Top-Heavy, Part IV: Groundwork

datetime April 9, 2020 7:03 AM

Second Side-Thing: Glasses!

Alrighty, so, as I covered in the writeups for Laxmee and Valkyrie, I needed to figure out a way to build the transparent eyewear that I drew on both models’ concept art.

Years back, I got some advice from a pro sculptor about how to render glasses. His advice boiled down to three generally accepted but somewhat frustrating options:

  • Sculpt the glasses as a separate piece. Typically only an option at much larger scales, as the wire you need to build the structure around will make the frames far too thick at most miniature scales.
  • Sculpt an opaque lens. Essentially, just cover the eye with a solid clay lens, and freehand in some eye detail on top of it. This is the easiest method, but tends to look the worst.
  • Sculpt part of the frame, and imply the rest.

That last one is actually kind of interesting– he cited as his example the sculpture of Teddy Roosevelt on the bullshit y’all tore into the Black Mountains:

The sculptor here approached the problem in an interesting way– sculpting glasses that sit out a realistic distance from the face would be far too brittle, especially given that the main sculpting tool here was dynamite. 😛 So instead, they chose to place “hints” of the frame against the surface of the face, and let your brain fill in the details on its own.

This last approach doesn’t work perfectly for miniatures since it’s more appropriate for large scales and impressionist sculpting styles; people just look at miniatures too closely for a “hint” method like that to really work out. However, the advice has always stuck with me, and when I was trying to figure out how to make Valkyrie’s glasses in particular, it seemed to me to be a reasonable “backup position”; basically, I should aim to build the blonde lady a set of partial glasses frames with the intention of putting a transparent lens within them, but if I ran into a complete brick wall, I could always just leave the frames empty and rely on my viewers’ brains to do the rest of the work for me.

Satisfied with that potential compromise, I did quite a bit of experimentation to figure out exactly how I wanted to do this.

My first idea was to cut up blister plastic into the lens shapes I needed. This proved to be challenging for a few reasons– first of all, I found it very difficult to cut the plastic out precisely with a knife. Secondly, when I tested different glues to try to get the frames to stick to the plastic lenses, the only glue that seemed to attach the two securely was super glue. And unfortunately, super glue has a nasty tendency to fog up transparent materials, which ruined all of my tests.

The next thing I investigated was whether there was some sort of clear polymer liquid I could apply that would solidify into a lens under the right conditions. I was primarily thinking of two things here– clear nail polish, and two-part casting resin. In theory, both are liquids with a high surface tension (meaning, they’ll tighten themselves up into a smooth surface once applied, which is desirable when making lenses) which cure into hard plastic. However, neither of the tests went well; the nail polish was really difficult to apply with a paintbrush, and the resin refused to sit still and kept leaking around my test models. Also, both were difficult to shape; they wanted to form into circular shapes, but both models have rectangular lenses.

Not willing to risk my models with such difficult-to-control materials, I kept looking.

My next idea was to try Water Effects. This is basically just thick acylic medium with no pigment and some flow-reducing addititives. You brush it onto a flat water surface, and then shape it into ripples, splashes, and waterfalls, and then it dries clear.

I thought this might be a good alternative to the last two liquids because it was so much more controllable; it sat still much better where I applied it, and because it’s basically just acrylic paint, you can quickly wipe it away with a spare wet brush if you go outside of your intended lines.

I applied some thin test patches to a spare palette to see how easy it was to flatten and smooth over; turns out, neither is particularly easy. :/ The flow-reducing additives make the liquid remember all of the marks you made with your brushes, leaving the end result unfortunately quite bumpy.

However, there were other approaches that I thought might work out. Here, I’ve applied globs of Water Effects and then squished them down under a piece of blister plastic. This would more or less solve the surface texture problem, as the material would be forced flat by the plastic.

The main challenge I had with this was that (1) as you can see, this method sometimes traps unsightly air bubbles that are hard to remove, and (2) the puddle has almost no exposed surface into which to evaporate its liquid during the drying process, which left the areas in the center a bit cloudy even after a few days of drying.

Next, I tried a variation on the same concept; instead of applying the puddle straight onto the face and squishing down with a piece of plastic, I would lay the puddle down on a separate piece of flat plastic…

…and then cut the lenses out of the dried puddle to lift them onto the glasses. This attempt died pretty quickly; the material stuck too well to every surface I applied it to, and was essentially destroyed by my attempts to lift the lenses off.

