Desert Witness

The Close Encounters Diorama

A man on a mountain road in the desert has pulled off the road and leans up against his car observing a huge alien disk in the desert five miles away. The craft is at the intersection of two roads. One road disappears into the distant mountains that surround the desert. Our latest diorama takes place on the 5″ x 7″ top of a box I bought at Michael’s a month or so ago. I thought that if I could create a small model of the larger one called Close Encounters I’m currently working on. The current scene is more from science fiction than the fantasy of our latest diorama The Last Dinosaur. So, Desert Witness has really been somewhat of a side-trip from the “mother-ship” diorama Close Encounters in continual Lava Lamp evolution of the big project.

Viewer’s Perspective of the Close Encounters Diorama

I intended Close Encounters to be in the form of a box diorama, featuring the music from the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind by Japanese electronic composer Isao Tomita. His own “Close Encounters of a Third Kind” is a brilliant survey of modern music in a four-minute mash-up of contemporary sounds. I loaded this piece of music onto my iPhone because it needed to interact with the Bluetooth speaker that was part of the diorama. (Listen now to this piece of music by clicking on the YouTube link at the end of this blog). To me, the most interesting suggestion of the Spielberg film was that first contact with aliens might be very different from that envisioned in science fiction books and films. Rather than using words, it suggested contact might be made through the use of music and light.

There would be four different scales represented in the Close Encounters diorama (1/12, HO scale 1/87, N scale of 1/160 and Z scale of 1/222. The scales were represented by four different layers on the 20″ x 30″ diorama.

In the proposed Close Encounters diorama, a 1/12 scale government agent sits on top of a desert motor bike at the SW corner of the oblong diorama. He is elevated at the highest point of the diorama, the front of it. He sits perhaps a foot above the base of the diorama. Below him, on four inches below, is the 1/87 car and the person experiencing the encounter just as those in front of it are. The music and lights are seen by this person standing by his car on one of those scenic stops on a winding desert road descending down a mountain. Is the person male or female? Or, is there a couple or family in the 1/87 scale part of the diorama? I haven’t decided yet. And, what does the 1/12 scale government figure on the motorcycle want with this person or persons who are witness to the encounter with the alien craft? What will be the fate of this person or persons? They are witness to something they are not supposed to see.

Drone Perspective of Close Encounters Diorama 

Below the 1/87 scale and layer of the diorama, is the 1/160 N scale where we can see that some tanks and army vehicles are stationed as well as a type of road-block to stop all traffic on the two-land desert road that winds down the mountain side (we observe from) via a series of  back-and-forth road “switchbacks” like many desert roads in the desert mountains. The Close Encounters diorama scales contain the following:

  • 1/12 Figure on bike/12 inches/Highest Level/First Level viewer sees/four inches on this level or a box-like shape of 12″ x 20″ x 4.”
  • 1/87 (HO scale) Figure by car/6 inches/First Drop-off layer from Highest Level)/four inches on this level/box-like shape of 8″ x 20″ x 4.”
  • 1/160 (N scale) Vehicles and Figures/3 inches/Second drop-off from Highest Level)/eight inches on this level.
  • 1/220 (Z scale) Alien Craft, Vehicles & Figures/Bottom level of diorama/ fourteen inches on this level.

The scene is based on my memory of Highway 74 that winds its way down the steep sides of the Santa Rosa Mountains into Palm Desert, California where I’ve been coming to for over fifty years.

Diorama Location / Highway 74 Descending Into Palm Desert 

The 1/87 level of the diorama descends further perhaps another three inches and the 1/169 N scale highway is presented with its military vehicles and roadblock. At the bottom level of the diorama is the alien spacecraft, an 8-inch model. The craft emits wild lights and a strange music – captured in part by Tamita’s music.

The Desert Witness Diorama

After looking at the 20″ x 30″ UPS box the Close Encounters diorama was mocked-up on, I decided a small model would help better visualize the scene. I decided a very small model would work best by helping me better-see the overall structure of the diorama. I got a 5″ x 7″ box from my pile of boxes from Michaels crafts store. I took the top off the box and turned it upside down and had a pretty much similar ratio of the scale of 20″ x 30″ of the UPS box.

