Sunday, 18 November 2018

Purism Vs. Pure Whimsy



In the middle of researching the road numbers and liveries of several newly announced Australian model locomotives to ascertain which, if any, would fit my 2002-2005 era New South Wales layout, I came across the above YouTube clip in an email from a model railroad newsletter I subscribe to. Before I go into this post further, play the above 3 minute clip (with the sound on), so that you too will have an instant impression and viewpoint on whatever the hell it is I'm going to talk about.

"Seen it?"

"Yep."

"Like it?"

Well, I'm sure that based on whatever it is that your own modelling interests are, you will have either answered yep or nope.

So what about me? Did I like it? Well to be honest, if I had asked myself that question back in 2015 when I had just started building this layout, (and started this blog), my interests were focused so strongly on finding a prototype Australian small train to base my bookshelf layout around that I probably wouldn't have pressed play.

Four years down the track however, and with my HO scale Australian layout nearing completion, my interest has largely shifted to the N scale layout I've already started building that will be mounted beneath Philden, purely because of the size constraints I'm faced with if I want to be in the enviable position of having two layouts on display in my small apartment. I played the above video clip more than a few times... and loved it. So much so that I bought the set, purely because it looked fun. It captured all the nostalgia, atmosphere and pure whimsy I've associated with model trains from when I was I young lad.

My purely whimsical 1700 mm x 600 mm little N scale layout is slowly taking shape beneath Philden.

The last thing I wanted to do when drawing up plans for a new layout, was to build another HO scale New South Wales layout. Don't get me wrong, I still go hunting for all that missing information that never seems to be there anymore whenever a supplier touts the coming release of a new model, like which locos operated where and which numbers wore what livery until when. But there comes a point where the purist approach wears thin and becomes a little anal-retentive. Taking that same approach to building a post-2012 layout depicting the BNSF and G&W's Puget Sound & Pacific seems like a huge buzz-kill. Adding a ghost train doesn't. Not if it means building a haunted abandoned mental asylum complete with looped sound effects as the layout's centrepiece, just to satisfy the whimsy in me.

I love all those 1st generation government diesels, like the NSWGR 421's, 422's and 442's that I remember from the Eighties. But I also have a tendency to cheer-on the old dinosaurs, whether it be on the football field or seeing the above locos enjoying a second lease of life in CFCLA or Northern Rivers Railroad colours. Throw in the 2 car Countrylink Xplorer that I've built my layout around, and the problem is that time-wise, it makes for a very narrow gap for me to work within. Beyond that... it all gets a little too modern for me.

By taking the purist approach, it seems the more you narrow down an era, the more limited you are with what models you can purchase and the more likely you are to be disappointed that you can't include a bit of everything.

I'm sure anyone who has paid over a thousand Aussie dollars for an XPT set to run on a layout of say the Murwillumbah Line, would be offended if I pointed out that to be prototypical in their execution, they would have to operate only in darkness as the XPT arrived at Murwillumbah at 21:00 hours and departed at 21:50 hours, and even then only if the train was on time! Instead we use whimsy. More often than not, that train would be making continual loops on an exhibition layout that was well lit in order to be able to see all the fine detail we put into our layouts.

Model railroading is supposed to be fun! While research can be a fun part of the hobby, for the non-historian, figuring out the what, when, where and why's of which locomotives or wagons ran in the era we are attempting to model, can easily lead to the fear of getting it wrong. Even if we manage to get our layout rosters right, we still need whimsy to come to the rescue if we want to see our spectacular Indian-Pacific or Ghan trains run anymore than their once-weekly Wednesdays only trip around our layout.

My point is, I don't believe we can achieve purism with a healthy dose of whimsy. Just as I don't believe you can champion whimsy without first recognising the purism that our models are based on. The Ghost Train in the video is still after-all an F7A EMD locomotive, without or without the whimsical sheet draped over its nose.

Double the fun! I'll soon have two layouts to distract me at my desk, and the laptop folds away beneath it.

So as I put the Ghost Train aside to concentrate on preparing the track bed and laying track on my whimsical sojourn into N scale, my thoughts return to the number of new Australian models that have been announced across 2018. Entertaining any thoughts about which models may make for a suitable addition to Philden once more becomes an exercise of overlapping time period schematics to decide which locos, if any, can technically stand alongside my existing 2002-2005 roster without looking more of the same only in a different number. However, I'd still like to one day see a Candy liveried loco running alongside my Xplorer. Perhaps a simpler option would be to stretch my layout's era from 1993 to 2004. That way I could add the Candy 42216 loco with the buffers removed, just to satisfy the whimsy in me, yet still be technically correct!

