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Diorama: Settings, Snapshots, and Storytelling. or, How to define 'What is a diorama?'

Discussion in 'Friends of planetFigure' started by Jamie Stokes, Nov 30, 2023.

  1. Jamie Stokes Well-Known Member

    Recently within the modelling community, there has been some discussion about dioramas and storytelling.

    Discussing this with a few peers, and reading a few articles, and listening to some podcasts on this subject, here’s my interpretation on dioramas at their highest form, and the levels building up to that highest form.

    I’ll leave Box Dioramas for a future discussion, as the making of a box diorama is another whole layer of skills and craftsmanship.

    (there’s a TL:DR Conclusion at the ending paragraph, just scroll to the bottom if need be…)

    The range of a diorama moves from Setting (just an indication of the environment) to a Snapshot (a point in time, sometimes a photo recreated in scale miniature, or a depiction of an event) through to Storytelling, where an event is depicted and (sometimes) creates an emotional or intellectual response in the viewer. (A)

    In the following, I hope to explain some way of how I’d gauge a presented diorama, and how well it would depict some form of narrative… or not achieve…

    Then I’ll touch upon Story telling and Narrative as part of a conclusion piece.

    Base layer: Setting.

    This is usually a vehicle with a person or persons (not always though) to give scale and a bit of context.

    It’s 1 step up from a ‘Vehicle on a Plinth” (Tank on a plank; a finished tank on a varnished wooden base). It gives a nice display; compare this Panzer 38T on a bare plank, to a Tiger 1 on some groundwork.

    A setting just gives an idea of terrain, an area of the world where the vehicle may have been in service: a European setting, Asian jungle or blistering desert, or maybe even snow and ice setting. Or Mars, or on the Moon….

    Panzerkampfwagen 38t by Glen Hambleton (1)

    Tiger 1 Late by Ray Thorpe (2)

    This is the foundation setting where the modeller has moved from just the vehicle to some form of context around the vehicle, and usually expanding the expression of the vehicle having had some kind of interaction with the environment.

    It’s not just vehicles, just the overwhelming majority of dioramas seem to be a vehicle is selected, built, and then the diorama is built outwards from there.

    Sometimes there are a cluster of figures, sometimes marching, sometimes standing around, almost always one figure is pointing off the edge of the diorama base. Which means we are now moving towards:

    Second Layer: Snapshot

    This where we have a setting, plus a person, or people (usually, but not always) and a moment in time.

    Nowhere to Hide by Michael Strange (3)

    SDKFZ13 by Michael Bradshaw (4)

    Canadian Armoured MG Carrier by Ian Keizers (5)

    The examples have figures, and the vehicles show signs of interacting with the environment; splashes, tracks in grass, some wear and tear if they have been in use for some time. It has a bit more life, there’s no emotional response at this level, just an intellectual curiosity.

    We can observe the increase of modelling skills, as now groundwork, vehicle and people modelling skills are required, which are related but separate skill sets within modelling

    (Driving a motorbike and driving a car both require road skills, right of way knowledge, licencing, however the physical skills and application are related and have some overlap, but each has some unique requirements that need learning)

    Third Layer: Storytelling

    This is where the skills of posing (or reposing, modifying or sculpting) figures, and placing them in a setting where there is a sense of emotion come together with the previous layers of skills.

    Not all dioramas have an element of storytelling that generates a real kind of emotion, I’ll touch upon that next step.

    However, I’ve found some dioramas that really do have the elements of storytelling built in from the planning stage. I’ve selected one as an example.

    Here is a Diorama (6), “They didn’t know it was us” depicting the 761st “Black Panthers” Independent Tank Battalion, a Sherman tank with its crew watching the march past of surrendered Germans, and their white guards, being surprised at the African Americans who just defeated them. (this was at a time when America has segregation laws)

    Martin Drayton, creator of the diorama, was inspired by the history of the unit, and the contrast of the time of segregation and the units fighting record.

    Here’s my technical observations; the layout has movement from left to right, and as the viewers eye travels (same as we read books) the heads on the Germans move from downcast to turned left with (I think) expressions of dismay or surprise. The railway station has commander figure pausing, assessing the view just looked at through the binoculars, and the tank crew is elevated above the foot soldiers, giving them a raised position and contextually logical reason to be there. The emotion moves from low down defeated, to elevated victorious, my thinking like a stage director…

    I regard it as a delayed action piece, it takes a few moments to really grasp the story, but that rewards a viewer who gives the piece a second glance.

