Baby boomer photographer-model maker creates imaginary world of illusion

Baby boomer Michael Paul Smith has created a fascinating imaginary world that he calls “Elgin Park.” Where is it? It doesn’t matter, because you’ll see it in photographs, wherever you are. It is eerily realistic scaled models of cars — scaled to 1/24th the real size — then placed in equally-scaled real-world settings. If you’re a camera buff, you’ll be interested to know, he’s shooting everything on a $200 point-and-shoot digital camera. Read this abridged interview from Gotta love Boomer Innovation!

How did you get into this?

My project came about from a need to put my 300 die cast model car collection into some sort of physical context. Even though they looked interesting lined up my shelves, all they did was sit there. It occurred to me I could construct a 1/24th scale building to showcase the cars. Starting with a gas station, because it’s something universally connected with cars and trucks, it was just a matter of time before other structures started to be made. Utilizing all of the knowledge I had acquired from studying 20th century culture, these dioramas could be authentic down to the last detail. There are a total of 15 buildings in my town, at the moment. Because of space limitations, the models are not set up as a “town.” They are packed in various boxes and closets and are brought out only when I get inspired to do a photo session. Also, the buildings are not completed structures but are made in a modular way so I can mix and match them to give the appearance of a different building.

[Here’s an example of his ingenious photography – the finished photo, top, and the setup, below]

Smith_trucks2Smith_trucks1Is there a science to this that you can share with the rest of us?

The whole forced perspective process was used extensively in early movie making back in the 1920′s. Because it was too expensive to create massive full size sets outside, detailed models were created and placed at the correct distance behind the actors to create the illusion of a city or some fantasy location. It was a very effective special effect. The use of models in Cinema is still happening today. As a matter of fact, audiences are tiring of digitally created images. Modelmaking is getting a resurgence. The actual math that is involved to create a consistently good forced perspective shot is something I can’t figure out because I am math-challenged. Over the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve developed a sense of how far I have to be away from any given background to make the scene work. There are still times when I have the shot set up, look through the camera and discover the distance is incorrect. In a very unprofessional way, I drag the table with the diorama on it until the scene lines up correctly.

Smith_old2Smith_old1How long does it take you to build a set?

A few days, and here is why that is. When I get inspired for a photograph, and that inspiration usually comes out of the blue, I will start to look at my die cast collection for vehicles that would best represent what I’m trying to portray.

Smith_dinks1Smith_dinks2What’s the hardest part about making this look as real as possible?

That is a tough question. Getting the perspective correct is the biggest factor. Once that is in place, the placement of the model buildings and vehicles iscritical. And then there is “detailing” the set with scaled down dirt and misting the road with water to add another dimension to the scene. If any of those factors are not working, then the scene falls apart. On a sunny day, I try to photograph under a tree so there is dappled sunlight on the model to create an interestingly illuminated set.

Smith_van2Smith_van1How accurate are these replicas?

The die cast vehicles I use are amazing replicas of the real cars and trucks. The wheels steer from the steering wheel, the shock absorbers work, the doors, hood and trunk open, the front seats fold forward, there are removable spare tires and the list goes on. One of my die casts has a real cloth convertible roof that folds down and another has roll down windows. And these models are only 3 inches tall! The colors are actual paint colors from those eras and the tire treads are accurate for each decade.

What’s the most important thing to remember when creating a scaled down environment like this?

Here is the most important aspect of making models and photographs appear real: Keep everything in scale. From the thickness of the shingles down to the wallpaper design and door knobs, everything must be in the proper relationship to each other. I can’t stress that enough.

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1 Comment

  1. Fascinating, marvelous, and simply incredible. The down side? There is no way any one can now take a photo of the Loch Ness monster and convince me that it is real.

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