Tag Archives: miniature

Scratchbuild case study: Mantis

The Mantis is a 1:12 scale VTOL aircraft I designed and built for a short film called Last Flight. The film was the final project for a filmmaking course I took several years ago.

mantis-front

Utilizing a sheet aluminum skin over a framework of copper tubing, the Mantis features spring-loaded landing struts and a vertically mounted fan to generate dust on touchdown. To stay within budget, found objects were used wherever possible. The engine bells are lighting shrouds from a camera supply store, and the main engines are hairspray cans. The one area where I spent a bit more money was the landing skids, which are solid milled steel.
mantis-rear-three-quarter

Film models are vastly different from typical display models. They’re designed to fit the requirements of a specific scene, so the emphasis is on function. The main requirements for the Mantis were going with a large enough scale so that the camera would hold depth of field during filming, and making the fuselage big enough to accommodate an electric fan. Filmed with an overcranked 16mm Bolex camera, the fan did a good job of blowing dust (cinnamon from the kitchen cupboard) all over as it touched down on the landing pad, and the scene came out looking fairly realistic.

Given the tight project deadline, I didn’t have time to detail the model. But as special effects guru Brian Johnson once said, “with all that smoke swirling about, you can get away with murder!” I used cinnamon instead of smoke, but close enough.

mantis-top

There was of course a pilot figure seated in the cockpit for the filming of the scene. I upgraded the cockpit later using an Italeri kit so the Mantis would make a respectable display model. As for the design of the ship, I saw it in a dream. I don’t remember what the rest of the dream was about, but I sketched out the basic shape as soon as I woke up, and worked out the details later. The sharply angled nose looks a bit like a Praying Mantis, hence the name.

-Ivar

Kitbash case study: Troop Transport

This is one of my first kitbashes. I was satisfied enough with the end result that I kept it in my collection and still have it after all these years. The front is the main hull section of the Rio Grande Runabout from Deep Space Nine, and the back consists of the service module and engines from Mattel’s Space: 1999 Eagle Transporter.
front-view
Mattel’s Eagle was impressive in size but hopelessly inaccurate. Despite my attempts to upgrade it from toy to scale replica, I was never able to get it to look like an actual Eagle. So I eventually ended up cannibalizing it for parts to create an original design.
rear-view
The Runabout kit which was available at the time had the right shape to complement the parts I was going to use from the Eagle. (I was never a fan of Deep Space Nine; in fact, it was probably the least memorable of all the incarnations of Star Trek. It lacked the magic Star Trek ingredient, which is having a starship capable of zooming around the galaxy to a different destination each week.)

So by combining parts from two unremarkable products, I came up with something which I was much happier with. I didn’t prepare so much as a sketch before beginning the build, and wasn’t really sure how it would turn out. But everything blended together fairly well, helped by judicious detailing and a uniform coat of spray paint.
The most challenging part of the build was the rear landing gear. A fair amount of strength was needed to support the weight of the model. My solution was to form both the left and right gear from a single steel rod. I ran it width-wise through the aft section and bent it into shape on each side. The landing pads were taken from a Lunar Models Jupiter II kit (the old vacuform kit which preceded the injection molded Moebius kit by many years).
side-view
The hull section of the Runabout was given a new cockpit canopy: a single piece of clear plastic bent to shape and silvered on the inside, suggesting an optical shield to guard the crew from radiation (not to mention it saved me from having to scratch build a canopy interior!). I also carved out a front landing gear bay on the underside of the Runabout’s hull and added the gear along with a vertical thruster.

The Troop Transport’s lack of windows reflects its utilitarian function. It’s designed to carry a large complement of troops and is devoid of any of the luxuries you’d find on a passenger craft. Entry and exit is through a door at the rear of the ship. Essentially it’s a space-going V-22 Osprey.
top-view
Having assembled and painted the Troop Transport, I put it aside and called it a day. But after displaying it on the shelf for a while, I realized the overall white paint scheme was a bit bland. Some bright red decals and a touch of weathering would give it more visual punch. Having just picked up a bottle of Solvaset decal setting solution, I was eager to see what it could do. So I applied some spare decals over various nooks and crannies. To my amazement the decals conformed perfectly regardless of how irregular the surface was. Solvaset is one of the stronger decal setting solutions and not all decals perform equally well with it. But in this case everything turned out nicely.

