Tag Archives: diorama

Charming minimalist dioramas from Platz

The Miniature Animal series from Platz puts a unique spin on the diorama. These tiny, carefully composed vignettes of domestic cats at play have a unique look, owing to the tall base and single background wall framing the main subject.

What makes these dioramas so refreshing is their very zen-like design. Like a Haiku poem, each scene is stripped to its bare essentials. Although obviously aimed at animal lovers, these products are an excellent case study in design for all diorama artists. Too often, dioramas are crammed to the brim with enough bric-a-brac to fill a small attic. The spare composition of the Miniature Animal series shows what can be achieved with a few elements precisely arranged for optimal aesthetic effect. Truly an example of “less is more.”

Most pre-assembled dioramas come with three walls, in an attempt to create a panoramic background. This type of design is visually clumsy due to the sharp 90° creases where the side walls meet the back wall. Platz has solved this problem by eliminating the side walls altogether. The single back wall is spare and elegant. It works remarkably well.

The Miniature Animal series is available through HobbyLink Japan at https://hlj.com/.

-Ivar

Hydrocal plaster diorama kits from Dioramas Plus

US-based Dioramas Plus was formed in 2008 by Randy Pepprock, who is known for his Downtown Deco model railroad buildings. Dioramas Plus is unique in offering kits with hydrocal plaster castings rather than injection or vacuform styrene parts. Hydrocal is a lightweight casting plaster which holds detail well. In addition to hydrocal parts, most of the kits also include laser cut wood doors and window frames.

Like MiniArt’s Dioramas Series kits, Dioramas Plus kits are aimed squarely at the armor modeller. And as with MiniArt, the kits allow the diorama artist to customize the scene by adding their own vehicles and figures.

What separates Dioramas Plus from MiniArt and other manufacturers is the build process. Working with hydrocal and wood requires specialized adhesives such as superglue and epoxy. And hydrocal is porous, so slightly different techniques are needed for painting and finishing. For the modeller venturing beyond styrene for the first time, there will be a bit of a learning curve. But there’s a benefit: hydrocal is a solid casting and is more suitable than thin sheet styrene parts for modelling walls, rubble, etc. It’s also rigid, and doesn’t flop around like a piece of vacuformed plastic.

Having used hydrocal before, I was impressed with its light weight and the ease with which it can be worked. Hydrocal is so soft and easy to sculpt that it invites experimentation—it will release your inner sculptor!

The Dioramas Plus kits are well designed and provide an excellent starting point for creating a custom scene. For the intermediate diorama modeller ready to expand their horizons and go beyond styrene, they’re worth checking out, at http://www.dioramasplus.com/site/.

-Ivar

The Dioramas Series of kits from MiniArt

Ukraine-based MiniArt is a manufacturer of plastic kits specializing in military subjects. Their Dioramas Series consists of a number of nicely designed 1:35 scale diorama bases, often with streets and ruined buildings, which are ideal for the novice diorama artist. These kits are intended as a starting point from which you can add your own vehicles, figures, etc. and create whatever story you want to tell. Some of the kits have figures already included.

The visual appeal of these kits is top notch. They meet all the criteria of good design, checking the boxes for symmetry and balance, topographical variation, and eye-pleasing geometry. By using one of these kits as a starting point, the novice gets a huge head start towards completing an impressive diorama. By taking care of the sometimes difficult first steps of overall layout, MiniArt does the heavy lifting and helps build confidence for the beginner.

The typical Dioramas Series kit generally contains less than 100 parts, and everything is in styrene, so no special adhesives are required for assembly. Kits include a combination of injection moulded and vacuform parts; while the latter may present more of a challenge, nothing is out of reach for those with basic modelling skills. MiniArt’s website features a helpful how-to page with photos and videos as well.

These kits are of modest dimensions. The one-piece base is generally less than a foot square, so the completed diorama will fit on an average sized shelf. Conveniently, MiniArt specifies the length and width of the base on the box cover.

Although each kit contains all the parts required to create the finished piece shown on the box, there is always room for improvement. For the artist who wants to go a step further, it would be easy to embellish the kit with realistic extras like sprinkle-on grass, loose rubble, bushes and trees. And you could place the styrene base on a nice piece of wood to spruce up the overall presentation.

Most of these kits will end up being populated with tanks and figures, and the proportions are laid out with the armour modeller in mind. One of the kits, a River Embankment Section, could be expanded to include a boat or two. And with a little imagination, an aviation enthusiast could incorporate an aircraft into one of the kits. The 1:35 scale isn’t an exact match for 1:32 aircraft kits, but the difference would barely be noticeable.

MiniArt’s Dioramas Series is highly recommended, particularly for beginners. These kits are a great introduction to the world of dioramas for those who have thought about creating a diorama, but weren’t sure how to begin. See http://miniart-models.com/.

