‘So you think you’d like to be a model-maker?’ – Part 2

If you haven’t seen Part 1, scroll down just three previous posts to October 2020. In this first part I focused on some of the qualities or ‘mindsets’ which are important, in my view, not only for starting out as a model-maker but, crucially, for continuing happily with it. I also started to suggest first steps for a beginner to consider in terms of ‘professionalising’ their work and it’s this aspect I’m continuing with now.

Part of Georjane Winn’s degree show work presented at ‘New Blades’, the model-makers annual recruitment fair, 2017, organized by 4D modelshop

Let’s say .. you’re really keen, you’ve got some things to show, but not a great deal? The best thing you can do for yourself is spend as much time as you can doing more! Of course it’s likely you’ll be asking yourself what kind of ‘more’ you should be doing if you want to improve your chances, but I feel quite strongly that a lot of your self could be lost if you listen to the voice of ‘conformity’ too soon. So look at the things you’ve made at the very beginning, the things you’ve chosen to make, usually just for fun, perhaps still as a child unaware of any other reasons. It could be a mistake at this point if you depart too much from these beginnings. For a while at least, continue with what you enjoy doing most, what you feel your strengths are, what you can capitalize on already, regardless of what you might guess now or discover in the future about what people want or what you think they’ll remember most! Whatever this is, if imaginatively developed it could become one of your personal specialisms, perhaps the thing in your work that gets you remembered, or gets noticed because no-one else is doing it, or at least not in the same way!

Work from Marleigh Layne for her degree show selection presented at ‘New Blades’, the model-makers annual recruitment fair, 2019, organized by 4D modelshop.

Once you’ve strengthened your own ‘base’ as it were, then you can look more outside of it .. I mean, take a closer look at what’s actually going on. Once you’ve taken the time to understand and embrace where you’re coming from, I think it’s always best to ‘bite the bullet’ eventually, and get an idea of what others are doing; the standard ‘expected’; the type of training (for those who’ve opted for it); the jobs that model-making companies are doing .. even though you’ll see perhaps many aspects of model-making that you’re not so interested in. It’s all knowledge that can’t, or shouldn’t hurt, at this point. So for this you could, for example, find the New Blades section on the 4D modelshop website where you can access photos of the work of model-making graduates from the last few years. Here you’ll see projects such as film creatures; make-up prosthetics; practical effects settings; architecture; exhibition or educational models; product models; puppets for animation .. and so on. In addition you could find the props/model-making firms (or single model-makers) on Google, such as Artem or Asylum for example, and see what they’re doing, or get an idea of what film studios or production companies are up to? At the end of this part I’ve put my own selection of some of them well worth looking at.

Miniature farmhouse made by Artem to be destroyed during a storm sequence in the 2018 film ‘The Hurricane Heist’. See https://www.artem.com/portfolio/767 for more info and photos of the process.

So I’ve started to answer the questions ‘Who needs models?‘ or ‘Where are models called for?’ and here is some more detail ..

Architectural models take up a big proportion of the model-making sector as a whole, whether these are ‘sketch’ or early stage models needed during design development; final, finished models for public or client presentation; or similar presentations of building projects, sometimes whole cityscapes, as visual aids in urban planning for example. It’s rare though that freelance model-makers will get work during the design development stage; more likely that they’ll be called in once all that’s been finalized and something frighteningly tight and pristine is required. There are numerous model-making firms dedicated to nothing else, who employ numbers of makers working in ‘production line’ mode, often having a small team of in-house model-makers and engaging others from a ‘pool’ of freelancers as and when needed.

Above ‘sketch’ or design development model from Studio Mumbai Architecture, for ‘1:1 Architects Build Small Spaces’ V&A London 2010, link

London Quadrant Masterplan, for Allies and Morrison Architects
https://www.networkmodelmakers.com/ Network Modelmakers

Real, physical models are still used a lot in film and tv, now often in close combination with CGI (in ‘fusion’ as it’s often put), whether directly part of the final image or as part of the preparatory work. Don’t forget that included in ‘film and tv’ is commercial advertising, where models are likely to be used in exactly the same way, often employing the very same people and often providing a large part of their income. If we bundle product photography, whether for print or online, together with these the whole amounts to by far the largest ‘raison d’etre’ for model-making anywhere! The popularity of stop-motion animation fluctuates … it has always come and gone since the earliest beginnings of the medium .. but it’s still moving forward in various ways and, especially, talented UK makers are still doing well in it as far as I can tell.