-Ivar

Arctic Rescue (1:72)

The Royal Canadian Air Force’s CH-149 Cormorant can operate in the most severe weather conditions, making it ideal as a search and rescue helicopter. The Cormorant’s striking yellow and red paint scheme cuts a sharp contrast against the wintery white background of this scene—a welcome sight for this pilot who had to bail out a long way from home.

The Italeri kit was outfitted with a scratchbuilt winch, extra interior/exterior detailing, and aftermarket decals. To give the illusion of spinning rotor blades, I replaced the kit-supplied blades with clear acrylic disks cut to shape.

Dioramas which show aircraft in flight usually prop up the model with an all too visible rod, which detracts from the realism of the scene. Here, the support rod is concealed in the cargo ramp.

The cliff was sculpted from a single piece of blue insulation foam using a hot knife. The parachute is an acrylic half sphere which was melted to a natural wind-blown shape in the kitchen oven.

-Ivar

Kitbash case study – Eagle Gunship

While completing my Eagle Crash diorama, I decided to show the passenger pod door of the crashed Eagle ajar, suggesting that the door had been forced open due to electrical failure. This required buying a second MPC Eagle kit to obtain a “spare” door, after carving away the original door (the door is molded into the side of the passenger pod). The timing was right, since MPC had just re-released their Eagle kit with a much improved decal sheet which I was also able to put to use.

Having updated the crashed Eagle to show the door ajar, I was left with a box full of spare parts (almost enough to build another Eagle). I decided to try my hand at a new design. And so began the design and construction of the Eagle Gunship. But first, a bit of background on the Eagle.

The Eagle is the all-purpose workhorse of Moonbase Alpha, carrying passengers as well as freight. The producers of Space: 1999 never made its military capabilities very clear. In Season 1 of the series, Eagles were occasionally shown firing lasers from a point on the underside of the Command Module. And in Season 2, at least one Eagle was fitted with a retractable laser turret housed in the forward Service Module. These enhancements were obviously added as afterthoughts to facilitate specific storylines writers had come up with. Space: 1999 suffered from a notorious lack of consistency in terms of the technical features and capabilities of Moonbase Alpha and its associated hardware. The series would have benefitted from a technical guidebook similar to the one shared by Star Trek writers to ensure consistency.

Nevertheless, the Brian Johnson-designed Eagle remains a classic in the annals of science fiction, and the real star of Space: 1999. Fictional spacecraft often forego realism for visual appeal, but the Eagle succeeds on both counts. The design is practical as well as aesthetically pleasing, with a modular approach which invites customization. So, leveraging the strong DNA of this classic design, I decided to create an Eagle variant designed specifically for warfare.

The Eagle Gunship is armed with two forward mounted laser guns and two guided missiles. It features main and auxiliary forward propulsion engines, vertical jets for liftoff, and fixed landing skids set wide apart for stability. Access is via a door at the rear of the Command Module. The Gunship’s compact size optimizes the thrust to weight ratio and makes the ship difficult for the enemy to locate and track.

In addition to parts and decals from the MPC kit and landing skids taken from MPC’s Darth Vader’s Tie Fighter kit, the Eagle Gunship build utilized sheet styrene, sheet acrylic, Apoxie Sculpt, aftermarket resin missiles, and various odds and ends from the parts bin. The decals didn’t behave like regular decals. The film was thicker than normal and didn’t respond well to Solvaset. However they came out okay and were quicker than painting.

Nose Subassembly

Engine Subassembly

I had to make some changes to the design during construction. The two spars behind the Command Module were originally conceived as being much slimmer, but more surface area was needed to support the engines, fuel tanks, vertical jets, and maneuvering thrusters. So the spars ended up being wider than originally planned.

