MAY I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE!
How to create eye catching scenes
by Matt Kross
Have you watched people as they look over your home
layout or your module at a show? Most people, especially
non-model railroaders, just walk around looking at the model
work, but not really seeing and absorbing what is there. The
following are some thoughts and experiences with making eye
catching scenes which get people to stop and look closely.
These are especially useful if you have a large number of
non-model railroad people looking at your work such as at
The major techniques I use or recommend are based on
using visual effects to attract attention. The main
categories that these fall into are:
Physical size or number of objects in the scene
ďCan you find ...Ē signs Familiar /recognizable things
Flashing lights in real life indicate a warning of some type
and are meant to get a personís attention. A flashing
light in a model scene also gets their attention. There are
many things in everyday life which have flashing lights
besides the obvious emergency vehicles (police car, fire
engine, or ambulance). Some ideas are: construction
equipment, tow trucks, school buses, turn signals on
vehicles, railroad maintenance equipment, traffic signals,
orange construction barrels, school crossing signals,
garbage trucks, emergency flashers on vehicles, grade
crossing signals, flickering fires or barbeque grilles,
radio towers, and so on. This gives you many opportunities
to add at least one flashing light to your scene without
having to model a major disaster scene.
Every model railroad electronics how-to book shows how to
build a flashing circuit to drive a lamp or LED. There have
also been many articles in the various hobby magazines on
how to build flasher circuits. If you donít want to tackle
building your own circuit, there are several commercially
available flasher units you can buy at your hobby shop.
On two of my modules I have the following: police car on
the side of the road with simulated revolving red beacon for
the officer directing traffic, construction scene with
flashing yellow lights on top of the orange barrels, front
end loader with strobing yellow beacon, flashing traffic
signal, tanker truck with its turn signal on, yellow
flashing beacon on a maintenance of way speeder, red
flashing light on radio tower, and a flickering barbeque
grille at the beach.
People are also attracted to movement in a model scene. Thatís
one of the reasons why everybody is watching the trains.
Adding some animation in a scene is another way of getting
people to look at it. Animation is probably the most
challenging of the techniques identified in this article,
especially in the smaller scales. However, animation is the
one technique that holds peopleís attention the longest.
Flashing lights get them to look at a scene, but animation
gets them to keep looking. They want to see the object go
through its paces several times and are often amazed at the
The larger scales tend to have more animated accessories
available than the smaller scales. There are carnival rides
available in many scales which can be used. For my N scale
modules, I have scratch built a working backhoe which digs
in a hole and swings over to a truck. This has always been a
crowd pleaser. I have added a new module which has a man
flying a control line model airplane. This was very simple
to construct and yet people are fascinated by it. I am
currently working on an electric utility truck with an
DID YOU HEAR THAT?
Adding sound to your scene is another good attention getter.
There is the bell of a grade crossing signal, vehicle
sounds, crowd noise, water flowing, animals, sirens,
machinery running, construction equipment, backup beepers on
trucks, carnival music, etc.
Sounds can be generated from audio tapes, dedicated
electronic sound circuits, and by circuits in which you can
digitally record your sounds without the use of audio tape.
There are a number of commercially available audio tapes of
railroad related sounds. There are also a number of
electronic sound modules available. Some of the best sources
for sound units are childrenís toys. Some mail order
electronics companies have such sound modules for sale. Of
course, you can always record the actual sounds you want to
use if you have access to their sources.
Be forewarned. You may not live long enough to see the
effectiveness of your sounds! Constant, and especially loud
or monotonous, sound effects drive the people crazy who have
to be around your layout or module for a long period of
time. Keep your sound effects subtle, low volume, and
varied. If possible, put them on a timer so that they are
not on all the time or turn on only when a particular event
occurs. One way is to have a pushbutton that a viewer can
press to briefly run the sound effects.
I have not implemented any sound effects yet, but I have
seen (and heard) a number of well done (and not so well
done) sound effects. One N-Trak module at the Portland
convention had a grade crossing signal bell sound that was
generated electronically. It was a very subtle and well done
effect. You could just barely hear the bell when you were
standing up, but if you leaned over near the grade crossing,
you could hear the rythmic chiming. Since it was kept at a
very low volume and turned on only when a train was at the
grade crossing, it was not annoying.
LIKE MOTHS ATTRACTED TO THE
In addition to flashing lights, constant lighting is also an
attraction. The lights stand out and draw people into the
scene. Examples of places where constant lighting can be
used are: street lights, building lights, signs, vehicle
headlights, vehicle taillights, vehicle brake lights,
traffic signals, RR signals, railroad yard floodlights,
engine headlights, caboose marker lights, etc. These are
fairly easy to implement with the many small bulbs available
or with fiber optics.
DETAILS! DETAILS! DETAILS!
PLEASE BOTHER ME WITH THE DETAILS!
A scene with lots of details also attracts attention.
Once a person has been drawn into your scene, lots of little
details keep them looking.
The best way to approach this is to visit a real-life
scene similar to what you want to model. Take several
pictures for future reference. Spend some time looking
around and make a list of all the details you see.
