Category Archives: Design & Construction

Revisiting SHADO Yards

This is a follow-up to my original post on SHADO Yards from May 24, 2016. This diorama features moving parts, so I’ve decided to show what it looks like in motion. It was inspired by the 1970s TV series UFO.

SHADO Yards is half diorama, half model railroad. I had long thought about building a model railroad. But I realized I wouldn’t be satisfied with a conventional layout using off-the-shelf rolling stock, and decided I wanted to go with a science fiction theme instead. So the “train” in this diorama became a launch pad, which carries a factory fresh Interceptor from the assembly building to its launch position. I realized it would be less expensive to use an electric motor with a chain and sprocket drive, rather than a DC or DCC equipped locomotive, which would require an expensive controller. As you can see from the video, the transport mechanism moves at a constant speed.

The video also shows off the lighting to good effect. The sound effects were added in post production.

SHADO Yards

-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 It was originally to have been replaced by the Lockheed Martin X-33, but that program was cancelled due to technical problems.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

Scratchbuild case study: Mantis

The Mantis is a 1:12 scale VTOL aircraft I designed and built for a short film called Last Flight. The film was the final project for a filmmaking course I took several years ago.

mantis-front

Utilizing a sheet aluminum skin over a framework of copper tubing, the Mantis features spring-loaded landing struts and a vertically mounted fan to generate dust on touchdown. To stay within budget, found objects were used wherever possible. The engine bells are lighting shrouds from a camera supply store, and the main engines are hairspray cans. The one area where I spent a bit more money was the landing skids, which are solid milled steel.
mantis-rear-three-quarter

Film models are vastly different from typical display models. They’re designed to fit the requirements of a specific scene, so the emphasis is on function. The main requirements for the Mantis were going with a large enough scale so that the camera would hold depth of field during filming, and making the fuselage big enough to accommodate an electric fan. Filmed with an overcranked 16mm Bolex camera, the fan did a good job of blowing dust (cinnamon from the kitchen cupboard) all over as it touched down on the landing pad, and the scene came out looking fairly realistic.

Given the tight project deadline, I didn’t have time to detail the model. But as special effects guru Brian Johnson once said, “with all that smoke swirling about, you can get away with murder!” I used cinnamon instead of smoke, but close enough.

mantis-top

There was of course a pilot figure seated in the cockpit for the filming of the scene. I upgraded the cockpit later using an Italeri kit so the Mantis would make a respectable display model. As for the design of the ship, I saw it in a dream. I don’t remember what the rest of the dream was about, but I sketched out the basic shape as soon as I woke up, and worked out the details later. The sharply angled nose looks a bit like a Praying Mantis, hence the name.

-Ivar

Kitbash case study: Troop Transport

This is one of my first kitbashes. I was satisfied enough with the end result that I kept it in my collection and still have it after all these years. The front is the main hull section of the Rio Grande Runabout from Deep Space Nine, and the back consists of the service module and engines from Mattel’s Space: 1999 Eagle Transporter.
front-view
Mattel’s Eagle was impressive in size but hopelessly inaccurate. Despite my attempts to upgrade it from toy to scale replica, I was never able to get it to look like an actual Eagle. So I eventually ended up cannibalizing it for parts to create an original design.
rear-view
The Runabout kit which was available at the time had the right shape to complement the parts I was going to use from the Eagle. (I was never a fan of Deep Space Nine; in fact, it was probably the least memorable of all the incarnations of Star Trek. It lacked the magic Star Trek ingredient, which is having a starship capable of zooming around the galaxy to a different destination each week.)

So by combining parts from two unremarkable products, I came up with something which I was much happier with. I didn’t prepare so much as a sketch before beginning the build, and wasn’t really sure how it would turn out. But everything blended together fairly well, helped by judicious detailing and a uniform coat of spray paint.
The most challenging part of the build was the rear landing gear. A fair amount of strength was needed to support the weight of the model. My solution was to form both the left and right gear from a single steel rod. I ran it width-wise through the aft section and bent it into shape on each side. The landing pads were taken from a Lunar Models Jupiter II kit (the old vacuform kit which preceded the injection molded Moebius kit by many years).
side-view
The hull section of the Runabout was given a new cockpit canopy: a single piece of clear plastic bent to shape and silvered on the inside, suggesting an optical shield to guard the crew from radiation (not to mention it saved me from having to scratch build a canopy interior!). I also carved out a front landing gear bay on the underside of the Runabout’s hull and added the gear along with a vertical thruster.

