Desktop Film Studios

“Norman Wouldn’t Hurt A Fly” – Box Diorama Inside the Studio by Nick Infield

Thinking Inside the Box

Few would argue that Sheperd Paine was the greatest modeler and dioramist of the modern world. His amazing figures and models appeared as photos on model kits and motivated an entire generation of model-makers. His ideas about what could be done with dioramas opened up entire new areas to model-making and revived the old art-form of box dioramas.

Shep was many things to many people but to me he was really a great illusionist. In his famous book How to Build Dioramas (Kalmbach Books 2000) in various chapters he talks about such things as ideas and planning dioramas, weathering techniques, painting figures and details and accessories. All of this (still) serves as perhaps the best advice available on these areas of model-making. However, I feel that two chapters at the end of the book are the most important and are what his book is really about. In effect, it is really about the ability to create illusions inside the confines of “shadow boxes.”

In chapter fourteen titled “Shadow Boxes,” Paine notes “A shadow box is a diorama set into a box and viewed through an opening on one side.” It’s effect, is “essentially that of a three-dimensional painting.” He observes the shadow box is the ultimate form of the diorama “because of the degree of control over all aspects of the display that a shadow box affords the modeler.” As he says, “In a shadow box, you can dictate the viewing angle, lighting conditions, and, most important, the atmosphere and mood of the scene.” In the chapter, he offers a great introduction on lighting methods for illuminating the inside of the shadow box.

Perhaps the main thing that separates the type of shadow box Shep Paine talks about from the school “shoe box” shadow boxes most of us have made is the requirement of using two boxes: an outer box and an inner box. The inner box contains the scene and the other box contains the lighting for the scene.

The other key chapter of the book is chapter seventeen titled “Mirrors, Forced Perspective and Other Special Effects.” In this chapter he discusses techniques for creating special effects inside shadow boxes. Interestingly, he compares this activity to that of making films. As he says, special effects “allow the frustrated movie director that seems to reside in all of us to come forth and work out his fantasies on a little sound stage of his own, without the frustrations of dealing with a cast, crew and multi-million-dollar budget.” He discusses areas such as creating fire and explosions, using forced perspective and employing mirrors in shadow boxes.

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In the almost twenty years since Paine wrote How to Build Dioramas, his thoughts and ideas on them continued to evolve as those creating them grew. Shep passed away in 2015 but his legacy is stronger than ever. This is powerfully evident on the incredible website Box Dioramas.  where works of leading box dioramists are collected. While numerous modeling styles and themes are displayed on the site, most all box dioramists acknowledge inspiration or mentorship from Sheperd Paine.

Certainly, I have been inspired by his work as well as the work of others on the incredible Box Dioramas site. I ponder what it is about all of this that inspires me so as I came to this artform later in life from writing and photography. I think it comes down to what Paine says at the beginning of his book chapter on special effects and his observation that special effects inside boxes“allow the frustrated movie director … to come forth and work out his fantasies on a little sound stage of his own, without the frustrations of dealing with a cast, crew and multi-million-dollar budget.”

Another way of saying this is that box dioramas – like film sets – allow one to create illusions by creating atmospheres and moods. This ability to create illusions seems to me the most important and enduring aspect of box dioramas. While the models and figures inside boxes are certainly important, the aspect of control over the atmosphere and mood of the box is most important. In effect, perhaps the best way to view box dioramas is by seeing them as desktop film studios rather than simply contexts for models and figures.

Film Studio – A Box Within A Box

Like a box diorama, a film studio also is composed of two boxes: an outer box containing the lights and special effects and an inner box or scene containing the characters and action of a scene in a story.

The connection between the two forms of art – filmmaking and box dioramas – is very obvious yet seldom explored by box dioramists. With each new project, a new outside box (or film studio) is created to go with the inside box scene inside of it. However, what if a larger box is created that could be used over and over for various scenes inside of it?

In effect, the outside box would have rigging on its top and sides similar to the set-up inside of a production studio. Lights could easily be hung from strips of metal of wood at the top and sides (and bottom) of the box diorama. The outside box might even resemble the inside of a sound stage at a film studio. Rather than build and rebuild it for each inner box, it would simply be “rigged” for a particular box diorama scene which is photographed (or filmed) and removed. The lights and effects of the outside box would then await a new box diorama scene to be placed inside of it. In much the same way that a production set is knocked down after a scene in a movie.

The real product of box dioramas created in set outer box studios is not a final diorama for display but rather a photo (or photos) of the diorama using the special effects in the outer box. Its fate is the same fate of a scene in a film that lives on in an image rather than a physical form. Yet images today are able to spread much farther and faster than diorama models confined to modeling shows, museums or personal collections.

There have been huge advancements in lighting technology since Shep’s 2000 book. There have also been incredible advancements in sound with the advent of Bluetooth devices. A box diorama desktop film studio becomes a real and exciting possibility. Not only can scenes and sets for stage plays and films be planned with this new tool, but the art of box diorama and “thinking inside the box” be taken to new levels of illusion.

One thought on “Desktop Film Studios

  1. Hi John,

    I was blown away by this, for two reasons,

    First, I completely agree to all that you mentioned regarding Shep, He was, is, and always will be our inspiration, and or guiding light.

    When Shep and I conceived of the box diorama website many years ago, we hoped it would be a source of inspiration for generations to come, and Jim and Bary have added so much to this end.

    I’ve heard over the years how well respected it is.

    Second, you have described the 2’x2′ area in my home that has for several years been a miniature-theatre ‘outer case’. It’s a black ground and 3 walls, with movable lighting and mirrors

    that can be arranged in any way to both test and run lighting, and later to photograph my boxes and models.

    Great minds think alike!!


    Darryl Audette

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