‘So you think you’d like to be a model-maker?’ – Part 1

Above Work by Philippa Spring, as part of her degree show presented at ‘New Blades’, the model-makers annual recruitment fair, 2018, organized by 4D modelshop

I receive regular emails asking whether I have any advice on ‘becoming’ a model-maker. From people asking me, for example, whether I have any good first steps to suggest in terms of developing skills; what sort of work is usually available; what evidence should be shown, or what skills and qualities would I consider to be most important in terms of a person getting work, holding on to the work, and getting more; how the jobs are found, or where does one have to put oneself to be ‘found out about’ .. most often these kind of questions. So I thought it was about time that I tried to consolidate what advice I’m able to offer here. In many cases these questions come from people who perhaps didn’t consider it a career from the outset but have come back to it as a possibility, because their own involvement with it has always felt more rewarding than other things they’ve done. They’re wondering whether they might have what it takes to be a professional ‘maker’, they’re also wondering what the ‘profession’ looks like, and whether it has what it takes to support them.

Above One of the forestry dioramas at the Fisher Museum, Massachusetts, made in the 1930s by Theodore Pitman and Samuel Guernsey

So firstly, what does it take to get the most out of being a model-maker? What I mean here is, what does it take not only to do the job properly, not even to do it exceptionally well, but in order to keep enjoying it, to remain motivated, to keep being inspired, even in the fallow times when there may be little going on? I think this is a much more important question to answer than ‘How do I start?’. It’s a cliché in this business, yes, but the first is patience. Physical patience when manipulating materials is the one most often meant, including the calmness of the fingers, but there are other forms of patience. Model-making is on the whole a very time-consuming job, quite often loaded with very repetitive tasks, so it can help a lot if you’re the kind of person who can as it were ‘feed’ on those times for therapeutic purposes, someone who can even look forward to them. I know I do, and I welcome those stretches when I can ease the tension with something purely ‘mechanical’ without having to think that much. There are other instances of a different kind of patience needed when dealing with things other than materials .. for example while waiting for the right information, or dealing with the lack of it; while explaining how certain things take a long time and can’t be hurried if they are to be done properly, and showing the same patience with yourself if it’s just ‘one of those days’ when nothing is going right!

Next on the list is ingenuity, and there’s much more of that involved than people imagine I’m sure. I’d say it’s a ‘must’ that you’re the kind of person who really enjoys solving the trickiest of problems, who almost has to have them, otherwise every job will be a nightmare. It’s fair to assume that every single job you undertake will include a number of things, some of them like Alice’s ‘impossible things’, which you’ve never done or even thought of before. It’s also best to assume you’ll most often be alone in coming up with solutions, rather than imagining there’ll always be someone more knowledgeable around to ask. Even if you are working in some kind of team, to a certain extent each will have responsibility for tackling their own challenges. Ingenuity takes over where mere creativity is left whimpering.. there’s creativity in all of us, but ingenuity in not so many!

Above Exhibited model from Wes Anderson’s 2018 film ‘Isle of Dogs’, photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Knowledge of materials is something that won’t come ‘just like that’ but is built up over years, so it’s good to start actively collecting that knowledge from the outset. Being able to choose wisely from a number of material options for a task can make a world of difference, especially if there are time or money constraints. On the other hand, there are  some materials which can, once the time is taken to really get to know them, be used effectively for almost anything. For a person who values such knowledge and enjoys collecting it, an otherwise mundane trip to the supermarket, to Poundland or to a DIY warehouse can be like a day at the seaside.

The next is more difficult to mark with a tidy word or short encapsulating phrase but it involves the thrill of, a passion for, or at least an abiding interest in the art of simulation. One of the most important aspects of models, given their usually small size, is the fact that you’ve got to be very clever about which elements of the ‘visual truth’ you select to give a convincing result .. you can’t include them all. You have to capture the essence of ‘why and how’ something looks the way it does. As a model-maker you’re doing no less than a designer does .. artfully selecting. But artful simulation is not just a case of selecting the essential elements and reproducing them faithfully, more often it involves blending them in some way, and blurring or simplifying others to the point of mere suggestion. This works better for the model because the small-scale surface can’t hold too much detail, if it does it will look too ‘micro’, it could be disturbing. You can experience this if you’ve ever managed to make an incredibly fine and minute print copy .. it jars, the contrast is too harsh at small scale, it needs to be softened. It takes a lot to learn how to simulate artfully, some have ‘the eye’ while others could struggle .. and, yes, it is basically just about learning to ‘see’ things properly, being able to separate the backgrounds and nuances from the more obvious elements.