When the model was initially completed, it was front-heavy and leaned forward on the landing skids. Adding two auxiliary engines at the back of the ship (made of lead) made the model balance nicely.

After finishing the Eagle Gunship, I realized that it would make a great addition to the Eagle Crash diorama. It’s close enough visually to the other two Eagles to blend into the scene, and different enough to make viewers take a second look.

-Ivar

3D printing is going mainstream

The sign that convinced me that 3D printing has gone mainstream was a newly opened retail store which I spotted downtown the other day. This store is the first I’ve seen offering 3D prints of . . . people! So instead of going to a professional photographer to have your photo taken, you can now walk into this store and have a figurine created of yourself. It starts with a full body scan and ends with a 3D replica of you, in the scale of your choice.

When I saw a 3D printer being used to create a mask in a Mission: Impossible movie a few years ago, I assumed it was pure science fiction. But just as Star Trek’s communicators made the leap from science fiction to fact, so too have 3D printers.

My first question after walking into the store was what material they use to print the figurines. I was told that most of the figurines on display were made of gypsum powder, but plastic is also available. My second question was if they could print objects other than people. The answer was yes, but not at the store. For that, I’d have to contact head office.

Of course, there are already online 3D printing services like Shapeways which offer custom printing. But there are lots of esoteric services available online which cater to extremely small markets. The fact that a retail store now offers this service indicates that the market is big enough to justify a bricks and mortar presence. This means that demand is increasing.

You can also buy your own 3D printer. At this point in time they’re extremely expensive, and would only be justified for someone constantly making prints. Prices won’t come down that quickly because the market for these machines is limited. They’re specialty items, unlike LED TV sets or DVD players, which dropped dramatically in price because of high consumer demand.

The mainstreaming of 3D printing is a significant development for diorama artists. No longer are we faced with scratch building items which aren’t available in kit form, or overpaying for resin garage kits. More choice is always good, and diorama artists will benefit.

-Ivar

How many people build dioramas?

When assessing the popularity of an art form, we can consider the following:
· How many well-known artists are there
· How big a market is there for buyers and sellers
· How strong of an online presence is there (websites, discussion boards, etc.)
· How often is it in the news

It’s pretty obvious that based on these criteria, the popularity of dioramas is very limited. Most people who build dioramas usually start out as scale modellers, a niche group itself. This means that diorama artists are a niche of a niche!

If we look at a more commonly practised art form, like photography, most people with a passing interest in art would be able to name at least one famous photographer. Ditto for sculpture or painting. But what about dioramas? I’ve been building dioramas for many years, and the only diorama artist I can name off the bat is Sheperd Paine. And I know of him because of his book on dioramas, not his actual works.

But what about special effects technicians who work in film and television, you say? If you’re a science fiction aficionado, chances are you’ve heard of names like Douglas Trumbull, John Dykstra, Brian Johnson and Derek Meddings. Well, they’re all famous artists, but they create miniature sets, not dioramas. A miniature set is usually much larger than a diorama, because it’s optimized for filming. And because it’s specifically designed to be filmed, it only has to look good from the angle of the camera. A diorama, on the other hand, is open to scrutiny from many angles. Another differentiator is that miniature film sets can be digitally enhanced through computer generated effects in post-production, whereas dioramas don’t have this luxury.

Brian Johnson, who’s known for his superb work on Space: 1999, Alien, The Empire Strikes Back, and many other high profile projects, once remarked that he knew special effects supervisors who created works of art on their sets, but none of it showed up in the final shot. He added candidly, “with all that smoke swirling about the place, you can get away with murder!” His comment shows that unlike some other effects artists, he fully understood the difference between miniature sets and dioramas.

You might expect that artists who create dioramas for museums would be well known (and this would be a reasonable expectation). In a recent post, I discussed Museo de la Miniatura in Guayaquil, Ecuador. When I toured the museum, I asked several people for the name of the artist who created the dioramas. No-one was able to answer my question. Nor could I find the artist mentioned anywhere in the museum or on its website, despite the fact that every exhibit in the museum was created by this artist!

