‘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.

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.