Ethyl’s Fuel Service

The Art & Psychology of Staged Scenes

John Fraim


Not to in define the meaning of a scene in the present but rather to start an internal process in the audience/observer/reader that will lead eventually to an obsession with defining the meaning of a scene in the future.

One of the most famous screenwriters in Hollywood argues a screenplay story needs to start and end with a particular image. Before anything else, there has to be this image. After everything else, there has to be this image.

The late screenwriting guru and author Blake Snyder developed his famous Save The Cat (STC) structure around a beginning and an ending image in a screenplay. These two images – in effect -represent the first and the last beats of a screenplay in the STC structure. Images gaining the status of actual beats in the key structures of a screenplay.

In other words, they are actually written into screenplay structure rather than simply existing as Descriptive text under the SCENES of the screenplay. This is an interesting (yet subtle) promotion of images (symbols) in telling a story. No longer are they simply the subject of now-and-then discussions by Hollywood film gurus.

Within the Snyder system, images/symbols are raised to the position of actual deities in the confines of the screenplay story. They are assigned the position of first and last parts of screenplay structure. Certainly, key parts of screenplay structure. But of all Hollywood screenwriting gurus, Snyder is unique in promoting images as ruling the major beats of a screenplay story. The opening and closing of the story.

1.Opening Image

As one might imagine, an important consideration in the STC screenwriting system is getting these opening and closing images of a story in mind before beginning and ending the (screenplay) story. Carl Jung would certainly find much in the STC method of telling stories with two images as the shelf bookends of storybooks. Two images existing at the beginning and an ending of a particular story. Who really considers this today in creating screenplay structure? Really no one except the theories of the late Blake Snyder and his Save the Cat system.

I believe that media theorist Marshall McLuhan would see these images in a different light. His criteria for the opening image of a story was never really defined in his book yet his thoughts on this might be surmised. Yet McLuhan made grand distinction/theory regarding hot and cool media. Hot media simply was broadcasted at you in a transmitter to receiver situation. American history of mass media was originally this one-way communication of radio, television, newspapers and magazines. A one-way communication of the news, the narrative of the day. On the other hand, cool media was always an interactive type of communication. The transmitter broadcasts to receivers and the receivers broadcast back to the transmitters.

Marshall McLuhan notes in Understanding Media that Sir Francis “Francis Bacon never tired of contrasting broadcasting and interactive media or hot and cool prose. Writing in ‘methods’ or complete packages, he contrasted with writing in aphorisms, or single observations such as ‘Revenge is a kind of wild justice. The passive consumer wants packages, but those, he suggested, who are concerned in pursuing knowledge and in seeking causes will resort to aphorisms, just because they are incomplete and require participation in depth.” Like an opening image of a story.

This opening image of a story from the perspective of McLuhan, can be either Hot or Cool. Defining something or suggesting something. A hot opening of a story defines what the story will be about. A cool opening asks the audience/viewer to participate in creating what the story will be about. The scene is not a one-way “broadcast” to the audience. Rather it is interactive, allowing and needing participation to complete its meaning. It never defines but rather suggests. In the same mode of a true symbol as Jung always argued. Something that is becoming, not something that is. This is the cool symbol of McLuhan and Jung to begin a story with. This is what a scene must be like.

2.Photographers Cool, Participatory Opening Images

The question of any suggesting a story to go with an image (and best of all a story that the inhabitants of the image). A staged photographic image that has been stages for a scene suggesting a story behind in, a story in front of it.

Perhaps the leading speculation on photographic staged images was written for the publication Widewalls.  Its title was “When Staged Photographs Become Art.”  It was by Elena Martinique (A philosophy graduate interested in theory, politics and art. Alias of Jelena Martinović). One of the best articles on art criticism I’ve ever read.

A few photographs from the Widewalls article.

Azadeh Akhaghi: the photographer who stages murders in Iran.

Gregory Crewdson: the Yale professor and photographer who stages dramatic photo scenes.

3.Diarama, Creators (Sculptors)

The second major way to stage a first scene in a story is via a diorama model. In other words, a particular scene caught in miniature. Something is about to happen. Something has just happened. And the people of the scene need to make some decision.

The work of the leading modelers in the art of creating brilliant miniature staged scenes is seen in magazines like Model Railroader and Fine Scale Modeler. But it is also on YouTube and Vimeo.

