The controversial opinion of a dioramist.
By guest writer Robert Blokker
Go back five years or more at any decent event, and your mind would have been blown by the creativity and unique storytelling in dioramas and vignettes. You could expect 20 to 25 absolutely stunning pieces of unique work, or even more at a really big show. You could look forward to seeing what the likes of Marijn van Gils, Mario Eens, Per Olav Lund and a multitude of others had come up with, and it would be the talking point among modellers for many weeks after.
Fast forward to now and the situation couldn’t be more bleak…. or maybe “bland” is a better word.
Returning from the last brilliant SMC, I decided to test how many dioramas and vignettes I could remember purely for their storyline, without looking at my pictures, and that number was a dismal 7. Just 7 out of 150 or so entries. Take away those 7 and what was left was the traditional farmyard with part of a barn. A vehicle with a few figures sprinkled over and around it and a height element in the shape of a tree or a telegraph pole. Replace the farmyard with a dirt road and you already had half of the entries. The rest had rather vague (or multiple) storylines or worse: simply no storyline at all. A single vehicle on a base with a single figure is just a fancy vehicle display, and I’m willing to die on that hill. Please don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that I think all those projects were bad, I’m not going to kick that hornet nest as well and I’m pretty sure Chris will not appreciate if I start a riot in his house.
Pretty much everything was of incredibly high standard, with the exception of the storylines
Where Did it All Go Wrong?
What happened to that original storyline? Is it a lack of creativity? Of imagination? Lack of belief in skills, or simply not having the cojones to experiment and try something new and out of the box? Maybe it’s because a lot of modelers have found a formula that earns them medals and they are content with basically building the same diorama over and over to keep the flow of medals going? Another theory is that most modelers simply start with a vehicle and want to give it context by mixing in some figures and groundwork and call it a day instead of starting from a concept and build the diorama around it starting with the fundamentals of composition, planning and then choosing the elements. I don’t have a definitive answer yet. But trying to beat the Guinness Record for plonking the most soldiers on top of a tank on a dirtroad somewhere in [insert location name] [insert date] requires no thought at all, it’s already been done a hundred thousand times by an equal number of modelers and when I go past the third of those on a contest table, my mind starts to drift already, looking for something more interesting.
Time for Change
I’m going to break a lance here for the return of the original story. That is what a diorama or vignette should be all about.
Simply put: no story = no diorama (or vignette).
Some 40 years ago, a man by the name of Shep Paine wrote a book about how to build dioramas. In it he said a diorama was: “a scene that tells a story”, and a bit further down “in its most developed form a diorama is a scene that tells a story”. This does not imply a story in the narrative sense, it simply means that a diorama can show something going on. In this sense, a diorama is not just a model of an object, or a group of objects, but of an event.” You can check it out yourself. It is on page 2 in the introduction, or at least it is in my well-read, slightly foxed and probably heavily ferreted copy. 43 years later, that little line of text is still relevant, and mister Paine became known for his beautiful little scenes with strong original narrative.
That is exactly what you want. A diorama should be a stage. Where a storyline is performed with the aid of the cast of figures. Vehicles, buildings, and nature are merely décor, the whole designed and composed to aid in bringing that story forward. All under the guidance of you: the director of the show, and all for the pleasure of the viewer, whether it’s only for yourself or for viewers at events. People want their minds boggled, their fantasies tickled, and in the more extreme cases: their gasts flabbered! When I started a discussion on my Facebook page, a lot of people commented that they think they lack imagination and skill. Thinking up an original story is not as hard as a lot of people think. It doesn’t have to be high-literature level storytelling, it only needs to be original because people recognise originality pretty much immediately. It mostly requires a bit of thought and a bit of extra time. The skill is something you learn on the go, and that will only come if you are willing to try new things. Who knows what secret skills you might have had hidden for years? People tend to think that they don’t have the skills to make an idea work, but if the story is strong enough it will overcome a lesser skill level.
How Can We Create Original Stories?
Maybe you have read something interesting or funny or poignant from a book. Try to visualise how that could look. Look up pictures from the period your subject is in. and combine features you like from those pictures to create an interesting composition.
If you only work from photos, try to think of interesting events that could have happened before, or after, the picture was taken. This is probably the easiest pathway to an original story.
There are fun, weird, wonderful, poignant, or interesting things happening worldwide, every day. Things that could have happened at any time in the world and can serve perfectly as new original stories. It only needs a new backdrop.
Go with stories that people can recognise or relate to. that always works well. Try to keep your stories compact, the less distractions, the better the story can be read.
Some people have great imaginations and can hit it out of the ball-park time and time again, while others need a bit of help. But that shouldn’t matter because thinking up those stories is a lot of fun. The same goes for bringing them to life, it is incredibly satisfying.
Failing is Not Bad.
People tend to think that you need to be able to sculpt, and that is the only way to be able to make a new story. This is nonsense. Sure, it helps: if you can sculpt, there is no story you cannot tell, but there are plenty dioramists that are perfectly able to create interesting stuff using nothing but stock figures. You can try converting first, it’s not as hard as you think, and for most poses you can find a commercial figure that is already 90% there. Make sure that figures interact and look at each other, or at least at what they are doing. But most of all…. try. And fail. Then try again. You might still fail but maybe a bit less, and from that point on it will get better and better. Be bold…. be brazen even. Try whatever you want, you won’t get more stupid by trying. and you won’t get more stupid from failing. In fact, you learn even faster from failing. Even Rembrandt started with a simple pencil at some point in his life…
Book Recommendations for Dioramists
For those that need a little help to get over that threshold (if you don’t have them already)
Shepherd Paine “How to Build Dioramas”. (ISBN 0-89024-551-7) out of print but there still should be plenty of second hand examples around.
Marijn van Gils’ “Diorama FAQ 1.3 Storytelling Composition and Planning”. This, if you want to build dioramas is without doubt the only book that is worth its weight in gold. It is about what makes a diorama a good diorama. Get the bones right and your diorama will be on to the best start possible. Available from AK interactive AK8150
“AK Learning Series #11 Figure Sculpting & Converting Techniques”. This book covers all you need to get started from a simple conversion all the way to full sculpts. And is a very good entry level publication into the world of original storytelling. Available from AK interactive AK512