The Life Modular, with Sean Edmison

Modular terrain is certainly not a new concept in our shared hobby, but it’s always interesting to see it done well.  Although I couldn’t pin down the origin of the technique to a specific date or single builder, the Classic Castle City Standard from 2003 was certainly one of the first attempts to codify a standard.  A group of enterprising builders (Medinets, Sava, Hoffman etc.) started with an easy to replicate modular castle wall system and later expanded to terrain, water and buildings.  You may also be familiar with the MILS system or Base8 or any number of offerings by individual builders like Magnus Lauglo who have experimented with the concept over the years.  The core technique inspired by the official line of 1980’s castle sets like the beloved 6040 Blacksmith Shop, and involved wall segments with a common design that could be connected via Technic pins and recombined with other sets or original builds.  It’s probably also worth mentioning the influence of 2002’s Moonbase project which used a similar methodology for building large collaborative displays at conventions.

Fast-forward 14 years and people are still refining the familiar modular terrain concept, with all the updated parts, colors and techniques that you would expect.  The big knock on previous iterations was that the final product often seemed generic or low resolution, sacrificing detail for sheer coverage.  The photos I’m about to show you clearly demonstrate that in the last decade things have progressed to a point where that criticism is no longer necessarily valid.  Builder and frequent convention-goer Sean Edmison says he was inspired by a discussion on Classic Castle Forums to “reimagine” the standard and I think he did a fine job adding value with both the appearance and the structure.  These models are actually about four years old, but I’d say they still classify as new-school building and if they popped up in your Flickrstream tomorrow they likely wouldn’t seem out-of-place or anachronistic.  You may remember Mr. Edmison from such memorable models as Peloponnesian War and Rivendell, or Seattle’s BrickCon where he often collaborates with fellow castle-heads.

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One of Sean’s innovations that I appreciate from my own struggles with the modular lifestyle is the use of short axles instead of Technic pins to connect the modules.  Once you get too many of the standard pins involved in the process it can become very difficult to separate the modules without a good deal of force, damaged pins and flying ABS shrapnel.  It can also be equally as difficult to connect large modules especially if your surface is less than perfectly flat (like your average folding plastic convention table).  Once you fill an entire baseplate with brick and/or plate, it has a tendency to bow or warp in a decidedly unfriendly manner that is the enemy of uniformity and smooth transitions between sections.  When Mike and I took Isla Guadalupe to Texas a few years ago, we had to abandon the notion of actually connecting the modules together because they just wouldn’t line up like they did at home where my table was decidedly flatter.

I’m not sure if Sean came up with this tweak on his own or if he was inspired by another builder, but after playing with it briefly I find it to be a big improvement.  Even though the technique does require double the number of bricks to make it work, those 1×2 bricks with the + shaped void don’t seem to be terribly expensive if you’re not picky about the color and most builders I know have more axles than they will ever be able to use in a single model.  Sean also uses more connection points than you typically see with modular terrain and I suspect cutting down on the total number would save parts/money without compromising stability.

Sean also developed what he calls a “Tank-rutted” road that looks great, especially the visible tracks under the puddle of water.  I’ve never seen this specific type of decorative approach to a modular system and it should get the often-maligned military builders excited about the collaborative possibilities.  Even if you’re not planning on assembling a 64 square foot diorama of the battle of Kursk with a dozen of your closest homies, this kind of modularity comes in handy when breaking down and packing any sized diorama for travel to a convention or LUG meeting.

Constructive Criticism: Zambito Bandito

For those of you not familiar with the series, Constructive Criticism focuses on builders that usually reside just outside the spotlight’s glare of the big blogs or right on the border.  There is no escaping the inherent arrogance of the notion, but these are builders who I think need to be pushed and encouraged to take the next step with their models.  Many of them already have a nice Flickr following and it should be noted that my advice is entirely unsolicited. I’m also going to offer my usual disclaimer that I’m a fan of the builder’s work and in no way is this article meant to be mean-spirited.  With that boilerplate out-of-the-way, today’s victim on the rotisserie spit is David Zambito.  You may remember him from such popular builds as The Northern Wing, Gatehouse and Twisting Tree.. It seems like he’s been on a hot-streak lately, but when When David released his latest model “Micro Air Force Base“, the results were disappointing.  I have a love of the topic and I was hoping from the thumbnail that the builder had created yet another impressive piece.

