Tag Archives: diorama

Eschewing realism for artistic impact

There’s an unwritten rule among modellers that dioramas must appear realistic. It’s so entrenched in the community that abandoning realism is never even discussed. Every modelling magazine features realistic builds of miniatures, and every contest includes realism as an evaluation criterion. Let’s examine dioramas within a broader context to see if this fixation on realism is warranted. 

Dioramas are a visual art form, like painting, sculpture, and photography. And most visual art forms have gone through various periods, each with different aesthetic standards. The great Renaissance painters, for example, were known for perfecting a technically brilliant style which stressed naturalism, down to precisely calculated vanishing points to create perspective, and atmospheric effects to mimic haze.

Next came the Baroque period, which was also realistic, but with a greater emphasis on dramatic lighting to accentuate the subject. Baroque artists often chose to depict action scenes and capitalize on the drama of famous historical events. 

Everything changed in the 19th Century when a group of French painters decided that they wanted to interpret what they saw a different way. They were more interested in capturing the essence of a scene, and felt that the standard naturalistic approach to painting actually detracted from achieving this goal. These painters came to be known as the Impressionists—an accurate description considering what they wanted to achieve. Compared to Renaissance and Baroque paintings, Impressionist works appeared distinctly unrealistic, because they didn’t attempt to duplicate what the eye sees. 

Later developments in the world of painting broke away even more completely from the classic Renaissance and Baroque styles. Cubism, as exemplified by Picasso, was still somewhat representational but portrayed its subject from multiple angles simultaneously. Picasso wasn’t interested in what the eye sees, but rather chose to portray a subject by taking it apart and putting it back together (figuratively speaking), with astonishing results.  

Many of us are familar with the works of great painters from these artistic epochs, and can appreciate how these artists encourage us to see things in different ways. But we rarely apply any of the various visual styles from the world of painting to our dioramas. 

Part of the reason for defaulting to realism is that the elements we use in our dioramas are accurate scale miniatures of cars, planes and ships. The vast majority of commercially available plastic model kits are designed to reflect the shape, proportions and details of their full size counterparts. So by starting with realistic elements in a scene, the rest of the diorama tends to follow suit.

Now there’s nothing wrong with realism, but it’s not the only approach. Not all paintings are cubist, so why should all dioramas be realistic?  

In order to break out of this paradigm, we’d need to select elements for a diorama which aren’t intended to be realistic. The chrome plated aircraft in the above photo is one example. These types of objets d’art were popular in the Art Deco era of the early 1900s. If you started with this plane as the focal point of your diorama, it would probably inspire you to create a very different kind of diorama. 

Making an artistic leap of this magnitude might be a bit much to do all at once, but you could start by taking baby steps. Rather than making an entire diorama in a different visual style, focus on changing one or two elements. Let’s take vapor trails as an example. I’m currently working on an aerial scene which includes a B-29 Superfortress. Although this is a prop plane, at high altitude, historical photographs frequently show vapor trails behind the aircraft. The standard way to model these is with cotton batten. It’s the only material that comes close to capturing the fluffy, translucent quality of atmospheric condensation. But it’s also a cliché. So I decided to use a combination of solid materials, sculpted by hand, instead. The result is less realistic than cotton batten, but it has more visual impact due to being unexpected and unique. 

Picking the right genre can also help. Science fiction is a good choice for stepping beyond the bounds of realism, since the vehicles are fictional. No-one knows really what the ‘real thing’ looks like. And when your scene is set on a different planet, the trees and bushes can be purple and pink. You’re able to break free of the constraints of realism. When I built Eagle Crash, I used aquarium plants for the vegetation and added a scratch-built tree that doesn’t look like anything you’d see walking through the park. It was refreshing to be able to let my imagination take over and not worry that something might look ‘unrealistic.’ 

So don’t feel constrained by the bounds of what looks realistic. Think instead about how to maximize the visual impact of your diorama. You might be pleasantly surprised with the results. 

If you like to build dioramas and want to learn more about how to optimize the visual impact of your work, you might like my book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar


Contemplating Gotham (1:35, 1:700)

The Batmobile is back. This is the same 1:35 Bandai kit which I used in Batmobile Winterscape, a large tabletop diorama featured in Diorama Design. Now repurposed for a more compact wall-mounted display. 