Above Scale model furniture by Ang Rui-Wei, part of her degree show work presented at ‘New Blades’, the model-makers annual recruitment fair, 2018, organized by 4D modelshop

A good byword for the next important thing to have is foresight. This is about anticipating, it’s about being good at visualising, and it’s about being able to plan properly. It can partly depend on what sort of model-making you’re doing but on the whole model-making doesn’t involve so much ‘free-style’ sculpting with a soft material .. if anything it’s much more about cutting out parts and assembling them. For that you need to have a clear plan, a clear ‘mind’s eye’ as to which element is made first, which can then be attached to it and where .. and so on. Foresight is important for the whole process, important all the time, but actually the best example of when this special ‘sight’ is especially needed comes from slightly outside the practical work .. i.e. if you have to predict beforehand how much it’s all going to cost!  Really, in order to do that with any worth to it you don’t just need a very organised mind, you need a highly imaginative one! You practically need to see yourself, doing the whole thing, a bit like a film in fast motion .. reminding yourself of what you know, and discovering what you don’t yet. Whenever I think of tasks such as this I’m reminded of the claims made by Nikola Tesla that he could construct machines in his mind’s-eye, then imagine himself switching them on .. to see if they worked!

Above 1:200 scale residential development model made by Scale Models Weston, Essex

Let’s say that you’ve done enough already so far to know that you really like making models; you’re proud of what you’ve done and you’ve received very flattering comments from those around you .. but you’re wondering how, or what, to develop to increase your chances of ‘earning’ from it, and you’re thinking about how you should present your work so it already looks more ‘professional’ and accessible to others ?

Building up your own ‘portfolio of evidence’ recording what you can do, what you can show people clearly, is the most important next step. The quality of your photos is fundamental here, along with very clear .. but short! .. title information, cluttered with very little other text. Here I should clarify that I’m talking about a sendable PDF (or if I’m wrong, whatever document type is guaranteed to be secure from alteration and effortlessly opened by all). Your CV should be a separate document, by the way, just consisting of ‘facts’ in text and I don’t think the two .. image portfolio and CV .. should ever be mixed. Don’t even think about writing a third, containing a prose ‘statement’ of what you’re about; who you admire, or what your favourite films are!

A PDF comes first, because these days it’s getting more and more unlikely that you’ll ever have to carry around an always-surprisingly-heavy, leather-imitation case filled with glossy pockets and arranged ‘photographs’. We can all be grateful for this and not least because compiling a digital document is so much easier and cheaper. I’d said that the photos must be good! .. but this doesn’t mean, especially nowadays, that only an experienced photographer could do them. Now smartphones can take sufficiently detailed, white-balanced and light-enhanced photos, and it’s these things that matter more than being able to play with special lighting or depth-of-field, unless your model has special requirements. What’s more important is that you take the time beforehand to rehearse viewpoints or compositions, really thinking about what the most informative shots might be. It helps a lot, and takes the pressure off your photo-shoot, if you have a photo-processing programme such as Photoshop or PaintShop Pro with which you can crop, ‘clean’ or brighten the image, or enliven the colours or contrasts if needed. Photos cannot capture the richness and spatial dynamism that our binocular vision gives us, so some ‘enhancements’ are needed to replace that. You need to be careful not to go overboard with any of these though because the effect needs to remain ‘natural’, especially the colour. If you do any of this, it’s best to set the display brightness of your screen to an average, like 50% perhaps, to better judge what others might see on their screens.

