Friday, March 15, 2019

Cheap Trees Are Made of This

The following blog post isn’t about a specific recipe or a short cut to make el cheapo trees but rather a proof of concept. The idea was to create a quick Eastern pine tree and see how it could fit in various scenes and environment. In this regard, my goal was to replicate the shape of the tree and not the correct texture or color.

Not bad when seen from afar...
The tree itself was built in about 10 minutes using a wood skewer (not bamboo), small twigs and pre-flocked netting found at a local gardening supplier. I used the true and tried method of drilling holes into the skewer and inserting branches in it. As previously stated, I cared much more about getting the shape right than the colors.

Making this tree proved me a few things I didn’t expect. First, modelling conifers such as pine is indeed as fun as building a structure or a freight car, with a certain dose of artistic freedom. Second, when you get the basics right, using finer texturing methods, improving branches and needles and coloration aren’t that hard.

...but it doesn't hold up under closer scrutiny.

While making this tree was quite fast and yielded surprisingly decent results, it is evident ones would be better off making them with more care. The pre-flocked netting saves a lot of time (applying needles and painting) but the results is not that much realistic and if you start airbrushing more realistic colors, it defeats the gain in speed you are going after. It must also be noted pre-flocked netting isn’t the most geometrically realistic material to use to replicate branches.

Another word of caution is the tree looks quite good on pictures, but is not that great upon closer inspection.  It means depending on your available time and the context of your work, such tree could indeed be a solution. But in most of the cases, taking a few hours working on maybe a half-dozen well done trees would be much meaning in the long term.

Tapered trunk, bark texture, more realistic branches and colors are a few areas that would significantly benefit from improvement. Also, looking at real Eastern pine growing in a nearby park, I found out most of them didn't have a perfect trunk but were a quite asymetrical.

However, given I’ll have to create a very dense forest on the layout, small trees made of netting that are to be hidden and embedded within the vegetation without protruding over the canopy could be a solution to bring some colors among leafless deciduous trees.

OK for background use? Not so sure...

Anyway, point in case, modelling trees is much more interesting than I thought and relaxing too. Given I’ll probably have to create about a dozen of pine maximum; I’m ready to do a better job than trumpet about a half-baked solution.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Clermont: Terraforming... again

It seems to me not so long ago I wrote about terraforming Clermont... both here we are again, doing it for a second time.

The tree ridge is about the hill's planned final height

This time, it is going quite faster since we know what we are doing and all club members are actively participating in a manner or another in the process.

Some subtle landforms sloping down toward the valley

As you can surmise, last Saturday, we started the day by studying photographs taken last year and from there, we were able to draw on the plywood the various landform to replicate. We were quite bold in determining the size of the small valley and I'm curious to see how it will turn out. However, I believe the scene unusual depth in this part of the layout won't be bad at all.

Hiding cars and tracks on the other side of the peninsula is challenging!

While I'd like to make you believe this process is going straitghforward, I prefer to tell the truth behind this process. After a long day of work, we took a step back and tried to assess our progress. While some parts are genuinely close to the prototype, it became quickly clear our hillside profile was somewhat wrong. After a few inches of height, the slope should start to become gentler (about 35 degrees) until it reaches the summit. Unfortunately for us, we made the hill ridge a little bit shallow which means we will have to enlarge it of a few inches more if we want our summit to stay at the same height. No big deal, but we feel it must be addressed before moving forward with scenery.

The summit height has also a big implication on how we perceive the scenes together. The previous mountain was high enough to hide the tracks on the other side of the peninsula. However, this is no longer the case with a 6" summit (about 40ft in real life) and we will have to rely on vegetation to get another 6 inches in height.

A proof of concept for a decent "opaque" forest

To make sure it would work, we created a mockup forest reusing old twigs and supertrees from the previous scene. However, this time we tried - as best as we could - to get the tree density right. On most layout, this is overlooked quite a bit because trees have leaves. In our case, we need an opaque screen of leafless branches.

To get the effect right, we played on several parameters. First, the tree density which is a 3/8" (3 feet) spacing between trunks. It may seems overkill, but dead twigs are free and plenty. When painted the right color, they can help to fill a lot of ground.

Second, a few supertrees are mixed within the forest to create a denser core of branches. Supertrees' fine branches work wonders in that regard, including bushes and smaller growth. When planting trees, we will have to create several layers of various types of trees and it will be important to make sure they are planted in a realistic manner.

Third, depth. By depth litterally mean scene depth. Our mockup is about 4 inches deep and is already almost opaque. This means tree density will vary depending on location. Basically, vegetation on the ridged (where the forest depth is shallow) will be quite dense, but in the valley, it will be significantly reduced.