Below still from short promotional film commissioned by Twinings from Parabella Animation Studio, 2015 http://www.parabellastudios.com/twinings

Publicity still from the stop-motion animation ‘Early Man’ 2018 (Nick Park/Aardman Animations). ‘Early Man’ may not have done as well as in the ‘haydays’ following on from Wallace and Gromit, but it can still be counted as a seriously engaging and entertaining film.

Museums hold an honorary place in this list because they’re often where the public becomes more conscious that they’re looking at models, where they can be appreciated for themselves if you like, and so likely where children first get inspired to want to do it. If it was ever really the case that models exhibited in museums were made by paid museum staff (most of the models I used to wonder at in the Science Museum were donated by private enthusiasts for whom time was not a commercial issue) it is certainly rarely the case now. There are the prop or model-making companies, who can be better equipped and more flexibly staffed, catering for those.

Above staff installing an exhibit for the Forest Floor exhibition, American Museum of Natural History, 1958 (photo Alex J Rota). From a past time, when large museums often had model or display making departments. Likewise, large performing arts institutions in the UK had ‘model rooms’, and would normally make all their sets and costumes in-house.

A breathtakingly crafted scale model of the Shand Mason steam fire engine in the Science Museum, London.

Performance designers, that is, those who design sets and costumes for theatre, dance, opera or other musical productions, are normally trained to make their own design models .. at least that’s the plan and it’s a vital part of their training! But it’s customary that those performance designers who become fortunate enough to get a lot of work, will need to employ freelancers to take on most if not all of the model-making, often including the technical drawings as part of the remit. It’s common for designers to employ younger, less experienced ones as assistants to do this, either reasonably paid or for the work-experience. Some young designers stay as model-makers, and a very few go on to make a living from this work. It’s rare however that freelance model-makers are brought in from outside the performance design sector, and it’s also highly unusual (I don’t know of any cases now) for a theatre, opera or dance company to do any in-house model-making. It’s part of the designer’s contract to supply the model, and usually the designer’s responsibility to find and pay the model-maker if needed.

Model-making by Catherine Morgan for designer Leslie Travers (above) ‘Elysium’ Norwegian National Opera and (below) for designer Rae Smith ‘Barber Shop Chronicles’ US tour

Briefly returning to film and television .. in film production design there are similarities, such as model-making being a small part of a film/tv designer’s training, but really the relevant comparisons end there. Don’t forget that here I’m talking about the lengthy design process, different from the ‘practical effects’ models which will later make it into the film. Usually the only models made during this process are the so-called ‘white card’ ones which serve to give all involved a very basic spatial description of the set to be filmed on (see my ‘White card models’ for film/tv work in the Methods section here). Also, different to theatre companies, the film production company usually does have people in-house who get the job, amongst other things, of making these models. So if you’re interested, for example, in performance design model-making you’d need to contact designers, whereas for film you’d need to contact the production companies.

So far I’ve listed the circumstances where models are required within the more, if you like ‘recognized’ and long-standing disciplines or media. In these, models are ‘commissioned’, work is assigned, freelancers are engaged, contracts are made. But there’s a bigger, perhaps more vibrant, more bustling, worldwide ‘open to all’ internet marketplace. Here there’s no guarantee of success, and little recompense for failure, but many within the model-making ‘industry’ (which really only takes that form if you use the name) are managing to make a good living from it. It helps, perhaps, if you can offer something that’s within an established category, at least that means that there’s more chance of your work being looked for and found. For example, there are many fine makers supplying the demand for more exclusive or ‘bespoke’ dollhouse furniture or interior accessories; related to that, there are some who make models of people’s houses on commission; there are others who craft their own model trees or ‘doll’s garden’ features; or others whose work is geared to making figures or landscape elements for wargamers. If you feel you can come up with something that enough people will want, that is made sufficiently well and which you can price so that it’s worth it from both sides, then nobody’s stopping you! One aspect of this special world though is that you’ll need to let go of the word ‘model’ .. no-one much likes it here. You will be making ‘miniatures’, so you will be a ‘miniaturist’!

Tarbena Miniatures, 1:12 scale ‘William and Mary’ period ‘lowboy’

1:12 scale plums and blackberries made by Crafted By Echo. Just like 1:12 scale furniture, miniature food is a popular ‘category’. These specialists most often take advantage of the properties of polymer clays, particularly the translucent type, and other techniques such as ‘caning’. The degree of simulation achieved is often remarkable! Their work can usually be found on online selling hubs such as Etsy, but annual exhibitions such as Miniatura offer a more personable opportunity to see their work.

