Friday, January 16, 2015

Scenes and Transitions

McKennon Arch serves as both set-piece and scenic transition, creating a visual terminus for the scenes on either side of it while providing a smooth transition between the two. Memorable scenes do more than just add visual interest, they contribute to story while making a small layout seem larger as trains pass and transition through vignettes in the modeled environment.

A model railroad can be many things. It can be a relaxing pastime and an artful hobby that teaches new skills. It can offer a lesson in history or flights of fancy. It can recreate a transportation system in miniature down to the last rivet or it can invent imaginary railways built upon what-ifs and might-have-beens. If planned well and built with care, a model railroad can entertain, transporting the viewer to another time and place, inviting them into the story just as a good book or movie would. To that end, a model railroad is a show. A magic show of smoke, mirrors and wondrous illusions. A show needs a theme or a story; it needs performers, props and set pieces. It needs scenes and transitions.

I have sometimes been asked why I draw such elaborate track plans with the details of so many scenic elements sketched in along with the right-of-way. Wouldn't a more simple plan showing only the track, wiring and other engineering needs suffice just as well? I draw them that way because I'm thinking in terms of both engineering needs and the needs of the show. Grades, clearances and wiring are important, yes, but of equal importance to me are the scenes and transitions.

In a built environment, be it a model or a theme park, a scene is an area of visual interest that helps to establish theme or to move the story along. A transition is a bridge between scenes; a place for the eye to rest that then leads naturally into the next scene. Classic examples of this can be found at any Disney park. The scene of Main Street USA ends at the visual terminus of the castle. The castle then draws the viewer onward and transitions to the land of fantasy beyond.

Scenes and transitions at Walt Disney World. Walt called big set pieces like the castle a "weenie," something to draw the eye and compel the viewer forward into the next scene. Weenies are used everywhere in Disney parks and besides being iconic, they often act as transitions between larger show scenes. Other times transitions are more subtle, using a blend of architectural details, landscaping and color to ease from one scene to the next.

Planning Scenes

When working out scenes for the Thunder Mesa layout I often think in cinematic terms of establishing shots, medium shots and close-ups. I find this to be a handy way to break things down and it is more useful and story specific than just talking about scenery, structures and details.

Establishing Shots

An establishing shot is the big picture, usually everything that can be seen in a single view when standing a typical distance from the layout. Generally for me that works out to be about 2 - 3 square feet of scenery. The establishing shot is an introduction, it sets up the story with visual cues as to theme, era, mood and locale. Here we have an establishing shot of the desert scene between McKennon Arch and Big Thunder Creek. The rock formations tell us we're in the desert southwest while the structures indicate mining activity. The color palette, scenic exaggeration and whimsical mood help set the tone.

Medium Shots

Moving in closer we come to the medium shots, scenes within the scene that are really the heart of the layout and what most people think of when they think of model railroad scenery. The medium shots are where we focus attention on structures and other scenic elements to reinforce and build upon themes presented in the establishing shot. Within the establishing desert scene shown above we have Saguaro Siding, the Never Mine, the Cactus Forest and Baxter's Butte, all contributing to the overarching story of a southwestern desert mining district and the wild country it inhabits.


All the way down at the detail threshold we have the close-ups. This where all of those tiny detail parts end up, hopefully doing even more to sell the story. Most of the detail in close-ups can't even be seen in the establishing or medium shots but a model railroad is not a movie. In a 3-D environment the close-ups need to be built in to every scene or the model loses integrity when people interact with it. Plus, all of those tiny details in the close-ups add up to more character, texture and depth to the overall scene.

Planning scenes means understanding what you want to say and knowing how to say it. This requires research, an eye for detail and the ability to spot and eliminate visual contradictions. Everything in a scene should support and enhance the story you want to tell, from the big picture down to the closest view. Detail for detail sake is merely visual clutter. Detail that supports the story sells the illusion of a miniature world. There is an important difference between realism and believability. A series of well planned and executed scenes can make even the most outlandish concept into a believable and entertaining show. We pick and choose only the bits of reality needed to sell the illusion.

Making Transitions

Moving from one scene to the next can be tricky, especially if there is a change in tone or locale. Transitions should be invisible; they should seem merely to be another part of the scenes on either sides of them. It should be difficult to put one's finger on precisely where the transition occurs and it should only be evident when one is then immersed in the next scene. There are some tried and true ways to accomplish this. Some use a form of misdirection by leading the eye to a scenic feature that draws attention to itself and away from the transition, while others employ a mini-scene that overlaps and blurs the lines between larger scenes while complementing both. Regardless of method, the goal is a 3-D version of the cinematic cross dissolve. In film parlance, a cross dissolve is where ones scene fades out as another scene fades in. On a model train layout or other built environment this needs to be done by carefully blending one scene into the next.

The Cross Dissolve

Water features are an excellent way to smooth transitions since they naturally divide areas of the layout while making interesting scenes in themselves. On Thunder Mesa, Big Thunder Creek works as a cross dissolve between the desert mining scene discussed above and the mill and town scenes being built to the right. The railroad bridges connect the two scenes both literally and visually and help to ease the transition. The creek also uses a bit of distraction since it draws attention to itself and away from the fact that we are moving between scenes.

Tunnels also make for excellent cross dissolve transitions but they should be used sparingly. Deep cuts, bridges and even dense trees can also be effective,

Here, Ambush Rock divides the Geyser Gulch scene from Dinosaur Gap beyond. This is a subtle transition since the formation can only be seen distinctly from certain viewpoints and fades into the background from others.

The arch is a classic "weenie" in the Disney sense. It distracts from the transition by drawing attention to itself while blending well with the scenes on either side. It draws the eye forward into the next scene while providing a visual terminus for the present one. Plus, there's just something really cool about seeing a train pass through a natural arch.

A View from Above

As an example, the Thunder Mesa section of the layout has several major scenes, establishing shots, which are broken up into smaller scenes or medium shots. Then there are the close-ups or mini-scenes that fill in all of the details. The rules of scenes and transitions apply to all of them.

In this overview plan, only the major scenes are called out. The scenes themselves are in color while the transitional areas are black and white. Keep in mind that the transitions are really scenes too, but their main role is to blend the areas where major scenes come together.

Wrapping Up

Hopefully, thinking in terms of scenes and transitions rather than just structures and scenery will help some modelers give their layouts more visual punch. Focusing on establishing shots, medium shots and close ups, certainly helps me to keep my overall goal of telling stories with trains and modeling firmly in mind.

As always, questions and comments are welcome below. Thanks for following along. Adios for now, amigos!

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