At this point, I started to despair a bit over my prospects of making this work, and began pondering whether I possibly wanted to reverse course and just leave both models without their eyewear.

However, the model just looked so weird to me at this point after three months of looking at the concept art’s hipster glasses. Which left me in a dilemma: I hate the model without glasses, but everything I’ve tried would ruin her face.

“Well, except the first thing with the blister plastic. If that goes wrong it would just ruin the lenses.”

“Ehhh, f*** it, it’s worth a shot.”

So in a moment of despair, I decided to implement a solution that had failed repeatedly in testing. ~_~

I did make one alteration to the process: instead of working in stiff blister foam, I cut the lenses out of a sandwich bag. These were obviously extremely flimsy, but I figured this probably wouldn’t matter given how closely they were going to sit to the face.

And much to my surprise… this time it worked! 🙂

I don’t know why they didn’t fog over; I didn’t do anything differently that I’m aware of. But when the glue dried, I had transparent frames hanging from the wire lenses, just as I had wanted. 😀

(The shapes needed some cleanup; I went in with a pair of scissors afterward and leveled off the bottom of the lenses.)

They’re definitely flimsy, and I’m not convinced that they’ll stay on forever. However, they lasted long enough to let me take my pictures, and I figure that’s all they really owe me.

Laxmee’s goggle did end up with a spot of fog on the left side, so my fears were still pretty reasonable. However, in this case I was able to patch over the problem by painting a targeting reticule over the lens, which fit her look anyway.

Oh, and Laxmee’s goggle has less support than Valkyrie’s glasses, so in some of the photos taken from the other side you can see how the flimsy plastic actually bends away from the face due to gravity (shots from her left side obscure the problem, fortunately). I don’t know how to solve this problem and honestly I’m a bit terrified to even try, so I’ve made my peace with it.

So in the end, have I discovered a great way to make glasses for miniatures? I don’t think so. This solution ONLY worked because chibi models have enormous heads; on a normal 35mm model, it would be impossible to find wire thin enough to make the frames, and I’m positive that the plastic would fog over on such a small lens. This was a solution pretty unique to my specific project, and I would need to do a lot more experimentation if I decided that some future true-scale model desperately needed glasses.

Third Side-Thing: Camera!

I don’t own a phone, which means that I need to solve my photography needs differently from how most other people handle it. For about ten years, I’ve been doing that with this sturdy little bastard:

This is my crappy little $100 Olympus point-and-shoot, and it has taken tens of thousands of photos for me throughout my blogging career. I love this camera. <3 It has its quirks (finicky white balancing, and some stupid file naming practices that occasionally cause me to lose pictures -_- ), but I’m so used to those idiosyncrasies that I mostly just work around them intuitively at this point.

The one thing this camera doesn’t do well is video; being almost ten years old, it has a pitiful maximum video resolution of like 320p, which isn’t going to cut it here in the future. So whenever I shoot my model turnaround videos for this blog, I use a different device:

This is my work iPad, propped up on random housheold objects and doing its best. I’ve been pretty satisfied with the results that the iPad turns out for the last few years, though it has some pretty severe limitations that make it a struggle sometimes to capture the video I want.

  • The camera is placed far in one corner, which can make it very awkward to get it lined up correctly against models in my lightbox.
  • The iPad doesn’t have a tripod mount, so the only way to adjust its height is to stack it on top of things, and the only way to manage its angle is to jam debris into the silicone cover (in the picture above, this job is being handled by wadded-up kleenex)
  • The iPad itself is very bulky and awkwardly shaped, so it’s very challenging to manipulate it through shots where the camera itself is moving– e.g., a swoop around a fixed diorama.
  • The auto-focus has opinions, and those opinions are usually wrong. >:(
  • Finally, phone cameras just kind of suck. :/ I don’t know all the right camera words to describe the problem, but the fact that the camera lens is so physically small limits what it can do. This really isn’t a solvable problem as far as I’m aware.

So, the iPad camera has turned out some decent results for me over the years, but lately I’ve been getting frustrated with its awkwardness, and started thinking about possible upgrades.

Fortunately, my department at work employs a talented videographer, and I poked her one day during the quarantine to share the issues I had been having with my video setup, and to inquire about possible solutions. These conversations were definitely not conducted during the workday while we were both being paid. Obviously. That would be highly unprofessional.


So, my initial pitch to her was something along the lines of a GoPro, but she pointed out that GoPros are wide angle cameras designed to shoot action, and are pretty horrendous at close-up photography. If I wanted to shoot things up close, she said I was really going to have to look into a DSLR of some sort.