If on the other hand you’re reading this and are still young enough or committed enough to consider some form of degree training then this is probably what you should do, because the practice-based courses which have become established over the last few years in the UK are pretty good! It’s far less about getting a recognised ‘qualification’ .. a piece of paper or a line in your CV. It’s more about the vitality of the environment, and the opportunity to learn from the work of everyone around you. Just as importantly, the places offering 3-year BA degrees in Model-making or related disciplines will give you access to often excellent technical resources and the expertise of those who know how to use them, in other words .. in that environment at least, you’re never going it alone.

I mention this organized training partly as a reminder or a warning, to those who haven’t taken that route, of what they’re up against, at least in terms of the technical grounding. All the more reason then, for those who’ve followed a different path, to build from their personal origins and their own experiences along the way.

As for finding the companies to look at, you may be more competent than I am at pinpointing exactly what you want on the internet just by using Google search words .. or you could save time by going to sites like www.4rfv.co.uk which is a directory of companies in the ‘Broadcast, Film and Television Industry’ and looking at their list for ‘Props & Models’, which is further divided more specifically into ‘Model-Makers’ or ‘Puppet Makers’ and so on. Most of these companies work in other fields too, but if you’d prefer less of a film&tv bias this list of model-making companies is also worth looking at https://modelshop.co.uk/Static/companies

Here are a few of the company websites I’ve found to be most informative or inspiring, ranging from quite large businesses to small collectives or individuals. Some also offer clear guidance on applying for vacancies or sending CVs and portfolios, some have interesting ‘blog’ sections which include interviews with their employees or freelancers.

https://www.mackinnonandsaunders.com/ https://www.aardman.com/
https://www.aplusc.tv/ https://www.amalgam-models.co.uk/
http://www.parabellastudios.com/ https://www.artem.com/
https://www.networkmodelmakers.com/about https://asylumsfx.com/

While we’re on the useful links, here are some more general others ….

https://www.artsjobs.org.uk/artsjobshome/   listings made available through Arts Council England. It’s all free, and it’s worth subscribing to both ‘Arts Jobs’ and ‘Arts News’, at least for a start.

https://www.mandy.com/uk/crew-jobs  for Film and Tv listings

https://modelshop.co.uk/Static/Jobs  this is the only jobs-listing I know of where you can see actual, physical ‘model-making’ jobs (as opposed to 3D digital) even if the positions advertised are usually confined to the architectural or engineering areas. You can also pay a small amount per year to be included on 4D’s list of freelance model-makers here https://modelshop.co.uk/Static/Freelancers

https://www.screenskills.com/  useful information on the UK film & tv industry e.g descriptions of job titles; may have links to possible bursaries or apprenticeships

https://www.skwigly.co.uk/   online animation magazine

Finally, this is also worth remembering. At any time, any organization, small firm or individual .. anyone, in any business .. could suddenly decide that it would be a great idea to have a professional scale model of ‘whatever’, for whatever reason. So what do they do? If they’ve never considered this before it’s highly unlikely that they’ll know how to contact a ‘model-maker’. So their only option is to turn to Google and look up ‘model-maker’ or ‘scale model’ or ‘model making services’ .. whatever combination. I know this happens because over the years I’ve had so many enquiries from people needing models .. someone who wants their late grandfather’s much-loved ship model refurbished; a lady who would love to give her husband a bespoke model of their street to put in his model railway installation; a charity-run village museum just enquiring whether anyone fancies making a miniature gallows; an estate agent who’d like a different kind of window display … I must add in caution that none of these enquirers had any idea how much model-making work might cost and this often proved to be a decider against it, unless I’d been willing to work for less than minimum wage. But they all contacted me simply because my name, and the clear fact that I’m a maker, had come up on Google in association with ‘model-making’ or ‘scale model’. My name appears quite high up on most search pages because I’ve written a book and have a website, this one, which is frequently visited. It’s taken many years to establish that kind of presence, but I’m sure you’ve noticed that prominence on the first page of some searches isn’t always given to the oldest, most authoritative, or most sensible .. is it! The point I’m making is that internet presence really does work, and you may not necessarily have to wait years for it to do that. Just put some in place .. and continue to craft it!

‘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.