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Promoted from the comments in Open Thread 51:
Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: October 21, 2005, 01:59 AM:
Model-builder Pete Feigenbaum has built some absolutely amazingly detailed slums for his model railroad tracks to run through. There’s a South Bronx-style industrial neighborhood with abandoned cars and burned-out auto-parts stores covered with layer after layer of tags; there’s an any-inner-city block with liquor store, pawnshop, and flophouse hotel; there are under-the-el street scenes a la South Chicago; brick warehouses converted to dollar stores. It’s all mindbogglingly detailed, gritty, and real-looking. You’ve got to look at it.
I found it via Jeffrey Rowland’s Overcompensating and I just submitted it to Boing-Boing, so you may all have seen it elsewhere by the time you get around to seeing it here, but I just had to pass this on. Wow.
The photos of the model railroad layout are here: Vestal Design.
Go, take a look. This is outstanding modelwork. Yes, there are illusion-breakers (the automobiles have out-of-scale tires, and could have been weathered) but on the whole, wow indeed.
This leads to one of my favorite metaphors for writing novels. To make a replica of the world, you have to be able to see it. If you see it, you can model it. A novel is as much a replica of the world as a model railway.
My father, W. Douglas Macdonald, was a chemical engineer and an electrical engineer. Most of his life he worked for building materials companies, including Glidden paint, US Plywood, and Eucatex. He died entirely too young, 72, of congestive heart failure secondary to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; that is to say, smoking killed him. (Note to everyone: If you smoke, quit right now.) I miss him very much.
That was his professional life; his hobby was modelmaking, specifically ships and model railroads. He won contests in the 1920s for his model railroad cars. Back when I was young, he let me help him with his modelmaking (talk about your love: the help of six-year-olds can be a challenge). That was where I learned modelwork, which I still enjoy.
All the arts are related; modelwork and novel-writing. Both center on making a world in miniature, a false seeming that convinces the viewer/reader of its reality.
Herewith some lessons I took away, and use in my own works:
No matter how good your model is, it won’t be perfect. No matter how much praise you get, no matter what awards you win, you’ll never be able to look at that model and see anything but its imperfections.
The rivets on model cars are badly out of scale. To have visible rivets, they’d have to have heads the size of softballs.
No one counts the rivets on a moving car.
If you suggest detail, the viewer will add his own details.
Therefore, you don’t need rivets.
Painted plastic, painted wood, and painted metal all look the same.
It isn’t a model until you add people. Before that, it’s a clever machine, perhaps, or a toy. Characters bring their own reality, and bring the person looking at the model into the story. Your models tell stories; if you have a car that’s got mud on it, or rust, or scrapes and dents, it has a history. The viewer won’t know what the dent came from, but he’ll know that the car has been places, done things, and subconsciously won’t think of it as something that just came from a modelmaker’s workbench.
Another thing: there were always hidden things, that only the modelmaker knew about. These made the model real to him, and if it was real to him, it would be real to the viewers. For example, once we made a model of the submarine USS George Washington. This was a plastic model with a hinged side that could be opened to show the interior. One of the interior spaces had a door that led to the food storage reefer. My dad built and painted scale model hams, hung them in the walk-in refrigerator area, then continued with the model, sealing that area off where it would never be seen. The fact that the artist knows something is there — even if the world doesn’t share that knowledge — will add realism to the entire project.
Sometimes the best model for a thing is the thing itself: nothing looks so much like a load of coal in a hopper car than crushed coal in a hopper car.
On the other hand, real water doesn’t look like water — it doesn’t scale.
Don’t put things square on bases; use diagonal lines. They suggest motion.
A frame makes the model seem more real than it otherwise would appear. Frames move the model into the world of art. Frames suggest completion.
Let the paint dry before you touch it.
If you can’t see the world you can’t model it.
I haven’t built model railroads, though I love doing model ships and model houses.
Herewith are some exercises for y’all; not too expensive, and (I promise!) will help your novel writing. (Or, anyway, it’s helped mine.)
First off, get yourself a nice HO scale paper model house. Two I’ve done are Cut and Assemble Victorian Cottage and Cut and Assemble Victorian Shingle-Style House. (I’ve used both of those in my various talks at Viable Paradise.)
Build one of the houses. In the building of it, add one interior room. (If you want, you can open doors and windows with your X-acto knife to give other people a chance to see the room, or not.) Note: while the instructions don’t say it, paint the insides of the chimneys black! If you leave them white, the illusion is broken. If you blacken them, the illusion is strengthened. Anything that doesn’t add to the illusion detracts from it.
Now place the model on a base. Landscape it. (Landscaping can cover a multitude of sins.) Spring, summer, autumn, winter scenes all have different feels.
Add people. These tell your story. If you put in a group of folks having a garden party, it’s a different story from the model that has a police car and an ambulance pulled up out front of the house, with detectives, dogs, uniformed police, and a stretcher with a sheeted form being wheeled out the front.
Don’t skimp on the people. In my model of the shingle-side house, one figure (of several) cost more than the rest of the materials combined. I found it in a hobby shop, and knew that this was the figure I needed. The more realistic the little plastic people, the more real the entire model will appear.
That’s it. Learn to see the world. Discover that tree trunks aren’t brown; they’re grey. See how the same basic, off the rack things, when arranged in various ways, with you choosing the arrangment, make different, unique, artistic stories. Discover that when you mix paint for your Pullman cars using paint chips taken from real Pullman cars, that they look too dark — you have to lighten the paint to make it look right. Looking right is more important than being right.