So far, most of the scenes involve military situations: a model ship is sinking; some soldiers behind some battle-scarred, crumbling building in some town of WWII. There are the car dioramas. An accident. The win of a race. Dramatic scenes in model railroads is led by the biggest name in model railroad scenery, WoodLand Scenics and their series of pre-made scene dioramas.

One of the great entries into this area is the company Downtown Deco which makes the “real” buildings of our lives and not the fanciful little model train buildings of almost all of the manufactures out there. I’ve got their Atomic Café on order but I’m thinking of getting their Skid Row and buildings and a few others.

4.Staged Live Scenes

The artist who staged events with flags and other props. Hills of Marin. Others who express an opening scene of a story in this manner.

(More on these artists. Between performing artists and directors.)

5.Images in Dioramas

In the past month or so, my lifelong interest in model trains again. Another one of my cyclic muses. The interest has always been there with building model trains, creating these miniature worlds where you could always rule, the interest has always been with me since my father was into model trains.

In was the late 50s and we had moved from the state my father loved called California all the way back to Dayton, Ohio, where my mother was from. But also, where he had met my mother. In California, my parents first lived in La Jolla and then in Hollywood and then Beverly Hills.

I was in the third grade when I arrived back in Dayton, Ohio and the first thing the other kids wanted me to do was to draw what California looked like. I quickly drew a stagecoach traveling in a desert. I think this was the perfect drawing for them. And me. Perhaps we all saw the California as that desert in the Hollywood Westerns we were starting to see in color on television of the late 50s and early 60s. I remember drawing this stagecoach for my new Ohio classmates. The stagecoach was travelling quickly through a harsh desert full of large cacti.

My father had two car dealerships in the Los Angeles area in the 1950s. He sold both of them and the family moved from Los Angeles to Dayton, Ohio. And my father, always rising in his life in the military and then running the car dealerships, comes to work for his wife’s family business.

He was always an outsider. He had never risen through their sales system. He was an outsider placed in his position from outside. He was placed at an executive level in the family business of my mother’s father. I don’t think he ever wanted this and never enjoyed it.

Rather than feel part of the new family company he has been inserted within, he retreated to his outdoor sport of golf and indoor hobbies of stereo and model trains. I played a lot of golf with my father in those years. And watched him and his friend from the stereo store in Springfield stay up all night fine tuning his new stereo system.

When he was not playing golf, or fooling around with his stereo in the living room, he was down in the basement of our Dayton home. He had a desk with an incredible tool board in front of it in that board you can put hinges in. He was down there many nights of the year building HO scale railroad cars. A few feet away, was the framework for the huge 30’ by 15’ model train layout my father had built. Two mainline tracks ran around the framework and my father spent much time thinking about the future of his 30’ x 15’ basement space. I had a work desk in the basement next to his so it was also major question in my mind at the time. Some nights he would light his pipe and we’d both discuss the plans for the model railroad layout. There would be another line going up into some mountains. He would begin building the woodwork for this on the overall foundation of the layout.

But I went to California to high school. The same high school my father had attended in Bell Buckle, Tennessee. The layout was never finished. Soon after I went to California, my mother and father moved to New York City as my father went into a new job for my mother’s father.

6.A Desert Diorama

So many years ago. This memory of an unfinished model train layout is still in my mind. Even at my new home in Columbus, Ohio.

I’ve thought of creating a layout in my basement. Of finishing that layout that my father always talked of finishing.

We have a huge basement in our home. Tall ceilings and all ready to make into another family living level in the house. But still an unfinished huge area in our home. I think of creating an n scale layout in the 12′ x 6 ‘ indentation in a corner of the basement. A good size for an n scale train layout. I buy a basic track set and controller from the Train Station over on Indianolla Avenue in Columbus. I buy a Santa Fe blue and yellow n-scale engine. I buy one Santa Fe coal car. At home, I get out graph paper and plan a layout. A desert layout with a Santa Fe coal train traveling to the coal mine (I bought from Walthers) on one side of the layout and to a little town on the other side of the layout. Fairly good size for an n scale layout. Our basement allows it though as it is huge.

But I get caught up in attempting to model the desert. The model railroading books and magazines aren’t all that interested in the desert. It remains to be presented by modelers like Boulder Creek and KRP models on YouTube and Vimeo. It is presented by other modelers. Few books or things posted on the web tell one how to create a true desert. Perhaps the best at this is the Swedish modeler Pelle Solburg. I read both his books on creating scenery. His work is astonishing. Difficult to believe it is a model. Another brilliant desert modeler is Kory at KRP Models. An altogether brilliant modeler is the Australian founder of Boulder Creek Railroad as well as an airline pilot.

