I don’t always do extra credit assignments for school, but when I do, I try way too hard and use it as an excuse to practice diorama crafting.
My English teacher gave us the above assignment to do over our two-week long winter vacation. It was totally optional, and best of all very open-ended. I like how the only requirement is to be creative and have it on a medium sized poster board (which is also pretty vague; what’s medium-sized?).
I’m sure many people are familiar with the popular WWII-era novel The Book Thief. We were studying it in the weeks leading up to break, so it made sense for us to receive a final assignment relating to it.
When I first received the assignment paper, I was for sure set on doing it because I knew I wanted to make a diorama. I figured most people would just be doing drawings on poster boards, so it would be something different. The diorama would be built on a medium-sized poster board anyway, so it fell within requirements.
However, I didn’t start on the diorama proper until 3 days before break ended. Halfway through I kind of lost the motivation to do it, since I got an unexpected project to work on during that time, so I figured I wouldn’t have enough time to work on this anyway.
In the end, I decided to at least start with the cardboard base since I had already bought the poster board. If I ended up thinking I didn’t have enough time, I could always just scrap the base.
I had created a sea-based diorama before, but this is my first time trying a land-based one. As such, I honestly had no idea what to do or where to start, so I looked up some handy tutorials online to get me started.
A key problem I knew I’d face with this project is the mere fact that it’s a school project – I’m already going above and beyond the requirements and norm by even making a diorama, so it’s not really worth it to invest so much time, effort, and money into it to make it look really good. However, as a modeler, it’s hard to overcome the desire to do my best work and put my all into a project. I also only had 3 days, so I knew going in that I wasn’t going to be able to finish everything I would’ve wanted. In the end, I knew I wasn’t going to be satisfied with this project because I wouldn’t have enough time to invest everything I could into it.
Anyway, as I mentioned, I’ve never done a land-based diorama before, and it turns out this sort of thing requires a lot of unique material that I don’t have and have never worked with.
I learned a lot on this project from the tutorial here. The guy who wrote the tutorial also did a video series to show everything coming together live, along with a detailed materials list and process description.
For my first diorama, I was being pretty ambitious. I’m a stickler for detail, so I tried painstakingly to recreate the Kakariko graveyard from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. At the end of the day it wouldn’t have really mattered, since this wouldn’t turn out to be a Zelda diorama anyway, but if I was going to create a graveyard, this was the only way I was going to do it. I could’ve expended a lot less effort and just made a simple cemetery, but if I have a chance to insert some obscure geekyness into my projects, I’m not gonna pass up the chance.
Apparently the first thing to do with a diorama is start with an outline and general structure of your base. The Kakariko graveyard had several levels of land that all gradually led upwards, so I had to recreate this with the cardboard. It was actually pretty tough spacing things out at first, and really everything was arbitrary; I decided to make the edge of the cardboard base the very start of the graveyard, right behind the archway sign, and the end would be the tunnel leading into the Shadow Temple.
I tried to glue the strips of cardboard down to create the bases for the land at first, but found out that didn’t work so well. Ended up resorting to good ‘ol tape and scissors.
After studying the diorama tutorial I linked (har har, it’s a Zelda diorama get it) above in detail, I went out on a shopping spree to gather the materials I needed.
Creating the terrain for my project would be the toughest part, since I think it’s the most important. The tutorial recommended Hydrocal plaster to do the bulk of it, with some Sculptamold or other hard fill-in like that flex paste to touch up some areas.
Brookhurst Hobbies, my now go-to hobby shop, stocks a lot of Woodland Scenics and diorama materials. I picked up some green fine turf for the grass and soil for the small patches featured in the graveyard.
I also made a run to my local craft store for these supplies, which would all be used to make some “snow goop”, as featured here.
A large amount of Book Thief features snow as part of its climate and weather, and the particular scene I chose happened to certainly be snowy.
After I had gotten the main cardboard base done, it was time to create a web-like net over the terrain areas with poster paper/cardboard.
The innards would then have to be filled in with newspaper, which would allow for the realistic uneven terrain.
During this entire project, I had my 3DS hooked up to life support and running next to me all the while so I could constantly reference directly for the graveyard’s proper layout.
Interestingly, I realized early on that I really didn’t have to go through the pains of creating such detailed textures and terrain. In the game proper, all the land is totally flat, and everything has a distinctly polygon-like feel. However, I decided to go for a more hyper-realistic representation of the area, if only to practice proper diorama techniques.