Original Mock-Up for Desert Witness 

Originally, I had the four scales but I eliminated one because the road directly lower than the top layer was far too close and needed a type of cliff wall to separate the highest scale from the road below it. But the drop-off was too intense requiring an almost perpendicular granite wall not common on desert roads in the mountains. So, I eliminated this level and made the upper level sweep into a desert landscape containing a strip of highway.

Balsa Wood Levels and Roads with The Background Sky

With one scale eliminated in Desert Witness, I began to create mountains using Creative Paperclay. I thought of using plaster but I felt clay was easier to work with on a small scale and involved less water than might warp the small diorama.

Creative Paperclay and Alien Craft Applied to Diorama

After creating the mountains, I used the Paperclay to cover the various levels of the diorama. The material is easy to work with and becomes very pliable with a touch of water.

The Completed Desert Witness Diorama

I painted the clay desert with the fantastic imported acrylic AK Desert Sand. I painted the mountains with AV Vallejo Light Gray paint and gave them snow-capped tops using Folkart Chalk Sheepskin color for the snow. The blue sky was made using a shiny blue piece of Oracal 651 paper glued to a piece of flexible black chalkboard paper available at most craft stores like Michaels. I made a decision to wrap the blue sky around only half of the box rather than the entire three sides of the scene. I filled the area of the two corners of the diorama by pouring in a couple of applications of Mod Podge.

On the top level of the diorama, I placed my N-scale figure leaning against the hood of his car and looking at the UFO craft in the distance. I weathered the car using Monroe Models Chalky White Weathering powder and spray painted the car with Krylon Flat Matte finish. I painted the road a flat black and lined it with Fine Light Gray ballast from Woodland Scenics and a few desert bushes from JTT Microscale products.

What is the N-scale person leaning on the dusty red car contemplating? It is a modern car so there is an assumption we are in the present time in this scene. It is really the only clue we have to go by. The half-inch-tall N-scale figure in the diorama is too small to tell us anything. (It seems to me N-scale dioramas are mainly about the landscapes and large contexts of place and space rather than the character of the people in them).

Highway Centerline Created Using Yellow Thread 

The yellow centerline of the highway directly below the observer was created by stretching a piece of yellow thread between two shortened pin-heads. Once stretched between the two pins, the thread becomes straight to match the straight piece of flat black Balsa Wood road. Once stretched, I applied a small touch of Elmer’s Clear Glue to make the yellow thread sit on the road and not above it.

The distant intersecting highways are slim pieces of Balsa Wood glued to the cardboard base of the box top. I thought a sense of perspective could be increased by making one of the intersecting highways disappear into the mountains so this piece was cut and sanded to a fine two-inch point of Balsa Wood and carefully painted with a black Sharpie Ultra Fine Point pen. The alien spacecraft was created by inserting a black tack into the area around the intersection of the two desert highways and set in place using the Elmer’s Clear Glue. On top of the black tack was glued a tiny bath-tub plug I was planning on using in another “Drain the Swamp” diorama. However, its purpose seemed better suited for as the top of an alien spacecraft than as a plug at the bottom of some swamp. The plug was spray painted using one of the Krylon metallic paints and then glued it on top of the black tack.

Speculations on The Process of Art & The Meaning of Aliens

Presented in the tiny diorama called Desert Witness, something that started as a model for something else. A model of a model. Something that sparks off something else. Not the first appearance of a particular idea. The Desert Witness begins to become a project by itself, the side road off the main road becomes the main road itself. t’s interesting how such a vast landscape can be contained in a 5″ x 7″ box top while a 20″ x 30″ diorama must squish the entire scene up. The smaller Desert Witness mini-diorama allows for the scene – surprisingly – to expand. At the same time, the larger Close Encounters diorama has little horizontal expansion in it by use of its dramatic vertical scenes/planes before arriving at the alien craft on the bottom of the diorama. In a symbolically subtle manner, the various levels of the diorama suggest various rows of seats in a theater environment. While the viewers are not traveling as a car on one of the roads of the diorama, viewers have little trouble placing themselves as audience members in this multi-layered diorama theater.

