Lessons in Forced Perspective

Most model railroaders are familiar with the idea of “forced perspective” – selectively resizing scenery elements to create the illusion of greater distance. I recently modeled a new road, using forced perspective to make it look a little longer than it really is.

My partner in the project, The Superintendent, forced my perspective a little, too. He had some firm ideas about the scene and we disagreed a bit, but seeing it from his perspective made this project special.

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Last fall at a model railroad show, The Superintendent spotted a grade crossing with working lights and gates on an HO-scale module. He insisted on one of our own. I couldn’t shoehorn in the mechanism necessary to actuate the gates, so we compromised on a new stretch of road with a grade crossing and working lights.

Here’s how we did it:

Shrinking Roads

The FCFL is a narrow layout – just 10 inches wide for this scene – so creating convincing roads is a challenge.

Just east of Salvation Point, there was an existing rural road with an underpass beneath the mainline. Our new road is a spur from that road.

The Superintendent dubbed it Arizona Highway V. Arizona state highways are numbered, not lettered, but what’s that to a six-year-old?

“I want it to be Highway V just because I do,” he explained.

We made Highway V by carving a right-of-way into the scenery, sanding it smooth, and paving it with lightweight spackling compound. We paved right over the mainline tracks, then immediately cleaned out the flangeways with a toothpick. Once the spackling dried, We sanded it and finished the road with another coat, again clearing the flangeways immediately.

I wanted to model precast concrete panels across the tracks, but The Superintendent insisted on asphalt all around, with no roadway markings of any kind.

“It looks cooler that way and more real,” he said. “I want it to look like the street we live on.”

Fair enough. Unmarked asphalt it is.

Both the old road and the new road are a scale 28 feet (about 2-1/8 inches) at the front of the layout, and taper to about 1-1/4 inches at the backdrop. This helps fool the eye into thinking the road is longer than it is.

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Shrinking Signage

We installed two signs along the roadway. They are a nice detail to the scene, help place the layout geographically, and further aid the forced perspective.

The nearest sign is an Arizona highway sign copied from the Internet and modified to show “V”. The highway sign is .2 inches wide – a scale 32 inches.

The second is a speed limit sign, which we made .15 inches wide. The speed limit sign  is mounted on a shorter post that is half the width of the nearer one.

Looking down the road at the two signs enhances the illusion of depth:

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The speed limit sign shows 55 mph. To me this looks like a 35 mph zone.

“I like going 55,” says The Superintendent. “And that’s the speed limit on country roads.”

Tough to argue with that.

Shrinking Vehicles

Finally, all the way against the backdrop, is a Z-scale logging truck that I kitbashed from a cast metal container truck.

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The viewer compares the N-scale SUV up front to the Z-scale truck in back, and the road appears longer again.

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The Superintendent wants a long line of N-scale vehicles waiting for the train, which would ruin the whole illusion. We’re still sorting that one out.

This was a fun project. I think we successfully stretched the road using forced perspective, and it was good to stretch my imagination to see things my son’s way, too.

Next week – a guest blog from the FCFL’s signals chief (my Dad) about how we make the lights go blinkety-blink.

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