found in the ‘Dead Reckoning’ chapter: 

Out at sea, in the early mist that promised a hot day, the South Goodwin Lightship could just be seen, a dim red barque married for ever to the same compass point and condemned, like a property ship on the stage of Drury Lane, to watch the diorama of the waves and clouds sail busily into the wings while, without papers or passengers or cargo, it lay anchored for ever to the departure point which was also its destination. 

This passage showcases Ian Fleming’s writing at its most poetic and evocative. He’s flipped the script: dioramas are usually an example of art imitating life, but here, it’s life imitating art. 

So how did Ian Fleming become acquainted with dioramas? The most likely explanation is that during his work for Naval Intelligence in WWII, he attended briefing sessions in which dioramas of strategic military locations were used as visual aids. Using aerial reconaissance photos as source material, dioramas were often constructed to help formulate a sabotage plan, bombing run, or other military operation. Being able to visualize the target of the operation in three dimensions was vital to successful planning. 

Although literature critics often peg the Bond novels as pulp fiction, I suspect they do so more out of disdain for the politically incorrect nature of Bond’s character, rather than objective and unbiased evaluation. When Fleming created the original gentleman superspy, the term ‘politically correct’ was still decades away from infecting western culture. The 1960s gave us books and films which were intended as pure entertainment . . . a far cry from the subversive media of today. This is one of the reasons that era remains beloved by so many.  

Fleming’s output lacked consistency, but his better works compare favourably to the top authors of the espionage genre. Aficionados of Bond books tend to agree that Moonraker is among his finest works.

The novel bears little similarity to the film. Although both stories take inspiration from the world of astronautics, the plotlines are completely different. The titular craft in the novel is a military rocket based on Cold War era technology (a forerunner of the modern ICBM), whereas in the movie it’s a manned space shuttle. And while Fleming’s original story maintains a sober tone throughout, the movie vacillates between campy humour and grim realism. The producers never figured out if they wanted to make a comedy or a drama.  

James Bond will return (to this blog) in Goldfinger.  

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 new book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar

Small challenges

When I first got into building plastic models as a boy, I assumed that the most challenging kits were the really big ones: an aircraft in 1:18 scale or a battleship in 1:350. Something about the sheer size of these kits seemed daunting.

This assumption is no longer holding up very well. I’ve recently switched to smaller scale dioramas, and am discovering the challenges which are unique to smaller kits. 

The first consideration is anatomical: the size of our hands. Once you’ve reached adulthood, this is a constant. So the smaller the part, the more difficult it is to work with. This is true for all stages of the construction process: cutting the piece off the sprue, trimming the flash, sanding it, painting it, and gluing it in place. If you’ve ever had a 2mm long part do a flying leap off the end of your tweezers and disappear in a shag rug, you can relate. Although large scale kits have small parts as well, losing one isn’t usually a deal breaker, because it will be a detail part rather than a main component. 

The second consideration is that the smaller the kit, the more difficult and time consuming detailing becomes. Painting canopy frames on a 1:32 aircraft is easy. In 1:144 scale, not so much. To achieve a good level of detail on a very small kit often requires extensive modifications made with special materials and tools.  

Small kits present challenges to manufacturers as well. Errors in the size and shape of parts become more noticeable as the size of the kit decreases. And there is the simple fact that styrene parts can only be made so small. This is why antennas on 1:200 scale aircraft are always too thick. 

Errors in accuracy are especially problematic with decals. A decal which is 2mm too wide will look fine on a 1:24 scale aircraft, but will appear cartoonishly oversized in 1:144. Manufacturers frequently make errors in the size of the decals provided with their kits, and even aftermarket decal companies get it wrong. I’m currently working on a 1:200 scale Junkers Ju-88 which came with 1:144 decals! I ordered aftermarket decals for the kit which were advertised as 1:200 scale, but found that even they were too large. Since decals provide such a big part of the visual impact of a kit, they need to be the right size. Seems like common sense, but as they say, sense is not common. 

