The first thing that struck me about Douglas Lee's new book, Military Dioramas, was the level of quality and thoughtfulness put into it's design, layout, and photographs. Like his dioramas this book was obviously a work of love. His love for dioramas and the art that can be made from them. In the forward section written by none other than Shepard Paine himself, he notes that;
"The technical quality of his work has always been good, yet even that has seen the improvement that comes with experience. More Importantly, he has developed his ability as a storyteller."
And in the four sections that follow Doug does his best to explain in detail his thought process and techniques for building four of his more imaginative pieces. At 175 pages this book can boast some of the best photography work I have seen in a long time in a hobbyist book.
The book is fairly straightforward and a very easy read. As Doug points out in his preface, he "relied heavily on step-by-step photos rather than long complex texts for explanation". Mr. Lee also points out that his main hope is that his book can both inspire fellow modelers and to help illustrate some of the more subtle things that allow dioramas to cross over to being an art form. A difficult idea to convey, but Doug does an excellent job of showing just how much work and imagination can go into a diorama to make it tell a good story.
The first diorama which is presented by the author is "Hard trail to Damascus", which is subtitled "Re-encounter of old Rival Golan Height, 1967". This project was built back in 2002 by Doug and started with his discovery that the Syrian army had a Panzer IV in service during the 1967 Arab-Israeli 'Six Day War'. With this info came the notion of how interesting it would be to see old WWII vehicles meeting again some 20 years later on a battlefield far from Europe. The chapter goes into considerable detail on how he built the hilly terrain for the base using Urethane insulation foam. We are shown how the base was detailed, weathered, and accessorized. Then Doug covers the creation of the vehicles for the diorama (M50 Super Sherman, Panzer IV, M3A1 Halftrack, and an M38A1 jeep with 106mm Recoilless). It then covers his scratch-building/sculpting the 23 Israeli and Arab figures for the diorama. Each chapter has a generous number of completed photos, in this case 20.
The second diorama is the now famous WWII diorama, "The end of an era, Last charge against steel counterpart, Poland 1939" in which a troop of Polish lancers are charging two German Panzers and getting massacred in the process. As with the prior chapter the explanation of the thought process, the terrain building, horse and figure sculpting, and vehicle construction are all included in depth. As well as a nice tutorial on getting across movement in a diorama.
This diorama was awarded "Best of Show" at EuroMilitaire 2003, although as Doug points out it was not without it's critics. There is an excellent bit towards the end of the chapter that explains why exaggeration is so important in the storytelling process. I personally have often questioned whether certain figures I have seen are 'over-expressive' and Doug's explanation of this principle does help in my understanding of why this is often done (although I still think there is a difficult line between over-expressive and cartoonish). Thankfully I can attest that I didn't find any of Doug's pieces cartoonish. Certainly in "The end of an era" there were deliberate decisions made to keep the scene free of blood and gore that was so obviously present in real life. Of course this is an artistic decision and one that in this case I think I can agree on.
The third diorama Doug describes is his "Berlin, East Africa - Surprise Safari on the Rubble, April 1945". The scene is of a Russian JS1 and infantry coming around a ruined street corner to discover a plethora of zoo animals stampeding towards them. This story was based on real reports of animals escaping from the Berlin Zoo around this time. Again we are shown in detail how Doug sculpts all the animals from scratch, 6 of the 10 figures also, and the corner building was completely scratch-built. After reading about these dioramas I would very much love to see them in the flesh. Especially after seeing pictures of this one.
The final diorama is "Bloody Colonials, Suffering Years of England, Surrey 1943", which is a more traditional scene in the English country-side. A Canadian unit with a Ram tank has inadvertanly collided with a low stone wall next to a picturesque cottage (which looks like a 1/35 scale David Winter sculpt). The creation of the groundwork and cottage are heavily featured in this chapter with many detailed photos of the process. There is also a wonderful bit on creating a tree with twisted wire. And of course a section on the Verlindin Productions resin Ram was detailed and corrected for use in the diorama. And of course there are more scratch-built figures and animals in this one as well. My favorite little detail is the cat on the roof!
Mr. Lee concludes his book with a "Ten Commandments for Making Better Dioramas". Some very good advice is given here. I especially liked #9, "Be Humble". When a great dioramist like Douglas Lee can be humble, doesn't that mean we all should?
This is a fantastic book for any serious diorama builder or even those who find the need to keep some inspiration in their bookshelves to draw upon when needed. Just like many of the Paine and Verlinden books of the past, this book speaks to the bigger ideas of building dioramas but also shows us the small details that make them work. As Shep Paine pointed out in the introduction it's experience that makes a modeler evolve into something more of an artist. Okay he doesn't say that exactly, but that's what I get from it. All in all this book is a wonderful resource for any modeler. Some may think the book at bit pricey at $60, but trust me were you able to see the book in person and gauge it's quality you would probably think otherwise. Check with your local hobby shop or with online hobby stores for availability.
Highs: Incredible photos. Well written and easy to comprehend. Inspiring work.Lows: Some techniques may not be readily apparent from photos and descriptions.Verdict: This is a must have for serious diorama modelers or those looking to get serious.
About Jim Starkweather (staff_Jim) FROM: NEW HAMPSHIRE, UNITED STATES
I started building models in 1971 when I was 6. My first model was a 1/32 P-40 Warhawk. Revell I believe. From there I moved onto the standard cars, Apollo spacecraft, and other kid orientated kits. I don't know what got me started on Armor. I must have seen a Monogram tank kit one day and said "Mom...