Category Archives: Random Musings

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

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