Monday, May 28, 2018

Scene Composition: A Case Study

Scene composition is always an interesting game to play. Yes, it is a game; a hobby by itself if not an art form that can be pursued, enjoyed and perfected. However, we often think about scene composition from a landscape and structure standpoint, forgetting for a moment trains are also part of the setting and must be taken in account. Nobody would shoot a movie or draw a comics without taking in account how to place the actors.

I recently commented how I prefer to be immersed in a small scene where operations can be enjoyed from a single point of view. The idea is basically to enjoy the action as would happen in real life and appreciate how large steel cars and locomotives are passing by. Over the year I’ve built many mock up layouts and found out optimal vision angle in such situation works best with a layout scene about 3 to 5 feet long. Over that, you need to move around too much and it starts to break the suspension of disbelief. I suspect this will vary greatly from individual to individual, but let’s call it a good sweet spot in my case. A few of you must recall my old Quebec South Shore Railway layout was based on a similar concept and, interestingly enough, lost its charm the moment I tried to extend it, thinning down the overall immersion effect.

When that parameter is known, which is the size of your "frame", scene composition can start. By scene composition I mean the structures and landscape will shape a visually compelling scene that also helps to support the illusion a larger world. Many tricks can be used including vegetation, overpass, foreground buildings, backdrops, etc… But one’s must keep in mind the action has also to be taken in account. If your wonderfully detailed and weathered locomotive is half the time hidden in staging or somewhere else, maybe you won’t get the fun you wished for. It must be noted this becomes quite relative when dealing with larger layouts and trains, just has it happens in real life. For this reason, I’d like to stress I’m discussing smaller switching layouts here and not larger ones which work under fundamentally different sets of parameters.

Boston and Maine Station, Standstead, QC (postcard)

With that in mind, we can now start to develop a concept that focus on a small scene will making sure most of the action is done on the layout visible portion. For this example, I revived a layout concept I designed a few years ago. It is based on a small Boston & Maine Railroad branch line in Stanstead, QC that operated from the 1900s to the 1930s (B&M pulled out of Quebec in 1926 and Quebec Central ran the line until its demise). The branch line was about 3 miles long and was used to link Stanstead and Rock Island to Massawippi River Railway main line connecting B&M to Lennoxville and Sherbrooke. Both locales were then bustling towns which fueled their prosperity by extensively quarrying and exporting granite both for the domestic and american markets.

As suspected, trains were extremely short but it also meant the small terminal in Stanstead would be quite interesting. I only found a few photographs of the place online, but most of them are quite interesting and packed with details. Business seems to have been quite good around the railway and car loads were diverse. While my goal isn’t to reproduce faithfully the place but only to use it as a factual starting point, I'll took a few liberties when designing a track plan. That said, you can easily imagine a passing track, a mainline which hits a bumper where some cars can be spotted, a small standard passenger depot, a freight house and a team track. A few hundred feet away there is a 52'6" Sellers cast iron turntable suitable for diminutive 4-4-0s and a enclosed water tank. Quite typical, quite mundane yet full of character.

Since the scene is to be about 5 feet long, it becomes quite clear the locomotive facilities (turntable and water tank) can't be include on the main module but rather integrated in the fiddling area. What we should care about is the end of the line, where most public-related structures stand. It means we have less elements to play with, keeping the selective compression manageable and structure density on par with the prototype. It must also be noted Stanstead station used to be located on a small topographic depression, which gives us the chance to use landforms to frame our subject.

After a second thought, turnouts should be at least #7.

The scene is composed by setting the largest building – the depot – on the background. First, because it is convenient and a good place to show off a good model, but also because a locomotive running in front of a station is always a sure win in term of visual impact and a good place to shoot interesting pictures. I love when station are in the foreground, but it isn't a very practical approach when heavy switching occurs in an already cramped space.