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Adding the layout backdrop


Finally, thanks to a realistic backdrop, I have transformed my 9' foot bookshelf layout into a slice of outback New South Wales. Gone is the plain blue sky that has been a staple on Philden since the layout first made its public debut, and in its place is the photo that my wife Denise took while travelling back along the Kidman Way past where the rails end at Rankins Springs.

But, as often happens whenever I've tried something different on this layout, it didn't go quite to plan. Thankfully in this case, not being happy with the first attempt pushed me to try again. And as you can see in the above photo, the end result was worth the extra perseverance.

Remember my photo taken at Coffs Harbour?

After preparing the photo backdrop in my previous post, I started first with the background photo I'd taken at Coffs Harbour. This was to replace the blue sky backdrop for the beach extension, that in turn had replaced the simple two track staging shelf that was shown when the layout was featured in the August 2018 edition of Australian Model Railway Magazine. After cropping and sizing the image to have printed at Officeworks, I positioned the finished photo alongside the existing backdrop panel to work out the area I would need to trim.

The bottom of the scene needed some of the wharf detail to be trimmed away.

This photo was taken from the top of Mutton Bird Island, looking west across Coffs Harbour Jetty. As such, it had a lot of detail scene of the jetty in the bottom of the picture that I didn't want showing.

The remaining 1 cm at the bottom would then disappear when slotted into the recessed channel that holds the backdrop.

Knowing that the bottom 10 mm would not be visible once the backdrop was slotted back in place, I left only the tips of some of the jetty light fixtures showing. The idea was to preserve as much of the residential and commercial scene that surround Coffs Harbour Station as possible. When applying the printed EZ-Tac adhesive film to the painted blue backdrop, I used scissors to cut only the bottom and left hand edge of the image. I then had Denise help peel back the film backing as we worked left to right, being careful to be sure the bottom of the image lined up perfectly with the bottom of the backdrop surface. I then turned the backdrop over and used a sharp hobby knife and some scrap board to trim the image flush with the backdrop edge.

I slid the finished backdrop into place on the beach extension for a perfect result. So far so good.

Then I hit a snag with the outback scene that will complete the main layout area. There was some confusion with the sizing chart on Officeworks' website, and my idea of printing 2 x 915 mm x 305 mm sized prints to join together on the 1830 mm long backdrop soon proved to be a disaster. Not only did the two sections look odd on account of the colour difference in both the sky and grasslands from one end of the image to the other, Officeworks' printer actually added a 5 mm white border around the entire image, meaning that the two combined sections were 25 mm too short in length by the time I had applied them from left to right. I know I could have experimented with adding trees or some other kind of structure to disguise the join and the blank area where the image was too short, but being a bit of a perfectionist it just looked horrible.

The first attempt of using 2 x 915 mm length prints to complete the 1830 mm long backdrop was a failure!

Look at the above backdrop join, and you'll appreciate the meaning of the phrase "miss by an inch, miss by a mile."

To this point, the layout backdrop had already added up to $125. Once again, there was some confusion with the online pricing calculator and the in-store costing. A quick explanation for this is that the costing and sizing was for pre-set print sizes, (in much the same way as a K-mart or prints ordered over the counter at a photo lab), but by using a 600 mm wide film they could custom print to my required length of 1830 mm. So long as I factored in the 5 mm white margin that the printer added. I then re-worked my photo to a single image that was 1840 mm long. While some of the foreground took on a slightly blurred look as a result of being re-sized to such a large file size, I was able to mirror-flip the image using Adobe Photoshop Elements 8.0 to enable the open grasslands area to stand opposite the cement plant, while the blurry foreground bush in question then tucked in behind the railway station building out of view.

The extra work was worth the reward. The finished image printed out in a single length of 1822 mm, and despite the printer claiming more than the 5 mm border margin, I was able to cut along the bottom of the picture and simply apply the backdrop from left to right using a 4 mm indentation at either end. Each end of the finished backdrop, (plus the bottom of the image) sits inside the 10 mm deep channel anyway. I then turned the backdrop over, and trimmed the top of the EZ-Tac print flush with top of the backdrop board. The end result? Perfect!

