Dioramas sneaked up on me. By the summer of 2010, I was bookmarking dioramas on Flickr and trying to resist the siren call of 1:8 (Playscale) and 1:6 furniture. Then one fateful night, I kinda sorta accidently made a bed. I didn’t mean to! It just sort of happened. The frame was foamcore, and the pillows were pieces of cushion covered in fabric from a pair of opaque nylon tights. The beadspread was a piece of cushion cover I sewed to size while sitting on my sofa, watching telly.
For funsies, I mocked up a corner of my trunk like a bedroom, just to shoot silly pics of Captain Pike and Number One in bed, to share with some Star Trek friends. I thought it was over. I thought I could go back to my life of customising, and everything would be fine.
It was too late. I had been bit by the bug. In short, I had crossed the last self-defined line. I was now, officially, a scary doll person in my own mind.
Within two weeks, the “it’s not a diorama” diorama project was born. I did tests on my coffee table, and in Photoshop. I began amassing plastic Playscale furniture, discovering what many a diorama artist before me has learnt: Gloria liquor bottles are perfect, hilarious, and a necessity.
I also learnt my first real lessons in scale.
Did you know there’s a reason film and television sets are ¾ scale? It’s to make the actors look larger and more impressive, due to the way the camera flattens everything out. So having an Excel spreadsheet where you input real-world dimensions and get them automatically converted to 1:6 scale doesn’t mean a heck of a lot until you realise that Fashion Dolls have elongated, stylised bodies, huge heads, and tiny hands and feet. And that the real test of scale for a lot of things is the width of a doll’s palm. Because while 1” should be the equivalent of 6” in a 1:6 scale world, the truth is that ½” trim is what “looks right”. That 1/8 playscale furniture will be too short, if you want the top of a dresser or a kitchen counter to hit a doll at hip-height, but that dollhouse pitcher and set of mugs may look perfect in her hand. And that 12′ x 16′ master bedroom you’re creating? Will appear cavernous once you photograph it.
Oh, and American Girl furniture? Gorgeous and beautiful and completely and totally wrong in every way, no matter what the maths tell you. I learnt that lesson the hard way, and at great expense.
For example, I still have a set of 1:4 and 1:3 furniture that I didn’t realise was way too big until it was bought, paid for, and arrived at my home. I will not lie, gentle reader; those pieces are still sitting in a corner of my dining room, waiting for me to find homes for them. I still have bags of 1:12 scale plants that were dwarfed by my dolls. I have a California King-sized bed that is orientated the wrong way, because I did the maths wrong. I have 3 different pitcher and basins, five different wardrobes and chests of drawers. Bedside tables. Lamps.
By the end of September 2010, when I declared the diorama “finished”, almost every miniature in the diorama had been switched out at least twice. Dioramas, for me, became an exercise in “close, close, so close, almost, RIGHT!”
As frustrating and crazy as the experience was, I also found wonderful friends, as I posted Work-in-Progress photos on Flickr, and scoured Ebay and Etsy for pieces from June to the end of September.
I commissioned a custom Mission Style 1:6 scale California King size bed from the amazing Smidge, who delivered an amazing work of art. I met Partydolly, whose bright retro dioramas that popped with tropical colours were alluring and fun, and I cyberstalked Ro, whose dioramas featured architectural build-out features I could only dream of. Just getting foamcore from the Target was a lesson in how to walk a half mile home with a giant piece of posterboard against the wind.
In Chicago, the sale of spray paint is prohibited within the city limits (to discourage taggers). I don’t have a driving licence, so I begged a friend to hit up the Michaels craft store in Skokie to get me the obviously much needed Krylon Fusion paint that would magically bond to plastic. She came back with forest green, high gloss black, and a sort of khaki beige.
All of this was a HUGE learning experience in sourcing materials. It wasn’t just about surfing the Structures & Vehicles category on Ebay. It was about walking into the housewares section of Target and looking at a placemat and seeing an area rug. It was about finding a vintage wooden pencil box, and seeing a trunk. It was about spending hours looking at jewellery boxes and spice racks, to find the perfect wardrobe that looked like it could have been in the Pike family for generations, but was manly enough to be in a male 50-something Starfleet captain’s bedroom in his parent’s ranch house in Mojave.
I’d extended my storytelling from prose fan fiction to 3 dimensional miniatures. And once I finished the Pike ranch Bedroom (circa 2258 CE), I looked at everything from hardware stores to Hallmark ornaments as diorama shopping plazas.
Four years, many dolls, and two storage boxes full of Re-ment later, here I am. A very scary doll person with an expensive yet hugely satisfying new hobby. I’ve only created 4 “real” dioramas (i.e. with walls and floors and miniatures) but with each one, I’ve taken on new challenges, learnt via trial and error, had triumphs and failures, and lost what little storage space I had in my basement flat.
And I’d do it all again, in a heartbeat.