Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Shana's Diorama Contest entry

BreyerFest was held online this year, which opened up the contests to more people than ever. Here's the story of one winning entry that was made possible by these unique circumstances. Thank you and congratulations, Shana Bobbitt!

My BreyerFest Diorama Contest Entry 

by Shana Bobbitt

I live in Washington State and have only been able to attend BreyerFest twice. Due to the Coronavirus, it was virtual this year, and all the contests - including the Diorama Contest - were held online. I have always wanted a prize model, but I don’t have the funds to purchase one. I knew I would have to win it for myself, and this year would be my best shot.
I think Breyer announced the theme on June 3, at least that is when I first noticed it. I  quickly decided on a theme - Boudicca and her chariot - and bought a 1/32 scale chariot kit made by Italeri. Then remembered I don’t make tack! I reached out to a couple tack making friends for help, but then I had second thoughts. The rules say  “Diorama must be entirely created by the entrant." I wasn't sure if this included elements like tack so I emailed Breyer for clarification. They replied that tack not made by me or Breyer was eligible. So that was fine, but in the one day it took them to respond I was already headed down the path of making it myself. I honestly wasn’t sure if someone else made it, would it would fit okay or all work together? And since the postal system has been slow, would I even get it in time? 

Thankfully (because I don’t make tack, remember?) Anna Helt came to the rescue with the leather. I had no idea how to source that - where to find it, if it would be to scale, etc. I have made one Traditional Western saddle from a Rio Rondo kit a couple years ago, so I have some idea how it’s done, but stablemates are small! Anna had a scrap piece that was big enough for what I needed, and had a rough dye job - which was perfect for the rustic look I was going for! She also recommended that I check out Rio Rondo’s Bijoux hardware, which I did. As quickly as possible. I ordered all kinds of stuff, buckles included. 

Next I started looking at all my Stablemate bodies trying to determine which horses to use. I needed a pair of running horses that were about the same size, so I decided on Magnolia (I have too many of her) and then was able to pick up a palomino Mirado at Wall-Mart. Great!  These little horses looked too happy to be pulling a chariot, so I drilled off their ears and sculpted new ones. Well, those new ears broke off multiple times, and I am still not 100% happy with the shape and positioning of the ears. Still, it was the best I could do in the given amount of time. 

I was pretty undecided on what color the horses should be. It seems most royalty had white or gray horses, but I was worried about A) getting that color painted in time, and B) photographing them - I didn’t want to have them blow out while exposing for darker parts of the photo. I ended up going with buckskin. It is a fast color to paint. I airbrushed the base coats, shaded with pastels and used acrylics for the finishing details. 
At the same time, I was also working on my diorama base. I had to decide what it would look like and what other things I could include to make it more realistic and fill the space. I started out with a foam block. I used a saw to cut it down to 12" x 12" and then shaved off a little more just to be safe. I carved out the “road” for the chariot with a butter knife and spoon. It was a very messy process, and I had to guess at the width because my chariot hadn’t arrived yet in the mail. I covered the whole base with a mixture of dirt, glue and water, and used the chariot (as soon as I got it) to make ruts in the road. Once it dried, I used acrylic paint to add highlights and shadows, and then Woodland Scenics Water Effects to dabble in some puddles and give it a real appearance of mud. That being ready, I used a static grass applicator to get all the grass in place and pulled some out to make the pathway to the door look walked on. Add some little railroad flowers and voila! It’s starting to look lived in. 
In the background I also built a stone wall. The inside of it is just more foam covered in newspaper-glue but I took some little gravel from my driveway to turn it into an in-scale rock wall. The pigs rooting around are various brands, but one is a Breyer. From what I could tell, pigs in the Iron Age were mostly black beastly looking swine, so that is how I painted them. 

I did some research on houses in that time period. The roundhouse made of mud/manure/straw was very common so I decided to add that to the back of my diorama. I noticed a Gatorade container was about the right size for the house, so I mixed up mud and glue and a little water and spread it all over the container for my walls. I used small wooden beams for the interior framing for the roof. Then I used paper towels soaked in glue for the support under the straw. I also used a lot of paper mâché - glue and newspaper for the ground to cover the messy foam. 

As I was working on the Roundhouse, I noticed that when my neighbor-landlord mowed the lawn, what was left was about the right scale for my roof. So my daughter collected a whole gallon container of mowed, dried grass. I sat for hours gluing little tufts together. Remember how we used to hair model horses back in the day: Glue a little tuft, let it dry, trim the end and then glue it to the horse? I used the same method to make this roof. All told I spent six hours on the roof alone.
Then I decided I needed to set it on fire. 


If a diorama is cool, one that is on fire in a battle zone would be better, right?! And given this is not an in-person competition I knew it would be more exciting in the photograph if there was an added element of danger. My son, who is thirteen, quickly pipes up that in school his teacher set his hand on fire but it didn’t burn him, and he knows we could do that with the roof. I was intrigued. We found a YouTube video that showed us how to create a glorious, short lived flame with water, dish detergent and butane. Perfect!