The theater is a perfect place to experience the first alien contact. In other words, the music and lights of the Close Encounters alien craft is best experienced in a multi-level theater rather than the one level perspective of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Or, perhaps also, experienced within a vertical, 3D playing field. Or, an old Roman-type coliseum, for that matter.

* * *

Much symbolism in the scene I’m still trying to figure out. Is the real message of the diorama about the process of creating art rather than about a finished piece of art? Is the meaning of Desert Witness more about the irregular side paths in the creation of a piece of art? And, does the alien craft in the tiny diorama represents something other than aliens from another world? Might it represent aliens from our world? Here, one observes how the word and theme “alien” has become so popular today appearing as entertainment themes, political designations of “illegal aliens” to psychological states such as “alienated.”

UFOs / Appearance of a Modern Myth? 

As Jung noted in his book Flying Saucers (1959), his primary concern in was not with the reality or unreality of UFOs but with their psychic aspect. Rather than speculate about the possible nature and extraterrestrial origin of UFOs, Jung questions the significance of many believing in this phenomenon (whether real or imagined) at this time in history. For Jung, the UFO phenomena represented a “modern myth of things seen in the sky.”

Perhaps the alien craft observed in the Desert Witness diorama represents these modern concerns centered around the idea of alien? Perhaps the craft observed at the intersection of the two desert highways symbolizes not simply alien creatures from another world but this bundle of ideas about aliens and alienation. In effect, perhaps the aliens are not creatures contained inside the desert UFO craft but rather all of those who feel alienated in our new world of social media and computer screens? Like the sole person in the diorama in the middle of the desert diorama … he is alone in the scene without any other sign of human life in the scene as the highways are empty of any other vehicles.

Experiments in Perspective

In addition to addressing modern issues of aliens and alienation, Desert Witness also is an experiment of combining various scales for the sense of perspective in a diorama. As noted, three different levels and scales are used in the miniature diorama. The only standard modeling scale is the 1/16o N scale figure and car in the diorama. The below roads are smaller than any scales currently modeled. The distance from the man by the red car to the alien craft is judged to be approximately five miles. In effect, the diorama uses a declining width of highways to represent this sense of distance. The man by the red car is only five inches from the alien craft but the diorama attempts to turn these five inches into five miles.

The distance represented from observer to alien craft in Desert Witness is much greater than the distance from the observer to alien craft in the planned and larger Close Encounters diorama. In the Close Encounters diorama, a much larger physical space is used (20″ x 30″ as opposed to 5″ x 7″) yet more scales are presented and this presentation appears in a greater verticality. The result is that the observer in the Close Encounters diorama is not positioned as five miles from the alien craft but only a mile or so away, judging by the Z scale of the figures and vehicles around it.

Ray Anderson’s Box Diorama / Archduke Philippe the Handsome of Burgundy (Augsburg, Swabia, 1591)

Interestingly enough, perspectives in dioramas are usually accomplished via the use of a form of dioramas called Box dioramas. These are the dioramas one might remember creating inside show boxes for school projects. Yet the art of making models inside boxes is a very old art. Through the work of the late master modelers Sheperd Paine and Ray Anderson, the old art of box dioramas has been given a stunning new revival for modern times. Paine’s How to Build Dioramas (Kalmbach, 2000) and Ray Anderson’s The Art of the Diorama (Kalmbach, 1988) are essential books for creating box dioramas and that important aspect of boxed dioramas, the “forced” perspective. In other words, the box dioramist is like a cinematographer allowing only one viewpoint of the scene in the box. Inside the box, various qualities can be controlled which cannot be controlled by regular “outside the box” dioramas. One of these qualities is lighting effects. Another is perspective.

In effect, the small Desert Witness diorama attempts to experiment with a forced perspective without creating a box diorama. Might a viewer’s perspective be influenced on a small 5″ x 7″ box top surface? Can the viewer be tricked into looking at a vast desert landscape outside a box diorama?


(Click below to play “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” by Isao Tomita)

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