2005 Scale Model Project: "Wizard's Retreat": Part 3 of 4 - Water, Terrain Details, and the Wizard's Abode


In 2005, while I was busy attending the University of Southern California to pursue a degree in the Cinematic Arts: Production, I took a class for Art Direction. As our final project (which was worth 50% of our grade), I had to create a quarter-scale miniature model. I was more than a bit ambitious with my model, and I put a ton of work into it, which I enjoyed sharing with my friends over on LiveJournal at the time.  Here's a quick peek at the exterior of the end result!

In 2006 I created a series of three detailed posts which went through each step of the project. Unfortunately, since I was so busy, I never actually posted a final blog sharing the final stage and finished results, so I thought it would be great to post everything over here on my blog for posterity, and to finally create that final blog after ten long years!

As such, I hope you enjoy this flashback onto an early project of mine. While it's not sculpture in a traditional sense, it's projects like this which ignited my imagination and fed my desire to learn and improve, and this project is


close to my heart.

I tended to be even more verbose back in my LiveJournal days, so I've shortened and edited some of the original text below from LiveJournal. This is the third of four blogs about this project, and you can access all available parts at the links below. These are the original images I posted in 2006, so they're also a bit on the small and blurry side, but there will be some nicer ones in the final blog: promise. :)


Scale Model Project: "Wizard's Retreat": Part 3 of 4 - Painting and Refining the Base

At this stage what I was doing was trying to create additional realism, so I was using a variety of consistencies and colors/grains/textures of ballast, which is a sort of lightweight faux rock. I put some around where my rock faces were (since real rock faces fall away over time) and I put a lot more along/in the waterway. I paid particular attention to trying to make it seem as if the water had washed rock down the waterfalls over time, so in that bottom area, there are some dead logs and other debris that have helped to form a makeshift sort of "pool" of water. In that pool, I planned for there to be fish as well as lily pads and that sort of thing since the water would be slower moving/still there. :)

It was amazing how much planning ,time, and money all this was taking, but I was certainly in a "spare no expense" mindset at the time, and I viewed this as a portfolio piece for once I graduated college.

You can see some of the river plants I was working on here. Those long stem plants sticking way out of the water were there so I could keep track of the positions where the final flowers would be situated. All of those flowers are about twice the size of the head of a pin. We are talking small, and all of them were put together by hand: each separate petal and layer, down to the little bits of yellow pollen inside. I can still remember how much it hurt my eyes to make each of them.

Some of the landscape glue was also still wet at this point, which is why the glue appears white above rather than clear. I also worked on texturizing the riverbed at this point.

I actually did all sorts of weird stuff for realism down to some light green powder I blew on the right side of the riverbank there to be moss. :) I did something similar along the top of the rock faces, but unfortunately it doesn't appear as though I took any photos of it at the time, because it was starting to get down to the wire.

This is the future area where debris would have collected to form a sort of pool. I thought that would be something neat to have the bridge cross over it there. The final water level was supposed to be a little higher than where those logs cross. I even had to age and stain that wood so it looked like fallen logs. Regular sticks from outside don't cut it thanks to the scale issue.

This is a view looking down at the empty waterway, including a log that's precariously close to the crest of the waterfall. If you look carefully you can see the start of a deciduous tree on the lower left. You can also see where two smaller creeks converge before they reach the first waterfall.

I want to point out that each single rock had to be glued in place individually as this project would have to be driven all the way to my college for evaluation, so it had to be completely secure.

This was when I made a horrid discovery: the faux water I wanted to use was meant more as a coating than for depth as I intended to use it. I discovered that it was recommended for 1/8 of an inch deep every 24-36 hours, or else the layers below would never fully dry.

This created quite a problem because not only was the river intended to be a good 1 -1 1/2 inches deep in areas, but like a real river, it all ran DOWNHILL. So when the base was finally dry (and that included the glue from the plants), the liquid poured down the waterfalls rather than staying in place.

Also, at this point I believe there was only about a week of time left until the project was due, which made the water situation even more...problematic. I hadn't thought the water would be such a big issue, but as with everything: it was a learning experience I had to overcome. Therefore, at this point I halted progress on the actual treehouse to try and rush the base so that I could put in the artificial water once every 24 hours and pray I could get it sufficiently deep in time.