Above 1:43 scale model showing the construction of the Metropolitan Railway in the 1860’s, made in 1993 by Valhalla Models (London Transport Museum Collection)

In Part 2 I will be continuing with advice on what to develop if you’re a beginner, including some practical options if you’re stuck for ideas. Then I’ll be answering the question  Who needs models? .. not like it might sound, but rather ‘where models are wanted’, i.e. the disciplines in which models are commonly called for. This is followed by a selection of the most useful companies to look at who are working within those areas.

New Blades 2016

Once again 4D modelshop and the colleges taking part (see the list below) have come together with a truly excellent show of graduating work .. unique, inspiring as ever and unmissable .. if one could make that single June 9th! I could have easily spent a week of my life there and considered it both a lot of fun and a valuable education, especially if it included the chance to talk more properly to the exhibitors who are always so approachable!

This post is just a sample because I want to include much more eventually, but it will take more time to collect together the right information i.e. more images, proper titles and some background info from the makers involved. There was so much that was praiseworthy .. I felt there was even more inventiveness this year, and consequently more of the unexpected. I congratulate those who received awards on the night and accept that these were deserved .. but I have to say that these choices were much at odds with what I personally found most noteworthy or inspiring in the show!

New Blades 2016 featured 120 graduates from the Arts University Bournemouth, University of Hertfordshire, University of Bolton, City of Glasgow College, University for the Creative Arts and and Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design & Technology. For the complete photo album of the 2016 show .. pretty good photos under the circumstances! .. go to:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/newblades/albums

 

Annette Larsen Skjetne

Above Annette Larsen Skjetne below Emily Bowers

Emily Bowers

 

Alex Wilson

Above Alex Wilson below Christine North

Christine North

 

Becky Marsh

Above Becky Marsh below Alex Lanfear

Alex Lanfear

 

Luke Black

Above Luke Black below Sophie Magern

Sophie Magern

 

New Blades 2015

For another year running I was so thankful that I didn’t miss the single, ever-so-brief chance last Thursday 11th to see New Blades 2015 the annual model makers recruitment fair at the Holborn Studios in London. In actual fact this was amazingly the 23rd year running and this unique event is organised each year by 4D modelshop on behalf of the colleges, featuring the work of graduating students from model making or special effects courses throughout the UK ( go to the end for more info on the colleges and courses ).

I have rather ambivalent feelings towards the terms ‘model’ and even more so ‘model maker’. Personally I cringe inwardly when I’m referred to as a ‘model maker’ because I feel it instantly reduces me to a fraction of what I am or what I’m involved with .. and judging by the quality, depth and variety of much of the work on show at New Blades 2015 I think the graduates deserve to feel the same! But however much I might dislike the term because of how little it’s understood ..seeing the show makes me very proud to be considered a ‘model maker’ too!

I’ve tried to include photos here of the work that most impressed or interested me this year, but I’ve also included work from past years which I felt was indicative of New Blades as a whole. Unfortunately, since there are no catalogues or online records of the exhibits, I was limited in the choice of photos and only had the names of the exhibitors, but no work titles or other info..

Thomas Hughes, New Blades 2015

From this year’s show above work from Thomas Hughes and below from Alex Brooker

Alex Brooker, New Blades 2015

This is not really a ‘review’ of New Blades 2015, just some thoughts on what I saw and on the regular institution the show has become over the years, because I feel that something so special deserves wider attention. The students, their tutors, the colleges and the organisers could do with more feedback, in spite of the show being very well attended during the brief time it was on.

But wider publicity is more for the benefit of the public than the contributors. There is work here that would not be seen anywhere else .. at least not so close and personal. Each year the chance comes along to focus on the type of painstaking, practical work that contributes so much to our media experiences .. if actors are venerated, almost worshipped by some, for igniting our imaginations why not the objects created too?

Imogen Nagle, New Blades 2015. Tiger mask

Also from this year above from Imogen Nagle and below from David Patterson

David Patterson, New Blades 2015

This is a great deal more than a ‘model making’ show .. it is a roller-coaster ride through some of the finest, most entertaining, most inspiring examples of physical making! It is a show about passion, dedication .. and breathtaking skill! At times it’s very difficult to connect the works on view with the young, hopeful people standing next to them during the ‘Industry Night’. The quality of many of the objects suggests more years of experience .. many years of practise and an ‘old school’ attention to detail. What comes across from the show as a whole is that the passion and dedication are so obviously shared by everyone involved with it .. the organisers, the tutors, the industry professionals and the commercial sponsors.

