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Lighting is everything - A look at my approach to light Dioramas

I wanted to do a diorama like I’ve never seen before. Dioramas are such a unique way to tell a story and allow guests to take in a world or moment in time. But it starts and ends with good lighting.

Unlike their bigger brother – the experiential-walkthrough, dioramas cost less, and don’t have to deal with the necessary, but loathsome, building code issues. Disney does the best job I’ve seen at designing around these issues but trust me, it’s not easy, and is usually quite a shock to noobs to the industry.

That said, I’m sure we’ve all seen those dioramas; the ones lit entirely with a big, ugly florescent tube light. It washes out all the detail and mood, holding your attention for about negative one second. A lot of this is due to a couple of things – older models not having LED technology in their time, not allotting enough exhibit space to properly hide the lighting, or just not thinking about lighting until the 11th hour.

I had to do these dioramas differently.

Over the last several years, I’ve been studying film and all the aspects that go into it to make a solid moving-picture-show. The biggest resource that helped me, other than my friend and mentor Doug Henderson, hands down is No Film School. They have collected blogs, tutorials, behind-the-scenes, and more from tons of filmmakers all over, and have blessed planet earth with that knowledge to go forth and be creative. So cheers, No Film School and Doug!

Taking what I’d learned about film, I wanted the exhibits to feel cinematic and real. And the key is that I wanted guests to feel. I wanted to be able to connect emotionally with these dioramas. For example, I wanted the light to feel hot and uncomfortable when you look at the victims in the arena, and cool and comfortable when you look at the vain upper class in the spectator’s seating.

Before looking at the lighting inside the diorama, I want to mention that the space outside the diorama must be designed for optimal viewing, and must be dark to allow the scene to stand out. If it has to compete for attention from something else, if it’s tucked away and hard to notice, or if you walk in and it’s so bright you only see your own reflection in the glass, you have a big problem. I’ve worked on dioramas that had some combination of all these issues and I would go as far as to say that it’s not even worth having one unless you have these things under control. A diorama is certainly cheaper to make than a full scale set, but still not cheap!

Along those lines, another big thing for me was the positioning. It’s extremely un-engaging to approach a diorama and look at the top of the character’s head. People rarely bend down to look at the dioramas, so you have to bring it up to them. I wanted the scenes to feel like pieces of art in a gallery when you approach them. This is a little tricky when you’re dealing with the logistics of making sure guests have good viewing access to exhibits – for example, the eye line of people in wheel chairs are lower than your average adult, not to mention the heights of children. But due to the more adult nature of these dioramas, I was able to get away with keeping them a bit higher than normal. When you approach a diorama, the best viewing position is right down there with the characters. That’s the sweet spot where it's the most engaging, and I desperately wanted get the character’s eye lines as close to the average guest as I could get away with.

Architectural dioramas are different, like this diorama we did of the Tower of Babel. In this case, the characters are too small to emotionally engage with them, and the main purpose of the scene is intended to be more functional than emotional.

One of the things I wanted to do was have all my strong light sources behind the main subject, even if just slightly. This way it pops the characters out, kind of that Ridley Scott lighting. Mmmmm…

I also had a lighting plan from the get-go, but didn’t necessarily know what types of lights I was going to be using to achieve my vision. There were lots of testing and experimenting as I went. And in a few cases, I had to scrap the initial idea and improvise.

The Lost Squadron Diorama – HO scale

The rule is, if you have a backdrop or mural in the diorama, you have to be able to light it separately from the rest of the diorama. Just like if you’re lighting a backdrop for film. You can’t have a character’s shadow falling against a cityscape mural. The illusion will be blown.

This one was a pretty simple diorama. It was the first one I had designed, but it still had some interesting challenges. The backdrop is a dome (which on a side note, was really annoying to get a smooth paint finish on because you spray one area and it blows paint dust onto another freshly painted area.)

  1. On the edge of the diorama, before it goes into the backdrop dome, is a trench with LED strip lights on a dimmer, to cast a little more light onto the horizon.

