Category Archives: Design & Construction

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

Encounter in North Africa (1:35)

In this scene, a boy and his sister come upon the awesome sight of a German tank trundling down a village lane. The long barrel Panzerkampfwagen III was one of the most elegant armour designs of WWII.

Lots of experimentation went into mixing the right shade of desert yellow for this Tamiya kit. The wall was scratch built.

-Ivar

The missing piece of the puzzle

I recently put the finishing touches on a diorama I almost finished three or four years ago. This particular diorama, Vulcan Homecoming, eventually became the header image for this website (you can see it at the top of this page).

When I was wrapping up this project three or four years ago, I had looked everywhere for a set of 1:200 scale airfield personnel. Unfortunately, that item was not available anywhere at the time.

Then last summer, I remembered that what was missing from this diorama was the airfield personnel figures. Once again, I did a quick Internet search. To my delight, the product I had been looking for a few years ago was now in stock at a European retailer. I immediately ordered it.

The figures are so tiny that I found them easier to paint after gluing them into place. An added challenge was working with the small rectangular base that each figure comes with. On a larger figure, the base can be easily removed without damaging the figure, but in this case, I didn’t want to risk it. Instead, I drilled small indentations into the tarmac so the base would be flush with the surface of the airfield. This required some puttying and repainting to get everything looking right.

The extra work was worth it. The figures give the diorama an extra dash of verisimilitude. Since they’re so tiny, you have to look closely to see them. The fine detail pulls the viewer in. From a short distance, you can’t quite make out what’s there. So the first reaction people have is “Hey, what’s that?” Then they look closer, and their next reaction is, “Cool.” Details make a difference.

-Ivar

The Wooden Wonder (1:48)

With a perfectly proportioned design combining power and grace, the de Havilland Mosquito excelled in a variety of roles. Its light birch and balsa construction made it so fast, it was virtually immune to interception. The Mosquito spearheaded many daring missions during WWII.

I spent considerable time mixing paints to get the right shade of PRU blue for this late model reconnaissance Mosquito. Even more work went into filling and sanding to bring the Airfix kit up to standard.

-Ivar

Vulcan Homecoming (1:200)

The Avro Vulcan was a Cold War era bomber designed with nuclear strike capability in mind. Easily the most beautiful jet bomber of the 20th Century, this magnificent aircraft didn’t see action until its twilight days, dropping a conventional bomb load on an Argentinian airstrip in the 1982 Falklands War.

I added a scratch built drag chute and aftermarket decals to the Cyber Hobby Vulcan. Fibre optics light up the runway and fire station, and two diecast Phantoms round out the scene. You may be able to make out the tiny Herpa airport personnel if you look closely.

-Ivar

Jedi Starfighter (1:20)

The Jedi Starfighter is Obi Wan Kenobi’s personal hot rod, a sleek delta wing fighter featured in Episode II of Star Wars: Attack of the Clones.

A reworked Hasbro toy with custom LED lighting, scratch built landing gear and a new paint job, the Starfighter is ready to transport Obi Wan to his next daring mission (just as soon as he’s finished his coffee).

-Ivar

The sci-fi diorama and the road to artistic freedom

One of the great things about the science fiction diorama is the “fiction” part. This means that unlike the historical diorama artist, you’re less constrained by the bounds of realism and authenticity. You don’t have to worry about custom mixing the correct shade of PRU blue for a WWII reconnaissance Mosquito, or wondering how dirty a Panther tank would get after a 1944 tour in North Africa. (I’ve asked myself both these questions.)

When you set your science fiction diorama on another planet, no-one can accuse you of a lack of realism, because no-one has actually seen the planet. Freed from the constraints of verisimilitude, you can set your sci-fi figure/car/spaceship in a field of purple grass and trees that have three trunks and fuchsia coloured bark, if that’s what you want to do. You’re limited only by your imagination. The only extraterrestrial setting that wouldn’t afford you this creative freedom is the moon (in the unlikely event that the person giving the critique is one of the gentlemen pictured above). Barring this, your diorama can be a blank slate.

When designing my Eagle Crash diorama, I planned to set the scene on an earth-type planet. But rather than dressing the scene with oaks, conifers or other earth-type trees, I decided to create my own. Fans of Space: 1999 will recall that after the moon was torn out of earth’s orbit, the denizens of Moonbase Alpha never saw earth again. But they visited many interesting planets, some of which looked like earth and some of which didn’t. So I could dress my diorama however I wanted and still be true to the premise of the show.

This was the perfect opportunity to try my hand at creating a tree from scratch, using the “wound wire” method described in Advanced Terrain Modelling by Richard Windrow. What I ended up with looked like a tree, but not one that you’d find anywhere on earth. And it didn’t matter, because on this particular planet where the Eagle had crash landed, the trees just happen to look exactly like the one I made by winding wire together. And said tree is now an integral part of the finished scene, with no further explanation necessary.

I revisited the Eagle Crash diorama a few years later and added a third ship to the scene. I call it the Eagle Gunship, and in case you’re wondering, it didn’t appear in any episodes of Space: 1999. But I enjoy kitbashing models and had some extra Eagle parts in the spares box, so I decided to create my own variant of the Eagle. And again, I was able to do this because of the “fiction” in science fiction.

-Ivar