I’m not interested in modeling other areas of the nation. Perhaps the mountains sometime. But not now. Now, it all centers on that place I just left called the California desert. Scenery I wrote about in some of the Sierra Club publications and scenery I hiked though and loved from my early years. The great barren American desert.

This is the only scenery I want to model. It all reminds me of my early childhood and visiting the desert from my home in Los Angeles. It reminds of that layout my father (and me) never completed.

It seems important I create some various scenes from the desert. First of all, I need to create the scenes in the most realistic manner possible. I’ve come upon a few amazing videos on YouTube and Vimeo that show desert modeling is a real possibility.

(Links here to amazing model layouts and dioramas on these channels)

Yet there are few modelers today like the brilliance of those modelers above. The challenge is to create some dramatic desert scene in HO or N scale. Does there have to be railroad track in the scene? Not really. Here one thinks of true desert diorama scenes. Scenes that say something about the desert. About the history of the people who come to the desert. Perhaps some history about the desert itself. Whatever scale of model railroading scale (O gauge, S gauge, HO gauge, N or Z gauge the story might be told in.) Perhaps a continuation of that history of Palm Desert I outlined for the Historical Society.

One thinks of that evening with my good friend Diana as me and Stephanie listened to these people who told lies in the desert a few miles out of Borrego Springs near the mountains twenty miles west of California’s Salton Sea. There is the annual meeting of the Liars Club formed around a famous desert liar. Diana has written the definitive books on the desert we are all in right now. She has hiked all through it. Knows it better than anyone else. Diana has invited us to the event tonight a few miles out of Borrego Springs.

Anyway, have a few desert scenes in mind right now to model. One is a lonely little service station. A road past it runs parallel with a railroad track. It served in real life as the opening scene in a novella and then a screenplay I wrote titled The Lost Mission. It is strange though that the little service station (really on Route 54 across Nevada known as “The Loneliest Road in America”) served as the first image for the story but did not appear as the first image in the story. Another road runs into the road the service station is on. This road disappears  off the side of the model. There is a billboard on the side of the road. I’ve made up a few below.

A Potential Billboard Sign in the Ethyl’s Diorama

I have another scene in mind also. Around a little trailer in the desert, a man on a platform talks to a number of people who have come to listen to him. There are signs in the crowd that help us define what the scene is about. There are clues in the scene yet it is necessary for the viewers to interpret the clues.

Both scenes attempt to invoke that image Blake Snyder puts at the beginning of a major screenwriting structure in Hollywood. It is always important that scenes evoke rather than define. Only via evocation is there a new way.

It has been a long time since people within a culture have staged scenes depicting a moment in time of this culture.

7.Social Comment Dioramists

It is sad to see a hobby you’re loved all your life slowly die into the remaining model train enthusiasts, usually older guys who still remember. But they’re not too many of these older guys left in the hobby.

Yet at the same time there is an incredible group of what one might describe as “social comment” modelers. These are a new group of young modelers who have come up watching someone in their family create models. War models. Planes, Cars. Boats or trains.

Of all, train modeling has created a once grand industry in the years after WWII when times were good as the fearful memory of the brutal war faded further and further into memory collective memory.

attempt to have their diorama scene make a comment on a current social, political or cultural scene depicted in the diorama.

8.Psychological Comment Dioramists

The social comment dioramists use the symbols of the day in their images. Social, political and cultural symbols appear in their dioramas.

The scene of the psychological dioramist is filled with personal, non-social, cultural scenes. The scene might be filled with a number of images that don’t fit together. A miniature Salvador Dali scene. A vivid dream one remembers. The beginning image of this dream.

A scene that takes place in a specific part of the nation. That defines that part of the nation better than any photo or film could. Better even than the best literature from America’s great explorers like Muir. That defines an inhabitant of this scene. A premise or point of view in culture maintained by those who inhabit a certain place in the world. In spite of any economic, social, racial, educational or political differences the group in this specific area of the world might have.

A type of medium in the background, untouched, by all the conflicting battles of different messages inside the grand medium of one place in the world where everyone lives.

This background medium is captured in the diorama.

9.The Desert As First Diorama Scene

A little service station in the middle of the desert at the intersection of two rough asphalt roads going in three directions. A railroad track runs parallel to the road. The station has much going on in the scene. It is the only place for a hundred miles in all directions. Reno is 150 miles to the west.

