Friday, September 25, 2020

Layout Backdrops

Model railroaders often focus on the micro, at the expense of the macro. Facing constant space constraints and a quest to make our layouts not only better but bigger, we should do everything we can to increase their apparent size. In this post, I'll show the micro view of backdropa on my Kingston's Hanley Spur HO-scale layout, while at the same time showing how they improve the macro - without even trying! 
I had a hole in the backdrop that needed something non-descript. Perhaps reflecting the Frontenac Floor & Wall Tile factory (MICRO - top photo) that was located just north of the CN Outer Station yard. A printed photo that I'd been saving for just such a project.(MACRO - above) 

Model railroad myths tell us we should prepare and perfect the ceiling, lighting, walls, flooring and even how to prepare the perfect souffle' before starting layout construction. OK, the souffle' is hyperbole, but room preparation is fine as long as it doesn't stunt our initiative to get going.I am disconcerted when I see beautiful modelling and track layouts that show a blank wall, foundation cinder blocks, vapour barrier & insulation, or other incomplete and distracting layout room distractions. One of the few improvements I made to my layout room before construction was a couple of coats of sky-blue paint. Fun fact : paint was conserved by only painting the walls from ceiling to layout height!

I prefer to view and railfan my layout like I do the prototype - mostly at ground level. But when I'm operating, even with a 48-inch layout height, which is higher than some, I feel like I'm a drone, or riding in a helicopter. 
That sky-blue paint will appear in every photo of the layout, so I would suggest selecting a shade that looks 'right' to you. This may depend on your modelled locale, type of scenery, layout dimensions and even paint availability! For instance, Jason Shron has chosen...grey on his Kingston Sub layout.  MICRO: The garage awaits an engine job on that pickup as Lam's Grocery (fun fact - BC prototype) sits across Montreal Street (above). MACRO: Pulling back the focus shows the wider view of Montreal Street, including a blended photo background view of the actual street, complete with an N scale farmhouse and tiny yellow car to aid in the streetscape perspective. Sky-blue sky postscript: puffy cloud sticker at top left:
Another MICRO view of neighbouring garages - 'structural flats' - some obsolete, and an old-school school. I prefer to use Scotch tape on the back of the printed photo backdrops. In case a better one comes along. Flexibility. Some prefer painting on the layout room walls. That is more permanent. Without a farm scene, or even a fallow field, my fertile imagination left me this vacant lot spot to park my scratchbuilt manure spreader:
MICRO: the limestone embankment between the water-level view of the Kingston's Inner Harbour and the bulk fuel tanks along Rideau Street comprises a printed limestone rock cut photo (white-glued to a 2x4!) with garden moss mat and another printed photo backdrop. I've found that finding, saving and printing such photos, or finding them in magazines and books makes a fine file of material for such use.
MACRO view shows that tiny rock cut in context of Imperial Oil and Anglin tank car delivery spurs, more of the backdrop, plus paper mock-up black bulk fuel tanks for Anglin Fuels at right. Modelling half a tank saves space while preserving that illusion of depth. Exactly what we want a backdrop to do in our quest to 'enlarge' our layouts.:
Along the prototype Railway Street, there are 1950's-era warehouses, bottling plants and builders' supply houses. MICRO: the parking lot includes trailers, tucks and a guy inspecting some lumber. Check out that Atlas track bumper on the MacCosham Moving warehouse 'structural flat'. It really works!
MACRO: The depth of background is preserved by merging that Weldwood warehouse into the one in the backdrop. I also try to match the palette of structure colours to the backdrop as well as the layout surface colours at the wall to the backdrop.Try dropping in some background trees and houses to increase visual depth:
MICRO: It's lunch-break in the Weston's Bakery lot as the 'gut-wagon' arrives. Photo backdrop of a nearby plant, homemade trees and that neutral sky-blue paint extend the wall, perhaps to infinity. Perhaps beyond infinity. Placing backdrops at a height that looks right preserves the round-earth appearance of our layouts. I can only suggest playing around with the virtual horizon until it appears natural and realistic.
MACRO: In my 'helicopter' while I'm switching two other nearby warehouses from the CP lead, I can see neighbouring buildings, the KIMCO dumpster at Weston's and an overall grey surface for the parking lot. Yes, those are Robertson screws holding my track in place! I might want to change my mind on the layout trackplan sometime. Or even add yet another spur to enhance switching possibilities!
Boathouses lined Kingston's Inner Harbour. MICRO: This low angle shows the tree shadows on the wall. A potential positive to photographing from this level is the illumination of some modelling blindspots, but also shows boathouse detail, the far shore photo background and homemade cattails at far right. That fisherman isn't getting that boat into the water by himself. He's contemplating catfish:
MACRO: The River Street bridge at left conceals a 'secret' track underpass to Anglin. The boathouses are partly hidden by telltales for the bridge. Note the backdrops that vary the apparent distance to the far shore. It's not a good idea to have detail right at the wall if you're trying to portray distance. Getting the 'water' printed photo backdrop at the right 'water level' was particularly important here.
MICRO: Farther along Montreal Street, it's heavy equipment and row houses in the photo backdrop:
MACRO: This view actually works better to make the scene look larger:
MICRO: A printed backdrop of Midland or some other Lake Huron locale includes CN switching that works for my modelled locale. A viewer might think tracks really do exist beyond the layout:
MACRO: We've come full-circle - there's that backdrop building from the top photo, right. Those telegraph poles break up the background, again adding depth. A thin layer of chunky ground foam hides the transition:
Perhaps this post has given you food for thought for your current, future or someday modelling. The old paradigm was loops of track not extending beyond the layout. Modelling interchange operations expanded the layout purpose. Adding backdrop structural flats, scenery and printed photo backdrops further extends the layout visually whether at MICRO track level or at higher MACRO level!

