Tag Archives: scratchbuild

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

Taking it to the next level: the diorama as an artistic progression from the model kit

In a previous post, I commented that most diorama artists start out as plastic model kit builders. Then at some point in their evolution as a modeler, they progress to dioramas. This is the typical path for most diorama artists, and for good reason.

Plastic models are the three-dimensional equivalent of paint by number kits in the world of painting. When you buy a paint by number kit from a craft store, you get a board or canvas with pre-marked outlines indicating areas to paint. Each area has a number corresponding to a paint colour to use. And all the required paints are included in the kit.

With a plastic model kit, much of the work is already done for you as well. All the pieces that go into the model are pre-formed; you simply snap or glue them together and then paint the model. Detailed instructions are given, with numbered steps guiding you through the assembly process. There is also a painting guide included with the instructions. Much like paint by number kits, plastic model kits are an easy way to get into the hobby for an aspiring artist.

More seasoned hobbyists will go a step beyond the basics. The experienced kit builder will not only paint the model, but will also weather it to enhance the realism of the finished product. The more advanced paint by number artist will mix colours and create skillful transitions from light to shadow, creating a much finer result.

After successfully completing several dozen plastic kits, the kit builder may wish to take on a new challenge. This could involve modifying a kit (for example, converting a Spitfire Mk1 to a Mk2), or adding something to it (for example, scratch building a landing chute for a Vulcan bomber, as shown in the photo at the top of this page). Kitbashing, in which parts from several models are combined to create an original result, is another option for the experienced builder. Other modelers will want to go a step further, creating an entire scene which incorporates one or more plastic kits. And so goes the evolution from kit builder to diorama artist.

The word “evolution” connotes progress, and I think it’s the right term in this case for several reasons. First, creating a diorama requires the artist to use his creative imagination and come up with a scene he wants to depict. Second, it requires that he apply design principles to maximize the visual impact of the scene. Third, it requires knowledge of specialized modeling techniques, such as miniature landscaping. None of these skills are needed to build a plastic kit out of the box.

Dioramas aren’t the only evolutionary path available to the plastic kit builder. Some modelers go on to create original works from scratch. A miniature ship or plane can be carved out of a block of wood, or crafted from other materials (large museum miniatures are usually custom built, since there are no commercially available kits of the subjects in sufficiently large scales). Other modelers want to see their creations perform the same functions as their real life counterparts. So for those who aren’t content with a static helicopter, they can build a radio controlled one that actually flies.

The path that you take in your evolution as a plastic kit modeler will depend on your personal interests and skills. Will you sculpt original pieces out of a block of wood, build aircraft that actually fly, or create compelling scenes in miniature as a diorama artist? The choice is yours.

-Ivar