A Digital Diorama

I’m sure many Dutch people will feel a spark of recog­ni­tion when I say that De Eftel­ing was my favour­ite theme park as a kid. What set the place apart from most of the oth­ers in the Neth­er­lands at the time (and argu­ably still) is its con­sist­ent fairytale-inspired atmo­sphere.* *The Eftel­ing nos­tal­gia is not without racist blem­ishes, how­ever. Few European nos­tal­gias are. This aspect wasn’t without inter­na­tional recog­ni­tion either, as this won­der­ful Kate Bush video series will attest to. Tucked away in a quiet corner of the park is a large indoor diorama of moun­tain land­scapes, with train con­nec­tions run­ning through it all. Some­thing about the dis­play fas­cin­ated me as a kid. Per­haps the calm tempo of the trains run­ning around, wait­ing for the gentle turn­around of the day/night cycle, as you strolled around the dis­plays, look­ing at all the little people and build­ings.

When I recently star­ted play­ing the urban planning/management game Cit­ies: Sky­lines, I quickly got the idea — after try­ing out the game’s basic func­tion­ing — to cre­ate a city and sur­round­ing moun­tain vil­lages with rail­roads con­nect­ing them. It was only after start­ing to build it that I real­ised where the inspir­a­tion had come from: the Eftel­ing diorama, as well as a smat­ter­ing of impres­sions of Aus­trian vil­lages I had vaca­tioned in as a child. Hence the city of Ber­gersee was born.

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As I con­tin­ued work­ing on the city in Cit­ies: Sky­lines, I star­ted con­tem­plat­ing what it was about dioramas that fas­cin­ated me (or people in gen­eral), and what the his­tory of the phe­nomenon was in the first place.

As recoun­ted by R. Derek Wood in an art­icle for His­tory of Pho­to­graphy [archived here], dioramas were inven­ted in the 19th cen­tury by Louis Daguerre as some­thing of a dis­tant ancestor to the cinema. By light­ing a large trans­par­ent painted dis­play from dif­fer­ent angles, a change of scenery could be cre­ated, for example shift­ing a land­scape from day­time to night­time. It was a whole new way of rep­res­ent­ing, for example, land­scapes to people.

Daguerre’s aim was to pro­duce nat­ur­al­istic illu­sion for the pub­lic. Huge pic­tures, 70 x 45 feet in size, were painted on trans­lu­cent mater­ial with a paint­ing on each side. By elab­or­ate light­ing - the front pic­ture could be seen by dir­ect reflec­ted light, while var­ied amounts and col­ours of light trans­mit­ted from the back revealed parts of the rear paint­ing - the pic­ture could ‘imit­ate aspects of nature as presen­ted to our sight with all the changes brought by time, wind, light, atmo­sphere’.

Daguerre him­self coined them name by fus­ing greek διά- and ὅραμα ‘through-view’. Over time, dioramas came to be used in vari­ous ways to edu­cate and enter­tain people in museums, hobby dis­plays, and indeed theme parks.

L. J. M. Daguerre. The Effect of Fog and Snow Seen through a Ruined Gothic Colon­nade (Oil on can­vas, 1826)

It is worth con­sid­er­ing Cit­ies: Sky­lines (and sim­ilar games) as diorama con­struc­tion kits that offer some great oppor­tun­it­ies. First of all, of course, it is a game of resource man­age­ment, where your grow­ing city present chal­lenges related to power, traffic, cit­izen demands, nat­ural dis­asters, etc. Bey­ond that, the game provides the tools to cre­ate a diorama without need­ing any phys­ical mater­i­als or build­ing skills. You can mould a land­scape to suit your vis­ion, and con­tinue by plan­ning and execut­ing a city in it. You’ll only need to famil­i­ar­ise your­self with the way build­ing works in the game. Using the “infin­ite money” mode even elim­in­ates some of the game-like aspects of it, allow­ing you to plan and build freely.

Play­ers of the game have also cre­ated a pleth­ora of cus­tom assets for the game, includ­ing new build­ings, vehicles, roads, and such. Many users re-create such assets on the model of real-world places and objects. This allows for a vast cus­tom­isa­tion of the way your city looks bey­ond what the game offers out of the box.

Both city-building and asset-making, then, are forms of work­ing on digital dioramas. At the same time, you are also a viewer of the diorama. What is built in the game is also imme­di­ately dis­played, and there is con­tent­ment in view­ing your cre­ation that is prob­ably par­al­lel from the digital to the phys­ical medium. That is to say, part of the fun in build­ing a diorama — or any­thing, really — is see­ing your cre­ation grow, and watch­ing the fin­ished product in action.

Even if you don’t build cit­ies in Cit­ies: Sky­lines your­self, through You­Tube you can take the role of the tra­di­tional diorama vis­itor, often with voi­ceover com­ments by the cre­ator on both the cre­ation of the diorama and facts about what the diorama rep­res­ents. Take this example of You­Tuber Sil­var­ret present­ing his quite real­istic ren­der­ing of a Dutch pro­vin­cial town:

People have a pen­chant for cre­at­ing images of land­scapes from memory or fantasy — or a com­bin­a­tion of both; the two are inter­con­nec­ted any­way. Digital diorama-building allows us to express our inner land­scaper and release the per­verse yet cre­at­ive human need to shape our envir­on­ment accord­ing to our own vis­ion. Digital diorama-viewing trans­ports us in a (vir­tual) phys­ical sense to the land­scapes we and oth­ers have shaped in our mind–memory.