Miniaturist & Theatrical Designer

Darryl Audette is a Miniaturist, and Theatrical Designer living and working in Winnipeg, Canada.

Take That!

My latest shadow box dioramas have unconsciously dealt with heroism and valour during the height of battle in WW1 and WW2, mostly, but not limited to in the air.

The WW1 dog fight diorama “Knights of the Air” showed that there is always a winner and a loser, with the difference usually being only the split of a second, and sometimes just plain luck.

In “Comradery at 25,000 Feet”, after watching tons of actual aerial combat footage as well as many Hollywood movies.  I felt that what took place inside the airplanes was of more interest that what took place outside, but was rarely shown.  So, the thought of friendship and comradery came to the forefront.

In the “knights of the Air”, the sky was as much a character element as the two duelling airplanes and their pilots.

In “Comradery at 25,000 Feet”, there were two elements, the battle raging outside the planes, and the battle going on inside, all centered around the two waist gunners.

In my newest shadowbox diorama, “Take That”.  I wanted to bring as many outside sky elements as possible into play, light, clouds, flak blasts, planes going up, planes going down, winners and losers, but again all centered around a human condition.  This time as the plane is going down, the gunner is climbing out of the rear cockpit to parachute to safety; it’s his “acknowledging” the plane that shot him down that tells the whole story.

The physical dimensions for this shadowbox were established by the people it was made for, 30 inches long, by 20 inches deep and 18 inches high.  So like a theatre set, you have to design and build something that will fit inside these outside perimeters, with lots of room available for all the technical elements, such as power transformers, lights , wires, model supports, etc.,

There are many books such as “Cinefex Magazine” that show movie models, especially from the original Star Wars movies, with all the behind the scenes information, and model images with their wiring, power sources,  and mechanical supports.

After the scene was designed and established, it was the technical aspects that interest me the most, with most of the actual building and painting are just a means to an end.

One of my favorite University Theatre Design Professors said that when designing a theatre set, to sit quietly in the empty theatre and “swim” in the empty stage, mentally soaking up the stage space where the set will go.  It actually does work and helps focus on a central theme and builds a stronger composition.  I realize this is new to the world of scale models, but it can be utilized jut as many tools and techniques are from other fields of interest.

“Take That” is very theatrical in its nature and in its appearance, maybe even over the top, but scenes like this did happen, and many were even more dramatic and violent, even if not captured on camera at the time.

The hand “acknowledgment” adds a bit of humor to what is otherwise a very grim scene, and as well helps tremendously to tell the story.

Once the scene was 90% established in my mind, and through lots of sketches and technical drawings, and with such notes as, “flame LX (light) through L (left) window”, and “Cloud darker here”. It was time to start building.

The next step was to cast the show, but unlike calling up your local talent agency, I visited my store room for the appropriate models, and the visited the local hobby shop, so I could build my cast, something like Walt Disney drawing and making up his casts of characters.

So, having most of the airplane model kits, some of which friends graciously donated to flesh out the sky, the idea of a forced perspective shadowbox came into being.  The scales range from one 1/24th scale airplane in the foreground, two 1/32nd scale airplanes in the center, and three 1/32nd airplanes in the background.

All six planes were built in one week, then painted in 3 days.  As I began “living” with the cast, I decided not to use one of the 1/32nd scale planes,, as it weakened the composition, watering down the action and distracting the viewers eye to much away  from the story line.

Then I started the outer case or theatre proper.  Usually there are two boxes in a shadowbox design, the inner box or scene which is inserted into the outer case, which contains the power source and other electrical and scenic elements, but in this case, it was all just one outer box, with nothing sliding in our out, mostly because of size and weight restrictions from the client.

Then came the fun time of playing with the positions of the models, all the while being aware of where the “wounded” pilot and “jumping out” gunner would be.  Before any of the models were painted, they were cut down and made to fit into the composition inside the box, so to show only what the viewer/audience will see.  I am a huge fan and devote to the ultimate Grand Master Sheperd Paine and his philosophy of when making a shadow box diorama to only model what will be seen.  This is certainly not a sign of laziness, but actually is more challenging and fun to anticipate and control what the audience sees.  I love this part, and with all the other aspects you have to do, composition, lighting, electrical, framing, why waste time on what isn’t seen.

Whenever I was privileged and honored to repair or maintain a shadow box made by Sheperd Paine, and had to remove its picture frame or open the box up, I was always excited to see how Shep controlled what we actually saw, and didn’t see. It was masterful and taught so much.  Who doesn’t like seeing behind the scenes at a theatre or movie, or watching a new building being built!

Once the composition and models were arranged and more or less finalized, all the wooden supports to fix them to where they will go inside the box were made and secured to the models where they would be out of sight.  These supports were also used to hold the models during painting and decaling.

After the models were painted, mostly airbrushed with Humbrol enamels and various acrylics.  All the shell holes were made from the inside after thinning out the walls of the walls, and opening it up from the outside with a moto tool.   All the decals are water-slide type with the odd rub down used for some letters and numbers.

Then the fun began doing the weathering or rather distressing, which meant going over the research and reference again.  These war planes lived and were maintained on the ground, but acted and fought in the air, so like another Grand Master figure painter Henri Lion used to say, “Think Metal”, Think       whatever material you are portraying”, make sure you give the look, feel, and impression of what you are painting.