After the newspaper’s been stuffed, I had to lay down the actual terrain by mixing the hydrocal powder with water and dipping some paper towels in them.
The paper towels would be ripped into thin sheets, dipped in the hydrocal mix, and applied over the newspaper, cardboard, and duct tape to create the land texture.
It took several layers of paper towels, and the hydrocal mixture certainly dried very quickly. The thing was, the tutorial I was following didn’t actually say how much water was needed for the hydrocal mix, so I just arbitrarily poured however much I saw fit in and prayed fervently that it would end up working out.
Hydrocal has dried, and I started by painting the little portal at the end that leads into the Shadow Temple. I was originally going to actually make it an open tunnel, but by this time it was already Sunday morning and this entire project was due on Monday.
I got some scenic paint from Brookhurst while I was out shopping, thinking it would provide a nice, realistic paint finish, but it ended up being severely disappointing. The green was too washed out and thin; it pretty much had the consistency of water. By the time it dried my land looked more like nasty cabbage than anything else.
I should’ve just stuck to my classic acrylics from the start. I mixed some dark green with water to thin it out and applied it over that first base coat of cabbage green.
The sides of the cliff were painted light gray, though they are more beige-like in the game. I deliberately added more hydrocal on the sides by hand to simulate a rock face and to rough it out a bit more than the actual land.
The first bit of decoration for the graveyard proper were the run-down fences. I could’ve just bought some miniature fences at the craft store, but they were too perfect-looking. I figured I could emulate the game’s design best by just getting some thin wood board and cutting it myself.
Test fitting it on the cliff area.
I should also mention now that I actually didn’t end up using either the fine green turf or the flex paste I had bought and showcased above, allowing me to return them.
All painted by hand in a deep gray, the same shade used on RG Aile Strike‘s inner frame.
Fences glued on. Because the terrain ended up being so uneven, it was actually tough getting all the fence legs to touch the ground.
Probably the part of this project I dreaded the most. The tiled stone pathways that lead throughout the graveyard would undoubtedly be the most difficult to do, since I didn’t want to just cut wood tiles; they wouldn’t look enough like stone. I wanted to make them out to clay and round the edges to give it an authentic stoney look, but it didn’t work out so well due to time constraints.
Aside from Super Sculpty being extraordinarily difficult to mold and knead if it hasn’t been touched in a while, I also really didn’t have the time to go through and round out every single tile. I tried it at first, but gave up when it took me almost an hour to do a tiny segment of the pathway. Hardening these in the oven and placing them all individually on the diorama would also be painful work.
In the end I decided to cheap out and didn’t even harden the clay. I just glued them down soft using tacky glue (I would’ve used Krazy Glue, since it actually hardens the clay once it’s put down, but that was cost and material destructive with the amount of glue required) and used a blow drier later to harden the clay somewhat.
Thankfully, there were certain patches on the clay pathway that didn’t actually need to be laid down, since it was made up of soil. To achieve this effect, I left those areas blank of clay and filled it up with Tacky Glue.
I then took a spoon and shoveled some of the scenic soil onto those patches. There was of course excess, as I wasn’t precise, so I just took the blow drier and blew away any bits that weren’t stuck on the glue. Admittedly, it made a mess of my room, but the result was worth it. The soil patches actually came out really well in the end.
Next were the gravestones. To be honest I was a bit worried that my teacher wouldn’t understand that the triangular slabs were gravestones since we’re so used to seeing the upright markers. The Zelda designs are quite unique.
Again, I ran into material/cost issues here too. I wanted to make the gravestones all out of Super Sculpty, but that would both require an ungogly amount of Super Sculpty and also consume too much time. I was originally going to create a base gravestone and make a clay mold so I could easily copy it, but just kneading that much clay so it would be soft enough to work with would take several hours.
I had to resort to making them using the wood sheets, despite all my grievances. They wouldn’t properly look like stone when made out of wood, but at least the process was faster than working with clay.
By this time night had already fallen on Sunday, so I was in serious panic mode. I had already done so much that I’d passed the point of no return; I had to finish, lest I scrap the entire project, which wasn’t an option.
All the gravestones lined up. Most of them aren’t even properly fitted due to my haste in needing to finish; they’re barely held together by Tacky Glue.
I had originally painted them by hand using gray acrylic paint, but found that it took way too long. In the end I brought them outside and hit them with spray paint to hasten the process.