In the image above you can see two 1/8 inch layers of the liquid water. Which.... you might be able to guess wasn't very deep. It looked like there was a steady trickle, but not exactly something that would require two raging waterfalls.

Due to the complete lack of time, I realized if there were going to be ANY fish, I'd need to put them in ASAP. So, I sculpted this little fantasy koi (It's a WIZARD's retreat, after all). He is ridiculously tiny, and was a pain to sculpt, but alright, all things considered. :)

Next I put more work on the greenery and rocks, and I solved the "water running downhill" problem by using some tacky clay to block the waterfall faces. :) Take that, gravity!

There were are a few more layers of the artificial water shown above, and as you might be able to see: it's cloudy until it dries (and it wasn't drying completely within 24 hours, because I wasn't giving it enough time to dry because I was running out of time...).

At this point I also started on the walls of the tree house. As if I couldn't have made things ANY more difficult on myself, most of the walls were curved, so I couldn't use matte-board or something to make the walls properly, so instead I ended up building the walls stone-by-stone by hand.

That's right: every stone you see is individually placed. And trying to regulate the curves and the thickness and making it structurally sound? It was tremendously harder than it looks. If you see the tape along the front curve: that is actually where one of the cut away walls was going to be, so it could not be directly attached to the base. The intent was to make the wall removable so that I could pull the wall off if I wished to shoot into the interior of the finished miniature.

So I had to get the clearance as close as I could so it look like the wall was continuous, even though in reality it wasn't. I also had to make it look as if it was continuous by making the spots were it nearly connected hidden and concealed. I ended up offsetting the rocks along the edges sort of like the grooves on a key.

The "stones" are ballast as well, but I bought bags and bags of the stuff just TRYING to find suitable rocks for the walls. It took days and days of straight work just to get that much done because I was also having to wait on the glue to dry to keep things structurally sound as I went.

Here the dragon koi is in place in his second layer of surrounding water. While it was still cloudy at this stage, I was praying I could get the water level high enough that it would submerge the koi rather than have him skimming the surface like some sort of mutant shark. In the end, the lower pool was due to be nowhere near as deep as I wanted it since I could only put in 1/8th of a bit of water at a time. It was frustrating to say the least!

At this angle, you can see some of the lilypad flowers I made that were formed to appear open or closed.

And each of those flowers? They took me about an hour to craft each single one! I recall removing some of the other flowers temporarily so I could add more yellow pollen to the open ones to ensure I didn't accidentally get the powder in the still drying liquid water.

....oh man the memories this shot brings back. You can see bags of ballast there, and all sorts of containers of wood stain and paint trays, to different mediums to hold the stones in place, exact-o blades, rulers and just... wow that was a mess.

At this angle you can see the tape of the break away wall, and for the first time: stained glass windows! Those suckers had hand-cut moldings that were then painted and aged, and then I cut acetate to put in the "frames" which I then affixed and used a brand of glass marker and frosted glass paint to make it look like stained glass. Please keep in mind: I didn't have instructions of a guide for any of this: I had to figure out creative techniques for myself.

At this point I also realized I had to figure a way to make the windows sit IN the wall... which was a lot harder than it sounds. Especially to get them to sit "straight" when the rocks below them were all bumpy and un-fileable.

I went with a dark green and sort of burgundy color scheme. The little knight (which was: larger than a real person would stand), continued to serve as a temporary stand-in for scale purposes.

When looking back at these photos, I found it actually sort of strange at first that there were so few in progress shots, but that just goes to show how busy I was at the time. What you see below was days of work later, where I was trying to find ways to get the windows to stand in place on their own, but you can see the general look of the abode starting to take shape.

To the far right is the kitchen, and the far left is the edge of the Globe Room where the wizard can freely practice his spells. In the back is the door frame of the front door!

This window is so incredibly small in person. Under an inch high, I believe. Yet I frosted and aged each individual diamond pane. I also tried to make the painted acetate look like it had a subtle variation of color, like real stained glass does.