A white metal Batman figure joins the Batmobile against a forced perspective backdrop. LEDs were used for lighting. The case is acrylic and birch wood. 

If you like to build dioramas and want to learn more about how to optimize the visual impact of your work, you might like my book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar


Arctic Rescue finds new home at Greenwood Museum

Greenwood Military Aviation Museum (GMAM) in Nova Scotia, Canada, has curated my diorama Arctic Rescue for its Search and Rescue themed display area. GMAM is celebrating its 25th anniversary and features an air park of finely restored aircraft dating back to WWII, as well as numerous interior displays and artifacts. 

GMAM is a stone’s throw from Canadian Forces Base Greenwood which began as an RAF station in 1942 and was home to iconic warbirds like the Lancaster and Mosquito. CFB Greenwood has grown to become the largest operational airbase in Atlantic Canada. 

Art is meant to be shared. The satisfaction of completing a creative project is certainly a reward in itself, but most artists appreciate the opportunity to be able to display their work publicly. I’m delighted that the CH-149 Cormorant miniature in Arctic Rescue can now be seen in the company of its full-size rotary-wing cousins like the museum’s Labrador and H44. And if you visit, you may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the full-size Cormorant at nearby CFB Greenwood, where it’s currently operational. 

If you like to build dioramas and want to learn more about how to optimize the visual impact of your work, you might like my book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar


Photography as a building aid

It’s natural to wait until your diorama is completed before taking pictures of it. After all, the finished product is what people want to see. But there’s a case to be made for getting out your camera before everything is finished. 

I’m in the final stages of completing Mirage, a diorama featuring WWII Germany’s versatile Junkers JU-88 medium bomber. I decided to take some photos before mounting the acrylic window which will cover the front of the diorama. Without a polarizing filter, reflections from acrylic and glass can be an issue when photographing your work. 

When I reviewed the photos I’d taken, a number of flaws came to light which I hadn’t noticed before. I wondered how I could have missed them. 

The camera, I realized, was like a second set of eyes. It enabled me to see the diorama differently, revealing imperfections which went unnoticed before. I can think of two reasons for the camera’s unique ability to do this. 

The first reason is that our eyes are permanently set in wide angle mode. We can’t ‘zoom in’ on subjects. A camera’s field of vision, on the other hand, can be varied. Close-up photographs allow us to more easily study separate sections of a diorama, one at a time. When all our attention is focused on a very small part of the diorama, it’s harder for flaws to escape scrutiny. 

The second reason is that looking at something in three dimensions presents the eye with more information than when looking at the same subject in two dimensions. When looking for flaws, this can be a liability, because some of the information is superfluous. The photograph distills what you see into a simplified two-dimensional form. This makes it easier to pick up mistakes in your work. In other words, flaws which were ‘buried’ in a three-dimensional view are laid bare in two dimensions. 

Before the days of digital photography, taking pictures was a much longer process. You had to buy a roll of film, take your pictures, and get everything developed and printed at the photo shop. The whole process could take several days, with the result that photography tended to be reserved for special occasions. But with the instant turnaround conferred by digital cameras, the bounds of conservativism in picture taking have been forever broken. I’d venture that photography has actually become too accessible, as evidenced by that modern day cultural aberration known as the selfie. 

To paraphrase Blade Runner’s Rick Deckard, technology can be a benefit or a hazard. That goes for cameras as well as replicants. So put your camera to good use, and when you’re nearing the end of your project, take pictures of your work in progress. Don’t skimp on coverage. Get several angles and plenty of close-ups. You may be surprised at what you discover, and once you fix the things you missed, you’ll have a better diorama. 

If you like to build dioramas and want to learn more about how to optimize the visual impact of your work, you might like my book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar

Sea Water from Tomytec

Diorama modellers who like to build scenes featuring ships and boats know how important realistic looking water is to the overall effect. Depending on the location being portrayed, water  can look transparent, translucent, or opaque, and can take on a wide variety of colours, including blue, green, grey, teal and turquoise, to name a few. Its surface can range anywhere from glassy smooth to wave tossed. 