Large objects or a large number of similar objects seem to
attract attention. The most common of these are large crowds
of people, a large number of cars and trucks, a large
grouping of buildings such as a city block, skyscrapers,
long bridges, large sprawling structures such as in an
industrial complex, railroad yards, long trains,
With smaller scales it is fairly easy to add a feature
which is much larger than the surrounding objects. There are
several N Scale skyscrapers available and they really
dominate the scene, especially if the extension kits are
In a beach scene on my module I have over 100 figures in
all sorts of activities such as sunbathing, swimming,
fishing, cooking, talking , rafting, etc. On one of Burning
River N-Scale N-Trak modules a fellow has modeled a Mack
truck factory and has 50 to 100 semi-truck tractors outside
the building. Things such as these always seem to attract
Figure 1. Example of things to look for.
On This Module Can You Find:
Flickering barbeque grille
Bicycles in a bike rack
Sunbathers on beach with blankets and coolers
Overflowing trash bin
Fishermen at various spots along the river
Rafters getting started on their trip down the river
Family trying to put their boat in the water
Sightseers on top of dam
Flashing light on radio tower
Car with engine trouble
Family unloading their minivan
Man getting things out of the trunk of his car
Man photographing a woman jogging
Flashing light on railroad maintenance vehicle
You can make a game out of it by putting up a list of all
the different things you want people to look for and asking
them if they can find it. Can you find: the soda cans in the
ditch, the dog chasing the cat, the broken down car, etc.
This is especially useful for many of the small or subtle
details which people would normally miss because they donít
take the time to look closely at the scene. All it takes to
implement this technique is typing or printing up a sign and
sticking it near the scene where people can read it. Figure
1 shows one of the lists I have on my N-Trak modules.
HEY! I KNOW THAT PLACE!
Making a scene look like a place that people know (or
think they know) gets them to keep looking to find all the
aspects they are familiar with. You can model a specific
location in your area which people would recognize. On the
other hand, it doesnít have to be a ďrealĒ scene! I
have seen several N-Trak modules that depict the Bates Motel
from the movie Psycho! People were looking over the scene,
identifying all the different things they remembered from
the movie, from the hotel itself, to the house on the hill
and the pond where the car was dumped.
Most non-model railroaders donít relate to all the
details of railroad scenes. Thus, to get their attention,
you need to include scenes from their everyday life which
they can relate with. Examples I have included in my N-Trak
modules are a crowded beach along a river, a campground, and
a road with the ever present construction and orange
THAT MAKES SENSE (OR SENSES)!
In general, anything which stands out on any of the five
human senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste) will
attract attention. The techniques discussed have only dealt
with the senses of sight and sound. I really donít think
we want to get into people tasting our model work! That
still leaves smell and touch that I havenít dealt with. I
havenít dealt with these two senses since they are much
harder to control. It is possible to add chemicals which
would generate some attention getting smells. However, this
is very easily over done! In addition, the smells tend to
mix with all the other smells in the area and lose the
effect you are trying to create. If you take modules to
public places, people may frown upon introducing any strong
smells, especially if they are not pleasant. I donít think
Iím brave enough to tackle this idea yet!
For the sense of touch, I donít think you actually want
people touching your model work. However, by providing a
small demostration area which people are allowed and
encouraged to touch helps attract attention. People always
want to touch your mountains to see what they are made of or
to touch your plastic water because it looks so real. By
providing a small, separate example of these items, you
invite people to examine your work.
The sense of touch can also be related to sound in that very
low frequency sounds can be felt from the vibrations. We
have probably all experienced this at shows these days with
vendors selling diesel sound systems. You can always feel as
well as hear when a demonstration is going on. However, this
can be another one of those annoyances that we want to avoid
and so I am going to shy away from any techniques along this
1 + 1 + ... + 1 = ATTENTION GRABBERS
There are numerous ways to combine the above ideas to create
real attention grabbing scenes. The more of these ideas you
combine within your scene, the more it will attract
attention. Bob Ahlman of the Lake Erie N-scale Society
N-Trak group created a module with a drive-in movie theater.
He used a tiny, color LCD TV for the screen and connects it
to a VCR under the module. He plays cartoons and animated
movies for the kids to watch. This idea uses a scene
familiar to most adults, has sound, has something moving on
a screen, and has lots of details. There is always a large
crowd gathered around his module.
Another popular scene is a carnival. You use the
motorized amusement park rides widely available, add
carnival sounds, and lots and lots of people to create an
attention grabbing scene.
A NOTE ON COLORS, WEATHERING, & DISARRAY
One other visual item to pay attention to when creating the
scene is the overall colors used and weathering. One thing
that helps hold peopleís attention is realism. In order to
make a scene look realistic, the colors have to be right.
Most of the time, plastic buildings or scenery material
right out of the box is too bright in color for a realistic
scene. These can be toned down through painting the plastic
or toning down with a wash of India ink or diluted
black/brown paint. One of the best way to determine what the
colors should be is to look at a real scene and compare the
colors in it to what your model looks like. Vehicles right
out of the box have tires of incorrect colors and are
missing taillights and headlights.
Another thing that makes a scene look realistic is
general messiness. Very few real life scenes are neat unless
you are modeling a well groomed park. There is always trash
and junk lying in the ditch or behind a building. Vegetation
doesnít grow in straight lines and tends to find any
little nook and crevice to grow. Roads are not of uniform
color but instead are very mottled and covered with cracks,
patches, oil spills, dirt, etc.
JUST DO IT!
As the one shoe manufacturer says, ďJust do it!Ē. Try
some of these techniques and I think you will see increased
attention at your selected scenes.