Category Archives: Random Musings

Steaming into new territory

This innovative diorama of a cargo steamer, on display at the Estonian Maritime Museum, combines a 3D cutaway model with a transparent OLED display. The display has been programmed to show animation of smoke billowing out of the smokestack, sailors on deck, and even rats running around!

This is an imaginative solution to the age-old problem of how to animate atmospheric effects and figures in a diorama. These effects are often difficult and impractical to do in three dimensions. By adding a 2D ‘layer’ in front of the scene, specialist model makers Premier Ship Models were able to successfully add the desired effects.

The diorama is similar to a forced perspective piece in the sense that it must be viewed head-on so the animated OLED effects line up with the physical model. If you move to the side, the 2D and 3D layers diverge and the illusion is weakened. 

Cargo steamers first appeared in Estonia between 1850 and 1860. They represented a major technological breakthrough and revolutionized passenger and freight transportation around the world. The model showcased here is based on a steamer called the Keyingham.

-Ivar

A diorama in porcelain

Dating from the late 19th Century, this rural scene is made entirely of porcelain. The piece is titled Desk Set in Shape of a Farmhouse and was fabricated by the Gardner Porcelain and Faience Factory. It is part of the permanent collection on display at the Kadriorg Art Museum in Tallinn, Estonia. 

Porcelain might very well be one of the last materials that diorama artists would think of using for their next project, especially when coming from the world of scale modelling. Porcelain sculptures are hand sculpted in clay and then fired in a kiln. The firing process places limitations on the proportions of objects which can be modelled—anything too thin will crack when heated. This explains the slightly puffy look of the lady and her dog. Like most porcelain sculptures, this one is uniformly glazed in a high gloss finish. 

The farmhouse represents a log cabin, but its perfect symmetry and soft pastel shades give it a look more akin to a gingerbread house. The small tree off to the side has one shiny red apple on it, adding a dash of cheer. 

The diorama perfectly captures the peaceful feeling of a day in the country. For those of us who live in the city, separated from nature, this unassuming little diorama makes an excellent argument for a simpler way of life.   

-Ivar

Dioramas in Film – Die Hard

John McTiernan’s Die Hard (1988) was the first in a series of action flicks starring Bruce Willis as streetwise cop John McClane. Alan Rickman co-starred as McClane’s nemesis, the elegant and refined master criminal Hans Gruber. 

About half an hour into the film, Gruber’s team escorts Takagi, president of Nakatomi Corporation, through a remarkable gallery of architectural models representing Nakatomi projects around the world. Exclaims Gruber, “I always enjoyed to make models when I was a boy. The exactness, the attention to every conceivable detail. It’s beautiful.”

Gruber and Takagi stop in front of a large diorama of a bridge, which Takagi describes as a project in Indonesia. The diorama is placed in the foreground of the shot, occupying most of the frame. It rests on a base of mirrored tiles representing the river that flows beneath the bridge, creating a reflection that doubles its presence on the screen.

It’s rare for a film character to comment directly on a movie prop the way Gruber does in Die Hard. He may be the bad guy, but we can admire his taste in art.

-Ivar  

Fifth Anniversary

Today marks the fifth anniversary of Creative Dioramas. The readership of the blog has grown substantially over the past year. I take this as an indication that the art of diorama building is alive and well. Although we increasingly spend our time staring at screens, the rewards of scale modelling remain the same as they’ve always been. The sense of satisfaction from a project that you complete with your own two hands is something that can’t be duplicated in the passive environment of the Internet. 

This year I released my second book, Forced Perspective Dioramas. It’s based on the dioramas I’ve built over the last three years and includes everything I learned along the way. The book received a four star rating from Indies Today and another positive review from Parka Blogs. Thanks to everyone who has supported my work by making a purchase. 

I also had the opportunity to correspond with Christian Pearce, Senior Concept Artist at Weta Workshop and designer of the new Thunderbird 2 from Thunderbirds Are Go. This beloved green behemoth is the subject of one of the case studies featured in Forced Perspective Dioramas. I’m pleased to say that Christian liked the diorama. 

This blog will continue to feature anything and everything related to dioramas, scale modelling and three-dimensional art. I invite you to stay tuned for another year of Creative Dioramas.

-Ivar 

Dioramas in Film – Darkman

About 13 minutes into Sam Raimi’s campy 1990 flick Darkman, the title character’s girlfriend is shown a diorama of a proposed riverfront development in her boss’s office. She has just stumbled across an incriminating memo which shows evidence of bribes made in support of the riverfront project. Her boss does his best to get her to look the other way. Showing her the diorama, he tries to convince her that the bribes were necessary to guarantee the future of the project. Predictably, she doesn’t want to just hand over the memo and forget about it, and mayhem ensues. 

Most architectural dioramas are made of wood, paper, and plastic. What sets the diorama in Darkman apart is that it appears to be made entirely of transparent acrylic. The diorama is lit from below and the light is captured by the acrylic much like a chandelier. It becomes a glistening beacon in the dark, wood panelled office, adding substantial visual interest to a scene that would have otherwise been plain.