In a nutshell, what I really did was use this formula...

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The two completely different scenes are separated by the mouse-hole through the underpasses that define each module. While the backdrop colours from my wife's photo taken out-the-back of Rankins Springs match beautifully with the scenery dirts, scatters and grass tufts that I used when constructing Philden, its' the little things that make this backdrop work so well on my finished layout. Details such as aligning the height of the horizon with the brick overpass beside the station, making sure that the height of the foreground trees were above the level of the horizon and the lack of any structure whatsoever on the printed backdrop. While I say that my layout represents the far northwest of New South Wales, and the photo was taken between Hay and Rankins Springs in the far southwest of the state, it is purely a fictitious layout after all. In just wanting to capture the essence of a far-flung corner of the New South Wales Railways' network, I think I've done it well.

The finished backdrops both add an element of depth to my narrow 1 foot wide bookshelf layout.

The beach extension is another thing altogether. It is effectively just a two track staging shelf for the rest of the layout. Only instead of keeping with the black painted shelf with the decorative Countrylink coaches sign that the layout had when it debuted, I have replaced it with a separate scene. After toying with the idea of building this extension as a suburban scene complete with overhead wires or modelling a different era altogether, I settled on building another fictional scene. This time it is Phills Harbour (as opposed to Coffs Harbour), although the backdrop of Coffs Harbour and the much-shortened station or Countrylink Travel Centre as it was known, will be a working reminder of one of my favourite holiday spots.

Although it would have been cheaper for me to have used a commercially available backdrop, (thanks in part to the extra cost of reprinting the larger of the two), I now have a unique backdrop that my wife has contributed to my layout.

The downside is that the cost of printing the backdrops have blown a hole in my model railway budget for the remainder of the year. With the track plan for my next HOn3 1/2 layout still bouncing around from one configuration to another, any work will have to wait until after I return from our Christmas holiday in Coffs Harbour, (yes the real version). Aside from some pre-ordered locomotives I am waiting on (the NSW 442's and 422), there have been a lot of other enticing announcements trumpeted of late that now appear shot to pieces. With the backdrops having transformed my layout, there are a lot of newly announced locos and wagons that I would really like to see running on Philden. I could name four off the top of my head that now appear out of reach if I'm serious about building a second QR narrow gauge layout. But as always with life, there just seems to be too much to do, and too little time to do it!

See also; Preparing the photo backdrop

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Preparing the photo backdrop


It's amazing what a model railway convention can do to stir the enthusiasm to get stuff done on a layout. Fresh back from last weekend's 2018 Modelling the Railways of Queensland Convention, I decided it was time to put aside work on my next book for a week or two, and get the photo backdrops organised for both Philden and the new beach extension. Part of this enthusiasm can be attributed to fellow modeller Anthony Veness, who I not only car-pooled with for the drive down to the convention from the Sunshine Coast, but who was also one of the presenters on the weekend with his small layout Dagun.

While I put the camera away for the convention to simply take it all in, those who were present can probably attest as to how well his backdrop turned out. In reality it involved nothing more than taking his image to Officeworks, and having it printed out on a B-Zero sized EZ-Tac adhesive poster that cost him no more than $38 Australian. So after returning from the convention, I checked out the poster sizes available on Officeworks' site (link here), to see what I could do for Philden.

I shot this image of Coffs Harbour Jetty when last on holiday in 2014.

The biggest limitation for a 9' foot long bookshelf layout is the poster length sizes that are available. I went through their panoramic sizes to find that the 762 mm x 305 mm size was the closest size available for the backdrop on my beach extension. The beach extension's removable 3 mm MDF board backdrop measures 750 mm x 230 mm, so will really require only minimal trimming. When last on holiday in Coffs Harbour, I took the standard tourist snap of The Jetty from the top of Mutton Bird Island while on a walk one morning. With the morning sun behind me, the photo captured the colours of the mountains and buildings with consistent enough lighting to consider using it as the backdrop to my fictitious harbour scene.

A reduced size image of the final area selected to print out as the backdrop for my beach extension.