How can this rather diminutive word ‘model’ begin to do justice to the serious quality and vast range of the work produced. In this context the word has to embrace prosthetics, costumes, ‘cosplay’ artifacts, theatre and film props, puppets, animation sets, automatons, animatronics, character portraiture, creature design, architectural models, product design, museum and exhibition displays, sculpture, fine engineering and bespoke furniture.

Stephanie Bolduc, New Blades 2015. Still from 'Manoman'

Above still from Stephanie Bolduc’s short film ‘Manoman’ and below work from Alexandra Poulson, both from this year’s show

Alexandra Poulson, New Blades 2015

Below work from Matthew Cooper 2014

Matthew Cooper, New Blades 2014

Joanne Harvey, New Blades 2014

Above costume work from Joanne Harvey 2014 and below Ollie Knights from the same year

Ollie Knights, New Blades 2014

Perhaps the general tag of ‘model’ is not so bad in some respects though .. it is like a little signpost pointing to the ‘hands-on’, the physical and practical. Unlike some Degree shows objects are always centre-stage here, and partly because of that each show is packed with immediate focuses of interest .. but never feels cluttered!

'please touch' New Blades 2013

The roller-coaster experience may be a little unkind to the architectural or product models exhibited .. I always feel a bit sorry for them! They need a quiet zone of contemplation. They are often beautifully made, faultless, and they certainly have their devotees amongst the audience .. I would say the same for the custom vehicles .. but they’re not so likely to get the ‘popular wow’ vote.

Henry Welch, New Blades 2015

Above Henry Welch from this year and below Petre Craciun from 2014

Petre Craciun, New Blades 2014

Below Ollie Knights 2014

Ollie Knights, New Blades 2014

There are however prizes awarded in a number of categories, including ‘Best Architectural Model’ ( awarded in 2014 to Petre Craciun, above ). We all like being acknowledged ourselves and it’s difficult not to be moved when we witness the acknowledgement of someone we believe deserves it, but I feel that the prize-givings are more just a part of the entertainment. With so much variety, so much choice .. it can never be completely ‘fair’ .. I’d estimate a good 25% of the achievements in New Blades deserve the same accolade each year!

Speaking of choice .. in terms of subjects and treatments I’m guessing that students don’t have a completely free choice as to where or how to focus their efforts. If they want to get work these choices are conditioned by the market and tutors would be failing the students if they didn’t equip them to satisfy it and guide them towards it. So bearing this mind there’s always a surprising measure of individuality and innovation .. I’m just not sure that I want to see another Incredible Hulk, Elephant Man or Dobby the House Elf. I feel that no matter what skill or sensitivity is shown it’s getting hard to remain inspired by them.

Skilled makers don’t necessarily have to be innovators, or have great or original ideas, but in New Blades 2015 as in previous years there was no shortage of ‘special’!

Thomas Hughes, New Blades 2015

Above another piece from Thomas Hughes this year and below from ‘S.B’ 2013

S.B, New Blades 2013

Below another piece this year from Imogen Nagle, ‘Herman the merman’

Imogen Nagle, New Blades 2015 'Herman the merman'

The show also offers the unique opportunity to learn something about the making processes. As one comes to expect from design/practical Degree shows there are many portfolios to browse through which include detailed records of the designing and making process. What distinguishes New Blades in this respect compared to other Degree shows I visit is that many of the students really do take this aspect of ‘record keeping’ seriously .. as an integral part of their work. Often the work-in-progress photos are not merely snapshots, but carefully balanced and crafted works in themselves! I think this reflects the increasing importance of Internet presence, but also perhaps the increasing popularity of ‘making ofs’ as part of the entertainment.