Fourth is color. Some twigs were already painted light gray while others were plain natural brown. Brown looks unrealistic for tree bark while gray looks far better, idem for supertrees fine branches. Another interesting point is that light gray is a light color. It makes elements look bigger and denser because it scatters more light. Thus, this is a perfect color to create an optical illusion of density.

I'm well aware covering about 20 square feets with so many twigs is ridiculous, but as previously mentionned, we have many parameters to finetune the results without losing sanity. Also, it is quite a relief to think these trees requires on very limited preparation (some trimming, Modge Podge treatment, painting and planting).

However, as Jérôme rightfully remarked, a few very well done trees will still be required to make the forest pop up a little bit. It includes a few conifers (I'll show you in a future post how I made a quick and cheap Eastern pine tree mockup) and a few larger deciduous trees near the track. The goal is now to create a multicolored patchwork, but rather a subtle variation in colors and textures with some elements bringing life to the composition.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Clermont: Where Do We Go Now

I've been requested to clarify the new concept for Clermont. I can understand a cleared slab of plywood gives little indication about a master plan so here are a few ideas I wish to develop over the course of this year.

Analyzing the prototype from an actual survey

The decision wasn't made overnight and the new layout plan has been on the work since last fall. Interestingly enough, I found out old drawings I shared back then with Jérôme. They are a proof of concept and were meant to figure out if it was possible to create a better representation of Clermont.

Scaled down satellite image is a perfect fit

To make sure my intuition was backed by reality, I simply used a satellite image and reversed it (our layout is a mirror image of the prototype). Fortunately, it fitted perfectly our space and proved we won't have to fudge elements. That last thing was important to me because the moment you start playing with distance between structures, roads and other elements, realism goes down the drain.

A close up of Clermont

 As you can see, on Clermont side, all roads will be redone to closely replicate the prototype, including the intricate sloping streets and stone retaining walls. Topography will be much more gentle than it used to be according to pictures we took during our few visits on site.

Updated track plan

On the other side of the peninsula, a deeper scene will be developed around a small meandering brook. I already presented this idea last week, but I feel a plan better show how this scene will probably be about 24" deep. While convenient from a scenic perspective, this is also a way to save on florist foam and get the best out of available space. A large mountain top as we used to have is a pure waste of space. You only see the first few inches, the rest is out of sight. For this reason, it is a better idea to set a large valley where the peninsula is larger than a huge hill.

And let's be honest, building a shallow hill instead of a large mountain will take far less time and resources. That may sound lazy, but I mentioned it countless times our project has a lot of constraints we can hardly control. If sculpting a hill takes one week instead of a month, it means we can achieve much more and see a decent amount of progress. On the positive side, it also means we have more time for actual scenery (colors, textures) which have a greater impact on a scene.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Gone with the Wind...

Last Saturday, we cleared all the remaining obstacles impeding Clermont yard reconstruction, i.e. the mountain. I didn't shed a tear and neither my fellow club members. Meanwhile, Julien and André-Pierre paid us a visit and probably didn't expect to see the layout in such a state. I'm pretty sure they thought to themselves we were absolutely crazy! We will see... they may be right, maybe not!

Ready for the dumpster

That huge mountain was a neat scenery feat back in the early 2010s when we built it, but it looked out of place. Several times, we removed layers and cliffs to make it looks more natural to no avail. At the end of the day, we reach that point when keeping it was the proverbial incarnation of diminishing returns. One hour later, the entire peninsula scenery work was ripped off. Only the largest chunk of costly florist foams were salvaged for future use.

A clean slate!

From this point, we quickly sketched the new topographic features on the plywood. We will have to reinterpret Clermont landforms to better fit our space. While our yard is exactly the same lenght as the prototype, it doesn't mean locating the small brook in the exact spot will look right. However, I'm pretty confident it should look quite good and the scene will have more visual depth than before.

Shaping the right of way

The yard roadbed shoulders have also started taking shape. They were made from pre-shaped foam blocks following a 1:2 slope as seen on old CNR roadbed section drawings. It makes for a much more natural look than the previous 1:1 slope we used everywhere else.

They thought they would operate!

Finally, a nice diner with friends followed a productive day. We were all left wondering what expect from Canadian National's centennial celebrations. It certainly don't look like it will be a blast at this point, but the year is only starting.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Wieland: More Terraforming

Another productive day in the bag and encouraging results to share.

A mockup of what we are trying to accomplish, note the subtle terrain shape in the background.

First of all, the terrain is now almost completely shaped from the furnace room up to Desbiens Street. We haven't yet worked on the yard topography because this is quite a large endeavour in itself and we feel it is better to complete work in Wieland.

