Do we need a backdrop?
We all know the problems of creating a realistic backdrop. The explosion of photomurals helps but they aren’t a cure-all. It takes skill to turn a flat vertical plane into the illusion of volumetric space that conveys the depth we see outside. It takes further skill to make a seamless transition between the three-dimensional modeling and two-dimensional background. And, I haven’t touched on the problems of matching colors or dealing with fixed perspective and viewpoint. Oh, have I mentioned the issue of cast shadows on the sky? There’s a lot to consider.
In recent months, I’ve been thinking about what a layout means to me in terms of construction and presentation. The backdrop of Mill Road is nothing more than a piece of aluminum flashing that was painted with hardware store spray cans. It represents an overcast sky with a hazy line of distant trees at the horizon. While it’s effective, I’ve started to wonder whether I need a backdrop at all.
I’m often drawn to display photos where an object is isolated against a black background. As an experiment, I placed a sheet of black pastel paper against the backdrop and snuggled it down behind the scenery.
Stepping back, the impact was huge and I wasn’t ready for how different the scene looked. My eyes were immediately drawn to the scenery and other modeling. Colors in the landscape that I didn’t notice before stood out prominently. The feeling of depth and openness the sky conveyed was gone. The feeling was one of enclosure since there was nothing else to look at but the modeled objects.
At first I didn’t like the difference but decided to suspend judgment and live with the test for a few days. As I moved around the basement I noticed that portion of the layout effectively disappeared. The dark mass didn’t draw my attention unless the layout lights were on.
Context is important
The sense of open country Mill Road conveys is an important aspect of the scene I don’t want to lose. After a few days of consideration I removed the black paper and things felt right again. I shared the experiment with Chris Mears and as usual, he shot right to the heart of it with this question: Is a question here: what do we want to share, the immediacy of this place or this place as part of another context?
That’s an astute observation. The open country context of the layout is central to the story I’m telling with it. The featureless black background eliminated that aspect and fundamentally changed the story in a way I didn’t like, so I decided to confine the dark backdrops to the staging areas on each end.
I’m still intrigued with the idea of a black background. In a different setting such as an urban scene, like Jonathan Jones is doing, it’s very compelling. In his case the viewpoint is different with the tall and massive buildings limiting distant views.
I can picture an industrial branch that skirts along the edge of various properties, like the remnant of the GR&I locally. Surrounded by trees, scrub bushes and fencing, the focus is on the immediate foreground with the track and the train. In this setting I believe a dark background would provide a strong and appropriate visual focus on the modeling.
A few short years ago, I wouldn’t have even considered the idea of a dark backdrop or none at all. I was locked into a predictable mindset of what a layout should look like. I view the craft differently now in terms of what it means to me and how I might express that meaning. I know where my own interests are and I’m more inclined to explore that vision for the work.
As I’ve mentioned before, the traditional forms seem like cumbersome overkill given the lightweight loads we impose on them. For people living in condos, senior housing or other transitional quarters, these forms often put the craft out of practical reach. Such spaces are also hard to fit a traditional layout into given how we design and think about what a layout is or isn’t.
Moving forward, I want simpler solutions and enjoy pushing at the old boundaries. I firmly believe there are alternatives to what’s currently on offer in terms of design, construction and how we think of the craft.