This is the front of the wizard's retreat some days later. I was way behind time on this, so I was starting to get freaked out I wouldn't even get to the interior in time. So I....didn't sleep much. I was finally getting to the point that some of the windows were nearly getting roof clearance too. Actually, aside from the base of the windows, this was one of the harder steps because I had to find a way to make the stones surround the window molding, which was extremely thin, so it required some clever crafting on my part, especially over those sort of pointed windows that lined the curve of the dining room. I also aged the glass and edges of the frames inside the windows a little.

It really didn't' help that the walls were curved, either. curved walls + "straight" windows = recipe for frustration.

In the background the bathroom/bedroom and front door share another cut away wall. You can also see the water level of the river is slowly rising, little by little.

This is a rear shot with the rear cut away wall removed so you can see the progress/development. This is where I determined the idea of a second story was out of the question at the moment considering the current scope of the project and time remaining. I just remember thinking how the dry time of that medium was horrible.

This is also the stage where I remembered that I needed to craft the continuation of the tree house up through the house. So I sculpted it out of more foam, and then started to layer on the paper mache strips while I tried to juggle adding more water to the river, and ever more rocks all over the retreat. If I'd cursed all the rocks on the base one-by-one, that didn't even vaguely compare to my frustrations on the actual building looming overhead.

Anyway: in the shot above the tree is upside down. That little opening on top is the nook where the cozy den would later be situated within.

At this point I finally got a proper scale miniature for the retreat, so that new wizard in the back was finally to scale. At this stage I was finishing up the walls, and I began work on finishing the tree that would support the Globe Room. Here, you can see work done on the trunk and roots, as well as the start of the branches.

I was slowly running out of time on the water, so I had to call it "done," so it would (hopefully) turn a bit clearer before the time the project was due for grading. So at this point, I added handmade lilly pads that I painted with acrylic and sealed. I wasn't totally done with the flowers yet, but at least the dragon koi was definitely underwater.

I might have gone a bit overboard with the lily pads, but I regret nothing. ;)

More days passed and I eventually cut away the clay along the riverbed/waterfalls, and (offscreen) worked to prep the waterfalls themselves. I also finished the walls/windows/doors, and in this photo you can see the front breakaway wall is in place, as well as the rear wall (which is also breakaway). I worked on a quick way of constructing the limbs and branches of the Globe Room tree that would act as a sort of canopy for the whole area because time was almost up.

At this point I also placed the continuation of the large tree trunk on top of the main structure so you could get a look at how it would go along when completed. It only has its first layer of paint on here, which is why it doesn't yet match the base of the trunk below it. I worked at this point to texture that as well as to hollow out the area where it is open in the den room in the middle. There is also a branch sticking out the side there to give an additional sense of scale.

Here is another view of all of those incomplete elements. Along the bottom right you can see where I was starting to plan out the stairs, which was another area where curves = very bad idea). Unbeknownst to myself, I made this project so very difficult on myself for art's sake.

Next I began using water effects to create and bulk up my waterfalls, as well as to add the sort of ripples in real moving water. At this point it was still wet, so it's not entirely clear but.... it was really neat to finally see! That log on the topmost waterfall appears to hold back some of the falling water.I like little unexpected things like that. :)

At this point there was more work on the Globe Room's tree, as well as a bridge at last! The pieces of wood seen here are all individually cut and stained, and I made sure they were just the TINIEST bit uneven, like a real handmade bridge would be. You can also see the start of stairs (also real stained wood) leading from under the archway root! :D

Though you can't see it: the final white and pink lily flowers were finally in place here as well.

Up on the edge of the Globe Room you can also see piece of furniture! A wardrobe of real wood that was individually put together and hand-cut/stained in a cherry stain. Many tweezers were involved. This wizard is rather well-off, so it figured to me he'd have such nice pieces of furniture. There are even tiny handles and a mirrored front! Pieces like that took so long to put together.

On top of the wardrobe is a potted fern, also handmade. I put little wires under the leaves so I could bend them how I wanted. (Sooooo tiny....) I had all array of magnifying glasses, tweezers, and pins for this stuff.

I realize this all seems so "quick" to post in comparison to how long it actually took, which is so many dozens of hours over weeks and months that I wouldn't even be able to keep count.

I hope folks are enjoying seeing this take shape. :) Apologies that I was a bit slim on photographing these later stages: I was too busy crafting it to even think to pick up my camera.

We're getting close! :) Stay tuned for the final blog, which is brand new and will be Part 4 of 4!