Near the end of steel, I place the freight house on the foreground side of the main line. Once again, many reasons are at work. First, it provides a good way to conceal how the track meets the backdrop. Due to shortage of space, I prefer to hide it in a convenient way such as this one. It also provides visual interest because you can see a car lurking behind the freight house, giving the impression stuff happens beyond our zone of interest. In term of composition, it also balances the station in such a way you get buildings on both side of the track, creating an interesting depth in what could be a flat scene. Finally, having the freight shed on the front brings life to the layout because the structure can interact with the outside world. It is expected to find vehicles and peoples around there that comes in contact with the railway. It is both visually more interesting and provides more photographic opportunities.

On the other side of the layout, where trains enter the scene, adjacent lands rise to create a visual bottleneck between the layout and the fiddle yard. This is an old and efficient trick which is often done with an overpass. Other tricks would involve a structure on the foreground or thick vegetation. All of them are equally interesting and it’s a matter of choosing something that makes the scene believable. In the case of Stanstead, an overpass would be completely out of place and it's why I think simply raising the adjacent terrain and adding proper vegetation will work better while keeping the impression the outside world isn't far away.

Framing train operations from a visual perspective

Finally, fine tuning must be done. When I first drafted the idea, I created a typical consist made of two freight cars and a passenger cars. Given locomotives would be small steamers such as 4-4-0, 2-6-0 and 4-6-0, a typical train would be about 28” long at best. Knowing that, we now need to create a composition in which most actions performed by the locomotive happen on the layout. As much as possible, time in the fiddle yard must be minimized. A key element is where the train is located when arriving and departing the station. Basically, it means any train serving the passenger depot must be fully visible in the scene. Having a departing train locomotive hidden in staging would be a no go for me. Thus by tweaking the depot location and the platform, we can find a specific spot where both trains are perfectly displayed on the layout. No magic or trick here, it’s just a matter of working with real dimensions and understanding how trains will move in and out. In that regard, I mainly based my approach by mimicking Trevor Marshall’s excellent Port Rowan layout in S scale.

As you can see, the final result is a compact yet realistic layout with a simple but prototypical and functional track plan. By using a turntable in the fiddling yard, a lot of space can be saved to keep things breathing on the main module. To some extent, if returning locomotive isn’t required, a simple sector plate could do a terrific job. Given the dimension, such a layout could easily fit an office room or a shelving system. Care and attention to the finishing would make it blend seamlessly with its surrounding and could truly be considered as some piece of art. The fiddling yard could even be hidden behind a cabinet door when not in use if it isn't scenicked. In the case of an exhibition layout, the fiddling yard could be enlarged and enhanced to stage multiple trains.

Many themes can be explored and such small layouts have always been great ways to reach a certain level of proficiency. British railway modellers and others around the world have proved us this kind of formula – when it fits your needs and interests – are a joy to build and operate. As I often say, I will never advocate a single type of layout. However, I think it is interesting to see how small layouts can easily be turned into piece of arts and great exercises in scene composition. They make your brain works and push your design skills to the limit, which is always a good thing. This will come handy when designing larger layouts. Mastering the basics is always easier when working on something small rather than spoiling resources and building up frustration when experimenting with large projects.

As for me, if I had to build such a layout, I would go with an earlier era just like I decided to do with my Temiscouata project. The small rolling stock is perfect in term of space and small steamers perform well with short trains (just like the prototype). Many interesting cars are available on the market and old craftman kits can be purchased for a nominal price and improved greatly using modern details and techniques. Labelle passenger cars are perfect for that era and can be customized to fit a particular prototype. Accurail is also producing excellent plastic injection kits of classic 36’ boxcars which are a joy to kitbash and details. Finally, small steam locomotives made by Bachmann, Roundhouse or even the old IHC can become great project and generally perform well with some care. Older brass steamers in need of restoration can also be found for a good price. Given the layout small size, all these projects are manageable because you don’t need a ton of rolling stock to support operation.

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