-Ivar

 

Historical dioramas from Spain – Part Four

In this final installment on dioramas in Spain, we journey to the Castillo de Almodovar, a picturesque medieval castle perched atop a hill near the town of Cordoba, Spain. The castle is based on a roughly rectangular floor plan of 5,624 square metres. Access is via a long, winding road to the castle entrance at the top of the hill. Once inside, a long ramp takes you to the Courtyard of Arms. From here you can see a total of nine towers, the highest of which is 33 metres tall. Architecturally, the castle is a mix of Neo-Mudejar (Moorish Revival), Gothic and Romanesque styles.

I was pleasantly surprised to find a diorama of the castle within its walls, set up in the centre of a small, dungeon-like room. Projectors in the ceiling illuminate the diorama with lighting effects, re-enacting a siege of the castle, and speakers provide sound.

Displaying a single diorama in the centre of a dark room, with nothing else to distract, gives it a certain theatricality. As you enter, the diorama commands your full attention.

The diorama consists of the castle itself, the hilltop base, and nothing else. There are no figures of attacking soldiers, or armaments being brought to bear. All these extra elements are provided by the projectors in the ceiling, along with flame and explosion effects. As with the diorama from Quebec City, Canada I discussed, there’s an integration of physical and virtual elements which work together to create a complete experience for the visitor.

The Castillo de Almodovar has a long history. Originally a Berber fortress built in 760, the castle came under Christian rule with Fernando III in 1240. Beginning in 1360, it served as the royal residence of Pedro I. It underwent numerous architectural changes with each new owner. The castle was eventually handed over to the knightly Order of Calatrava and then to the Order of Santiago. The Earl of Torralva undertook an extensive restoration of the castle from 1903 to 1936. Twelve centuries after its initial construction, the castle not only still stands but is remarkably well preserved.

-Ivar

 

Historical dioramas from Spain – Part Three

In this third installment on dioramas in Spain, we have a 1:1 scale recreation of the Zeluan Airfield operated by the Spanish Army near Melilla, Morocco, between 1913 and 1927. This 1,000 square metre display, completed in 2016, takes up an entire hangar at the Museo de Aeronautica y Astronautica in Madrid, Spain. How’s that for a super-sized diorama?

Spanish Army garrisons served the Spanish protectorate in Morocco from the late 19th Century until Morocco gained its independence in 1956. In the early 1920s, Spanish forces were tasked with quelling an uprising by the Berbers—tribes of the Rif, a mountainous region in the north of Morocco. Spain and its ally France deployed some 150 aircraft in the Rif War, also called the Second War of Morocco.

The Zeluan Airfield diorama is bisected by a path that visitors follow as they explore the scene. Large panels on the walls show maps of North Africa. A few truckloads of sand appear to have been brought in to recreate the desert base. But the stars of the diorama are the replicas of five period aircraft. The first of these is a French Morane-Saulnier G, a wire-braced monoplane which first flew in 1912. The second is a British AVRO 504. Due to its outstanding performance in WWI, Spain acquired 50 units of this model.

Third is a German Fokker C-III, a reconnaissance aircraft, and fourth, a British De Havilland DH4. One DH4 was apparently acquired as a civilian donation. The residents of various towns in Spain collectively raised money to buy the plane, and gave it to the army as a gift.

Last and perhaps most significant is the Bristol F.2B, a British two-seat fighter aircraft which first flew in 1916. It featured innovations such as a Rolls-Royce Falcon inline engine and a Vickers .303 inch machine gun synchronized to fire through the propeller. A second swivel-mounted gun was operated by the observer, who faced the rear of the aircraft. The F.2B became the most successful two-seat fighter of WWI and nearly 5,000 units were produced, serving in over a dozen air forces around the world. Although designed primarily as a fighter, the F.2B was also adapted for bombing and reconnaissance duties.

Aerial tactics in the Rif War included strafing attacks and makeshift bombing runs in which explosives were thrown by hand at enemy infantry positions. The bombs were designed to fall nose first, and a fuse in the nose detonated the bomb on impact.

The diorama was completed over the course of five months. The first three were dedicated to finding the right clothes and weapons to equip the 16 mannequins featured in the diorama. The mannequins represent mechanics, gunsmiths, pilots, and office clerks. The remaining two months involved assembling everything to create the final scene. Impressive!

-Ivar

 

Historical dioramas from Spain – Part Two

This is the second installment in a series on Spanish dioramas, which I started with my previous post. The diorama shown here is also from the Museo de Aeronautica y Astronautica. It depicts the first balloon used in Spain for military purposes, from the year 1889. The diorama inscription informs us that the inflatable sphere was 10.8 meters in diameter, with a volume of 682 cubic meters. This aircraft was assigned to the 4th Company of the Engineering Arm of the Telegraphers Battalion.

