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What is a diorama? Box dioramas; setting the scene, controlling the lighting, colour effects,...

Discussion in 'Friends of planetFigure' started by Jamie Stokes, Jan 23, 2024.

  1. Jamie Stokes Well-Known Member

    Building upon my previous post of trying to define what is a diorama, if we look at the subject of Box Dioramas, I still regard the composition (setting, snapshot, storytelling & emotional response) still existing within the design elements.

    Now it’s about the setting, the viewing angle, and all the lighting, the reveal, the actual box and the technical skills to bringing that all together…

    In a simple description: Stage setting.

    Except it’s in a scale far smaller than 1:1….

    There’s controlled lighting (Natural or powered), framing of the point of view – a open air diorama, consideration needs to be given to the 360-degree view, not as much a consideration for a box diorama. And some kind of character depicting an action, or a moment….

    Box Dioramas can be quite simple, and I’m reminded (and hope you are too) of the most basic diorama we’ve all ever done…

    The open sided cardboard box…. this is a Butterfly diorama1, from Richard Morgan, Utah.

    Richard’s daughter making a diorama for a school project, and there wasn’t a local butterfly museum nearby. So, she made her own. My own dioramas (from a similar age) that I can remember were a WW1 scene, with unpainted 1/72 plastic soldiers (Germans in grey, British in khaki) and another diorama depicting satellites, with a crude cardboard cutout of a satellite hanging from some sewing thread over a vaguely earth coloured bit of cardboard. (Hey, I was like 8 or 9 at the time… and materials were all pretty limited)

    But onto examples of the diorama spectrum of setting to emotional response. Then a few quick technical examples of what’s required for a box diorama before the summary conclusion.


    Midday rest, by Ingvild Eiring

    Ingvild here has depicted a common setting2, with a whimsical touch, the family enjoying some quiet time after lunch. The whimsy is the characters are all mice! However, it’s just a quiet little scene, and I think it is more relatable because the main characters aren’t people.

    Technically, it’s framed well, it looks like quite a natural setting with the flow of the family just sitting around having a quiet time. It would be too easy to see this as either a rustic cabin life, or as a holiday cabin in the woods, possibly somewhere scenic during nice, warm weather.

    I think the real skill is using the mice to make a scene more recognisable, rather than passed over if people had been used….


    “Eventful Visit to the Sphinx and Pyramids of Giza just after dawn – Late 1978” – Michael Berger

    There’s no emotional tension, nor should there be. It is a moment in time, depicting a moment where Napoleon takes some time to be tourist while on his Egyptian campaign.

    It’s a setting, based on a historical writing from the time. Its part of the depiction of the Napoleon, his entourage and some elements of his 200 strong military escort, and taking in the sights….

    It’s composed well, and hints at the military escort,because more than what is currently depicted there would start to flood the setting, and the setting would be lost amongst the flood of figures.


    ‘He swims amongst us’ – Nick Infield

    Here is (what I regard) as storytelling, rather than a snapshot. At first glance, it would be a snapshot; here’s a frozen moment in time; at second look though, here is how a crew films a classic movie…

    Actor in a rubber monster suit, while film crew juggle with filming the scene, and doing all the focus, framing, tracking of the shot, while wearing SCUBA gear under X amount of water….

    For the thinking viewer, there’s no air bubbles coming from ‘the Creature” so either there is a closed air supply (no bubbles form exhalation) or the actor is holding their breath…

    At third look, we have the story of capturing a movie scene depicted within a setting rendered in scale….

    Emotional Response5

    Box #3 – Barry Biediger

    Here is a quiet piece, a young lady waiting under a lamp, Waiting for a ride….

    I regard this as an emotional response, because it is an ambiguous setting, and any intellectual work would lead an interested observer to putting some kind of story around this setting…

    For me, I can hear crickets and feel the warmth of a summer night and not a breeze to do much cooling…. From there, is she waiting for a pickup to go home? Or leaving home? Returning or traveling reluctantly? Is that bump in the belly an early stage of pregnancy? T

    The body language is pensive, rather than tired or optimistic…. That is what creates the emotion of ‘waiting’ and as she is lacking a watch, time spent waiting will truly drag, with no way to measure it….