The chariot kit arrived in the mail on June 9. I was so enthusiastic about putting it together I accidentally broke off the ram's head on the end of the shaft. The people that came with the kit were male, of course, and the driver was holding a whip. I wasn’t crazy about that so I drilled it out of his hand, and sculpted on some breasts, and cut off his helmet and sculpted on some long hair.

The yoke between the horses was made from epoxy and a piece of wire hanger. I put saran-wrap over the horses while they were still in primer and found the Mirado’s mane too low for it to work. So I both trimmed his mane up a bit and made the yoke special to fit him due to that. Once it was dry I wrapped the wire in thread to simulate the examples I had found.  I painted it dark brown and also glued some SM-scale snaffle bit rings to it for the reins to go through.

I had an extra couple of figures kicking around from earlier kits I have bought. I thought the archer would be a perfect fit to my scene. He could be the one who lit the fire! Luckily, I had already painted the Alborozo earlier this year, and the archer had his own molded-on saddle so it was just an extra bridle, saddle pad, girth, and some string for the bow to get that character ready for action. (Oh and I did have to paint him)

I also knew that in order to use Italeri figures, I also had to use Breyer figures, at least that is how I interpreted the rules. I had one stablemate rider on hand, but needed two if I was going to have both Boudicca’s daughters in the chariot with her. Thankfully, my local tack shop had a Western Play Set in stock with a rider. Yes, I bought the whole set for the one little rider! Both Breyer figures were customized to get them to stand in the chariot. I also used material scraps for their shawls/robes/capes and skirts.

Back to the tack! When all the materials arrived, I started seriously thinking about the tack and realized WAIT A MINUTE - this is 60 AD - they HAVEN’T INVENTED THE BUCKLE! Chariots were attached to horses with thick leather pieces that were tied up with a knot system to a yoke. I learned so much in my research process, this whole project has been valuable to me in so many ways!

The leather scrap was thick and stiff - Anna had warned me that it would be. I watched a tutorial on YouTube about how to skive leather and off I went. I’ll admit the blade went right through the leather many times, and I had to start over. I ended up purchasing some leather lace from JoAnns for the reins since I was struggling to get the bigger scrap cut thin/straight enough. 
It took a lot of work, but I had the bridles, harnesses, yoke and everything made by June 23. But they didn’t look dirty enough. If these horses have been running through the mud, wouldn’t they look like it? So I took dirt and water and an old toothbrush and spritzed it all with muddy water. It didn’t quite give the effect I wanted on the front legs so I rubbed some of it off. I was going to do a bit more but frankly just ran flat out of time.

I finished it on June 24 and had one evening left to photograph it (I had to work the next two nights). Thankfully we had an awesome sky that night. The clouds were overhead and all patchy and gray with blue sky behind them. My husband and I have quite a few Nikon cameras and different lenses and we had been discussing what to use. Since there was a fire element we had talked about filming in 4K video and then taking screenshots from that. Well, when it came right down to the day of photos he says to me, “You know, I think you should just use my phone to take the photos.” I was aghast and amused at this suggestion. We have all this equipment is at our disposal and he says “here, use my phone.” No way. Well, he convinced me that scale modelers really love this particular iPhone because the camera in it is great for little details so I decided to give it a shot. And you know, he was right! I took all these photos and videos with an iPhone 8. I am convinced I could not have gotten better photos with any of our SLRs.  The focus was exactly what I was wanting, the auto-exposure was right on. All I had left to do after downloading them was crop them how I wanted them!

Now for the rest of the story… I started taking test shots after dinner. It was still pretty light, but I wanted to figure out my angles and backgrounds, etc. My daughter came out and said that she wanted to start a fire for me. We have a portable fire pit so I said, "Sure, that would be great, I wanted some smoke in my photos too."  She found all the things that smoke really well and started adding them to the fire in the pit. We had just enough of a breeze to really move the smoke along, and everything was working well. Then my son came out with his glass container of dish soap and water and a can of butane. My husband used the butane, lights the fire and WOW action! That was crazy! We waited about another hour and started taking photos when the light was just right. I went nuts.
I took over three hundred photos on the phone. 
I still can not believe how well it all worked!
This has really turned into a novel but I can not believe all that I accomplished in less than a month’s time. Working a full-time job, parenting kids who have been home too long due to the epidemic, caring for two young dogs, making meals, doing laundry... How did I fit it all in? I am very proud of all I have accomplished and learned in this process. I am thankful to Breyer for selecting me as a winner and giving me something to focus my time and talents on in this crazy year. I am also grateful for my friends and the businesses who helped me out with supplies, and, of course,  my family who got involved with making the photos look as realistic as possible. Yes, I made it all myself, but it was truly a team effort.


  1. Everything is so detailed and the fire really adds an awesome touch!

  2. Absolutely delightful to read all about this. Anna H. is wonderful and I love the photography tips.