The beach extension has only a small area of waterfront modelled at the front of the module, so to use the scene with the jetty included would place the station in the middle of the harbour and only look confusing. The key was to select which area I could use as distant scenery behind my beachside station. I used Adobe Photoshop Elements 8.0 to create a blank 762 mm x 305 mm image the same size that Officeworks would print out, and enlarged the photo until it filled the area. I then aligned the red bricked building in the left of the image with the 100 mm height of the highway overpass on my layout. When printed out, the image will need 70 mm trimmed off the top, along with 16.2 mm from the right hand side before I stick it in place. The bottom 10 mm of the image won't be visible once the backdrop slots into the channel that holds it in place. Any remaining unwanted foreground details will be obscured by the station platform anyway, or can be obscured with some strategic placing of some small shrubbery in the garden area behind the station.

Finally I auto-enhanced the image to the highest quality possible and saved it to a USB stick to take with me to Officeworks. The original 4.76 MB photo is now a 9.6 MB file. When viewed at actual size, there is a slight distance-haze to the outline of the buildings and trees, which should make for a great backdrop image as it's important to not make the background scene look sharper than your foreground modelling efforts. So if you wonder what looks so familiar about Phills Harbour in the future, the answer will be that it has Coffs Harbour as the backdrop! So far so good. I thought I'd got the more difficult image out of the way first!

We saw a whole lotta nothin' on our recent trip across outback NSW. This is the look I wanted for Philden.

During our recent trip to Victoria and back to visit Denise's Mother, on the way back home to Queensland, we diverted via Echuca, Hay, Rankins Springs and into West Wyalong before continuing north to our overnight stop at Dubbo. I wanted to see some wide open spaces on the edge of the outback. And between Hay and Rankins Springs that's exactly what we saw.

Denise took this photo in the middle of nowhere from the car window as we drove from Hay to Rankins Springs.

I've always wanted Philden to capture that flat, nothing to see as far as the horizon look. My plain blue sky has managed to portray a sense of that since June 2015, but three years on I felt it was time to emphasise it a little more. Strangely the shot I wanted to work with wasn't one of the many taken when we stopped beside the highway to photograph emus, but rather one taken from the window of a car travelling at 100 kph.

Not only did I discover that Officeworks don't have anything near a 1830 mm x 230 mm size option to print a backdrop, even on the closest size which was 1219 mm long, the foreground of the above photo looked horrible and blurred. I tried with countless photos that included emus, but in each case the emu would have printed out at a staggering 80 mm tall. That's taller than my railway station! The answer was to go with two 914 mm x 305 mm sized poster prints, and repeat the scene with a join in the middle.

This backdrop should really emphasise that Philden is located out west in the middle of nowhere!

What sounds and looks quite simple actually took me the best part of a day to complete. Okay, the latter part of said day was spent drinking wine on the balcony with my wife and commenting on how different my layout backdrop is going to look compared to our water view of the Pumicestone Passage, but I'm sure you get the point.

Creating a 914 mm x 305 mm blank file in Adobe PSE 8.0, I was able to nicely enlarge the original photo and crop the entire blurred bottom portion of the image altogether. I set the horizon level at the same height as the highway overpasses at each end of my layout, so that the horizon should only just be visible above the roof-line of my railway station. Finally I played around with the contrast and brightness until the reddish soil in the image was a good match for the dirt scatter I'd used on the layout. The tricky part was getting the horizons to match when placing two images side-by-side. It turned out I needed to rotate the image anti-clockwise by 0.6 mm to get it perfect.

I know it might be cheating to repeat the same image side by side over a six foot long span of layout backdrop, but if you've ever seen the far west of New South Wales, it all looks the same anyway. Miles of nothing! I then saved the image in the highest quality possible, and turned the original 3.4 MB photo into a whopping 16.1 MB panoramic image.

I made sure I kept an open mind when attending my first model railway convention, and simply took everything in. If you approach everything as a know-it-all, you ultimately never learn anything new. Instead I came away with a slightly clearer way of looking at the process of things. How different people do different things, to essentially arrive at the same conclusion. In my case, I'm sure others have found it easier to match their scenery to their backdrops, rather than try finding a backdrop for their scenery! I guess the proof will be in the pudding as they say. Tomorrow I'll drop by Officeworks with the USB containing my backdrop images, and two days later they should be ready to collect in time for me to install them this coming weekend.

What I'm most looking forward to about adding these backdrops to my layout, is hearing people at future model trains shows asking where I got my backdrops from. It'll be nice to say that my wife took the photo, and stand back to see their reaction! Until next time....

See also; Painting blue skies blue