Saturday, June 17, 2017

Lessons Learned: Framing Your Approach

It seems summer is always about reflecting on someone’s approach to model railroading. It has probably a lot to do with winter being associated with the highest peak of modelling productivity for most of us.

My recent one-month trip to Japan made me realize how little North Americans struggle to compose a scene and frame a subject. While this art is well-known in Japanese gardening and traditional architecture, it can be seen in the most mundane streets and back alley of their country. If it was in some other country, one could infer it is an happy result due to sheer luck. However, it is so common there that you start to understand it is the result of their peculiar relation with space. While North America is blessed with vast expanse of space, this is also a pitfall since we are never faced with situation where we have to make the best of it. If we lack space, we quickly think about enlarging rather than focusing our efforts. Standing in a middle ground, European modellers, at least a substantial mass of them, have for a long time developed a sensibility toward smaller and contrived spaces.

Mike Cougill recently asked me what I’ve learned from that travel. Most people talk about the initial cultural shock, but it wasn’t. I saw what I expected to see, however, there is a huge difference between knowing something and experimenting it first hand on a daily basis.

But more seriously, I was impressed by that people's obsession toward excellence which can be quite humiliating when you come from a background where most people don’t care about result or quality. That excellence can be witnessed at every level, from a generic sidewalk to a nicely assembled sliding door. Even a gravel parking lot will be built and maintained with a care we don’t even think of for a more glamour object here. And that notion have nothing to do with objective beauty (if that exist), but is truly the embodiment of their approach with the physical world. Certainly, it wouldn’t fit our mindset, but lessons can be learned from that and I feel that model railroaders – who by trade focus on putting a lot of effort replicating the most mundane and ugly things – should easily relate to this dedication at some level.

The other lesson learned is truly about framing a concept, an idea or a space. Japanese have a special way to take one simple thing and bring it to an art level. Did I lose my breath often there, having no words to describe my amazement? Yes, often… and it happened with temples for sure, but also with lunch boxes and other such “insignificant” things.

How can that translate to model railroading? Well, it can be seen in term of operation which means focusing on a particular limited set of actions, but rendered and executed with care, thus bringing a lot of emotion with performing them.

It can also be seen in term of layout planning. When you visit a traditional Japanese garden, you rarely grasp the entirety of the plan… and it’s not required. You are treated to very focused and framed scenes that emphasized a limited set of well-proportioned subjects. Thus, a garden is no longer a single entity, but rather a succession of scenes. And if the garden is well designed, this succession will make sense and will some story… That, I think, could benefit many layouts.

In fact, it’s not that I didn’t learn these lessons from my modelling experiences, but rather they take a cohesive shape when witnessed in another cultural context in which they were actively cultivated for centuries…

Their art also lifted the last doubts I had about lack of space. It’s no longer a matter of lacking space but rather a question of how to frame and compose a scene the best you can using a given area.  And not only that scene will make sense, but it will also give hints of a larger world without revealing too much about it. This approach has also another tremendous effect on planning and composing: you now longer require to “compress” a scene to get the feeling of the place, but rather, you frame what could be realistically be seen and grasped in such a given space… At this point, you probably see a pattern in my explanations: frame space. You will also remark I’m no longer referring about plan, talking in term of elevation and depth. Yes, at this point, the plan, to some extent, is almost irrelevant. You model the perception of a location rather than a 3D plan. It may sound semantic, but it has an important impact how you interact with a layout.

If you think in term of small layout or even cameo layout, it’s no longer about vast panoramas, but rather about offering a point of view, a particularly significant perspective on a railway operation.

For this purpose, I tried to revisit my Quebec South Shore Railway layout and found out many things already discovered or hinted by other modellers. However, I’m taking this farther and propose something else based on my personal experience with railways.

When you are standing by a track, you never see the entire scene. Your own sight and the surrounding vegetation and structures clearly frame the scene. This is also emphasized by the fact we are standing still in a particular spot of a larger area while the trains are the moving parts of this world. The contrast between of small and fixed presence and the larger yet moving trains create that impressive feeling of standing by the track and experiencing an operating railway.
My experience in railfanning is often about the impossibility to see everything. At some point, you find a clearing or a street and enjoy the spectacle from there. You rarely see very far and only from a few angles, just like a movie or a painting. If you deal with a smaller layout, this can be a blessing since you don’t need to model a contrived fantasyland, but rather focus on a given perspective that blurs the junctions with the rest of the world. In term of scene composition, you only need to keep a few elements required to build the scene and give it purpose… And it can be drastic. Maybe you don’t need to show the turnout for that siding since it exists only outside of your line of sight. Are all cars required to be shown on the layout, maybe not… they could only roll in front your eyes, going to a nearby destination that you can’t unfortunately see right now but which you know and give sense to the move. In that regard, Chris Mears explored such a concept and Mike Cougill too. While I thought their ideas were cute, I failed to see nothing more than a desperate attempt at minimalism. However, when you take in account what I said, it’s no longer an obsession with nothingness but rather an ability to tell a lot more with a few but well-designed elements.

Therefore, I can propose a new version of the QSSR layout which get rids of elements that felt forced and were never the focus of my attention when switching the layout and framing what matters. In that regard, a 80” x 18” layout can be summed up as a 48” x 16” cameo layout devoid of any compression and compromise. In fact, this new approach creates an impression of a larger world out of less space than a larger layout. Operation use the same amount of cars and require similar moves, with the exception the scene composition focus our attention on them which is a direct incitation to carefully replicate procedure and bring a good deal of life to the revenue equipment that is now a true actor rather than a small part diluted in a large expanse of space.

For me, this approach has many direct benefits that can help to fit my apathy with building a home layout. First, space is no longer a concern about quality. No need to turn the house upside down or buy new furniture. A layout can now fit a living space without hijacking it. Second, building a layout is not about investing vast sum of time, money and resources, but rather how to assemble a few elements with care and replacing them with better attempts as experience is gained and modelling interests evolve. Third, framing a given perspective is an occasion to truly grasp how the real world is perceived by ourselves rather than recreating a large part of the world believing that a larger chunk of reality is the only way to immerse ourselves into the fiction called a layout.

By the way, what I just said is nothing new in the modelling realm, however, it may be the first time I have a better grasp at looking at model railways from another perspective, one more akind to a real life experience and freed from physical parameters we usually believe set the frame of our ideas. I'm well aware a lot of literature - which I often didn't read - has dealt with such an approach, however, I think we can never repeat enough how space is never a matter of quantity but rather a matter of composition. The first one can't be eluded, but it will never offer satisfying answers to most modellers nightmare about "lack of interest". I've seen plenty of large layouts devoid of any interest even if they fully reproduced a world... They were no more than magnified carpet central. And yes, I believe a lot of these lessons can be applied to our club layout while working on the scenery.


  1. Excellent discussion. I think some of the great modelers grasp the use of space intuitively, but the rest of us, being focused on detail, specifics of rolling stock, etc., need to be reminded to step back once in a while and consider the scene as a whole.

    1. Thank you! You are absolutely right... and this is the sad part of the hobby which always reminds us about technics as if they were an end in themselves while almost completely avoiding scene composition altogether. It is always sad to read an article about a great layout and finds out the article is about "why did you choose that era", "if you had more space..." instead of trying to understand the modeller's approach to space.