Christmas Dioramas

In 2008 while Christmas shopping at Dollar Tree, I spotted a gift bag featuring an image of Santa painting a toy car in his workshop. The entire image was car- and toy car-themed, with toy cars and trucks on the shelves and workbench, and radiator grills decorating the wall behind Santa. As webmaster for Suncoast Diecasters, I knew this would make a great splash screen for our club’s December 2008 update. Since then, I’ve done a Christmas-themed introductory image every December.

(For this portfolio entry, I’m focusing on the assembled arrangements of Christmas elements which can be reasonably called dioramas. If you’d like to see the entire collection of the club’s “Christmas Panels”, as I’ve dubbed them, you can visit the page directly. The collection also includes non-diorama images, and the text is oriented to the club’s audience.)

The image for 2010 is my first attempt at an organized (if simple) scene, rather than a mere gathering of related items. The “starry night” is a cardboard filler from a decoration. It makes a nice background, but I thought the image would seem “off” if it was well-lit. So, I tried various combinations of camera settings and room lighting to achieve an evening look; however, none were satisfactory, even with software editing. So, I simply put a blue tint over the whole image. A cheat, perhaps, but it gives the image a nighttime feel.

2010

2010

Components:

  • Scorchin’ Scooter (with Santa figure): Hot Wheels
  • Ford Mustang: Matchbox
  • Ice ‘T’: Tom Daniel (Toy Zone)
  • Pines, snow shred: Dollar Tree
  • Illustrated cardboard backdrop

In 2011 I attempted a more complex scene, with the “brilliant” innovation of in-scene lighting. Other than some light reflecting back onto the backdrop, this scene turned out very nicely. The Christmas tree atop the Nomad is not an add-on; the toy is one of many holiday-themed models Mattel has produced. The gas station is actually a Hallmark ornament. I doubt that it’s built to a certain scale, but it pairs well with the Nomad.

2011

2011

Components:

  • Chevy Nomad: Hot Wheels
  • Gas Station: Hallmark
  • Manger: rummage sale
  • Pines, snow blanket, battery LEDs: Dollar Tree
  • Illustrated cardboard backdrop

I created the Suncoast Diecasters website in 2007, first using HotDog, then CoffeeCup. But by 2013 the site had grown too large to manage at code level by myself, so after some research I chose WordPress as our new home, and began migrating the site.

While I can set a specific image as a splash screen in WordPress, I chose to put Christmas images at the top of December updates. Thus, visitors could simply scroll on down to the other photos, rather than having to click through into the site.

Since December 2013 would be our club’s first Christmas update on the new site, I wanted a rich, impactful image. I took my inspiration from a favorite childhood decoration: Santa and Mrs. Claus resting on a park bench. The idea was that all the Christmas presents had been delivered, and the Clauses were spending some quiet “us-time” together. I intended for the lamppost to provide the scene’s primary lighting, but I didn’t want the background to be too dark, so I placed some blue LEDs inside the church. I particularly like their reflection onto the frozen pond.

2013

2013

Components:

  • Clauses on park bench, traditional church: childhood decorations
  • Pines, “pond” mirror, snow blanket, battery LEDs: Dollar Tree
  • Lamppost: Mall gift shop(?)
  • Truck: Thrift store
  • Illustrated cardboard backdrop

In 2014, Hot Wheels introduced the “Snoopy” hot rod. I already owned the Red Baron by Tom Daniel, and the idea for the diorama — based on the novelty song Snoopy’s Christmas (a/k/a Christmas Bells) by the Royal Guardsmen — pretty much wrote itself. Having used the illustrated cardboard backdrop several Christmases in a row, I decided a bright, daytime scene would be more appropriate.