-Ivar

A brass dragon takes flight

Keith Newstead’s steampunk dragon is a marvel of craftsmanship. This whimsical creation is on display at the Museum of Puppetry Arts in Tallinn, Estonia. Although the focus of the museum is on traditional dolls, some of the exhibits veer off the beaten path, like this one.

This miniature dragon shows what can be accomplished when building from scratch with a single material. Brass has a warm glow and can be buffed to the desired level of gloss. It is a fairly soft, easily workable metal and comes in sheet, rod, tube and solid block, making it quite versatile. Brass has long been a favourite of model train builders. 

While Newstead’s works would stand on their own as static displays, many of them are animated. Geared down electric motors bring these creations to life, adding an extra dimension of visual interest.

-Ivar  

The Beauty of Birch

The vast majority of diorama artists revere absolute realism as the ideal to which one should aspire. This is natural when coming to dioramas from the world of plastic modelling, where we are taught to paint and weather surfaces to enhance their verisimilitude. 

Architectural dioramas place more emphasis on shape than realism. For the architect, conveying the three-dimensional form of a building or site takes priority over conveying the actual look of the finishing materials. A case in point is this diorama of a 2012 update given to Tartu University’s Narva College in Estonia. The entire diorama is rendered in natural birch wood. 

The trees in the foreground—simple birch cutoffs—are especially well done, giving the scene a flowing, sculptural quality. Topographical variations in the landscaping are approximated by layering thin birch panels on top of one another. The diorama does a good job of leveraging the versatility of birch wood. Personally, I would have left out the orange figures, as they don’t really fit the aesthetic of the scene, but that’s a minor point.  

The end result is a diorama which not only fulfills its intended purpose of conveying the form of the proposed addition, but succeeds as a work of art in its own right. The diorama can be seen at the Museum of Estonian Architecture in Tallinn.

-Ivar

A Life-Size Tintin Diorama

The Museum of Original Figurines (MOOF) in Brussels, Belgium boasts a wide variety of figures and displays ranging from Batman to Tintin. 

The Adventures of Tintin was a series of 24 comic albums created by the Belgian cartoonist Hergé. Tintin is one the most famous comic strip characters in Europe.

One of the highlights of MOOF is a life-size forced perspective diorama of Tintin and his dog Snowy being chased by an airplane. Tintin and Snowy are three-dimensional sculptures and the plane is a two-dimensional cutout. All are rendered in pastels to mimic the look of the original comic strip. Tintin is in a very dynamic pose which heightens the tension of the scene. The flapping of his jacket as he runs is especially well done. Snowy seems more interested in Tintin than the plane, but he’s still cute. 

This diorama shows what you can do with just three simple elements. There’s no background scenery at all, which puts the focus entirely on the characters.   

-Ivar

Guess the scale of this diorama

This diorama of a 105mm howitzer framed by two jeeps and a C-47B appears very finely detailed. The figures in particular are impressive. And look at that beautifully done panel wash on the aircraft. Can you guess the scale? There’s a clue on the left side of the photo.

The diorama is part of the permanent collection at the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History in Brussels, Belgium. It looks like a wartime scene, but the plaque informs us that the Belgian Air Force utilized the C-47B between 1947 and 1976. The C-47B is the military version of the venerable DC-3, which revolutionized air travel after its first flight in 1935. The C-47B was used to transport freight and troops, and even tow gliders. Including all variants, over 16,000 units of the aircraft were built. 

I had the pleasure of taking a DC-3 flight from Boston to Provincetown, on the east coast of the US, many years ago. It was without a doubt the loudest aircraft I’ve ever flown in! I remember how close the arc of the propeller blades came to the fuselage.

Some people are nervous about flying in prop planes, but the DC-3 is one of the safest aircraft you could ever fly in. With its generous wing area and relatively light weight, it remains flyable even in the event of both engines failing. The plane’s impressive glide ratio means that a pilot can land it unpowered with no trouble at all. Even better, the DC-3 didn’t have a single computer on board, so bad software was never an issue. Just don’t forget to bring your earplugs.

The diorama is full scale . . . if you look closely, the handrail of the second floor walkway is just visible in the bottom left corner of the photo. 

For tips on how to optimize the visual impact of your work, see my book Diorama Design. It’s available on Amazon and Apple Books.

-Ivar

A 1:1 scale diorama at Autoworld Brussels

An inventive display in Belgium’s largest auto museum showcases three great racing cars of a bygone era: a 1971 Bizzarrini AMX / 3 Spyder, a 1954 Jaguar D-Type, and a 1953 Porsche 550 Spyder. It breaks convention with most automotive museums, which simply line up row after row of cars and provide nothing more than a small plaque with a few brief details about each vehicle. 

This full scale diorama invites us to go back in time to the golden age of car racing. Peer into the shadows behind the cars, and see the specialized tools mechanics used to keep these machines in fine tune. Look up and see the crowds eagerly waiting for the cars to come screaming around the bend on their next lap. This is a perfect example of how a diorama can breathe life into its subjects. These cars are no longer just three random vehicles, but stars in a show. 

For tips on how to optimize the visual impact of your work, see my book Diorama Design. It’s available on Amazon and Apple Books.

-Ivar