Category Archives: Random Musings

Dioramas in Film – The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

Starring Brendan Fraser in the lead role once again, the third installment of The Mummy films was the least successful of the trilogy. Despite a compelling premise—with Jet Li as the titular antagonist—the film was a commercial and critical failure. 

The most noteworthy aspect of this 2008 dud was a massive diorama featuring hundreds of miniature soldiers on a battlefield. The sheer size of this miniature, which dwarfs the actors standing behind it, is its most distinctive feature. Although the diorama has some topographical variation, it suffers from a monochrome colour scheme and lacks a focal point. The eye wanders over the landscape looking for something to zero in on, but all we see is a carpet of soldiers. 

If you’re looking for tips on how to make your next diorama more visually compelling, you might want to check out Diorama Design, available on Amazon and Apple Books. 

Although I can’t recommend The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor for its own sake, diehard military diorama fans might want to check it out. 

-Ivar

Dioramas in Film – Exodus: Gods and Kings

Released in 2014, director Ridley Scott’s biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings features Christian Bale as Moses and Joel Edgerton as Rameses. The film retells the story of Moses with the aid of state of the art visual effects that enhance the film without overpowering it. 

Following the death of his father, Rameses tightens his grip on Egypt. His chief ambition is the construction of a new city to honour himself as King. This new city is sketched out in three dimensions as a large tabletop diorama that appears in several scenes. The diorama consists of buildings carved out of wood and accentuated with miniature stone elements representing statues. The lavish materials selected for this work distinguish it from standard plywood and cardboard architectural models. 

As a representation of the city being built in his honour, the diorama symbolizes the despotic mindset of Rameses. Under his orders, the slaves labouring to build the city are horribly mistreated, driving many of them to an early grave. Rameses shows no mercy, and his ruthlessness drives the story towards its climax. 

 

Exodus: Gods and Kings differentiates itself from earlier biblical films by delving more deeply into the personal lives of the characters. Christian Bale’s Moses is an especially well detailed character, made more realistic by his weaknesses. We’re afforded a close look into his personal trials and tribulations as he undertakes his hero’s journey. 

Merry Christmas and best wishes for the holiday season from Creative Dioramas. See you in the New Year.

-Ivar

First Look: New Batmobile from The Batman (2022)

Slated for a spring 2022 release, The Batman puts Robert Pattinson in the lead role under the direction of Matt Reeves. A newly redesigned Batmobile features prominently in the trailers that are now appearing for the film. The design is a complete departure from recent incarnations of the famous vehicle. It’s a hi-tech muscle car whose closest cinematic relative is the Pursuit Special from Mad Max. It also looks a bit like a first generation Chevrolet Camaro on steroids. From the flared fenders and sharply creased bodywork to the massive wheels and exposed engine bay, the design is unabashedly masculine. 

In the engine bay sits a motor that looks like a regular piston engine. Although in keeping with the time-honoured Batmobile tradition, flames shoot out the back, which usually means a turbine. Turbine engines have long been a staple of Batmobile technology, going back as far as the 1960s TV series Batmobile designed by George Barris. Car manufacturers actually experimented with turbine engines back then but none of the prototypes made it into mass production.

The new Batmobile has an unrefined appearance reminiscent of a kit car. The body panels fit together like they were assembled in a garage rather than a factory, which means the car gets full marks for realism. After all, this vehicle is supposed to be something that Bruce Wayne made himself.

While most previous Batmobiles maintained a defensive posture on the streets, this one is ready to go on the offensive. The massive front bumper is designed for the express purpose of ramming vehicles when giving chase, as we see in the trailer. We’ll have to wait for the movie to come out to see what other gadgets are lurking under the car’s matte black bodywork. 

There appears to be a hood scoop, although given that the car has a mid-engine layout, this element presumably serves some other function. There’s a mysterious red glow emanating from the hood—a weapon of some kind? 

The new Batmobile is a refreshing interpretation of the classic comic strip vehicle that Dark Knight fans have always considered part and parcel of the character. The retro, form-follows-function look of the new design appeals to everyone’s inner mechanic and gives a tip of the hat to the muscle cars of the 1970s. Let’s hope the Batmobile gets plenty of screen time in the new film, and that at least one model kit manufacturer will have the marketing savvy to release an accurate miniature of the car. 

-Ivar

Dioramas in Film – Cleopatra

Clocking in at over four hours in its uncut form, the 1963 epic Cleopatra featured an all star cast headed by Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Rex Harrison. The lavish production spared no expense in bringing the ancient worlds of Rome and Alexandria to life on the big screen. And what’s even better is that this film featured not just one diorama, but two. 

About three hours into the film, Marc Antony prepares to engage Octavian’s forces at Actium, on the western coast of Greece. The first diorama we see on Cleopatra’s flagship captures the topography of Actium and the positions of the opposing fleets. 

Antony has the option to abandon his ships, which are now blockaded by Octavian’s larger navy, and fight Octavian on land. However, he decides to confront Octavian’s forces at sea. He erupts in anger when his generals question his decision to send ground troops into a naval engagement they aren’t trained for. 

As the battle begins, every step of the engagement is duplicated in miniature on a second diorama. On her flagship, Cleopatra watches in horror as the miniature Egyptian ships positioned on the diorama are set ablaze, mirroring the fate of their full size counterparts at sea. This is one of the few movies in which a diorama is used to illustrate the main events taking place, retelling the story in miniature.

 

Unlike many Hollywood epics, this one is based on actual events. The Battle of Actium is well documented and represents the pivotal point in history when Rome changed from a republic to an empire. 

Some of the details have been altered for dramatic effect, but the film captures the essence of the events which took place. And for diorama aficionados, the icing on the cake is the inclusion of two dioramas which are much more than set dressing. These miniatures help draw us into the conflict that serves as the climax of this fascinating story. 

-Ivar 

Sixth Anniversary

Creative Dioramas turns six today. This blog is my small contribution to keeping the creative spirit alive. If you’re a regular reader, you probably realize that the pursuit of artistic endeavours is becoming increasingly rare in today’s world. The many distractions of modern life seem to fragment our energies, discouraging us from undertaking projects that demand substantial time and effort. Yet for those of us with the will and the self discipline to pursue our creative goals, the rewards can be great.

Much has been written about the connection between creativity and independence. To create something original requires independent thought. So it comes as no surprise that many artists are mavericks who like to do their own thing and aren’t concerned about how others view them. 

If you’re in this group, the upheaval of normal life around the globe during the past year and a half has probably affected you more than most. Stay true to what you believe, feed your creative spirit, and keep creating.   

-Ivar

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