I’ve gotten back into model-making after a long absence. But an absence that never strayed too far away from model railroading. My father started receiving Model Railroader Magazine during the 50s when he was building his HO layout in our Ohio basement and I was helping him build it. I remember reading each issue of the magazine from front-to-back a few times. Some of the railroads featured were more than the track around the Christmas tree or the way that most Americans thought of model trains. A model railroad was little more than a figure 8 of track laid out on a 4 x 8 ping-pong size table.

I recall those days when I went with my father out to a place in north Dayton called Hobby Haven. He would spend time out there talking to the owners about the new products from Walthers. He was into creating a railroad a lot different from the ordinary model railroad layout of the time.

Soon, a great project was undertaken in the basement of our home in Dayton. The basement offered a large space for the project. Eventually, the frame was 30’ by 16’ and two mainline HO tracks ran in a large done-bone pattern around this area. The layout was to model the AT&SF a line that my father believed in more than anything. It represented everything good about western America to him. A train moving through the vast, barren, American desert. Great mountains in the background. Palm Springs which we visited a lot in the 50s. Many times, taking the train out to Palm Springs from Las Angeles’ Union Station.

After the basic structure was completed, we planned together the scenery of the layout. It would have to be the desert. Yet, perhaps there could be mountains in it too? The mountains perhaps should only exist in the background of the layout and never be some destination for a train on the layout.

* * *

My father would play golf in the good Ohio weather and spend the winters working on his stereo system or, increasingly, on the HO layout in the basement. I had a smaller desk behind him in the basement. This was so much more fun than homework. Building these little trains in the basement. Thinking about the world that would be created in that 30’ by 16’ space in out basement. All next to the furnace and the low ceiling of the basement. This was before the idea that basements could be second living spaces in a home.

My father subscribed to a number of model railroading publications. There was the incredible Model Railroader Magazine which more than anything in school could do, opened my eyes to a world that could actually be created by someone like my father. And, this special newsletter he always let me read. Something I never did with any of the books they gave us to read in school at the time.

In Model Railroader Magazine there were amazing photographs of the famous layout in Monterey, California called the Gorre & Daphetid. I would look at the pictures over and over and think how wonderful to create miniature worlds like this.

* * *

The great railroad we envisioned for the structure in the basement never materialized. Soon, the family moved to NYC as he became President of a radio network. The home in Dayton was sold and we lived in temporary quarters.

My father always wanted to return to California. Particularly, the California desert he loved just a little more than he loved the California mountains. Our family returned to California after a few years in NYC. My parents rented in LA for a while but eventually moved to the desert. Where, I visited all the time. It was always a second home for me since they moved to a home on a golf course in 1970. I did a lot of hiking in the desert over those years. There is no more dramatic place in the world than the desert. A grand empty slate where people go to invent (or often, re-invent) their lives. In the warm desert sunshine and the clear desert air and the feeling of being in the desert.

It became my favorite place in the world. I fell in love with the desert. A lot of people don’t. I did though.

* * *

A few years ago, over a Christmas staying with my wife’s parents, I had an idea for a story. I wasn’t sure what the story was about. All I knew was that I had an image of a small service station in the middle of the Nevada Desert. The story starts at this little, isolated gas station in the desert.

I wrote a short novella called The Lost Mission from this original image and scene. I later wrote the screenplay registered as The Lost Mission around this particular scene. I think the screenplay is my close to my best literary work.

All from an original scene I envisioned.

Now, six or so years later, I’ve created a small diaorama based on the scene. I have finally made a model of the scene I created before through words and images. Now, it is captured as a scene on a 2’ x 1’ desert diorama.

A Scene Envisioned Before A Novel and Screenplay

The scene created is true to something once envisioned before writing a book and a screenplay. Now, it comes back – in another form – as a diorama.

There are other desert scenes to create. A series of scenes that take place in the desert.

I have another scene in planning.

Be interested to hear if anyone’s creativity inspired by the diorama scene I created. I shot it in my photography studio in the basement.

The diorama is simply titled “Ethyl’s.” It is a kit from WoodLand Scenics. The truck in the diorama is also from WoodLand Scenics. I used Woodland Scenics Plaster Strips to create the landscape of the piece. But the desert sand came from two incredible Krylon spray colors I mixed together.