This raised the question of the backdrop. I did an online image search for a snowy mountain scene, and discovered Good Stock Photos, which offers beautiful high-resolution photographs completely royalty-free. I of course considered printing the image, then quickly dismissed the idea as a gross expenditure of ink for a one-time use. I then realized this was a good opportunity for practice with the “Magic Wand” tool of my graphics software. I built the scene on a tray table which I put right up next to a cabinet, upon which I lightly taped a sheet of dark-colored construction paper. (This was done to prevent bending and shadows which may have come from simply “leaning” the sheet against the cabinet.) Once I got a satisfactory photo of the unedited scene, I scaled the mountain photo and the image to match, selected the construction sheet backdrop, and slid the mountain backdrop into place.

Ironically, I realized much later that I had the selection tool’s tolerance set just a little too high. If you look closely, you’ll see that the upper portion of the small tree behind the letters err is essentially transparent; also, the large tree behind mas, has a hole in its top. These are of course minor issues. Overall I was completely satisfied with the result.

Using the Red Baron’s “dialogue” from the song as a caption was obvious. An equally obvious choice for me was using the Heavy Heap font, which is based on the lettering style of the original 1960s Hot Wheels logo. The text is trimmed with red and green drop shadows.

Below this photo on our December 2014 update I embedded a YouTube video of Snoopy’s Christmas for our older visitors who remember the song, and for our younger visitors who might need some context.

2014

2014

Components:

  • “Snoopy” hot rod, Scorchin’ Scooter, Chevy Nomad: Hot Wheels
  • Red Baron: Tom Daniel (Toy Zone)
  • Pines, snow blanket: Dollar Tree
  • Traditional church: childhood decoration
  • Manger: Rummage sale
  • Background photo: Good Stock Photos
  • Font: Heavy Heap

In May of 2014, my mother had a stroke. She received treatment and was recovering nicely. But she of course had numerous follow-up appointments, and I needed to find a better job. Further, our nearest relatives were about three hours away in southwest Florida. So we had a family discussion, and decided that she and I should move down there to be closer to family for her sake, while I could hopefully find a job as a draftsman, as a lot of new construction was happening there at the time.

However, over 2014 and 2015 her symptoms recurred, and during the course of an examination it was determined she was also developing dementia. Eventually she had to move into an ALF, as I could no longer take care of her by myself. Thank God, I found a local retail job. Of course, our planned moved was cancelled.

…So, as it got closer to December of 2015, I was having difficulty coming up with a new idea for the Christmas image, since we had already packed up much of our belongings.

I happened to notice the Scorchin’ Scooter was still in my display cabinet, and recalling that I had several other motorcycle miniatures, the idea for “Santa’s Cycle Shop” was born. I went through our storage bins and found the ‘cycles and some “micro” toy cars, and borrowed a family of figures from a musical “Christmas village” decoration. With these, I was almost set. What I needed next was the shop itself.

This would be my first “build”. I used a foam posterboard from Dollar Tree, as it would support itself, and I could press the figures’ pegs into the material. I will admit, I am a little disappointed with the “blandness” of the shop structure. I had considered printing a few simple patterns to imply a tiled floor and block walls; but I was concerned with edge seams or tape spoiling the effect. My mother’s illness, my job and various other things of higher priority eventually left me pressed for time to complete the build, so the unadorned structure would have to do.

Yet the scene is not without its satisfying elements. The fireplace (yes, in a cycle shop) is made from a leftover section of the foam board. I found a brick pattern in Microsoft Word’s clipart, and printed a tiled sheet of it to cover the fireplace. The hearth and mantel were simply colored with a Sharpie.

And of course, such a shop needs a large window. The “outside” scene is another image from Good Stock Photos. The font is Slapstick Comic, the same I use for Suncoast Diecasters‘ logo. The “window” has a simple black outline, but also features outlined whitespace along the bottom and left, to suggest the depth of a sill and wall edge. And no, the text is not backwards; it’s meant to be read outside.

So, I am pleased with the diorama overall. Along with this being my first “indoor” scene, it’s dramatically different from my previous scenes.

