The Demise of the Original Story.

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

About Chris

I'm Chris Meddings, Modeller, Author, Publisher of Modelling Books, Podcaster, and armchair wannabe thinker
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15 Responses to The Demise of the Original Story.

  1. Bruce Culver says:

    This is most excellent indeed and much to think about….. I have noticed that models and dioramas/vignettes I see in various shows often do not have the creative aspects I used to see many years ago. I have often wondered why, but perhaps the why isn’t the biggest part, but how to break out of the malaise and go in new directions. I agree the story should be paramount, as that will guide everything else in the scene and action depicted. Stories can be found in any form of literature, in movies, TV shows (even if not done all that well, a piece of action can still inspire us with a possible scenario). Bravo!

    • Bruce Culver says:

      An additional thought is that the “story” does not have to involve direct depiction of action – it can be told in the situation presented, even if “nothing is happening” in the diorama. It may take more skill to make such a scene stand out, but it can be done, and it is another approach to telling a story.

      • Robert Blokker says:

        thanks a lot Bruce for the kind words.
        as I said in the blog I’m not expecting every piece to be like Mark Twain or Tolkien quality level of storytelling. simple stories often work much better. especially if it are things people can relate to themselves. Especially if you pick a story from a movie or theatre or whatever people might have come across. slapstick is probably the easiest route. because they are age old things that everybody knows. Not very innovative but those stories tend to stick better in memories than the umpteenth attempt of loading up a tank with ear weary soldiers.
        as to your second reply I’m taking a stab that you are meaning telling a story with either 1 figure or no figures at all. which is absolutely difficult. I know that from experience. As it must be so bare bone simple that there can be no doubt as to what it is meant to tell. those that succeed often have a really strong end product.

  2. JC Osborne says:

    Great post. As someone who is looking to begin diorama building this is great advice. I can build the vehicles and figures, and learning how to build bases and structures. It is the story that seems to be the most difficult, yet very necessary piece, that is stumping me at the moment. Thanks for the Marijn Van Gils book recommendation I’ll check that out.

    • Robert Blokker says:

      thats absolutely awesome. and I’ll warn you that diorama building is incredibly addictive once you got your first fix. it is the culmination of all scalemodelling disciplines coming together into one project.
      I pretty much started this hobby straight up into dioramas when I saw a dio made by my uncle at the age of 7. I immediately recognised the potential of being able to create something special. sure my inexperience did not help at the time. but I also did not allow it to limit me.
      now 35 years later I’m enjoying the living daylights out of what I’m doing when I’m thinking up the next “brilliant” idea and try to think up how the composition should look like to tell the story best. It is even at the point where if I start a vehicle first without an idea of where it is going to end up the project has a 99% chance of never reaching the finishline.
      the book by Marijn van Gils is at this moment the only diorama book that is truly worth buying. Not saying that the others are bad. But the rest is mostly groundwork tutorials and all are pretty much repeating the same stuff over and over. Where Marijns FAQ is more a theory book on what makes a diorama a good or excellent diorama. extending really nicely what Shep Paine wrote 40 something years ago. get the bones right and your endresult will be great.

  3. Derek Austim says:

    A very interesting piece!

    I have one diorama that I believe meets the criteria. it came from another diorama that gave me the inspiration and the desire to show a model off in its best light. I really enjoyed the whole process!

    maybe I should be looking for something else to inspire me to do another!

    • Robert Blokker says:

      thanks a lot for your reply. inspiration is absolutely everywhere. most of my inspiration comes from period photographs although I never built exactly the photograph. I treat what I find in photographs as the set and the decor. and then start to think up what kind of interesting stories I can perform in it. sometimes it is funny, sometimes it is poignant. sometimes it is clear and easy to read. for some cases a viewer must spend a bit more effort in discovering the story. I do mainly ww1 dioramas and another source of inspiration is personal diaries. and then the decor can be puzzled together from a variety of photographs and postcards.

      and I’m not saying that nobody should ever do a vehicle display ever again. a lot of those are absolutely stunning. but as for dioramas….. just something a bit different than the age old figure pile on top of a vehicle is always a good thing in my opinion