Running extra...

COVID losses. Be it international travel, jobs or stability in daily lives, there are non-medical collateral damages that are happening every day. CP's Holiday Train, Napanee and Kingston train shows, and now the resumption of VIA's Canadian service are delayed this fall and winter. VIA's fall colours are mostly red and orange:
VIA produces some platitudes in today's press release about why service resumption, scheduled for November 1, is being delayed with no new resumption date. Knowledgeable enthusiasts point to Amtrak long-haul service. Clearly, the Canadian relies on international travellers, including those from the U.S. for its ridership. Actual transportation for actual Canadians to a much lesser extent, perhaps moreso on the Ocean.

This has not stopped me dreaming about cross-country U.S. tours: 
  • Presidential Libraries - to see what real leadership looks like.
  • Railfan B&B's - where morning coffee is enjoyed on a trackside verandah 
  • Railfan Viewing Platforms - scanner feeds and shade, probably junk food.
  • Select Railway Museums - wallowing in nostalgia!


chris mears said...

I sure enjoyed reading this post. You're absolutely right that backdrops are more layered than just the two dimensional form pasted to the wall. That, when looking at the scene, everything that is beyond what our attention is focussed on is a backdrop. In the yard, we have the train we are working on and every siding of cars behind it is the backdrop.

How we use backdrop is a way of informing the viewer too. If we're shunting cars in the yard the cars in those background are both a scenic backdrop for our work but communicate context by the way they relate to the cars in our train. If our train is mostly CN cars but the ones on the other three tracks are all CP their backdrop creates a context for what we're doing. The same for that environmental context like what you shard in your post where layers of buildings and details become the context of the scene.

That backdrop is a connection point too. Like how we'd use hidden staging to be a place where trains from away hide offstage the backdrop is a connection point to the world beyond what we have on the table in front of us.


Eric said...

You raise an interesting point, Chris. A side-by-side CN/CP interchange like Paddington in Winnipeg would be neat. If you're working CN, but see CP in the background, an interchange track next to the backdrop would be the perfect setting for a backdrop and making it believable.

I think the hobby is just waking up to the potential of backdrops, as they did staging, interchanges, industrial switching layouts and many more new trends!

Thanks for your comment,