Subtle terrain variations help anchoring the roadbed into topography

After scrutinizing a few prototype photo, I noticed some topographic elements I missed last time. It included more raised terrain near Desbiens Street that makes the track visually sinks into the scenery. Also, some small bumps of earth could be noticed near the wye right legs. These piles of soil were made to create a visual barrier hiding a semi-trailer parking lot. They are subtle terrain profile variations, but they do have quite an impact on the overall perception.

Transloading area completed: lower ground creates a sense of distance on a cramped space

When these things were done, it was time to paint the track. Since we got great results at Ciment Saint-Laurent, we decided to reuse the previous formula: white primer on all track, Krylon Camouflage Brown on the rails and oil paint washes over the ties. If things go smoothly, this task will take about 3 weekends to complete due to drying time and our schedule.

Primed track

Meanwhile, Louis-Marie did a terrific job at modelling Desbiens Street out of cardboard. I'm always surprised how he can be extremely precise with this kind of stuff. When you had the little barn to the scene, it becomes clear this will be a very nice railfanning spot. Having the road slopping gently toward the track makes for a more dynamic and engaging topography.

Desbiens street made out of Strathmore cardboard

Framing the scene with the barn

Desbiens Street: scene composition with the barn and left wye leg

Finally, Jérôme decided to remove a few extra layers of form from the mountain on the peninsula. I kind of like the work on texture I did back a year or two ago, but the mountain shape wasn't very convincing. By removing about 5 inches, it seems proportions are better. Less verticality makes the layout appear far more horizontal and longer. This kind of optic illusions counts a lot when trying to convey the sense of place. I'm well aware many will be kind of upset about us tearing apart the only "finished" scenery on the layout, but I honestly don't care. There is no point in keeping stuff that doesn't fit the level of quality work we can now do. It was our second attempt at serious scenery, it wasn't bad, but we can do better.


And after... nobody was hurt!

At this point, it seems the entire mountain will be remove and new scenery will be done from scratch. Clermont topography is far too different to waste time compromising with half-baked previous efforts. Also, it is more and more evident that some visual key elements of the scene will have to be interpreted quite a bit to be more compelling. An example, I located were the small brook is located on the prototype and it doesn't look good on the layout. Some artistic license will be required to better frame the scene and portrait Clermont in a way that feels right and natural.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Wieland: Some Progress

Some people could think the layout project is on hiatus, however it do progress every week. I would like to post more about what we are doing, but it would be basically a bunch of guys trying to shape Styrofoam and fiberboard into a decent looking topography. Otherwise, it would be about prepping, priming and painting drywall. These subjects have already been covered in previous posts about Villeneuve and I don’t feel like repeating myself.

New ditches near General Cable plant.

However, I’d like to note that while these subjects are extremely mundane they do matter. Particularly since model railroading requires us to do things in reverse. In real life, the topography already exists and the roadbed is then built upon it. On a layout, tracks and roadbed come first and makes us forget too often about the subtle variations that are conflated as an hypothetical flat land.

For this reason, we are carefully shaping the landforms using data we gathered on a field trip last year. Such things as track bed geometry, ditches and surrounding land levels are replicated as best as we can. As you can guess, some artistic license is required, but the goal is to grasp the feeling of the place which can be boiled down to a set of a roadbed surrounded by shallow ditches filled with dead grass and shrubs. Add to this a slightly raised road parallel to the track and you got a good idea of what we are looking forward.

Small ditches can make a huge difference.

Since Wieland is basically in the middle of nowhere, the only compelling way to achieve great results is by a clever use of colors and textures. This is going to be quite interesting… at least I hope so.

Roadbed must feel as if it was built upon the original topography

On another note, our DCC installation projects are on the right track. The last few issues with speakers have been solved with some baffles. Sound installation can be quite tricky and ones must not fear to experiment and start from scratch when results aren’t good. At this rate, I suspect our fleet will be fully functional next spring.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Wyeland: a Tale of Two Turnouts

CN 9423 waiting for its crew at Wieland

Some more fine tuning in Wieland last week and that’s fine with me. Drawing a concept on a sheet of paper and explaining the thought process on a blog is a part of the journey. Shaping it with materials, in 3D and bringing it to life is another. Both process are concomitant and not simultaneously exclusive. As happen too often, the best intentions don’t always bring the best results. However, it is ours to witness what happens then take action bring back the balance between intentions and results.

I often remarked how implementing a working concept on the peninsula wasn’t that easy to tackle over the last few years. This observation is still hold true and I’m still figuring out a way to make the best out of the situation. Fortunately, while the geometry is somewhat ingrate, the goals are becoming clearer. It is always easier to struggle with an issue when at least you know where you want to go.