So it seems that museums don’t feel that the artists who created dioramas for them should receive credit or publicity for their work. And to make matters worse, diorama artists, unlike painters, don’t usually sign their name on their finished works. Diorama artists are the unsung (not to mention uncredited and unpublicized) artists of the art world.

The lack of well-known diorama artists is perhaps the greatest impediment to the popularity of the art, because artists benefit from other artists who inspire them. Photographers can aspire to the greatness achieved by Ansel Adams or Henri Cartier-Bresson. Painters, to Monet or Van Gogh. And sculptors, to Rodin or Michelangelo. But diorama artists have no such names to aspire to.

Perhaps because there are no well-known diorama artists, dioramas are rarely featured in art galleries. I’ve seen a few, but they tend to be few and far between.

Returning to the original question of how many people build dioramas, it’s clear that the numbers are extremely small. There are no famous diorama artists. Dioramas have a tiny web presence, are rarely bought, sold, or exhibited in galleries, and are hardly ever newsworthy.

Is this a problem? Not if you’re a sincere artist. By this I mean someone who does what they do because they love doing it, not because they want external validation. Popularity and recognition are nice, but they are chance by-products of the creative process and nothing more. The act of creating a work of art, with all its frustrations, joys, disappointments and successes, is what engages us first and foremost. We create art because we’re compelled to. So if you love building dioramas, that in itself is enough.

-Ivar

Thunderbird 2 and the “kits versus toys” conundrum

There is usually a clear dividing line between plastic kit manufacturers (like Tamiya) and toy producers (like Hasbro). As far as I know, Tamiya has never produced a toy and Hasbro has never produced a scale model kit.

But some companies make both kits and toys. Bandai, Aoshima and Takara Tomy fall into this category. The quality of kits produced by these firms tends to be less consistent than you’d find with a dedicated kit manufacturer. This isn’t surprising given that their primary target market is children.

It goes without saying that five-year olds have a vastly different set of criteria than adults do when it comes to hobbies. Some five-year olds like to put their prized possessions in the sandbox. Others like to chew on them. I’ve yet to see any adult modellers taking part in either of these activities (if you know an adult fitting this description, please take them to a psychiatrist immediately).

Takara Tomy recently introduced both a large toy of Thunderbird 2 from the new Thunderbirds Are Go TV series, as well as a “Real Kit” of the same subject in 1:144 scale. The former product is aimed squarely at five-year olds. It features opening sections, moving parts, a detachable pod with Thunderbird 4, and built-in sounds. This seems to be a well thought out product which kids should like.

The 1:144 Real Kit, however, has some shortcomings:
1. The kit is hard to distinguish from the toy. In fact, eBay listings for the two products are so similar that it’s hard to tell one from the other.
2. It is a snap together kit with a choice of stick-on markings or waterslide decals. These features indicate that the product is aimed at novice modellers.
3. Like the toy, the kit features a removable cockpit roof. This creates a huge gap at the bottom of the roof and ruins the scale look of the kit. Authenticity was obviously not a priority in the design of the kit.

Considering these compromises, it’s clear that Takara Tomy rejected the idea of a serious scale replica. Instead, the company attempted to create a product that would appeal to both children and adults. This was a mistake for two reasons.

First, the Real Kit is not sufficiently different from the toy in price or appearance. This may result in the two products cannibalizing each other’s sales.

Second, the Real Kit was designed under the assumption that most Thunderbirds Are Go viewers are kids. This fails to take adult viewers into account, who grew up with the original Thunderbirds series and are now enjoying the new reboot as a trip down memory lane. Many of these returning viewers are experienced modellers willing to pay top dollar for authentic kits of their favourite subjects. They have fond memories of the original Thunderbirds series and still admire all its wonderful hardware.