If you’re working in larger scales like 1:35, water is much more visually appealing if it’s translucent rather than opaque. Even a muddy river has a top layer which is translucent. Getting this effect is usually very labour intensive. My Drug Runners diorama required five layers of two-part resin infused with blue paint to get the effect I was after. Ripples were added to the top layer with a spatula, before the resin had completely set. Creating the wake for the speedboat also took some experimentation before I was satisfied with the results. 

Generally speaking, smaller scales will have more opaque looking water. If your taste runs to naval vessels in scales such as 1:144 or 1:200, you’re in luck, because Tomytec has a solution. Simply referred to as Sea Water, Tomytech is offering a set of two A4 size sheets of PET depicting an ocean surface in 1:150 scale. The sheets are thin enough to be cut with scissors, so you can easily customize them to fit a base of any shape. 

Tomytec doesn’t specify if the sheets are translucent or opaque. Translucency would provide more control over the final appearance of the ocean surface you’re modelling. You can always make a translucent surface more opaque, but not the reverse. 

With these sheets, all you have to do is affix your waterline hull model to the sheet, add some wake, and you’re all set. Infinitely easier than creating your own water using resin mixes. 

Tomytec’s Sea Water sheets will be available in June. You can pre-order them at www.1999.co.jp

If you like to build dioramas and want to learn more about how to optimize the visual impact of your work, you might like my book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar

T2 Judgement Day diorama

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) was one of those rare sequels that outdid its predecessor both critically and commercially. Featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger at the top of his game, director James Cameron’s second time travel flick has stood the test of time. T2 is still the defining installment of the Terminator franchise nearly three decades after its release. None of the subsequent Terminator films have come close to capturing the frothy mix of inventive plotting and brilliant chase sequences that made T2 so successful. 

Pegasus Hobbies offers a number of kits based on the Terminator franchise. One is a diorama featuring T-800 Endoskeletons patrolling a post-apocalyptic battlefield, recalling the opening scene in T2. Although the kit has been out for some time, there’s now a special edition featuring chrome plated figures. Pegasus doesn’t specify a scale, but resellers put it at 1:32. 

Kits with chrome plated parts are a rarity. Few manufacturers go to the trouble of adding this process to their production lines, perhaps because so few subjects require it. Unless you build kits of 1950s and 1960s cars, you may have never been faced with the task of creating a chrome finish. 

If you’ve attempted to duplicate the look of chrome, you probably found out that even the most sophisticated multi-layer airbrush techniques won’t give you a realistic looking chrome finish. No matter how much you layer it and polish it, at the end of the day, silver paint will just look like silver paint. This is where chrome plated parts come in. 

One of the earliest kits I remember building was a beautiful chrome plated CF-104 Starfighter, and the factory chroming process was exceptionally good. Assuming the process being used by Pegasus is similar, the results should be impressive. Just remember to scrape the chrome off the areas that will receive glue (otherwise the parts won’t stick together). 

The T2 diorama is a tad sparse. It consists of five figures, a relatively flat circular base, and a ruin of a stone gate. A standard out-of-the-box build isn’t going to give you anything that looks like what you saw in the film. Adding some additional elements, like a rusted out truck or Hunter Killer (which Pegasus also makes), would liven things up. Even a few rocks and pieces of scrap metal would help. Since the battlefield in T2 was shown at night, some lighting would go a long way to recreating the ambience of the scene. To quote John Connor, ‘there is no fate but what we make for ourselves.’ The same is true for your diorama.  

If you like to build dioramas and want to learn more about how to optimize the visual impact of your work, you might like my book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar

Order of Operations

Back in grade school we learned about something called order of operations in math class. When solving an equation, we were told the correct sequence was brackets, multiplication, division, addition, and subtraction. There’s also an order of operations when creating a diorama, but the sequence isn’t constant. It depends on the project. 

The more complex your diorama, the more time it’ll take you to figure out the order of operations. Here’s a case study to illustrate: I’m currently working on a diorama depicting a scene from Star Wars: A New Hope, which shows a group of rebel fighters flying past Yavin on their way to intercept the approaching Death Star. This is a box diorama, so it’s going to be fully enclosed. 