    Diorama: Storytelling – Emotional response

    There are two dioramas that evoke a strong emotional response, one for its sensitive handling around a very emotionally charged historical event, the other a horror of war that many soldiers have faced: a wounded comrade beyond help.

    These dioramas capture a moment in time, and something dioramists really strive to depict. An emotional response.

    Listening to Rick Lawlor on Sprue Cutters Union Episode 54, he speaks of having an idea first, letting it stew for a long time, then after a visit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. had enough other information to fully realise and create the diorama, along with the release of the necessary vehicle (as a kit), a German railway wagon. I’m going to show the dioramas, and then move towards the conclusion…

    Mind the Gap by Peter W Usher (7)

    It’s a piece with 1 main figure in focus, wounded by a sniper, and caught between cover (the gap) between 2 trains in a shunting yard. The group on the left is trying to arrange cover fire without being the snipers next victim. The group on the right is holding one soldier back, because they know that another soldier leaving cover will be the next victim.

    It has a simple story element that I’ll cover in the ending paragraph.

    Burden of Sorrow by Rick Lawlor (8)

    A Prisoner in one of the extermination camps in WW2, clears up shoes and spilled luggage from an empty railway wagon. Again, it tells a snapshot of part of a story, however it’s easy for any viewer to understand the bigger story that is unseen and untold, but part of cultural knowledge.





    Diorama – Conclusion

    There are many dioramas, and they exist on a spectrum that I have attempted to describe. Far from rigid definitions of what is/ is not a diorama, this is how I’d approach assessing what makes for successful storytelling, and the layers of skills needed to build upon to depict the story in the minds eye of the creator, and depicting that idea in a physically realised way, within the hobby of scale modelling.

    A diorama, like a movie setting, needs a setting, a degree of realism or plausibility, and some characters interacting. If there is a powerful emotional element that the viewer can relate to, as depicted by the people in the diorama, then the diorama is at that intersection of multi skilled modelling and emotional draw; an outline of a story, where the viewer can interpret the story as they will, within the same setting.

    If one of the elements isn’t completed with a high level of craftsmanship, that will detract from the creators’ efforts, as it creates a disconnect between all the layers that are built up.

    The two stories, Burden of sorrow, and Mind the Gap, give both a key moment of high emotion, Sorrow & grief (Burden of Sorrow), Fear and Stress (Mind the gap) and all the elements setting, snapshot and story and emotion have been completed with high craftsmanship, and come together in a seamless way.

    The common element of the story is people interacting, there is a either loss, or pending loss, or a situation that has serious consequences…

    After that, it comes down to technical skill.

    The Narrative, however, is how each viewer adds context to the images, and creates some kind of story or description for the piece.

    Is the Prisoner cleaning up a random selection? Will the soldier break free and dash towards his comrade? Those stories and thumbnail sketches of a story are common within the framework, but individual to each viewer.

    What about the Dioramas you and I want to create?

    If you are looking at creating dioramas,get started, get feedback often, you are good enough to start, and you’ll get better with every effort so long as you reflect on where you can improve with what you’ve learned.

    Tell those stories, your stories; they are worthwhile telling…

    Dioramas: limits of examples

    This article draws from WW2 dioramas, which is a narrow focus; however, there are many other dioramas with ships, aircraft, sci-fi vehicles, from all time periods. I wanted something accessible and relatable. My intent remains to lay the framework out for inclusion and some markers for dioramas and where story telling emerges.

    Many ship dioramas are either battle scenes, gun fire making splashes and fountains in the water, or the ship ploughing through heavy seas. Scaling makes the dioramas either 350th or 700th scale, where the human element is the size of a rice grain, or smaller…

    Aircraft are at home in the sky, and depicting an aircraft in flight is usually a ‘plane on a pole’ and doesn’t do justice to the story. A plane on the ground is either serviced, being ‘bombed up’ or crashed….

    Figure only dioramas do exist, across history, but I had to set some limits to the examples in this article. Otherwise, it would sprawl on, into something akin to a thesis….

    The next article will be on Box Dioramas, which pulls together all these layers and elements, and adds controlled lighting and a framed viewpoint.

    Sources for references.

    1,2,4,5 – Melbourne Model Expo Gallery 2022

    3 – South Australian Scale Model Expo Gallery 2022

    6 – EmDee Models, Facebook

    7 - Armorama article by Robbo Roberts, 2022

    8 – Rick Lawler Propaganda 2014.

    (A) – “Art is something that generates an emotional response” – Jim De Rogatis, Small Subjects Podcast, 2022

    (B) Just two I’ve selected, there are many, many more out there.

    Continue reading...
    Dr Bison likes this.

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