Interview With a Prop Master

I was browsing Reddit, waiting for glue or paint to dry, and stumbled across this amazing diorama.  If the internet is good for anything, it’s for showing you people that have the same hobbies as you… doing them better! 

Another thing it’s good for is bothering strangers!  With that in mind I sent Nick a message and asked if I could pick his brain about his diorama.  Instead of calling me a weirdo and blocking me, he was gracious enough to answer my questions and send me some more pictures.  So first, I’d like to thank Nick for taking time out of his schedule to help me out.  Second, I would like to share his work with the rest of you.  Hopefully, it provides you with as much inspiration as it did me. 

This interview was conducted via email exchange. 

The Facts

Scale: N (1/160)

Base Size: 24”x20”

Method of Madness: 3D printing (resin & FDM), scratchbuilding

Nick is a Prop Master working in Los Angeles, CA.  His job includes hunting down props, sourcing the making of props, and keeping track of them on set.  He has recently been drawn to manufacturing props himself and based on what we can see from his work, I am sure he will excel at it!

[Start of Interview]

Q:  That sounds like a model builder’s dream job!  Anything you’ve had pass through your hands on the way to a set that was particularly interesting?  What’s the best/worst part of a job like that?

A:  The hours are awful, but I get to play make believe every day. I recently worked on a show where we had to outfit 200+ World War I soldiers. It took weeks to prepare the equipment and fit all the extras with their gear. It was so satisfying to watch those guys fix their bayonets and charge through no-man’s land with all the special effects going off around them. It’s a tough business but it has incredible moments.

Q:  What was the inspiration for the diorama?

A:  I read Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” when I was in college and from there, I have been completely obsessed with the post-apocalyptic genre. This summer I was playing the “The Last of Us Part 2” which is now one of my favorite games of all time and I took a screen shot of a really cool area in the game. I was so drawn into the amazing world those games have built that I decided I wanted to make a tribute to it, I suppose. A tribute sounds kind of nerdy, haha, but I guess that’s what it is ultimately.

Q:  That is a really great book, and I was pleased with how well the movie stuck to the source material.  I can also identify with drawing inspiration from video games.  The Fallout franchise has provided lots of ideas for me.

You wake up tomorrow to find the world has fallen into an apocalypse.  Which would you rather try to survive in: a worldwide zombie outbreak or a post-nuclear hellscape?

A:  Right??? That movie is probably the best book adaptation I’ve seen.

[Regarding the apocalypse] Man, I don’t know. They both sound rough. I prefer consuming my apocalypse via books, movies, and video games. If I had to pick, I’d go post-nuclear, rather just wither away slowly than have my face eaten off.

Q:  What other diorama/model work have you done in the past?

A:  I think this would be my second diorama? I made a small sort of test one prior to this, just to play with some of the techniques and see if I could actually pull this off. During quarantine I did make a full-size Fallout Power Armor Helmet that sort of set off this whole obsession again. I’ve been making loads of niche products and custom jobs with my Prusa 3d printer. I was familiar with a lot of the techniques I used, but I went into this project wildly inexperienced.

Q:  Do you have any advice for someone thinking about getting a 3d printer for prop and model building?  Anything you wished you did not have to learn the hard way?

A:  3D Printing is the most incredible thing and it still blows me away every time I print something. I guess my advice for buying a printer is figure out what you want to use it for and go from there. FDM printers are great for bigger pieces and resin printers are great for small, detailed pieces. From there I’d say just research. There’s an abundance of reviews, forums, and information out there about every printer.

I’d also say learning the hard way is the best way to learn. I’ve screwed up so many prints that I can take mine apart with a blindfold at this point. I’m a big fan of just going for something, conducting a post-mortem once it fails, and then going for it again.

I almost threw my Elegoo Mars in the trash because I couldn’t get a successful print, but now I’ve gone months without an issue and just love the results I get with it.

Q:  Can you walk us through your build order? 

A:  I took loads of screen shots in game to get a general idea of the layout. Then I went on Google Maps and researched freeway overpasses in Seattle, where the diorama is based. From there I got a general idea of the scale and mapped it out on copy paper. I sort of made a janky paper version of the diorama first, just to get a feeling for perspective and scale.

I also had to explain to my wife that I hadn’t gone completely insane.

Once I had the layout all figured out, I modeled the overpass in Fusion 360 and printed it. I watched a ton of YouTube videos from there. Luke Towan is my favorite. He is a genius and a modern-day Bob Ross. I also went to a local model train store and asked lots of questions.

Feeling completely overwhelmed, I sort of just, started. I took a slab of foam, which I carved the main water feature and smoothed out with some Sculpt-a-mold. I buried a few 3d printed cars into this initial layer as well. For those I used my Elegoo Mars resin printer. Then I started adding layers. Dirt, static grass, some laser cut ferns I spent $12 on.  I kept fussing with vegetation and taking trips back to the train store.