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When it comes to criticism I like to employ the classic sandwich method, so let us begin with what’s good about the diorama.  The hangar is well designed and immediately recognizable, although I wish there was at least one more of them in the scene.  I also really dig the control tower and the small cluster of buildings in the corner, they really earn their place. The dark-green cheese slope trees are a nice touch and they seem like the proper scale for the environment.  Likewise the little green trucks are both iconic and delightful, it’s nice to see more than one in the same scene because the uniformity drives home the idea of a military installation. The rusted back fence is a great touch and I admire the way it mimics the front fence without being a literal copy.  The technique may not be new, but it works and that’s all that matters.  Overall I really like the way the scene is laid out, from above it looks like a little 3D map, which I imagine was the builder’s intent.

Now let’s turn to what was less than successful.  The first thing that jumps out at me is the jagged terrain that alternates between studded and smooth sections seemingly at random and it probably has one too many colors for such a small footprint.  Air fields are typically as flat as pancakes, so the varied height doesn’t really work for me.  The landscaping as a whole looks like it was created in vertical strips, as if the whole diorama was run through a paper shredder and then taped back together.  The flower-stem parts are out of scale and just look weird in this context and the scattered 1×1 green plates are sort of distracting.  The fence is a maddening mix of good and bad.  I like the flex-tube technique that allows the builder to break the grid with an interesting shape, but I can’t abide all the studs, with studded ground right next to the fence it all becomes muddled.  I also think the fence is too close to the air strip and the guard hoses at the gate could have used some detailing.

Let’s talk about that air strip, the last place a stud is going to look good or artsy is on a surface meant to launch and receive aircraft.  Those random studs on the tarmac would separate an aircraft from its landing gear in short order.  As for the two-toned gray brick, I think that works quite well on larger dioramas but it looks odd at this scale.  I also can’t figure out why the desert intrudes so badly onto the runway.  Perhaps the diorama is supposed to depict life many years after the war, where it sits in a state of decay, but the builder did not provide a back story.  Finally I think the planes are unfortunately a weakness when they should be a strength.  The small fighters look more like space ships, with various knobby protrusions and the bomber has strange proportions.  Both designs would have been a good opportunity to inject some color into the scene, as they tend to disappear on the mottled runway.  The fuel truck is a near miss too, it’s not as slick as the green trucks and I don’t like that the fuel tank has a gap in it.  I guess my biggest complaint is that the combined effect of the details (some good, some bad) looks jumbled and pixellated, like an out of focus photograph or a cubist painting.

With all those problems, “Micro Air Force Base” is not as bad as this slab of boilerplate from a few months ago entitled “Serpent Towed Trade Barge“.  The subject matter is tired, the serpent looks like it was a set design and the water looks like one of those D.I.Y stained glass window kits you make with kids.  Slap on some rock vomit hillocks and the mediocrity is complete.  It wouldn’t bug me so much if I didn’t know this builder was capable of superior work. Even though I don’t like much about this scene, I do like the way the hillock closest to the viewer penetrates the frame, it’s a cool technique.  Don’t worry constant reader, that’s about as mean-spirited as I intend to get this week.  It is high time to complete this critical sandwich and say something positive about the builder before we end this week’s dissection.

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Let’s not forget the sort of work Mr. Zambito is capable of, because typically it is very inspiring.  From big ideas to small, Dave has a strong sense of design and storytelling, just check that fireside scene in the photos-mosaic for evidence of both.  Before seeing it with my own eyes, I would have said the classic Led Zeppelin album cover featured below was all but impossible, but David proved me wrong.  You can see a mastery of technique in many of his creations and a great deal of creative thought is put into every aspect of the models.  For example, the Ron Weasley wig-trees in the church vignette definitely qualifies as NPU…bro.  Mr. Zambito has come a long with his presentation skills too, from the messy fabric backgrounds of his early builds to the clean white-space of today.  Although too many of his shots still seem fuzzy, as if the brightness setting is turned too high, the photography is improving and I’m looking forward to whatever David does next.

A usual, constant reader, if you know a builder who you think might benefit or be entertained by this regular feature on the Manifesto, please let me know in the comments.  A big thanks to friend of the blog, L’etranger Absurde, for this week’s suggestion.