I am astonished that some of best figure painters and modelers in the world have being involved in the technical side of theater or movies, such as Sheperd Paine, Henri Lion and Reginald Franklin.  They all had a sixth sense of how to give the impression of what they are painting without actually making it.

After the painting was finished, and all the decals applied, I arranged all the models in the box to check the composition, and then began distressing them.  This involved using steel wool, sponges, sand paper, brass wire brushes, foam make-up applicators, and cheese cloth.  All rubbing, scouring and working the painted surfaces to get the look and impression as seen in the aerial combat research images.  Nothing stays clean long in the field or air, so having contrasting colors and shadows even on the white wing undersides with panel lines adds much interest.

Painted surfaces are maintained, but in the heat of battle, bullet and flak holes reduce metal and painted surfaces to shreds.  Artists oil colors were used almost exclusively for much of the distressing and weathering along with powered pastels, because of their intensity and easy of application and controlling of value and removal, as needed.

After a day or two, all the models were finished and given a coat of Dullcoat to seal all the weathering and give them a uniform matt finish.  The models were put aside to fully dry, while attention moved onto the two figures.  The ‘wounded’ pilot and ‘jumping’ gunner.

The figures are 1/24th in scale, and came with one of the airplane models, so were fun to work on.  Both had to give the impression of why their plane was going down, and to tell the entire story, with only their body language.  The pilot was repositioned many times, finally settling on a slumped body position with head down, showing the fatal bullet wounds to the arm and neck.  His body mirrors the downward slope of the plane.  The gunner, climbing out of the rear cockpit to jump with parachute to safety, decides at the last minute to “acknowledge” his enemy with a hand gesture, which is the whole response to the attack on his plane; what else can he do?  His posture also echoes the planes position, directing our eyes and attention to the planes in the background, and then back to him.  It is a triangle of visual movement.

The figures were from one of the 1/24th scale plane kits I had, but with heavy modifications, and details re-sculpted with epoxy putty, then painted with artists oil colors and acrylics, spayed with Dullcoat, then various strength varnishes applied to areas of leather and glass.  After a few days of drying, both figures were glued into the plane, constantly checking their positions.  All the airplane and figure positioning were done with the story in mind, not unlike a stage or film director moving the actors around to tell the story better.

The sky came next, from the outset I didn’t just a painted back drop, so after finding a very fluffy cotton material at a local craft store, and mixing it with medical cotton, I found my clouds.  When these material are teased out and pulled thin, which allowed light from both behind and in front to go right through it, giving the impression of a real cloud.  It also allowed to be layered with Fiberglass insulation, so when light from behind gave the perfect flak explosions and burning engine flames.   Behind the clouds are curved matt boards, so there are no seams or corners, which was then painted various shades of sky blue, using acrylic paint.  In front of this background, are several feet of Natural/Cool White-120/feet LEDS, from a local Hardware and  Lighting shop, which after many repositioning are hot glued in overlapping strands all radiating out from a center where there is a  HI-Brite white LED.

The sky needed a character of its own, a menacing quality to enhance the story line, and provide enough visual interest, but without distracting from the action playing out in front of it.  The cottons materials allowed it to be pulled apart and moved, so parts of the airplanes that seemed to come in and go out of the clouds was accomplished, as well as parts falling off and falling through the clouds was easily done.

The LED strips behind the clouds were eventually colored with transparent glass paint, in shades of blue, amber and orange, leaving the center almost pure white.  Once the clouds were in the desired positions, they were airbrushed with shades of blue and black to heighten the emotional impact, again leaving certain areas untouched so more light will shine through.  It’s amazing how the time of day or night can be controlled or altered by the coloring of the LEDs and the clouds.

All 12 volt power transformers, wires, power switches, and LED bulbs are mounted around the inner edges of the outer box, allowing easy access for maintenance and replacement when the front frame is removed.  All the LEDs used for the sky are connected to a potentiometer to control their intensity, which allowed the lighting to be controlled.  All the electrical components are hidden behind the picture frame which is mounted to the front of the box opening with flat screws all around.

This piece doesn’t have the usual inner ‘reveal’ frame, which allows the scene to be pushed deep inside the box, so room light is cut down, because I wanted the scene as upfront and close as possible to the viewer, so I added a 1 inch strip inside the ½ inch thick frame, bringing the whole frame depth to 1-1/2 inches, and with picture glass behind it.  I have always liked unconventional picture frames, so used a large complimentary/contrasting red for the overall matt,  with a ½” wide black frame around the viewing window, instead of around the outside of the matt.

This shadow box diorama was a challenge in many ways, using several different materials, experimenting more with LED lighting and working with visual languages.  It took just over 2 months to complete from concept to finish.

I would like to think that Sheperd Paine is looking down and saying, “I like that”.



Miniaturist & Theatrical Designer

Darryl Audette

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Darryl Audette is a Miniaturist, and Theatrical Designer living and working in Winnipeg, Canada. My goal is to be constantly learning and I aim to experience all aspects of theatrical scenographic design from the best in the industry.

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