Tag Archives: dioramas in film

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 

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  

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 

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  

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

Dioramas in Film – Quo Vadis

Quo Vadis (1951) is a biblical epic about a Roman army commander who falls in love with a beautiful Christian hostage and begins questioning the despotic rule of Emperor Nero. Like all epics of its time, the film features many magnificent sets, some of immense proportions. 

Of considerably smaller proportions is a diorama which appears about an hour and a half into the movie. Nero is conversing with his architect, Phaon, and we are introduced to an elaborate miniature of a new Rome envisioned by Nero. Filled with classical architecture, the diorama is made all the more elegant by virtue of being rendered entirely in whites and light pastels. The level of detail is impressive. 

From a storytelling perspective, the diorama is central to the film. It symbolizes the egomaniacal fervor of Nero, who sees this new Rome as a tribute to his glory as Emperor. Nero has no interest in what benefits a new city could potentially offer its citizens. Rather, he speaks haughtily of the foul smells which will disappear when the city is built, and he even has a new name for it: Neropolis. The city is an expression of his megalomania.

Rather than remaining an elaborate sketch of a distant dream, this diorama portends ominous events which soon come to fruition. In order to build his new city, Nero must first destroy the old one. So he gives the order to burn Rome to the ground. From the safety of his palace, he plays the lyre as the flames rise. Nero’s final touch is to blame the Christians for starting the fire, giving him the excuse he needs to hunt them down.

These events propel the film to its climax, which is grandly staged in the tradition of historical films of the period.  Although Quo Vadis never achieved the critical acclaim of Ben-Hur or Spartacus, it’s a fine work with a well deserved place in the pantheon of biblical epics.   

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