Why is?

Why is the backdrop attached to the layout?


I feel like it’s one of those assumptions we have just carried without question. At best we have either “no backdrop” or “backdrop”.

  • The forms that three dimensional scenery is composed of will never fade, blend, or “whatever” into the two dimensional form of the backdrop.
  • The way we render a scene within the layout’s plane is not like how we treat equal elements on the backdrop.
  • There’s always a seam where the two meet and eventually reality casts an impossible to ignore shadow on the sky.

The role of the backdrop is to extend the three dimensional model beyond its physical boundaries. Not only softening that hard edge where the plywood ends but also shadowing in a little more aesthetic context to inform the viewer in ways such as the season, the weather, or how we’re only occupying one plateau in a vast mountain range.

When I saw this image on Instagram yesterday I immediately wondered if we could physically separate the layout from the backdrop. A divorce for the better, to offer each partner a chance to be reconnected to their strength and actually make them both individually stronger and, having done that, make their redefined relationship stronger?

Common choices on materials and the way the scene is composed relate the physical form of the bench to the painting. (Translating the image: imagine the bench is the model railway “layout”).

Choices we make on the environment we present the layout in help us communicate to the viewer the story we are attempting to tell. I don’t question the need to use some sort of backdrop just the question of how it relates to the layout and why we needed to screw them together?

I have paintings and photographs in my living room that provide the same very important sense on context and story to the space. Screwing a painting onto the back of the couch won’t make it more effective. Likely, doing this makes the couch less comfortable and the painting unattractive. In my living room we’ve made decisions so the couch and the painting “go together” but creating space between them so we can relate to them as we should and having done so, created an environment in the room that makes it enjoyable to be in and no less about us.



  1. Great thought, Chris. I like your out of the box thinking.

    One could have the backdrop at a short distance – a few inches to a foot – and extend below the “ground level” so that the backdrop is visible whether you are close to or far away from the layout edge.

    I think the main reason for screwing the backdrop to the layout is to avoid parallax. If you have a relatively significant distance between layout and backdrop, the parallax problem can be serious if you are close to the layout.

    A lot would depend on how abstract the backdrop is. Many people try to extend the scene into the backdrop, which I think requires that the backdrop is screwed to the layout. If the backdrop is more abstract, like the painting above the bench, I think you could move the backdrop away a bit. It would avoid the shadow problem!

    Another reason for keeping the backdrop close is conserving precious layout room space. Depending on the layout, maybe a distant backdrop is a GREAT idea. For example, imagine a shelf layout where the shelf is not against the wall. Put a relatively abstract painting / backdrop a few feet behind it on the actual wall, and it would add context to the shelf layout.

  2. I’ve been looking at store designs with some of the same ideas in mind. What would a layout look like in an Apple store?

    I’ve also been looking at borrowed landscapes as part of an exploration of Byron Henderson’s discontinuous layouts. These manage the difficulty of transition from industrial to exurban in my layout while letting one section serve as scenery to another.

    Finally, I am impressed with an in progress photo of architect Jonathan Jones’s n-scale layout. The track, trackside area, and key structures are in natural colors. Everything else will be black. There was a similar Australian layout a few years back. Everything pops.

  3. Oh! Brilliant.

    I’ve intended to put the sky portion of the backdrop about 1 inch behind a profiled “horizon” board, in an attempt to ease the corner in the sky issue. But that still leaves the corner between the scene and said horizon board.

    I have done nothing more than play with the idea, but I’ve wondered about more abstract / impressionist backdrops, like some architectural models. A separation between the scene and the backscene might really help that work, might actually be less jarring. As in theater or an architectural model, it makes clear where the “realistic” scene ends and where the “stage” begins.

    Marshall, yes! What would Apples design staff do?

    Great ideas!

  4. Likely the backdrop is mostly attached due to the fact that the layout is attached to the wall? Mine is free-standing, and due to my rough carpentry skills, there is sometimes a small gap that exists there. There is a creative tension in this space that can sometimes be exploited scenically.

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