I included the micro cars to raise the question: Is the lad simply accompanying his parents while they shop for a motorcycle, or is one of the toy cars going to be his Christmas present?

2015

2015

Components:

  • Scorchin’ Scooter, Boss Hoss: Hot Wheels
  • Chop Suey, Stingeroo, Jumbo Jet: Matchbox
  • Funny Car: Hot Wheels / Planet Micro series
  • All other micro cars: Micro Machines
  • Pine, foamboard: Dollar Tree
  • Manger, snowman: Rummage sales
  • Outside photo: Good Stock Photos
  • Font: Slapstick Comic
  • Brick pattern clipart: Microsoft Word

I described the shop structure as unadorned. That’s not completely true. Like many people, I prefer large photographic or illustrated calendars. So, I made one for the cycle shop. It’s a “real” calendar, in that the layout of the days is in fact that of December of 2015. I created it in MS Works Spreadsheet, pasted it as a screen capture into my graphics software, and scaled it down appropriately. The photograph should be very familiar to you; after all, you just saw it the year before.

Adornment.

Adornment.

I own quite a variety of holiday-themed toy cars. But after five dioramas (and nine years total of Christmas panels), I was really struggling with what to do for our club’s December 2017 update. As I pondered the different holiday cars in my collection, I realized something that had not occurred to me before: several of these toys aren’t merely holiday-themed; they specifically are Santa-themed. That is, these toys each feature Santa Claus in one form or another. With this realization, I was again — as I was for the Christmas 2014 image — inspired by music; specifically, the Beach Boys’ novelty Christmas tune. Thus, the idea for The Li’l Saint Nicks was born.

All told, I have eight Santa-themed miniatures (well, seven Santas and one certain reindeer). My original idea was to present this as a video. I had even considered contacting the label to see if I could license the Beach Boys song to use as the video’s soundtrack. Using towels and a snow blanket, I built a multi-level scene which would allow me to stage the toys for a variety of pans and zooms.

I needed a good “wintry forest” background, but again I could not justify the ink needed to print a single-use image. Nor could I use a digital image such as from Good Stock Photos, as my video software does not have the ability to track a moving plane onto which I could drop an image. Thank the Lord, I found a photo calendar at Dollar Tree which had a couple of appropriate images. I cut the best-looking one from the calendar, and taped it to a box which I then set at the back of the scene.

However, through November and December of 2017, the store where I work was receiving two trucks a week for the “holiday rush”, and I had disappointingly little free time during that period. I realized I would not be able to make the video, and had to resort to photographing the vignettes individually. Ironically, as I was editing the photos, I discovered that I might have done better to stage the vignettes individually as well, because in several shots I lost control of the background, inadvertently including parlor furniture or windows.

These setbacks aside, I am thoroughly pleased with the results. I could somewhat emulate the “look and feel” of a video using WordPress’ slideshow function. With title and end panels (plus a blank spacer panel so the end of the show wouldn’t just smack right back into the beginning), the presentation has a very “complete” feeling I find quite satisfying. With the other vehicles and accessories at the sides and in the background of each photo, there’s a real sense of depth (I could almost say volume) to the scenes.

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2017

Components:

  • “Nitro Santa” and “Roarin’ Rudolph” funny cars: Johnny Lightning (Playing Mantis)
  • “Santa and Funny Car” ornaments: Hot Wheels / Planet Micro series
  • All other vehicles: Hot Wheels
  • Snow blanket, calendar scene, trees (4″): Dollar Tree
  • Trees (2″): K-mart
  • Manger, snowman: Rummage sales
  • Fonts: Slapstick Comic, Monotype Corsiva, Times New Roman

The slideshow is quite enjoyable on its own. However, I have here, as I did for the December 2017 update, embedded a YouTube video of The Little Saint Nick. I invite you to play the video, then scroll back up to watch the slideshow as the song plays. I think you’ll agree that this really enhances the “holiday feel” of the show.

Now, what to do for the 2018 update….