    Controlling the lighting and view point.

    One visible control is lighting; either the ability to focus the lighting, or to emphasise mood with lighting.

    Here are two examples, both from the hand of Jim DeRogatis.....

    The first is a young Napoleon approaching a lady of the night.... both the layout and the characters are under different lighting. The lady of the night under a street lamp, Napoleon in moon lit shadows.

    Initial Reconnaissance, 1787, Jim DeRogatis (54mm, 2022)

    Here we can see the cool blue of the night, the shadow behind both. Plus consideration must be given to the colour you are going to finish the figure in; the lady is under a yellow-white light, so there wont be much colour shifting there. Napoleon is painted in a grey great coat, and the blue light (projected; see how there is a shadow?) will affect the perception of the colour. If the lady in the red dress had been in the blue moonlight, then her dress would appear purple (adding red + blue. Check a colour wheel if you aren't sure).

    Adding colour filters to light sources allows a control that a open air diorama (i.e. not boxed) is at the mercy of the viewing surrounds. Many expos, competitions and displays have variable lighting, ranging from natural light, through to neon, and occasionally, disco mood lighting (the blue lighting of the Melbourne model expo is something to be experienced, it causes interesting colour shifts, and can mask subtle paint results. Melbourne is far form unique in this, and often an uncontrollable element outside the control of the hosting organisation)

    But sometimes, strong contrasting light can really set a mood: fire at night is the most common depiction, and I'll offer a WW2 bombing story.

    Night Raid, 1945 (1/32nd and forced perspective, 2022) Jim DeRogatis

    This is a triple light effect; the blue of the moon, the red of the fire from the city, and the yellow from the cockpit dashboard (yes, in real combat, the dashboard lights would be dimmed or off completely, an artistic decision was made, which i can agree with; it captures the focus point and helps reveal the story). Plus there is a second Lancaster bomber in the background, with cockpit with yellow light, adding the setting and helping withe effect of perspective and distance.

    Your opinion may vary….

    There are many more examples, and box dioramas.com has an extensive set of examples from many box dioramists. If you want to discuss… leave a reply on the comment section at the bottom of this post.

    Technical notes on constructing a box diorama.

    Here’s a version, showing the construction, setting, framing and character interaction…

    It not a definitive example, regard it as more of a primer to get your own mind thinking about

    It depicts the night after the D-day landings, American paratroopers are resting in a barn, in occupied France, officers are liaising with the local French resistance, planning the next days activities to help complete their objectives.

    Rather than re-write the entire article, you can read it here.

    Here’s an overview though….

    The artist, John Ballard, needs to build a barn interior (floor, beams, roof interior) plus ‘set dressing’ (ladders, farm type spare wheels, tool boxes and tables, hay) and the characters themselves (conversion and sculpting of some kit parts)

    Then there is lighting, wiring, power source to be tackled…

    and then the box, the framing device (the reveal), and final effects and painting of the raw materials.

    Plus any other requirements, such as a backdrop if windows present,. Or black velvet to imply an ongoing environment that goes beyond the current setting.

    Just making sure that there are no elements (structural, lighting, composition, painting and finishing) that break the sense of ‘reality in scale’ and disrupt the engagement of the viewer out of the moment. That finishing skill is also critical, and practiced. Reworking a setting is common, and it would be fair to say that most box dioramas need quite a few re-works before all the elements come together to match the vision and idea in the creators mind.

    From my interpretation, the previous layers of ‘Setting - Snapshot- Storytelling- Emotional Response’ is still the foundation of setting the diorama, this looks at the next layer of creating a stage, controlling the lighting, the viewing angles, and the character (or characters)within the setting.

    In this article, it’s been mostly civilian or quieter in setting, which is much rarer, and often I’ve selected moments of quiet emotion, rather than the heat of combat.

    Telling a story is still possible,as shown, and making the entire box means another layer of skills.

    Yes, more challenge… like all challenges though, it means the opportunity for your story to be really defined


    (all from Box Dioramas.com.)

    Continue reading...
    Dr Bison likes this.

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