Category Archives: Random Musings

Dioramas in Film – The Fountainhead

Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead is a compelling novel about the politics of creativity. It follows the tumultuous career of a visionary architect who refuses to compromise the integrity of his work under any circumstances. Rand exults the nobility of the independent thinker over the conformist mentality of the collective.  

The 1949 film adaptation of the novel, starring Gary Cooper as architect Howard Roark, successfully condenses the story into a feature length format. The latter half of the film concerns a housing development designed by Roark (but credited to architect Peter Keating), which falls victim to creative meddling by the developers. A diorama of the development provides the visual touchstone for a tense scene between Keating and the developers. 

 

The diorama showcases the purity of Roark’s original design. It’s true to the modernist aesthetic, free of ornament and ostentation. Like most architectural models, it appears to be constructed of card stock and foam. The diorama is of considerable size, and the camera pans luxuriantly over it as the scene plays out. It also serves as a reference point for later developments in the film—we see that the finished project doesn’t live up to the original design. 

The Fountainhead takes its place alongside other films featuring architectural models that I’ve discussed: The Cooler, Die Hard, Darkman, and Quo Vadis. Diorama artists can take inspiration from these supersized works, which show what can be done with a generous budget. 

-Ivar  

A really big model of the USS Iwo Jima

One of the defining characteristics of an aircraft carrier is that it’s massively huge. So it’s fitting that a miniature version of something so massive would also be suitably big. This 1:72 scale model of the USS Iwo Jima, on display at the Estonian Aviation Museum just outside Tartu, doesn’t disappoint when it comes to size. 

Custom built by Scale Reproductions of Foley, Alabama, USA, this miniature is about three and a half meters (12’) in length. It appears to be made of multiple materials, including wood and various plastics. The chosen scale allows the use of off the shelf kits for the aircraft showcased on the flight deck. An aircraft carrier is of course only as good as the planes it carries. The Iwo Jima initially had a complement of 30 helicopters and eight AV-8B Harrier II VTOL jets.

 

The Harrier was ideally suited to carrier operations, thanks to its ability to take off and land vertically. Its prowess was demonstrated during the Falklands War of 1982, where it established air superiority over the numerically superior opposition. The Harrier is the subject of a diorama I discussed here. Although the F-35B which replaced the Harrier has vertical flight capability, it’s rarely used. The main engine swivels and several doors swing open on the top and bottom of the aircraft before vertical flight is undertaken, so a lift fan (separate from the main engine) can be operated. The whole procedure seems cumbersome and awkward. The Harrier used a single engine with four swivel nozzles for both conventional and vertical flight, which was a much more elegant (and practical) solution. 

This is the second vessel operated by the US Navy to bear the Iwo Jima name. It’s a Wasp Class amphibious assault ship. The Iwo Jima doesn’t feature the ‘ski jump’ take-off ramp featured on some newer carriers, which allows aircraft to become airborne with a shorter take-off roll. It has the look of a classic aircraft carrier with a completely flat deck and is based on the same general design as WWII era carriers. Commissioned in 2001, the ship is still in service today.

-Ivar

And now for something completely different

Until now, this blog has focused on dioramas populated with model kit miniatures. In addition, the completed works that have been showcased are all three-dimensional.

Somewhere between the two-dimensional world of paintings and the three-dimensional world of dioramas lies a hybrid known as the relief sculpture. The above photo of an ancient Egyptian relief shows how a sense of depth can be achieved by carving the subject so it protrudes slightly from the background. Relief sculptures are usually sculpted from a single piece of stone.

A variant of the relief sculpture, which I call 2.5D, achieves the same effect but uses separate materials for the subject and background. I chose the name 2.5D because this type of work has more depth than a 2D painting but less than a 3D diorama. Rather than incorporating model kits, everything must be made from scratch. The benefit of 2.5D is that a sense of depth is achieved with a minimum of space, so the finished piece can be hung on the wall like a painting.

In my book Forced Perspective Dioramas, I talk about how forcing perspective allows the artist to represent greater distances in miniature without making the diorama impractically large. 2.5D represents another approach to tackling this challenge.

If you’re wondering what a 2.5D work looks like, stay tuned. The next post will feature one. It’s called Zero.

-Ivar

Dioramas in Film – Grand Prix

Although many would call it a slot car track rather than a diorama, this miniature of the Monza Autodrome at the Italian Grand Prix makes a great addition to the Dioramas in Film series of posts. The diorama appears towards the end of John Frankenheimer’s 1966 classic Grand Prix. The film features such names as James Garner, Eva Marie Saint, Brian Bedford, Yves Montand, and Toshiro Mifune. It still stands as one of the finest movies about car racing to grace the silver screen. 