Imogen Nagle, New Blades 2015 'Herman the merman' sculpt

Above ‘Herman’ sculpt from Imogen Nagle and below the ‘space bulldog’ maquette in progress from Thomas Hughes

Thomas Hughes, New Blades 2015. Space bulldog maquette in progress

But I feel one of the most important inspirations from this exhibition within the current climate is that much of the best work emphasizes the value of ‘fusion’ .. the discerning use of digital help and the perfect fusion of traditional hand-work and machine-enabled. Faced nowadays with a greatly expanded toolbox, ‘model-makers’ have to become expert ‘choosers’.

Rujie Li, New Blades 2015

Also from this year above Rujie Li and below Jack White

Jack White, New Blades 2015

It may be wrong to take perfection or absolute realism as benchmarks for judging the physical work .. one has to accept that if the work is destined for the screen it could undergo further transformation. Considering the fusion of practical and digital methods currently prevailing it may not make economic sense for a physical object to contain every nuance .. it may be quicker, easier and cheaper to add refinements digitally. On the other hand I’m guessing that the students are nevertheless encouraged to put as much as possible into the physical rendition. I was very glad that the exhibition gave the physical objects centre-stage, and that there seemed to be very few monitors or laptops around!

This year’s students haven’t exactly been ‘quick off the mark’ in getting their portfolios online, part of the reason why I’ve used examples from past years as much as from the present to illustrate the range and standards achieved. If you like what you see, you can see more work from this year’s or previous exhibitions at

https://www.flickr.com/photos/newblades/albums/

.. and go to the 4D modelshop website from May onwards next year to see when the next New Blades will take place.

There’s only one single and major fault with this show .. that it’s not on for longer, at least long enough for more of the public at large to appreciate what it offers! It’s always brief, but this year was extremely so. It’s a big ask in London though! It must cost a lot to stage it even for a couple of days and all money made goes towards the costs.

University of Hertfordshire, Character and creative effects

Above work from the University of Hertfordshire website

The colleges and courses

If you’re not a film/tv industry insider you may struggle to understand what is meant by ‘visual effects’ as opposed to ‘special effects’ .. and it’s even a little more complicated when it comes to courses! Course options are changing in accordance with constantly evolving territories. For example University of Hertfordshire offers three ‘Model Design’ BA choices .. ‘Character and Creative Effects’, ‘Model Effects’ and ‘Special Effects’. Arts University Bournemouth offers one comprehensive BA in ‘Modelmaking’. University of Bolton runs a BDes in ‘Special Effects for Film & TV’. University for the Creative Arts entitles their BA ‘Creative Arts for Theatre and Film’ and City of Glasgow College offers an HND in ‘3D Design: Model Making for the Creative Industries’.

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Freelance model-makers in the UK

To those of you who’ve contributed to my list of freelance model-makers .. many thanks for your exceptional patience! It’s taken me an eternity to put together what I have been given so far .. not because it’s that much, but because of so many other commitments. I’ve now put it up under Model-makers in the main menu. It’s a small beginning .. and I hope that a range of other makers will offer their details in time .. but there is already some fine work to see there!

It’s not my intention to compete with other valuable resources, such as 4D modelshop’s list of freelancers http://modelshop.co.uk/Static/Freelancers This is well-known, long- established and effective .. I usually get a few calls a month on the basis of this .. but here I just wanted to give beginners or devotees a chance alongside more experienced makers.

I’ve chosen to list everyone very simply .. giving their location, telephone and email contact, and their portfolio website for more of their work. I’ve selected just one representative image per person, in agreement with them.

Here are a few examples, such as Zepur Agopyan’s 1:6 scale violin and case ..

Zepur Agopyan

.. or Machiko Weston’s 1:50 scale house for The Rocky Horror Show tour designed by David Farley

Machiko Weston

.. or the Lamb Burger from Jessica Dance, photographed by David Sykes.

Jessica Dance

If you’d like to be included in this list, you’re welcome to send me your details so that I can look at your work. My main purpose in putting this list together was so that I could refer clients to a range of makers who may be able to help them .. I get many offers of work which I am unable to manage .. and I have already been able to forward a number of opportunities.