The Next Big Wave

I recently updated a test video on YouTube illustrating the vastly improved depth of field qualities of the latest smartphone generation.

Several days ago I was doing an interview for Lionel Strang’s A Modeler’s Life podcast. During the course of the conversation he asked what I thought the “next big wave” of the hobby would be. By that he meant a point of view that would completely change the way we viewed and approached model railroading. An example would be the Allen McClelland/Tony Koester RMC series that encouraged us to get away from just running toys in circles and “model” a rail transportation system in a plausible way. It was probably the most ground breaking idea the hobby has ever experienced.

My answer to Lionel’s question was, “I have absolutely no clue”. He then asked a slightly different one, “Are there any facets of the hobby where we haven’t come even close to maxing out? For example, the quality of rolling stock has become so phenomenal it’s hard to imagine how much farther we could take it. Locomotive and car quality is coming close to “maxing out”. Others, such as scenery products, haven’t reached their full potential but are moving well along. This was far easier to answer.

The one area we aren’t even close to realizing its potential is video. We’ve only reached a sliver of what it can offer. There are a number of reasons we model but chief among them is that we enjoy looking at what we build. The challenge is that it is exceedingly difficult, probably impossible, to see our models with the naked eye in a way that is even remotely close to what we see when looking at the prototype. Much of the problem has to do with viewing perspective and controlling what the eye does and does not see. Realistic sound, a signature feature of our subject, is also a challenge.

Our ace in the hole is the camera lens. Photography gives allows us to take control of how we see our models and reframe the view so it matches what we see in the real world. Better cameras and software have taken us to the promised land, but that capability has only been applied to still images. The beauty of our subject is that it actually moves. This opens up an entirely new dimension, video, a subject which, for the most part has been untouched, and unexplored. Yes, video has been done for decades but as a hobby we are culturally locked into a blindered format consisting of helicopter views, fast moving trains, poor lighting, poor resolution, no depth of field, and sound coming from onboard speakers.

Some of the challenges of producing high quality model railroad video are (or were), to name a few: camera size, depth of field, low quality decoder sound, dealing with backgrounds, poor lighting, and “jittery” yo-yo train dynamics.

Technology has finally reached the point where we now have the tools where these challenges can be overcome. We now have the ability to take that tired “model railroad” video format, throw it in the ditch, and move on to an exciting new world where we approach video the same way the film industry does. Smartphones allow us to get super low camera angles that give our models the same sense of mass as the prototype. They are small enough we can put them in positions that aren’t possible with larger slr cameras. The image quality is outstanding.

Until recently the problem with smart phones was they had zero depth of field. This is why if you look at my videos on YouTube most of the recent ones are shot perpendicular to the subject. No more. The wide angle feature of the latest generation features a quantum leap in depth of field capabilities. I recently posted a test video on YouTube illustrating the depth of field you can attain with iPhone 13 Pro Max set to wide angle mode.

Smartphones have solved the depth of field and camera size issue. Sound can be handled by having “clone decoders” feeding the audio directly to the recording device. Lighting is simply a matter applying most of the same principles of still lighting (correctly positioned photo floods). Background eyesores (doors, layout edges, overhead utilities etc.) can be handled by strategically placed screens and editing software.

With all of those hurdles now addressed, one large one remains, recognizing “what’s possible”. Realizing we now have at our disposal an amazing new way of viewing and experiencing our models. For those willing to learn the necessary skills, the payoff is enormous.

Once the blinders to the possibilities are removed, and skills learned, the final step of the journey is composition. You can be a master technician and a master videographer, but those are only tools. The end game is put together an entertaining experience To do so you have to know what you find entertaining and understand the characteristics of our subject which, in this case is, miniatures of a railroad.

You often read that the purpose of a piece of art is to “tell a story”. While true, to view that as the only purpose is very limiting, especially for us. Using a painting as an example, some, such as a Monet, do imply a backstory. Others, abstracts such as a Rothko, evoke a mood. There is no story really. Both have their place. Model railroading lends itself far better to evoking a mood than story telling. Miniature figures don’t work well visually (and don’t walk or talk!), scale automobiles don’t move, etc. These aren’t so much limitations as they are “aspects” of our subjects. Recognized them as such all we have to do is default to the specific aspect of role art that applies best to our subject, instilling a mood, transporting us.

To be clear, high quality model railroad videography is not the “next big wave” by any stretch of the imagination. At best it will garner a micro niche of devotees. It is, however, a totally untouched new frontier with limitless possibilities for creative expression.