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The Grand Illusion

 by Jeff Junker

Is this picture of the German feeding scraps to a dog real? Or is it a model? Paging through some modeling magazines can sometimes lead to that same question. The work is that good, the scene is so convincing that it leaves you wondering. If that’s the case, the modeler has done his job – – he’s created The Grand Illusion!

The Grand Illusion

By the way, the German and the dog are models depicting a winter scene on the Russian Front built by Bill Wolfe.

 After finishing a model – be it a tank, airplane, car, or figure – most people just stick it on the shelf. Soon the shelf will look like an armor park or a flight line, but there is a more imaginative way to display them. What the models need is company: other models, scenery, and a place to call home. Diorama building is a way to accomplish this.

 The toughest part of planning a diorama is to decide what to put in it. It helps to think of a dioramic scene as you would a photograph: both depict a snapshot in time. The starting point is to decide what story you want to tell. But the question always remains the same: What did you want to take a picture of?

“Composition is important, but it is more a matter of instinct than planning. Fill your space well, and use the direction figures are facing, pointing, and shooting to guide the viewer’s eye around the scene,” says Sheperd Paine in his book How to Build Dioramas. “Add figures one or two at a time as a pattern gradually emerges. As the concept develops, the original posing may change to adapt to newer groups and poses that work better. As you gain experience with each diorama, the process becomes easier.”

“Mayas 1, Visitors 0”

built by Jeff Junker

Let’s take Verlinden’s 120mm Maya warrior as an example. The box art shows him crouched atop a rock, staring into the distance. We have to ask ourselves, “What’s he looking at?” A Jaguar? A ceremony? A pyramid? How about a Conquistador buried up to his neck in sand?

The focal point will be the Maya. To keep one’s eye from straying outside of the diorama, try to arrange the elements so they all face toward the center. Remember that your eye, and those of the viewer, will travel in the direction that the figures are looking. The Maya will be looking inward, so the Conquistador face should be pointing in the direction of the Maya. If the Conquistador was looking in the opposite direction, the viewers eye would have a tendency to flow in the direction of the Conquistador, which would be away from the center of action.

The Grand Illusion

We also need an element to “bracket” the head. We’ve got the Maya on a rock on the right, so we need something to add balance to the left. A chunk of a pyrimid would do nicely. The original plan called for having the Maya on the left and pyramid on the right; however, after placing the pieces in those locations I decided it would look better if I reversed them. Changes in original plans are not uncommon.

Echoing that sentiment is Bill Wolfe. “When arranging the parts and pieces of the scene, I try to remain flexible. If things just aren’t going to work as pictured in my mind, I’ll delete or re-arrange items until it ‘feels right’ and looks natural – as if this is how people would act in life. The best way to obtain this, at least for me, is to observe people in life, how than stand and how they interact with one another. I ask myself; ‘What would this person be doing in this situation.'”

“I hate to admit it but, I don’t really have a ‘thought process’ when developing an idea for a dioramas. Some people will draw a picture or even build a model of the diorama! I just find a plastic model, or models, that I’d like to build and research how they were used. Sometimes I’ll just make up a use if it suits me. I’ll then look for buildings and figures that support the general idea. Many times it is one of the poses of a figure which will give me the main story idea for the whole diorama,” continues Wolfe

Of course, you want to be as creative as possible. Everyone has seen one too many dioramas of German soldiers standing around a Tiger tank with nothing to do! The real problem, and the reason why there are so many “stand around” dioramas is because telling your story is the most difficult part. If the story is something that only you, the builder, can understand or ‘see’ than the diorama has failed.

The diorama can’t really be too complicated, but once again, guys just hanging around is not very exciting. The goal is to walk a fine line at first and then, as your skills in both story telling and model building progress, try to push the envelope to see just how complicated you can go and still convey your message.

“I usually place parts of the models (usually the hull of a tank) and buildings even the figures (all un-built of course) on a larger piece of the wood that will be the base and move them around trying to get an idea of how the finished diorama will look. I’ll then make notes with a marker directly on the wood as I go, drawing out roads and building locations. These notes will be covered by the components of the diorama anyway, but this helps me visualize what I want to do. A good deal of imagination is used at this point and the finished product rarely ends up looking like the picture in your head when all is said and done,” concludes Wolfe.

