Tag Archives: Museo de la Miniatura

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

Visual sleight-of-hand with forced perspective at Museo de la Miniatura

Before the age of computer generated special effects, movie makers used several tricks to make the most of miniature photography. One of these tricks is called forced perspective. This technique exaggerates the apparent depth of a scene by placing large scale objects near the camera and small scale objects farther back. For example, placing a 1:10 scale miniature tree close to the camera and a 1:20 scale tree further back increases the apparent distance between the two trees.

Forced perspective compensates for the limited depth of field of cameras (the range of objects in a scene which are in focus). Without it, a miniature set depicting a large area, such as a battlefield, would be very deep, and it would be difficult to keep everything in focus.

On a recent trip to Guayaquil, Ecuador, I stumbled across Museo de la Miniatura. This museum houses a series of dioramas illustrating the history of Guayaquil. The dioramas are a few metres wide and over a metre high, and have lighting that changes as a pre-recorded narrative is played over speakers. What impresses me most about these dioramas is their masterful use of forced perspective. Although not designed for filming, these expertly crafted dioramas employ forced perspective to inject more visual depth into a confined space.

One of the dioramas is pictured above. Although you might not realize it from casual observation, the train tracks are not parallel, and the models near the front are larger than those in the back. This creates a scene of much greater apparent depth. Due to the need to create miniatures in multiple scales, forced perspective is more time consuming for the artist than creating a standard diorama with everything rendered in one scale. But the end result is brilliant.

I used forced perspective back in my film student days, creating a set of three landing pads for a spacecraft touchdown scene. By making each landing pad in a different scale, the scene had much more apparent depth, and it worked better. This project was done entirely on 16mm film and all special effects had to be done in-camera. With forced perspective, I was able to keep everything in focus.

The near total reliance of today’s filmmakers on computer generated effects has a downside, in that much of the ingenuity which used to lend magic to filmmaking is now all but obsolete. Techniques like forced perspective aren’t needed when you have software that takes care of everything.

It’s nice to know that at Museo de la Miniatura, the magic of forced perspective is alive and well.

-Ivar