The Troop Transport’s lack of windows reflects its utilitarian function. It’s designed to carry a large complement of troops and is devoid of any of the luxuries you’d find on a passenger craft. Entry and exit is through a door at the rear of the ship. Essentially it’s a space-going V-22 Osprey.
top-view
Having assembled and painted the Troop Transport, I put it aside and called it a day. But after displaying it on the shelf for a while, I realized the overall white paint scheme was a bit bland. Some bright red decals and a touch of weathering would give it more visual punch. Having just picked up a bottle of Solvaset decal setting solution, I was eager to see what it could do. So I applied some spare decals over various nooks and crannies. To my amazement the decals conformed perfectly regardless of how irregular the surface was. Solvaset is one of the stronger decal setting solutions and not all decals perform equally well with it. But in this case everything turned out nicely.

-Ivar

Arctic Rescue (1:72)

The Royal Canadian Air Force’s CH-149 Cormorant can operate in the most severe weather conditions, making it ideal as a search and rescue helicopter. The Cormorant’s striking yellow and red paint scheme cuts a sharp contrast against the wintery white background of this scene—a welcome sight for this pilot who had to bail out a long way from home.

The Italeri kit was outfitted with a scratchbuilt winch, extra interior/exterior detailing, and aftermarket decals. To give the illusion of spinning rotor blades, I replaced the kit-supplied blades with clear acrylic disks cut to shape.

Dioramas which show aircraft in flight usually prop up the model with an all too visible rod, which detracts from the realism of the scene. Here, the support rod is concealed in the cargo ramp.

The cliff was sculpted from a single piece of blue insulation foam using a hot knife. The parachute is an acrylic half sphere which was melted to a natural wind-blown shape in the kitchen oven.

-Ivar

Kitbash case study – Eagle Gunship

While completing my Eagle Crash diorama, I decided to show the passenger pod door of the crashed Eagle ajar, suggesting that the door had been forced open due to electrical failure. This required buying a second MPC Eagle kit to obtain a “spare” door, after carving away the original door (the door is molded into the side of the passenger pod). The timing was right, since MPC had just re-released their Eagle kit with a much improved decal sheet which I was also able to put to use.

Having updated the crashed Eagle to show the door ajar, I was left with a box full of spare parts (almost enough to build another Eagle). I decided to try my hand at a new design. And so began the design and construction of the Eagle Gunship. But first, a bit of background on the Eagle.

The Eagle is the all-purpose workhorse of Moonbase Alpha, carrying passengers as well as freight. The producers of Space: 1999 never made its military capabilities very clear. In Season 1 of the series, Eagles were occasionally shown firing lasers from a point on the underside of the Command Module. And in Season 2, at least one Eagle was fitted with a retractable laser turret housed in the forward Service Module. These enhancements were obviously added as afterthoughts to facilitate specific storylines writers had come up with. Space: 1999 suffered from a notorious lack of consistency in terms of the technical features and capabilities of Moonbase Alpha and its associated hardware. The series would have benefitted from a technical guidebook similar to the one shared by Star Trek writers to ensure consistency.

Nevertheless, the Brian Johnson-designed Eagle remains a classic in the annals of science fiction, and the real star of Space: 1999. Fictional spacecraft often forego realism for visual appeal, but the Eagle succeeds on both counts. The design is practical as well as aesthetically pleasing, with a modular approach which invites customization. So, leveraging the strong DNA of this classic design, I decided to create an Eagle variant designed specifically for warfare.

The Eagle Gunship is armed with two forward mounted laser guns and two guided missiles. It features main and auxiliary forward propulsion engines, vertical jets for liftoff, and fixed landing skids set wide apart for stability. Access is via a door at the rear of the Command Module. The Gunship’s compact size optimizes the thrust to weight ratio and makes the ship difficult for the enemy to locate and track.

In addition to parts and decals from the MPC kit and landing skids taken from MPC’s Darth Vader’s Tie Fighter kit, the Eagle Gunship build utilized sheet styrene, sheet acrylic, Apoxie Sculpt, aftermarket resin missiles, and various odds and ends from the parts bin. The decals didn’t behave like regular decals. The film was thicker than normal and didn’t respond well to Solvaset. However they came out okay and were quicker than painting.

Nose Subassembly

Engine Subassembly

I had to make some changes to the design during construction. The two spars behind the Command Module were originally conceived as being much slimmer, but more surface area was needed to support the engines, fuel tanks, vertical jets, and maneuvering thrusters. So the spars ended up being wider than originally planned.