  2. There is a big source light coming through a masked off are in the dome on above and to the right which gives a diffused light to the snowy landscape.

  3. Off to the side is a little Gantom spotlight popping out the main tent and giving a hard source light.

  4. Outside the case is a Source 4 Mini with a blue gel to light the cross section of the ice, yet makes it still feel cool and dark.

  5. Fiber optic lights run to little work lights and throw extra light in the melted out ice cavern.

The Tower of Babel – HO scale

Again, I didn’t want to just light this with a big ugly florescent tube bulb just above the glass. It would have completely washed out all the detail. I wanted that hot, midday feel, with the “sun” slightly behind the tower to really pop it out and cast a nice shadow in front of it.

  1. There is a Source 4 Mini in the back corner, with a plexy-protected hole allowing the light in. Its shutters are blocking light from the Mural Backdrop.

  2. The backdrop is lit with 4 LED house bulbs, the floodlight types. I have a soft edge, and each is angled to the opposite side’s mural. The backdrop is basically a triangle with rounded corners, so it was really tricky to light without creating hot spots on the mural, as the light focuses in a bend. I’ll stick with semi circles or domes in the future.

  3. There are LED strip lights in the trench between the diorama and the mural so that I can keep the 4 back drop lights a little bit off the diorama. You can’t rely too heavily on these trench strip lights because it rakes against the mural and any imperfections will show up

The Pagan Temple – 1/12 scale

This one went easier than I thought it would. My initial plan was to basically make a diffused lighting from above and make a sort of “egg crate” to block the light source from the guest’s eye. As I saw the mural progress, I went against that idea and lit it with Gantoms from the front (mostly).

  1. Because this one has tons of fiber optics lighting the lamps, I needed to see what that looked like before I got into the rest of the lighting. The lamps were 3D printed so that I could design a hole for the fiber optic wire to slide into easy. The hole is curved and I couldn’t easily/quickly do this with molding/casting. And besides, 3D printing is always fun. We also made these fire pots that are cast in clear resin and lit with either fiber optics or Gantoms.

  2. There are a couple of Gantoms side lighting the characters with a pinkish light, representing the last bit of light from the setting sun.

  3. There are a couple of Gantoms inside the temple reflecting in a way to light the interior space of the room. That was trickier than one might think because it had to reflect in a way that wouldn’t look like a light bulb right behind the curtain, and there’s not a ton of room in there.

  4. There is a Gantom light in the furnace of the serpent idol’s lap uplighting his face. Here I have a little spill on the ceiling, but since there’s enough going on everywhere else, nobody really thinks about it. You can only do so much!

  5. The mural then is lit with Gantom from above the display window. I had to be really careful to use lots of black wrap to snoot (using a special foil to funnel the light into the shape needed) the lights and not get it on the model itself. It was also tricky, because of the wide viewing angles of the diorama window, to be able to slide some light behind the model, just past your viewing angle. The other trick was to constantly check it with my Iphone-because the dynamic range on a phone camera is so crappy, all your light’s hot spots end up showing up on the phone, even though they may look fine with the naked eye.

The Feast – 1/6 scale

I am not looking forward to the day when the LEDs in this start dying because this diorama has tons of very specifically placed lights EVERYWHERE. This was a big challenge but very rewarding.

We were getting very close to our deadline when I got it mostly lit and realized it just wasn’t working. I had not planned on putting such a strong light source in the middle – the fire pit. But without it, your eyes stayed on all the outer rim characters, and didn’t engage with what was happening in the center. So last minute, I sculpted some fire, stuck some sticks and rocks in there, poured silicone and threw it in the pressure pot to cure bubble-free. Then I cast it in clear resin under pressure and, I believe, I sandblasted the final thing. I am really happy how it came together. There is an orange gel under the fire, and I hit the tips with a dark stained glass paint to mimic real fire. I may have put in just a little blue in the base of the flames too.

  1. The skylights are lit with two source 4 minis. Blue gels. Pretty straight forward. These help justify some rim lighting for characters, and help pull you into the center of the scene.

  2. The mural is lit with diffused strips around the rim of the opening out of sight, as well as one or two Gantoms above the display window.

