Why make models?

The following is an article which was originally published in the Society of British Theatre Designers magazine Blue Pages (Vol.4 2009) which I often refer back to myself and which I feel is always worth re-stating. The question always comes up .. as it should I think! .. but especially when I’m teaching film/tv production design students. The article is written specifically with theatre design in mind, and the worth to the designer or the practical function of models in film design is almost a different subject with a different set of issues, but I like to think that many of the less specific points touched in the article apply to design model-making in general.

Why make models?

As a specialist teacher of model-making it often falls to me to initiate 1st year design students in the joys and challenges of making models for the first time. This always has to be done rather too quickly and inevitably devolves into cramming whatever technical basics will fit hastily into the survival kit: how to think and work in scale; what materials can be used; where to get them; how to make this or that specific structure? These are undeniable essentials in practical terms but they are not the ‘essence’ of good practice. I try to ensure that students understand and accept more than the superficial reasons for themselves rather than just doing it because they’re told to, but I often feel that these technicalities are where model-making begins and ends for a lot of people, and that the true appreciation of how integral the act of model-making is to design and how models are supposed to serve is left rather to chance and personal inclination. Unless the question – why? – is consciously and personally engaged with the act of model-making, even if pursued to technical perfection, remains a purely functional and rather empty one, like an actor learning lines impeccably without understanding the meaning.

There are first of all the more obvious reasons; those of communication. The theatre designer produces a model to communicate his/her intentions as clearly, comprehensively and as unambiguously as possible to those many collaborators who need to know. If done with understanding a model can leave little room for doubt or misconception, and that doesn’t mean that it need be slavishly detailed. We all read two-dimensional images differently but are more unified in our understanding of real, physical space and structure, regardless of the scale. A drawing can only make the relationship of objects in space tangible if the perspective is first-rate and then it’s only from one viewpoint. But the same perspective makes it difficult to be sure of the relative sizes of those objects whereas a model lays this out very clearly. Furthermore a model can be played with, interacted with, changed collaboratively or illuminated, in ways that a drawing cannot. Of course models take a long time, and this brings up the question again of how far one should go with them. The model cannot deliver a complete illusion (without spending a disproportionate amount of time) and should not be thought of in this way. Rather it is quite a sophisticated (and certainly not immediately acquired) combination of practical definition: everything is in the right scale; space and structure are as exact as possible; colours are as intended .. and atmospheric suggestion: surface textures are attempted but perhaps with some license; set dressing is conveyed just through key elements. Although the model may be scrutinised in detail, it should be read as a whole.

The established requirement (at least here in the UK) of making a scale model as a concise ‘one stop’ communicative tool is accepted, albeit sometimes grudgingly, by most. But the deeper, more creative benefits for designers themselves throughout the process are perhaps more difficult to understand or define. Model-making is, from the very first rough-cut to the very last touch of paint, a process of testing – a journey of increasing definition. Ideas, however bright and definite they may present themselves, are still vague at all the edges. Lines drawn on paper may provide more definition but are still symbols for something different which is still fairly easy to lose touch with. But make something physical, however simple, in real space – and it’s real! It’s only by attempting to make, rather than draw or describe, that we can really test and ‘know’ an intention, a form, or a spatial concept. Take the rather prosaic example of a simple chair. Anyone who’s ever planned the inclusion of ‘unobtrusive’ or ‘generic’ wooden chairs in an otherwise abstract set and then set about to model them will know that it is only then that one discovers what a surprising amount of fine-tuning is involved in achieving even that form of simplicity. Making them is the only way to find out how packed with decisions the ‘simple’ can actually be. On the other hand if a specific period interior complete with appropriate furniture is planned, taking the trouble to model a typical chair of the time should not be just something that has to be done because it’s needed to complete the scenic picture. In attempting to make it one is engaging directly with the elements of period style but more importantly one has to simplify (there are limits to the detail achievable in 1:25) and in doing so one is forced to focus on the essentials of that style. This is one of the reasons why it is often recommended that the model-making/design of a chair might come quite early in the design process, because the information gathered will often inform the whole. The act of making, however simplified and however surrogate the materials, also informs how things are generally ‘put together’ in the world.

Related to this and special to theatre design (more than most of the other disciplines which include model-making) is the degree of engagement with simulation – faking, if you like. When any form of scenic realism is required on stage, whether the object is a cluttered office or a decaying ruin, the designer must formulate the most economical yet convincing visual recipe. As in all forms of artistic creation that recipe comes from the overbearing mass of perceived reality filtered through the mind of the artist. In any art-form where an economic simulation of the real is called for scale model-making is an excellent filter. It is not possible to copy the visual complexity of an old brick wall for example, brick-by-brick, at 1:25 scale so the designer/maker is forced in a very immediate and practical way to concentrate on the essentials of the look. In the heat of working, this 3ft foamboard microcosm becomes a crucible of design fundamentals: -stripping down to the essence; the question of generic versus individual; achieving heightened reality through selection and focus; ‘less is more’, – not hampered by the model but in many ways because of it.

So models are not just small because they’re supposed to be manageable through doorways and present an instant overview, not small just because it’s more practical to make them smaller than real life. They’re small because smallness puts things into perspective, because working in scale becomes a filter and a focus for the designer. They’re not just there because of what they tell others but because of what they can tell the creator in the process.

I hope I’ve outlined my personal – perhaps biased – belief in model-making as something integral to three-dimensional design which cannot be bypassed. My general endeavour is to make model-making ‘bigger’ and to promote a better understanding, not just of its technicalities but its deeper significance.

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