The balloon was accompanied by horse drawn support vehicles supplying a hydrogen generator and a 500 meter cable. The technological contrast between this aircraft, which represented cutting edge technology at the time, and the horse drawn vehicles, which were comparatively primitive, adds to the interest of the scene.

The balloon was named Maria Cristina after the reigning Queen of Spain, who had a keen interest in lighter-than-air aircraft. Accompanied by Lieutenant-Colonel Lícer López, she participated in a test flight of the balloon to an altitude of 300 meters.

Compositionally, the diorama is nicely done. The balloon itself should naturally be the focal point of the diorama, and the artist has succeeded in making it so. The eye is immediately drawn to the balloon not just because of its size and height, but also its golden colour, which sets it apart from the greens and browns of the surroundings. In addition, the balloon is the most brightly lit object in the diorama, which adds even more emphasis. It is positioned off to one side and visually balanced by the support vehicles at the other end of the scene.

What makes this diorama especially effective is the illusion that the balloon is actually floating into the air on its own. This effect is reinforced by the slack in the control cables which the men around the balloon are handling. If all the cables were taut, they would look like stiff rods supporting the balloon, and the effect would be lost. Also, the area directly underneath the balloon is dark, hiding any physical supports. The background photograph adds a further element of realism and helps sell the scene.

-Ivar

 

Historical dioramas from Spain – Part One

The Museo de Aeronautica y Astronautica in Madrid, Spain features not only an extensive collection of full size aircraft, but some impressive miniatures and dioramas as well. To start off this series focusing on dioramas in Spain, I’m going to discuss a diorama by Miguel Martinez Jimenez entitled La Legion Condor Alemanes en Espana 12 Enero 1939.

The Spanish Civil War began when Francisco Franco’s Nationalists rebelled against the Republican government of Spain in 1936. The Nationalists received support and armaments from Germany and Italy, while the Republicans were assisted mainly by the Soviet Union and France. The Luftwaffe supplied four fighter squadrons to Franco (along with bombers and other aircraft) as part of the Condor Legion, manned by German pilots. The war claimed some half a million lives before Franco emerged victorious in 1939.

This diorama depicts two Condor Legion Messerschmitt Bf-109 aircraft on a Nationalist airfield. One is undergoing repairs in the hangar and the other is parked outside. The Spanish Civil War was the Bf-109’s first theatre of engagement, and the innovative German fighter proved itself to be vastly superior to its outdated Soviet-sourced adversaries. The 109’s uncontested superiority in the skies over Spain was instrumental in securing Franco’s victory.

The monochromatic Condor Legion markings are rather sombre looking and the roundels on the wings remind me of the “x” you’d write next to your candidate of choice when casting your vote at the ballot box. The 109 parked in front of the hangar is missing its entire cockpit canopy. Since it’s unlikely that all three canopy sections would be simultaneously removed for maintenance, we can assume that the absence of these pieces is accidental. The 109’s are in 1:32 scale and are probably kits rather than scratchbuilt miniatures, so the canopies would have been separate parts which simply came unglued and were lost at some point.

The scene is far from an idealized portrait of an airfield. Fuel drums are haphazardly scattered about the hangar, shop tools are strewn on the floor, and doors are left ajar. One of the mechanics is sitting on the wing of the 109, doing nothing.

The colourful regalia displayed on the hangar wall are the visual focal point of the scene and provide some political context. In the centre is the standard of the Condor Legion: an Iron Cross superimposed over red and yellow. The standard is flanked by a Spanish flag on the left and a swastika on the right, symbolizing Franco’s allegiance to Nazi Germany.

-Ivar

The best fisherman and the best diorama artist

There’s a great observation by John Gray in his award-winning book Straw Dogs which reminds us why we have hobbies: “the best fisherman is not the one who catches the most fish but the one who enjoys fishing the most.” Although it seems obvious, it’s easy to lose sight of this simple truth.

If we transpose the fishing example to the world of dioramas, some interesting questions come up. Such as, what is it about building dioramas that you enjoy the most? And which parts could you do without? By answering these questions, you can maximize your “success” as a diorama artist.

For myself, I especially enjoy the concept phase, in which I decide on the story I’ll be telling, and how to most effectively portray the story within the diorama framework. Once construction gets underway, I enjoy scratchbuilding and freehand work like carving a cliff face by hand or pouring resin to simulate water.

The one item I’d classify as a negative is airbrushing. Many years ago, I decided to pick up a cheap airbrush and see if it would improve the quality of paint finishes on my models. It didn’t. I attended an airbrushing workshop to make sure I was doing everything right and tried a more expensive airbrush. I found it astonishingly finicky. If I didn’t mix exactly the right proportions of paint and thinner and dial the compressor to exactly the right pressure, it would either not spray evenly or not spray at all. Although I would eventually get it to spray properly after many attempts, I realized that it was detracting from my enjoyment of modelling.