I just built layer by layer until it got to a place that I was happy with.

I painted and weathered the overpass separately and attached after the base layer was finished.

The vines where the last thing I added. They were a combination of polyfiber and Noch Leaves that I am just obsessed with.

Q:  Luke Towan is really in a class all his own, isn’t he?  Like his work, your diorama does a really great job of showing us that overgrown vegetation in a realistic way.  For me, I usually skimp on buying vegetation even though it adds so much to a diorama.  Were there any products that you wish you had that were either, a pain in the butt to make yourself or too expensive to justify buying?

A:  Absolutely, his videos are the main reason I’m just all in on making dioramas. I would have totally given up had he not just made it so accessible.

I do wish I just had a wall of products to choose from when I was making this. I’m like you, I tried to stretch things as much as a I could, because it was hard to justify spending hundreds of dollars on fake plants. I tried to vary the vegetation as much as a I could without blowing the budget.

The hobby shop I go to also has a little bargain bin area with open packaging, returns, donations, etc. I got things like flowers, some grasses, and some of the fine leaf foliage from there which was awesome. I’d imagine getting in touch with a local model train club could score you some hand-me-downs as well.

The cars to me were the biggest pain. I 3d printed them so I had to prep and then paint them, which at N Scale was quite tedious. I wish I had the cash to just buy some super detailed looking cars and trucks and age them.

I also would LOVE if there were pre-made vines. I was gluing Noch leaves to polyfiber which just was not as easy or as satisfying as Luke made it seem 🙂

Q:  What kind of supplies did you use for the diorama?

A: The base is extruded polystyrene foam. I carved it out with an exacto blade and learned that a hot wire foam cutter is absolutely in my future. That’s all smoothed out with sculpt-a-mold.

The models are all 3d printed. I found most of them on Thingiverse or similar websites. I used a cheap Amazon airbrush to do most of the painting.

The bridge overpass was modeled from a real intersection trying my best to get accurate measurements. I sort of just scored and broke it with some pliers to achieve the whole “collapsed” look. I’m especially proud of the rails because they really show off the details those resin 3d printers can achieve. They were an absolute pain in the ass to make and attach but I love the way they turned out.

At some point I realized the bottom of the overpass had a more “tiled” concrete look on the underside. I painstakingly cut out 100s of tiles from styrene and glued them on the bottom. You can’t even see them in the final build. Whoops. [Editor’s note: If you’re not spending hours on a detail no one will ever see, what’s this all been about!?]

The streetlamps I found on Thingiverse too! They were so fragile I would accidentally bump them all the time, break one, and then have to print more.

The water feature is epoxy resin. Not sure the brand, just had some in my workshop. There’s a spot where the water level drops in a small rapid. I glued down some branches and debris and used some acrylic gloss medium to create the turbulent water in that area.

Street signs were a blast! I just printed them on photo paper and glued them to strips from a cut-out beer can. Gives them that nice metallic look on the back side of the sign. The gantry I glued them to was also a testament to the Elegoo Mars 3d printer.

Q:  Can you describe your weathering process?

A:  To weather, I did loads of different acrylic washes. I was sort of making it up as I went along. I did a black wash, dark brown, a greenish algae type color too. I also got some Vallejo pigments when things weren’t quite shaping up the way I wanted and used those to build up dust and mud around the models as well.

I just experimented and built everything up in layers.  I can be very impatient, but I learned pretty quickly that building up subtle layers is absolutely the way to go.

I also created some real rust by dissolving steel wool in vinegar for a few days. I lightly brushed that mixture on the tank and some of the cars. I will admit it took a few attempts to get the look I wanted.

Q:  Are there any parts to the diorama that you’d like another shot at?  Something that didn’t come out quite right? 

A:  I think I speak for everyone when I say, when I look at it all I see is what’s wrong. There’s so much to learn and I’ll probably never learn it all, and that’s what makes for a great hobby!

Q:  What’s on the workbench next? 

A:  I’m making a little lakeside scene, but the twist is that it’s inside of an old DVD player, so some of the circuitry is going to be tied in. If it turns out half decent, I might do a series using old electronics. We’ll see.

Otherwise maybe a scene from The Road? Might be fun to limit myself to just the whole “scorched earth” look.

[End of Interview]

I hope you get a chance to do both!  One of my biggest takeaways from Nick is his willingness to jump into a project without the full roadmap.  His process included tons of preparation and research, but he wasn’t afraid to be brave about trying new techniques.  Sometimes we get stuck in a loop where it doesn’t seem like we are getting better and that might be because we aren’t trying anything new. 

Nick posts his work over on Instagram @Nicksworkshop where you’ll see he’s not a one-trick pony.  Be sure to check out his full-size Fallout Power Armor helmet while you’re there. 

I really enjoyed talking to Nick and hope to include more interviews with artists that capture the imagination.  Let me know what you think in the comments below.  Thanks for stopping by!

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