Our layout will never be much more than an elusive suggestion of railroading in Charlevoix. It would be completely foolish to believe we can replicate the subdivision. However, getting the sense of the place right is something that we can do. It is why I had to make some compromise on the track plan to better reflect our needs and aspirations.

After operating the upgraded track plans for months since September, it became quite clear we eliminated too much trackage during the revision. Was it a mistake? Were we foolish in doing so? It could be easy to affirm we went a bridge to far with theoretical concepts. Maybe it was wrong to apply a less is more approach in such a drastic way.

In fact, the answer is no. With limited resources and space, you’ve got to make the exercise of identifying the bare minimum that defines the project. Taking out the clutter was the only way to remove the noise from the signal. It is also the best way to understand what specifically represents your subject and what is merely background decoration. It’s all about defining the essence of a project. Maybe we went a little bit overboard, but not that much if you ask me. It must be noted the new track plan works wonderfully as intended and the small glitches are… small glitches.

It would be foolish to think you can tackle a complex topic and find a perfect solution from thin air. Adjustments are required and we are now working our way out. Given our biggest shortcoming was removing a leg from the wye, we can already say we were definitely quite close from our goal.

Now, you will ask me why we made that mistake. The reason is quite simple; we tried to figure out what was required to operate all aspect of Clermont without cramming too much elements. If something was redundant, it was eliminated after seriously taking into account how it would impact freight car movements. In a nutshell, our track plan worked nicely as a representation of freight operations on a shortline. However, it failed to provide an answer to locomotive management. At first, it was thought parking locomotives on a yard siding would provide an efficient solution. Unfortunately, it was in conflict with freight movement and left our story unsatisfying.

As you know, I often like to compare a layout with a story. Train operations require a starting point and an ending point. Basically, you need an introduction and a conclusion to your story to make it meaningful. In some case, these things will be minimal… the train was already there when we catch up with the story. Sometimes, it is quite simple. In another case, a more complex introduction and conclusion is required to better understand the story finer aspects.

With Clermont, it was clear we missed some point. In our story, the yard isn’t the introduction nor the conclusion. It is in fact the space where the narrative is developed. The fact the locomotives originated from somewhere else and reached the yard after a while was part of the story. It underlined the typical nature of branchline railroading. It was the only way to make it clear the paper mill is a destination you need to reach to perform a task and not simply a vague place where train movements can happen anywhere.

In that regard, what we sorely missed was the importance of that step. We overlooked it and it came back in our faces each time we operated the layout. Leaving carefully detailed and weathered locomotives in the middle of nowhere didn’t make sense and made for an uninteresting conclusion. However, I must point out many mockups were made in the past. Based on these experiments, we came to the conclusion a locomotive shop track wasn’t required and would look contrived. As the project progressed, our fears went unsubstantiated and the issues raised by the lack of track became more and more evident.

Now, what is this track all about? It was simply a wye leg that we didn’t replicate. If you ask me today, I would tell you it was foolish to model a wye with only a leg. Back then, it made sense because this wye was seldom used to turn locomotives or cars. Its basic function wasn’t required, thus a single siding was enough. Unfortunately, its other function was locomotive storage, which was incompatible with the siding role. You couldn’t merge together both function and call it a day.

The new wye leg at left with a locomotive sitting idle.

Now, on the aesthetic side of things, representing a wye with one leg won’t cut it. Visually, it was hard to believe this single siding represented a wye at all. It looked weird and incomplete. The place is called Wieland, you expect a wye… and you’ve got not enough compelling clues to believe there is one. From a story telling perspective, it was quite a fail I must admit. From a scenery perspective, it always was making it a little bit hard to create a seamless transition between the yard and the wye. One is in the woods, the other one in a light industrial setting. Something was missing to link them in a satisfying manner…

Now, this has been taken care of and the missing wye leg is now back on the layout. To be noted, the unsightly drain pipe was routed somewhere else in the room to facilitate scenery work. A grade crossing located near the new turnout will ease the transition between the light industrial park and the wooden area, just like on the prototype. While I not that much eager to add too much scenic elements in Wieland, it seems this one will definitely help in visually separating different functions and settings while providing a visual anchor in the scene. I’ve yet to figure out how this will work in 3D, but I’m quite confident it should be fine and not look contrived.

After all that said, I'm slowly coming to the realization that following a prototype or implementing drastic measures is a required step in the process, but definitely not a goal. It should be seen as a tool to analyze our subject. But at the end of the day, the artistic touch and interpretation about what we truly want to convey must prevail. The more you stick to the prototype, the more you struggle. The more you personally know the real place, the harder it becomes to make bold artistic choice. It is a double edged sword.  Working on my capacity to evoke the sense of place instead of replicating a lifeless copy of a prototype is a worthy yet capricious road to take.