An announcer tells us that the Monza raceway includes a combination of a banked oval high speed track and a road setting. The length of the track is 10km (just over six miles). At the time of filming, it was one of the fastest circuits in the world. 

The diorama’s appearance sets the stage for the climactic final race of the film. At nearly three hours in length, Grand Prix is an old school widescreen epic in the tradition of Ben Hur and Lawrence of Arabia. It weaves multiple narratives together with exhilarating race footage and a memorable score by Maurice Jarre. The film is also a showcase for lots of gorgeous cars both on and off track and those cool 60s fashions that never seem to go out of style. Highly recommended (and not just because there’s a diorama in it). 

-Ivar

Dioramas in Film – Moon

Sam Rockwell plays a mining company employee on a three year assignment to harvest energy from the moon in this 2009 sci-fi film. The lunar base from which he operates has all the comforts of home, including diversions such as a recreation area with a speed bag and ping-pong table. 

Near the ping-pong table is a a diorama consisting of several miniature buildings arranged on a bed of rocks. All the buildings are uniformly white. During the course of the movie, we find out that the diorama represents the town of Fairfax, and that Rockwell’s character has spent 938 hours building it.  

The diorama gets quite a bit of screen time in the first half of the film, but remains something of an enigma. We never find out why the buildings are sitting on a bed of rocks (presumably moon rocks, which aren’t in scale with the buildings), and we can only guess as to the significance of the town of Fairfax. 

Moon is more cerebral than most sci-fi releases of the past several years—closer to Solaris than Star Wars. The thought provoking story is backed up by sleek production design and impressive special effects. The exterior moon scenes are especially well done, thanks to the use of miniatures rather than cheap CGI. An excellent behind the scenes video can be found on YouTube.  

-Ivar

Dioramas in Film – The Cooler

William H. Macy plays a cooler—an unlucky individual whose mere presence is bad luck for casino patrons—in director Wayne Kramer’s 2003 flick about an old school casino. Macy’s character finally sees his luck change when a cocktail waitress, played by Maria Bello, shows romantic interest in him. 

Dominating the lives of both these characters is the ruthless casino owner, played by Alec Baldwin. In a pivotal scene, Baldwin’s character gets a visit from his mafia handler and is presented with a diorama of a new casino which will replace the existing one. He isn’t too pleased with the proposal.

The new casino showcased in the diorama is architecturally rather plain. It doesn’t seem like much of an improvement over the existing casino, and looks dated. Perhaps this was done intentionally to emphasize the casino owner’s frustration with the proposal. Without giving away too much of the story, it’s worth noting that this is one of the few times a film diorama undergoes a change during the course of the movie.

-Ivar 

The most ubiquitous diorama in the world

The Nativity is a scene which is commemorated in many ways each Christmas. Since the birth of Christ two millennia ago, it has been the subject of live performances, films, paintings, and of course dioramas. Without a doubt, The Nativity is the most popular diorama subject in history. 

This particular rendition of The Nativity was photographed at the base of the Marienplatz tower in Munich, Germany. It depicts the three kings bearing gifts in front of the manger where Mary and Joseph can be seen at the side of the newborn Christ. These figures gain visual emphasis from their placement against the dark background of the manger interior. Most of the figures in the scene are looking towards Christ, reinforcing Him as the focal point of the scene. 

The colour palette is based on soothing earth tones and the scene has been given realistic details, like the debris scattered over the roof of the manger. The finely detailed figures appear to be made from scratch. Painted hills in the background give the scene depth.

Best wishes for the holidays and Merry Christmas!

-Ivar

The importance of the display case

The majority of dioramas that you’ll see at a model exhibition are uncovered. The scene is constructed on a flat base and there is no case over it. 

Museum dioramas, on the other hand, are usually covered. The primary reason for this is naturally to prevent damage to the work, but there are other benefits as well. A well executed display case can add an extra dimension to the exhibit being displayed. These lighthouse exhibits in the Estonian Maritime Museum are a good example.

Rather than covering the lighthouses with standard rectangular cases, custom made cylindrical glass cases were used. These conform much better to the shape of the subject. The exhibits are carefully lit from below to minimize distracting reflections that can sometimes be a problem with curved glass. These cases were undoubtedly more expensive than plain rectangular cases would have been, but the aesthetic payoff is undeniable. 

If you haven’t yet tried covering your diorama with a display case, consider it for your next project. It will help give your finished scene that museum look. 

-Ivar 

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