I painted the road today. It runs the horizontal length of the 24” piece but is intersected by another road that runs into the first road at around 20” into the model. Ethyl’s sits at the intersection of the two roads in the desert. A weathered blue 1950s pick-up with a white top sits in the sand outside the service station. There is no sign of activity. A scene not containing of any (miniature and pretty fake) people. So, there are none.

More than anything, it’s suggestive power is the power that is behind this rather minimalist scene.

Yet the unfinished white plaster in the scene not covered by the Krylon desert sand-coating looks so real as patches of snow. Perhaps a winter scene in the high desert? Patches of snow still remain over the sand.

I study the 2′ x a ‘ piece of 3/4 inch plywood. There is little else I want to add to it right now. It has the minimalism I envisioned for the scene. It is not quite finished yet it is finished enough to get the scene viewer to work in completion of what the scene suggests.

After this scene, there are others in mind. I see some desert rally around the place of a desert rat who lives in the modeled trailor in the diorama. There are a number of model people in the scene, listening to the speaker who stands on something and talks to the group in an isolated part of the desert.

Encounter in the Desert.

Or, there are the boys who come upon a discovery of a UFO in the desert. (A tribute to Coast to Coast radio I listen to a lot).

10.Dioramists Art

The beginning of a story is captured in a diorama scene. Who are the people making these scenes today? The beginning of a new hobby? Creating models that are incredibly true to life. It is almost scary how close to life.

Previously, made for a model train. Today, more and more not layout but rather dioramas. More than anything, dramatic scenes of a particular world rather than the particular world itself offered by a model railroad layout.

As McLuhan would say, train layouts are “hot media” allowing little participation in creation of the final effect. The model railroad layout is built to create/define a particular world to the viewer/audience. The diorama model is built to merely suggest a possible world. Through a miniature scene.

11.Markets for Dioramas/A Future Outside Basements?

If one wants exposure for a diorama there are various markets. Of course, there could be a market for setting the diorama(s) up in various model stores. To show what can be done with products the store carries. The displays can also travel easily to various trade shows.

There could be a market for diorama’s connected to mass scenes rather than personal scenes. Some historic event perhaps. All the key people in the scene. All the key objects. The key symbolism of place brought out in the diorama. For what one cannot mold in the real world, let him/her mold in the world of the top modelers and their creations of dioramas.

But a large market for the “Ethyl’s” diorama might be in galleries and museums. Dioramas are an interesting form of art. Somewhere between photography and painting. Yet the satisfaction of building a miniature structure. One is now a model maker. Yet a new type of model maker. One not like ones relatives but different. A diorarma not about the mid-day job of one’s father but rather the mid-night passion of one’s father. My father’s passion of model railroading practiced in the basement of our home in Dayton, Ohio in the 50s and 60s.

This art presented with what you are reading now created in conjunction with the “Ethyl’s” diorama. The desert was always a place my father felt strongly about. The New York and Ohio life of society and family lines that went back forever. He was born in a forgotten little town in Mississippi and born from a poor family with a father who was always chasing the illusive lady of oil wells, timber ventures and railroad stocks. The desert always seemed to be a place that presented all who came to it with honesty and truth the same thing back. I’ve never had a reaction to landscape like I have had to the desert.

When he was 60 years old, he was happy to return to the California desert whether my parents bought a home on a holes of the desert’s premier golf clubs. The club is wedged up into the coves under the majestic Eisenhower Peak that rises above it. Many in the family have attempted assaults on the summit of Eisenhower Peak. A number have made it to the top. The trail to the top thanks to an incredible man named Carlton Beale (who created the trail when he was in his 70s and hiked it almost each day) my parents and I were fortunate to get to know.


Another market could be scenes illutrating parts of a book or perhaps book covers. An evocative scene begging the potential book buyer to grab it off the shelf and pursue the image in the diorama scene on the book’s cover.

Another market, screenwriters. That first scene of a story is suggested in the diorama. A particular scene that begins a screenplay. It is not what the scene defines but rather what it suggests. This is the major difference between a full model railroad and a diorama scene not attached to anyone else’s railroad or world. Existing by itself. As it should be.


There is a history of model making. It’s probably interesting but I’m not interested in the history of model-making right now. Just the history associated with my own life. A history of model-making introduced to me by my father.

Movement from model railroading to dioramas  … from creating worlds to simply scenes in this world. From narrative to image

Miniature dioramas in HO or N scale in model railroading lingo. made from dreams that represent the drama of the beginning of a story. HO






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