How to create eye catching scenes


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 public shows.

The major techniques I use or recommend are based on using visual effects to attract attention. The main categories that these fall into are:

Flashing lights
Constant lighting
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 mechanics involved.

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 operating boom.

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. 

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.

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, etc.  

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 used.

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 attention.

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.

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 barrels.

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 line.

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.

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.

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.