Part of the problem with small scale kits is that they tend to be marketed at kids. These kits are at the low end of the price spectrum, within reach of the junior modeller’s budget. This explains why the Ju-88 I’m working on is a snap-fit kit. With kids as their target market, manufacturers assume they can get away with inaccuracies. What they may not realize is that kids don’t build plastic models any more. They’re too busy playing with their phones. 

So it’s clear that very small kits have their own unique challenges. At the other end of the spectrum, large kits are beyond the budget of many modellers. Somewhere in between is where most modellers find the happy medium. This explains the popularity of midrange scales like 1:72 and 1:48 for aircraft and 1:35 for armour. These scales are large enough that a magnifying glass isn’t needed to put them together, and small enough that they don’t break the budget. But if you’re up for something different, try a small scale kit.

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 new book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar

A visit to Reptar Aviation Museum

Reptar Aviation Museum in Szolnok, Hungary features one of the finest aircraft collections in Eastern Europe. The main hangar spans the complete history of flight, while the outdoor area focuses on warbirds from the Cold War era. A long row of MIG jet fighters begins with a MIG-15 and ends with a MIG-29. Also included are two immaculate F-104 Starfighters, some enormous MIL helicopters, and a variety of other aircraft from Russia and Eastern Europe. 

Several incarnations of the MIG-21 — the most produced jet fighter in history — are on display. Perhaps the finest example at the museum is a silver MIG-21 in Hungarian Air Force markings, number 9512. This perfectly restored warbird, sporting four rocket pods, is parked at the far end of the outdoor exhibition area in a custom built blast pen. 

Another distinctive MIG-21 at the museum is Red 1904 of the Sky Hussars aerial display team, sporting an eye catching mustard yellow finish. It is known as Cápeti, a reference to a French cartoon called Sharky et Georges (in Hungarian, Cápali és Cápeti).  

Aviation modellers will delight at the large dioramas on the ground floor of the main hangar. And not to be missed is the wreck of a WWII Ilyushin IL-2M dredged from the ocean floor. If you ever wanted to model a crashed aircraft, this display is an excellent visual reference. Something you don’t see every day!

The easiest way to get to the museum is by train from Budapest. If you catch an IC train, the ride takes about an hour and a half. Once you arrive in Szolnok, it’s a short cab ride from the train station to the museum. For more information, see https://reptar.hu/en/. 

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 new book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar

Special delivery

Bicycle couriers have a rich history. Over the past century, they’ve delivered pretty much anything that will fit on the front or back of a bike without making things unduly stressful for the cyclist. Able to weave through slow moving traffic with agility and grace, the bicycle courier will often arrive at his destination well ahead of his motor vehicle driving counterpart. 

So it was a pleasant surprise to see this specially outfitted bike in Budapest, Hungary, proudly displayed in front of Miniversum, one of the largest miniature model exhibitions in the world. If you were lamenting the fact that your diorama doesn’t get out much, lament no more. The technology exists to show off your diorama wherever you can find a bike path. 

Miniversum is a beautifully detailed model layout featuring famous sights and landmarks from Budapest and Hungary (and a bit of Austria and Germany). About a hundred trains run through the display, which includes 600 buildings in 14 towns, and a total population of some 5,000 miniature figures. It was constructed by 50 modellers over a 10-month period and opened in 2014. 

Miniversum is a must-see for diorama and model railroad fans of all ages. Details can be found at www.miniversum.hu. 

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 new book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar

Ditch your smartphone and build a diorama

The smartphone is the latest in a long line of technologies which have transformed the way we communicate. Television, personal computing, video games and smartphones have made our lives more convenient and more entertaining. They have also shortened our attention spans. By forcing our brains to adapt to increasingly condensed communication, they permanently change the way we process information . . . for the worse.  

