Hamilton is a place on a map. It’s a place that is something real. As real as I profess that it is, you really have to go there to relate to it and maybe even appreciate it the way I do. I guess this is a rambling way of opening up a blog post about foamcore mockups I’ve been working on, to help translate some ideas I’ve had for the future direction of my model railroad and its design.
“So just how tall should a backdrop be?”
Armed with some foamcore I created the mock-up shown above, based on a backdrop about twelve inches high with the valance installed. I could position this mockup on the layout and test those dimensions in way that can’t be approximated with pens on paper.
The beauty of working with something like foamcore is how fast you can execute changes to design to test subsequent theories. Pictured above is a modification of the original mockup, changed to incorporate a design feature below the track. More importantly, I reduced the height of the backdrop to five inches.
Five inches seems like a really low height. From what I’ve read, most modellers seem to work with a backdrop in the range of twenty-four inches in height. When I looked at photos of model railroads, most of those backdrops are just paintings of sky. When I looked through photos of real trains, I started to notice that most of the time we don’t compose a similar view and most often crop most of the sky out. Given that my layout is installed quite high above the floor, I don’t feel I need as much sky and surprisingly this five inch backdrop seems to offer something I want to consider more seriously in terms of the experience.
More than just reducing the amount of sky I might be making a model of, this short backdrop addresses a design concern I have: when the layout is really just a narrow shelf I feel that it’s just too easy to delineate visually between the backdrop scene and the three dimensional model that exists in front of it. When the backdrop is a more traditional height I feel like I can stick my head into the scene and look down on the model. In this example, it’s not physically possible to assume that same position and my focus remains looking more at the side of the model instead of the top. Since I can’t easily see the seam between the modelled landscape and the photographed one it’s easier to control that sense of where those borders are. Additionally, by reducing the height of the backscene I feel like we draw attention to the horizontal proportion of the scene and, in doing so, make the scene feel longer than perhaps it really is.
To further explore this idea I constructed a second mockup based on the same basic dimensions. By this point I’m moving away from simply testing a theoretical solution that responds to a design issue with the current layout and more toward a conceptual idea I have been exploring. To provide further context, here are some basic dimensions:
- The deck area where the model railroad would be built is 6 inches deep and I believe around 12 inches long;
- The backdrop is five inches tall;
- The base is itself also five inches tall and the valance over the scene is 2-1/2″ tall;
- The frame behind the backdrop is about 2 inches deep;
I find I rather like the almost Brutalist aesthetic this form takes on. The visual mass of the layout’s envelope is greater than the actual models though it doesn’t feel out of proportion compared to the room in which it is situated or the wall on which it would hang. The idea is to explore using the fascia surrounding the layout as more than simply a means of cloaking the structural elements of the model railroad and ask it to actually frame the scene and focus your attention on it.
Moving forward from this point, some thoughts:
- I find this short backdrop attractive visually and like the effect it has on the scene contained within;
- Access to the scene from above now must be maintained by leaving the top of the scene open;
If the layout is considered as a whole that includes the fascia that surrounds it should it’s design aesthetic be similar? (e.g. perhaps a 1970’s-era suburban setting). Even if not, with so little area provided to the model I feel that colours and textures within the scene should be quite deliberate in their selection for the way they compliment each other and homogenize the message they illustrate for the viewer.