Here’s a list of tasks which need to be completed:

  • build X-Wings and Y-Wings
  • install LED stars
  • fabricate and install EL panel depicting Yavin
  • line interior with black velvet
  • install X-Wings and Y-Wings
  • drill holes in back panel for wiring
  • punch holes in black velvet for lighting
  • fabricate and assemble top, back and bottom panels
  • install front window
  • stain cabinet exterior

These ten tasks can be arranged in many different sequences. In fact, using permutation theory, we can determine exactly how many possible sequences there are. The formula is 10! which equals 3,628,800. Hard to believe there are that many possible ways to build a diorama, but there you have it. 

Since we’re dealing with art rather than science here, there’s rarely a perfect sequence. Each will have its pros and cons. The important thing is to avoid a sequence which unnecessarily increases your workload or makes it difficult for you to complete your project the way you envisioned it (without undoing a large part of your work and starting over). 

A common pitfall is forgetting to include all the tasks on your list. Just as many chefs prepare recipes by heart (and then forget to add the salt), most diorama artists probably don’t make written task lists. But it’s not a bad idea. When you’re going by memory, it’s easy to leave a step out and not realize it until it’s too late. Forgetting just one task in our example means that all 362,880 ways of completing the nine tasks you wrote down would lead to problems! 

Assuming you carefully wrote down all the required tasks and checked to make sure no steps were missing, the other error you can make is of course completing a task out of sequence, making it difficult or impossible to complete subsequent tasks. For example, you might decide the two last steps will be installing the X-Wings and Y-Wings and then installing the front window. But if you forgot to measure your models and realize too late that they’re too big to fit through the opening for the front window, you’d have a problem. 

Rather than trying to juggle over three million sequences in your head, it’s much easier to write down three or four which seem to make sense. Then study each option you’ve written down, verifying that none of the earlier steps will create problems in completing any of the subsequent steps. You may realize at this point that one or two of your sequences won’t work very well. By process of elimination, you can pick a sequence which will allow you to successfully complete your project the way you envisioned it, without complications.

And you thought math couldn’t be fun! 

If you like to build dioramas and want to learn more about how to optimize the visual impact of your work, you might like my book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar

Dioramas in Film – Diamonds Are Forever

After looking at the diorama from the movie Goldfinger, it’s time once again to return to the world of James Bond. Diamonds are Forever (1971) takes Bond to Las Vegas, where a diamond smuggling investigation puts him in the middle of a plot involving satellites, high energy lasers, and his arch nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld.  

High above Las Vegas is the lavish penthouse of billionaire industrialist Willard Whyte. The most distinctive feature of this Ken Adam designed set is the floor, which has a circular glass inset containing a diorama of Whyte’s worldwide business enterprises. Several meters in diameter, the disk-shaped diorama is surrounded by three curved couches which hug its perimeter, accentuating the circular motif. The diorama goes a step beyond the one in Goldfinger by virtue of its glass roof, which is flush with the floor and is supported by a gleaming metal lattice. The shape of the lattice mimics the latitude and longitude lines on a world map. 

Auric Golfinger’s cleaning lady would have had her work cut out for her dusting the massive diorama of Fort Knox. The reclusive Whyte, who abhors intrusions into his private lair, wisely decided to cover his diorama with glass, keeping it permanently dust-free without the need for outside help. If you read my previous post on keeping dust off your diorama, you’ll appreciate the eminent practicality of this design. 

The other advantage of the glass cover is more floor space. You can walk over Whyte’s diorama, since the glass is part of the floor. Goldfinger, on the other hand, has to be careful he doesn’t take a misstep and fall onto Fort Knox. 

The diorama in Diamonds are Forever is highly stylized, populated with miniatures of missiles, oil rigs, etc. which are almost toylike in their simplicity. Since the miniatures have to be recognizable from a distance, this visually reductionist approach works well. A ring of floodlights also helps ensure that everything is visible. So striking is the diorama that it’s shown in nearly every shot of the film’s penthouse scenes. Cinematographer Ted Moore clearly recognized the value of Ken Adam’s contribution and leveraged it to the hilt. 

If you like to build dioramas and want to learn more about how to optimize the visual impact of your work, you might like my book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar

Dioramas in Film – Goldfinger

James Bond returns to this blog with a look at the Fort Knox diorama from the 1964 movie Goldfinger. The diorama appears midway through the movie. The titular villain has assembled the top mafiosi from around the U.S. to brief them on his daring plan to raid the gold depository at Fort Knox. They gather in Goldfinger’s lavish briefing room, a superb set designed by Ken Adam with strong Frank Lloyd Wright influences: a vast horizontal expanse of luxurious woods set off with stone walls and a massive fireplace. 