DSLR, for those who don’t know, stands for “Camera With A Thousand Buttons”.

My colleague researched some options for me, and I settled on this large hunk of black plastic that was only three times my desired price range:

This is a Panasonic Lumix DC-FZ80. This was purchased at the height of the Pangolin Plague quarantine; I put four hundred Canadabucks into an envelope and mailed it to Jeff Bezos’ volcano lair, and two days later he sent one of his misshapen minions to drop it on my door step.

I’ve had the camera for about a week and am still at the early stages of my learning curve, but I have the following thoughts at this stage in my development as a Photographist:

  1. Jesus Christ this thing has a lot of buttons. Also, most of the buttons open menus that contain dozens of additional digital buttons. THIS CAMERA DOES TOO MANY THINGS. WHO EVEN NEEDS ALL OF THESE THINGS. >:(
  2. Videos help. This nerdperson has a good breakdown of the vocabulary and concepts that impact colour correction and brightness levels (spoiler: LITERALLY EVERYTHING on a DSLR impacts brightness. >_< ). Also, this English gentleman has a great series on this specific camera where he explains what all of the hundreds of buttons and digibuttons do, and when to push which one for different effects.
  3. Once I picked up the fundamentals from those videos and from my colleague, the biggest help to my learning process was simply switching the camera out of Auto mode and into fully Manual mode, where the camera does almost nothing to help you and you’re forced to adjust all settings yourself. Shooting in this mode is way harder, and I don’t think it’s a good workflow for me forever, but for now it’s forcing me to understand what the different options do and what happens when one setting moves up or down. Similar to what I described on Page 1 about my experiments with lighting in 3D modeling software, manual mode here is allowing me to Do The Science, training my brain to understand things so that I can build an intuitive sense around them to help me in the future.

Results from week 1 of DSLR Boot Camp:

Result 1: Controlling colour is easier

I’ve historically had some problems getting my various cameras to take good pictures in heavily colour-skewed diorama settings (click here and jump to the bottom):

Two years ago, I made a diorama tray for my friend Tom’s Onyx army, but the heavily blue-skewed backdrop combined with the cool colours on the models confused the hell out of both of my cameras, which both insisted on solving the problem by turning everything pink. I never solved the problem at the time– it was probably a white balancing issue, but I was shooting in an extreme hurry and didn’t have time to do more than 2 minutes of science to troubleshoot it. 🙁

Spoiling a bit for the content on the next page, I had some similar challenges photographing against the extremely orange diorama tray that I built for this army on my old Olympus camera. The camera did okay in areas where there were solid white elements to provide a colour landmark (e.g., any time a Zero or Kaplan’s head was in the shot), but shots without that type of reference confused the camera too much, resulting in weird shots like this one.

However, the expensive camera was much easier to manage in similar conditions, turning out correctly-coloured shots much more frequently. 🙂

Result 2: Still photos aren’t all that much better.

I had already taken my intended “gallery shots” for all of the models in the project on my s***ty camera before the new one arrived, and then re-shot everything on the new hardware. And while the new photos are definitely better in a lot of ways (and didn’t require Photoshop to do anywhere near as much after-the-fact colour correction as the old camera), I don’t know that they’re so much better that I would recommend a fancy camera just for taking lightbox stills.

Old Camera:

New Camera:

Either of those looks fine to me. I’m sure the gap will widen as I get better with the new camera, but for the most part, both cameras seem perfectly capable of taking macro shots in even lighting inside a lightbox. So if that’s all you’re really taking pictures of, I don’t think you need a fancy camera, and will probably do just fine with something lower-end.

Result 3: Video is dramatically better.

Like, it’s night and day.

That’s the best closeup I was able to get on my 5-year-old work iPad on the left, compared to the best closeup I was able to get on my new Lumix DSLR on the right.

  • The Lumix can simply get closer, hence the difference in framing between the two shots. I’ll be able to take videos now where the model fills a lot more of the frame.
  • Because of the closer focus and better lens, you can make out the smaller details more clearly on the DSLR shot. This is great for things like the ribbing on the costume; it’s less awesome in how many more sloppy sculpting and painting marks you can now make out. 😛
  • Funnily enough, I like the colours a lot better on the iPad. Except… those aren’t the actual colours of the model or the backdrop. 😛 They aren’t nearly that pink in real life; the Lumix did a far better job of capturing the real colours of the scene, which are a more iron-oxide-orange.
  • The DSLR, with the right ISO settings, is far less grainy in areas of flat colour like the background.
  • The DSLR gets less blown out in areas of high highlight; you can make out more of the blended painting highlights around the top of the head, compared to the sharp white spot that the iPad displays.

