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Making Miniature Scenes

Working with figures

An advantage we have today is the superior quality of miniature figures. Today's hand painted figures have excellent detail and animated poses. They are far more realistic than the featureless lead figures of the old days. Posing miniature figures in scenes is something of an art. It is not like using poseable dolls. With figurines, the pose is permanent. You have to arrange the figures so that their poses work together to make a credible scene.

If any set of figures had character, detail and superb posing, it was the old German "flats". They were designed to have an animated look. The German craftsmen caught each detail and crafted animated poses. This mitigated their "flat" status. Unfortunately, most of the "full round" figures of later makers tended to be stiff and unruffled. Most did not show even a wrinkle in a bend elbow. Their faces were bland and expressionless. American figures tended to be more animated and have a slight facial expression, but those were hardly a cut above the older European round figures.

One of the most popular lead figure sets was the one including skiers and skaters. Should you come across one, you can see the animated pose of the skaters, yet detail is lacking. The skiers look absolutely stiff. It is hard to make a convincing scene when figures are so bland. Nonetheless, hobbyists managed to do just that. They proved that even with fair to poor tools, a skilled and creative person can do fine work.

How much more can we do, with excellent miniatures?

Our modern figures take a little from the plastic soldiers of the 1950s. Original plastic soldiers were as stiff and bland as their lead counterparts, but improvements crept in quickly. Once the toymakers saw how much more detail could be had with plastic, entirely new figures appeared. The best of them all were made a company called Marx. Marx's soldiers excelled in their realism. They had excellently animated poses, distinct facial features and the most realistic details. Other toy soldier companies tried to equal Marx, but few did.

Meanwhile, hobby companies began producing better lead figures by using silicon molds. The new figures used special alloys that permitted fine detail. These excellent figures by companies like Grenadier, Imrie Risley and Ral Partha were aimed at the skilled diorama makers and the war-gamers. They were never intended for the mass market, as such.

Our current holiday village figures are made of plastic and resin compounds. They are produced by Department 56, Lemax and St. Nicholas Square. Their detail and animation are of a quality reminiscent of Marx. Of course, the village figures are civilians.

Modern figures are sold painted. The paint work is good, though not of the quality done by serious diorama makers. Prepainted figures make our work easier. The paintwork on the village figures is bright, realistic and attractive. Combined with the superior poses and detail, this all adds up to a fine figurine for use in scenes and vignettes.

Curious anomalies

While our figures are very realistic, there are a few unrealistic peculiarities about them. Each figure is realistic on its own, but what about in groups? How do they compare with normal humanity? While everyday crowds reflect a variety of heights and weights, our miniatures tend to have rather standard sizes. You will find a certain consistency within figures of each brand. All adult figures of a particular sex are of the same height. Likewise, children come in perhaps two heights. 90% of all figures have a medium build. The rest are slightly heavier. You may have noticed that the heavy figures are more noticeable. They tend to be character-type figuress.

The tendency for figures is to represent white North Americans. Black, Asian and other ethnic types are either omitted or rare. If included, they are usually character-types. The trend may change, but at this time it is a limitation.

Clothing on 90% of figures ranges from non-working clothes to formal attire. Formal clothing is mainly seen in Victorian sets. The 10% in other attire are character figures.

In toy soldier models, character figures are usually miniatures of specific individuals or unusual troop types. Character types for village figures are either farcical characters or members of a profession or trade. Their purpose is to stand out. The character figures are the ones most likely to have a different height, to be heavier built, to be non-white, or in rare cases to be gaunt and tall. You might say that 90% of the village figures are generic types, while the character figures stand out as individuals.

This is not unlike the plastic military figures of four decades ago. Most pieces in a bag of soldiers were common types, be they modern soldiers, cowboys, Indians, knights, Civil War trooper or spacemen. They would be in any of several common poses. The ones that stood out and became centers of play were those with unusual equipment or conspicuous poses. By standing out, they were identified by children as characters. The characters were used as officers, commanders, or the heroes of the group.

In essence, most of the figures are folks who do not really stand out in a crowd. They are generic people doing any number of everyday - or not so everyday - things. Character figures are the kind of people we recognize as different because they stand out in our everyday lives. In a world where most people are virtual strangers, characters represent that part of society that we know them name.