Goldfinger begins the briefing by flipping a switch on the side of a pool table, which rotates upside down to reveal a large control panel. He brings up a wall-size aerial photograph of the Fort Knox vicinity and begins to explain his plan. And then comes the highlight of the scene: a section of the hardwood floor slides aside and a huge diorama of Fort Knox emerges on a motorized lift. 

The diorama is the focal point of the scene. It’s fully lit, while the surrounding actors remain in the shadows. Goldfinger points with a pool cue at various elements of the diorama as he outlines his strategy to break into the most heavily guarded bank in the world. 

The Bond villains have always been known for their elaborate lairs. These locations are generally big, visually striking, and outfitted with all manner of technological contrivances. And Auric Goldfinger is no exception. He takes great pleasure in dazzling his guests, maintaining an unerring air of superiority as the master villain in the room.

There’s one man in the scene who is unimpressed by Goldfinger’s presentation: James Bond. We find out that 007 has been watching the briefing from a hidden vantage point underneath the diorama. It’s quite amusing, if not entirely believable, when we see Bond’s eyes behind the Fort Knox model, and none of the characters notice. Bond’s irreverent lurking completely deflates the grandiosity of the scene and robs Goldfinger’s presentation of its dignity. Once again, 007 gets the better of a criminal mastermind.  

If you like to build dioramas and want to learn more about how to optimize the visual impact of your work, you might like my new book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar

Dioramas in Literature – Moonraker

In a previous post, I wrote about the diorama featured in the Robert de Niro film Ronin. Dioramas occasionally make an appearance in pop culture, and the one in Ronin was notable in that it was central to the theme of the movie. 

I was pleasantly surprised to come across the term ‘diorama’ in another espionage tale—not a movie this time but a book: Ian Fleming’s Moonraker. In this instance, the diorama is not manifested physically, as in Ronin, but the word is used as a literary device. The passage can be found in the ‘Dead Reckoning’ chapter: 

Out at sea, in the early mist that promised a hot day, the South Goodwin Lightship could just be seen, a dim red barque married for ever to the same compass point and condemned, like a property ship on the stage of Drury Lane, to watch the diorama of the waves and clouds sail busily into the wings while, without papers or passengers or cargo, it lay anchored for ever to the departure point which was also its destination. 

This passage showcases Ian Fleming’s writing at its most poetic and evocative. He’s flipped the script: dioramas are usually an example of art imitating life, but here, it’s life imitating art. 

So how did Ian Fleming become acquainted with dioramas? The most likely explanation is that during his work for Naval Intelligence in WWII, he attended briefing sessions in which dioramas of strategic military locations were used as visual aids. Using aerial reconaissance photos as source material, dioramas were often constructed to help formulate a sabotage plan, bombing run, or other military operation. Being able to visualize the target of the operation in three dimensions was vital to successful planning. 

Although literature critics often peg the Bond novels as pulp fiction, I suspect they do so more out of disdain for the politically incorrect nature of Bond’s character, rather than objective and unbiased evaluation. When Fleming created the original gentleman superspy, the term ‘politically correct’ was still decades away from infecting western culture. The 1960s gave us books and films which were intended as pure entertainment . . . a far cry from the subversive media of today. This is one of the reasons that era remains beloved by so many.  

Fleming’s output lacked consistency, but his better works compare favourably to the top authors of the espionage genre. Aficionados of Bond books tend to agree that Moonraker is among his finest works.

The novel bears little similarity to the film. Although both stories take inspiration from the world of astronautics, the plotlines are completely different. The titular craft in the novel is a military rocket based on Cold War era technology (a forerunner of the modern ICBM), whereas in the movie it’s a manned space shuttle. And while Fleming’s original story maintains a sober tone throughout, the movie vacillates between campy humour and grim realism. The producers never figured out if they wanted to make a comedy or a drama.  

James Bond will return (to this blog) in Goldfinger.  

If you like to build dioramas and want to learn more about how to optimize the visual impact of your work, you might like my new book, Diorama Design. It’s available in both ebook and print formats at Amazon.

-Ivar