  4. Marc says:

    A little over two years ago, when I had just started with model building, I posted an article in the Scale Modelers Critique Group on Facebook criticizing the concept of storytelling. Two years later (which also included visits to international events such as Moson, Euromodelexpo, Scale Scotland, and most recently SMC), my opinion has changed little. I’ve read Shep Payne’s book (especially the first chapter that he seemingly often refered to as well, as I heard on the Small Subjects Podcast) and I’ve also read Marijn’s book (and attended his workshop at SMC). None of it convinces me otherwise. None of the great models and dioramas I’ve seen online and offline in the past few years – especially Marijn’s magical models that I saw in the flesh in Eindhoven – have excited me because of their storytelling. They convinced me more through their deep understanding of model building as a medium. Their sense of scale (and the demonstration of dimensions); their sensitivity to qualities, proportions, materials – these are what stand out, along with the masterful application of aesthetic principles (in composition, coloring, framing) and craftsmanship, of course.

    I understand why two generations of masters – Shep’s on one hand, Marijn’s on the other – found storytelling to be a meaningful term and concept. However, if we are truly looking for a new generation of innovative model builders, then we should pay more attention to whether they can establish new design principles and concepts. In my post from two years ago, I tried to describe what I could imagine; I see the same, interestingly, already present in Shep’s chapter; when he speaks of an “event”. An Event as such and “eventfullness” (so to speak) undermines the notion of a story: it aims for immediacy and emotion, not rational understanding. When I look at Marijn’s models (especially the more recent ship dioramas), they have exactly this quality of the eventful (a ship is sinking or has sunk). For me, they are evidence that Marijn, as a model builder, is now able to intuitively and subtly implement a self-reflexivity of modeling as a medium (the sense of scale); after showing it very clearly and expressively in his “Van Gils Construction” piece). All of this has very little to do with storytelling (although I’m sure Marijn would see it differently, in his anti-elitist way ;-)).

    When I think about what I’ve seen that is truly new (alongside many brilliant things I’ve had the chance to see in the past two years), the new wave of Chinese model builders belongs in that category; they use new and very efficient techniques to establish their own aesthetics. I haven’t yet identified a new generation of diorama and vignette builders – but I believe it’s only a matter of time before we do. Because many of the masters initially focused on military vehicles, aircraft, and similar subjects; how many of them took years of practice to truly break free? We will see new things – and they will be created with new concepts, terms, and methods.

  5. Timothy Offenbacher says:

    Personally I think out hobby needs more artists (or budding artists) – typically the artist is the innovator, the creator of new techniques and freer ideas. Ideas that are then funnelled down to the implementors (or applicators) who then tweak and apply these new techniques then onto the masses. Look no further than our own hobby for evidence of this concept – some of our hobbies largest innovators – Mig, Rinaldi, Wilder and as Mr. Blokker kindly points out….Shep Paine – all artists in one form or another (some even completing a professional artist vocation). And while I won’t suppose every artist is an innovator, or every implementor is not (always exceptions) I believe, for the most part, the standard holds true. Perhaps at this juncture of our hobby the conformists’ tip the scales over the artists. And perhaps we should be taking Mr. Blookker’s advice of encouragement of “try. And fail. Then try again” – to bring out the inner artist in all of us along with all the new that accompanies it. Now if only I could find the time….

    • Robert Blokker says:

      thanks a lot for your reply. for me the point is not so much about the innovation. although I’m absolutely not going to halt any. the modeling has become better and better through the years in leaps and bounds and it is awesome.
      but the nice thing about a good story is that it isn’t subject to skill. sure there are limits as to what anybody can do with commercial stock figures. but a good simple story easily survives that. and as skills grow the beginning dioramist might dare to venture into fields unknown to him or her. to try their hand at frankensteining figures, or simple conversions or even sculpting. all to be able to tell their intended stories better.

      in my blog I wrote that even Rembrandt started with a pencil. and that’s a thing I always like to pull up. sure he might have been incredibly talented to start with. Still from his youth he studied under 4 or 5 teachers before he became the HD camera of his time. did he fail from time to time. I’m 100% positive about it even though nothing from his study years have survived the centuries. but as he was a human as well it is only logic that there were things he did that were not worthy of his world famous name. so in short. do and fail. and don’t fear that fail. I can now sculpt because I spend the best part of 20 years trying to figure out how to do it. and had I saved all the horribly sculpted figures from those early attempts I could’ve filled quite a big box and use them now for a big walking dead diorama. but also in now at that point where I’m not daunted to do a sculpt if it is needed.