Think about it: aside from relatives, friends and co-workers, how many people do we know by name? Who or what distinguishes them? We know the folks who provide services, such as delivery men and postal workers whose route includes our homes. We know the crossing guard up the block, the policeman whose beat is our street, and some of the firemen at the ladder company around the corner. We know those with whom we deal regularly, be it the pushcart vendor selling hot dogs, the local grocer and the cook at our favorite diner. Folks whose work entails us are people we come to know by name.

We also know the town characters: those individuals who stand out in a community. Every neighborhood has a few. No doubt you had folks like the Town Crazy, an otherwise harmless soul who was a bit eccentric, and the neighborhood grouch. Others who might stand out would be the retired Marine sergeant or the retired Merchant sailor, the Minister and the Nurse. Their professions make them more visible. You notice a woman walking down the block in a nurse's uniform, or a man who dresses like a first mate on a tramp steamer. For a sad few it is the problem, such as the Town Drunk and the Village Bum. In any town, one or a few people of different ethic backgrounds stand out. In an all-White neighborhood, for instance, the local Black family would be more visible, and vice versa for Black neighborhoods with a White family. Recent immigrants always stand out, be they from Ireland or India, China or the Chile.

There you have it: some are characters by occupation, some by reputation, and some by land of origin.

In making scenes and vignettes, we use characters to add spice and move things along. They are small "high points" in our visual story.

(The figure hobby has always been aimed at the mainstream. The majority orientation is more a matter of profits than anything else. Only within the last 20 years have we soon growing representation in miniature of those outside the mainstream. What we presently call "diversity" exists in society - Freehold itself is a good example. Yet diversity in miniature is slow in coming.)

Placing specific figure types

Our clothing tells a lot about us, and helps identify what we are. This is especially true of certain professions and occupations. Railway workers, policemen, firemen, soldiers, sailors and many others have a particular uniform of customary attire. Clothing not only determines the person's role, but his place and activity.

Policeman: a common figure on streets, in parks and in railway stations is the solitary copper. He tends to stand out of the way of foot traffic, placing himself in a position to observe. If walking, the policeman does not take the center of the walkway. He prefers to observe from the sides. A policeman may carry his baton in hand while outdoors, but not when indoors. A policeman in a shop or diner is there for the same reason as everyone else, and will be posed much like the rest of the crowd. (This goes for any other uniformed figure outside its special places)

Soldier: With so many toy soldiers out there, they make a tempting addition to a miniature world. Of course, most folks don't know that there is a way soldiers appear in different places. Soldiers waiting for trains or walking through town wear non-combat attire. They only wear fatigues if working, and never wear helmets or other combat gear unless in combat, training, or performing guard duty. You might see a soldier with helmet and rifle guarding the gate of a military post, but not waiting for the train. This also applies to sailors.

Since World War I, the US soldier is expected to wear an olive green uniform, although khaki tan and even wool brown have been used. Sailors wear white or dark navy blue. For the US, vehicles are generally olive drab with white stars. Even though modern vehicles are camouflaged in the real world, you can get away with green vehicles with stars in modern vignettes. Most people do not know specific tank or vehicle types, by the way. British uniforms have been either brown or olive green for soldiers, blue for sailors. British vehicles are generally a dark forest green, although olive green is acceptable.

In civilian areas, soldiers and sailors tend to be seen at stations, and in diners or taverns. Soldiers do not shop the way civilians do, so they are unlikely to be seen in most shops, especially for services like haircuts or laundries.

Trainmen and Conductors: seen mainly in stations, train crewmen and conductors are often found on platforms. They tend to stand at the end of the platform, if in a terminal, prior to a train's boarding time. Standing or walking trainmen are at home anywhere in a station. Those carrying lanterns would be nearer the platform ands tracks. Those swinging a lantern would be at the end of a platform or beside the tracks, not actually in the station.

Porters: the porter's route runs between the platform to the baggage area to the place where customers enter the station. His role is to carry baggage, and he will normally accompany passenger figures.

Firemen: firemen in turn-out gear and helmets can only be placed in three places: around the firehouse, at the scene of a fire, or heading to the fire. There is one exception: a common scene among hobbyists is having fireman rescue a cat or child from a tree.

Sanitation men: these fellows tend to work off the sidewalk, sweeping the gutter or rolling a trash bin.

Clergy: a walking or standing figure in normal attire can fit almost any street or station scene. Those in a robe or ceremonial attire are fitting near a church. A clergyman reading a book can be placed at the head of a congregation, or waiting in a station off to himself.

