Treatise on Animation
Model animation has long been a passion. Ever since I met Rick Spano when I was 15, the bug bit, bit hard, and never let go.
When I began the Mountain Vista Railroad—my last layout—I had no plan, let alone any idea, it would become a "hotbed" of animation. Initially I was going to motorize a mill water wheel (inherited from the Greystone & Rock Bottom), and that was it. Then a friend started pressing me for more ideas, and pretty soon the animation projects exploded, with over thirty of them now completed.
When it comes to model railroad animation, many modelers think in terms of old Lionel toys with big, metallic, clunky devices producing crude and often corny effects. While undeniably fun, they're the furthest thing from what I do that one can imagine.
All of my animation effects share two very specific traits: realism and subtlety. I avoid effects that are big and in-your-face, and especially things that are compromised by the laws of physics. The greatest challenge with animation is this: gravity cannot be scaled down, so things affected by gravity won't look right. Thus, anything involving free-falling materials such as goal or gravel loaders/unloaders, free-swinging objects including cranes, or any effects involving real water, I strictly avoid, because the laws of physics are cruel to model animators. I will only attempt any of these if I can maintain absolute control over the movement of objects so as to not break the illusion of realism.
But above all, subtlety is perhaps most important. Having a layout bristling with dozens of big, obvious animated devices (unless it's a substantial layout) can be overwhelming, annoying, and not particularly realistic. Having to hunt for the effects and, even better, having control over them makes for an intriguing and more satisfying layout. Which is why my ten-square-foot layout can feature over thirty animations and not seem chaotic.
While the majority of my effects are tiny and hidden within buildings, I confess some of the effects I've done for the Mountain Vista are a little more "obvious," an example of which might include enginehouse doors. But I've kept them to a minimum, and worked extra-hard to make them as realistic as possible.
I mentioned water which, like gravity, cannot be scaled down; the solution to the problem is to not use water. My mill spillway is basically a small waterfall, which has been a challenge I've wanted to tackle for nearly as long as I can remember. It's a miniature motorized mechanical device that utilizes various materials to simulate water.
Trust me, I would love to animate absolutely everything—every vehicle, every door, every person—but this is obviously quite impractical, so I pick and choose my targets with great care. When I go into a project, my goal is always the same: can I pull it off realistically? I'm not always successful; there have been a few projects over the years that I've abandoned.
What's the secret to realism? The single most effective trick is slowing things down. And when an object appears to be moving slowly enough, slow it down some more. The quickest way to break the illusion is to have something snap or pop. An example of this philosophy at work are grade crossing gates. Many modelers have remarked about their realism, and that's because we're all used to commercially-made gates that flip up and down quickly.
Another key to realism is to study what you're animating. Look for examples in real life, and learn how things move. Videos help immensely.
If in real life something is a one-shot action, such as a car on a lift, it's best not to leave it running cyclically or, at the very least, incorporate a long pause into the action so that it's not sitting there pumping away. It's more effective to provide manual controls, and better still to make the controls accessible to visitors.
I'm really old-school when it comes to mechanisms. My preference is to go mechanical. If the effect involves, say, a sequence of flashing lights, I'll make a motorized device to do it, rather than build an electronic control. It's not that I lack the skills; it's simply much more fun for me to make a machine to do the work. I collect loads of mechanical toys, as well as old VCRs, CD players and other junk to scavenge for gears, motors, levers, springs and other parts. I've got boxes full of the stuff—much more than I'll ever need, even if I were to live another couple of decades. I live and breathe low-RPM geared motors.
It also helps to study mechanical devices, particularly toys: they can be instructional on how to achieve particular movements. Toys are usually designed to be as simple (therefore as economical) as possible, and are thus quite clever. For instance, if a single part can produce movement in multiple axes, that will be the preferred solution. Thus I was able to make a kite float up and down plus left to right in a complex, seemingly random pattern with a single rotating cam and a lever that follows the cam.
Not all of my animation effects are mechanical moving things; I roll dynamic lighting effects into the category of animation. In other words, if it changes, it's animated. One of my very favorites is the field of fireflies. Other examples include a television set and a neon open sign.
Modelers have also remarked that I produce animated effects quickly and prolifically. Well, I've been doing this for roughly fifty years, and it's tough to beat that kind of experience. This is not to say I'm doing the impossible; most any modeler who has tinkered outside the box ought to be able to pull off good effects of their own. That's one of the reasons I've provided detailed documentation on the things I've done: to inspire others to try it.
—DKS, 19 September 2020
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