When the model was initially completed, it was front-heavy and leaned forward on the landing skids. Adding two auxiliary engines at the back of the ship (made of lead) made the model balance nicely.

After finishing the Eagle Gunship, I realized that it would make a great addition to the Eagle Crash diorama. It’s close enough visually to the other two Eagles to blend into the scene, and different enough to make viewers take a second look.

-Ivar

Visual sleight-of-hand with forced perspective at Museo de la Miniatura

Before the age of computer generated special effects, movie makers used several tricks to make the most of miniature photography. One of these tricks is called forced perspective. This technique exaggerates the apparent depth of a scene by placing large scale objects near the camera and small scale objects farther back. For example, placing a 1:10 scale miniature tree close to the camera and a 1:20 scale tree further back increases the apparent distance between the two trees.

Forced perspective compensates for the limited depth of field of cameras (the range of objects in a scene which are in focus). Without it, a miniature set depicting a large area, such as a battlefield, would be very deep, and it would be difficult to keep everything in focus.

On a recent trip to Guayaquil, Ecuador, I stumbled across Museo de la Miniatura. This museum houses a series of dioramas illustrating the history of Guayaquil. The dioramas are a few metres wide and over a metre high, and have lighting that changes as a pre-recorded narrative is played over speakers. What impresses me most about these dioramas is their masterful use of forced perspective. Although not designed for filming, these expertly crafted dioramas employ forced perspective to inject more visual depth into a confined space.

One of the dioramas is pictured above. Although you might not realize it from casual observation, the train tracks are not parallel, and the models near the front are larger than those in the back. This creates a scene of much greater apparent depth. Due to the need to create miniatures in multiple scales, forced perspective is more time consuming for the artist than creating a standard diorama with everything rendered in one scale. But the end result is brilliant.

I used forced perspective back in my film student days, creating a set of three landing pads for a spacecraft touchdown scene. By making each landing pad in a different scale, the scene had much more apparent depth, and it worked better. This project was done entirely on 16mm film and all special effects had to be done in-camera. With forced perspective, I was able to keep everything in focus.

The near total reliance of today’s filmmakers on computer generated effects has a downside, in that much of the ingenuity which used to lend magic to filmmaking is now all but obsolete. Techniques like forced perspective aren’t needed when you have software that takes care of everything.

It’s nice to know that at Museo de la Miniatura, the magic of forced perspective is alive and well.

-Ivar

Spinner Over Police HQ (1:24)

I wanted to show the Spinner in flight—it’s much more graceful with the wheels tucked out of sight. I also wanted to capture the night-time ambience which was integral to Blade Runner.

To meet these requirements, I used the box diorama format described in my previous post. The box started out as a wooden picture frame. I extended the sides with basswood panels to provide more depth. The Spinner is supported from behind by a U-shaped arm mounted to the base of the box. The Duratrans backdrop is back-lit with an LED strip.

-Ivar

The box diorama: supercharging the diorama

The typical diorama uses a flat board as the structural base. This configuration has a number of limitations. It doesn’t usually include a background, which means the artist is constrained to working on only one surface when recreating a scene, lessening the overall verisimilitude. Another drawback is that this configuration requires premium real estate when displayed—either a book shelf or an empty stretch of wall where it can be attached with brackets, usually at waist level. This can be an issue when space is limited.

Enter the box diorama, sometimes called a shadow box. Leveraging multiple surfaces, it offers the artist complete control over background elements as well as lighting. There is also more control over what the viewer sees, since the box can only be viewed from the front. This makes it easy to add hidden supports to display aircraft in flight. And since the box diorama is usually displayed at eye level, it takes up no more space than a painting.

When I decided to create a showcase for my Spinner model from the film Blade Runner, it was clear that the box diorama was the way to go. In the film, the Spinner was shown only at night, which showed off its dazzling lights to maximum effect, and made its medium blue paint scheme appear dark blue. I wanted to capture both these elements.

My next post will feature the completed Spinner Over Police HQ box diorama. Stay tuned!

-Ivar

SHADO Yards (1:43)

This conceptual diorama is based on the 1970s TV show UFO, showing my design for SHADO Yards, an earth-based assembly facility where the Moonbase Interceptors were built.

The Interceptors are original Bandai injection molded kits (scratchbuilt interior and missile) and the figures are white metal. The cargo truck is a kitbash of an aircraft carrier tractor. Everything else is scratch-built. The finished Interceptor is lifted onto the launch pad with a gantry crane and moves on rails to the launch position. The launch pad is powered by a low rpm electric motor on O gauge track, using gears and sprockets from a robotics supplier.

-Ivar