Takara Tomy would have been much wiser to follow the example of FineMolds, whose Star Wars kits set a new standard in quality for sci-fi subjects. Their enormously successful 1:72 Millennium Falcon which I discussed here is a case in point. The FineMolds Falcon was a rarity: a mass produced, high quality sci-fi kit aimed squarely at experienced modellers, with no compromises made to attract younger modellers.

In addition to compromising the quality of their kits, companies like Takara Tomy, Bandai and Aoshima also do a disservice to modellers by associating kits with toys. This tarnishes the image of scale modelling. Buying a kit from one of these companies is a bit like buying a stereo from a guy with a van parked in an alley.

But at the end of the day, having an average quality kit of the new Thunderbird 2 is better than nothing. Given the relatively low demand for sci-fi kits, we have to take what we can get. So if you decide to pick up Takara Tomy’s new Thunderbird 2, be prepared to do some extra work to get it up to standard. The basic shape of the kit looks accurate enough, and most of its shortcomings can be overcome with a little care. Just make sure to throw out the stickers. Or even better, mail them back to Takara Tomy with a note stating that scale modellers don’t use stickers!

-Ivar

The model railroad and the diorama

German toy maker Marklin produced the first model train set in 1891. According to www.marklin.com, it consisted of a wind-up locomotive with cars and an expandable track system. Electricity came to model railroads much later, and wasn’t popularized until the introduction of a 20-volt system in 1926, which replaced the former household current setup. These early train sets were commonly in O Gauge, which translates to 1:43 scale.

In 1935, O Gauge was “halved” into HO (1:87 scale), opening up model railroads to a wider audience. Although little historical data exists on the subject, it seems likely that this was the point when it became practical to begin creating realistic miniature train layouts. By the latter half of the 20th century, HO was the worldwide standard for model trains. To this day, many model train retailers continue to emphasize HO stock in their stores, although N Gauge (1:160) is also very popular.

About half a century after model railroads appeared, plastic kits came on the scene. Like model train companies, kit manufacturers introduced a series of scales (including 1:32, 1:48 and 1:72 for aircraft and 1:35 for military kits) which have been adhered to consistently ever since.

It would have made things far easier for the diorama artist if model railroad and plastic kit manufacturers had agreed to a common set of scales, but you can’t have everything. This lack of matching standards means that we sometimes have to resort to a bit of poetic license when adding items from the model train store to our dioramas. If you’re creating a scene in 1:72 scale, HO scenery and landscaping products will work quite well, but HO vehicles will look a bit too small.

Whether or not you like to get diorama accessories from the local model train store, diorama artists owe a great debt to the model railroad world. The whole concept of recreating vehicles—and entire scenes—in miniature was introduced by model railroad manufacturers a century ago. There were commercially available model trains well before plastic kits came out. You could argue that diecasts also predated plastic kits, but unlike trains, they weren’t usually used to create a complete scene like a model railroad.

It would be oversimplifying things to say there was a direct evolutionary path from the model railroad to the diorama. A better suggestion might be to think of them as following parallel paths, with the model railroad getting a head start on the historical timeline. There’s a lot of overlap between them. Both use realistic miniatures to depict places and events. Not all dioramas feature the lights and moving vehicles common to model railroads, and not all model railroads place as much of a premium on realism as do dioramas. But the similarities are there.

A good example of the overlap between model railroads and dioramas is Miniatur Wunderland in Hamburg, Germany (http://www.miniatur-wunderland.com/). Billed as the “largest model railway in the world,” this permanent HO exhibition features several distinct sections depicting both actual and fictional locations.

What’s interesting about Miniatur Wunderland is that it’s much more than a model railway. There are moving cars, buses, ships, and even aircraft (not only can you see planes taxiing on the runway, but taking off and landing as well). To call it a model railway doesn’t really do it justice. With the variety of vehicles and scenes featured, you could call it a mega-diorama.

For the diorama artist, no trip to Germany would be complete without stopping in to marvel at this impressive exhibition. Is it a diorama or a model railway? The answer is “yes.”

-Ivar