Professional model-maker, designer, sculptor/painter, writer and teacher David Neat discusses model-making for theatre design and arts professionals and reminds us that… “the theatre design model is not an end in itself but a communication tool”
Model-making can be richly rewarding, but also a painfully exacting part of the job in a number of disciplines. It poses so many questions and seeming contradictions that it is often either seriously misunderestimated or overesteemed, but rarely a comfortable balance. This is nowhere more apparent than in the field of theatre design. It is practiced and cherished by some to the point of an obsession which shuts out all other reasonable considerations, while others on the other hand may do everything they can to avoid it. It may often do most harm to those who most adore it, consuming a disproportionate amount of time and deflecting proper attention from wider issues which, quite honestly, matter more. On the other hand, for those who are insecure with it, important design decisions are made (alarmingly often!) according to what is achievable in the model rather than in the real thing.
“Model-making can be richly rewarding, but also a painfully exacting part of the job in a number of disciplines.”
The big question with little models, the one that leads to the most pain and confusion, is; how far should they go? The theatre design model is not an end in itself but a communication tool – a blueprint, a visual recipe – a means to a greater end achieved through the concerted understanding of a team of individuals. A recipe isn’t expected to furnish the chef with a full sensory imagining of the finished effect; it suffices that the ingredients, their amounts and their preparation are simply listed. But in many ways the theatre design model should do just that, deliver in one contained burst the full flavour of the design for all concerned. The model isn’t expected to fool anyone into believing they’re looking at the real thing but it should convince everyone that the design will work, both those who are more concerned with technical practicalities and those who respond more to atmospheric flavour. In order to do that designers (donning their model-making hats) must have quite a rigorous command of scale, and knowledge of the varied materials and methods which will assist in achieving it. They should also (equally as designers and model-makers) have a passion for, or at least a professional interest in, the magic of simulation; that act so central to art – to theatre! – which involves recognising the essential or fundamental in the appearance of things and reproducing it in the most effective and economical way.
“How can big, expansive and fluid ideas be aided by having to work on something small, fiddly and precisely defined?”
Why should scenic or interior designers, architects or even stop-motion animators be naturally suited to making models? Of course they’re not! One could even argue that, where the former are concerned, the act of model-making goes ‘against the grain’ in some ways. How can big, expansive and fluid ideas be aided by having to work on something small, fiddly and precisely defined? The answer is in the last word ‘defined’, at least as soon as the time comes for definition. A sketch on paper may be wonderfully communicative, evocative and inspiring, and will serve its purpose for the quick notation of ideas. But any 2D graphic expression remains open to a wide margin of interpretation, both from the viewer and its own creator. It is only by making a version in actual 3D that form and space can be fully understood, explored and presented unambiguously to others. The final model, the ‘last word’ as it were from the designer, completes the picture with colour and texture. These also need to be explored and presented in the ‘real’, lilliputian model space, where the effects of real light and shadow are made tangible.
I developed my Model-making Techniques course therefore not only to alleviate the many technical demands of model-making with ‘hands on’ practical advice – of course, this is the mainstay – but also to encourage a healthier, more realistic and useful perspective on the task as a whole. The course was originally set up at the suggestion of Iona Mcleish at Rose Bruford and has initially been hosted by the college each summer. Although my own involvement with the Theatre Design programme at Rose Bruford has led to model-making being fairly well covered there, we recognised the need for more in the form of an open professional development course. It is the only one of its kind, certainly in the UK and possibly in the rest of the world; an intensive 5-day exploration of the most relevant from a vast array of materials and techniques which can be utilised for the making of models. My emphasis is on the materials themselves, and imparting as much ‘know how’ as to what can/cannot be done with them in the time available, rather than spend too much of the five days practising things which can be better followed up at home. For this reason the course does not involve the completion of a finished artifact – such as a cute little interior- but rather the practical results of a number of personal, interconnected experiments. During the five days a balance is struck between talk, demonstration and practical involvement. This is supported throughout by an array of model examples specially made for the purpose. Participants are also given a comprehensive package of prepared worksheets and summaries of essential information each day, together with a list of local and national suppliers where applicable.
David Neat has worked as a professional model-maker for more than 25 years, alongside his other practices as designer, sculptor/painter, writer and teacher. He trained on the Motley course in the mid ’80s and went on to design for major theatres both here and abroad. In addition to running his own courses he currently teaches at a number of leading design colleges including Rose Bruford College, Wimbledon College of Art, Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, RADA and LIPA. His instructional book Model-making: Materials and Methods, which was developed out of the 5-day course and published last year, is fast becoming an industry reference book for model-making.
Further details about David’s Model-making course may be found on his website
Published by The Crowood Press