So, yeah. In the end, I am absolutely not recommending that everyone needs to own one of these; they’re cool, but a cheaper camera will do the job if you’re working in a lightbox setup. Also, I have a lot still to learn about tweaking the settings to really optimize my stills and videos. But, I’m really happy with my first week of results, and I’m really looking forward to being able to play with this thing a lot more in the future. 🙂

Fourth Side-Thing: Bases!

The article up to here has been a lot wordier than I planned, because I ended up talking about the “WHY” of a lot of this project much more than the “WHAT”. But… I think that’s over now! Because the rest of this article falls squarely into “just some stuff I built”, without a supporting philosophy to back it up. 😛

First, let’s look at how the models’ bases came together.

Given the timeline under which I was putting the army together, I didn’t want to get overly fancy with the basing. I have a few sets of laser-cut bases that I think would have looked sweet, but I just didn’t have time to paint them properly, so I focused my search on more traditional basing methods, i.e., “slather the bases with goo”.

The goo that I selected in this case was Vallejo Ground Texture, which is acrylic medium with white paint and sand mixed in. That’s pretty much it. It’s extremely viscous, so it will maintain whatever shape you mould it into, allowing you to create rough terrain as you see fit.

Alrighty, groovy, sounds like a plan.

But… hmm. Won’t plain sand bases look a bit plain?

They might, yeah.


Alright, screw it, let’s throw on some robot corpses.

I bought a box of Bulleteers so that I could scatter their shattered bodies around the army’s bases. Most of the bases would just have a chunk of leg or a dismembered gun, but two of the models needed something more substantial. Laxmee was posed to be sitting on something, so her base needed to accommodate her butt and leg; and Valkyrie was extremely top-heavy and prone to tipping, so I needed to put a big chunk of metal on her base to bring down her center of gravity.

The Bulleteer’s main core is a bit too big to fit comfortably on a 25mm base, so I drilled a hole through it and then used clippers to cut it into two sections.

I cleaned up the cut faces, and then drilled short pins into the bottom of each piece.

I then pinned the components to their bases. This one here is Laxmee’s, and I had to take a lot of measurements to ensure that the sitting surface and leg-propping surface were precisely the correct height to match the pose I had already placed her in.

I then used Green Stuff to add some details to the faces I had sheared off, mostly showing the internal components that were spilling out onto the sand.

The other bases all got smaller bits of scrap. I made a total of 15 bases to accommodate potential future expansions of the army.

I then applied the goo. I used a brush to shape the goo into small sand dunes on each base.

Once the bases were try, I examined each of my models to see how their feet were arranged (close together, far apart, far to one side, etc.) and then selected one of the 15 bases that would accommodate that model’s stance. I arranged the bases on a piece of cardboard all facing the same direction so that I could airbrush the shades and highlights onto them all at once.

I basecoated the bases in a mix of 50% P3 Cygnus Yellow + 50% P3 Morrow White.

I then applied shade coats of P3 Heartfire, followed by 2/3 P3 Heartfire + 1./3 P3 Sanguine Highlight.

I applied a deep shade of pure Sanguine Highlight, and then turned the bases backward to hit the opposite side of the dunes with my army’s designated shade colour, Sombre Grey. I also applied a manual brush highlight of the original basecoat– Cygnus Yellow+Morrow White– along the top edges of the dunes.

At this point everything looked extremely garish, but these were just setting up the undertones that will be tuned down by the last coat.

That last coat was done with a few layers of 2/3 Heartfire + 1/3 Sanguine Highlight. I left this coat just translucent enough for the yellows, pinks, and blues to still show through a bit.

Finally, I went in with a brush and very messily painted the scrapped robots. I left the basing paint very distinct and “impressionistic” so that the viewer’s eye would be less drawn to the bases, and instead remain on the models where I wanted it.

Each model, one at a time, was pulled out of its cork. The wires that came out the bottom of each armature, which had been holding them in their corks throughout the entire process, would end their life cycles by becoming “staples” to hold the models onto their bases.

Noice. 😀

On the next page, I’ll be expanding the concepts from the bases up to an entire diorama tray.

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