  6. I really enjoyed the article of Robert as I identify myself as a dioramist rather than a modeller. “A diorama should be a stage” is a very bold and concise phrase that I really could stand for. I am not for river counting, craftsmanship show or forensic-level reproduction of an event.

    And then I read Marc’s response and I found a lot of truth in it, too. I was really alerted by the phrase: “They convinced me more through their deep understanding of model building as a medium. Their sense of scale (and the demonstration of dimensions); their sensitivity to qualities, proportions, materials – these are what stand out, along with the masterful application of aesthetic principles (in composition, coloring, framing) and craftsmanship, of course.”

    Actually I feel that the two arguments are not so far apart as they might seem at first reading.

    As a journalist, and specifically a financial journalist, I thought it was all about storytelling, and that was what I was after not only in my professional work but also in my hobby as a dioramist. I thought I was trying to tell stories.

    And then I read the book of Jean-Bernard André “Water, Light & the Works”. And I suddenly realized that, in my dioramas, I wasn’t going for the story, as I thought, but for the mood, the atmosphere. It’s funny because when I was showing my dioramas to friends (mostly non-modellers), I was talking about the atmosphere but still I thought I was telling stories. And in retrospective I also realized that the same goes for my work as a journalist, I thought I was on story-telling but I was going for what I described at the time as the “after-taste” of the text.

    So call it story telling, or “deep understanding of model building as a medium (sense of scale, their sensitivity to qualities, proportions, materials)”, or “after-taste”, I feel that we are talking more or less for things that are not as different as they sound. Or, this is how it seems to me.

  7. I think it is true that competitions have a tendency to encourage formulaic responses, which to a degree makes sense, if winning is the objective. But I also think things are cyclical. Shep Paine and Francois Verlinden did new things, and then people sort of followed that mold for a while. Then the current crop of big thinkers came along and did some new things, and now those methods and ways of thinking have become standard. Eventually, a new group of innovators will come along and upset the apple cart, which will be good.

    For me, I’m just trying to break into the world of dioramas, learning the basics. Model building I know, and I have lots of stories in my head that I’d like to tell, but it’s just a matter of time and learning for now. Marijn’s book has been a great help in learning composition, which for me has been the greatest struggle so far.

  8. Indeed. I am a fine artist (painter) who has turned my energies to scale modeling in recent years. I was a passionate modeler has a kid and was in love with the Shep Paine “Tips on Building Dioramas” 4-color off-set press inserts in Monogram kits.

    Shep continues to be the orginal master despite advances in techniques and materials. What Shep got right was the story no matter how subtle it was. His stories were not over-the-top dramas, but rather he captured the essence of events and aritculated emotion to the viewer. It was not always tragic, nor fantastical, but often more slice of life.

    Indeed one could feel the shock and surprise of the German attack in the Ardennes by how he portrayed an American Sherman crew hastily whitewashing their tank. The remnants of fire are smoldering in front of a shelter half and the rolled up sleeping bags indicate a morning interrupted. The yellow snow in a corner as one of Shep’s famous Easter eggs.

    One of his lesser known dioramas left an impression on me, even at the age of 12. It was of a crew putting brush on a parked jagdpanther while one of then men was sitting on a rock peeling potatoes while another was looking off into the distance standing guard, weight shifted onto one leg, and most likely thinking of “a more pleasant time and place.” Shep was a teller of short stories, not a novelist. And sometimes short stories leave the most lasting emotional impact.

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