   “Got Milk”

by Bill Wolfe

The story I’m trying to tell is about a ‘rag-tag’ group of German soldiers who have happened upon a bombed out farmhouse. Some of the men have decided to load up the vegetables, which were stored in the loft of the farmhouse, onto the truck. Another solder had the bright idea to take along a cow, which was left behind by the fleeing farmer family. A couple other soldiers have found some milk and took a moment to relax and enjoy the milk while discussing what they will do after the war is over.

The Grand Illusion

The men with the cow are meant to be the ‘focal point’ (hence the diorama’s name) and was kept to the right hand side as this is supposed to be the ‘stronger’ side to which the eye of the viewer is most easily led. The figures loading cargo, the one’s drinking the milk, and the driver waiting to drive the ‘get-away’ car, are all really ‘sub-stories’ only meant to support the main story and add realism to the overall scene. As this diorama is viewable from the front and rear, special attention had to be paid to just how everything would look from any angle. There could be no ‘dead space’ or un-detailed area.

Is this story historically accurate? I have no idea! I do know that German soldiers were reported to have carried out these types of ‘missions’ so this diorama didn’t seem like too much of a stretch. If was fun to build and I learned a lot while building it. That was really the point of doing it in the first place.

Judges Choice. First Place, New Orleans


 by Bill Wolfe

This diorama is of a German tank on fire and the crew bailing out under enemy gun fire (this is why the commander is getting shot while pulling his pistol out to return fire) The driver is helping out an injured radio operator and other crew/riders are jumping off the tank and running for their lives.

The Grand Illusion

I did encounter some difficulties as the commander was originally supposed to be dead and slumped in the top hatch. This didn’t work out, as the plastic figure just didn’t co-operate. All the other pieces did fit well as first conceived. There really is no ‘focal point’ as this diorama is in an oval shape and I wanted there to are several small points of interest that told (together) the main idea.

Third place award, New Orleans


by Mike Wohl

Mike Wohl has always been big on dinosaurs, particularly terror birds. His diorama shows two Diatrymas encircling an eohippus, a cat-sized horse. His original idea was to have only one bird, and that one would be either chasing the horse or have it under its claws. Then he had second thoughts.

“I thought the scene could have more action in it, so I decided on two diatrymas. One stalking the eohippus; the other taking a more active pose encircling it with flared wings and a raised claw. After staging the figures, it looked a bit bare so I added vegetation,” according to Wohl.

The Grand Illusion

He said that the original plan for the diorama came close to his conceptual view of it. The last minute addition of the little primates added the finishing touch. Little the military-diorama-builders, Wohl is a strong believer in researching a subject. His dinosaurs actually existed, roaming the prehistoric Americas about 10 million years ago.

“I try to make it as accurate as I can, right down to the feathers,” he concluded.

First place award Pensacola

 “Welcome to Dodge City”

by Sal Provenzano

Right off the bat, I decide to emphasize the major piece of armor or equipment. As it spills over into a diorama major pieces lose some emphasis in attempts to make the scene look more “natural”. In this way emphasis shifts to other areas of the project or simultaneous events.”

I much prefer multiple focal points in a single diorama to me, it is more of a challenge to do several individual actions in one diorama. I am not much on the “static scene”.

The Grand Illusion

Where combat action is concerned, for those who’ve ever seen it, there are many things going on at one time. The real struggle is to develop each scene within the diorama so they all support each other and not detract from the central issue at the same time.

My original plan never works the way I envision it. Why? Primarily because I am not a woodworker. I do wood bases apart from the actual diorama so I can start when I get an idea. Problem is, I never know how to judge the size of the base or how many things to include right away. I usually start out with my original idea, but end up with too much surface area or scenery and end up filling in space on the base I because my original plan got “lost”.

First Place Award, New Orleans

“A Step Too Far”

by Chuck Theidel

A Step Too Far was the result of two separate items coming together. I had an old Heller Hotchess 35 light tank I didn’t know what to do with. I then saw the ADV French tanker figures – one guy holding a puppy, the other scrapping his shoe. In this case the idea for the diorama was suggested by the figures themselves. It was a natural!

The Grand Illusion

I get inspiration for my dioramas from many sources: pictures in books, magazines, movies, and looking at the work of other modelers. I try to put the subject matter in the most natural setting possible. I do a lot of armor, so the setting has to be accurate. For example, you couldn’t have the 1st SS armor division in Bagration – they were at Normandy.

The focal point of my dioramas is always the main piece, like a vehicle or self-propelled tank. The rest of the scene is developed to support it. My final design never looks like what I originally planned it to be. I’m always finding things to add or I might not like the way the scene is developing.

 Photos by Phil Novak, Bill Wolfe, and Jeff Junker