While the gravestones were drying, I began work on the miniatures that would make the diorama Book Thief based. I had intended to create them out of clay from the beginning, though I wasn’t allotted much time to work on them.
I had originally wanted to include Liesel Meminger, her mother, two gravediggers, and Death himself, since those were really all the characters who were featured in the scene proper. I only had a clear image for Liesel and her mother though; the gravediggers would be difficult to create in time because I wanted to have them in walking stances carrying shovels, and Death’s appearance is already ridiculously ambiguous. If I did make Death, I would’ve wanted to do him grim reaper-style, but he kind of says in the book that that’s exactly what he doesn’t look like.
Gravestones done and sprayed. I was in such a rush that I didn’t even care about over-applying the paint and getting some runny parts. I took consolation that most of them would be covered in snow later.
I was going to write “RIP” on all of them to accentuate the fact that they were gravestones, but that seemed just a tad too tacky. I obviously didn’t have enough time to draw the intricate designs that were actually on the gravestones in OoT.
Gravestones put down. By now it was around 8 or 9PM; I was getting desperate. It actually turns out that I made the gravestones too large; they should be quite a bit smaller. As a result, I couldn’t fit the proper amount in the areas I had.
I ended up with four extras that had nowhere to go. The agony was real when I realized this was basically a physical manifestation of wasted time and effort.
By now I knew I didn’t have enough time to make the two centerpiece gravestones in the back and entrance of the graveyard, plus the gravedigger’s hut, the entrance arch, and the teleportation checkpoint that would’ve gone on the ledge area.
This was basically the very bare frame that I needed to call this a graveyard. As I mentioned above, I knew I wouldn’t have enough time to go all the way with this. I can’t even really call it the Kakariko graveyard because it’s missing so many details.
With all that done, I had to move onto the final step of the night – the snow goop. The materials I showed above for it – the gloss gel, gloss medium, and white paint – were to be mixed in equal amounts with a dab of cerulean paint thrown in. Mix it all up to about the consistency of mayonnaise and the snow goop should be ready.
I used chopsticks to apply it, and I’m rather pleased with the effect. At first I thought it would just be like applying white paint everywhere, and it kind of is, but with a better consistency than I expected. It was extraordinarily difficult trying to figure out how to apply it properly over the flat ground areas though; the fences and cliff sides were easy. It looks the most like snow where it hangs off and kind of droops over a side.
I probably should’ve mentioned this a lot earlier – the scene is supposed to be from the beginning of the book, the moment when Liesel finds her first book, the Gravedigger’s Handbook. Naturally, it was snowy and took place in a cemetery.
The small book that would be left in the snow was made by cutting a small rectangle out of the sheet wood and wrapping it in black paper. I actually got the idea for this from a pair of miniature Holy Bibles I saw at the craft store while I was shopping for supplies.
Scribbled some silver on there with a toothpick because it’s too tiny for me to actually write “Gravedigger’s Handbook”.
Liesel and her mother were glued onto the not-fully-dry clay tiles. The Tacky Glue used on the tiles and dirt aren’t totally dry either, as there’s still a lot of while showing. It eventually dries clear.
I’m so sad that I couldn’t make the graveyard warp point here, but I think the ledge area is the most distinctive part of this diorama that screams Kakariko.
I’m actually the most pleased with how the rock faces turned out; after the base coat of light gray I dry brushed some beige and brown, and while the effect is still marginally amateurish, I think the drooping bits of snow complete the effect nicely.
When I really thought about it, it didn’t make much sense for snow to fall only in certain areas and not cover up some of the green terrain. With that in mind, I really should’ve made everything white. However, in doing so that would pretty much negate the work I put into painting the land green, so I opted to save both time and effort and just leave some random patches of land clean, no matter how unrealistic it would look.
I actually had to make two batches of snow goop; the first batch had slightly less cerulean paint so it looked almost completely white, while the second batch had a bit more and therefore had a more bluish tinge. The mixed effect of the two shades of snow (while not very clearly visible here) turned out to actually work pretty well.
So at the end of the night, I only barely managed to finish in time, but it’s never really going to be complete by my standards. Now that I’ve applied the snow, it’s not like I can go back and take the project back home after it’s been turned in and convert it back to the original Kakariko graveyard.
I’m glad at least to have learned a lot about diorama crafting and design though; the process was actually pretty enjoyable. I’m looking forward to creating another one on a more relaxed schedule next time; I do hate rushing on projects.