Formal attire: figures like these were made for wedding scenes, and are usually placed as such. You can place a man in tuxedo outside a restaurant, however. Or have a couple in formal attire walking toward a restaurant or church.

Nurses and Doctors: it would not be unusual to see a nurse in white dress walking down the block or waiting for a train. Of course, if she were holding a stethoscope or other medical instrument, she would only be in place at a hospital. The same goes for doctors. Doctors do not generally commute or stroll in their white coats with their stethoscopes. The doctor is best placed at a hospital scene.

Christmas Carolers: these look fine near a large holiday scene, such as the large Yule tree in the center of town or in front of a church. Carolers are among the very few figures that can successfully wear Victorian garb on the street in the modern era. Carolers look good near any Yuletide gathering.

Professional seamen: unlike military sailors, the professional merchant seaman is a civilian. He is most likely seen near the dock area, usually within 1000 feet of the waterside. Professional seamen are appropriate at dockside, around nautical structures such as lighthouses, and in coastal villages. Because they are civilian, you might even be able to have one or two in a city scene that is not exactly nautical.


Your vignette must tell a story entirely on its own, without any explanation or commentary from you! Therefore, figures of very different eras do not mix. For instance: You cannot place a man in Victorian garb on a modern street with modern people and look right. Explaining to viewers that "he is an actor going to the theater" will not work, since you have to tell them this. The scene will not tell this by itself. There are only three good places where you can use Victorian figures in modern scenes:

A good rule of thumb: the present can accommodate things of the past, but the past cannot abide the presence of later times. There are limited applications for Victorian figures in a modern scene, as we have explained. Of course, you could not successfully place a modern soldier or other figure in a Victorian scene.

On rare occasion, you can obscure a figure of another era just enough that he fits later times. Our Victorian boy, places so that his coal tails and knickers are hidden, looks fine in the scene with checker players. It is important that the visible part of the figure fits the era of the scene. Otherwise, you would have to explain the presence of anachronistic attire. If the scene cannot explain it without your commentary, then omit the inappropriate elements.

Be aware that all figures do not work well together. You cannot put a modern soldier in a Victorian or pre-1930s scene. Soldiers of earlier eras can be used in modern scenes, but only as contingents in parades. Historical re-enactors are not so universal a fad as to be accepted by most viewers on sight. An historical contingent in a parade would work. Likewise, a band dressed in earlier military attire will be accepted, whether in a parade or park bandstand.

You do not need a precise guide to the attire of various eras to make good vignettes. You likely have seen enough movies to know what kind of clothes fit the different eras and locales. Small differences between adjacent eras, such as the 1930s and 1950s, would be overlooked because the clothing styles did not change all that much. A contrast between high society formal wear of 1950 would be inexplicable if mixed with figures in street clothes of the 1930s.

Use common sense and your own eye to keep your scenes "in the time". Anachronism is easily avoided when using figures.

Though not an anachronism in itself, a sense of place and season is essential. You would not place a figure in short-sleeved shirt and Bermuda shorts in a Yule season setting, Likewise, a fellow in greatcoat and mittens would be way out of place in sunny Florida. Be very aware that your figures fit the season. It may seem obvious, but it is a mistake made by many.

Posing in real life

The way people stand alone and in groups is not always the way they are depicted in miniature. Early 3-inch figures for Standard Gauge trains depicted men in suits standing stiffly, luggage in hand. They were at a position of attention. Likewise, walking figures looked as if they were marching. People neither stand nor walk that way in civilian life. Look at the way people pose at a real train station or bus stop for comparison.

The same thing can be said when people stand together. If they are waiting, they do not stand facing each other squarely while talking. They are usually facing the same general direction, their bodies at angles to each other. Only the heads turn to face each other. People do not change position to talk. They talk where they stand, turning as little as possible. Only when the conversation takes an excited tone or there is another matter do they change position and face each other.

When people stand front to front, a viewer at the side only sees their profile. Stage actors learned that for better effect, they need to stand at a 45 to 90 degree able. This way, the audience can see both actors' faces and hear them better. Such posing works very well for vignettes, as it places the miniatures where they can be seen from the front.

Make sure that your characters can be seen clearly. Pose them to minimize any obstructions. Remember that in our kind of miniature work, the vignette is more likely to be viewed at a 45 to 30 degree downward angle than from eye level. Adjust your scene so it looks good from both the upward angle and eye level.

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