The benefit I got from airbrushing was the ability to paint large surfaces with custom shades of paint. After doing some research, I found a paint store stocking hundreds of shades of Montana brand spray paint in canisters with high quality interchangeable nozzles. So I could get pretty much any shade I wanted without an airbrush. I now use Montana spray paints almost exclusively to finish large surfaces, and the results are consistently excellent. I’ve probably saved myself dozens of hours of airbrush-related hassles by changing my approach. I’d compare it to that feeling of liberation you get after dumping a high maintenance girlfriend!

Hobby store owners will swear up and down that you need an airbrush. If you want to make them happy, buy one. If you want to make yourself happy, don’t.

When it comes to itemizing the most enjoyable and least enjoyable things about diorama building, every diorama artist will come up with a different list. Think about what you’d put in the plus column and the minus column. Then see if you can find a way to maximize the pluses and minimize the minuses. By doing this simple exercise, you’ll be able to increase your “success” as a diorama artist.

-Ivar

 

Building dioramas can make you smarter

Several scientific studies have explored the relationship between motor coordination skills and intelligence. Neuroscientists are still in the process of unravelling the workings of the human brain, and our understanding of this organ—the most complex in the human body—is far from complete.

It never occurred to me that developing hand-eye coordination could have a positive effect on intelligence. If this were the case, we’d expect to see great athletes and musicians turning into brilliant scientists and philosophers. Clearly it’s not a simple case of cause and effect.

What the studies are showing instead is a spill-over effect in neural development. In other words, developing one part of the brain results in positive effects in other parts of the brain. This article from Psychology Today describes how neural activity in the hand-eye coordination centre of the brain stimulates neural growth elsewhere.

So it could be that all those plastic model airplanes we put together as kids, with misaligned wings, fogged canopies and broken landing gear, actually left us with a positive legacy we didn’t realize: more neurons. The same effect would hold true for taking piano lessons at an early age, or any other activities requiring hand-eye coordination. All these activities stimulate neuron production.

Quantifying the spill-over effect is notoriously difficult. Setting up a test subject and a control subject is never an easy thing when the experiment involves human beings. Even if you started with genetically identical twins at an early age and had one building dioramas and playing the violin while the other watched TV all day, and then compared their IQs many years later, you couldn’t be sure if any observed difference in IQ was due to their different activity rosters (assuming that intelligence is trainable in the first place). Many other factors, not all identifiable, could have contributed to the difference.

But in the end, if the brain is indeed the interconnected maze of neural pathways that scientists think it is, the spill-over effect makes sense whether it can be measured or not. Wouldn’t it be something if the person you met at your next Mensa meeting turned out to be a diorama artist!

-Ivar

Dioramas in film – Ronin

Ronin (1998) is a classic espionage flick featuring exotic European locales and first-rate performances from Robert De Niro and Jean Reno. It’s the only film I know of whose title is explained with a diorama. The diorama is not a special effect but an actual “character” in the movie.

When Sam (De Niro) is wounded during a mission, Vincent (Reno) takes him to the country mansion of his old acquaintance Jean-Pierre (Michael Lonsdale). After treating Sam’s wound, the kindly Jean-Pierre recounts the tale of the 47 ronin—masterless samurai—of feudal Japan who avenged their master, sacrificing themselves for his honour. We see Jean-Pierre at work in his study, putting the finishing touches on a miniature samurai figure. He then places the figure in a diorama depicting the climactic battle waged by the 47 ronin. The diorama is fairly large and features several beautifully detailed samurai figures engaged in battle.

The famous ronin displayed in the diorama are of course paralleled by Sam, Vincent, and the other mercenaries depicted in the film. Sam is portrayed as ex-CIA, and Vincent is presumably a retired agent gone freelance as well, making them both ronin of a sort. Like the ronin of old, they are masterless, but continue to devoutly follow a shared warrior code. Through Sam, we learn some of the strict rules of this code. Whenever asked to reveal vital information, his response is “I don’t remember.” When asked who his contacts are, it’s “We went to high school together.” You get the idea.

What makes the film especially satisfying is the camaraderie which develops between Sam and Vincent. Through their easy banter, we learn about the unspoken discipline which governs their world. In the final scene of the movie, the two men are having a coffee in the same café where the story began, and we hope they’ll stay friends. But the code prohibits it. So when Vincent picks up the tab and Sam says “I’ll get the next one,” we know there won’t be a “next one.” And as Vincent leaves the café and turns up his collar against the cold, we get one last glimpse into the secret code of these modern day ronin.

-Ivar