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.
Planning ScenesWhen 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.
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 TransitionsMoving 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
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.
A View from AboveAs 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.
Wrapping UpHopefully, 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!