  3. The side room, due to space restriction, is lit with an LED strip that wraps around a sand blasted, ½” plexy rectangle. So the side lighting creates an even glow through the piece of plexy. Then there’s a curtain in front. Initially I tried putting a character’s silhouette cut out in between the two to imply more going on in another room, but it didn’t work. I needed more depth, and in the end, it didn’t really need it.

  4. The Dancer in the hall is just a silhouette cutout in front of a Gantom light.

  5. The fire pit in the center of the room is lit with the brightest house bulb I could buy, mounted under the scene. I think it’s like 1800 lumens. It almost verges on too bright, but I really wanted that to actually light the characters, and it looks pretty convincing.

  6. There is a complex network of fiber optic wires underneath the scene that light all the oil lamps throughout. I went with a design of oil lamp (as mentioned above) that I could 3D print and hide a fiber optic wire inside. (A note on fiber optic wires – the fiber optic wire box gets too hot for gels. Within a day, the gels at the base of the wire just burn out. And cool-blue lights coming from oil lamps just don’t look good. At all. So I bought this stained glass paint and we painted all the tips an orange/amber color and that’s been holding up great!)

  7. Lots of mini LED spots called Nano Spots were used. I got them from A few a hidden throughout the diorama, but most are just above the display window, punching up the light levels of certain characters. Most of it’s really subtle, but it helps.

  8. Along the front edge, just out of sight when the display case is closed, is a gelled strip light to just throw a little light on the characters that are right up against the glass, so that no exterior lighting is needed.

The Arena – 1/6 scale

This one was a little easier to light than the feast scene, but still a goodly challenge. Inspired by various gladiatorial paintings with this harsh, mid-day sunlight spilling into the Roman Coliseum (not to mention the movie Gladiator), I really wanted that hard lighting. Hard lighting can be challenging with dioramas because if that source is too confined, you’ll start to see the characters’ shadows moving away from the source very noticeably, and start looking like its from a light bulb rather than a distant light source, such as the sun. Also, with a general light idea in mind, I cheated a lot of the design to accommodate where I could hide lighting. The sky above is not a cyclorama – there’s a hard corner and a big seam that runs down the middle, but I designed the awnings to hide that, as well as all the strip lights that light it.

  1. The harsh sun pouring in is lit with four, Source 4 Minis. That may seem a little much, but due to beam angles, and making sure I have the right punch of light there, and after putting my cookies (shapes in front of the light source) in there to represent the sunlight coming through the beams, it needed it. The thing I was disappointed with was the Source 4s, at least at this distance; they created a prismatic effect around the edges, so it throws blue (most noticeably) on all the characters. 99.99% of people wont notice or care, but it bugs me. It most likely wouldn’t be a problem if I had more distance to work with.

  2. Side-lit LED strips were used to add a bit more fill and simulate the bounced light that the sun would have after hitting the ground and bouncing back up under the characters in the Arena.

  3. Strip lights are used to light the blue sky. I used side-lit LEDs to go all around the edge above the wood colonnades, and regular LED strips on the tops of the awning beams. This helps to bounce cool sky blue back down into the model through the fabric awnings, contrasting with that warm harsh sunlight.

  4. There are two bulbs, mostly aimed up at the sky, right behind the display window wall to bounce more blue down. Fixtures are a bit of an annoyance with these because as far as codes go, we were allowed to wire all the 12v LEDs up ourselves, but if it was a LED house bulb with the standard socket, everything about it had to be unmodified UL listed hardware. Finding small, pivoting fixtures with long pluggable cords was near impossible. In the end I bought clamp lights, took the dish off, and mounted the clamp part to a coat hanger with a bulbous end. Worked great! I was pleased, though it’s a very underappreciated solution.

  5. Final touches were done with Nano Spots just above the display glass to punch some light levels on characters.

I hope this inspires and informs! There are more pictures HERE. In the future, I’ll do a post talking about all the 3D printing we did, and what we learned about it. Thanks for reading and please like, follow, and share! And write in with other recommendations for blog topics.






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