The more accustomed we become to the technological shorthand of texts, likes, and swipes, the more trouble we have with anything that requires more time and concentration, like reading a novel or creating a work of art. This is why bookstores and hobby shops have been vanishing from the retail landscape over the past few decades. So few people have the patience to read a book or dedicate themselves to a hobby, that retailers are running out of customers. 

We naively assume that if something is harmful, we’ll be warned. But the medical community only addresses illnesses which it has permission to address. This is why television sets, computers, video games and smartphones carry no warning labels. The profits which technology companies and media giants generate are more important than your health or mine. 

Television was the first mass market technology to degrade our attention spans. Cinema had already condensed storytelling from 500 page novels to two-hour movies. But TV was the real game changer, because it brought movies into the family home, and people could immerse themselves in it all day long. Television condensed storytelling even further than the cinema. An hour-long format became the standard for drama and variety programs, and a half-hour format was used for sitcoms. And woven into these programs were commercials, which could tell a story in as little as 15 seconds.

The Internet was the next major technology to alter the way we communicate. Emails replaced letters. So instead of receiving a card for your birthday, you now get an email with an animated gif (and you wonder if the sender was too cheap to buy a card and mail it). Unlike television, which is passive, the Internet is a two-way medium. Its impact on the way we process information is thus twice as powerful, because it trains us to both send and receive information in a specific way. 

The effects of television and the Internet pale in comparison with the smartphone. This is the ultimate Attention Deficit Device. Its market growth has been astonishing, and in some countries, smartphones are more common than potable water. 

The smartphone mobilizes the Internet. Liberated from the desktop computer, we can now indulge our social media habits wherever we go. We’re on our phones all day long, whether shopping, eating, driving to work, or walking in the park. Why are they so addictive?

Every time you receive a notification on your phone, your brain releases a feel-good chemical called dopamine. Pretty soon, you become accustomed to this never-ending parade of dopamine hits, which are just as addictive as the nicotine in cigarettes.

The result is that people never put down their phones, because they experience withdrawal symptoms if they do. And the longer they spend on their phones, the more their brain adapts to process the brief, shallow and impersonal messages they send and receive. The human attention span is being shortened to accommodate the smartphone paradigm. And no-one seems to mind making this personal sacrifice to the clever little device glued to their hand. Smartphones are running the show. 

But this is the inevitable march of progress, you say. Well, that depends on how you define progress. At some point, you’ll need to have a face-to-face conversation with an actual human being, care for an infant, or do something else that requires more than a few seconds of your attention. This is where the trouble starts. Suddenly you don’t have the patience for it, because your brain can only handle one-line text messages. And a face-to-face conversation may not provide the dopamine hits your phone does, so the downward spiral accelerates. Pretty soon you start to avoid real human interactions. What kind of progress is that?

So although it may be fun to text, swipe and tweet all day long, be aware of the Faustian bargain you’re making. In return for convenience, entertainment, and ego stroking, your little plastic Lucifer is rewiring your brain, shortening your attention span, and making you anti-social.  

Like quitting smoking, it takes a lot of willpower to give up your smartphone completely. Most people will never do it. So what can you do? 

Rather than quitting cold turkey, the way to combat smartphone addiction is to gradually increase the time you spend on other activities you enjoy. As a reader of this blog, you know the solution: build a diorama. 

The process of building a diorama, from inspiration to conception and construction to completion, is intensive and time consuming. These two qualities make it the perfect antidote to the brain deadening effects of the smartphone. If you’re able, set aside a separate room where you work on your diorama, and—this is important—never bring your phone into the same room. The more you work on your diorama, the more your brain will thank you.

The feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment you get after finishing a lengthy creative project is something your smartphone can never provide. Remember the last time you finished a diorama. You felt a sense of accomplishment and pride. That’s because you reached the reward centre of your brain the natural way . . . through discipline and perseverance. In this age of technological distractions, it’s easy to forget that through the hardest work come the biggest rewards.   

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 new book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar